Games

SoulCalibur 6 Review - Transcending History

Gamespot News Feed - 4 hours 51 min ago

What truly distinguishes SoulCalibur from its genre contemporaries is a pervading sense of adventure. It tells a grand tale of knights and ninjas, axe-wielding goliaths and pirate warriors, all struggling over mythical weapons of good and evil. It accents this with a rousing orchestral score and grandiose narrations about entwined destinies and inescapable fates. Sure, deep and rewarding mechanics are at the heart of every good fighting game--and SoulCalibur VI certainly has that--but for this series, adventure has always been the soul.

That spirit of adventure is most evident in SoulCalibur VI's two story modes. Libra of Souls is the meatier of the two and takes inspiration from SoulCalibur II's beloved Weapon Master Mode. It's part fighting game, part role-playing game, part Dungeons & Dragons campaign; you create your own unique fighter using a creator that, while serviceable, isn't nearly as robust as the one in Bandai Namco's other fighter, Tekken 7. From there you embark on a journey that will take you across the world, and along the way you'll cross paths--and swords--with both named characters and generically named bit-parters.

Libra of Souls tells its story primarily through text, but it's all surprisingly engaging, with dialogue and descriptions setting the stage for the inevitable fight and giving even its throwaway opponents a bit of flavour. The story's conceit for making you travel around the world is that you're "malfested" with an evil energy and must absorb Astral Fissures to stay alive. Although you're ushered between main quest missions, various side-quests pop up around you, with NPCs asking for a hand solving their problems. Naturally, the solution each time is a sword-swinging contest, but the game does a valiant job of world building along the way to give texture to its fantasy universe. You'll learn that Ceylon is a major producer of cinnamon, which is favoured by royalty and thus very precious, and that hamlets are being decimated by a rampaging Azure Knight with a thirst for souls. You'll meet a would-be entrepreneur who, while affable, is mostly after handouts; a weaponsmith who is looking to impress the royal family to win a contract; and a priestess who doubts her abilities, among others.

Completing these missions rewards you with experience that levels you up, and this is where the RPG hooks are strongest. As you grow, you'll be able to use stronger weapons that have different visual styles and properties. Enemies also become hardier and, on top of that, special battle conditions spice up fights. These may make one type of attack more effective while decreasing the strength of others, thus forcing you to diversify your skillset within the battle system. Another wrinkle to the RPG mechanics is the ability to select a food item to take into battle. These bestow bonuses such as increased counter damage, a boost to health at the start of a new round, or extra experience for a win, to name a few. If you’d rather let someone else do the dirty work, you can visit the Mercenaries Guild and hire a fighter, outfit them with a weapon and food, then send them into battle. At best the AI will secure a victory; at worst they’ll knock off some health from the enemy before you step in.

There are also little touches in Libra of Souls that reinforce the idea that you're a wandering warrior on an epic journey. One of them is an indicator at the top of the world map that ticks down the years as you progress, establishing a passage of time as you bounce between locations and fights in rapid succession. Another is the decision-making moments, some of which will simply dictate how you act towards a character, while others will weigh your soul towards good or evil, impact the story, and decide how the ending battle plays out. The eventual consequence of your actions is small, but it's a neat way to give you a tiny bit of authorship in the story.

The main issue with Libra of Souls is the ratio of storytelling to actual gameplay. The mode is very text-heavy, which would be less of a problem if its battles weren't so quick. In the hands of a capable fighting game player, many enemies can be dispatched within as little as 10 seconds, which means time spent in Libra of Souls is heavily skewed toward reading over fighting. And although the loading screens before and after battles are quite short, they can become increasingly tedious. The mode is also lacking in variety, so beyond the occasional battle condition, it does very little to keep you on your toes. For the most part, applying an aggressive strategy will see you emerge victorious.

The second mode, Soul Chronicles, is a more typical take on a fighting game story but is still expansive and has an interesting approach to laying out its narrative. It features a main story that chronicles what happens with the legendary Soul Edge but supplements this with 19 character-specific campaigns, drilling down on what they're doing while the broader story takes place. Although they're heavily reliant on static artwork, they're fully voiced and the artwork itself has an eye-catching, sketch-like style. There's a microcosm of Libra of Souls' issues here too, though, as battles can be over in the blink of an eye, and that means more hitting buttons to advance text.

Nevertheless, Libra of Souls and Soul Chronicle make for a satisfying single-player offering, with the former lasting upwards of eight hours and the latter taking around four. Idiosyncrasies aside, both give you plenty to do and provide a comprehensive, engrossing story throughout. By the time it's over, you'll have travelled the world, met a variety of colorful characters, and fought all manner of strange creatures. Quite the adventure.

SoulCalibur VI doesn't demand hours of study and experimentation ... you can pick up a controller and feel like you're competent in no time

The beauty of SoulCalibur's gameplay is its simplicity, and in that respect SoulCalibur VI is a bit like rock-paper-scissors. At its most superficial, the rules of engagement are simple and the pace of battles means decision-making is based on instinct as much as considered tactics and being reactive. Admittedly, the same can be said of most fighting games, but unlike them SoulCalibur VI doesn't demand hours of study and experimentation to do this; you can pick up a controller and feel like you're competent in no time. Although there are complicated systems and techniques to consider, an inability to interact with them doesn't loom over you. Before long vertical attacks will reveal themselves as powerful but slow, you'll quickly realise that horizontal attacks interrupt sidesteps and are a safe way to apply pressure, and kicks are a nice balance of the two but with limited range. It takes little time to internalize those fundamentals, and so their intricacies become apparent quicker than in most fighting games. Throw in blocking and movement, both of which are intuitive, and the pick-up-and-play factor becomes a key strength of SoulCalibur VI.

The surface simplicity belies more complex systems beneath, and SoulCalibur VI is mechanically dense. It layers systems from throughout the series on top of each other so even veterans will need to examine the individual pieces and figure out how they fit together. Although each character has a relatively limited range of attacks, the eight-way run movement lets you modify them. Attacks also land at different heights--high, mid, and low--and in turn blocking becomes a three-tiered system. More confident players can react to an attack by executing a last-second Guard Impact to repel and leave their opponent open, but a staggered player can retaliate with a Reversal Impact--a reversal reversal.

From there it only gets more complicated. Reversal Edge is a special stance that will counter incoming attacks at any height. It's executed with a single button and the longer it's held the more attacks it can absorb. This makes defending against an onslaught of attacks really easy, but the ease of execution means it also steps on the toes of the more skill-based Guard Impact. Reversal Edge seems to be aimed at casual players as, while a successful Guard Impact places the initiator in a more advantageous position, Reversal Edge establishes a neutral playfield by initiating a clash. Here the action slows, the camera swoops in close, and the two fighters effectively bet on what the other player will do and counter it. This is a useful way to create some breathing room when being smothered, but the guessing game leads to a feeling of randomness that can be frustrating. The workaround here is to land an unblockable break attack to stop a Reversal Edge.

Beyond that there are Critical Edges, which are the game's equivalent of super moves. These are governed by the Soul Gauge, which is built up by attacking, defending, and taking damage. Once one level is attained, it can be spent on executing an incredibly powerful and outlandish cinematic attack. A Soul Gauge can also be spent on a Soul Charge, a comeback state of sorts that opens a separate set of moves up for a character to use, powers up normal attacks, and makes them cause damage to blocking opponents for a brief period.

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Those are just a few of the systems in SoulCalibur VI, so for those that want to become students of the game, it offers plenty to learn. However, at times it can also feel needlessly complex. This is likely a symptom of creating a collection of systems that give the hardcore fighting game players the depth they crave while also enabling casual players to stand their ground against them. On paper that might seem like a good approach, but the end result is a construction that is at odds with itself, as if built out of both K-Nex and Lego--the simpler parts undermine the complex ones, and although it works, it's inelegant. A good player with an understanding of all the systems will almost always triumph over someone only making use of the basic ones, so the biggest issue this superfluousness presents is that it makes the path from casual to expert a little less appealing to walk. That complexity is overwhelming when it doesn't need to be, and if there are simpler and easier options there's less incentive to dig beneath the surface.

SoulCalibur VI is a fighting game that's easy to recommend. Like all the best titles in the genre, it has a low barrier to entry and high skill ceiling. For those looking to get in a few games with friends it's welcoming and immediately enjoyable. For those committed to ploughing the depths of its systems to get tournament ready, it has plenty to unpack and understand. Better still, those that want to play alone will find SoulCalibur VI has some of the most substantial single-player content in any fighting game today.

At the time of writing, SoulCalibur VI's online servers aren't live. GameSpot will test the game post-release and update this review with an assessment of its online performance.

Categories: Games

Armello Review - Nintendo Switch Update

Gamespot News Feed - Tue, 10/16/2018 - 01:01

[Editor's Note: We have updated this review to reflect our experiences with Armello's Nintendo Switch version]

Armello's hybrid of tactics, dice-rolling, and political intrigue has aged better than expected in the three years since its release, and on Nintendo Switch, the game is almost as formidable as it is on PC. Its charming blend of animal kingdom hijinks and turn-based strategy gameplay has yet to be replicated by a newer, flashier title; Armello has definitely held up well, and its uniqueness is undeniable. However, there are a few major differences between PC version and Switch releases, and not all of them are positive.

The most important distinction is the fact that the Switch version includes all of Armello's DLC content. The Complete Edition of the game includes a bunch of morally-grey heroes, seasonal effects, and a whole new clan to contend with. While the base game has a fair amount of material to keep you occupied, a criticism of the launch content was that particular victory styles were incentivized over others. At their core, the DLC packs attempt to address that by expanding your potential champion pool with heroes that operate very differently from the original ones in the base game.

Luckily, the champion pool increase is more than just a numbers game. The Usurpers DLC in particular has heroes which are brimming with devilish personality, along with playstyles that revolve around more than the just original victory avenues of skirmishing and keeping a death grip on the King's coffers. The Bandit Clan DLC adds around 50 new quests specific to this charismatic new faction, along with a thematically-appropriate follower that gives risk-taking players a second chance when taking up arms against their competition. The other DLC packs focus on mostly aesthetic and minor upgrades to dice variety, but they're still notable improvements on the range of material that was initially available.

The unfortunate change to the Switch version is the performance. Unlike the DLC additions that are, on the balance of things, a net positive, Armello doesn't run as nicely on Nintendo's console as it does on other platforms. It's not the sort of frame rate drop that makes the game unplayable by any means, but there's a clear disruption in the smoothness and timeliness of actions and animations that play out on the screen when you're in-game. This isn't something that you can attribute to online connection troubles either; some graphical degradation was experienced in playing against the AI in the Prologue segments, which in itself contained condensed elements of the game's mechanics. If you can put that to one side, then Armello's unique blend of strategy makes it a worthy pick-up on Switch. -- Ginny Woo, 10/16/2018

[Original review text follows below]

When you don't have three friends and some reasonably good beer to keep you engaged, a board game--especially a virtual recreation of one--has to work a lot harder to hold your attention. Armello accomplishes this and then some, and while it could use some fine tuning, it remains one of the best virtual board game experiences available.

At first glance, Armello can feel like a tangle of things--dice and cards and boards and coins and stats--but the quick four-part prologue does a good job of making sense of these pieces. Your primary actions include moving a character around the board to complete quests and avoid hazards. There are eight playable characters, and each character has different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities in addition to items they can equip to skew their stats in a slightly different direction. They also each have great-looking combat animations. Ever wish Disney's Robin Hood had 40% more bears punching each other senseless? Well, this game is for you!

As if you can't tell Brun means business, in a world full of anthropomorphized animals, he's wearingsomeone's head as a belt buckle.

To win in Armello, you have to either kill the king or have the highest prestige when the monarch dies due to a disease called the rot. Every full day--one turn for day and one turn for night--the King's health dwindles lower while his rot creeps higher, so no matter how things shake out, there are a finite number of turns that can be taken before the King will keel over on his own. It's also possible to defeat the King in combat, either by gathering four spirit stones from quests or tiles, or gaining a higher rot level than him. If a would-be assassin fails, the victory will automatically be handed to the prestige leader. Unless you're playing against clever friends, a prestige victory is almost always the easiest way to win. This can make the game feel unbalanced, especially when playing against AI opponents that frequently make ill-advised assassination attempts. That said, if you can resist the siren song of an easy victory or have other players wanting to spoil your plans, the varied win conditions provide enough variety to accommodate different play styles and keep things spicy through multiple sessions of playing with friends.

You also have a hand of cards--which are as well-animated as the characters themselves--that can be anything from equippable items and followers to spells and tricks that can be applied to yourself, other actors on the board, or specific tiles. Imagine if you could slam your Hearthstone deck down on a Clue board and swarm Professor Plum with Murlocs, and you have an accurate idea of just how neat this is in practice. Cards all have different costs to play, and crucially, they can be played regardless of whose turn it is. This allows for some tense moments and sharp twists in matches with other human players. On the other hand, when it comes to the A.I. opponents, the game tends to jump around a bit too fast to take full advantage of that ability unless you're particularly quick on the draw.

Long live the king!

What Armello suffers from most is a lack of customization options, something it could have stood to learn from more-traditional strategy games. There's no way to define whether you want a quick or a long game, A.I. skill levels are static, and when you're playing with friends, you're bound to a move timer whether you like it or not. Graphics controls are also somewhat limited, which means that you won't be able to turn off the haze of clouds in the sky, which would be dlightful if you didn't have to look down through them when you zoom out to see the full board.

Armello picks and chooses a variety of elements from board, card, 4X, and role-playing games without demanding either a familiarity with or a fondness for any genre. It also leaves a lot of room to engage as deeply as you want with the game's guts without feeling like you're floundering if you don't. Whether you're bumbling your way to the top or playing all your cards right, Armello makes regicide ridiculously entertaining.

Categories: Games

Starlink: Battle for Atlas Review - Endless Space

Gamespot News Feed - Tue, 10/16/2018 - 00:00

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a game about flying through space, exploring new planets, and shooting a lot of aliens. Set in a seamless open-world galaxy, it sees you pushing back occupying forces by battling enemies, setting up outposts, and completing simple tasks set by your allies. For better and worse, it's a distinctly Ubisoft game, from the huge spaces (seven separate planets and the vast depths of space that separate them) to the maps overloaded with activities. But thankfully, Starlink is not quite so full that it feels bloated--just full enough so that there's always something for you to be working towards.

Starlink is also Ubisoft's entry into the toys-to-life market--you're able to buy physical packs of pilots, weapons, and ships, all of which are interchangeable and have their own unique attributes and abilities. Constructing and attaching these models to your controller using a specialized mounting device will give you access to those characters and tools in-game, and while swapping between all these components isn't necessary, doing so brings distinct advantages.

Starlink's combat is fun thanks to simple controls and the two weapon system--different enemies are weak against or impervious to different weapon types, and swapping the two weapons mounted on your ship will change your methods of attack and the kinds of elemental combos you can perform. Using a stasis missile on an enemy so that they float helplessly in mid-air, then setting them alight with a flaming minigun, never gets old. Every weapon can be leveled up individually and augmented with mods that you collect, so by the end of the game, your most-used guns will likely be able to absolutely rip through certain enemies, provided you have the foresight to equip them.

When you're grounded on a planet, you'll be doing a lot of strafing and aiming for big glowing weak points, whereas fights in space are more freewheeling, with dogfights often pitting you against swarms of enemy fighters. These feel like all-range mode battles from Star Fox, and swinging around to land a precision assault on an enemy (often thanks to the game's rather generous auto-aim) is satisfying every time. The controls for each ship are the same, but there are minor differences between them; a light ship is better for maneuvering through a delicate situation on the ground, for instance, while a heavier ship can take more hits during battles.

Like weapons, each pilot has their own upgrade tree and unique special ability, and they even get their own unique script during missions, which is a great touch. There are only a few big story-driven missions, and in the back half of the game, you're given some freedom as to how you go about weakening the enemy forces. There's an order of operations in each sector of space--clear out mining sites guarded by enemies to weaken 'Primes,' which are big robot monsters on each planet. Killing Primes on planets that are near each other will weaken a related Dreadnaught, a giant spaceship that will, in turn, produce more Primes if you don't take it out too.

