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Mothergunship Review: Bullet-Hell Extravaganza

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 20:00

Mothergunship wastes little time in throwing you head-first into its fast-paced and over-the-top bullet-hell experience. As the spiritual successor to indie roguelike FPS Tower of Guns, this homage to '90s action games balances a number of clever mechanics throughout its pulse-pounding jaunt through the inner depths of alien ships. As you're dodging hundreds of enemy bullets [while wielding a railgun, grenade launcher, and a flamethrower on one arm] you'll find that Mothergunship offers a satisfying and fun take on classic first-person shooters.

Stepping into the boots of a space soldier in a power suit, you'll work with a tight-knit crew of rebels, led by The Colonel, who plan to stop an alien invasion of earth led by the titular mastermind Mothergunship. The main story itself is entirely secondary to the action, mostly offering context for the game's antics. However, the many cheesy voice-overs and the self-aware video game humor throughout are surprisingly endearing, even if it's mostly background noise. The Colonel and his crew of rebels--which includes an anthropomorphic frog, poking fun at Star Fox's Slippy Toad--serve great supporting roles as you amass a ridiculous arsenal of weapons and level up your power suit.

When it comes to its core run-and-gun gameplay, Mothergunship keeps things simple. You choose your next mission from your home base--which comes in several categories of various story and side missions that offer bonus rewards. From there, you're dropped into a randomly generated dungeon where you'll fight through rooms full of alien robots as you gain experience and funds to power up and buy new gear. But in true roguelike fashion, your trek through the dungeon's depths will never be the same twice, resulting a constant air of uncertainty.

The dungeons themselves come in three distinct forms, each with their own unique visual style showcasing different aspects of the alien armada. While the layout of specific rooms are the same, which can result in some feelings of deja vu when powering through a run at a fast pace, the order of which you'll encounter them are always different, along with the contents of each room and any rewards you can expect to find. To spice things up, however, you'll have the chance to enter challenge rooms that either increase the difficulty or place a unique handicap--which includes poison floors or jump pads--that offer greater rewards. When you die, which will happen often, you'll not only lose the gear you found on your run, but also the select items you chose to bring in. In some frustrating cases, you may find yourself at the whim of poor results from randomization, leaving you underpowered and outgunned by all the dangerous bots.

With that said, Mothergunship keeps its gameplay focused on fast, twitch-based gameplay in the spirit of old-school FPS games like Doom and Unreal. Starting with only your cybernetic fists and a triple jump--which can be boosted up to 40 jumps, keeping you in the air for long periods of time--you can buy new items in the shops located in the dungeons. Not long after, you'll find yourself circle-strafing, rocket-jumping, and barreling through waves of enemies with your ever-growing arsenal of weapons--which includes lightning guns, railguns, and different varieties of machine guns. When tied with the roguelike elements, the gunplay feels far more tactical, where picking the right weapon or modifier from the in-dungeon shop can make the next few floors a breeze or a hindrance.

By far the most impressive aspect of Mothergunship is its comprehensive gun-crafting system. As you acquire funds and complete missions, you gain new weapons, connecting parts, and modifiers to amplify your arsenal at the various crafting stations in your base or in the dungeons. While you can certainly keep things simple and roll out with a modified machine gun with boosted firing rate, the real fun with gun crafting comes from jury-rigging different weapons that have no business working in unison. Before you know it, you'll be gunning down machines with complex creations on both hands, which can easily soak up real estate on screen if you keep adding to them.

Just when you think you can't fit any more items onto your hodgepodge of armaments, you'll find a connector or mod that presents new opportunities for you. For instance, boosting a weapon's attack power can often result a strong kickback, which can surprisingly keep you suspended in the air and boot you through hallways at great speed. You can easily go all out with your creations, but there is a big catch. The more attachments and weapons you place in your hands, the more ammunition you'll drain. While ammo recharges fairly quickly for both arms, an overly designed gun can be a resource hog--leaving you vulnerable when your gun energy runs dry. This can be especially troubling in fights where you need to move and shoot as quickly as possible.

Coupled with the hectic pace of the game, the weapon system makes many of the fights you'll engage in fresh and exciting. While it's disappointing that Mothergunship doesn't give you that many opportunities to experiment freely with your creations--aside from the base's worry-free firing range and a bonus endless mission that's unlocked after finishing the main story--you'll learn to use and take advantage of the tools you've got on-hand in the field.

Mothergunship can sometimes feel a bit one-note in its execution, which is made a bit worse by the lackluster payoff after the story's finish. While special missions do open up in the endgame, featuring a truncated set of missions modeled after the main campaign that challenges you to clear through the levels without dying, I came away with the feeling that there's more that could have been done with the game's endgame, which as it stands, feels undercooked and derivative. Having said that, I can't deny that I always had a blast powering through many of the dungeons, especially when managing to clear out an entire room of enemies with only a few shots from my ridiculously overpowered weapon.

With the game's clever gun crafting system added into the mix, familiar tropes and techniques from classic shooting galleries feel super-charged in the game's randomized bullet-hell dungeons. When Mothergunship is firing on all cylinders, it's a satisfying and thrilling shooter where it really counts. With an incredibly fun and never uninteresting gun-crafting mechanic, it certainly goes a long way with its clever hook and an endless flow of enemies to gun down.

Categories: Games

20XX Review - Robot Generation

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 18:00

20XX wears its influences on its sleeve. If you're familiar with Mega Man X, then slipping into the metallic bodies of 20XX's two core protagonists--the gunner Nina and the swordsman Ace--will feel like coming home again. Both characters are satisfying to control, and executing combinations of dashes, wall jumps, and attacks is an intuitive process with lots of room for in-depth choreography.

But the levels you tackle are where 20XX differs from its inspiration, with obstacles and enemies procedurally strung together. For the most part, this works as intended, with new enemies and hazards progressively introduced with each new stage. A corridor that is usually calm might be riddled with spike traps the next time you enter it, adding new challenges to a previously safe area. Other times the shift can feel unfair, filling the screen with projectiles and moving parts that demand superhuman reflexes with practically no margin of error. These areas can bring the strongest of runs to a grinding halt through no fault of your own, which is incredibly frustrating.

Dying is central to progression in 20XX though, so even the most infuriating of deaths have silver linings. During each run you'll accrue Soul Chips, a currency used in 20XX's hub world to purchase permanent upgrades, item unlocks, and single-use buffs. Simple additions to your overall health and special weapon energy are priceless during more difficult later stages, while simple perks such as enemies dropping more health or buffs to overall dash speeds provide welcome twists to the gameplay loop you quickly become familiar with.

Additional weapons are also available and are acquired in the same fashion as Mega Man titles: ripped straight from the husks of bosses you defeat. Each boss battle features a central mechanic; a giant mechanical face will employ an impenetrable shield for brief moments during a battle in between flurries of projectile attacks, while a sentient Venus flytrap will lob mortars at you from afar. These and many more abilities can be picked up after each successful victory, or tossed aside for additional life, energy, or run-specific currencies. 20XX forces you to consider what equipment to take and which to leave behind, but it rarely engages you in scenarios where these choices are truly tested.

The very same boss fights are a prime example of this failure. A handful of them provide complex strategies for you to overcome, combining a good mix of precise platforming and attack timing to make victories hard fought and rewarding. Others make good use of the rooms they take place in, providing you with alternative means of attack such as exploding platforms that fall after you touch them. But far too many rely on cheap tricks and uninteresting attack loops. The less egregious of these just feel boring, while the worst unsettle the balance of mechanics to a point where you're forced to just accept taking damage in a hurried attempt to finish your foe off as quickly as possible. And with the randomness of potential upgrades strewn across levels thrown into the mix, having a compelling boss fight is a rare occurrence.

Despite this, it's hard not to get sucked into taking on multiple runs of 20XX's campaign in the hopes of reaching its conclusion. Each individual run is brief enough to make it a perfect match for a portable console such as the Switch, filling in odd gaps of free time with exciting randomized challenges. Daily and Weekly challenges with their own leaderboards are more competitively focused without shaking up the core loop, aside from giving you access to items you might not have unlocked yet for a useful little test drive. The boss rush mode is equally enticing, despite the inconsistencies with their designs. This mode offers a good way of familiarizing yourself with their mechanics without being caught off-guard during a strong run.

20XX isn't just a solo experience, giving you the ability to tackle its campaign with an online partner in tow. Collectible currencies are shared between each player while upgrades are duplicated, presenting you with some opportunities for decision-making but never forcing you into a corner with one player being clearly more valuable than the other. Cooperative play is slightly more chaotic, but having both ranged- and melee-focused characters in a single stage does inject the action with more life, despite the difficulty and complexity of enemies seemingly remaining equal.

Procedural generation is sometimes lambasted as a cheap alternative to intricate level design, and 20XX doesn't always do enough to break that stereotype. But despite its inconsistent level make-ups and underwhelming boss designs, 20XX is still an engrossing side-scroller that perfects the feeling of navigating dangerous, pitfall and enemy-filled stages. Nostalgic itches are sometimes tough to scratch with modern reincarnations of older formulas, but 20XX is a satisfying iteration on a fan-favorite formula. Even if the results are mixed, it's easy to appreciate a Mega Man-styled adventure that never has to end.

Categories: Games

Fighting EX Layer Review: One-On-One Fun

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 19:00

Fighting EX Layer is a one-one-one fighting game that's built for a very specific audience. There's no tutorial, no story mode, not even a basic arcade mode yet. However, the resulting game is built purely on competitive fighting with focused efforts on making the brawling as satisfying and engaging as possible. And to that end, developer Arika succeeded spectacularly.

Fighting EX Layer comes from Arika, the developer behind the Street Fighter EX series for the PlayStation 1 and 2, and features many of the original characters created for those games. Faces like Blair Dame, Doctrine Dark, and the fan favorite Skullomania are all here to deliver epic beatdowns while looking better than ever. If you enjoyed the SFEX games, playing EX Layer feels like seeing old friends again after a very long time--though you don't need to remember the roster from a 1996 game to have fun with its colorful cast of fighters.

Of course, characters in a fighting game are just empty shells without a solid fighting engine to back them up, and EX Layer delivers that. The six-button fighter incorporates throws, dashes, a special overhead attack, varied special moves and super attacks, and basic attack chain combos (executed by pressing light-to-strong attack buttons in succession.) Movement, particularly dashing, feels swift and responsive even for slower characters, and basic attacks are satisfying thanks to a combination of well-designed animations and delightful auditory and visual flourishes.

This solid gameplay provides the foundation for EX Layer's two defining mechanics. The first is the ability to chain attacks into special and super moves, which is achieved by cancelling mid-animation into a stronger skill. While many fighting games do this, EX Layer is notable for how smooth and free-flowing the cancelling feels; timing windows tend to be generous, and there are only a few restrictions on what attacks can chain into others, leading to some spectacular combos involving multiple special and super skills fired off in rapid succession. Allen's Justice Fist special move has a tremendous recovery time that makes it difficult to utilize on its own, for example, but by cancelling it into a super move, it becomes a lot more versatile. The cancelling, combined with dash-oriented movement, makes for a game that's very focused on aggressive, in-your-face tactics.

The other major element that sets EX Layer apart is the Gougi, pre-constructed decks of five special skills--either active or passive--that activate when certain conditions are met over the course of the fight. Effects can range from an increase in movement speed after a certain amount of time has passed to special properties attached to your attacks after you land hits with them a certain number of times. There are currently 15 Gougi decks available in the “standard” version and five available in the lower-priced “light” version, with more potentially on the way as DLC.

The skills that activate in each Gougi are designed to pair well with each other. The Infinity deck, for example, contains three boosts to building super meter and two other skills that make use of this extra meter gain, allowing you to play by building and spending meter very quickly. Other decks can change basics of the game in some unique and challenging ways; the Stealth Raptor deck transforms dashes into short hops, while Sky Dancer gives you a homing jump that will let you land near your opponent from any distance. This results in some Gougi decks being easier to use than others, but the more technical decks offer some intriguing potential to those willing to put in the time and effort to work with them.

