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An Intriguing, But Flawed, Future

As a society, we're constantly turning to technology to relieve our burdens, and we become increasingly dependent on it. With the creation of self-driving cars and robots to attend to our needs, we have to wonder how these advancements will shape our society going forward – for better and worse. Detroit: Become Human explores this interesting question, presenting a world where androids seem more like human than machine, but they're prisoners to our demands. The premise is engrossing, and the variety of choices is fascinating. They're both compact and far-reaching; it could be how you develop a relationship, or which questions you ask, but what you decide always an impact and it is often unpredictable. The result is an experience you can't look away from and leaves you thinking. Sometimes this narrow focus is also its downfall, as you begin to spot inconsistencies or unexplained information.

Detroit shows humanity at its worst – how we're prone to greed, violence, and hate. Quantic Dream paints a horrifying look at the future, showing humans using and abusing machines at every turn. You experience this firsthand as you take control of three different android protagonists, all with different things at stake and relationships to consider. Kara must protect a child named Alice from her abusive father, deciding how far she'll go to give her a better life. Connor must hunt his own kind – androids with errors making them display emotion – seeing firsthand the treatment that sparks these feelings. The weakest of the three arcs is Markus', the leader of an android uprising. A look at Markus' previous life as the caretaker of an elderly man is well done, but when he takes on his leadership role, it falls flat with predictable speeches and black-and-white decisions.

The writing is at its best in the little moments that develop relationships. Connor works with Hank, a police detective who hates androids, and their interactions are fun to watch. Connor's objective to complete missions at all costs annoys Hank to no end, and Hank often busts his chops, trying to get Connor to see beyond the mission. In addition, watching an android like Kara having to decide what example she sets for Alice works well. Do you teach her about this harsh world where you sometimes have to do bad things to survive, or do you always do the right thing, even if it puts you in a dire situation? How you develop your relationships plays into what happens in the overall narrative, opening different paths and scenes based on your decisions, whether they're hostile or warm.  Even small things like picking up a single, innocuous-looking item, such as a gun or photo, will open up unforeseen dialogue in future chapters.

Watching these bonds form is the highlight of the game, but the overall narrative has issues impossible to ignore. Its self-stated parallels to history, such as slavery and civil war, are too heavy-handed, making it come across as disingenuous. Quantic Dream beats you over the head with these comparisons instead of allowing you to make connections for yourself – whether through direct dialogue or in the world around you. I felt uncomfortable with how much it draws comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement; this fictional battle obviously doesn't have the same stakes as the real-life oppression it mirrors, and the way it is used as a crutch further cheapens the struggle. One character even has a speech stating he has a dream to be equal, straight from Martin Luther King's famous declaration. The world is strong enough on its own, and doesn't need to rely on these ham-handed connections. The core message does a good job displaying how humans often fear change and the unknown, as our violent (and sometimes catastrophic) history shows. In many ways, it's on you to change humanity's trajectory, making choices that support how androids should be treated and if we should see them as new intelligent life or simply machines to help us get by.

The extremism also extends to the supporting characters, making them feel cliché, with plenty of over-the-top situations and one-note agendas. Much of the cast seems to always have the worst intentions, including Alice's abusive and drug-addicted father, and another character who treat robots as his toys to experiment on. Detroit tackles complex themes and doesn't shy away from violence. Scenes of abuse and brutal circumstances are omnipresent, and they made me uncomfortable – as they should. The scenes make sense in the context of the story, but they feel exploitive due to the over-the-top antics. These stories can certainly be told in video games, but the frequency they're used here is high, especially in Connor and Kara's arcs, which can go to dark places.

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When I played Detroit, I was captivated by it. But my disappointment grew as I hit some plot twists and realized how poorly certain information is explained – like how Markus has the power to convert machines and give them free will. You find plot holes regardless of the path you take, but especially in Kara's arc.  I had to suspend my disbelief to enjoy Detroit for what it is – similar to previous Quantic Dream titles like Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy. Some important details can be uncovered by making different decisions, but hiding basic plot information behind dialogue choices players may never see is frustrating. I felt strung along by some mysteries, only to see them amount to little in the end. Additional playthroughs provided some of the answers I wanted, but the reveals aren't satisfying enough for how important these threads appear to be.

Even so, replaying the game and certain scenes gave me an appreciation for how far-reaching and different a playthrough can be. After you complete a segment, you are shown a grid of each variation, with the paths not taken left as blank boxes. Some chapters are more linear than others, and some choices only offer minor variations but still put you in the same place. The branching paths really shine in the latter parts of the game. Choice-driven games typically struggle with giving players enough satisfying variations, but Detroit acknowledges what you've done, like how you've built your relationships, and the split-second decisions you've made, like taking a risk during a chase scene.

This is a great achievement by Quantic Dream. To write a scene so many different ways and still have it work is not an easy feat, and the scope of choices and consequences in this narrative is one of its biggest strengths. It's unlike anything I've played in that regard, and it makes me excited to see what Quantic Dream can do in the future and if other developers will follow. That being said, Detroit wants you to own your decisions, and sometimes that means grave consequences. The story ends in many ways, some more satisfying than others, but it is about learning the repercussions of what you did in this intense situation and accepting it. My only big knock on the choice front is that your interactions have few shades of gray; it really boils down to whether you want to be peaceful or fight fire with fire, and whether you want to treat androids like people or machines. The plot presents complex dilemmas, but usually only gives you these simple options to deal with them; I was left wishing for more nuanced ways to handle many situations.

The variance in choice is downright impressive, but the overall gameplay could use more variety. Detroit relies on quick-time events for every occasion, and sometimes this feels redundant. I can only experience so many fights, investigations, and chase scenes before they all start to bleed together. In addition, the touchpad and motion controls are unintuitive, and I hated each time they appeared, because I knew it could mean failing a sequence and having to deal with consequences for something that didn't feel like my fault. Quantic Dream explores a new element unseen in their previous choice-based games, where you can use Markus's special power to calculate movement ahead of time, seeing what success or failure would look like. I like this idea, as it lets the player determine the route and not have to face a fail condition based on arbitrary decisions like which way to jump.

Detroit made me think about topics I've avoided about humanity and our future, and that's a good thing. These are hard issues to explore, and I'm glad Quantic Dream took on the challenge knowing it could result in failure. Detroit both succeeds and stumbles in that area. Its biggest assets are the relationship building and expansive branching paths. I keep coming back to explore its variations. Not only are they fascinating, but I cared about where I left these characters. The overall message about technology and our future lingers long after the credits roll, making me wonder how I'll handle my relationship with technology as it takes us to new places.  

Gently Modifying A Masterpiece

Seven years later, the influence of From Software’s Dark Souls on the games industry is impossible to ignore. A challenging atmospheric experience through classic fantasy tropes with a grim tint, Dark Souls spurred an entire genre of souls-like titles, and provided a haven for those who love exploration, larger-than-life boss battles, and a world drenched with mystery. Dark Souls Remastered is the way to play the game today if you’re on console, though PC players may have experienced many of the same improvements via Durante’s famous DSFix mod.