The one drawback to this structure, though, is that you're essentially taking on the same kinds of fights with occasional difficulty spikes. Taking out the game's three Dreadnaughts will make the final boss easier, and you can theoretically take on a Dreadnaught at its maximum strength regardless of how under-leveled you are. It's repetitive, but you also get a good sense of your progression, and the feedback loop of loot and rewards hits a good balance where you rarely feel like you're stuck grinding. The battles might repeat a lot, but they're consistently entertaining, and figuring out the best way to take down a huge enemy with the tools you have on hand is a satisfying challenge. The Dreadnaughts are particularly fun to take down--every time you take out one of their mounted guns a swarm of enemy ships will attack, leading to the game’s most intense dogfighting, and each encounter ends with a Star Wars-inspired "fly into the center and destroy the core" sequence.

If you're playing on Nintendo Switch, you'll have access to Fox McCloud and his Arwing. He can call in one of the other members of Star Fox, complete with the Corneria theme from the original game, and if you're a fan it's very tempting to play as him the entire time. The Switch version consistently runs smoothly, although there's a visual trade-off. The planets are not particularly detailed, everything's a little fuzzier in handheld mode, and there's a lot of pop-in--it's weird to have an asteroid belt suddenly appear in front of you when you're flying towards a planet.

But the Star Fox fan service throughout the game is a great bonus, especially in the mini five-mission campaign in which the team hunts down long-time antagonist Wolf O'Donnell. Wolf is a much more interesting enemy than Andross, as it turns out, and while this campaign is short it feels true to the spirit of the series. Fox and his team get integrated into the rest of the game, too, popping up in cutscenes with the rest of the Starlink crew.

Unfortunately, the game's primary plot--which concerns a crew of adventurers trying to save their captured captain and take down the "Forgotten Legion" forces led by an alien named Grax--is much less exciting. Strangely, despite Battle For Atlas being the first and only existing game in the Starlink series, the script feels as though it's written for players who have a pre-existing relationship with these characters and their situation, meaning that there's not much in the way of pathos or catharsis to be found. Some of the characters are interesting, but even though the game is keen to throw lore at you there's little sense of who these characters are, what sort of universe they exist in, or even what their fundamental role is beyond needing to take down this enemy force.

Despite this, it's always clear what your overarching objectives are and how you need to work towards them. There's a lot that you can be doing at any given point--even in the vastness of outer space, there are wrecks to salvage gear from and enemy outposts to take down. Wrecks can be identified from their flashing beacons and usually contain loot, while outposts are added to your map as you chase outlaws from planets. Exploring the depths of space reveals plenty of neat loot and fun encounters and the thrill of taking off from one planet, seamlessly flying into space, and landing on another never gets old.

But Starlink's proposition as a toys-to-life product is hampered somewhat by the comparative financial value of the digital alternative. The physical starter pack varies in content between consoles, but they each give you far less than both the starter and deluxe digital versions, which unlock multiple ships, pilots, and weapons from the get-go. If you get the physical starter pack and don't want to buy additional toys you can still finish the game, but you'll be at an enormous disadvantage.

Having multiple ships in Starlink essentially operates as having extra lives--if you get wrecked during a battle you can choose to either quit or replace the ship immediately. If you don't have a replacement, certain battles are going to be a real struggle, and progress doesn't carry over when you come back to them. It's easy to lose a ship, too, especially since your defensive options during fights are often limited--you can summon a shield or barrel roll, but both eat into your limited energy supply, which takes a while to recharge. The digital starter pack gives you four ships (five on Switch), which feels fairer and lets you worry less during big battles. Between ships and weapons (pilots are less vital), you'd have to buy quite a few toys if you wanted a varied and balanced experience.

The ship models themselves look great, though, and while switching loadouts via the menus is always going to be the more convenient option, physically swapping out the components will pause the game the until your ship is completely decked out again. Changing pilots will require you to remove the entire ship first, but that's only a minor pain--the only real impediment is being able to remember which weapon does what by sight, but their designs are distinctive enough that this isn't an issue once you get accustomed to it to them.

Starlink is an interesting and enjoyable open-world game, one that fully understands the appeal of exploring new planets and dogfighting in the cold depths of space. With a small fleet of ships at your disposal, it can be a lot of fun to progressively assault and weaken the Forgotten Legion's hold on the galaxy. It's just a shame that if you're interested in the physical models, you'll have to spend more to get the same experience as the digital version.

Categories: Games

Child of Light Review

Gamespot News Feed - Thu, 10/11/2018 - 18:30

There are times I want to be sad, when I'd rather be all alone, quietly thinking about my life, or hugging a loved one to forget about the day's trouble. Child of Light embraces that melancholy beautifully and its various elements cultivate a doleful mood. From the overgrown foliage threatening to overtake the neglected environments to the tired inhabitants wasting away their days, there's a somber tone that permeates this storybook adventure. I was struck by that desperation in the whimsical poetry of the dialogue; conversations are constructed with overtly meticulous rhymes that betray the bewilderment building below the surface. And the docile piano melody made my heart all the heavier. Child of Light is a lovely adventure, a journey as remarkable as it is uncommon, that left me grappling with my own sadness.

I wasn't so accepting of Child of Light at first. The delicate artistic style is so immediately inviting that I had imagined a world opening before me that I would want to exist in. That's because I had mistaken color for happiness. Child of Light is not about fleeting joy, and so, when the sorrowful tone endured as I ventured on, I struggled to find my bearings. I waited for a lightheartedness that never arrived, so I fought against the energy that Child of Light was putting forth. But as I pushed deeper inside of this dreamlike world, I stopped resisting and opened up to the game. Child of Light is difficult in ways that I hadn't expected, and is incredibly effective if you allow it to work its magic.

It's in the earliest moments that the game reveals its true nature. A story told through stained-glass imagery shows the protagonist Aurora's inseparable relationship with her father, and tells of how their bond was torn asunder. One night, she rested her head upon a pillow, and never awakened when a new day dawned. Her father, the once proud king, was beside himself with grief, choosing to spend his days awash in tears rather than care for his kingdom and the wants of his populace. He was a lost man. Lost, too, was Aurora, who awakened not in her own bed, but in a place she did not recognize. It's a story about fear and betrayal, hopelessness and fortitude, in which every citizen you meet seeks shelter in Aurora's loving arms. Her plight to fight for both her own freedom and her companions' is one we've seen before, though that doesn't detract from the feelings it conjures.

Child of Light is a lovely adventure, a journey as remarkable as it is uncommon, that left me grappling with my own sadness.

Aurora joins up with a jester who has lost touch with her brother, a rodent who craves monetary wealth, and a gnome whose people have been cursed with an avian disease. But it's a firefly who proves to be the steadiest friend. Igniculus floats alongside you as you explore the creaking trees and abandoned homes you drift past on your way to free this land from the misery that it's drowning in. Always with advice on his lips, he can also light the passageway through dark caves and collect treasure that your human hands can't wrest open.

Spiders are cast as villains, as they should be.

When Aurora sets out into this foreign world--barefoot, weaponless, and utterly alone--she clambers upon rocky outcrops as she winds her way through labyrinthine caverns. Slowly but determinedly, Aurora uses ingenuity to scavenge for scraps of treasure, and I felt at one with the environment as I charted a course onward. After reaching her first destination, Aurora was imbued with flight, and the tactile pleasure of forging unknown paths vanished. Once airborne, you can no longer run and jump as you once could, instead floating dreamily through air thick with fog and rain. The kinetic freedom of flight rises and quickly falls away as you continually find your path barred. Thorns rein you in, waterfalls and gales push you away, and those restrictions echo the themes of imprisonment. You're not free; you're trapped and scared and desperate to return home, and those aerial barriers further those feelings.

Enjoy flight when you can. There are treasure chests and hidden passages for those with an inquisitive disposition, and when you're able to break free from the chains corralling you in place, the landscape is too beautiful to not admire. But such appreciation is fleeting. There are enemies lurking--creatures that should have no qualms about your presence cut you down if you drift too close to them. They patrol in the open, marching from side to side along high plateaus or hovering menacingly in dark caverns. You can avoid them if you wish--fly down another path or wait until they turn their backs on you--but Aurora is not one to walk away from a confrontation. She wields a sword almost too heavy for her to carry, and has her heart set only on her freedom, so she doesn't run away from the monsters that stand before her. She longs to fight, relishes in it, and her friends readily join her, eager to damage the foul beasts who roam about their home.

It's a story about fear and betrayal, hopelessness and fortitude, in which every citizen you meet seeks shelter in Aurora's loving arms.

It's in the combat that the sadness that permeates the rest of Child of Light is momentarily halted. The music loses its solemnity as it suddenly becomes fierce, and the characters forget their aching problems for a moment while they focus on the threats that stand before them. Wolves and boars growl their displeasure, flaming birds and ethereal horses bar your path, and you stare them down like only a true warrior can. Although your party balloons as you trudge deeper into this desperate land, only two can fight at one time, while the others swap in when their fists are needed and back out once their energy is spent. It's a frenetic system in which you're continually juggling your party, tapping a healer when you need a boost, matching elemental attacks against your shifty opponents, and finding ways for everyone to contribute.

The energy of these encounters carries a fast-paced excitement that's lacking from the rest of the adventure. That's not to downplay how affecting the quiet moments are, but rather to show how sharp the contrast is. When you're fighting, you're so invested in an immediate threat that you're no longer saddened by the dire world around you. And it's a freeing feeling that exists only because of how different it is from the rest of the adventure. Part of that rush comes from how smartly time is used. Though fights play out in a turn-based manner, you and your opponents race to perform attacks as quickly as you can. Cast haste to get a boost, or hover Igniculus over an enemy to slow it down. Interrupt an attack, and you can infuriate an enemy, cause it to retaliate with anger or cower from frustration. If you're inattentive, your hard work can blow up in your face, so you have to act with exactitude and think on your toes.

The night is dark and full of terrors.

The challenge of these encounters is expertly balanced. Against tougher foes, I always felt out of my element. Would this be the fight where I finally met my end? I would scrape and claw, desperately casting spells while fending off the unceasing threat. My attacks would be interrupted, my characters infected by curses, and yet I pressed on. I would drown enemies in water, blind them with sunlight, and never relent for even a second. I never did lose a battle. Child of Light did a wonderful job of pushing me hard, forcing me to fight with speed and precision, without ever becoming overwhelming. When I won, I would pause for a few moments to take in what I had accomplished. It's a great feeling to come out on top. And though I would invariably level up from such victories, I wasn't drawn to better stats or new powers. It was winning that was infectious. It was embracing the moments of respite amid a sea of sorrow and despair.

Child of Light is a remarkable adventure. I wouldn't have thought that was true during the first couple of hours given that my expectations of what kind of game this was shattered when reality showed its face. But once I accepted the sadness that is so intertwined with every element, I grew so much closer to Child of Light. It's easy to heap praise on the combat because it's so interesting and engaging, and it's certainly a high point in this adventure. That's not what makes Child of Light stand out, though. Rather, it's how confident it is in its own feelings of woe. There are so few games willing to explore that dull ache that I became mesmerized by Aurora's journey, even when I needed to step away from her plight while I regained my composure. Child of Light is a wonderfully realized, somber adventure, and I couldn't be happier that such a game exists.

Editor's note: It has been more than four years since Child of Light first hit consoles. The somber tone that permeates the adventure still resonates deeply, using its delicate visuals and wistful music to capture a feeling of melancholy that still feels incredibly rare. The passage of time hasn’t undermined the sadness that makes this game so welcoming because there is still nothing quite like Child of Light. The transition to the Switch hasn’t hurt the experience in the slightest. Whether docked or in handheld mode, the beautiful artistic design shines through and the controls are smooth regardless of which controller you use.

Because this is the Ultimate Edition, there are bonus features that weren’t included in the original release. A couple of alternate skins for the protagonist are available from the onset along with a few items, one additional skill, and a new mission. It’s still the quiet adventure that is the main draw, though, and whether you’ve never before experienced Princess Aurora’s adventure or simply want to revisit this dreamlike world, Child of Light is just as great as it was years ago. -- October 11, 2018, 10:30 AM PT

Categories: Games

The Missing Review - Lost And Found

Gamespot News Feed - Thu, 10/11/2018 - 14:00

The games of Hidetaka Suehiro (better known as Swery) impart a distinctly identifiable creative vision. He revels in grounding you in the mundane before throwing you off balance with a moment of absurd humor or plunging you into a sequence of fantastical horror. Before you know it, that ground has opened up and swallowed you whole. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories feels smaller and less ambitious than his most recent works, Deadly Premonition or D4, but it could not be mistaken for anything other than a Swery game. At heart, it is a 2D platformer akin to Limbo or Inside that alternates between ambiguous narrative beats with frequently macabre puzzles, wrapped in a creeping sense of dread. As a puzzle-platformer, it succeeds in testing your timing and your wits despite a couple of overly finicky sections. As a story, it deftly explores themes of teen sexuality and identity with a rare tenderness, though it would ultimately be better served by a guiding hand that wasn't quite so determined to have a big late-game reveal.

You play as J.J. Macfield, a first-year college student living away from both home and the prying eyes of a loving yet conservative mother. On a holiday break, J.J. goes on a camping trip with best friend Emily, who goes missing during the night, spurring J.J. to set off and find her. J.J.'s search takes place on the small Memoria Island off the coast of Maine, whose indigenous name translates, appropriately enough, as "the place to find the lost." Even though it is set on the opposite side of the continent to Deadly Premonition, The Missing sees Swery return to quaint, semi-rural American landscapes where J.J. will travel through fields dotted with windmills, a sawmill, a lonely diner in the middle of nowhere, a bowling alley on a small-town strip mall, a dilapidated church, a highly exaggerated clock tower, and so on.

Early on, J.J. inherits the ability to survive incidents that would otherwise kill you. Fall too far, for example, and you'll land with a sickening crunch. But you won't die--you'll get back up and continue on as a dark, shadow version of J.J., only with, say, a broken neck leaving you dazed and staggering. Lose a leg and J.J. resorts to hopping around and inevitably falling over, severely restricting your movement. Lose your arms and J.J. can no longer pick up objects or climb.

This grotesque mechanic informs a number of the game's puzzles--fail to crouch under a spinning buzzsaw and J.J. might be decapitated. You'll control J.J.'s head, rolling along the ground, and now able to squeeze into otherwise inaccessible crevices. Certain high impact "deaths" result not only in such injuries but flip the entire world upside down, sending J.J. tumbling to the ceiling along with any other objects affected by gravity. At any time, though, you can return this shadow version of J.J. back to original human form--limbs fully re-attached, neck un-snapped, world no longer upside down--thus ending the thematic body horror show and, more prosaically, allowing you to quickly retry that jump you missed or puzzle you mishandled. It is possible to actually die--hurling your decapitated head onto yet another spike trap will do it. But this simply resets you back to the last checkpoint, typically only a few minutes away at the start of the current puzzle section.

The Missing extracts a lot of mileage from this not-really-death mechanic. Together with the physicality of the platforming and the introduction of fire-, electricity- and water-based environmental interactions, puzzles are rarely too obvious and mostly satisfying to piece together. There were only two occasions when progress was halted by what felt like unfair means, where seemingly feasible puzzle solutions were overlooked by pedantic design, but these only make up a small number of the game's challenges overall.

As J.J.'s search continues, key milestones are greeted by the buzz of a mobile phone. Over the course of the game, J.J. exchanges a series of text messages with F.K. (no, not the chap from Deadly Premonition), a childhood plushie toy apparently come to life, and is also able to unlock past conversations with Emily and with her mother. These messages, along with additional conversations with friends unlocked via collectibles, serve to sketch out J.J.'s backstory and gradually, but elusively, relate the events leading up to the beginning of the game.