It's in the thick of battle when you really see how much Gougi can impact a match. Many of the effects don't activate until a couple of rounds in, meaning that you'll gain access to new skills and abilities throughout the entire match. This challenges you to not only change up your fighting style and take full advantage of your unlocked skills as the battle wages on, but also to adapt to your opponent's ever-evolving set of skills. Due to the aggressive nature of its combat and the Gougi boosts, the playing field in EX Layer is practically always changing in a fun, organic way.

The fact that Gougi and attack cancelling are so versatile makes for a game that feels designed expressly for people who savor the technical aspects of fighting games--the kind of folks who will gladly spend hours upon hours in Training Mode just experimenting to find cool and interesting techniques. With its lack of single-player modes (besides a versus-CPU Kumite mode buried under menus), Fighting EX Layer is expressly targeting the hardcore competitor. While Arika has said that there are no plans for expanding the single-player element of the game anytime soon beyond an eventual arcade mode, it's showing that it's dedicated to maintaining the health of the community. Unfortunately, for such a competition-focused game, the netcode can be spotty, leading to some noticeable lag and occasionally frustrating matches if you don't have anyone to fight against locally. If you keep to high-bar connections, things usually go a lot more smoothly.

On a pure gameplay level, Fighting EX Layer is an absolute treat. What it lacks in bells and whistles it delivers in pure, fun combat. This is a game made for the sort of people who will spend hours perfecting an impractical, extremely-precise combo in training mode simply for the satisfaction of having done it. If that describes you, then Fighting EX Layer will be worth everything you put into it.

Categories: Games

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker Nintendo Switch Review: Time For Adventure

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 23:55

Nintendo has all but cornered the market on streamlined, cute adventures for all ages. While Captain Toad made his first appearance in Super Mario Galaxy, he's since been spun off into his own puzzle-platforming series based on a very different type of design philosophy than you may be used to. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker debuted on the Wii U back in 2014, but as Nintendo moves much of its legacy system's library onto the Switch, Toad has another shot at stardom. And it's certainly a worthy outing--even four years on--for anyone who appreciates clever puzzles.

The core gameplay conceit is one of level design. You'll need to rotate a cuboid world around Captain Toad as you look for clues and solutions from multiple angles. Each move helps change the level, affecting how different parts react to one another and to you. As you turn the stage, you can see different pieces and elements. It's not uncommon to shift things around and notice a "POW" block in a convenient location. Toss a turnip from the other side, and you can dissolve a wall with its power and move through.

Perspective matters, and the obstacles that can affect how you use your perspective are fertile ground for spectacular puzzles. And it allows a breadth of pacing options as well. Some stages feel tense and rushed, but some are set against calming pink clouds. A calm stage can be followed immediately by one filled with foes and traps, though, shifting where and how you focus your attention. The progression is steady enough--both within stages and across them--that you'll be left, more often than not, feeling clever and encouraged.

This is all true for both the Wii U and Switch versions, but the Switch version adds in a few things, most notably local co-operative multiplayer. Ostensibly a distinctive addition (as there's also a 3DS port that lacks it), it is poorly executed the majority of the time. Each player gets one of the Switch's Joy-Cons, splitting the typical play into two roles. One handles Toad's movement, while the other dispatches enemies and shifts the camera. It's a bizarre twist that could feel a lot more developed than it is. As it works, neither role gives much for its player to do and having enemies largely handled by one person cuts down on the scope of the platforming and the puzzles, making each stage feel like a cut-down version instead of a solid addition in its own right.

That said, the sharper screen on the Switch and addition of about a dozen new areas and modes make this version a strictly better choice, and the short, relatively simple stages of Captain Toad lend themselves to a portable environment. Of course, it also carries with it the weaknesses of its forebear. Even with the bonus content, Treasure Tracker is a bit short. You're left with the sense that there could be plenty more and that the idea of rotating through levels doesn't get its full due.

Despite a smattering of minor complaints, Captain Toad stands as a pint-sized version of Nintendo's stellar first party pedigree. It's among the best Mario spin-offs around and a delightful iteration on old ideas.

Categories: Games

Octopath Traveler Review: Divide And Conquer

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:00

Retro throwbacks rarely go for the mid-'90s mix of 2D sprites and low-res 3D models, but along comes Octopath Traveler, a game that manages to both faithfully recreate the aesthetic and add to it in subtle yet meaningful ways. It's a great look, one that draws you into the world and delights you with small artistic touches that bring something magical to otherwise simple environments. Enemies and bosses alike are lavishly drawn despite the confines of the game's intentional low-res aesthetic. It's a similar treatment that you can find in a game like Final Fantasy VI, where rough sprites in the overworld transform into big, detailed illustrations in battle.

Taking pleasure in the dreamy, diorama-esque look of Octopath will satisfy you for a while, as will the immediately likable combat system, which implements a few small innovations to revitalize the otherwise traditional turn-based mechanics. What may ultimately trip you up, however, is the narrative--a collection of eight short stories each divided up into four chapters of increasingly higher difficulty. After picking a protagonist at the start of the game, you gather allies by travelling to their icons on a map.

This approach is viable in theory, but Octopath woefully struggles to weave interesting tales despite the wide range of personalities behind them. You get an intro, a spirited launch into a quest, a revelatory examination of people and places, and then a conclusion, each chapter lasting roughly one or two hours with a lot of drawn-out dialogue. Coupled with wildly varying English voice acting, it's all too easy to want to reach for the skip button when a story sequence slowly winds up. In these moments, everyone but the relevant character is relegated to being backseat companions, hidden away from view entirely. The only time your team acts as such outside of battle is during rare opportunities that you get a banter notification, which allows for a brief discussion between a couple of characters, dependent on who's in your party. These can be entertaining from time to time, but they are too infrequent and inconsequential to truly matter.

It's no doubt disappointing to report that Octopath's stories are more or less a wash, but that doesn't mean the world is any less intriguing on its own. On the contrary, it's constantly refreshing to see how much care has gone into fleshing out run-of-the-mill NPCs, many of whom have peculiar backgrounds that outshine some of the more mundane major characters. Side quests allow you to explore these personalities a bit further than usual, but there's enough variety and colorful writing to make fly-by introductions worthwhile whenever you come to a new territory. Octopath's towns are brimming with excuses to look twice at the unsung heroes and villains that call your rest stops home.

NPCs feature other smart interactive touches that call upon your characters' individual strengths. Just like you'd inquire into backstories, you can steal belongings (or talk strangers into selling what you can't steal), allure them into following your crew and helping out in battle, or pick a fight with them in the middle of town--just a few of your options. Some of these actions carry a chance of success, and repeat failure in a particular town can temporarily kill your reputation, preventing further attempts until you pay the local barkeep to spread positive gossip about you to their customers. It's a punishment that's easy to overcome, and it's a little strange that you can so freely try to rob the same person ad nauseum until you succeed, but it's nonetheless great to have that added layer to exploration.

Without a broad objective steering your party across the world map, you're instead guided by icons that tell you where to pick up the next chapter for a specific character and what level your party should be to survive random encounters with beasts and brigands. The initial stops circle a sizable body of water in the middle, with each round of chapters shifting ever slightly outward towards the edge of the map. The procession of events and markers is measured in such a way to provide natural progress through each character's personal adventure. Keep up with the logical order and you may never have to grind for experience if you avoid fast traveling to previously visited locations.

In order to activate a chapter, you need the relevant character in your party, but even if you neglect to cycle party members regularly enough to keep them on even footing by the time they're called upon, you can still carry a grossly under-leveled character into battle without too much concern. It's one of many reasons why Octopath's battle system feels so fresh: it's about what you hit the enemy with rather than how hard the hit lands.

Every enemy in Octopath is vulnerable to at least one particular element or weapon type, and most are vulnerable to three or more. A grid beneath their sprite in battle will automatically tell you how many vulnerabilities they have, but it's up to you to uncover the specifics by hitting them with everything you've got. When you successfully strike with a relevant spell or weapon, an icon fills in a space on the grid so you have a clear record of what to do throughout the battle and in future encounters. With these tactics in mind, your goal is to break your enemy's defenses by hitting them enough times with effective attacks to whittle away their shield. Once broken, an enemy will lose their next turn and remain in a highly vulnerable state where attacks hurt them a little more than usual.

Despite the lackluster stories that pull you through the world, Octopath thrives on its character progression and the temptations of high-level challenges and rewards.

The other important piece of combat is the battle point system. Battle points act as extra swings of a weapon in a turn, or as a means to power up magic attacks. Every character gets one BP added to their slate per turn so long as they don't spend BP, which will delay the accrual process by an additional turn. In most cases, saving up BP is a beneficial way to wear down an enemy's shield in one turn with a single character. But once an enemy is broken, BP is best used to fortify single attacks during that window of opportunity.

The concept of breaking enemies is paramount during boss battles (which often include a pair of sidekicks), long affairs that test your ability to remain focused on your resources, characters' turn order, and unusual dangers, like coordinated attacks against your party that can insta-kill characters when you least expect it. If you're fighting around the experience level that Octopath suggests for these fights, you may find yourself engaged in a 30-minute test of your ability to remain organized and focused. Common enemies will pose formidable challenges as well, but those fights go a lot quicker, and you're afforded more opportunities to flex your various skills for the fun of it, rather than to satisfy the punishing demands of excruciating bosses.

Your battle party is only as good as you make them, which means not only earning enough experience points to level up and learn new skills, but coordinating individual skillsets to diversify your options while also doubling down on your most effective attacks. Each of the eight characters starts with a distinct job, and as you explore the world, you uncover shrines that let you assign a secondary job as well--each secondary job is limited to one character at a time. Managing two jobs and equipping passive support abilities recalls RPG like Final Fantasy Tactics, but unlike such games that typically give you free reign to stuff your party with overpowered job configurations, Octopath smartly limits your options to prevent you from breaking the system.

You will no doubt come to prefer certain jobs over others, but some of the most valuable skills are tied to characters rather than their assignments. H'annit, the hunter, has the unique ability to capture enemies that can be summoned during future battles a limited number of times, whereas Alfyn the apothecary can make medicine mid-battle by synthesizing salves with expendable ingredients, for example. Between these unique character skills and the variety of jobs on hand, your party will transform on a regular basis to keep up with the demands of bosses and particularly finicky enemy types. This constant search for new strategies leads to a wonderful variety of experiences and accomplishments by the time you reach Octopath's end.

Despite the lackluster stories that pull you through the world, Octopath thrives on its character progression and the temptations of high-level challenges and rewards. The promise of new jobs, exciting boss fights, and powerful gear will inspire you to poke around every corner, and there are no shortage of discoveries to strive for. And all the while, you're treated to one of the most interesting and effective re-imaginings of a retro aesthetic around. Octopath will likely be a divisive game due to its fractured storytelling, but it's one worth playing despite its lesser qualities. Its high points are simply too good to ignore.

Categories: Games

Sonic Mania Plus Review - Encore! Encore!

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 17:35

From the opening title's splash screen, Sonic Mania's presentation is intoxicating. Its colorful, retro 2D graphics and vibrant '90s-inspired pop soundtrack is enough to make any Sega Genesis fan squeal in excitement. In this jointly developed game, Sega and members of the Sonic fan-hack community have created a loving homage to the blue hedgehog's glory days. But Sonic's latest outing isn't only concerned with reminding you of his past; though it is decadent in this regard. Sonic Mania exceeds expectations of what a new game in the franchise can look and play like, managing to simultaneously be a charming celebration of the past and a natural progression of the series' classic 2D formula.

Taking place shortly after the events of Sonic & Knuckles, the game's story sees Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles getting involved once again in a battle against Dr. Eggman--this time over a mysterious emerald artifact. However, the conniving scientist isn't alone; enlisting the help of the Hard-Boiled Heavies--a group of customized Eggrobos. But the story takes a backseat as the time honored premise endures: defeat Eggman and his baddies, and collect all the Chaos Emeralds.