The most important part of the remaster is the upgrade to 60 fps. Even areas that were notorious for slow chugging like Blighttown run smooth the whole way through (although the zone is still an abomination of toxic poison, ogres, and rickety ladders). Everything looks crisp and clean, and you won’t slow down at an inopportune moment when you’re jamming your zweihander into a disgusting monstrosity’s flesh. For those that experienced the original title on console, these changes alone make the remaster worth the price of admission.

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In addition, Dark Souls Remastered brings other aspects of the game up to speed with its modern counterparts like Dark Souls III. You can remap your buttons for a control scheme that suits your playstyle, use multiple items at the same time instead of having to laboriously consume each little bundle of souls, and change your covenants at bonfires. Even playing with your friends is easier than ever thanks to the implementation of a password system. These minor changes are nice additions, and don’t fundamentally alter anything from the core title.

For those new to the series, you can expect a captivating crawl through a mesmerizing dark world, full of unforgiving encounters, majestic foes, spectacular loot, and beautiful environments. The amazing moments that define the series like triumphing over the legendary Ornstein and Smough battle or wandering your way into Ash Lake for the first time are as epic as ever. The degree of openness in Dark Souls can lead you venturing into dangerous areas early on, so don’t get dismayed if you suddenly find yourself up against something impossible – instead, perhaps look for another route. The interconnected, shortcut-laden world that wraps around the Firelink Shrine is something wonderful, once you have your bearings. The lauded DLC for Dark Souls, Artorias of the Abyss, is included in the remaster and features some of the best characters and battles in the entire franchise.

All improvements aside, Dark Souls does feel its age in the face of From Software’s recent contributions to the genre. The drop off in quality in the second half of the game, bosses like Bed of Chaos and incomprehensible zones like Lost Izalith remain curious blemishes on an otherwise incredible experience.

This review pertains to the PS4 version of Dark Souls Remastered. The game is also available on Xbox One and PC and is coming to Nintendo Switch.

Apocalyptic Mobile Home Road Trip

The identity of the protagonist and their ultimate goal is never totally clear during the course of Far: Lone Sails. In this way, it recalls games like Inside and Little Nightmares; it creates a compelling narrative based almost entirely on a mysterious, horrific mood. Far: Lone Sails stands alongside other games in this difficult-to-define genre, but it also sets itself apart in a big way with a lumbering, upgradable vehicle that carries you through a desolate world.

In Far: Lone Sails, you are taking your vehicle (effectively a mobile home) from left to right on a 2D plane. You stop only to refuel and solve puzzles to eliminate obstacles that prevent you from moving forward. As you travel, you come across assorted pieces that can be used to improve your vehicle. Sails, for example, let you move without consuming fuel as long as the wind is in your favor, while a vacuum upgrade lets you grab fuel without having to stop and exit your vehicle.

The connection I built with this vehicle was a strong one. It doubles as your home as you make your way and you must take care of it, repairing its occasional damage, and making sure its fuel stays topped off. You attach upgrades to it as you progress, and I was excited to come across each one as they make your transportation stronger and more efficient. Exiting the vehicle and moving away from it, which is necessary to solve puzzles, made me more uncomfortable as I moved further away. I felt exposed and in danger without it. That connection is exploited to great effect at a few key moments over the course of the adventure.

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The puzzles never push the player too hard, but that is not a complaint. None of the mechanics feel overused, and it also does a good job at giving you tools and letting the puzzles themselves explain how those tools can be used. A winch on the front, for example, is available from the beginning, but its use does not become apparent until much later. The puzzles are also consistently surprising in that you may be working toward what appears to be an obvious solution, only to discover the button you pressed does something entirely different and exciting. On one occasion, I thought I was simply opening a door to move forward, but as the pieces collapsed around me and fell into place, I realized I had created a ferry to take me from side of a lake to another.

Events outside the vehicle can be just as compelling as those inside. Whatever happened to this world (and why the protagonist is so eager to keep moving) is never totally clear, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good. By just looking at the environment as you travel through it, you get a powerful sense of broken dreams. I often felt like I was in a world that was building to something amazing, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath it at the last second. I was impressed by how well the emotional state of the world came across, even without knowing what calamity had led it to this state.

For all the landscape does to tell its story, and the impressive engineering of the vehicle on display, I wish the protagonist’s design fell in line with the rest of the excellent art. Images in various locations hint that this world was once populated by normal humans, but the protagonists looks a bit like a collection of red cardboard boxes and it clashed with the otherwise compelling aesthetic.

Far: Lone Sails is the kind of game that sticks with you after seeing credits. It delivers a fascinating mystery in a strange land with engaging puzzles, and couples that with a relationship between the player and their oversized mode of transportation. A few areas lack polish and some of the physics felt off here and there, but none of that stopped the story from engaging me in a big way.

A Plague On Multiple Fronts

When making a sequel, most studios make it a priority to build on the strengths of the original while patching up weaknesses. State of Decay 2 gets the first part right. Five years after the first game clawed its way to cult-favorite status, Undead Labs has released a follow-up that offers incremental improvements over its predecessor – and co-op – but the sense that this game isn’t ready for wide release is as tough to shake as a feral zombie.

At the beginning, your small group of survivors is homeless, and their truck is out of gas. Fortunately, safety is within walking distance. Setting up a new base of operations is simple, after you’ve cleared your dilapidated starter home of zombies. The tricky part comes with making sure that the fledgling community is safe and happy. Regardless of which of the three maps you choose to start in, you begin your journey in a small split-level. Its size requires a number of tough trade-offs. Should you build an infirmary to nurse your characters back to health when they’re inevitably injured in the field? Or would that space be better used by building a watchtower to provide additional security? There aren’t many wrong answers, and I enjoyed trying to make the most from those limited resources.

There may not be many wrong answers, but some are less wrong than others. Players who forego an infirmary are in for a rude awakening, thanks to the introduction of a new strain of zombie. These variants are infected with something called the blood plague, and they’re more than happy to share. If you get munched on too many times by these tougher foes, your characters run the risk of getting infected as well. Dally too long on administering a cure, and you have to say goodbye to the infected character – either through exile or euthanasia. Getting a cure is easier said than done, particularly during the early stages of the game. Some infected zombies drop plague samples, which can be used in your medical station to create vials of curative.

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These new zombies add a welcome wrinkle to world exploration, which is largely the same as before. On its surface, the focus on supply runs and fetch quests might seem overly repetitive. Thankfully, Undead Labs has created a systemic world that’s deadly and reactive enough to remain interesting. Most of my sessions included at least a few “hell yeah!” escapes, where I was barely able to limp back to camp or pull my smoking car into the lot with a horde in hot pursuit. The thrill is certainly magnified by the game’s permadeath elements, where a favorite hero can easily die if they’re fatigued, injured, or a victim of poor planning. New randomly generated characters are always available to fill up those empty beds, but it doesn’t make the loss of a favorite character sting any less – not necessarily for their personalities, but the time and effort spent leveling them up.