The buzz of the mobile phone right on the tail of a stressful bit of platforming can feel jarring, puncturing the moment in what feels like a typically Swery way. Tonally, the conversations are all over the place, too, veering from stonewalling a concerned parent to arranging a study session with a classmate, or shrugging at career advice from a professor to telling your plushie to shut up. But they do a terrific job of painting a portrait of J.J.'s life before it was upended by a camping trip. Reminiscent of the audio diaries in Gone Home, these text messages are a heartfelt window into the insecurities and vulnerabilities of a teenager struggling to process the ways in which they don't conform to the expectations of so-called normal society.

The Missing opens with the message: "This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are." It's a sentiment supported throughout, and particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between J.J. and Emily, except for one thing. The way the story structure withholds information--drip-feeding details to maintain suspense, in order to construct a surprise reveal at the end--ultimately feels like it undermines some, but crucially, not all of the good work it does along the way. The game wants to embrace diversity while at the same time treating a part of someone's identity as something of a 'gotcha' moment. It doesn't feel cynical--there are no bad intentions detected here--but its execution comes off as clumsy and its impact is diminished.

The faltering plot twist doesn't detract from the overall experience. The Missing is smaller and more mechanically conventional than Deadly Premonition or D4, but its components remain focused on distinctly a Swery game: a dark, idiosyncratic experience that tells a deeply personal story that's as confronting as it is sincere. It is absolutely not for everyone, but as the game reminds us, there is nothing wrong with that.


Categories: Games

Luigi's Mansion Review - Old Haunts

Gamespot News Feed - Thu, 10/11/2018 - 14:00

Luigi's Mansion was a curious launch title for the GameCube back in 2001, and it's even more curious as an end-of-life title for the 3DS. It's got the feel of an eccentric mid-generation release, a July stopgap to keep you going while you wait for the next major title. But Nintendo's faith in Luigi's Mansion, which has taken on a cult status over the years and has a second sequel due to release on Switch next year, isn't misplaced--the game still has a lot of charm.

Luigi's Mansion sees Mario's put-upon younger brother exploring a mansion after receiving a letter telling him that he won it in a contest. He arrives to find that not only is the mansion haunted and full of ghosts, but that Mario received a similar letter and has not been seen since he entered.

When it released, the game represented a major shift away from the usual Mario format--there's no jump button here. Instead, Luigi has a flashlight and a ghost-sucking vacuum (the Poltergust 3000), which he needs to use to rid the mansion of ghosts and save a captured Mario in the process. You move through the mansion methodically, unlocking new rooms by vacuuming up the ghosts in the ones you've already opened.

The ghosts are divided between your standard ghoulies, 'portrait' ghosts (mini-bosses and bosses, essentially, which have escaped out of paintings), and Nintendo's familiar Boos. Standard ghosts come in a few different varieties--some will grab you, others will punch, throw bombs, or hurl banana peels for you to slip on--and can be vacuumed up once you shine your flashlight at the heart visible in their ethereal chests. When you start up your vacuum, Luigi will be dragged around the room as they try to escape, and you lower their hit-points by pulling the stick away from them, as though Luigi was pulling back, while keeping the vacuum trained on them. It's a fun system, especially when you manage to nab multiple ghosts at once and have to put in the effort to reel them all in.

Luigi's 'Strobulb' flashlight from Luigi's Mansion 2 has also been added. The Strobulb, which can be charged for an extra big flash of light, is useful in a few scenarios--I found that it was helpful for nabbing multiple invisible enemies at once--but the game was designed with a standard flashlight in mind, and I mostly stuck with it.

Portrait ghosts are the main meat of the game and capturing them generally involves solving a small puzzle or figuring out the pattern of their movements. None of them are too complicated--you can examine each portrait ghost for a clue, and simply interacting with the objects in the room will usually trigger the ghost's 'stun' state so that you can begin to vacuum them. These are fun encounters, even if their patterns are usually easy to predict. Hunting the 50 Boos that scatter around the mansion at a certain point in the story is enjoyable for the first 40-or-so--a blinking light on the screen lets you know when you're close to one, and during a chase they can slip through walls and into other rooms--but the novelty of these pursuits wears out towards the end of the game.

Once most of the mansion's doors are open and its rooms cleared are towards the end you'll have to do a lot of backtracking, which can get tedious. But it's worth tracking down every ghost--this is a short game, and you'll get more out of it if you hunt down everything. The brevity of Luigi's Mansion was a major complaint during the initial launch, and while our expectations regarding game length have shifted somewhat (six-hour games are less unusual than they were at the time) Luigi's Mansion still feels like it ends too early. While you can replay for a high score, dictated by how much treasure you find and earn, or play the more difficult 'Hidden Mansion' mode that unlocks after finishing the game, the core experience is still a tad thin. 2013's Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon was a big improvement in this regard, although there's still an allure to the original game's focus on a single location that you slowly master.

The 3DS' second screen is put to great use too, now displaying a 2D map of the mansion at all times. This makes navigation much easier than it was on the GameCube, as there's no need to bring up a separate map screen, which cuts down on some late-game frustration. You now tilt the 3DS to dictate where Luigi is pointing his light or vacuum, which mostly works but can be finicky when the camera plays up in some of the game's tighter spaces. Although the game supports the C-stick on the New Nintendo 3DS, it's not viable since Luigi barely moves his torch or vacuum when using it--motion controls are essential.

Despite these few tweaks and additions, Luigi's Mansion still feels like the same game it was in 2001. That means the little touches that made the game so memorable have remained. Luigi still charmingly hums the theme tune--confidently or fearfully, depending on whether the room you're in has been cleared or not--and his shaky animations are as much of a delight as ever. Luigi still carries a translucent purple 'Game Boy Horror', which can be used to scan rooms for clues. Even the hilarious interact animation that makes it look like Luigi is humping everything in the room, often paired with an enthusiastic 'oh, yeah!', is unchanged. The stranger puzzles and curious aesthetic elements that you might remember remain, and it serves as an interesting, fun look into how Nintendo managed the transition into their fourth console generation.

Luigi's Mansion is the only GameCube port Nintendo has put onto the 3DS, and while some details have been noticeably toned down for the 3DS' smaller screens (the ghosts are less translucent, for example) there's nothing that feels like an unreasonable compromise. The game adapts to a lower resolution much better than many of the Wii and Wii U ports we've seen to the 3DS, giving the game the curious feel of an excellent tech demo for a system that is now on its way out.

The main new feature is an offline co-op mode, which lets you play the entire game through with another player if they also have a copy of the game (or replay boss fights with anyone who owns a 3DS). The second player gets to control the charmingly named 'Gooigi', a version of Luigi made entirely from green goo, and can assist throughout the game by sucking up ghosts and helping to solve puzzles. This is likely to be a very niche feature--Luigi's Mansion is not an especially difficult game and playing together on your 3DS just doesn't appeal the same way a traditional console does--but it's a neat bonus. The whole game also supports 3D, and looks great with the slider turned up.

The game also supports four amiibo--Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Boo--and each one will make your game permanently easier. Mario will change the poisonous mushrooms ghosts sometimes spit out into super mushrooms that restore health, Luigi gives you a chance of surviving death, and Boo will mark the location of five undiscovered Boos on the map. By far the most useful, though, is Toad--the Toads scattered around the mansion act as save points, and if you scan this amiibo they'll also restore your health. This is the one enhancement that should have been made universal--not having to shake every item in every room for hearts takes some potential tedium out of the game.

Seventeen years after its first release, with one sequel out and another on its way, there's still nothing quite like Luigi's Mansion. Nintendo's strange foray into the paranormal has aged well--I was surprised at how much of it had stuck in my memory, and how good it felt being back in its haunted halls. It's a basic port with a few issues, but Luigi's Mansion still remains a charming and enjoyable game.

Categories: Games

My Memory of Us Review - War Has Changed

Gamespot News Feed - Tue, 10/09/2018 - 14:00

My Memory of Us, a game by Polish developer Juggler Games that focuses on the plight of two Polish children during a robot uprising, serves as a thin allegory for World War II, and obviously means well. This is important, as a version of My Memory of Us that didn't have its heart in the right place would be a disaster. This puzzle platformer aims to pay tribute to the Polish citizens who lost their lives during the Nazi occupation, especially those that provided shelter and help to the people around them, and the game feels like it intends to be respectful, especially in the collectible "memories" that tell you more about the real-world people who inspired the game. Unfortunately, the good intentions of My Memory Of Us are obscured by dull gameplay and poor metaphors.

You play as a young boy and girl simultaneously, neither of whom are given names. Early in the game a "robot occupation" occurs, standing in for the Nazi occupation of Poland, and you find yourself guiding these two kids through an increasingly perilous situation. The game is a puzzle-platformer with an intentionally limited monochromatic color palette, with a sparing use of red. You can swap between the two characters or move them both at once by having them hold hands, and solving most puzzles comes down to running around interacting with everything and using the unique abilities of each kid. The boy can sneak and shine light into people's eyes to temporarily blind them if he happens to be standing in a patch of light, while the girl can run and use a slingshot, abilities which make her more enjoyable to control.

Occasionally the children will be separated or will need to work together while having access to different parts of the map and different resources. Some sections have a stealth focus, where you'll need to creep between cover and avoid enemy patrol patterns, and there are even a few vehicle sections (think Excitebike but much slower) scattered throughout. Any sequence like this with a potential fail state can get tedious thanks to some control issues--climbing objects requires more inputs than it should, the hand-holding mechanic can be unresponsive, vehicle sections feel stiff, and checkpoints that could stand to be more generous.

The puzzles you solve often resemble those you might find in a very simple point-and-click adventure and are rarely well implemented into the game world or plot. For example, figuring out a padlock combination during one sequence set within an orphanage involves observing an equation left on a blackboard, which encourages you to multiply birds by strawberries, then subtract the number of ships. The solution is to use a telescope upstairs to count the birds outside, multiply that number by the strawberries that appear in a thought bubble above an NPC's head after finding and giving them a jar of strawberry jam, and then subtracting the number of ships dotted around the house the padlocked door is in. This isn't a difficult puzzle to solve, but there's a sense of disconnect between your actions and the outcome, and completing it feels like busywork.

This is an issue throughout the game, where the impact and logic of your actions is often unclear. You're regularly stumbling ahead just looking for the next thing you're able to interact with, unsure of what outcome you're trying to achieve. The best puzzles are the more traditional ones--there are sliding tile puzzles, a few numeric brain-teasers, and even a clever maze later in the game. They largely feel divorced from the levels they're in, but some of them are at least entertaining.

A bigger problem is the concept of dressing up a Nazi invasion as a robot invasion. The plot's framing device--that the boy, now an old man voiced by the great Patrick Stewart, is telling a story to a young girl who visits his bookshop--can only justify the game's euphemisms so far. The conceit is that the story is being changed to make it child-appropriate and more exciting; in practice, though, obscuring the truth of the story just makes things weird. Stewart delivers his lines, set against static cutscenes between missions, with his trademark timbre, but it's hard to get past the fact that the game has taken something horrific and made it cute.

Worst still is when the metaphor the game is operating under starts to fall apart. Partway through the game, the girl gets marked as "red" by the robot army. The game's "red" people wear red clothing, painted on by the robots' machines, and suddenly find themselves treated like lesser beings by everyone. It's an obvious tribute to the girl in the red coat from Schindler's List, but as a metaphor for how the Polish Jews were treated, it feels too ham-fisted as a metaphor and far from the horror of what it is meant to fill in for, especially when it seems like the citizens being painted are being chosen, essentially, at random. It's possible to tell a Holocaust story like this through metaphor and abstraction--Art Spiegelman's comic Maus stands as perhaps the best example--but it never feels like My Memory of Us has anything new or interesting to say about the period it is depicting, and framing it as a story being told to a child does not excuse this.

The disconnect between the game's cuter aesthetic elements and the story, where characters get sent to live in ghettos and whisked off to concentration camps, is jarring. In one scene, a robot commander demands that the girl dance for him (which plays out as a button-matching minigame), throwing her a literal bone (which you need to subdue a dog) when she succeeds. The cruelty of this act is obscured by the game's layers of metaphor. There are a few moments when the game's aesthetic works well--one section where the two characters dress up in a crude robot costume is a standout--but the tonal confusion dampens most of the experience. The game's art style and soundtrack are both great, despite a few mild performance hiccups where the music would blip out for a moment, but even the way both children are smiling in their idle animations feels wrong.

Things improve later in the game when it leans in harder to the underlying horror of the situation. The weird fantastical elements still don't quite sit right, but when you're, say, releasing other "red" people from the robot's flying train while it's on its way to a camp, there's a tangible sense of gravity to proceedings, and there are a few plot beats that land well. When a weird, out-of-place final boss fight (complete with stuttering performance issues) breaks out in the penultimate level it's hard to know what the game stands for. But the emotional finale that immediately follows, while simple, manages to pay off well on the relationship at the game's core, providing the closure a story like this needs.

My Memory of Us feels misguided; a concept that doesn’t sit well, marred by puzzle gameplay that fails to challenge or excite. It means well, and divorced from the game's context, the game's aesthetic is charming. But it doesn’t really work as either a puzzle game or as an educational experience.

Categories: Games

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Review - The Classics

Gamespot News Feed - Mon, 10/08/2018 - 19:37

While there have been many, many attempts to translate the tabletop roleplaying experience to the PC and console, more often than not it hasn't quite worked out. One of the biggest struggles in transitioning a traditional tabletop RPG into the quicker, imminently more binge-able video game form is incorporating a complex ruleset faithfully. Hypothetically speaking, with the right combo of spells and skills, a tabletop campaign can get utterly bizarre, with players collaborating to do things like using effectively unlimited ammunition to shoot through a mountain. These kinds of solutions are impossible in video games, where destructible environments and the difficulty of coding different possibilities necessarily limits the ways you can interact with the game. Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a partial exception to that rule, but it often fumbles with the execution.

Just about everything has been wholesale imported from the Pathfinder tabletop games; nearly all the mechanics, spells, skills, etc. make their way in, and so does a massive chunk of the lore and mythology. That's all well and good, particularly because Kingmaker offers plenty of options to help customize the difficulty and effectively put you in the role of Game Master. There are more than a dozen options for adjusting everything from damage scaling for foes--a handicap that makes you more resistant to harm in tougher fights--to how the AI will manage your (eventual) kingdom.

Given that this is a hefty choose-your-own-everything adventure, your character is a blank slate. You can pick from many of the basic races--as well as the godlike aasimar--and a fair few of the basic classes, skills and abilities from the tabletop edition. Your companions are initially pulled from a crowd of heroes you meet in the game's opening, but it expands soon after with any number of additional friends and allies to bring along the way. For the most part, these serve as means to an end. Your allies are as much a part of the experience as your own character is, both in terms of party composition and roleplaying in the narrative.

This is reinforced by one of the few concessions the tabletop game doesn't make, but the game does: party-wide skill checks. Passing obstacles in the tabletop Pathfinder, for instance, can often separate the party, as those that don't have a skill like acrobatics won't be able to maneuver through a thicket. Instead, in Kingmaker, the party completes these tasks as a team. It behooves you, then, to really spread out your abilities and party to maximize coverage of options over making sure everyone has the same basic setup with slightly different modifications down the line.

Such concessions transition well into group cohesion in combat, as well. With such a diverse set of specializations, party management is exceptionally important--especially because of the intense base difficulty. By default, Kingmaker follows the rules of tabletop perhaps too closely; it's a system where simple combat with a few foes can take 30 minutes to an hour (or more), all compressed into a few seconds on-screen. That can be taxing as it requires tremendous familiarity with each classes' traits as well as the acuity to know how to pull them together.

Were everyone sitting around the table, each would have a couple minutes to look over their spells, consider all manner of responses, and then execute the plan on their next turn. In Kingmaker, though, combat largely happens in real time. Sure, you have a pause button and can quickly look over your characters to devise tactics mid-battle, but this absolutely grinds combat down and really hits the pacing of the game in the worst way.