Sonic Mania makes a strong first impression thanks to amazing visuals and music. Its presentation replicates the charming aesthetic of Sonic's earliest games with thorough detail. While the pixelated sprites of Sonic and friends are reminiscent of their Sega Genesis' counterparts, they take on a new life with a higher degree of detail and animation quality. The new effects add an extra layer of personality to the iconic characters that's a joy to see in motion.

On the other end of the spectrum, the game sports an assortment of new music tracks and remixes of greatest hits. They channel the New Jack Swing dance music stylings that heavily influenced Sonic's soundtracks in the '90s, remaining just as catchy and well-orchestrated here. Both visuals and music work together in Sonic Mania to build up an aesthetic that's evocative of earlier games, but in a pleasing style that feels contemporary all on its own.

On top of Sonic Mania's fantastic presentation, the game also controls like a classic-style Sonic game. You have the option to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles; you can even work cooperatively with another player as Sonic and Tails a la Sonic 2. From the get go, the movement physics and overall feel of each character are distinct yet familiar, staying faithful to the originals. The gang's unique abilities remain intact, albeit with one exception: Sonic has a new Drop Dash, which allows him to quickly roll forward after a jump. It's a small addition, but it provides a handy new way to pick up speed or avoid incoming danger.

It can feel exhilarating to pass through a multitude of pathways, especially at top speed.

Level design is at the series' best here, sporting 12 zones that are each meticulously designed with cleverly placed obstacles and varied pathways that keep you guessing. It can feel exhilarating to pass through a multitude of pathways, especially at top speed. No route ahead ever feels incorrect as you sprint through loops or hit springs launching you into different directions, and there are rarely any instances where the action halts without reason. And thanks to the visibility granted by the widescreen aspect ratio and the smooth framerate, your awareness and sense of control running through a zone feels better than Sonic's classic outings ever did.

It also helps that levels are designed around the abilities of each character. While Sonic can blaze a trail through a zone, Knuckles and Tails can find other paths beyond his reach thanks to their respective climbing and flying abilities, which often lead to new ways of experiencing the same stage. It's enjoyable to engage with the subtle ways each character interacts with the world and the conveniences they offer. And you're rewarded for taking the time to do so, as on some occasions, characters even get completely new levels to explore that are designed specifically around their abilities.

We all know where this goes...

Sonic Mania closely follows its forebears, utilizing the exhilarating sense of speed that the 2D games charted their success upon. However, it never incorporates elements from the past purely for the sake of nostalgia; rather, it expands upon the familiar with new ideas of its own. This is most apparent when you play remixed versions of older zones from the first five games. Sonic Mania's version of Sonic 2's Chemical Plant zone introduces a mechanic where you constantly jump on jelly to bounce upwards to new parts of the level. Changes like this liven up the design of well-known levels, offering fresh and gratifying new experiences.

New zones, on top of offering a suite of charming visuals and catchy melodies, deliver plenty of inventive concepts that diversify and build upon the series' fast-paced level design. Whether it's by encouraging you to freeze yourself into an ice block to smash through walls, or challenging you to figure out a maze-like sequence of gates to reach the end of a zone, the ideas the game explores give it a strong sense of identity compared to the originals.

In the same style as Sonic 3, every level culminates in a boss fight--ranging from relatively simple, to demanding set-piece battles where you go head-to-head with Eggman and his minions. However, there are some fights that pay homage not only to past games, but early spin-offs from the Sonic's history, such as Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine and Sonic Fighters. There's also a fair number of more challenging battles that require more advanced tactics to beat. One has you dodging projectiles as you use a series of poles to propel yourself towards a spider robot. Boss fights offer a great balance of difficulty, steadily challenging and entertaining you in numerous ways as you progress.

The past and present seamlessly intermingle in Sonic Mania, answering your nostalgic yearning, while satisfying your thirst for fresh concepts.

The more you play Sonic Mania, the more it rewards you with reasons to keep playing. Additional modes like Competition and Time Attack offer other ways to experience its levels. Aside from acquiring all the Chaos Emeralds to obtain the true ending, one of the most compelling reasons to replay zones come from Secrets--Sonic Mania's term for unlocks that give you access to new characters and abilities. For example, you can play through the entire campaign using Sonic's Insta-Shield ability from Sonic 3. You can even unlock "& Knuckles" mode, where a second player can play cooperatively with you as Knuckles instead of Tails.

For years the Sonic series has chased the legacy of its early games, constantly delivering experiences that either came close or failed to recapture the spirit that made them classics. Whether it was by getting wrapped up in story or putting too much emphasis on speed instead of level design, the newer games lost track of what made the originals great. Sonic Mania methodically uses its sentimental appeal to great effect, but in the process, it heals the wounds inflicted by its most disappointing predecessors and surpasses the series' best with its smart and interpretive design. An excellent 2D platformer, Sonic Mania goes beyond expectations, managing to be not only a proper evolution of the series' iconic formula, but the best Sonic game ever made.

Editor's note: Alongside Sonic Mania's physical release is a $5 update (included with the physical) that introduces new features that add even more diversity to the game's high-speed thrills. The most noteworthy addition are classic--albeit lesser-known--characters Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel, who each sport their own unique abilities. Mighty's ground pound makes for a satisfying way to pick up speed and dispatch enemies, and his resistance to spike traps is a nice bonus if you're more a player with an unhealthy desire to accelerate. On the other hand, Ray's momentum-based glide ability takes some getting used to, requiring you to alternate directions on the D-pad after jumping to maintain flight. The thrill of stringing together his high-flying antics with a well-timed jump onto an enemy or platform is well worth the effort to learn. Both Mighty and Ray offer subtle, yet substantial additions to the well-established formula.

Returning players are likely to spend the most time in Encore mode, a new campaign that takes you through remixed versions of the game's stages. But there's a twist: swappable characters replace extra lives. You start as Sonic and slowly accumulate the game's playable cast via item boxes and bonus challenges scattered across the stage. You can control and switch between two characters at a time, but when one dies, that character is lost and switched out with whoever you have left on reserve. Encore Mode is a welcome change-of-pace that makes Sonic Mania's already fantastic levels more tense and exciting. And the ability to play all five characters in a single mode makes the experience all the more varied and joyous.

Beyond these additions and small tweaks, including balancing fixes and the ability to use secret options in any of your save files, Sonic Mania is the same exuberant celebration of Sonic's past. While it was already a fantastic package on the outset, this new update makes it even better than before. If you missed Sonic Mania the first time around, now is the perfect time to catch up.

The original review text and list of good and bad points have been updated to reflect the current version of Sonic Mania. - Matt Espineli, July 10, 6:00 AM PT

Categories: Games

Rainbow Skies Review: Rainbow in the Dark

Sun, 07/08/2018 - 15:00

Rainbow Moon wasn't a hugely impactful game when it released in 2012, but it was nevertheless a charming and scrappy RPG that found an audience who remember it fondly. The belated follow-up, Rainbow Skies, is decidedly less memorable, serving up an RPG experience that's better at filling time than providing entertainment. It has an enormous amount of content and a story that will take dozens of hours to play through, but unfortunately that doesn't count for much once boredom sets in.

Rainbow Skies begins in Arca, a skybound city that floats above the continent of Lunah. Damion, a monster tamer in training and your typical RPG foolhardy hero, is preparing for his final test (which serves as a battle tutorial, naturally). Things go wrong and Damion, along with his frenemy Layne, end up falling from Arca. Down on Lunah, a young magician named Ashly is trying to master a bonding spell that will make monsters follow her commands, and after a series of predictable mishaps she ends up bonded to Damion and Layne, the three unable to leave one another's company.

Searching the world to find the counter spell that will undo this bond is the primary motivation for the first fifteen-or-so hours. It's not a particularly strong motivating force, and while there are attempts made to have fun with it, the game suffers from a waffly script that grows less charming the further you get in. By the time a more substantial 'save the world' plotline kicks in halfway through the game, it's not enough to drive a deeper sense of investment into the game's bland world.

Lunah is not an exciting world to explore. There's little sense of variety or personality between its numerous townships and dungeons, nor are the NPCs you meet along the way lack any distinct charisma. It also suffers from an unsightly art style, with repetitive settings and monsters that often look plasticky. The few scant cut-scenes and voice samples are similarly unappealing. The old-school eight-directional movement feels rigid, and the movement speed through the world is irritatingly slow.

The combat system is more exciting than anything the overworld can offer up, as the mechanics that dictate your skills and the game's difficulty have some flair to them. Some enemies are visible in the game world and can be run into, initiating combat, or you can choose to activate random encounters by pressing 'X' when you're informed that an enemy is nearby, which is a welcome touch.

In battle, you and your opponents are transferred to a grid-based map. Your team consists of the three protagonists and an increasing number of monsters you can recruit to your side (this is a game with many different mechanics--you're still getting tutorials past the twenty-hour mark). Combatants each take turns in an order determined by their speed stats, and are able to perform a limited number of 'actions'. Moving just one square costs a single action, and you can't make many actions on a turn, meaning that you may of often resort to planting characters in a stationary position and hurling whichever attacks are able to reach nearby enemies. Each battlefield is virtually identical (a small obstacle or two being the only differentiator), meaning that there's little room for tactical nuance beyond deciding which enemies to hit first.

Practically every aspect of your character can level up, from individual attacks to weapons and armor--the more you use something, the stronger it gets. Seeing your characters evolve and improve is rewarding, and if you play at the default difficulty setting you rarely need to grind--if an enemy proves too difficult, you probably need to upgrade your skills and equipment with the money and skill points you've unlocked up to that point.

However, the most effective ways to strengthen your characters in battle can also encourage repetition. Because most of your strongest attacks are reliant on specific placement of your characters and the enemies on the battlefield, and your bigger attacks tend to use up more action points and a lot of mana, it's often not worth getting too fancy in a skirmish unless you get lucky and happen to have, say, four enemies standing in the exact squares your strongest attack will hit.

I found myself using the first attacks I unlocked in the game, which leveled up and could do a lot of damage to a single enemy, over and over until the end of the game. The versatility of Ashly's fireball, a single-unit attack with low mana cost and enormous range, meant that it far outstripped every other ability I gained in terms of usefulness. This meant that most of the battles in the game played out the same way, with only very occasional boss fights demanding any more acumen or strategic thought.

If you're interested in greater challenges however, Rainbow Skies does take an interesting approach to difficulty. In most towns, you can increase the game's difficulty if you have met certain conditions. To jump from the second difficulty to the third, for instance, you need to win ten fights at that level. If you turn the difficulty back down to the default (which can be done at any time from the menu) you'll need to win ten fights again to move back to the second difficulty. It's a smart system, although for many players the default difficulty will be enough. It's not hugely challenging, but each increase means significantly more grinding is necessary. If the game wasn't already extremely repetitive this might be a more enticing prospect.

Perhaps Rainbow Skies' best feature, if you own a Vita, is its implementation of Cross-Save. If you buy the game on PS3, PS4, or Vita you immediately own it on all three of them, and can swap saves between them. The Vita experience is the same as the PS4 version, and if you have Internet access you can download your save file from the server and keep going. The art looks better on the smaller screen, and it's a game that benefits from not having your full concentration on it--one better suited to quick pre-sleep sessions, or as a distraction while half-watching TV.

Rainbow Skies is the RPG equivalent of a store brand Cola--cheaper, but with far less flavor than the bigger brand names, and liable to go flat on you much faster. It gets the job done if you're looking for a real time sink, and there's potential depth there if you're willing to wade through repetitive combat to get there, but it's simply isn't enjoyable enough to justify the commitment it demands.

Categories: Games

Wreckfest Review: Crashing The Party

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 17:00

If there's anything to be learned from a game like Wreckfest, it's that thrashing around old bangers, running opponents into concrete barriers, and threading the needle between a group of crashing cars can, even in 2018, be brilliantly fun. After a four-year stint in Steam's early access, Wreckfest has hit the track with surprising confidence. Showing off its impressive soft-body collision system that lets colliding cars twist and crush with brutal realism and some fierce AI, every event is brimming with satisfaction. Wreckfest succeeds where it matters, becoming one of the most surprising and gratifying racing games of the year.