You can take an A.I. companion along with you, but if you’re clamoring for companionship you’re better served bringing an actual friend (or three). One player is the host, and the others can lend a hand in battle and in keeping the host’s supply full. It’s fine, but it seems at odds with the overall emphasis on being a permanent part of a community; you’re definitely a guest in someone else’s world. Playing with friends makes some of the tougher tasks, such as destroying nest-like plague hearts, fairly trivial. Supply runs are also faster and more lucrative, since the A.I. refuses to pitch in when it’s time to loot. I loved the idea of having my friends come along for the ride, but Undead Labs clearly struggled with the co-op implementation in some frustrating ways.

I ran into a steady drip of bugs and glitches during my solo experience. Some were funny, like watching zombies fall into the world while driving quickly on the roads (roads that, State of Decay veterans should know, now aren’t frequently littered with impassible blockades). Animations unfurl in goofy and unexpected ways. Others were less hilarious, like when items vanished or companions teleported back to base without any provocation. Those issues are magnified in co-op. Characters skitter around each other, barely able to keep up with their friends. Flashlights are basically broken. Cars disappear or warp onto their sides before bursting into flame. Zombies materialize within arm’s reach, and start chowing down on your character before you have time to react. I won’t recite the litany of problems; you’ll see plenty if you spend a few minutes playing the game.

Individually, these issues sound silly, and some players might relish in its masochistic “so bad it’s good” delights. I can’t do that. This is a game where you can realistically lose a character you’ve spent hours honing through no fault of your own. I appreciate the tension that permadeath brings, and how it leads to an investment in the characters that I wouldn’t otherwise have. But State of Decay 2 doesn’t play fair. It’s unpolished and sloppy, and you’re at risk of losing progress, failing missions, and having to say goodbye to one of your heroes because the game was pushed out of the nest too early. The fact that this was the main complaint players had with the first game and its subsequent remaster makes it all the more inexcusable.

That’s a shame, because State of Decay 2 has so much to love. If you manage to level a character high enough, you can promote them to a leadership role. Depending on their dominant trait, your group can focus on trade, construction, maintaining order, and acquiring power through force. It’s a simple, but effective way to tailor your group’s goals beyond mere survival. The narrative is a bare-bones affair, which makes it easy for your imagination to fill in the gaps, and it works well. See it through to its conclusion, and you can bring a trio of survivors along to build an all-new community, with unlockable end-game perks that let you save precious time in subsequent attempts. After seeing my first group’s story to the end, I wanted to see what came next for my survivors, who worked to bring peace and cooperation to the land. But I’m not going to, or at least not any time soon. It’s not worth the aggravation in its current state. 

A Promising Trajectory

As a smaller expansion in both size and price, my expectations for Warmind were modest, in keeping with similar prior expansions with the scope of a few new missions and locations to explore. And while the campaign missions are all too brief, there’s nonetheless a lot here for hobbyist players to enjoy. This isn’t the expansion that fully resolves Destiny 2’s flagging long-term engagement problem, but it admirably moves many aspects of play in the right direction, and offers abundant reasons for faithful players to log in on a day-to-day basis. 

The conclusion of Destiny 2’s core game brought a shift in the status quo for humanity’s Guardians, and Warmind continues the story trend begun with Curse of Osiris, offering follow-through on that moment. The Traveler’s awakening has stirred two sleeping giants in the polar ice caps of Mars, and dire consequences are promised if we don’t confront the threat at hand. Warmind’s story missions are fun to play through, but the ambitious scope of the narrative doesn’t have the time it needs to establish credibility or drama; almost as soon as the threat is introduced, I’ve shot it, it’s dead, and there’s no reason to care anymore. 

That’s why I was happily surprised that so much fiction, context, and secrets lurked in the post-campaign loop. Warmind applies the philosophy that served The Taken King expansion of the original game so well, embedding hidden weapons, cryptic caches, and nuggets of lore across the Mars landscape, helping exploration to feel meaningful and mysterious. That new exotic Sparrow vehicle is far more memorable because of the scattered data fragments that led to its discovery, and the details hinted about its creator. On a broader level, the Hellas Basin of Mars is a superb new destination, juxtaposing impressive ice caverns against a massive research facility, with lots of nooks and crannies to uncover.

Warmind goes to great pains to encourage long-term daily and weekly investment from its players, but the full progression system needs a more dramatic overhaul to be at its best. In particular, rewards are not currently commensurate with the effort involved in achieving them, especially in some particularly challenging (if mostly enjoyable) content like heroic strikes. Across the game, several methods of boosting character power have been tweaked or eliminated, leading to a painfully tedious grind. Endgame activities like the new Spire of Stars raid lair and Escalation Protocol have been tuned to be extremely challenging – a good or bad thing depending on your level of commitment – but there’s no doubt that the pool of potential players for those activities is smaller than it could be as a result.

The Escalation Protocol wave-based PvE event is the clearest example of a smart idea that isn’t reaching its potential. These big public space fights can be thrilling, but the absence of meaningful matchmaking or grouping options mean it’s rare that a full team is even present to confront the challenge, and the event is often failed almost as soon as it has begun. As more people reach higher power levels this should improve, but once again, some of Destiny 2’s best content is being obscured by an unwillingness to embrace structured grouping of varied sizes. 

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The Crucible is in a comparatively good place right now, with strong balance between weapon types and subclasses. The variety of game types expanded over the course of last season through Rumble and 6v6 Iron Banner, and along with the addition of a couple of strong new maps with Warmind, the variety in playspaces and activities is at a high point. A dual ranking system rewards both consistent play (valor) and skill (glory), though the latter may make the higher-tier competitive playlist even more insular and unfriendly to those who are wanting to give it a shot. The return of private matches is excellent news, even if it was a bit confounding that it wasn’t included in the base game last fall. 

Contentious issues around the prevalence of team-shooting, weapon slot structure, and time-to-kill are still hot topics among the vocal upper echelon of Destiny 2’s community; these are serious issues, but I’m also sensitive to the developer seeking a middle ground between addressing those complaints, and maintaining an environment that isn’t punishing for the average player.  It’s safe to say that we’re looking at a work-in-progress as the Crucible continues to be revised.

New weapons and armor are always exciting, but the real star of the show this time is the newly reinvigorated exotic weapons. While a few stinkers remain, many of the exotic weapons finally feel epic and powerful. I face a genuinely difficult choice as I weigh the merits of the black hole-slinging Graviton Lance or the explosive Sunshot hand cannon, and that’s the way it should be. 

While I’m not ever going to be a fan of the microtransactions, Warmind does a better job of telegraphing the nature of these mostly cosmetic rewards, and offering increased opportunities to find some of them from activities. In a game that is currently suffering from a dearth of fun rewards for day-to-day play, that practice should be increased; public events, world chests, patrols, strikes, and Crucible matches would be improved with a higher chance of some of these appealing cosmetics in the loot pool. 