Perhaps a bit more troubling is the fact that within Pathfinder's ruleset, many monsters and creatures require very specific tools to kill. Swarms of small creatures like rats, for instance, can't be effectively fought with a sword and shield. Sometimes Kingmaker warns you, but other times it simply expects you to know how to handle the problem. Rust monsters, skeletons, ghosts, and so on all have specific tools that you need to understand and be able to use with relative ease. That's made easier by having a diverse party, but then you have to take far more time aside to learn the ins and outs of your band of characters than a traditional tabletop player.

This tension--between what Kingmaker is trying to be and what that looks like in practice--is at the heart of many of its missteps. With more than a dozen references and resources to draw upon, quite a few things have slipped through the cracks, causing issues of balance throughout. There’s the distinct impression that Pathfinder’s convoluted rulesets have led to oversights in how damage gets calculated by the game in this or that room, or whether you’ll face a much higher spell failure chance when squaring against a boss.

There have patches since release, and many of the adjustments definitely work. A slightly modified Story Mode (the name of one of the difficulty presets) is a solid entry point for many. Still, the rules and procedures can be labyrinthine--and that's even with tooltips that explain proper nouns and the requisite in-game encyclopedia to explain everything else.

For those willing to take on the challenge, however, what lies beneath the brusque exterior is a welcome return to involved roleplaying. The voice acting is spotty, and writing can be a bit cliché at times, but the game doesn't shy away from its subtitle. In relatively short order, you earn your barony and have the ability to build it out however you choose--hiring advisers and upgrading facilities to help you along the adventure. Kingmaker’s campaign cuts much closer to long-term tabletop campaigns and gives you a stable home base from which to plan your next outing. And, not to belabor the point, but most of your mini-adventures will definitely require prep.

These outings also constitute the bulk of your questing play and a good chunk of the ongoing narrative--an interconnected web of relationships and allegiances that lends itself to plenty of political intrigue and exciting adventures. Unearthing the mysteries of not only your “employers” but also the shifting factions of the Stolen Lands and how that plays into the world at large is definitely an extraordinary and rewarding endeavor.

For those willing to take on the challenge, what lies beneath the brusque exterior is a welcome return to involved roleplaying.

The interaction between the ruling bit of play and the rest of it is great. Having each of these systems--roleplaying, combat, adventuring, and what's essentially SimCity-lite--feed into and influence one another yields an experience that is as broad as it is deep. Your level of investment and engagement with each is largely up to you, but each of them matters and will require attentiveness to get the best results. But the opportunities it yields are exceptional. Having your roleplaying choices and character story and alignment all play into how you rule and who accompanies you on your trek is amazing. Working towards getting a well-crafted set of gear for your party after carefully maneuvering through hours of quests and adventures, all for the glory of besting a big bad using all the skills and abilities you've given your team, are high points of the adventure.

All-told, Kingmaker isn't a stellar outing, hampered by a litany of small issues, balancing, and the gargantuan knowledge base you'll need to play most effectively. But, for those with the patience, the rewards are well worth the investment.

Categories: Games

FIFA 19 Nintendo Switch Review - Switched Off

Gamespot News Feed - Sun, 10/07/2018 - 01:54

If FIFA 19 on PS4 and Xbox One is a 40-piece orchestra with all the bells and whistles you can think of, then FIFA 19 on Nintendo Switch is the tribute band. The Switch version of EA's footballing behemoth purports to have all the same qualities--the Champions League! Ultimate Team! Career Mode!--but under the surface, each of its many facets lacks the depth and longevity from other versions. On the pitch the Switch port feels relatively smooth, if a little dated, but it's hard to shake off the feeling you're playing an inferior and incomplete version of this year's biggest soccer sim.

Some improvements from the PS4 and Xbox One editions carry over to the Switch port, such as timed finishing and the new Kick Off house rules options like No Rules and Survival Mode. Others, such as game plans--or any kind of tactical tweaks or player instructions--do not make the cut.

Once you get on the pitch, things feel satisfying--sometimes. Passing still feels imprecise, even with the world's best players, but shooting and dribbling feel almost as good as what's available on other platforms. But this port also seems to pull from older versions of FIFA--many cutscenes and environmental cues like those read out by stadium announcers are from as far back as FIFA 10.

Additional problems crop up when you want to play a friend with one Joy-Con each. It works, but not particularly well. As with FIFA 18 on Switch, fewer buttons and sticks means there's no way to use finesse shots, threaded through balls, knuckle shots, manual defending, skill moves, or driven passes. Double-tapping the right bumper allows you to knock the ball ahead of you in a similar fashion to the right stick when playing with traditional controls, but similar workarounds don't exist for the other missing functions. Playing with one Joy-Con is possible but often ends up feeling like more hassle than it's worth. You are, at least, able to matchmake with friends when playing online, which was missing from last year's Switch port.

The Champions League license and standalone mode do form a part of the Switch version, complete with Derek Rae's Aberdeen-Atlantic commentary and UEFA's operatic anthem. Night games look impressive on Switch, even if the atmospheres don't quite live up to the sights and sounds of the PS4 and Xbox One editions, in part due to lower resolution. The standalone mode is essentially a stripped-down version of Career Mode, which itself is even more bare-bones on Switch than it is on home consoles this year. On Switch, neither mode contains the dynamic cutscenes or interactive transfer negotiations found on other platforms. Here, FIFA 19 really does feel very similar to 18, just with updated licenses.

Ultimate Team has a similar story in this version. FUT is easily FIFA's biggest and most popular mode, thanks in large part to EA's Squad Building Challenges, in-form cards, and more live services that keep things fresh. All those are present and correct on Switch, but the mode is lacking in ways to actually use your squad. Division Rivals, FUT's new sub-mode for this year on PS4 and Xbox One, is nowhere to be found, meaning you have to make do with standard old Online Seasons matches. Squad Battles, the primary method of play for offline players in FUT, is also absent--the more miserly Single Player Seasons are your best bet here. To make matters worse, you still need a constant internet connection to access even Ultimate Team's single-player sections, so playing FUT on the go isn't an option unless you tether your Switch to your phone signal. Oh, and the FIFA 19 companion app is not compatible with Switch versions of the game, so you're out of luck there, too.

All that's left is to lament the ongoing absence of The Journey, which of all FIFA's modes appears the best fit for Switch--a deep, offline story playable in small chunks--and yet it's omitted entirely from the port. And that sums up the Switch version of FIFA 19: a playable, competent game of football encased in a package of outdated modes and lacking the controls and features you really want.

Categories: Games

Cities: Skylines Review - In The Zone

Gamespot News Feed - Wed, 10/03/2018 - 23:50

Editor's note: We have updated this review to reflect our experience with the Nintendo Switch version of Cities: Skylines. See the end of the review for our thoughts.

Now this is more like it. Even though my real-world occupation as the mayor of a Canadian town means that I try to escape such things as budget meetings and zoning hearings when I play games, Cities: Skylines still managed to hook me due to its authenticity. Unlike the latest SimCity, which was far too fantastical to let me build cities that resembled those in the real world (size limitations and not being able to establish proper zoning districts drove me crazy), this Colossal Order production nails just enough of what is fun about running a municipality in the real world. Proper zoning, room to grow, and the addition of policies and districts that let you plan out sensible city development make for a (mostly) bona fide experience in the virtual mayor's chair.

Is it too geeky to be excited about the use of zoning rules and policies in a city-building game?

Making comparisons between games is not always helpful, but in this case, it's difficult to ignore the tight relationship between Cities: Skylines and its SimCity inspiration. Colossal Order delves deep into what Maxis and EA once made so popular with a traditional city-building approach. Few surprises or even significant innovations can be found here: There is just a standard single-player mode of play in which you choose from a handful of maps representing territory types ranging from flat plains to tropical beaches. You may also play the game with standard conditions, dial up the difficulty, and/or turn on sandbox and unlimited-money mods. No tutorial is included, either, which makes for a learning curve at the beginning. At least tips are provided on a continual basis during regular play.

Multiplayer is totally absent, as are frilly options like disasters and giant monster attacks. There are no multiple-city games, either. You have one city to deal with, along with a mostly invisible outside world that allows you to buy and sell goods on a common market. The game has been developed with modding in mind, however, and it ships with a full editor. Therefore, you can expect a lot of user-made add-ons to hit the net shortly. Nonetheless, at the present time, this "just the facts" focus makes for an initially bland experience. The plainness is exacerbated by stark menu screens and dated visuals that are attractive enough to get by, while at the same time cutting corners by cloning buildings and signs, as well as lacking amenities like a day-night cycle and weather patterns.

If you have been jonesing to be a virtual mayor, though, Cities: Skylines gets nearly everything else just right. First off is zoning. You have full control over zoning neighborhoods as low or high (medium is absent, although I didn't miss it) residential, commercial, and industrial. These basic mechanics provide thorough control over laying out cities, which gives you a real sense of being in charge. Second up is map size, which allows for a lot of stretching out. The initial size is restrictive at 2km by 2km, but you can access more plots of land to eventually expand to a metropolis spanning a whopping 36 square km. That allows for expansive burgs, and an incredible sense of freedom. You always have room to correct mistakes and grow out of early problems, making you feel more like the super-mayor that you should feel like, and not the goofball constantly demolishing whole neighborhoods to fix problems you couldn't have foreseen three hours ago.

Two other great features involve establishing districts and policies. This allows for the creation of boroughs with separate identities (policies can be set to take in entire cities, as well) by drawing them out with the Paint District tool. If you want your very own Brooklyn hipsters or a hardhat neighborhood for factory Joes, you can paint out city blocks and then tweak localized settings. This allows you to offer free public transit, boost education, give away smoke detectors, get into high-tech homes, ban high rises, and even alter tax rates for different zones. You can also set up specific industrial areas to focus efforts there. So if you want a green city, allow only farming use in industrial zones. If you want to go in the other direction with the sort of hardcore factories that killed grandpa, you can set up oil or ore districts and watch the smokestacks pump out poison.

Smart use of districts and policies allows for the creation of cities that closely resemble their real-life counterparts.

Policies are on the fanciful side, and establishing wildly different rules on social activities and even tax rates between neighborhoods in the same city will not go over well on election day. But I still love the ability to fine-tune cities without delving too deeply into micromanagement. The district and policy features combine to let me sketch out what I want in each part of my city--yes, this will be my gentrified borough for snotty white-collar professionals, complete with a smoking ban, no pets, no high rises, recycling, allowance for the use of certain controlled recreational substances, high-tech homes, and, of course, stupid high taxes--and then sit back and watch neighborhoods evolve.

The challenge is not pronounced, especially if you have city-building experience. You needn't worry about random sparks somehow taking down whole blocks, or other acts of God obliterating all of your hard work. This gives Cities: Skylines a relaxed character, instead of coming across like a rigorous game loaded with set objectives and problems to be solved. It's an old approach, but a great one, as it allows you to concentrate on the abstractions of building, instead of mindlessly racing around meeting random goals related to citizen happiness or residency numbers.

I wish I had shares in Go Nuts Doughnuts.

The only aspect of the game that becomes annoying to handle is transit. Given the same developer's Cities in Motion series, you might expect roads, buses, and the like to take on a vital role. Ultimately, however, transportation systems are overly Byzantine and convoluted, particularly when it comes to bus routes. It's difficult to tell if transportation woes are your own wrongdoing, or if there are problems with vehicle pathfinding in the game itself. You can muddle through, although you never exert the same level of control with transit as with everything else.

Moving Cities: Skylines to the Nintendo Switch is mostly what you would expect. This is a pretty thorough port of the PC release, including the original game as well as the After Dark and Snowfall expansions that added evening activities and ho-ho-ho weather. But while the game experience itself is virtually the same as it is on PC, you have to make a few sacrifices on the Switch. While the interface itself functions (perhaps surprisingly) well ported from mouse-and-keyboard to the more limited d-pads and buttons of the Switch, the controls are less than precise. I often overshot or undershot my mark. Laying out roads, for example, requires patience here, especially when compared to the ease of putting down long stretches of asphalt on the PC. I eventually became accustomed to the controls, although I still prefer mouse and keyboard.

While the game experience itself is virtually the same as it is on PC, you have to make a few sacrifices on the Switch.

Portability presents some big pluses in that it makes Cities: Skylines more of a pick-up-and-play game where you can bite tasks off in chunks. I played the game more casually and more frequently on the Switch, knocking off sessions throughout the day just because I had the system close at hand. Still, taking the game on the road or even around your house comes with some drawbacks. The intricate nature of city layouts and the small size of the screen makes it tough to track everything easily. This problem grows as cities get bigger. I spent almost as much time zooming in and out as I did zoning neighborhoods. In some ways this made me pay even more attention than usual to what was happening on the mean streets of my cities, but it also led to some frustration.

Camera manipulation reveals performance problems as well. Even though the graphics have clearly been dialed back a touch on the Switch, the game chugs when it has to handle larger cities. This can be a problem when you need to take a close look at things. These stutters seem more pronounced when you have the Switch docked and you’re playing on a TV, so they don’t present as many annoyances when using the console’s own screen, when--as noted above--you have to zoom in more often. Still, this slowdown is not a show-stopper, although optimizing the game through a patch would be welcome.

Even with a few PC issues and a less-than-perfect Switch port, Cities: Skylines remains the best city-builder on the market right now. The game's presentation is stodgy, but it is all but guaranteed to provide you many hours of carefully crafting cities, laying out zoning, and establishing districts for specifics residential and industrial uses…all free from real-world mayoral headaches like 6 a.m. phone calls griping about snowplowing. Right now, there is no better way to take a peek at life as a mayor without filing your papers to run for office in the real world.

Categories: Games

Super Mario Party Review In Progress - Super Stardom

Gamespot News Feed - Wed, 10/03/2018 - 14:00

Anyone who's played a Mario Party game in the past 20 years has a good idea of what to expect from Switch's Super Mario Party, but Nintendo's latest offers a few new modes that each add their own creative spin on the tried-and-true formula. In many ways, Super Mario Party feels smaller than previous games in the series, but added layers of strategy and clever, fun minigames help keep it lively and fresh.

The fierce competitive nature of the series' earliest titles is back, as Super Mario Party ditches Mario Party 9 and 10's cooperative car mechanic and once again pits players against each other in a race for Stars. The overall goal in Super Mario Party is to earn five Gems, which you get after completing each of the game's five major offline modes: Mario Party, Partner Party, Challenge Road, River Survival, and Sound Stage.

Mario Party mode features the series' classic formula of bite-sized games interspersed between rounds of board game hijinks. Your character is still placed on a board with three others where you'll all race after Toadette and her collection of Stars. The biggest change is the introduction of character dice blocks; while previous Mario Party games utilized virtual 10-sided dice, now every character has two dice blocks, one six-sided and the other unique to them, and you have to decide which one to use each turn. The six-sided die rolls a one through six, while each character die comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

For example, Mario's has a number three on three of its sides, while the remaining three sides are one, five, and six. In comparison, the devilish gambler Wario has a special die where two of the sides cause him to lose two coins, but the other four sides are sixes. For the first time in a Mario Party game, your choice of character is more than just aesthetic, and figuring out the best time to use a specific dice block adds a level of strategy to what's typically been an act of randomness.

Each of the game's four boards requires slight tweaks to your strategy for reaching the Star, but they're all small, and most don't take advantage of their unique makeups. Whomp's Domino Ruins, for example, features Whomps who will block your path down certain shortcuts. The board only has two Whomps, though, so you don't encounter them very often, and even when you do, the board is small enough that taking the long way around won't put you at much of a disadvantage. Super Mario Party's four boards don't feel distinct, so your strategy for each one won't be all that different. And since there are only four boards in total to pick from, Mario Party mode grows stale fairly quickly.