Wreckfest's career mode is made up of five different championships, each consisting of various events--from multi-race championships to one-off demolition derbys--that each gradually unlock as you gain XP and increase your driver level. In addition to XP, rewards are doled out regularly in the form of performance parts along with credits to buy new cars and parts with, so even a poor finish, which will happen, never feels like wasted time.

Most career events are a simple race to the finish where you'll have a handful of laps to hunt down the opposition and score as good a position as possible, giving you a chance to serve up mayhem while slicing through the field. Race starts are a gorgeous, chaotic mess that can feel like running a gauntlet as cars jostle and barge for position. They're also where the game's marquee destruction engine shows off its capabilities as cars fly off the course through wooden fences and tire barriers, sending debris scattering into the air and across the road. It can be spectacular to watch from a distance when tailing a pack of cars or during a replay, but equally brutal when you're the one involved in it.

Other event types include demolition derbys, where you try to turn your opponents' cars into cubes of twisted steel by smashing into them as hard as you can, and elimination-style heat races that normally take place on a closed figure eight track or an oval. There's also the occasional lawnmower derby, which shows off the game's slightly twisted sense of humor. Each mode not only offers some variety in destruction but is also visually spectacular in its own right. Landing a perfectly timed swipe that puts an opponent into the path of an oncoming car and watching the resulting destruction behind you looks just as great as slamming a school bus into a pack of Minis.

Damage in Wreckfest has two settings: normal and realistic. On normal, you and your opponents can survive more than your fair share of hard hits, making heavy impacts much more forgiving. But with realistic conditions, things get a lot tougher and a bit more spectacular too. Longer races become tests of survival, as all it takes is one bad collision to put a car out of contention (or at least change how it handles). A bad landing off a jump could destroy your suspension and send you into a wall of concrete that shatters spectacularly upon impact, and that's your race done. There's no rewinding time to fix your mistakes, either; you'll need to restart the race if it all goes south. But while this kind of repetition would normally be grating, the act of racing is so good that it takes the edge off.

When you do manage to escape the chaos and settle into a good driving rhythm, Wreckfest shows off some wonderful driving physics. The transition between different road surfaces is sublime, and regardless of whether you're driving with a top-of-the-line racing wheel or a gamepad, the sensation of sliding around a corner, catching the rear end, and gassing it all the way out feels superb. Tires slip and slide through the dirt but scream for grip on the tarmac, and you can almost feel them flexing as the car rolls through the corners.

Each type of car, from the hulking school bus all the way down to the miniature two-door Killerbee, feels different to drive. Some are heavier and more sluggish, while others are lighter and can corner better but suffer more in collisions. Upgrades to vehicles can substantially alter the handling, whether it's through better performance or a stronger chassis that's better at taking damage. Although having no way of saving upgrade sets can result in some minor headaches when optimising for each event type, overall it's a meaningful upgrade system with tangible effects on the already diverse feel of racing.

AI drivers race unapologetically no matter the scenario or difficulty level, unafraid to punt you off the road if they decide they want to get past or smashing into to you head first in an effort to take you out. If competing against AI isn't your bag, you can take it online and race against others on dedicated servers or set up your own custom race server with your own rules, and it all works smoothly.

It's rare when a racing game manages to modernize and reinvigorate an old formula with spectacular confidence, but Wreckfest does just that.

Compared to the dynamic gameplay, Wreckfest's user experience is a bit frustrating. The UI is surprisingly bland for such a technically impressive game, with static menus and a heavy rock soundtrack that's obnoxious enough to warrant immediately turning the music off. With that out of the way, you can more fully appreciate the game's excellent sound effects. Throaty engines belch and roar loudly--except for the lawnmower, which sounds like thousands of angry mosquitos--and crash sounds are impactful and bone-crunching. Equally as good are the game's visuals. The cars themselves, while all old, banged-up muscle cars, look suitably mean and ready for thrashing. Debris stays on the track over the course of a race, as do the littered remains of cars that don't make the distance. Heat races show off the course at different times of day, with the later heats often taking place as the sun starts to set and rays of sunlight pour through the gaps in the grandstands and trees. Replays give you the chance to relive your best moments, although the lack of a rewind function makes it a pain to focus in on specifics, forcing you to restart the replay from the beginning.

It's rare when a racing game manages to modernize and reinvigorate an old formula with spectacular confidence, but Wreckfest does just that. Minor issues with menus and its soundtrack aside, it wows with a gorgeous look and wonderful driving feel, along with a damage system that satisfies in the most brutal of fashions. With its array of different cars, tracks, and event types, Wreckfest is a brilliantly fun and frenetic racing game that can be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone, not just racing game fans.

Categories: Games

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus Nintendo Switch Review

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 01:00

Following Doom in 2017, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is the next Bethesda shooter to make its way to Nintendo Switch. It's a bit strange to see The New Colossus on a new platform before its predecessor, The New Order, but jumping in for a second playthrough is a nice excuse to try it out on different hardware. Unfortunately, The New Colossus suffers from significant performance issues in Switch's handheld mode; in docked mode, however, it runs smoothly, albeit with rougher textures than other versions of the game. But as long as you play docked, preferably with a Pro Controller, some lower-quality textures hardly detract from what makes The New Colossus such a memorable game.

The base game is here in its entirety, with no edits or changes to its themes or story. For those who haven't played The New Order, the optional recap at the beginning of The New Colossus will get you up to speed on most important characters and plot points. The opening level is as hard-hitting as ever; gravely injured, protagonist BJ Blazkowicz has flashbacks of his abusive, racist father before waking to a Nazi attack and fighting back from his wheelchair. It sets the tone for a game that's both serious and completely over-the-top, with frequent shifts between the two that generally enhance the story's impact.

The New Colossus' campaign is hard; Wolfenstein newcomers will probably find a challenge on the second of the game's six difficulty levels, while returning players can safely bump up the difficulty. You can approach a fight from a number of angles--from very stealthy to extremely loud and bombastic--and weapon upgrades and unlockable perks can help you more effectively pursue your strategy of choice. Things go awry often, and there's a fantastic tension in knowing you'll have to adapt to (and overcome) anything the game throws at you. All of this is maintained on Switch, though not without caveats depending on how you play.

With a Pro Controller, combat works as well as it does on other platforms. Using the Switch's Joy-Cons instead, however, presents unwelcome challenges. Stubbier analog sticks and clickier triggers noticeably alter the feel of combat, making aiming in particular more choppy. The added motion aiming smooths it out somewhat, but it's hard to use while running or strafing, since you have to manually re-center your view if it goes off-kilter. The regular aim assist, which locks on to enemies when you first aim down sights rather than tracking them continuously, can also help with the inevitable frustration. But neither option is a great substitute for using the Pro Controller.

The New Colossus runs impressively well in docked mode, especially considering the Switch's capabilities compared to other platforms. The game's beautifully directed, pre-rendered cutscenes maintain their quality here, and the frame rate is generally consistent even when combat is at its most frenetic. There are some muddier textures to contend with, but the resistance fighters get the worst of it; weapons, armored enemies, and levels themselves still look good, though not as good as they do elsewhere. According to The New Colossus' director--and based on the Doom port's performance--the game maxes at 720p. As long as you can overlook some lower-quality visuals, the story and gameplay make The New Colossus well worth it.

Unfortunately, handheld mode doesn't hold up nearly as well. There's an ever-present blur, and combined with the small screen, it can be hard to see enemies and items. Frame rate drops in combat (and even some cutscenes) made me motion sick at worst, rendering the game unplayable. Even if you aren't susceptible to motion sickness, the inconsistent frame rate is noticeable enough to be annoying. Combined with the drawbacks of using Joy-Cons, it's hard to recommend playing The New Colossus handheld at all.

As long as you're able to play the entire game in docked mode, The New Colossus is the same fantastic game it is on other platforms. It runs well and, despite some minor visual compromises, it still looks pretty good. Handheld mode is unfortunately far less optimized, and the Joy-Cons simply don't feel as good to use as the Pro Controller. If Switch is your only way to play it, The New Colossus is absolutely worth your time--just not on the go.

Categories: Games

Lumines Remastered: Groove Is In The Heart

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 20:00

Seconds after I started up Challenge Mode in Lumines Remastered, Mondo Grosso's "Shinin'" perked up and the energetic sounds of an acoustic guitar began to weave around a trance beat. I dropped my first block, and quickly cleared the first sparkling squares of the stage, triggering that familiar twinkle sound effect. Suddenly, it was like 2004 was yesterday, 10 stages were unlocked before I even knew 45 minutes had passed, and I realized just how much I missed Lumines.

It shouldn't have been a surprise. Many of Tetsuya Mizuguchi's music-based games dabble in synesthesia, the concept of associating one kind of sensory memory with another. In Mizuguchi's games, it's the persistent marriage of sound, sight, and even touch. Lumines isn't as all-encompassing an experience as Rez or Child of Eden--though, in a nice touch, if you have the extra controllers, Lumines Remastered does include Rez's Trance Vibration options--but the way that it plays havoc with your senses is very much in line with Mizuguchi's other work.

At its most basic, Lumines is a color-matching game where 2x2 blocks of two colors in various configurations drop from the top of the screen, and your challenge is to create solid squares of the same color at the bottom. At minimum, you can create a 2x2 brick, but even bigger configurations can be made if you're quick and strategic enough to line them up. Every stage is, essentially, a self-contained EDM-centric environment, with its own visual scheme, song, and rhythm, which dictates how fast completed blocks can be cleared by the line that travels across the screen. As the line moves it highlights and removes any squares you've made, potentially resulting in huge, gratifying bursts of light and sound.

Lumines starts simple but steadily escalates into frantic, eye-popping chaos by the end of each track. Because the rhythm of a particular song dictates the flow of a level and the pace of your block-clearing opportunities, failure in Lumines feels like dancing awkwardly and gradually losing the ability to catch the beat. On the other hand, successfully creating blocks and forming large combos measure after measure is like falling into a trance on the dance floor and losing yourself to the music.

Lumines Remastered isn't a vast visual jump over the hitherto best-looking version of the game, the Xbox 360/PS3 edition. It is, however, noticeably cleaner, without the slowdown that sometimes afflicted other versions when the game is at its busiest. The visual enhancements are more appreciable when comparing the mobile and Vita versions against the Switch version in handheld mode. While most previous Lumines modes are present in Remastered, you won't find Single Skin mode (where you could stick with one particular stage/song for an entire playthrough), the Sequencer from Lumines II (where you could create your own soundtracks), and--quite disappointingly--any sort of online multiplayer.

The lack of online features hurts the most, but it's not like Lumines is short on replay value. Beyond the regular Challenge modes, you still get a Time Attack, Puzzle Mode, Mission Mode, and a VS mode against either the CPU or a second player. Between Puzzle and Mission Mode, there are hundreds of bonus tasks to tackle, and many will make you scratch your head for hours on end while never feeling impossible.

Puzzle Mode will challenge you to clear squares in such a way that the leftover blocks create a specific, assigned shape, like a blocky horse or a screen-wide X. It's more about creative placement and a sense of foresight than anything--similar to building something out of Lego, except the bricks have a nasty habit of disappearing. Mission Mode's tasks can vary between strict single-solution challenges, especially early on, to simple races against the clock. It's easier, but no less entertaining. VS mode is pretty much exactly what it says it is: Lumines, but where two players play using half of the playing area each, and every cleared square pushes the boundary of the playing area towards your opponent, enpanding the amount of space you have to play with and shrinking it for your enemy.

Lumines is the kind of game that temporarily rewires your brain, splicing together its ability to recognize visual patterns and audible rhythms simultaneously and forcing you to do the hard but delightful work of putting that ability to use. Having that experience so lovingly presented--and on the Switch, having Lumines handheld again for the first time in six years--is an occasion worth celebrating.

Categories: Games

Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy Review: Marsupial Makeover

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 16:00

When Crash Bandicoot hit the scene in the '90s, it didn't take long for him to become the de facto PlayStation mascot. He didn't reach the same level of popularity as Mario or Sonic, but the original Crash games were charming platformers that resonated with audiences thanks to expressive characters and diverse environments. And unlike his peers, Crash was born in 3D; Mario and Sonic merely adopted it.