Warmind effectively rounds out Destiny 2’s first year, and represents a franchise in a strange period of transition. The game seeks to maintain some of its successful new features, like better destinations and clan integration, even as it simultaneously tries to recapture some of the magic and investment that characterized its predecessor. The weapon is aiming at the right target, and now it just needs to hit that precision shot.

The Future Is Being Vaporized By A Laser

Don't believe the visions of a dystopian future – 2150 is going to be a blast. I can't tell you the state of the human race or even if we're still on this Earth, but if the sport in Laser League is around, the bread and circuses will be rich. You may be vaporized by a sweeping laser field or shoved into one by an opponent, but with quick thinking, twitch skills, and strategy, living in a state of constant near-death is more than just feeling alive, it's exhilarating.

Laser League is a sport in the future where two teams of up to four players win by surviving multiple rounds in an arena of deadly lasers. These lasers emit from moving, rotating nodes that activate according to whichever team touches them first. Touch a laser field of the other team and you die. Thus, the playing field is like a bullet-hell shooter with discernible patterns and often little room for error. Running around activating and reactivating nodes (new ones drop and old ones switch off) or reviving teammates is fun as the balance of power often switches from team to team within a round. But avoiding lasers is just the beginning of Laser League's addictive gameplay.

Automatically dropped power-ups change the simple premise by switching all your lasers over to your opponent, speeding up the nodes, stunning the other players, etc. Power-ups and the everchanging landscape give you more to react to, but don't make the game more complex, per se. The game layers on clear strategic avenues not cumbersome, superfluous baggage, allowing players to always remain nimble in mind and movement.

Above and beyond this premise, Laser League works because it's well balanced. The six player classes have their own abilities (with a cooldown). Strong ones, like the lethal dash attack or invincibility, might be better suited to a particular map, but I've won matches with different permutations of classes, boards, and power-ups. An ability like steal, which changes all the active lasers to your team's color, can be a gamechanger, but not all power-ups turn the tide or should be played as soon as they appear. Even when you're down, you're never really out. You can rely on your stick skills to maneuver your way to safety, or activate new nodes to put your opponent on the defensive.

This balance makes the multiplayer less intimidating while still retaining its competitive spirit. The game has a single-player experience which lets you mix-and-match up to eight local players, but it's a training ground not a campaign by any stretch of the imagination. Here A.I. bots can be used if you don't have enough real bodies, and the A.I. is competent, going about its job utilizing whatever class you've set up for it and reviving fallen players. Overall in both modes, If there's a shallow point of the game, it's that while the class abilities cater to different play styles, the classes don't have deep progression, limiting players' rewards to cosmetic customization options.

I was occasionally killed by a laser I swear I wasn't touching, but for the most part the gameplay delivers with necessary precision. Movement is tight and responsive, allowing you to stop and turn fluidly on a dime when a laser threatens to shave off your face. I also had lag-free sessions with players way over in Europe. This helps the aforementioned balance, because while the dash attacks of the Blade and Smash classes are powerful, if those classes don't line up their attacks precisely or you dodge out of the way, they'll end up eating empty air or unintentionally vaporizing themselves into a laser like you planned it all along.

This sold gameplay is augmented by necessarily spartan visual and sound design that is as helpful as it is stylish. Even when you're running around in a panic, you can detect thin lines at the base of nodes that indicate which direction lasers will emit from when the node is activated. A sound cue and controller rumble tells you when your class ability is charged up so you don't have to keep looking at your icon to see if the bar is full. An announcer and text on the arena wall informs you which power-up has just dropped. These small things convey very important information without being distractions.

While the game comes with 16 varied maps in four venues, its multiplayer structure doesn't give players enough options now at launch. The game offers no lobbies or playlists where you can play a particular map or sequence of maps. Instead, it's rotated by the developer. Similarly, you can't tweak parameters such as the frequency at which power-ups appear or even how many points are in a round or how many rounds comprise a match. There is no persistence to your team, not even a team leaderboard. The lack of options doesn't make the game less fun, but having more choice would prevent you from having to play the same map twice in a row, for instance.

As I played Laser League people walked by my desk, saw the vibrant colors and figures scurrying around, and told me that they had no idea what was going on. Play the game for just five minutes, however, and its addictive frenzy will become readily apparent. The future is dangerous, chaotic, and unpredictable, but it's full of exciting possibilities.

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A Gruesome Champion

The figure in the distance has spotted my camp. I know because I can hear him chittering. I move slowly to the side, hiding myself within the bushes as the humanoid approaches the bonfire near my log cabin. I consider waiting the whole thing out but realize he’ll just bring a war party to my doorstep if I let him leave. I creep up behind him. He turns just in time to get an axe to the face. My camp and I are now both safe. And, moreover, I also finally have a grisly meal for dinner.

The Forest is a perverse, often grotesque game, delving into themes of abuse, cannibalism, and what it means to survive in a meaningless world. It’s also never boring. The game puts you in the shoes of a father who’s crash-landed on a mysterious island. Your job is to survive long enough to find your son, as well as the other passengers of the plane, which is easier said than done. Not only do you have to contend with your hunger, thirst, and stamina, but bloodthirsty tribes of cannibals are roaming these woods as well.

Many entries in the survival genre often feel like grinding acts of repetition to satisfy various meters. While The Forest does have those survival staples, the game avoids frustration by smartly presenting them in consistently interesting ways. For example, instead of a generic crafting menu, you’re presented with a giant blanket that reveals all of your inventory items. In the center of the blanket is your crafting area, where you drag various items to combine them into something better (like a bow with a flashlight or severed human head stuffed with a bomb) making the crafting process feel more intimate.

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The survival meters are optimized in a way that they don’t feel like an overbearing master you have to constantly please. Yes, you need to feed yourself and drink from streams, but there’s more than enough resources around in the environment wherever you go to keep those things in check as long as you look around. Crafting gear, like more bags to carry sticks and berries, also makes this exponentially easier as the game goes on.

Despite my initial weariness at the idea of playing yet another survival game filled with hunting resources and building structures, I soon fell in love with the core loop of The Forest. The structures you can build are predominantly wooden and thus draw from the same currency, meaning you don’t have to chase 20 different kinds of rocks. This makes building your first base a quick, satisfying quest. Every structure has a useful and defined purpose. Your cabin gives you shelter but you need other structures too, like the rack, which lets you dry out the meat you harvest so it never spoils and you can carry it with you anywhere. You can also use a turtle shell to build a water collector that holds rain droplets and sticks to make rabbit traps and cages. All of the survival elements of The Forest are satisfying, especially in how well-tuned they are, but they become special when they coalesce with the horror elements.

The Forest is about more than just survival, as there’s a fantastic story for you to progress through. You do this by discovering various caverns littered throughout the hand-crafted island. Spelunking into them, you find narrative clues like keycards for hidden doors, the bodies of your fellow passengers, and the helpful resources they’ve left behind. Every underground jaunt is terrifying as you start out with only a finicky lighter to show the way forward and help you spot cannibals, as well as other nasty surprises that lay waiting for you in the dark. Not only are the creatures and scenes that lurk the caverns below terrifying and gruesome, but the rewards are rich, too. Beyond the treasure trove of booze bottles and circuit boards (used to make molotovs and bombs), you can also find secret weapons that make cutting down enemies an easier task, both underground and on the surface.