There are a total of 80 minigames in Super Mario Party, putting it just behind Mario Party 6, 7, and 9 in terms of quantity. Of the 80 minigames, nearly half rely on the motion control or rumble features in the Switch's Joy-Cons. Don't fret; both the motion and rumble features work surprisingly well, and it makes for some of the most cleverly designed games in the Mario Party series. For example, in Fiddler on the Hoof, you and three others race horses, and making a pulling back motion with the Joy-Con to simulate whipping the reins increases your score if you move with the beat of the song that's playing. In Nut Cases, you and a partner need to outwit the other team by claiming the five boxes that have the most walnuts inside them. You get an idea as to a box's contents by picking it up and measuring the severity of your Joy-Con's vibration. As Super Mario Party only supports motion control with a single Joy-Con, you won't be able to play the game in handheld mode or with a Pro Controller.

Partner Party mode is Super Mario Party's reimagining of Mario Party 6's Team Battle mode. The rules are similar to Mario Party mode, but there are more paths around the board, and you need to actually land on Toadette's spot to get a Star instead of just collecting it while passing by. The minor obstacles from Mario Party mode become trickier to get past in Partner Party because you need to remain mindful of both you and your partner. Paying to move Whomp out of the way might get you to the Star more quickly, but doing so could trap other players, including your teammate. There's the possibility of winning the next minigame and earning enough coin to buy an item to free them, but that's no guarantee. This type of consideration and amount of forethought simply doesn't exist in Mario Party mode.

Two of the other major modes, River Survival and Sound Stage, are new to the Mario Party franchise. The former has you working together with three others to survive a trip down a dangerous river while playing Co-op minigames, while the latter is an energetic dance competition where you solely play Rhythm minigames. Both River Survival and Sound Stage offer fun, albeit brief, alternatives to the staple Mario Party formula. The Co-op and Rhythm minigames are also some of the best in the Mario Party series, especially the Rhythm ones like Fiddler on the Hoof, that have you actually standing up and moving around to match the groove of the game's characters. Both Co-op and Rhythm minigames lack the heated competition of other head-to-head minigames, but they do pump up a room.

Super Mario Party's final major mode, Challenge Road, is the closest the game has to a single-player campaign, but it only opens up once you've unlocked all 80 minigames. The mode has you play through every single minigame with specific handicaps placed on you to make each one harder. For example, a racing minigame might challenge you to get first place without running into any of the track's hazards. This mode comes very close to giving Super Mario Party just the amount of challenge the game would need to increase its longevity, but unfortunately it buckles. If you fail at a challenge three times, the game asks you if you'd like to just skip it. You can always come back and beat the challenge later if you want, but the mode never punishes you for skipping any of the minigames. As long as you get to the end of the road, regardless if you skipped a dozen challenges to get there, you'll still earn one of the five Gems you need.

Super Mario Party also has several smaller modes and features that aren't tied to earning the Super Star title. In Mariothon, you compete in five minigames where outlasting your opponents in time-based games earns you extra points on the tournament ladder. There's an online version of Mariothon too, but the servers aren't live until the game's launch. Square Off is also a minigame-based tournament, but after each win, you're allowed to claim a territory space. Owning the pieces of territory on either side of another player's territory nets you their space too, and the game continues until every space is filled. The winner is whoever owns the most spaces at the end of the match. Both modes give you a goal to strive for while playing minigames, which creates extra levels of friendly competition amongst a group of friends.

The new Partner Party, River Survival, and Sound Stage modes add enjoyable alternatives to Mario Party mode--which at least returns to its competitive roots.

There's also Toad's Rec Room, where you can play unique games that change based on how you position your Switch, and a Stickers room, where you can cover a wall in a mural of stickers you've collected. Both seem tacked on to Super Mario Party; the former to justify putting the game on a console that can be played on a horizontal plane, in kickstand mode, or in a dock, and the latter to give you a reason to go out and buy some Amiibos to scan and get special stickers that aren't earnable within the game. Although the option of changing perspectives in Toad's Rec Room--such as looking at a baseball field from a bird's eye, laid-back, or pitcher's view--is an interesting gimmick, none of the games are really made better by adjusting how you look at them. The Stickers room is not worth getting invested in at all.

Everything about Super Mario Party feels smaller in comparison to previous titles in the series. Both Mario Party and Partner Party mode play on small boards, and certain modes, like Challenge Road, have clear tier points to make it easy to play through in small chunks. So it's all the more puzzling that you can't actually play Super Mario Party on the go in handheld mode. Given you need a seperate Joy-Con to perform the motion-based actions in the game, it makes sense, but it's still odd to see a game on Switch that actively prevents you from making use of the console's portability.

Most of Super Mario Party's varied assortment of 80 minigames are fun, especially if you've got a full group of four players, as the NPCs aren't smart or skilled enough to pose much of a challenge until you unlock Master difficulty. The new Partner Party, River Survival, and Sound Stage modes add enjoyable alternatives to Mario Party mode--which at least returns to its competitive roots. And even if the unique character dice blocks don't shake up Super Mario Party's four boards enough to give Mario Party mode some longevity, they implement small moments of strategy into a series that has for too long solely relied on randomness to determine a winner.

Editor's note: As we have not been able to test Super Mario Party's online features on live servers prior to its release, this is a review in progress. We will update and finalize this review when we're able to test its online functionality at launch.

Categories: Games

Mega Man 11 Review - Robots Ride Again

Gamespot News Feed - Mon, 10/01/2018 - 16:00

Things haven't been easy for Mega Man fans in the 2010s. Between the cancellations of Mega Man Universe and Mega Man Legends 3 and the disappointing spiritual revival Mighty No. 9, it felt like every hope of seeing the series' beloved, classic action gameplay return was dashed in some way. So it was to great anticipation and expectations that Capcom announced Mega Man 11, the first all-new Mega Man game in over eight years. And while the game does deliver on its promises of being a charming, challenging action game with a rogue's gallery of robots to scrap, it makes a few puzzling choices that keep it from true greatness.

Those who have been enjoying our blue buddy's adventures within the last three decades are probably familiar with the gameplay formula here: You go through eight themed levels in the order of your choosing, claiming the weapons of the end-stage Robot Masters you defeat--and which can be used to exploit weaknesses in subsequent boss encounters. Once the eight robots are beaten, you advance to a tiered fortress with a final Dr. Wily showdown waiting at the end.

The big new feature this time around, however, is that our hero has been fitted with the Double Gear System, which allows him to increase his weapon power or slow down the environment for a limited time. The Power Gear can increase the output of the standard Mega Buster or enhance special weapons with more potent effects, while the Speed Gear can help you in tricky spots where timing or moving quickly is crucial. However, these effects only last a few seconds, and once time runs out you have to wait for a cooldown period to end or collect a special item before you can use them again, preventing you from relying too heavily on them. You're also not the only one using this new power, as you'll find Wily's machines are also putting it to use.

One thing you'll notice right off the bat is how well the game manages to nail the overall feel and charm of the series in its visual presentation. The 3D character models of Mega Man, his friends, and his Robot Master foes are on point, with subtle visual flourishes like Auto's exasperated expressions and robot bird Beat struggling to lift Mega's weight adding a little bit of humor. The stages themselves are packed with the sort of strangely cute, googly-eyed robot enemies that have come to define the franchise, and background elements like Blast Man's self-advertisements or Block Man's strange hieroglyphs add a spark of personality to each of the stages. With visuals this nice, it's easy to overlook the soundtrack, which is pleasant but wholly unmemorable.

Unfortunately, the early-game experience in Mega Man 11 is a trying one. Veterans will certainly notice how unusually long each of the stages are. While you might assume that more Mega Man action is good, the stage length serves to make the game far more frustrating than it should be, as checkpoints are sparsely placed and extra lives are few and far between. Making things worse, you often hit the most challenging parts of a stage in rapid succession, affording you little time to catch your breath. The stage design also tends to put trial-and-error areas like a labyrinth of instant-kill spike walls or a series of rapid-fire jumps at the end of these lengthy levels, making game overs especially demoralizing.

In other Mega Man games, failure feels more like a learning experience than a setback; here, however, the prospect of redoing a 10-minute level laden with strict checkpoints, instant-kill elements, and a mid-boss brawl often feels painful. The Double Gears help somewhat in navigating the more difficult sections, but they always seems to run out of power too quickly to be reliable. Progress gets better once you manage to build up a repertoire of boss weapons and purchase upgrades with collectible bolts found in the stages, but there's still a small degree of frustration at certain stage design elements, like Torch Man's three stretches of instant-kill flame wall pursuit, that never quite goes away. And while you can play the game on a lower difficulty, giving you more lives and checkpoints to make the stage hazards more manageable, it overcompensates by severely lowering damage to the point where boss battles become a dull pushover.

Of course, the levels--overly long as they are--aren't entirely bad, and there are a lot of enjoyable and interesting ideas. Blast Man's stage has you blowing exploding robots into crates and other mechs to create chain blasts, while Impact Man has some reflex-testing areas where you need to dodge a series of drilling robots that fly out in quick succession. The mid-stage bosses are all pretty great, as well; my personal favorite is the robotic, icicle-summoning mammoth skeleton in Tundra Man's stage. The Robot Masters themselves are also a lot of fun to fight, and they'll actually change up their patterns by using their own Double Gears as their health depletes, keeping you on your toes. The collected boss weapons are also tons of fun to use, and the Power Gear variations are a neat touch that calls to mind the Mega Man X series.

Still, it's easy to forget how much fun you had in other stages when you're stuck getting nailed by yet another spike trap in the tail end of Acid Man's stage or struggling with the springy walls and obnoxious slappy-hand platforms present in Bounce Man's miserable abode. It culminates in a final set of levels that are both awesome and underwhelming: awesome in that they have some really fun gimmicks and bosses, underwhelming in that it doesn't feel like it's as significant of a skill test because you already dealt with some of the game's biggest obstacles in the stages prior.

Mega Man 11 is a good action game that you can easily identify with, but it's far too uneven and bumpy to hold up against some of the best installments in the venerable franchise. At its best, it's a terrific retro romp with exciting boss encounters and unique gimmicks. At its worst, it's a frustrating experience whose too-long levels toss out infuriating obstacles to progress at the worst times. But even with these issues, it just feels good to see Mega Man back in action, and Mega Man 11 will hopefully be the start of many new robotic adventures to come.

Categories: Games

Fist Of The North Star: Lost Paradise Review - Be The Tough Boy

Gamespot News Feed - Mon, 10/01/2018 - 14:30

"You are already dead" is a familiar refrain from Fist of the North Star's protagonist, Kenshiro--often said after he effortlessly pokes the death-triggering pressure point of a hulking bandit. It's a hokey yet empowering catchphrase delivered with infectious confidence. Even more satisfying is what follows, as Kenshiro's foe implodes into a bloody mess--a gruesome punishment dealt upon those who harm the innocent. This classic power fantasy has captured the imaginations of anime and manga fans for decades, pulling in countless people with its over-the-top martial arts justice. It's a quality that the Yakuza developer, RGG Studios, captures so well in Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise--and there's plenty for newcomers to FotNS to enjoy, too.

From the start, Lost Paradise gives you a wealth of tools to make short work of desert bandits and criminals in a fight, performing devastating executions upon enemies who all clearly underestimate you. All the while, an expert handling of melodrama and absurdist humor ensures the series' epic dramatics are conveyed, while also pushing them in exciting new directions. There's great ambition in Lost Paradise's take on FotNS, and while it may not always realize its full potential, the game is exceptional at placing you in the shoes of its messianic martial artist.

Lost Paradise decidedly crafts its own take on the series’ characters and events, telling a story set in an alternate timeline. While its plot is nowhere near as dense or complex as the Yakuza games, there’s more than enough action and intrigue to hook you into the tense drama on display. The supporting cast is endearing, each possessing struggles and aspirations that are easy to empathize with. You're often thrown into moments where you are fighting alongside them and even up against them. As new foes enter the fray, it's difficult not to get caught up in the peril that befalls Kenshiro and his allies--despite some characters and themes not being as deeply explored as they could be.

The game doesn’t completely change everything, however, occasionally lifting elements from the series and inserting them into the framework of its narrative. The game feels like a collection of new and old, which sparks excitement when witnessing iconic moments set against the backdrop of a new setting. There’s something special about how Lost Paradise seamlessly incorporates classic characters into its narrative, though it’s difficult not to be disappointed by how little it sometimes develops them. They often exist for the sake of giving Kenshiro a tough opponent to fight rather than fully implementing their arcs into the narrative. Other times, some characters appear to fight and never show up again. This may disappoint fans who desire the context that the series gives these characters and more than likely will leave some newcomers confused.

Despite this, there’s still plenty of memorable moments that preserve the series’ signature storytelling for both fans and newcomers. However, where Lost Paradise truly excels (and surprises) is in its use of levity; RGG Studios adds its own style to the mix, including a suite of absurdly comedic substories that regularly poke fun at the source material. This level of self-awareness should come as no surprise to Yakuza fans, but it makes for an amazing fit that helps balance out FotNS’s traditionally dire tone. You might save innocent citizens from local bandits or even join up with Kenshiro's closest allies on a quest to help a nearby village. But it's the less traditional side-activities that delight the most, putting you into light-hearted scenarios that redefine what's possible in the FotNS universe. For example, one substory addresses the morality of Kenshiro's frontier justice in humorous and heartfelt ways, while another jokes about the prevalence of shoulder pads in the series' character designs. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Kenshiro worked as a bartender? Better yet: how about Kenshiro as the manager of a hostess nightclub? Lost Paradise works in these side-activities for laughs, and it's presented in a way that brings to light just how ridiculous yet endearing Kenshiro can be.

To accommodate this shift, Kenshiro is much more expressive than usual. Historically a protagonist of few words, the increase in his dialogue and internal thought process is a welcome change that reshapes him into a more charming and noteworthy presence. While you won't come out of Lost Paradise understanding Kenshiro from a new and meaningful perspective, his more exaggerated personality at least highlights what makes him so captivating and likable.

The writing properly sets the stage for the power fantasy of being Kenshiro, but it's Lost Paradise's delivery of his over-the-top fighting style that brings it all home. The Yakuza series' uncomplicated beat 'em up-style approach to combat works well with FotNS, offering you easy access to a flashy and deadly arsenal of attacks and techniques. You'll constantly gain new abilities as you progress that demonstrate Kenshiro's God-like fighting prowess against enemies. The impact of his punching flurries, swift kicks, and graceful acrobatics are all faithfully brought to life. There's a destructive and mesmerizing force to each blow that somehow never manages to grow old no matter how much you exhaust each possible combo.

Combat isn't especially difficult, but that's precisely what makes it so gratifying. Enemies are always a combo or QTE away from turning into a crimson fountain. With such power at your fingertips, you’re always encouraged to play with your foes--whether it be launching them into an air juggle or sending them flying across the stage with a well-placed kick. Before long you'll find yourself emulating Kenshiro as you fight, effortlessly dispatching groups of enemies with speed and grace.

It helps that every activity feeds into your sense of progression too. The world may be smaller than those from the Yakuza games, but every corner is rich with opportunities that reward you with items and experience points that'll increase your strength. Whether it’s a fun mini-game to play for a while, a shop system you pour resources into stocking, or a bounty-hunting system with its own overarching story arc, there’s usually something worthwhile to tackle. And more often than not, you're pulled into unexpected directions thanks to how random substories seem to trigger.

It’s worth noting that Lost Paradise is a little rough around the edges. Despite its cel-shaded art style, low-resolution textures give the game’s visuals a dated look that’s plain ugly at times, while stiff character animations accompany most cutscenes. Not only that, but there are some pacing issues scattered throughout that have you going from point A to B and back again that can be outright laborious. However, these are only minor complaints in the grand scheme of what Lost Paradise ultimately succeeds in, and that’s understanding and capturing what makes FotNS so special.

Lost Paradise may replicate the Yakuza series' format, but it's filled with a passion for FotNS that makes it fantastic all on its own. While previous games based on the property have adapted its story and characters with some success, few have managed to not only nail the style and tone but redefine what's possible with its world and characters. RGG Studios has done a splendid job at evoking the justice-fueled power fantasy Kenshiro represents, succeeding in revealing more about the historic and beloved character in amusing and unexpected ways.