With the arrival of the N. Sane Trilogy collection, we now have the chance to revisit the first three Crash games in style, and while they look better than ever, they're otherwise direct replicas of the original games. Developed by Vicarious Visions, the N. Sane Trilogy collection features remastered versions of Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, and Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Gone are the rudimentary character models in favor of more realistic-looking creatures and environments, and a new lighting system bakes a measure of realism into the otherwise cartoonish world, giving the games a quality similar to 3D cartoons from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks.

While it's easy to look at these games and appreciate the care that's gone into their presentation, actually playing them stirs up conflicting emotions. There's no way around it: they remain dated despite their fresh look. Enemies rarely react to you, preferring instead to follow pre-determined paths and animation loops. And many obstacles are needlessly discouraging; Razor-thin tolerances for success and one-hit deaths make for a frustrating pairing. You can control Crash using an analog stick now, but smoother pivots and jumps don't alleviate the otherwise stiff gameplay lurking behind Crash's goofy exterior.

Not all levels are out to get you, however, and for the most part the N. Sane Trilogy offers a modest challenge that's perfectly suited for casual enjoyment. The ease at which you can fly through some stages allows you to experience a wide range of scenarios as well: you will carefully navigate the electrified waters of an eel infested sewer one minute and ride on the back of a tiger through a gauntlet of angry locals atop the Great Wall of China the next. There are also a handful of levels that allow you to reenact the famous boulder sequence from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, though you may be running from a massive polar bear instead of a boulder depending on the particular game in question.

This is all to say that Crash is what it's always been: a charming collection of platforming challenges that shift gears from one stage to the next. By putting three games next to each other, the N. Sane Trilogy overflows with nostalgia. The warm and fuzzy feeling you get from seeing familiar Crash levels presented in a way that mirrors what you held in your imagination is undeniable. But so too is the reality that Crash games aren't timeless. No amount of lighting or funny animations can make up for the rudimentary 3D platforming on display. You could even say that the look of these games belies their true nature.

The culprit behind Crash's dated feel is the passage of time. Vicarious Visions, for its part, succeeded in revitalizing Crash from an artistic perspective while preserving the charm that made him appealing when he first showed up, but years have passed since the original PlayStation was relevant, and we are well past the formative years of 3D gaming. It's easy to imagine how a dyed-in-the-wool Crash fan will fall in love all over again via the N. Sane Trilogy, but if you're experiencing Crash for the first time--or the first time in a while--it might pain you to realize that Crash's original adventures aren't as inventive or surprising as they were 20 years ago.

Editor's note: The score has been updated to reflect the Xbox One, PC, and Switch versions of the game.--June 28, 2018, 8:00 AM PT

Categories: Games

The Crew 2 Review In Progress

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 02:06

Trans-American driving game The Crew 2 is currently available to anyone who pre-ordered and will be widely available on June 29. I've been playing it too, but I'm not quite ready to make a definitive judgment on the game yet. 12 hours in, I've worked my way through dozens of different races and activities in single-player mode (with minimal free-roam exploration), to stock up on cash, build and upgrade my car collection, as well as progress in popularity and status as efficiently as I can. I’ve hit the endgame rank of Icon, but that doesn't mean much--I’ve only completed around half of the game’s immense roster of events, and as it turns out, you can keep earning additional Icon levels until you hit 99.

The Crew 2 is a big game, with a gargantuan open world, multiple vehicle styles, and lots to do. But most importantly, I haven’t been able to experience what is supposed to be one of the biggest drawcards of the game: other drivers. The Crew 2 is always-online and encourages you to tear around the USA and take part in events with other players in a, well, crew. But during the pre-release period on PlayStation 4, I’ve yet to encounter another driver, though the leaderboards tell me there are definitely people out there somewhere. I’ll update this review with full conclusions once the game has some proper time in the wild, but read on for my impressions so far.

It's surprising to see just how much The Crew 2 differs from the original game. There's been a noticeable shift in Ubisoft’s last few open-world titles, one that's moving toward a focus on player-driven progression--large selections of optional activities, non-linear structures, rewards for doing just about anything--and The Crew 2 benefits significantly from this direction.

The gritty crime angle from the original game is gone, and instead, The Crew 2 takes reams of pages from the book of Forza Horizon. The game centers on a nationwide festival of motorsports where you, a rookie, are poised to become the next big star. While the setup is conventional, and the focus on social media followers can be irritating, what it brings to the game is a colorful and upbeat vibe, an impressive variety of different vehicular activities, and positively ridiculous arcade driving on land, water, and through the air.

Races in The Crew 2 might involve sending your car off a twenty-story skyscraper, or your boat off the Hoover Dam. They might include making high-speed touring cars go head to head through the tight, windy Hollywood Hills, and motocross bikes take jumps across shipping freighters. This is a game that will cover Los Angeles in three feet of snow for no logical reason, other than icy roads make for thrilling street races. Abundant nitro boosts, uncomplicated drifting, and generous rubber-banding also help keep the act of driving exciting when things are relatively tamer.

"This is fine."

But what has left the biggest impression on me is how player-friendly this game is. As an open-world driving game, races can naturally be found and started at a particular location in the world. Smaller challenges can easily be stumbled upon while exploring or located using the world map. But if you want to get straight to business, The Crew has an option to view all its activities in a categorized, list-style view, with the option to not just set a waypoint to them, but instantly start them no matter where you are in the world, at no cost. The loading times in The Crew 2 are impressively brief all around, so if you wanted to, you can churn through many races back-to-back to efficiently rack up progression points and cash, or decide to knock out all the smaller speed-gate challenges in one go to set your records for the leaderboard.

Any activity can be restarted or aborted in seconds you're having a bad run, there's a quick back-on-track feature that can be used any time, and when you're not in an event you can switch to any vehicle you own immediately, without penalty. That's on top of being able to assign a favorite ground vehicle, boat, and plane to your right analog stick to allow for instantaneous switching during free-roam exploration, which provides its own kind of fun, for example, flying into the stratosphere with your plane before switching to a boat and careening back to Earth. Any vehicle that's available for sale is also graciously available for you to test drive on a moment's notice.

The variety of different vehicular disciplines in The Crew 2 is downright impressive--each of the 14 styles is tangibly unique from one another. Every time I started to get fatigued with one method of competition, I could quickly jump to another that had a completely different feel. Each is housed within one of four "Families" which you're free to move between: Street (street racing, drifting, drag racing, long-distance hypercar racing), Offroad (cross-country rally raid, motocross, loose-surface rallycross), Freestyle (plane aerobatics, jet sprint boating, monster trucking), and Pro (power boating, air racing, touring cars, and grand prix).

While the execution of The Crew 2's disciplines might not wholly satisfy purists of any one given style, I can say that it does a great job of making each feel accessible and fun. I'm usually too intimidated by grand prix racing to give a shot, and I never would have even considered the idea of playing a power boating game. But, the Crew 2 encouraged me to get a taste of everything, and that's thanks to the game's approachable arcade-style mechanics, as well as the prospects of seeing more beautiful and ludicrous tracks.

Those tracks are certainly one of the highlights of the game, because there's an inherent novelty to the virtual tourism of The Crew 2. You'll likely recognize iconic structures, but there are also enough abstracted details for the game to capture just enough of each city's atmosphere and character. And, like the original game, The Crew 2 does a great job at building a seamless and believable version of America to drive through, whether it's a designated top-to-bottom endurance race or a self-assigned recreation of a cross-country road trip you did a few years back (with some detours to hunt for the game's new Live crates, using a Far Cry 2-style tracker). The journey across the country feels grounded, as you drive through cities that morph into industrial areas and farmland, into plains, deserts, forests and rural areas, occasionally flying by a small town now and then.

And whether you're driving, boating, or flying across The Crew 2's America, it's a mostly beautiful journey. The game's natural environments, particularly bodies of water and the sky, look fantastic, as do weather effects like snow and rain. All are enhanced to breathtaking heights by the superb lighting. Where the visuals visibly falter are in dense urban areas--you likely won't notice the buildings when you're zooming past them at 200km/h, but any slower and you can't help but notice how plain they are, especially in broad daylight with clear skies. Character models, on the other hand, always look a little terrifying.

Ah, beautiful Los Angeles!

The game's RPG-style vehicle upgrade system returns from the original game, though it still doesn't feel particularly meaningful. You'll receive loot after every race in various stages of rarity (uncommon, rare, epic), and each corresponds to a particular vehicle part and has its own power number, which contributes to your vehicle's overall power number. There's some small benefit to this system--every vehicle of a particular class, despite starting with different power levels, will max out at the same number, meaning you can stick with your favorite car all the way up to and through the endgame.

But while some parts come with unique gameplay perks, and more professional tuning options eventually become available, I found the upgrade system pretty easy to ignore--simply equipping the one with the biggest number was all I had to do to stay competitive. This system feels like it's there to act as an additional roadblock to make sure your progress to higher tiers of races stays gradual. Another obstacle is the cost of the vehicles you're required to purchase to be able to participate in certain disciplines. I haven’t needed to dip into the game's real-world currency equivalent yet, but buying a vehicle so I can access a high-end discipline like air racing or grand prix will usually empty out my in-game wallet completely.

Despite these artificial-feeling roadblocks stopping me from progressing any faster than my current pace, The Crew 2 continues to be a delightful driving game that I look forward to playing. The feel of the driving and the challenge on normal difficulty feels just right, and there are so many great experiences to be had, from the indulgent to the exhilarating. You could be leisurely riding Harley Davidson motorcycles through the Grand Canyon at sunset, and then be flinging a jet sprint boat back and forth as you weave through the Everglades minutes later. You could be driving off mountains in a rally raid and taking risky paths through dense forests, or you could be flying through Monument Valley in a World War II Spitfire jet fighter, just because you needed a moment to relax.

I'm aiming to finish up as much content as I can before servers start populating at launch, and I'm also keen to start playing with friends to see how the dynamics change, for better or worse, when other people are involved. I'm also yet to dive deep into the vehicle customization and photo/video editor, though I like what I've seen. So far, I'm very much enjoying The Crew 2 as a single-player experience, and I'll be back to give a full review when I feel like I've seen the whole picture.

Categories: Games

Nier: Automata Review

Wed, 06/27/2018 - 04:00

The post-apocalyptic world of Nier: Automata thrives on its mysteries. Its ruined Earth setting is a playground of mayhem where fashionable androids lay waste to less sophisticated looking robots. Its premise of a never-ending war is initially straightforward. But if you know anything about the game's director, Yoko Taro, then you know to expect the unexpected. That includes everything from an unusual soundtrack steeped in vocals to a battle-hardened heroine who walks with the swagger of a supermodel. Automata also delivers a well-executed and refined combat system, the level of which alone makes Automata well worth the price of admission.

You initially see Automata from the perspective of a female android named 2B who is part of YoRHa, a group of artificial soldiers tasked with wiping the Earth of its hostile robots and their alien creators. This conflict is all the more poignant due to humanity's displacement to the moon, an exodus that occurred hundreds of years ago. Joining 2B on most of her missions is 9S, a male android who lacks 2B's dual weapon-wielding prowess but compensates with invaluable hacking skills. They start off as strangers, but through the obstacles they overcome, an obvious closeness begins to form. This is thanks in part to Automata's sensational anime-as-hell archetypes and story beats.

Given that Earth is utterly overrun with homicidal machines, making Earth hospitable seems like a tall order. But this challenge is softened by the manageable size of Automata's open world, which is equivalent to a small city. It entices exploration without feeling intimidating, and it's hard to get lost once you've run through the same paths a couple times. Much of the backtracking stems from the game's numerable side quests, where you help your fellow androids on simple errands and kill missions. While most of these tasks aren't especially memorable, they do add character to world. Furthermore, monotony is minimized by the convenience of fast travel and swift steeds like moose and boars.