Once I was belaying down a dark cavern. I used my lighter to get a look around, and suddenly saw the decimated face of a corpse swinging gently in the space next to me, a rope around his waist. This was not an on-the-rails moment, but instead one I found through playing with the game’s systems. It’s the sort of experience that pops up over and over again during the course of the campaign. The whole game feels like the pitch-perfect video game adaptation of The Descent that I never knew I wanted.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give The Forest is just how natural the game ties together. A lot of emergent storytelling games often end up having a novelty that overstays its welcome by the end. The Forest often succeeds in instilling terror because its A.I. is legitimately unpredictable. The cannibals don’t just surge at you. After a feint attack, they’ll laugh and run past you, like some sick juvenile joke. Often they’ll peek at you from afar and then turn back after sizing you up, returning with an entire group 10 minutes after you’ve already forgotten about them.

For those who want co-op delights, a multiplayer mode exists. The mode more or less breaks the game, putting the odds overwhelmingly in your favor when it comes to squaring off against adversaries. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, as you and your pal can get up to a number of dark-yet-wacky shenanigans as you romp around. Just don’t expect to be scared nearly as much.

The Forest is a triumph, both for the survival genre as well as gruesome horror. It gives players just the right amount of freedom to enjoy the challenge of this hellish nightmare

Rise, Fall, And Repeat

Generation after generation, a chosen hero rises to claim a legendary sword that can seal away the ultimate evil. Some of these heroes triumph while others fall, but the cycle has been in motion for as long as anyone can remember. Elements of this premise may sound familiar to Zelda fans, but The Swords of Ditto boils this multi-generational legend into one game. This approach allows players to see the consequences of their success or failure, and work to defeat an evil sorcerer once and for all.

This cute, top-down action game tasks you with taking down Mormo, a powerful apparition fighting to control the region of Ditto. You can scale Mormo's tower to face her with little preparation, but that's inadvisable. Instead, the best route is to explore the four dungeons placed throughout the procedurally generated world to collect more powerful weapons and weaken Mormo's power in the final battle by destroying magical anchors housed in the dungeons. Destroying these anchors gives Mormo fewer minions and less health in the climactic face off, but I was most excited to collect my favorite weapons to use on the hordes of creatures.

While the vinyl frisbee and exploding drone are powerful and versatile, I often made a beeline for the final dungeon the moment I found the powerful laser ring that burns through enemies with its focused beam. You can also further customize your hero with stickers that grant stat buffs, resistances, and abilities. My favorite combination of stickers made enemies drop healing items more often, while protecting me from bombs and boosting the power of my sword. The stickers in the shop rotate, but I never had any problem readying my character to delve into the dungeons.

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Slashing through the dungeons with the legendary blade is fun and familiar, and simple puzzles break up the pacing and often deliver worthwhile rewards. I like that I can decide how much I want to prepare for the battle with Mormo, but the repetition of the dungeons grated on me after a few playthroughs; I was sick of the dimension-shifting theme by my fifth incarnation. While the world and dungeons are procedurally generated to help each play feel fresh, I dreaded the repeated themes, rooms, and bosses that appeared in the dungeons. However, thanks to the rewards, I preferred completing them to bolster my arsenal and weaken Mormo in the final battle.

Each hero has one life and a set number of days to defeat the villain. If that hero succeeds, Mormo disappears for 100 years until the next hero rises. Statues are erected in that hero's honor, and the world becomes a little greener in the evil ghost's absence. However, if your hero falls, Mormo assumes control of Ditto for 100 years until the next hero is chosen. In this case, the world takes on a darker color palette, statues of the hero are torn down in favor of monuments to Mormo, and NPCs are less optimistic. I love seeing Ditto's state continually improve or worsen based on my success or failure, but after repeated victories or defeats, the changes become less noticeable.

The roguelike elements help alleviate some of the repetition, but dying and losing progress on a character is demoralizing. Thankfully, your money and shards you looted from enemies carries over. You can also buy extra lives using your shards, but they're expensive and don't get passed down to the next hero. However, several secret upgrades are passed on to your next character, making for rewarding exploration. From an orb hunt that adds extra days to each timeline, to a quest that has you searching for baby penguins to upgrade your bomb capacity, these meaningful diversions proved most helpful in my multi-generational journey.

Despite its repetitive nature, The Swords of Ditto delivers enjoyable combat and enticing rewards to discover. I love seeing how the world changes based on how I did as the prior hero, but much like The Swords of Ditto's name implies, the playthrough are too similar to feel like unique, standalone legends.

The Lure Of Exploration

A strong setting can do wonders for injecting life into a franchise. The first installment of Pillars of Eternity exhibited impressive writing and gameplay, while maintaining a style of presentation and action inspired by games from almost two decades ago like Baldur’s Gate. The sequel does some small but important things to evolve that traditional approach to RPGs. But it’s the swashbuckling flavor of the Deadfire Archipelago that helps this new project shine, mixing magic, dragons, and mythical gods with pirates, sailing, and a lengthy quest to discover what dangers lurk beyond the horizon. 

From dialogue to narrative structure, storytelling is the star of the show. Stellar, descriptive writing throughout lends a novelistic flair to the narrative. The story begins as your character’s carefully curated fortress from the first game is shattered to pieces with the rise of a literal god who sets out across the sea for unknown reasons. Much of the plot that follows is a direct follow-through on that disaster, as various islands and cultures deal with the destructive passage of this skyscraper-sized being, and you seek to understand the deity’s intentions. As you journey, details are relayed through written and spoken narration, providing the sense of an attending dungeon master who fleshes out the visuals with rich imagery and emotion, increasing the satisfying sense of being enmeshed in a great tabletop campaign. 

Choices abound in both party interactions and the ways you choose to interact with the pirates, native cultures, trading companies, and other groups that populate the disparate islands. Obsidian has done a good job of layering in consequences to your actions and words, sometimes closing certain doors and opening others in response to dramatic decisions. I love the way the different factions evolve in response to your hard calls, and the way they each respond to you differently over time, like the pirates showing up to take me down after I allied with the native islanders. Your party members even develop relationships with each other depending on conversations overheard or choices made. If anything, I was only disappointed with the crucial final decision of the game, which felt like it left me fewer true options to change the outcome than I would have liked. 

While the fiction holds your attention, it’s the opportunity for exploration that pulls you forward. The game advances as you manually sail your ship between islands, cities, and forts. The sea voyaging lacks visual sophistication, but relays the idea of an-ever expanding map as the fog lifts away. On land, individual islands provide chances for battle, as well as brief narrative encounters that bring added meaning to your skill choices. Larger urban and dungeon areas are fleshed out as fully explorable isometric maps; the massive city of Neketaka is particularly well realized as a central hub to your wandering, painting a picture of conflicting cultures and decadence that looms over abject poverty and inequality. Wherever you go in the islands, dynamic weather, breathtaking environment art, and lively NPCs bring the world to life, especially through the regional patois the residents express in conversations.