Categories: Games

Assassin's Creed Odyssey Review - Wonder And Glory

Gamespot News Feed - Mon, 10/01/2018 - 12:00

The soft reboot that was Assassin's Creed Origins introduced a new approach to the series' brand of stealth-action gameplay, along with an expansive and vibrant open world with many dynamic systems at work. In this year's follow-up, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, developer Ubisoft Quebec builds upon its predecessor's pillars, and in the process shows greater confidence in the series' new direction.

Set in Ancient Greece, Odyssey predates the previous game by several centuries. During the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE, you take on the role of either Alexios or Kassandra, siblings and former Spartans-turned-mercenaries. In keeping with series tradition, Odyssey features parallel storylines, with the main narrative taking place in the distant past and the overarching plot set in the present day. After pivotal moments dealing with political intrigue and wartime conflict in Greece, you'll jump back to the modern day to continue the story of Layla Hassan, introduced in Origins, who's working to uncover the secrets of the first civilization. Throughout your travels in Ancient Greece you'll uncover lost tombs, engage in naval warfare on the high seas, and assassinate the key members of a shadowy conspiracy seeking control of the known world.

In your trek through the Greek mainland and the islands of the Mediterranean sea, you come across diverse locales that showcase lush environments that pay tribute to the old gods, while rubbing shoulders with the many historical figures of the era looking to make their impression in Greek society. The amount of detail packed into each location is impressive, tied together by an active and dynamic ecosystem where local wildlife and civilians keep their territory. But as you dive further, you'll see the many hardships and realities of life in Ancient Greece firsthand, including the horrors of slavery and the ever-present war between the military-driven Spartans and the bureaucratic Athenian army.

Featuring a map that's more than double the size of the previous game, Odyssey is built to be explored and has incidental content to reward your wanderlust. You get the sense that your actions will have a lasting impact wherever you go, and Odyssey offers up a wealth of content that fuels your growth at a steady pace. Though the issue of level-gating comes up occasionally, preventing you from actively exploring any region as you wish, you can take a break from the main story and dive into the breadth of side content at your leisure. Several side quests offer a surprising amount of depth and heart and feature some of Odyssey's more standout moments.

Throughout the main story and in side-quests, you'll make several key decisions that affect the game's narrative and your character's journey. While many of the choices you make are largely inconsequential and result only in slightly different endings for quests, the fateful decisions that do matter can lead to drastic turns of events, with some storylines and characters meeting their end prematurely. In moments you'd least expect, you'll see the payoff for decisions made early on in the story, for better or worse. With nine different possible outcomes at the main story's conclusion, there's a surprisingly large amount of cause and effect that can make the narrative feel all your own.

The different protagonists also offer up some of Odyssey's most endearing and entertaining moments. Despite the grim nature of the game, jokes and fun gags often break the tension, even during serious events. Though both Kassandra and Alexios share the same dialogue and story beats, their differing personalities, gender, and points of view offer unique flavor, making them stand apart--with some scenes and questlines feeling more appropriate with a particular character.

The Photo Mode in Assassin's Creed Odyssey allows you to capture some of the game's most breathtaking views.

Romancing side characters is also possible in Odyssey. While some of these scenes can be amusing, they're mostly just bizarre shows of affection that have no real purpose. These scenes almost always result in a shallow aside during the conversation, with the characters slinking off-screen before returning to the conversation without skipping a beat. Most often, these awkward romance opportunities appear immediately after (or during) otherwise harrowing events. Aside from seeing some additional scenes with certain characters, there's really no benefit to engaging in romance at all. The inclusion of these scenes feels cheap and can sully otherwise interesting conversations.

As you unravel more of the world and advance in the main story, new gameplay mechanics and side opportunities will reveal themselves, adding even greater incentive to explore. When the conspiracy that threatens Greece makes itself known, you'll be able to keep track of the major players through a large interconnected web in the game's menu, showing their connections to other targets and how to find the intel to track them down. But in one of Odyssey's more involved quests, you'll encounter several mythological beasts hidden within the world, offering up some of the game's most inventive and memorable encounters, where brute force isn't always the answer.

The world in Ancient Greece feels much more reactive compared to previous Assassin's Creed games, and you get the sense that your actions will have a lasting impact wherever you go. When you start causing too much trouble, you'll attract the attention of rival mercenaries looking to collect a bounty. Similar to Shadow of War's Nemesis system, though not as sophisticated, Odyssey presents a seemingly endless set of antagonists with their own backstories, strengths, and potential loot. If you find yourself with a bounty on your head, mercenaries are often quick to appear--leading to some annoying encounters where they arrive at the worst possible time, even during some story missions. If the heat from the encroaching mercenaries feels too much, you can lay low long enough for the bounty to clear, assassinate another wanted criminal, or pay off your own bounty in the game menu.

With nine different possible outcomes at the main story's conclusion, there's a surprisingly large amount of cause and effect that can make the narrative feel all your own.

One of Odyssey's more clever features is the new Exploration Mode. With this optional mode enabled, you're challenged to use your observation and deduction skills to find your next target, without the support of icons or waypoints. By engaging with quest-givers and friendly NPCs, you'll learn details about your surroundings and slowly piece together your next steps. Exploration Mode heightens the pride that comes from solving puzzles, and this makes each step of your investigations feel all the more rewarding.

When it comes to combat, Odyssey keeps up with the recent trend to incorporate stat-based mechanics into its core gameplay. Compared to previous games, there's now a greater focus on allowing you to customize your character to approach the challenges ahead. You can also build your character to specialize in stealth, long-range, or melee combat, and you're able to respec at any time. If you want to build your character as a powerful Spartan warrior wielding a legendary spear and use your Spartan Kick to boot enemies off cliffs, you can, but you are also free to stick with the traditional Assassin archetype.

This opens a lot of opportunities to experiment with special moves and gear, the latter of which can also be customized with special perks that offer unique bonuses. Odyssey no longer features the shields introduced in Origins, and as a result, combat flows at a brisker pace. By placing the emphasis more on dodging and parrying incoming blows from enemies, fighting feels more involved and dynamic. While there are times where Odyssey can run right into the awkwardness of its RPG mechanics clashing with the action gameplay--such as being unable to assassinate enemies outright due to being under-leveled--it makes up for it by giving players the options to avoid such clumsy engagements.

Your ship, The Adrestia, can be upgraded to deal greater damage and move faster while out on the open waters.

Naval combat and sailing make a return in Odyssey, opening up exploration on the high seas. As you build up resources and find new members to join your crew, you can customize and upgrade your ship, The Adrestia, to take on more daring challenges. Much like in Black Flag and Rogue, seafaring offers up some of the more exciting and visually pleasing moments of the game, finding lost sunken ruins in the oceans depths or facing off against increasingly aggressive rival ships. Over the course of your travels, you'll be able to recruit new lieutenants to add buffs to your ship, giving you more of a fighting chance against the sea's greater threats.

The scope of Odyssey is enormous, and for the most part, it's presented well. But some of the new innovations that seek to fit within the scale of the world, however, feel somewhat lost in the grand scheme of the game. With the ongoing war between the Spartan and Athenian army, you can choose to take part in the conflict and dismantle a faction's influence in a region. In these Conquest battles, you'll pick a side and cripple an army's hold by assassinating their leaders and taking their resources--culminating in a large-scale battle against their forces.

While this is a solid way of gaining resources and improving your standing with a faction, the mechanics and implementation into Odyssey's general systems make it feel half-baked at best and pointless at worst. In some of the more bizarre cases, the game and its narrative don't seem to take Conquest seriously, especially when the main story has you helping a particular faction, despite the side content in the area actively hurting them. This in turn can create a jarring and noticeable feeling of dissonance throughout your adventures. The game often struggles to make sense of the actual war gameplay within the context of its core narrative, which is disappointing.

When looking at Odyssey in the bigger picture, it can often feel like too much game for its own good. There are numerous moments where the loop of exploring, completing missions, and traveling can slow the pace significantly. This is exacerbated by the expansive map, which can sometimes feel excessively big and a chore to travel through. There are also some notable bugs and hitches that crop up throughout, including those that prevent progress in missions to outright crash the game. Several times throughout my journey, progression was somewhat exhausting, which made some of the more impactful and exciting moments in the story feel like a drag.

Despite this, Assassin's Creed Odyssey's ambition is admirable, which is reflected in its rich attention to detail for the era and its approach to handling the multi-faceted narrative with strong protagonists at the lead. While its large-scale campaign--clocking in at over 50 hours--can occasionally be tiresome, and some features don't quite make the impact they should, Odyssey makes great strides in its massive and dynamic world, and it's a joy to venture out and leave your mark on its ever-changing setting.

Categories: Games

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep Review - Lament

Gamespot News Feed - Sun, 09/30/2018 - 20:59

InXile Entertainment's resurrection of this long-lost series from the age of Ronald Reagan and Max Headroom takes the role-playing genre back in time for better and worse. The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep's visuals are a charmingly nostalgic reminder of the origins of 3D role-playing games, but most of the game's features are too outdated to hold up to today's standards.

Actually, the first challenge here is remembering what the Bard's Tale franchise is all about. The plot is supposed to follow 1988's The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate, although most of us will have to take their word for it given the 30 years between major franchise installments. Skara Brae and a rogues' gallery of familiar villains from the original Bard's Tale trilogy are the main hallmarks here, along with new live-action cutscenes that brings to life the iconic cover art from those '80s RPG classics. They are beyond cheesy, but these clips provide plenty of old-school atmosphere.

Other shout-outs to RPG history are evident in the core design, which is minimalistic by comparison to modern role-players. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the straightforward character development and combat systems are easy to learn. Your group is depicted via portraits in the "party bar" along the bottom eight slots (for the six party-member maximum plus two for summoned allies) on the screen. Movement is handled fluidly with the party being directed as one in real time while exploring. Encountering enemies switches the game over to turn-based combat where you give orders to attack, cast spells, and so forth based on objective and spell points. Overall, it's a tried-and-true system for a retro RPG experience, especially if you want something basic.

But with that said, Bard's Tale IV is too simplistic. Characters come with just four core stats (strength, constitution, armor class, and intelligence) that can basically only be adjusted with equipment and skills earned when leveling up. If you want to raise your constitution (which functions here as hit points, unlike a more traditional D&D system), for example, you need to put on armor, wield a bonus-granting weapon, or take a skill that gives a corresponding buff.

Serious customization is hard to come by. There aren't a lot of character choices provided beyond standard fantasy races like humans, elves, dwarves, and the goblin-like trow, and classes like fighters, practitioners (mages), rogues, and bards. Bards do feel somewhat unique due to their ability to power skills and magic in battle by chugging booze. Leveling up provides some ability to tweak your heroes, but choice is limited because you're allocated just a single point with each advancement to distribute among the four skill trees

Combat has a narrow focus. A handful of objective and spell points are given to the party to use collectively each turn, and you have to spend them on just four selected skill masteries from your overall pool of abilities. Attacks always hit, so strategizing involves looking through each hero's masteries, choosing what does the most damage, and deciding on the best enemy target. You can deal physical damage via melee and ranged attacks or mental damage via spells.

Masteries deal with one type of damage or the other, which causes problems as there is no way to switch them up once a battle has begun. As a result, readied masteries regularly don't match up with what enemies bring to the table. For example, heavily armored foes are vulnerable to mental damage, but if your ready-to-go masteries don't have enough mental attacks, you're out of luck. You can try to build a balanced party, but many masteries aren't shared across classes, so there's not a great range of options if you want a group that's prepared for everything. Because of that, combat feels gimmicky, with you failing at times through no fault other than not guessing what the game is about to throw your way.

The one positive aspect of combat--and it's a positive with definite drawbacks--is that every region is populated with the same four or fives types of enemy. So once you take on the first mob of goblin fire archers, cultist sorcerers, skeletons, assassins, or whatever in a particular location, you know what to expect in that entire area and can go on autopilot when it comes to battle strategizing. Enemies help out by not being very bright, either. They waste their own objective points on moving around unnecessarily, do nothing in the back row, ignore wounded heroes and threats like spellcasters, and so on.

Surprises still happen, though. Difficulty jumps around. You can be steamrolling all comers for ages and walk into a brutal fight against an all-new creature with a never-before-seen ability like regeneration, or undead that revive unless you send them all back to the afterlife in one turn. You learn how to fight different creatures as they appear, but because there's no save-on-demand feature--you instead save at totems strewn around the landscape--this can lead to frustrating trial and error.

Making matters worse is the inaccuracy of the enemy warning system. Look at a mob of foes and they highlight green, yellow, or red. To try to make matters even clearer, party members chime in by assessing the potential bout as a cakewalk, a challenge, or suicide. None of this is very accurate, though. While green scraps always seem easy, some yellow are murderous, and some red are a lot more painless than expected. As a result, you can get a nasty shocker and get killed in a fight that looks like no problem--which is a major pain if you haven't been able to save in a while.

Stability is a also problem. Crashes are a frequent occurrence, especially at the end of battles. Usually the game went down with an error message, but a few times it froze up at the end of a fight while looking at the loot that dead foes left behind. Because of these crashes, it's wise to save constantly--even when you have to run back significant distances to find a save totem after a tough battle.

More serious issues arise due to problems with the level design and structure of the game's locales. The maps are huge and labyrinthine and that's befitting the history of dungeon crawlers, of course, but the game is too loaded with narrow corridors with minimal incentives. Despite the maze-like appearance, you are led in a linear fashion from Point A to Point B in the dungeon ruins of Skara Brae, the forest of Inshriach, or the tundra of Stronsea. There is little room for creativity, as both plot and maps run on rails from start to finish. Inaccessible areas are crudely blocked off with rubble or piles of crates, as well, reinforcing the feeling that you're playing a game of connect-the-dots with extra steps.

While there is a good variety of brainteasers in the game, ranging from switching gears to moving blocks to shoving faeries around an obstacle course to routing blood into connected streams, there are far, far too many of them. Puzzles are used to pad out levels too often. Instead of having to face one or two of these innovative enigmas at a time, you get five or more in a row, almost always of the same type, which gets very monotonous, very fast.

Aspects of the map design appear unfinished. While loads of NPCs are ready to chat, these encounters generally lead to dead ends. Some wayward monk or lovelorn peasant will tell you a story of woe that seems to be leading somewhere, as their conversations tend to revolve around boilerplate RPG quests like hunting for an artifact or finding a lost girlfriend. But then these talks either come to an abrupt halt or the guy or gal turns into a merchant. Your only response to somebody pouring their heart a lot of the time is to ask if they've got any stuff to sell.

Most areas offer little beyond solving puzzles and fighting. Loot drops are limited. You collect the same swords, helmets, and armor constantly from defeated enemies and the crates and barrels scattered across the landscape, along with various types of food and drink that both recover hit points and can be used in crafting. There is little sense of reward. For every cool sword you discover, you smash open 50 barrels and chests filled with vegetables and bottles of water. There's nothing like taking 10 minutes to solve a puzzle leading to a chest…and then finding nothing in it but three carrots and a potato.

The visuals aren't technically impressive and cause even the best systems to chug and stutter when moving the camera on all graphics settings. Character faces have an oddly disturbing appearance in the middle ground between a mannequin and a melted candle, and animations are stiff and jerky, both in real-time dungeon delving and in turn-based battles. Still, the look of the game remains charming. Everything is given a Celtic/Scottish look that could have been taken from Braveheart, and a bright color palette evokes an '80s RPG mood recalling the vivid hues of classic D&D art.

Audio is hit and miss. Well-acted dialogue perfectly handles the Scottish brogue of most characters. Enemies repeat cheesy taunts in combat, though, and party chatter consists of juvenile insults. Some audio effects don't fit with what's taking place on-screen. Gulping down water triggers the same crunching and lip-smacking that accompanies eating a cabbage or apple. At least the music has a beautiful Celtic flavor with plucked strings, fiddles, and choral odes that make the game sound like Enya outtakes.

Other quirks add aggravation. Load times are long and frequent; it takes over a minute to transition between areas, even when leaving a tavern to hit the streets. Level maps can be misleading. Key items like save totems aren't included, and you can't make notes. There is no way to sort character inventories, leading to tedious item management.