The brightside of being a robot exterminator in Automata is that your canvas of destruction is the product of Platinum Games. Their penchant for feverishly fast and elegant combat is on full display with visuals that echo even the most outrageous attacks from Bayonetta. Combat evolves beyond mindlessly mashing on quick and strong attacks thanks to the variety of bladed weapon styles. Combining any two types produces uniquely flashy animations and, more importantly, damaging results. You can trigger other gorgeous maneuvers by attacking after pulling off a slick dodge cartwheel or by holding down either of the two attack buttons. 9S' own skill with a sword makes him a substantial AI-controlled contributor, and his ability to keep up with 2B make the battles look positively frenzied. Given the demanding yet rewarding high-dexterity combat and the acrobatic skills of 2B, it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that Automata is the closest thing there is to a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, also developed by Platinum.

You're expected to use tools and techniques beyond the two main attack inputs if you have any hope of victory in ever encounter. Your pod companion--which echoes Grimoire Weiss, the floating book from the first Nier--provides you with various forms of support. Not only does the pod provide you with a sustained ranged attack, it's another outlet for personalizing your approach to combat. You can swap in a wide variety of passive performance enhancing chips, that provide you with stat buffs and helpful automated commands. Relying on your pod to automatically use one of your health items when your HP drops below a certain point makes healing one less thing to worry about. Your pod allows you to focus on other survival concerns, like kicking ass and looking good in the process.

Given the demanding yet rewarding high-dexterity combat and the acrobatic skills of 2B, it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that Automata is the closest thing there is to a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, also developed by Platinum.

If you ever run out of healing items and get murdered by enemy robot, however, you’ll lose your experience points if you can't return to the point of your last death. This is similar to the style of difficulty popularized by Dark Souls with an additional risk of loss: along with the suspense of potentially losing experience you've earned since your last save, you can also lose all of your pod's installed chips, with the exception of the mandatory operating system chip.

While Automata resoundingly delivers that specific flavor of stylish combat found in Platinum's best works, it never overshadows Taro's distinct directorial handiwork and penchant for unconventional game and narrative design. It's the type of production that seamlessly blends story, hack-and-slash combat, and--believe it or not--an engaging bullet-hell shooter component. You don't question the infantile behaviors of many of the enemy robots because they're so darn endearing. And you don't get an explanation for 2B's cosplay-ready gothic lolita outfits, how she manages to move smoothly through a desert in heels, or why some of her comrades behave like self-involved teenagers. You just go along with it because of Automata's captivating world and involving battles.

Taro's unorthodox approach to game design is best exemplified by Automata's multiple endings and the varying degrees of substance in those conclusions. He's not above novelty or gag endings, though the real rewards are the five major endings and the various journeys to each one. You don't get the complete picture until you reach those five endings. As you travel down these various paths, you're not only introduced to new events, but also given new perspectives to moments you've already experienced. Your forward progress isn't propelled by the mere compulsion to achieve 100% completion; you're simply pulled by curiosity to learn more about what happened to Earth and humanity.

Thanks to Platinum Games' knack for riveting and gratifying combat, Automata is Yoko Taro's most exciting game to date. The combat mechanics click after hurdling a low learning curve, and the end result is a skillful dance where balletic dodges complement wushu-inspired aggression. Moreover, this multi-ending trip is generously peppered with surprises and revelations, as well as easter eggs that call back to the first game and the Drakengard series from which Nier spun off. It's a meaty, often exhilarating trek that showcases Platinum Games' and Yoko Taro's unique blend of genius.

Editor’s note: Nier: Automata has released on Xbox One as the Become As Gods Edition, which includes the 3C3C1D119440927 DLC along with several cosmetic items for the main characters and pods. We tested the new Xbox One version by playing through the first three hours of the game, and it runs at a stable frame rate at 4K on the Xbox One X. Most importantly, everything we love about Nier: Automata is, of course, still here: the evocative soundtrack, unique narrative style, and affecting story are as strong as ever. We have updated the score to include the Xbox One version. - June 26, 8:00 PM PT

Categories: Games

The Awesome Adventures Of Captain Spirit - Stranger Things

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 17:00

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for Life Is Strange and The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a short Life is Strange episode set before the upcoming Life Is Strange 2, and it doesn't cost a cent to download and play. A cynic might call it a simple act of marketing, a demo to whet our appetites. But Captain Spirit feels like much more than that, despite sticking to a single location and ending pretty quickly. It's more like the Ground Zeroes to Life is Strange 2's The Phantom Pain: it hints towards what the next series might be like, with a nice visual upgrade and a few new mechanics, but it also feels whole as it is. From the moment Sufjan Stevens' haunting, gorgeous track "Death with Dignity" kicked in over the opening montage, I was hooked on The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. It is a beautiful game.

Captain Spirit is the playful superhero alter-ego of Chris Eriksen, a young boy with a love of comics, an untarnished sense of childlike wonder, and a bubbling inner turmoil and grief that rarely cracks the surface. Chris lives alone with his dad, Charles, a former basketball star whose life has been on a downward trajectory for years. The pair live alone in a drab, cheaply built house on the outskirts of Beaver Creek. Chris' mother died some time ago, and without getting into the specifics, there are parallels to Chloe's situation in the original Life is Strange. It's odd to see Captain Spirit dipping so explicitly into that same emotional well, because otherwise, it is very much its own thing, despite a few interesting links to the original game for eagle-eyed players to find and speculate on.

The game--which runs for maybe three hours if you're a completionist, but can be sped through much faster--takes place across a single Saturday morning. It opens, charmingly, with Chris doodling a superhero costume, giddy at the prospect of having a full day to play. It's up to you how you want to spend that Saturday. Most of the objectives in the game are strictly optional, and you can "finish" the game having completed very few of them, but Chris' stated desire is to go on various adventures as Captain Spirit. These range from the mundane to the fantastical--Captain Spirit needs to throw snowballs at beer bottles to improve his aim and play with all his toys to "check in" on them, but he also needs to assemble the parts of his costume to go on bigger adventures, like defeating the Snowmonger (an evil-looking snowman), and the water-hoarding "monster" in his home (a malfunctioning water heater). There's a whole mythology to Chris' games and fantasies, and they're a delight to dig into.

Mechanically, completing these objectives boils down to standard adventure game puzzling. You travel around the interior and yard of the Eriksen house, building up your inventory and figuring out how to solve numerous puzzles. In fact, Captain Spirit is far more of a classical adventure game than many titles in the genre have been since Telltale's The Walking Dead, and it's all the better for it. The puzzles, while rarely challenging, have a nice sense of logic and order to them that make them satisfying.

Chris is a great character, too. He's a believably childlike 10-year-old, which is rare not just in games, but in any media. He's dealing with a difficult life as best he can, and succeeds as a sympathetic figure. He also has a powerful imagination, which sometimes sends him off into fantasy sequences as he does battle with Captain Spirit's "enemies." These are cutscenes rather than playable sections, but they're visually inventive and fun nevertheless, working as metaphors for Chris' grief and fears, and they give some insight into how the boy's mind works. The game is also beautifully coy about whether Chris has any sort of power akin to Max's ability to rewind time in the first game. The line is cleverly blurred, as Chris is often shown performing what looks to be telekinesis only for a pullback to reveal that it was something much more mundane--a remote control nestled in his concealed hand when he turns the TV on with his "mind," to give one example. But there's a strong hint that there's more to it than what we see. Charmingly, these moments--and the fantasy sequences--are labeled as "hero" choices, which can be triggered when Chris wants to do something befitting of a hero.

Between these moments of imagined bravado, you'll be pulled right back to earth when you're hunting through boxes and finding letters and drawings by Chris' mother, or finding things his dad didn't want him to see. Captain Spirit is surprisingly moving, and the aforementioned Sufjan Stevens track is used a few times to devastating effect. I ended up playing through Captain Spirit three times to test out all the different dialog options, and while I couldn't affect truly significant change--the ending was the same each time--picking away at the game and finding everything hidden in it was a satisfying experience.

While Chris enjoys his morning, his dad sits on the couch watching basketball and drinking, occasionally giving compliments or barking orders as his mood--and his level of sobriety--shifts. Without, again, spoiling the specifics, Charles is a fundamentally bad dad, a heavy drinker with a violent streak that, one can surmise, is getting worse over time. We see him through his son's eyes, though, and the naivety of Chris--who only sees the efforts of his father and is too young to fully comprehend how bad things have gotten--is heartbreaking. At a few points in the game, you can discover nice things Charles has planned for his son, and Chris is very vocal about how much he loves his father.

The first Life is Strange often went quite broad with characters, especially when you first met them, but there was an underlying complexity to them. This is even truer here and the important thing with Charles, at least in this short episode, is that he's a more complex figure than an outright monster--however, it never feels like the writers are excusing how awful he's being. This is a hard line to walk, but the game successfully condemns the man in a realistic way, acknowledging that abusers with some humanity are still, at their core, abusers. The script is tight too, with dialog that is free of dated terms or incongruities. A few exchanges start to sound stilted once you've played through multiple times and have a sense of how all the pieces fit together, but that's perhaps unavoidable.

Life is Strange gained a huge cult following, and whether you're a veteran or a newcomer, Captain Spirit captures a lot of the original game's appeal. Regardless of how you classify The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit--whether it's a standalone adventure, a demo, or a prologue--it's a beautiful game, and one that leaves you all the more excited about Life is Strange 2.

Categories: Games

Jurassic World Evolution Review: Life Finds A Way

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 17:00

Whether you're reminded of vicious raptors hunting terrified children, placid Brachiosaurus strolling verdant hills, or a scientist reaching elbow-deep into a mound of Triceratops dung, the words "Jurassic Park" can evoke some pretty powerful memories. Jurassic World Evolution reinforces these associations with its take on dino-park management, and all the good and bad that comes with such a brazen endeavor. It can be a bit clumsy at times, but Evolution ultimately finds a comfortable middle ground between establishing deep mechanics and maintaining accessibility for the average dino enthusiast.

Your venture kicks off with a warning from Dr. Ian Malcolm--voiced by Jeff Goldblum himself--who ruminates about the inevitability of disaster before dropping you straight onto the first of the game's five main islands. To successfully run your new park, you need to maintain a variety of dinosaur species and build facilities to protect and entertain paying customers. Do well enough and you unlock additional islands for your expanding park, each with a new curveball to keep you on your toes, be it aggressive weather systems, unique financial constraints, or limited construction options.

After learning the basics of construction and dinosaur creation, you're introduced to the three divisions that make up your park's staff: science, entertainment, and security. Each division will offer contracts that, when completed, give you cash and raise your reputation with that division. This unlocks further items and buildings for research, as well as that division's story mission. While contracts are a good source of money in the early game, they come with an odd complication: completing contracts for one division lowers your reputation with the other two. This creates a nonsensical balancing act that, whilst not difficult to overcome in the long run, feels arbitrary in context.

Building a good dinosaur park isn't as simple as putting down some fences, incubating dino eggs, and sitting back to watch them majestically take their first steps into the world. You'll need to manage everything from dig sites and DNA extraction to general park maintenance via your rangers--who will fill feeders, fix fences, and keep everything in working order. In an awesome twist, you can manually control the rangers' Jeeps or helicopters from a close third-person perspective, leading to some surprisingly beautiful and memorable moments as you mingle with the great beasts inhabiting your park.

If you've played any kind of park management sim before, you'll feel right at home with how everything works thanks to streamlined controls and an elegant UI. Console players can similarly rejoice as controller configurations are surprisingly intuitive, making navigating everything a breeze.

With the exception of cash, all your research and item progression is shared across each of the islands, and you can freely move between them at will once they're unlocked. If you've got something you want to research but you're struggling with funds in your current park, switch back to your previous one and spend their money on it instead. Although it would be a time saver to simply let you funnel cash from one park to another, going back to old parks never feels you're like taking a step backwards. Research progression is skewed so that you'll unlock the next park before you've unlocked all the research items in your current one, so you'll always feel like you're achieving something worthwhile, even if that means re-visiting old areas.

Interestingly, unlike most other park management sims, you can't speed up the flow of time while waiting for tasks to complete, but it's not as detrimental as it sounds. It's rare that there isn't something in the park needing attention, and more often than not you'll be thankful for the time.