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Battles can be customized to your desired level of involvement through the flexible difficulty settings. On lower tiers, battles can be mostly automated, with only occasional interjections for drastically needed healing, consumable usage, or target selection; this is a great way to enjoy Pillars II if the tactical elements don’t intrigue you, but you’re still fascinated by the story and choices. At higher challenge levels, the tactical puzzles are often devilish, with enemies that exploit your positioning, dramatically debuff unguarded heroes, and generally make your party have a bad day. Visual presentation has made strides since the first game, as it’s easier than before to understand what’s happening on screen, and the spell effects look fantastic. 

Your ship is upgradeable with distinct crew, weapons, and more, and there are compelling management tasks in making sure your morale is high, ship stores are full, and repairs are handled in a timely way. Time invested in your ship is meant to pay off in the turn-based narrative battles that unfold when confronting an enemy ship. These are engaging and fun in the first few hours, but the narrative loop for ship-to-ship conflicts begins to stale, and in a long game like this, it feels like the ship combat minigame needs greater depth. 

Whether I was sailing into unknown waters, or delving into an ancient volcano temple, Deadfire impressed me with the breadth of missions, side quests, party member-specific tasks, faction development, and other projects that reveal themselves over time. As more and more objectives fill the journal it can feel overwhelming, but also deeply satisfying, to slowly chip away at the available projects. In another game, some of the side content might feel phoned in; here, almost every new quest brings interesting characters, conflicts, and choices into play. 

The isometric RPG has come a long way since the first Pillars of Eternity helped to usher in a resurgence for the genre in 2015. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire hews closer to the traditions than it needs to, and some of the new concepts like ship battles simply aren’t as robust as they could be. But stellar narrative structure and writing and an interesting central threat help this sequel maintain interest across the dozens of hours it takes to enjoy a robust playthrough. We also bear witness to a studio that is still at the top of its game in crafting memorable fantasy adventures. 

Get Rich Or Die Trying

You turn left at the storehouse, frantically running through alleyways as a group of skeletons shamble after you. With a crack of your whip, you grapple on to a hook and soar over a trapdoor. Your pursuers are not so lucky, their cries reaching your ears as they fall onto a pit of spikes. You can’t help but smile as you land on the other side scot-free and prepare to proceed to the mystical’s city’s marketplace … right before an angry genie’s fireball propels you right into the trap you just evaded, making you pay the price for your hubris.

Like most procedural roguelites, City of Brass is a game about learning from your self-education, pride, and death – all in that order. As a young explorer in a city filled with ghouls and gold in equal measure, you’re here to grab as much treasure as you can and make it out alive. This classic adventure concept is bolstered by thoughtful environmental challenges and a unique setting. Though One Thousand and One Nights has served as an inspiration for the likes of Aladdin, Sinbad, and Prince of Persia, we don’t often get to see games that take a page from that book. In that regard, City of Brass makes the most of its artistic inspirations, pitting you against greedy merchants who have turned undead as well as feisty genies and scowling sorceresses as you jump from rooftops and use your whip to manipulate this trap-filled paradise and even the odds.

Much of the game’s charm stems from your whip, which is not only a traversal tool but useful for snatching distant gold as well as stunning foes and pushing or pulling them into traps. Pulling your foes into explosive barrels and in the line of fire of turrets is not only immensely entertaining but also practical. You do have an upgradeable scimitar, but spotty hit detection makes combat pretty frustrating, and it’s also unsatisfying to boot since every landed hit feels like you’re slapping a tree trunk. Instead, City of Brass is at its best when it puts you in situations where you have to use your head to bypass enemies, punishing you fairly but severely when you fall victim to your own impatience and greed.

If you die during any of City of Brass’ 12 levels, it’s game over. All your items and gold are gone as well as your progress, though there are caveats that make it less frustrating than its genre siblings. You get access to portals that let you jump to later areas from the get-go once you hit those checkpoints your first time through, though jumping ahead is a dicey tradeoff since you’ll be fighting harder foes without any of the equipment you’d earn from a fresh run. Genies are also littered throughout every level. Some of them are nasty and send homing fireballs or goons after you, but the majority of them are impartial shopkeepers willing to disable traps, sell you health recovery, or even upgrade your weapons (like making your whip cause fire damage) for some of your coin. One of the genies even offers insurance, letting you keep a certain percentage of your gold for your next run.

Outside of in-game stress relievers, there’s also a host of difficulty modifiers, like turning off enemy respawns or making them weaker. The only cost to using these modifiers is lowering your score, so there’s no progression halting or secrets you miss out on by using some or even all of them, making City of Brass’s difficulty highly customizable and inviting to players of all skill levels. The only disappointing difficulty reliever is a level-based progression system that temporarily grants you an item or upgrade you can use for your next run whenever you gain a level. The boon is nice but you lose it as soon as the next run is done, making that feature feel like a waste of time.

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My favorite experience was discovering mysterious item after item, like a whacking stick that sent my foes flying, and experimenting with them to find out what they do and how I could use them to my advantage. This sense of discovery doesn’t last, and eventually fades to grinding repetition. Whipping yet another skeleton into a spike pit or sending a fireball back into a sorceress’ face becomes dull. Still, it takes a while to get to that point, and I imagine those who enjoy building an intimate understanding of a games’ mechanics and learning to master them will find a lot to enjoy with City of Brass, especially when it comes to speedrunning.

Uppercut Games’ first roguelite is a strong entry in the crowded rogue-lite genre thanks to its amusing, thievery-based brand of creativity. Though I’ve had my fill for now, I imagine in a few weeks I’ll find myself running through the haunted halls and squares of some haunted desert setting gleefully filling my pockets with every shiny piece in sight.

A Rock-Solid Single

My first baseman is named Grunt Manly. Most of my pitchers itch their butts before throwing the ball. My team, the Herbisaurs, is taking on the Sirloins. Super Mega Baseball 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see moonshot home runs or pitches corkscrewing comically to the plate. Despite the goofy setup, developer Metalhead Software delivers a surprisingly authentic baseball simulation that is both competitive and fun.

If you played the 2014 series debut of Super Mega Baseball, and the updated Extra Innings version, which released a year later, you know the series is slowly inching closer to realism. The player models, while still looking like they were yanked out of a children’s CG movie, no longer have overly expressive cartoon eyes, and their physiques lose the bobblehead qualities to look more appropriately human. The bats they wield are also slimmed down from the wide size often used by toddlers to smack wiffleballs.

The improved player models showcase nice animation touches like waggles in the batter’s box and stretching to catch a ball for a bang-bang play at first. However, the animations for fielding flyballs and grounders are still a bit stiff and slow, meaning they won’t get to everything you think they should. Even with a few balls squeaking by for questionable hits, the balance of play is spot on, usually delivering a similar number of hits, runs, and scoring opportunities you’d see in an MLB game.