Common wisdom and clichés aside, The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep proves you can go home again. But why would anyone want to? While the game re-creates what we played in the 1990s, misty water-colored memories of hours spent with Eye of the Beholder are not enough to fix numerous design miscues, performance problems, and bugs. This is a tough sell to all but the most dedicated and patient retro fan.

Categories: Games

Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition HD Review - Nintendo Switch

Gamespot News Feed - Sun, 09/30/2018 - 20:28

On platforms where the full experience exists, Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition is in a strange position. The version of Final Fantasy XV released two years ago is a sprawling behemoth of a game where it's fully expected and encouraged for players to just meander around for the first three to five hours, getting to know Noctis and his friends, toying with the mechanics, and meeting the people of Eos. It's one of the scant examples of a game where an extremely pared-down experience--which is, ultimately, what Pocket Edition is--remains as engrossing and immense an experience as the average 30 hour JRPG designed to be such.

The main story and the fundamentals of the game’s combat are reproduced here, save a few minor narrative beats and some of the fancier gameplay flourishes, like Link Attacks. But regardless, it's still the story of the warring kingdoms of Insomnia, Niflheim, and Altissia. The three countries are on the verge of a peace that will only be solidified if Insomnia's King Regis signs a treaty with Niflheim and if the prince of Insomnia, Noctis, enters an arranged marriage with Lunafreya of Altissia. Noctis, still immature and lackadaisical about his future, is fond of Lunafreya, but not necessarily ready for the responsibilities that come with marriage, and as such, decides to take one last road trip with his three best friends, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus, toward the altar. When the signing of the peace treaty turns out to be a trap, leaving Insomnia devastated and the prince without a home to go back to, Noctis is forced to gain the divine blessings of his ancestors and claim his birthright ahead of schedule.

Like most demakes, a lot of Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition's charm is largely in seeing how it compares to the original game. In this case, FFXV's stunning locales and photoreal CG have been redone in a bright, abstract, cartoon aesthetic, akin to watching the game acted out by Funko Pop figures. There's an element of warm, familiar nostalgia to it all. Having to fill in the visual blanks of a heavy scene being played out by these expressionless dolls gives you the feeling that you’re just playing a souped-up 32-bit Final Fantasy game. The visual dissonance of blocky, polygonal Cloud mourning an equally blocky Aeris can very easily vanish when you're swept up in the moment. It's much the same here, watching giant-head Noctis grieve his father and the fall of Insomnia. It only stands out as dissonant because unlike, say, Final Fantasy VII, you've likely seen what a photoreal version of these same scenes looks like.

Really, losing nuance from the world itself is more noticeable than losing out graphically. One of Final Fantasy XV's greatest strengths was leaving a lot of narrative details about the world of Eos to the environment, hearing stories from the people you meet, overhearing gossip, and taking on sidequests. The vast majority of that has been stripped away. Also, the wide-open world has been pared down to an ongoing series of linear top-down maps. Pocket Edition's quest is, quite literally, a critical path only that only communicates the essentials, with very little ability or reason to wander off. Yes, that means no fishing, no photography, no Hunts, no Justice Monsters Five, no Formouth Garrison, no Pitioss Ruins, no messing around. Ignis' recipes are still part of the mix, but in a much more limited capacity. It says a lot about just how dense and layered Noctis' journey was to begin with that even having so much of the original game and its narrative jettisoned off still leaves enough material for a very traditional, linear JRPG to take place.

With these limits in mind, it's rather impressive how meticulously the most vital locations and story beats in the game had been reproduced. Having played the main game twice, it's a delightfully surreal experience seeing how much of the world I was able to move through by sheer memory, knowing where traps, shop, and enemy ambush locations would be long before the game decided to point them out. A new player will likely have to refer to the map fairly often, but each area, even the more twisty dungeons in the game, is small enough where the potential to get lost is diminished relative to the original game.

Combat is similarly streamlined, though this is the one area where the main game's depth is deeply missed. The fundamentals are, as mentioned, the same: hold the attack button and Noctis will spam attacks until you let go. You can dodge and roll out of the way, and you also have the Warp Strike, allowing you to close great distances and strike hard against a target clear across the screen. The arsenal is here, but there's far less actual thought that needs to go into the majority of encounters in the game. Only one magic spell can be held at a time, and there's a strange delay before Noctis can even cast it. Weapons like the Greatswords and polearms only vary in terms of striking speed, but generally do the same damage. And even when Noctis dies, with only a few exceptions later in the game, it's so much easier to either throw yourself a potion or wait for an ally to revive you. For most of the fights in the game, you're just holding attack and the left stick in the vague direction of the thing you want to kill. That likely made sense when Pocket Edition was solely a mobile title, but it's a bit undercooked on consoles.

Thing is, though, as flashy as it could be, combat wasn't exactly a shining example in the genre in the full game either. Final Fantasy XV's brilliance shone forth in the interactions Noctis had with the people of Eos, friend and foe. Family friends reappear in Noctis' life to offer guidance and comfort. Locals in every town have their own inner lives, surviving under the occupation of the Empire, and will gladly take Noctis on a tour of their town to see what life outside his kingdom is really like. The bounty hunter who tries to kill him while on a secret mission will later escort Noctis' group through a dungeon and speak honestly about her own government job for the first time. The characters, their stories, and how they all contributed to Noctis growing into the man he needs to be to become king were the soul of Final Fantasy XV.

All these things have been admirably translated, in a way far less intimidating to newcomers and logistically fascinating to veterans. You get the parts of that experience that count the most towards the narrative from Pocket Edition, and the gameplay, rudimentary it may be, has been as elegantly streamlined as possible to obtain that experience. This is still, ultimately, Final Fantasy XV, and while there's a lot of the game that you might want out of Pocket Edition, there's an argument to be made that this version of FFXV will serve you just fine.

Categories: Games

Dragon Ball FighterZ Review: The Fast And The Furious

Gamespot News Feed - Sat, 09/29/2018 - 22:30

Despite the countless Dragon Ball games that have appeared since the manga debuted in the mid-'80s, the series has never needed them to sustain its popularity. Most are forgettable, some are good, and even fewer are truly great. Thanks to developer Arc System Works' particular talents, Dragon Ball FighterZ is one of the great ones, if not the best yet. Even if you think Dragon Ball is old hat, and even if you're intimidated by fighting games, there's a good chance you'll be drawn into the explosive action and personalities that expertly evoke the anime's infectious spirit.

Arc's prowess for making 3D assets look like 2D cel animation is as strong as ever, and its artists display a clear understanding of Dragon Ball's characteristic details. The screen is constantly filled with saturated colors and special effects, and super attacks are framed in a way that pull you out of the fight and into a momentary state of awe. Whether still or in motion, FighterZ's art looks like Dragon Ball at its very best, adhering closely to the standards set by the series creator, Akira Toriyama. And no matter how you may have watched the show, the option to choose between Japanese and English voice acting makes it easy to feel connected to the events on-screen.

Within the convincing Dragon Ball shell lives a fast-paced 3v3 tag-team fighting game that will feel familiar to Marvel vs. Capcom 3 veterans. But despite a few familiar parallels, FighterZ is distinctly Dragon Ball. Characters can jet through the air in a flash at any time, toss energy blasts like it's nothing, and unleash a flurry of smaller punches and kicks to stagger a hesitant opponent. Every fighter emphatically shouts at the top of their lungs (in a good way) every few seconds while attacking, and you understand why: these super beings are incredibly powerful, and FighterZ translates that energy to the screen perfectly. It also makes it easy for anyone to tap into that power, with relatively short special attack lists and one-button or two-button activations for universal mechanics. Not that it's recommended, but you can theoretically play with one hand and capably close the distance to your opponent to kick their ass in style regardless of the character you choose--all without any directional inputs.

Like any great fighting game, FighterZ doesn't lose depth just because it's accessible. Super attacks and teleports are easy to pull off, but they come with timing and combo conditions that allow for expert-level analysis and strategic play. It's also important to properly manage the lone meter that fuels most of your special abilities, a setup that makes a fighter's next move more unpredictable than usual, compared to some games with multiple, ability-specific meters. With seven levels of charge that feed into both offensive and defensive moves, it's never exactly clear what someone will do next, but you know a full meter means trouble, and a potentially chaotic back and forth between two crack fighters.

It also means fun is just seconds away. Being that it's so simple to cover ground, participate in mechanical mind games, and look impressive while doing it, there's practically no barrier to enjoyment provided you are fighting with opponents of a similar skill level. When the balance of skill in your opponent's favor, with no means of escaping a combo once you're trapped, there are times when you have to accept fate and wait for them to finish their onslaught--or until your current character dies--again, not unlike MvC3. Thankfully, online matchmaking is set up to auto-match you with players of similar experience, and lopsided fights are (so far, based on the open beta) few and far between.

You also don't need to be an aspiring online competitor to enjoy FighterZ, as it includes a significant story mode that can last a dozen hours or more if you seek out every possible cutscene. While a bit drawn out in places and relatively easy until the conclusion, it's still a treat for Dragon Ball fans with plenty of new vignettes staring classic characters. Though the plot is split into three arcs, you are technically seeing one arc from different perspectives, with a few alternate events to keep things interesting.

The gist is that a bunch of clones of the planet's strongest fighters are running amok, Dragon Ball heroes and villains (some who have been resurrected from death) must work together to stop them, and a new character, Android 21, is somehow at the center of it all. Because there's practically zero time spent introducing you to characters or their world, it's difficult to imagine how a newcomer to Dragon Ball would understand things like the Ginyu Force's proclivity to pose dramatically or the reason why Krillin doesn't have a nose, let alone the broad concepts of Super Saiyans and Dragon Balls. Then again, the mix of oddball antics and hyper-serious face-offs is inherently appealing for the confident cartoon expression on display.

As in combat, Arc's capable design skills make the 3D models and environments in cutscenes look stunningly close to actual 2D animation. There are moments when it feels like you're watching a new episode of Dragon Ball Z. But there's a catch: you're forced to press a button to advance dialogue, rather than allowed to kick back and watch the show. When FighterZ gets achingly close to recreating the look of the anime, the forced interaction feels like a step in the wrong direction, albeit a minor one in the grand scheme of things. Generally speaking, story sequences often elicit a smile or a laugh, only occasionally feeling like filler made to advance the story. One of the most strange yet likable qualities is the way the game contextualizes you, the player: a spirit that has randomly inhabited Goku (or another character depending on the arc in question) and can be passed to other fighters. It's unexpected and weird, but you have to give Arc System Works credit for pulling you into the room as opposed to simply breaking the fourth wall.

FighterZ is complex and distinct enough to be enjoyed by fighting game competitors, but there's no question that it's been designed to tap into the hearts of Dragon Ball's most dedicated fans...

Story mode's only real downfall is how repetitive it becomes--you fight clones of only a portion of the game's overall roster ad nauseam. Each chapter is presented like a map with locations connected by a branching path. In order to get to the chapter boss, you have to navigate the board and pick and choose your fights along the way. Given that there are optional pathways in each chapter and that you can concoct your own team, it's not surprising to learn that there are optional cutscenes to unlock depending on these conditions. Despite the rewards being largely enjoyable, after a handful of hours fighting lackluster opponents, the idea of replaying story chapters to see a quirky character interaction is unfortunately one that's easy to sideline.

Similarly, the game's basic, small overworld feels unnecessary even though it attempts to add value. Modes are divided among spokes around a circular hub, and you can run around as small versions of the game's characters, sometimes in alternate outfits. While cute at first, you soon learn to just hit the quick menu button and avoid running around at all as there's no benefit other than visualizing visiting a different venue for each mode.

The game tries to incentivize you through unlockable avatars for the overworld, but even if this sounds good, you can only earn them through randomized loot boxes. You earn money as you fight and complete story mode milestones and these can be cashed in for a capsule which turns into a random cosmetic item, be it graphics for your fighter profile, the aforementioned avatars, or alternate color palettes for in-combat outfits. The premium currency in the game can be earned when you open a capsule to find a duplicate item. Spending premium currency will simply net you an item that you don't already own--not one of your choosing. Rather than harm the game, the system feels a bit unnecessary as none of the rewards are critical to enjoying what matters most: participating in explosive battles and enjoying interactions between Dragon Ball's lovably bizarre characters.

Though merely a small piece of the overall puzzle, the rare Dramatic Finishes are perhaps the most respectable and impressive nod to fans in FighterZ. Anyone who's spent years watching Dragon Ball Z unfold over nearly 300 episodes will gasp the first time they trigger one, which will only happen with certain matchups under particular conditions. They have nothing to do with FighterZ's story, but they have everything to do with the revered history of the series at large.

Any concerns that FighterZ might feel lackluster on Switch are immediately dashed once you begin your first battle. Fights remain ruthlessly kinetic, and the power behind every blow, sprint, and scream is as palpable as ever. There's an inherent disadvantage to overcome when playing handheld if you favor using d-pads over analog sticks, but otherwise FighterZ is immediately recognizable. It's partially due to the Switch getting a great port, but it's also a credit to FighterZ's efficient and flexible combat mechanics. Even if you're rusty it's easy to regain your flow in a matter of minutes. Despite mildly optimized graphics, FighterZ feels every bit the invigorating fighting game it was on other platforms, and it has the distinct advantage of bring portable.

FighterZ is complex and distinct enough to be enjoyed by fighting game competitors, but there's no question that it's been designed to tap into the hearts of Dragon Ball's most dedicated fans, and no doubt those same qualities will win people over who've never given the series a chance. Where past games attempted to get there through huge character rosters and deliberately predictable trips down memory lane, FighterZ has bottled the essence of what makes the series' characters, animation, and sense of humor so beloved and reconfigured it into something new: a Dragon Ball fighting game that can go toe-to-toe with the best of the genre.

Editor's note (Sept. 29, 2:30 PM PST): Additional text has been added to reflect our impressions of the Switch version of Dragon Ball FighterZ.

Editor’s note (Jan. 30, 12:38 PM PST): Shortly after release, Bandai Namco's servers were inundated with eager players, to the point that it was at times difficult to get into a lobby at all. This no longer seems to be an issue, though even when servers behave as they should, the hub world at the center of it all proves to make matching up with friends a more complicated process than it ought to be. Rather than simply inviting a friend into a match, you have to coordinate to make sure you both log into the same server, and the same lobby, before finding each other's avatars and creating a private match locked with a password. It doesn't take long to get used to, but it's also another sign that the hub world is an unnecessary complication.

Categories: Games

FIFA 19 Review - A Game Of Two Halves

Gamespot News Feed - Sat, 09/29/2018 - 01:10

FIFA 19 runs the gamut with ways to enjoy the game of football. Kick Off modes and on-pitch enhancements, as well as the ever-engaging Ultimate Team, make up the core of FIFA 19, and the new Champions League license adds a neat touch the package. Sadly, Career Mode and Pro Clubs remain stale and are in dire need of a refresh, on top of repeated missteps from previous entries. Regardless, it comes much closer to properly representing the game of football.

FIFA has struggled on the pitch in its past few iterations, with matches deteriorating to frustrating slogs. For years we've been unable to play FIFA like football is played in real life--instead we've been zig-zagging the ball up the pitch and abusing pacey wingers to breach the opponent's defence to swing in an unstoppable cross for an equally unstoppable header. FIFA 19's matches are more natural and more varied in the way they unfold, in large part because EA finally has all the pieces needed to make it so. Although it introduced a slower pace in FIFA 18, the newest iteration finally makes this work by tightening up players' responsiveness. Through passes work again, and they (along with player pace) seem to be in a good place in terms of balance--neither under- nor overpowered, as has been the case for too long. FIFA 19's ball still doesn't feel as satisfying as PES 2019's, but it does at least feel something like the real-life sphere it's imitating.