Each of the dinosaurs in your menagerie have particular needs--some are placid, solitary creatures who are super chill, while others are quick to go on high alert. Put a herbivore in a pen full of meat-eaters and it will (understandably) panic. Put two aggressive meat-eaters next to each other and they'll probably fight to the death, unless you can get your rangers in there to tranquilize and then separate them both before any real harm is done. Learning the differences between each species is an important part of keeping your park operating smoothly. But even when things are going well, calamity never feels that far away.

From rampaging dinosaurs and tropical cyclones to internal sabotage, there's always something ready to trash your hard work. While dealing with these hazards can be exciting in your early hours, the fifth time your Ankylosauruses make a break for it because they don't like being around other dinosaurs can get tiresome. Attacks on park goers can initially be costly; later on, when you've got money to burn, a few lawsuits digging into your bottom line doesn't matter much. But while the lack of surprises and stakes after 20 or so hours is a bummer, it's never enough to take away from the joy of watching your creations live out their lives in structures you've meticulously designed and maintained.

Evolution captures the essence of Jurassic Park while being a good park management sim in its own right.

When your coffers fill up, you can really cut loose with how you build up your parks across each island. A maxed-out park is a sight to behold as thousands of guests wander the attractions. Hotels let you increase your parks' capacity to house more people, while shops and arcades will keep them entertained for when they aren't gathering in one of the many viewing platforms that line the fences keeping your dinosaurs in. When it's all working, it's like watching the components of a well-oiled machine tick over. Though it's similarly fun, albeit sadistic, to watch a full park of guests scramble for the emergency shelter when you trigger the alarms.

If there's one word that could easily describe Jurassic World Evolution, it's "faithful." Taking control of a ranger behind the wheel of a Jeep in the rain and sidling up to a pack of socializing Stegosaurus is as epic as it sounds and is a definite highlight, as is releasing a newly recovered species into your park. Despite the campaign stumbling over itself and losing focus towards the end, Evolution captures the essence of Jurassic Park while being a good park management sim in its own right.

Categories: Games

Mario Tennis Aces Review In Progress: Aim High

Wed, 06/20/2018 - 13:00

When the credits rolled on Mario Tennis Aces' Adventure Mode, I vowed to never again laugh at a tennis player having an ugly meltdown on the court. I had felt the volcanic surge of adrenaline that comes when a rally has gone too long. I knew the sense of high alert while trying to suss out which corner of the court an opponent is going to attack next. I have spliced and invented new curse words to mutter when a ball goes out of bounds. Off-beat stages and creative use of characters from the Marioverse ensure that you'll never lose sight of simply having fun, but don't let the adorable exterior trick you; Aces takes its unorthodox tennis very seriously.

Mario Tennis' renewed vigor is driven by a suite of new mechanics that force you to make pivotal risk-reward decisions. Special shots are now tied to a meter that fills a little with every shot fired back at your opponent, more so if you're able to charge your swing ahead of time. Once the Energy Meter is at least a third full, a ball landing on your side of the court will be forecast by a glowing star. Initiating a special swing while standing on a star activates a first-person view that lets you aim a powerful Zone Shot.

When the Energy Meter is completely full, you can unleash your character's Special Shot. While Specials don't unleash the cavalcade of effects they did in Wii U's Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, they do fire a lightning-fast ball that requires exacting maneuvers to return without incurring any harm to your racket--destroy your collection of rackets during a match, and you lose.

Holding the R button slows down time at the cost of meter, allowing you to stroll over and hit hard-to-reach shots or gain a slight advantage when returning racket-breaking shots. Alternatively, a Trick Shot can be activated by tilting the right stick, which causes you to leap across the court at the last second . You can get away with basic shots during simple face-offs, but in advanced matches the exchange of powered-up strikes feels like a breathless symphony that requires you to be at the top of your game and on top of your options.

Even veterans of the series have a little bit of a learning curve to overcome, but Aces' Adventure Mode does a good job of both entertaining you and teaching you how and when to use your new tools. The story itself is ridiculous, but ridiculous in that very specific, quirky way Nintendo has been getting away with for decades. During the Mushroom Kingdom's annual tennis tournament, an evil tennis racket--yes, really--named Lucien takes possession of Luigi and flies off to find five Power Stones that will help him take over the world.

Instead of settling for a revolving door of opponents along the way, you're challenged to utilize Ace's new mechanics in a range of unusual scenarios. An average stage might simply challenge you to keep a rally going for a certain length of time, but bosses and puzzle stages require a greater level of ingenuity. You have to figure out how to disable protective barriers, earning enough energy to perform a Zone Shot, and aim at the right part of the court to inflict damage. Bosses also initiate hurdling challenges mid-match that reward precise use of your leaping Trick Shot. Adventure Mode mixes up your objectives from one stage to the next to ensure you're never simply going through the motions to progress.

Mario Tennis Aces does what this series has done best, and improves what it's rarely gotten right prior.

Aces is more difficult and devious than you might expect, especially in the latter half of Adventure Mode. Though not required, grinding through matches can improve your chances on the court. Win or lose, you earn experience points for every match played, allowing you to improve Mario's speed, power, and agility over time. But no matter how much XP you earn, the only way to make it to the end of Aces' campaign is to master its unique tennis mechanics. Those who persevere will find themselves better equipped and prepared to face anything the other modes have to offer than ever before.

Outside of Adventure Mode, you'll find a rather plain assortment of activities: a bracket-based tournament mode, exhibition matches against the computer or another friend, online modes, and the ability to play doubles matches, which can turn into downright anarchy before you know it. Online matches will be the true test of Aces' depth, but pre-launch servers being what they are, we still need to spend time playing once the game releases to form a solid opinion of its netcode and the competitive scene.

Perhaps the one major and surprising misstep is Swing Mode, where players can swing Joy-Cons like proper tennis rackets, similar to Wii Sports Tennis. At first it seems odd that this control scheme is isolated to a specific mode, but within a minute or two, it's obvious why: playing with Joy-Cons feels too imprecise, and even just executing a simple backhand was a twitchy comedy of errors. It's too bad that the motion controls seem to fall apart so easily, but considering that, it's probably best the option is siloed away.

It's not like Aces needs a gimmick like motion controls to win you over, anyway. The Tetris Effect is in full swing here; days after the credits rolled, I still crave the satisfying thwack from a Power Shot, mentally replay matches and imagine how I might do things differently given a bit more focus and know-how. Mario Tennis Aces does what this series has done best, and improves what it's rarely gotten right prior. Fingers crossed that the online support stands up to the rest of the game after launch.

Categories: Games

Unravel 2 Review: Partners In Twine

Tue, 06/19/2018 - 17:00

With its warm, rustic setting, and an instantly endearing protagonist, the first Unravel had the outward appearance of a happily nostalgic adventure. That initial fuzzy feeling, however, gave way to a series of frustrating puzzles and a story that took some unexpectedly dark turns. In the game's final hours, the poor little hero Yarny was left all alone in a hostile world. What a relief it is to see him in a better place in Unravel Two, the sequel that's notably comforting thanks to the introduction of a second yarnling. Once they meet, Yarny and his new friend immediately hit it off and set out on a new adventure.

Similar to the original game, Unravel Two has ethereal slice-of-life scenes that play out in the background of each stage. This time, the literal background story involves two youths making the drastic decision to run away from their hyper-religious families. Yarny and his new partner make their own journey through the small town they live in, inadvertently helping the kids along the way with each new platforming challenge they surmount. Despite trips to more urban settings, the design philosophy and earthy aesthetic that made the first game such a visual treat haven't been abandoned. Aside from some mild industrial chaos--traipsing around construction sites, messing with the ventilation systems in a factory, and the like--much of what you experience is delightfully serene.

Once again, we witness the world from Yarny's tiny perspective. You run through misty city streets at night under haloed streetlights. You push toy trucks around backyards on sunny days before riding off into the blue yonder on the back of a swan. You jump across rooftops at midnight, a skeleton city of antennas and vents where only the pigeons are awake. One of the most beautiful areas of the game has Yarny making his way along a stream of rushing water in a creek, letting the tide build up the momentum you need to get a full head of speed up for a jump. There's still such a sense of awe to how tangible and real Yarny's world is, but it never feels like a place where Yarny is in peril. Though it takes place in more challenging environments, it's a world where what little danger there is feels magical, and Yarny has never been able to move through it in as invigorating a way as he can with a partner in Unravel Two.

The swing mechanic--where Yarny can latch yarn onto a grapple point and either rappel up and down or swing to launch himself onto a higher point--has returned, but with a newfound kineticism. Many stages push you to swing across multiple wide chasms and tight gaps in quick succession, and soaring and flipping through these trials is always a thrill.

There will come times when you have to stop and figure out a way past complicated obstacles, and this is where Unravel Two's co-op nature shines. Obviously, the ideal way to manage two characters is to have a friend sitting next to you on the couch, controlling Yarny's new ally while you plot solutions. But even a single player can make use of both characters, switching back and forth between the two onscreen with the push of a button. When playing solo, the character you leave behind will continue to hold onto whatever they were holding, meaning you can always place your partner wherever you need them. You can even carry your partner through danger by absorbing them into your own yarn body--mildly disturbing but helpful nonetheless.

With its charming yarnlings and a newfound style of platforming, Unravel Two remains welcoming even at its most foreboding.

With the two Yarnys tethered together, most puzzles are resolved by forming makeshift pulleys that allow you to create opportunities the environment wouldn't normally afford a single Yarny. Puzzles are typically open-ended and can be solved in a handful of ways. The only real barrier, besides pure logic, can be the game's control scheme. The same button used to jump is used to extend the tether between the two Yarnys, and it's fairly easy to accidentally send your partner plummeting to their doom. Unravel Two is undoubtedly a more welcoming and accessible game than its predecessor, but there are still demanding trials for those who want them, especially with around two dozen extra-challenging stages that are available.

With its charming yarnlings and a newfound style of platforming, Unravel Two remains welcoming even at its most foreboding. Sure, a forest fire breaks out in one of the latter stages, but even then, the race to keep ahead of the blaze is fun and frantic instead of stressful. In almost every moment you're given ample time and space to breathe and take in the stunning photorealistic world from the viewpoint of the tiniest creatures. It's a game with boisterous birds, chases through meadows, and most importantly a cheerful partnership with a companion who's always got your back. With only six chapters that run roughly 30 minutes apiece, Unravel Two doesn't last long, but it's a game where the time you have is meaningful, memorable, and downright pleasant from beginning to end.

Categories: Games

Moonlighter Review: Open For Business

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 21:00

Dulcet tones and somber notes played in time represent the curious duality of Moonlight. It is, at once, a heroic adventure and the name of the subdued storefront that you alone run. Centered in the heart of a once-bustling town, all the greats, the audacious plunderers of dungeons that were sealed long ago, have died out. The markets and the merchants of your hamlet have all but vanished alongside them. Always looking to the horizon, you see what could be--in both yourself and the town--and set out to claim your glory and bring riches back from the depths of dangerous dungeons.

On first pass, that's a tall ask, and one that doesn't necessarily fit together the way you might think. This isn't quite the same as saving a town the way you might in a classical Zelda game --though references to those nascent adventures abound. Instead, your eye is on unearthing the depths of five dungeons that lie just north of town. Each is like a world unto itself, and getting into and out of these spaces is often a feat--made that much more treacherous by the monsters that inhabit them. Still, the depths hold untold riches, artifacts, and supplies that were once essential for trade.

The balance that Moonlighter strikes then, is tasking you with battling beasts and carefully collecting trophies and supplies based on the needs of the people in your town. Instead of gathering loot and hauling it back to a shopkeep as one does in just about every similar adventure, you're on both ends of the equation and the way that your two pursuits play into one another essentially is the game.