The balance stems from the beautifully designed pitching and batting mechanics, which allow players to work the plate and hopefully induce desired outcomes, like pitching outside to make a pull hitter nub a weak grounder. The pitching in particular feels fantastic, relying on timing-based reflexes to accurately paint corners of the plate. After selecting a desired pitch location, you must quickly move a reticle onto that spot before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. The closer you are, the more likely the pitch will hit that spot. If you want to put a little extra mustard on the pitch, the execution window is even shorter, meaning you may catch too much of the plate, but if you are successful, it’s harder to hit.

Batting also incorporates a risk/reward timing-based skill that pushes you to charge a swing and fill a meter as much as possible at the point of contact. Accomplishing this can be tricky, as pitchers have different deliveries and pitches fly at different speeds. Some guesswork is involved, but you don’t always have to charge the swing; standard contact is performed by simply tapping the button. Extra skill comes from angling the swing with a cursor.

Fielding is the weakest part of the experience. Most of it is handled by the computer, but you can always take control to do it yourself. This is ill advised, as the only way to read a ball’s trajectory is by its shadow. Even with the computer handling the basic flyballs and grounders, the user must initiate throws and jump or dive for balls. The latter of which is used more often than you would think, and ends up being quite fun in terms of spectacle and nailing the timing. If you aren’t on with your timing, a throw could sail past the fielder, or your dive may result in the ball hitting your body instead of the glove. There’s some fun to it, but I wish I had more of a hand in it. Base running is mostly solid, although A.I. players don’t always tag up on deep flyballs.

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Super Mega Baseball 2 doesn’t offer many avenues of play. You won’t find Franchise mode, Home Run derby, drafts, or much depth anywhere. The big modes are Season, which can be adjusted from a full schedule down to just 16 games, and Pennant Race, an online mode that pushes you to win as many games as possible over a set amount of time. Given how fast games go thanks to the computer being eager to swing at almost everything, a short Season can be completed in an afternoon, and most of my Pennant Race games proved to be nail-biters. Both modes deliver plenty of thrills that bring out the best of the sport.

Super Mega Baseball 2 may not have the MLB or MLBPA licenses, but it does offer robust team and player customization. If you take the time, you can recreate the MLB rosters, and team colors, but it will take a skilled artist to make the logos, which can be edited and include artwork layers. Metalhead clearly knew people would do this, and even allowed for the conferences and divisions to be altered. Up to 32 teams can be customized for a league. As of now, there isn’t a way to download player-made rosters or teams.

As your skill level increases, you may need to bump up the difficulty. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean a jump from normal to hard. Metalhead devised a slick skill-based system called Ego, which allows the player to tick up the difficulty for batting, pitching, base running, and fielding.

Super Mega Baseball 2 delivers a rock-solid baseball experience that may come up light on modes, but homes in on the fun and skill of pitching and batting. I hope this becomes an annualized series, as Metalhead has a great foundation to build upon.

Standard Platforming In A Stylish Shell

The 2D platformer is one of the oldest genres in video games. Even after more than 30 years, we still love running and jumping across uneven platforms and avoiding deadly obstacles. Bishop Games adds a new dimension to this established formula with Light Fall, allowing you to create platforms while jumping. Unfortunately, this cool concept is more promising in theory than in practice, and this unorthodox premise plays like an average platformer.

As a tiny, mute silhouette, you clamber over the imaginary world of Numbra – a series of craggy fields and bottomless pits. Using the power of a brick called the Shadow Core, you produce floating platforms. This power is constrained by the fact that you can only produce four blocks before having to set foot on normal ground again. Creating new platforms while you jump is a fun idea. Sadly, Light Fall doesn’t capitalize on its concept, and most levels feel like well-trod platforming challenges with bigger gaps to compensate for your Shadow Core ability. During the adventure, you wall jump up vertical shafts, launch off collapsing platforms, and avoid spinning deathtraps. I enjoyed navigating some of these obstacles, but the entire game feels too familiar.

The Shadow Core has a few additional abilities. One application lets you create blocks that float in front of you like a shield. Another skill allows you to freely move and rotate a block across the screen, which comes in handy for solving Light Fall’s few puzzles. I got a kick out of using a block like a water wheel to propel myself across a lake, but I only used that Shadow Core skill a handful of times throughout the entire game, and most Shadow Core abilities feel sorely underutilized, especially considering you have these skills from the beginning of the game.

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Light Fall’s lack of gameplay variety means you spend most of your time running and jumping. Fortunately, your little sprite has a decent run speed, and controlling him in mid-air feels good even with the Switch’s tiny buttons. Most platforms have a nice stickiness, so I never fell off any of my created blocks, even when I was in a full sprint. Unfortunately, this stickiness is a double-edged sword, and trying to slide down walls is a buzzkill when you’re in a hurry. During some of the more challenging platforming sequences, I died several times because I got caught up on a wall. At other times, Bishop Games had trouble designing challenges around its own mechanics; I avoided a couple platforming sequences altogether by using my platforms to jump over half a level.

A few scattered collectibles encourage players to double back to learn more of the world’s lore, but the world of Numbra isn’t interesting enough, and those rewards aren’t tantalizing enough to encourage this kind of Easter egg hunt.

Light Fall draws you in with its stylistic visuals and the promise of a new twist on a classic formula. Creating your own platforms is fun, but Bishop Games didn’t develop this gimmick into a meaningful series of mechanics. As it stands, Light Fall is a handful of interesting ideas that are missing the elements they need to really shine.

A Lukewarm Cup Of Tea

Games have a hard time being funny, because they sort of have to play it straight. Although good writing and editing can make a game funny in the traditional sense, the “joke” of a wonky control scheme or level is usually at the player’s expense, which makes it hard to tolerate. It’s Anecdotal’s 39 Days to Mars feels like a series of “jokes” in exactly that vein, and while it does an admirable job of getting some genuine laughs out of the way you interact with it, it’s not enough to make the journey memorable.

The story follows 1800s explorers Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter, who decide on a whim to fly a steampunk spaceship to Mars. They need to prepare for the journey by taking care of the little things, like nabbing a key hanging from a tree, or finding the map. Although there isn’t much a of narrative, the affair has a charming, understated tone to it, as Albert and Clarence display a casual indifference to both the enormous task of getting to Mars and the life-threatening complications they encounter along the way.

Of course, the key isn’t just hanging on the tree, nor is the map laid out before you. Each menial task on the way to Mars is an intricate puzzle you coordinate with a friend to solve. To get the key, for example, players rotate one of two wheels that moves a hook and wire horizontally or vertically along a short maze to retrieve it without touching the edges on the way back. To assemble the map, both players have to hold a piece and rotate it into place.

The controls for each of these puzzles are simple in practice, but take enough getting used to that you spend as much time fumbling with different switches and objects as they do coming up with solutions. As the puzzles become more involved, they lead to comedies of errors, where one player might have a good grasp of how to move a claw that mines coal, but the other is incapable of operating the bicycle it’s attached to. That might sound frustrating, but it makes for some fun laughs at your buddy’s (or your own) expense as you flail your way to a solution. Thankfully, none of the puzzles are so devious that you have to sit there and problem-solve for long; the trick is usually in figuring out how to properly implement a simple solution.