FIFA 19 includes new tactical options for wannabe managers to fiddle with, such as how many players you want to commit at corner kicks and whether you want your full-backs to over- or under-lap. These are undoubtedly welcome, and tactical changes in your defensive technique--press after possession loss, constant pressure, and drop off are among five options on that front--make a tangible impact in-game, allowing you to further tailor your play style.

However, the much-vaunted new feature of game plans is a bit of a mess. You can set up different tactics for various in-game situations before a match and then quickly switch between them on the pitch, but any change to one game plan, including your default starting plan, is not automatically reflected in your other four plans. So say you decide to switch your wingers over for one particular match or tweak your formation to counter an opponent's star player; that change will be lost if you change to attacking or defensive during a match. This isn't a dealbreaker of course, but it inevitably ends with you spending more time in the team management menu, which is exactly the kind of admin work this feature should have eradicated. And despite the added depth of options, the vast majority of AI teams still behave in a broadly similar (and often unrealistic) way--Wigan Athletic managing to pass their way out of my press with sublime one-touch football was a difficult one to take.

FIFA's brand of football is more physical this year, with strength becoming a far more important stat and crunching collisions feeling much more realistic. You can see and feel players battling for the ball, and goalkeepers are not quite as invincible from crosses as in previous years. Long ball tactics are slightly more viable than last year as a result--including, mercifully, from free kicks--and it feels satisfying for your target man to knock one down for your striker to smash in from 12 yards. Despite this, and the new tactical options, there's still no way to determine which players go up for corners and free kicks, meaning your 6' 6" center-back will still frequently be found on the halfway line at set pieces rather than getting his elbows out in the box where he should be. Timed finishing attempts to add more depth to FIFA's pitchwork for expert players, and while it can be a little temperamental and fiddly, it does add a nice risk-reward layer to what was an afterthought run on muscle memory.

Meanwhile, EA's implementation of the newly-acquired Champions League and Europa League licenses is excellent, with the official branding, specific commentators, and authentic atmospheres adding to the feel of this being club football's biggest event. The competition has its own mode in FIFA 19, as well as implementation in The Journey, Ultimate Team, and Career Mode, and to its credit EA utilizes the license in a much more comprehensive way than Konami ever did.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much it in terms of new Career Mode features, and this is where FIFA 19 suffers. Career Mode is the most in-depth single-player mode remaining in FIFA, and yet it has seen almost no meaningful improvements for years. This year the mode has not been touched at all, save for the implementation of Champions League, and the cracks are showing. That means you get the same "Boss, I was hoping you might be experimenting with the team?" messages; the same bugs and problems (such as the inability to loan out newly purchased players); the same typos and grammar errors in news reports; and the same lack of depth when it comes to club strategies like hiring and firing of staff or stadium expansions. Similarly, Pro Clubs is exactly the same this year as it was in FIFA 18, and it's hard not to sympathize with those who speculate around EA's shifting priorities, given how much ongoing attention the microtransaction-driven Ultimate Team receives in comparison. Frankly, two modes as big and popular as these receiving no new features or even any quality-of-life improvements is unacceptable, and EA needs to up its game in this regard next year.

Kick Off is where most of EA's offline attention was focused this year, with the introduction of detailed stats and some interesting new sub-modes contained within House Rules. These allow you to turn off fouls and offsides, turn on the battle royale-like Survival Mode--in which a goal results in one of your players being sent off--or disallow any goal not scored from a header or volley. These modes are shallow, and being available in local play only is a baffling decision, but they offer a nice change of pace for when you're playing with a friend. It's surprising how much rewiring of your football-addled brain they require; after 23 years on this planet appealing for offsides, it's quite hard not to scream "REF!!!" at the TV when my brother scores his fourth of the game, even when the traditional rules have been thrown out.

FUT's major addition this year is a new sub-mode named Division Rivals, a replacement for the now-cut online seasons mode. It's another, shorter way to qualify for the FUT Champions weekend event, and it adds to the ever-growing and -evolving behemoth Ultimate Team has become. Otherwise, Ultimate Team remains largely the same year-over-year, but the mode's strength lies more in its constant live support over the course of a season, which is shaping up to be exemplary once again. Champions cards, limited-time packs, daily and weekly objectives, special events and tournaments--Ultimate Team has something to draw you in every week, and it is truly the lifeblood of FIFA 19.

The Journey's third year sees the conclusion of Alex Hunter's story, but sister Kim and best mate Danny Williams join him in a GTA V-like three-pronged story. You can switch between the trio to play their individual storylines at any point, though there is a recommended path to follow that keeps their narratives vaguely in line with each other. Each character also has their own special features, such as Alex's choice of mentor squad at Real Madrid (spoilers!) or Danny's choice of advert he wants to take part in. The Journey's scripting and acting isn't exactly outstanding, but it remains a unique way to play, and I hope EA continues it after this Champions League special episode concludes.

Ultimate Team has something to draw you in every week, and it is truly the lifeblood of FIFA 19.

As impressive as FIFA 19's recreation of broadcast football is, there are a surprising number of details that remain inaccurate. You still don't get a fourth substitute in extra time, for example, and the double jeopardy rule--where a red card cannot now be shown inside the penalty area if a player is deemed to have attempted to play the ball--is still not applied in FIFA, despite these law changes having been introduced over two years ago now. Transfer deadline day still comes on August 31 in Career Mode, despite English clubs having the earlier close date of August 9 this season, and many teams that are not deemed one of the "big" clubs do not get third kits or away 'keeper kits. When the rest of FIFA's presentation package is so impressive, it makes these smaller, incorrect details stand out, especially when they appear to require small tweaks to fix.

It's promising that EA is listening to its community. FIFA 19 is much more responsive on the pitch than last year, and the company continues to evolve FUT to keep it fresh. However, the lack of progress in Career Mode and Pro Clubs is sorely inadequate. Thankfully, The Journey's continued entertainment, FUT's long-lasting nature, and some inventive new Kick Off modes mean I'll likely still be playing FIFA 19 by the time next year's game rolls around.

Categories: Games

Transference Review - In Another World

Gamespot News Feed - Wed, 09/26/2018 - 20:40

The pursuit of immortality has several avenues, but Transference settles with one of the most prevalent approaches in sci-fi: the ability to upload one's consciousness into a digital space. Should we do it if given the chance? That's the single question Transference grapples with, while also juggling themes of domestic abuse and troubled family dynamics. While it can be heavy-handed with its themes at times, it also neglects to engage with its distressing subject matter in a meaningful way. But Transference is also full of clever approaches to standard horror tropes, with an eerie atmosphere and challenging puzzles that engage you in its setting.

Transference switches perspectives between each member of a small family. Raymond is a brilliant but disturbed genius, using his intellect to pursue conscious existence after death without considering the impact his work has on his wife and son. Katherine feels trapped, compelled to remain with Raymond for the sake of their preadolescent son while losing her attachment to her musical career. Benjamin is stuck in the middle, attempting to impress his distant father and connect with his depressed mother. Their lives intertwine into a tragic tale of struggle, eventually taking a more dangerous turn for the worse when they find themselves trapped within the digital prison Raymond has constructed.

Intriguing puzzles within the confines of the cramped apartment move Transference's story forward. The ability to swap between different perspectives using light switches provides the crux of their construction. A radio, for example, might need to be tuned to specific frequencies across two different realities to relay a cohesive conversation. Keys for locked doors might be in one space and required in another. Exploring each version of this apartment is crucial to unravelling its puzzles, which evolve from simple find-and-fetch exercises to more perceptive challenges that test your attention to smaller details.

Each character has their own version of reality that populates the apartment. Benjamin's world feels lonely, with scribbles of his dog across some walls and numerous academic accolades hidden around the house. Katherine, on the other hand, envisions herself in a prison; the apartment's wooden doors change to more oppressive metal sliding doors, while pictures of cages are strewn across the walls to replace the whimsical scribbles of her son. Raymond's singular focus on his work unsurprisingly dominates his own reality, with only small slivers of his family life shining through his obsession with success.

These visual cues help you quickly piece together the troubles the family was grappling with before becoming trapped in a false reality, and it's clear there's substantial neglect, depression and domestic trauma lurking throughout. It's effective to see how each character paints the same reality in their own way, which is built upon with numerous FMV video logs that are strewn around the house for you to view. They obscure answers to the exact events that preceded their current dilemma, but each new titbit paints a grimmer picture of a sorely splintered family.

Strong performances from the limited cast ground each FMV sequence, which helps mitigate the jarring switch from gameplay. Their portrayal of each character's troubling circumstances contributes to the distressing atmosphere, with fears that feel extremely relatable without the reliance on common supernatural horror tropes. The only exception to this is the appearance of a digital demon whose only purpose is to provide scarce jump scares. There's no action you can take against it and vice versa, making each encounter more predictable and less frightening as you progress. It fails to provide a meaningful contribution to the more frightening themes of the story, before disappearing entirely without any real reason. Its existence feels unnecessary, shifting Transference's mood momentarily for no earned reason.

Transference also doesn't concern itself with commenting on its many themes. It uses these themes to aptly window-dress its creepy setting but settles just before it attempts to explore each of its characters deeply enough. There's a clear chain of events to follow by the time credits roll, but there's an unshakeable sense of dissatisfaction with its abrupt conclusion. Each of the characters is robbed of an ending to their story, with only an ambiguous final message that fails to provide answers or raise interesting questions.

Exceptional sound design makes traversing these different realities an even more terrifying prospect. While the FMV clips paint a grisly picture of past events, frequent sound cues instill a greater sense of dread with smartly timed shifts. Benjamin's cries for help are regularly broken by his screams; his fear of being trapped alone within a space populated by past traumas conveyed in chilling detail. Katherine's mutterings to herself are juxtaposed against her pleads for freedom--not only from her virtual reality, but from Raymond, too. Whispers and screams fill your ears constantly, creating an unnerving atmosphere that is unrelenting throughout Transference's three-hour runtime.

Transference is terrifying without a VR headset, but it's unsurprisingly more intense with one.

While Transference can be played in a standard fashion, it's also playable in VR, which enhances the experience. Being cut off from external visual and auditory stimuli makes you appreciate Transference's smart sound design and dimly lit corridors even more. VR support allows you to play with a fully unlocked camera or one that rotates by fixed amounts for more comfort, and the purposefully slow movement lends itself to VR play nicely too. There are no sharp movements that might otherwise induce motion sickness, and additional options that allow you to tweak blinders around your peripheral vision help reduce any negative effects of free motion control. Transference is terrifying without a VR headset, but it's unsurprisingly more intense with one.

A captivating albeit disturbing setting is Transference's greatest asset, rooted by strong performances from the cast and a smart approach to storytelling. Transference revels in its uneasy subject matter a bit too much, though, and fails to wrap up its messaging in a cohesive way. It's an uncomfortable experience that mostly doesn't rely on common horror tropes, while offering some challenging puzzles to solve along the way.

Categories: Games

The Walking Dead: The Final Season Episode 2 Review

Gamespot News Feed - Wed, 09/26/2018 - 20:10

Editor's note: Prior to the launch of Episode 2 - Suffer the Children, developer Telltale Games was hit with extensive layoffs and as of this writing is no longer continuing its existing projects. As The Walking Dead: The Final Season had four scheduled episodes, this review is reflective of those outside circumstances and evaluates Suffer the Children both as an individual episode and the potential end to Telltale's Walking Dead series. This review also contains spoilers for Episode 1 - Done Running.

There's a moment maybe two-thirds through Suffer the Children where the kids of Ericson Academy are sitting around playing a game, a sort of hybrid between the card game War and Truth or Dare. The youngest of the kids, Tennessee, is asked about a thought he has or a belief he holds that he doesn't tell anyone else. Tenn's answer is simple. History moves through ages: The Stone Age, the Ice Age, and so on. It stands to reason that the age of walkers would, eventually, come to an end just as simply as those ages transitioned into each other.

Nobody would've figured Tenn had been speaking so literally. Suffer The Children ends with the near-requisite cliffhanger, oblivious to the fact that Telltale may never get to finish what it started. Had Suffer the Children ended just 10 short minutes earlier, it would almost--almost--work as a best-case scenario ending for the whole series.

Episode 2 of The Walking Dead's final season begins the process of wrapping things up, making the potential endgame much clearer. It's a dire beginning, though, with Clem and A.J. dealing with the fallout from an out-of-nowhere bullet: A.J. doing exactly as Clementine taught him and aiming for the head. In this case, it's the head of Ericson's de facto leader, Marlon, even though Clementine had him subdued. Everything about the situation is a mess, and Clementine is left wracked with guilt and the horrific realization that, despite her best efforts, she may have raised a murderer.

It's a delicately handled sequence, making good on the Final Season's promise that A.J. is learning from Clementine, but perhaps too well. It's also a good representation of the beautiful inversion of the Final Season's moral outlook. So much of The Walking Dead's prior seasons had been spent trying to keep Clementine away from the abyss; this is the first time we're dealing with people who have known literally nothing else, something A.J. mentions after Tenn's musing during the card game. What is that world going to look like with blood on his hands at such a young age? What will it look like for Clementine, who has a lot more on hers?

That question gets an answer not long after, when Clementine and A.J. find themselves back on the road and running into a familiar and unwelcome face: Season 1's Lilly. Perhaps the first and most devastating case of the damage this world can do, Lilly has become a full-on survivalist. She's a member of a nearby community of raiders that has been secretly abducting kids from Ericson--with the deceased Marlon's help--to fight in an ongoing war with another community. The encounter is brutal, but it's the kind of wake-up call that both Clem and A.J. needed. Once they see what's on the other side of the abyss, the tone of the episode changes.

Of course, the walkers themselves are still a factor in everything that happens going forward. The dynamic zombie-killing mechanics introduced in Episode 1 remain a welcome and gleefully vicious change, though walkers aren’t as omnipresent as last time, and a particular sequence late in the episode involves Clementine slaying a horde of them with the weakest bow-and-arrow imaginable. But it's in the stretch of the episode where things have calmed down and the kids are just waiting for the raiders to come that the Final Season begins to truly blossom. While trying to prep the school for an invasion, Clementine finds herself stepping up to the plate to possibly lead this little city of lost children and keep them safe.

More than once, we see the group let its guard down with Clementine and A.J., revealing these are still kids and teenagers who can't help but have dreams and fears and childhood traumas that bubble up to the surface. There's an aura of hope, the perhaps naive belief that the kids are, in fact, going to be alright. You can play Clementine as angry, bitter, and cold, even to A.J., but the most wonderful and heartening moments in the season are gated behind that hope. A moment comes when Ruby, the ersatz nurse for the school, finds the actual school nurse trapped in a greenhouse, having turned long ago. Even after putting a knife through her skull, Ruby finds herself still wanting to bury the poor woman's remains. Earlier on, as the kids bury Marlon, A.J. wonders aloud what the point of a funeral is if the person is already dead. Here is the moment where Clem can practice what she preached. Here is the moment where Clem realizes that these are, and were, still people, not just walkers and those who haven't become walkers yet. Telltale is showing the light at the end of this dark tunnel, and it's a warm, wonderful thing to play as Clementine daring to imagine life after (walking) death.

We leave The Walking Dead on a Telltale firmly willing to make mechanical and tonal risks, nearly all of which pay off well in this episode, hinting towards a bright future we may never get to see.

The raiders do come, however, and it's a strangely magical moment. Clementine is full, accepted, prepared, and, if played just right, even loved, in a way we've never seen her. It's the moment we see Clementine as the person she's supposed to be. And she is ready for everything the world has in store for her--good and evil. It's the enduring image we should have of Clementine, if this is the last time we are meant to be with her. Not in peril, but in power.

But, as mentioned, there's another 10 minutes to go after that moment--a good 10 minutes, the aforementioned bow-and-arrow bit aside, but 10 minutes--leading to a cliffhanger. We leave The Walking Dead on a Telltale firmly willing to make mechanical and tonal risks, nearly all of which pay off well in this episode, hinting towards a bright future we may never get to see. If this is the last time we see her, the fact that she, and this series, have become what they’ve become is maybe the closest thing to a Happily Ever After as can be expected from The Walking Dead.

Categories: Games

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