You'll need to mindful of supply and demand and as well as good tips and gear for adventuring. Dodging monsters to jab their weak spot, before hopping away and nabbing their leavings is a regular cycle. But that, in itself, hides a lot of the nuance on offer. Prying the core of a mechanized stone golem and bringing it back to town will fetch a tidy price--but only a few times. People don't know how to use them, per se, nor do they really need that particular item. It's neat (and rare), but that's all, really.

Add to it the fact that few have seen such trinkets since heroes swarmed through these dungeons, and that immediately complicates the equation. You don't know what the value of it really is, because you're the shopkeep. It's worth what others will pay. So it falls to you to make educated guesses, learn from your customers reactions and hope that your initial prices aren't so low that you're getting ripped off or so high that customers balk and walk off.

Those same assessments follow with every item you plunder, meaning that you're always working the numbers, figuring out what you can carry up, and how it's going to affect your bottom line. This also keeps you from always gathering up the most valuable items. If you only grab the best loot, you'll quickly flood the market and bottom out your sales, and the same goes in reverse for the most basic stuff. Wood and vines can be valuable (though rarely). And all that calculus compounds when you begin examining the supplies you'll need for your own gear. Potions and new equipment don’t make themselves. Indeed, when you start, none of those types of facilities are even available in town.

This ties a lot of the game's progression directly into your choices, and gives you a powerful through line and a sense of thematic goals that tie into your physical journey. That feeling is fantastic, and grows every time you think back to the sparse hamlet you began with, and track just how far your adventure and the arc of the town itself join and progress together.

Saccharine melodies that playfully evoke the 16-bit era help sell the narrative as well. Few openers are as immediately alluring as Moonlighter’s theme. Melancholic notes blends with the sweet sounds of your hamlet, filling you with a sense of loss--for what your town once was. Because of the aesthetics, many of those feelings also get blended with kernels of nostalgia, particularly for those fond of the Super Nintendo era.

Bright colors, and a sharp aesthetic are backed with crisp animations that not only sell the world, but help it breathe. Fireflies drift about town, settling near trees, illuminating the wooden giants. Down in the dungeons, spiders and moths flitter to and fro, while your battles with golems and monsters play out.

Now at this point you may have noticed that there not much has been said about the combat. And sadly, that's because it's the weaker half of this outing. There are five distinct dungeons, each with their own environments, foes, and array of tricks and traps to throw your way. But across them all, you use the same core movement--and it consists of two types of moves and a dodge. If you've got finesse, you can string some actions together, though. You can attack with one weapon, dodge, quickly switch, and then resume the onslaught. Or switch between a sword and shield for defense (where the secondary "move" would be a block), and a more offensive weapon. But that's generally the sum total of your combat choices. Combat, then, is thin and there's only so much that can be done with massively varied environments and a limited pool of combat techniques.

None of this to say that battles in Moonlighter are bad. Far from it. What it manages with those limited sets is quite impressive, and there will be plenty of moments when you dodge over bottomless pits that line a snaking path to approach an enemy from a novel angle. But they aren't common enough or varied enough to really get the full potential of what's here.

In some ways, the same could be said of the keeping the shop running at peak efficiency, but there's enough interplay with managing your limited baggage space and just enough anchored in supply-and-demand systems that it comes together nicely. It's a shame, then that Moonlighter's also a bit on the short end, as some of these ideas would do well with simply more--but then the combat would like thin out even more. Still, what's here is refreshing, and the balance struck between crawling through dungeons and working with the economics of the town are a good combo while it lasts.

Categories: Games

Sushi Striker: The Way Of Sushido Review - Cartoon Cuisine Combat

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 17:00

Like many of Nintendo's most memorable video games, Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido takes a seemingly mundane fixture of life and extrapolates it into a novel gameplay idea. In this case, co-developer Indieszero (Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, NES Remix) has built an action-puzzle game around conveyor-belt sushi, which serves as a vehicle for its match-three-style duels. And thanks to a knowingly zany presentation and regular stream of new mechanics, Sushi Striker is a fun and consuming puzzler unlike anything else currently on Switch, despite a few niggling issues.

Battling foes by throwing plates of sushi is an inherently silly premise, and Sushi Striker fully embraces the concept by wrapping it up in an even more ridiculous story. The game begins in the aftermath of the Sushi Struggles, a bitter war that took the parents of protagonist Musashi (who can be either a boy or girl) and resulted in the Empire gaining complete control over the world's sushi supply. As it happens, Musashi displays a preternatural gift for Sushi Striking--the ability to conjure plates of sushi and throw them in battle--and soon joins the Sushi Liberation Front, a Republic force fighting for the noble cause of sharing sushi with everyone. The tale only gets more absurd from there, but it remains delightfully charming throughout thanks to the hilarious writing and amusing anime cutscenes.

Musashi's journey encompasses more than 150 puzzle battles, which offer a novel and deceptively simple twist on match-three gameplay. The object of these is to link together plates of the same color as they whiz by on the conveyor belts in front of you, then throw those plates at your opponent to dish out damage. You have seven seconds to match plates; the more you're able to link up at once, the taller your stack will be, which in turn will inflict more damage when thrown. You can also chain together combos by throwing stacks of the same color consecutively, further racking up your score and increasing the amount of damage you deal.

As a result, battles are simultaneously frantic and strategic, as your success--particularly in the later stages of the game--hinges on effectively creating large stacks of plates before they disappear and chaining them into combos. The game also regularly introduces additional gameplay wrinkles as you progress through the story, which add further layers of complexity to battles and help keep the encounters fresh and exciting.

Chief among these are the Sushi Sprites--Pokemon-like magical creatures that can be called upon to unleash special skills. These abilities can be activated once you've eaten a sufficient amount of sushi, and they provide a temporary power that can help turn the tide of battle. One, for instance, imbues your plates with electricity, causing them to deal more damage; another turns all the plates on your lanes into the same color, allowing you to chain together a huge stack. There are more than 30 Sushi Sprites to collect in total, and experimenting with different combinations and devising the best way to leverage their abilities is one of the most satisfying aspects of the game.

On top of that, many battles introduce special capsule items, such as stopwatches or bombs. These randomly appear among the sushi and can be used against your opponent, provided you're able to link up the requisite number of plates before the item disappears. You can also outfit Musashi with different gears that alter the speed of your conveyor belts, as well as select a favorite variety of sushi; eat enough of it during a battle and it'll confer another passive ability, from an attack buff to health replenishment.

There's a lot to digest in Sushi Striker, but the game does a good job of parceling out new elements and gameplay ideas over the course of its single-player campaign, keeping it surprising and engaging for the majority of its duration. That said, the campaign does begin running out of steam toward the end. Later stages start to recycle earlier gimmicks without building on them (besides by imposing harsher restrictions), which results in some frustrating encounters. In particular, a stretch of late-game stages reintroduce wasabi plates. These temporarily stun you when eaten, slowing down the pace of the game considerably as you (often unsuccessfully) try to avoid grabbing them.

Likewise, while Sushi Striker generally plays well on Switch, it was clearly designed with the 3DS in mind, and the controls didn't translate quite as well to the hybrid console. You can play the game with either a controller or the console's touchscreen, but the latter is much better suited for the fast-paced gameplay. Using a control stick to toggle between different plates of sushi is imprecise and often frustrating, as you'll struggle to select the right plate as they roll by. Linking plates with the touchscreen, by contrast, feels more intuitive, although the game would still have benefited from the precision of a stylus.

Both the Switch and 3DS versions support local and online multiplayer, although curiously, these options need to be unlocked as you progress through the story, and there is no cross-play between platforms. In either case, you can take on rivals in two game types: Tasty Battles, the standard mode that only features sushi, and Chaos Battles, which throws capsule items into the mix as well. Additionally, the Switch version allows you to play locally on a single console. Multiplayer battles don't have the same element of surprise as the single-player encounters, but they're still fun and strategic, as you can test your best Sushi Sprite combinations out against other human players.

Despite its imperfect transition to Switch, Sushi Striker is one of the more enjoyable puzzle games in the console's library. With a substantial campaign that's propped up by clever mechanics and a charmingly ludicrous story, the game offers a wealth of single- and multiplayer content to dive into. The controls suffer a bit in the move to Switch, and the campaign is stretched out for too long, but the fast-paced puzzle-matching gameplay offers a surprising amount of depth and is a real treat.

Categories: Games

West Of Loathing Review: The Wild Bunch

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 01:00

West of Loathing is not as simple as its art style might lead you to believe. Its black and white color palette, stick-figure characters, and crude hand-drawn art might appear to be devoid of personality. But in practice, its visual simplicity acts as a malleable canvas for its imagination to run away with reckless abandon. West of Loathing is an involved Western adventure game/RPG hybrid that embraces absolute absurdity with mechanical flexibility and comedic personality, making role-playing in its monochromatic old West thoroughly entertaining.

The backbone of the game is its jokes and ingrained humor. Every little thing in West of Loathing serves as either a punchline or the lead-up to one. It exists in the writing naturally--the main narrative involves a bizarre cataclysmic event involving demon cows and rodeo clowns. The flavor text is filled with irony and wordplay, and conversations with characters play out like short sketches. The sheer amount of jokes draws you into Loathing's crudely drawn and ludicrous world, but what's more impressive is that they rarely fall flat, and if they do, there's often another to draw your attention away immediately.

But West of Loathing's consistent sense of humor runs deeper, woven throughout your interactions and the game's menus and UI. Attempting to search spittoons for items will engage you in long lectures from the narrator as they attempt to stop you from doing so by describing, in great detail, how disgusting what you're trying to stick your hand into is. Choosing to playfully boast that "Sneaky" is your middle name will discreetly change your middle name on your character screen to just that. Searching a shelf and finding a book entitled "The Art of Silly Walking" will unlock a new character perk, which adds a new toggle in the game's system menu to visibly change the way your character moves in-game to everything from cartwheels to swimming. These are just a few very early examples of the game's sense of humor, but West of Loathing's commitment and follow-through on its jokes will surprise and delight you throughout its entire duration.

You begin the game by selecting from one of three different classes--farcical takes on familiar RPG character tropes. The Cow Puncher is a warrior-style class, the Bean Slinger uses legumes as a source of magic, and the Snake Oiler is the rogue equivalent. But although each class comes with their own set of unique skills, and a convenient option for auto-leveling will build out a nicely rounded character for you of that archetype, West of Loathing also allows you the flexibility of manually assigning experience points to build whatever kind of character you want. That means there's nothing stopping you from having a physically adept Bean Slinger who can also pick locks, or a Cow Puncher with a high moxie stat and the cunning required to outfox his opponents.

West of Loathing's combat consists of a simple turn-based system situated on a 3x6 grid. There are some small nuances to consider regarding positioning and using cover when facing opponents with ranged attacks, and a number of consumable items can be used in battle to cause various effects. But aside from the novelty of seeing the amusing enemy and ability designs in battle, combat is a straightforward affair.

What's more interesting about West of Loathing's mechanics is that it is as much of an adventure game as it is an RPG, and one of the by-products of this is that there are multiple solutions to any given problem--and there is nearly always a completely viable alternative to engaging in battle. Having the right item in your inventory (some of which have multiple uses both in and out of combat), enough points in a particular statistic, or certain abilities unlocked means that you can complete quests or resolve random encounters without violence and still get enough experience points to spend on character progression. If you don't have the goods to pass these skill checks when you first encounter an obstacle, West of Loathing allows you to come back later with the right stuff if you so desire; it doesn't force you into any combat situations without warning, and it's a very welcome, player-friendly decision.

There are a few minor issues--inventory management on Switch becomes cumbersome as you collect an increasing amount of things, fights with a lot of enemies can obscure some pertinent information, and the stakes sometimes feel a little too low to be completely motivating. But West of Loathing's focus on maintaining a flexible, open-ended nature and lighthearted, humorous feel keeps you engaged in what feels like an imaginative pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons campaign, led by a game master whose only goal is to make sure you're laughing and having a fun time. West of Loathing's visuals are monochromatic, but there's enjoyable comedy painted between every line, a pitch-perfect Spaghetti Western soundtrack, and a full spectrum of role-playing possibilities to choose from that make it a consistently enjoyable madcap cowboy jaunt.

Categories: Games

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