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Unfortunately, the triumphant moments don’t linger too long. While it’s fun to solve puzzles as a team, none of them are tricky or memorable enough to provide a true sense of accomplishment. You can run through every puzzle in about 90 minutes, and the ending arrives just as the ideas at play start picking up. This made me hungry for more fun experiments, but ultimately unsatisfied.

I’ve talked about 39 Days to Mars as a co-op adventure not because you can’t play it alone, but because you shouldn’t. The puzzles are clearly designed for two players (even the single-player option in the menu suggests playing co-op), and the haphazard fun of mucking around with some of the stranger contraptions with a buddy turns to serious frustration when playing alone. The puzzles are identical in both modes, and since most require multiple deliberate, simultaneous actions, keeping track of two cursors and buttons simultaneously makes problem-solving laborious.

As a result, most puzzles wear out their welcome far more quickly as you try to wrap your head around these intricate contraptions. Testing your coordination with unintuitive control schemes in arcade-style games like QWOP is one thing, but because here you’re working toward definite, finite solutions, I felt less like I was testing myself and more like I was struggling just to move a simple puzzle piece around. I didn’t even get the fun of laughing at someone else’s screw-up, then working with them to accomplish something.

39 Days to Mars does a better job of relaying comedy through gameplay than most games, but the “jokes” it tells aren’t worthwhile. Little is terrible about the core concept or its execution (aside from the awful single-player mode), but nothing was outstanding or notable, either. I had a few laughs with the people I played, but by the time I reached Mars, I was ready to just shrug my shoulders and go back home.

Don?t Miss It This Time

When Tropical Freeze released on the Wii U in 2014, it was exciting because it marked Donkey Kong Country’s belated entry into the world of high definition. It played well, included tons of nostalgic and novel platforming ideas, and offered a significant, but fair challenge. Unfortunately, simply by the nature of its underperforming platform, not many people played it. The Switch re-release offers a chance for those that skipped the Wii U to play a fantastic platformer, but even for those that played it four years ago, there is at least one incentive to make a return trip to Donkey Kong Country.

The transition from Wii U to Switch by the original developer, Retro, is seamless. The platforming is accurate and fast, the resolution improves from 720p to 1080p when docked, and the soundtrack is worth the effort of seeking out headphones.

The big addition for the Switch version is the inclusion of a playable Funky Kong, which changes the experience in some significant and fun ways. Tropical Freeze is hard, and if you want to play the difficult-but-fair original version, you can. Playing as Funky Kong, however, functions as an easy mode. He has more hearts and does not take damage from spike pits. He can also roll infinitely, breathe underwater, double-jump, and perform a floating drop. He’s a combination of some of the distinguishing abilities of the other playable Kongs, and it makes it all much easier. If you found Tropical Freeze too difficult, Funky makes the challenge much more manageable, which is great for young or impatient players.

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For skilled players, however, Funky is a speed-runner’s dream. I have no delusions of calling myself a speed-runner, but ripping through a level using Funky Kong’s infinite roll and double jump created a new type of high-speed challenge I enjoyed tremendously. It made me feel like a Donkey Kong Country expert and wonder why I ever called the original challenging. Going back to the original mode made me quickly remember, but as a returning tourist, I liked having a mode that let me quickly play through the whole game again.

The Switch version reaffirms that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a fantastic platformer. Having a new character to control and a handheld version of the game is great for previous owners, but the real audience is those who missed the original release.

Middling Mechanized Mayhem


The beloved MechWarrior/BattleTech IPs return to the classic strategy space loaded with giant mechanized armors and the pilots who command them. As a longtime fan of the franchise, I was pleased to see plenty of customization options for my mechs big and small, true to form with heat sinks, jump jets, and particle projection cannons (PPCs). However, frustrating gameplay elements, a plodding pace, and frequent “stress to progress” initiatives keep players in tough spots even as they attempt to acquire a bay full of combat-worthy scrap.


The core concept is simple: Bring up to four mechs (and their pilots) into a huge variety of contract encounters. The ability to select missions lets you plan your strategy – picking cold environments for your heat-heavy mechs to excel in, for instance. You also take on simple tasks to earn cash to upgrade your ship, buy weapons, purchase mechs, make repairs, and pay the constant upkeep on everything. The missions run the gamut of purported objectives, but almost always boil down to blasting your way through mechs and vehicles. This focus on meaty combat works out to be more than fine because that’s the real strength of the game; if you’ve played other modern strategy titles like X-COM, you have the general idea of what you’re going to be engaging with.

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The action is fun, with enough freedom to try out many different mech configurations. I enjoyed building melee-centric mechs designed to knock opponents down and unleash flamers and machine guns, as well as long-range heat-hogs designed to take advantage of multiple lasers and PPCs. The combat and related customization options are the stars of the show, and make the tactical warfare worth diving into. Preparing perfectly for a battle and letting loose with your creations feels great, and finishing a map with a huge coffer of supplies without taking a scratch is awesome. Most of your time in BattleTech is spent in battle, and that’s exactly where you want to be.


Encounters are accessible and easy to dive into, as all weapons fire by default (you can dial down and select only certain weapons to fire) and you can clearly see your hit rate. Later, you can get more complex with precision shots designed to nail critical stores of ammo or just blow the legs off a bot. While strategy games are not known for lightning-fast action, a sense of unflattering slowness permeates some missions, with actions and turns playing out across many units – especially the lengthier story encounters.


Strategy off the battlefield can be more important than on it. Your ship, upgrades, pilots, and mechs all cost tons of money, and you need to keep the lights on while attempting to keep everything upgraded to handle continually more challenging encounters. You’re free to roam the galaxy taking on minor missions as much as you like, but eventually you feel the crunch of the taxman and need to push hard into story content to stay above water. It feels too oppressive at times, putting a ton of pressure on the player to take on story missions to keep mechs up to speed. Stopping to smell the roses can be devastating, especially if something goes wrong.


Having one of your mechs get randomly headshot and blown away can result in a frustrating cost that simply cannot be recovered. Saving often, even during a mission, is essential. “Save scumming” isn’t a practice I advocate for often, but here it must be done to prevent a lucky shot that could literally bury your business in a single salvo. Beyond these design issues, I also experienced myriad crashes and freezes during gameplay that cost me big chunks of time and progress. On the flip side, if you do come up against a foe that might be too much to handle – you can attempt those headshots and hope. If they don’t work, you can load the save. It isn’t a great way to play, but you may feel like your playthrough is backed into a corner sometimes.


Despite some gameplay quibbles, the core loop of BattleTech – mech acquisition, customization, and combat – does a great job of adhering to the source material and providing engaging ballistic battles. Crunching an enemy core under your metal boot or scoping out a target for an enormous missile barrage are satisfying as hell, even if the frame of the title could stand for a little extra armor.