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Life Is Strange 2: Episode 2 ? Rules Review ? An Unnecessary Pitstop

Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

Can you imagine harnessing a power you barely understand and can't always control? That, despite your efforts, leaves destruction in your wake? This is the reality of the Diaz brothers, Sean and Daniel, who fled from home after a deathly shooting with a police officer that was complicated by a magical force.

While the first episode focused on secrets and trust between the brothers, this chapter's themes are more about control and freedom. Sean and Daniel continue to be engaging, evolving characters with dire circumstances, but Rules' lackluster supporting cast and unexciting scenarios bring disappointing consequences. With these flaws, episode two is a needless pitstop to an otherwise promising journey.

The episode starts off strong, with Sean and Daniel becoming accustomed to survival in an abandoned cabin hidden in Oregon's wintry woods, where you teach Daniel to control his telekinesis. 

This first section is littered with small choices, with some that add thematic importance and others that lay the groundwork for how Daniel uses his power. For example, I enjoyed how cooking dinner involved choosing one of many ravioli cans from the kitchen shelf, appropriately reflecting the brothers' lack of choice. As for interactions with Daniel, they can significantly impact the future. If you react sternly after he uses his power for a prank or to cheat during a game of dice, he becomes less likely to use it carelessly. Encouraging him to embrace it, on the other hand, will make him prone to using telekinesis freely, bringing its own slew of consequences. These moments add depth to your choices and consequences, letting you choose what kind of a role model you are to your brother, and whether rules should be followed to the letter for safety's sake. 

The themes of control and freedom become particularly evident as the boys arrive at their grandparents' home, but many moments aren't engrossing. Under their grandparents' roof, Sean and Daniel have more rules to follow, such as finishing chores and keeping a low profile when outdoors. While this is a contrast to their life in the woods, the grandparents themselves have little to offer in terms of personality, keeping me from being immersed. Although the grandparents are uninteresting, the return of Chris from The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit adds some value to the narrative.

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The continuation of Chris' story is this episode's highlight, especially for those who played Dontnod's free episode since your choices from it are taken into account. Daniel and Chris hit it off well but Daniel finds himself in a morally gray situation regarding their friendship, making for an intriguing subplot. You can suggest that Daniel acts in certain ways, but depending on your trust and past choices, he may not always heed your advice. This complex layer to decision-making is seen in other instances, too, such as Chris or his father opening up about their struggles if you manage to earn their trust. Unfortunately, gaining Chris' trust is dependent on succeeding at a puzzle that can only be solved by luck if you haven't played The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. This barrier feels unfair as it favors one audience over another.

Rules is a solid episode when it comes to building the relationship of the Diaz brothers, but the town of Beaver Creek doesn't bring enough interesting occurrences. Buying a Christmas tree with Chris and his father brings some tension as you worry about being recognized, but without captivating choices, it's a largely unfocused and forgettable scene. One memorable part is the introduction of Cassidy, a young woman playing guitar whose sarcastic humor and free spirit captivates Daniel, but it's a brief moment in an otherwise boring section.

While this episode brings interesting themes of its own, I was disappointed at how racial tensions and politics weren't built upon further, and that many consequences didn't tie over in meaningful ways from the previous episode. Instead, Rules feels like a turn in the wrong direction, with choices that never quite hit their mark. Hopefully the Diaz brothers carve a new and more interesting path as their journey continues.

Score: 7

Summary: The Diaz brothers' relationship to one another continues to grow in satisfying ways, but the world around them isn't as exciting this time.

Concept: Follow Sean and Daniel as they evade the police and lay low at their grandparents' house, making interesting decisions about whether Daniel's newfound telekinesis should be kept secret

Graphics: From the cabin in the woods to the grandparents' home, Rules' different areas are filled with detail and vivid colors

Sound: Acoustic and folksy music continue to bring life to scenes in similar, successful ways to the first episode

Playability: Navigating Sean through environments and interacting with both people and objects is simple and accessible

Entertainment: Despite its two strong protagonists and their engaging plight, lackluster supporting characters and a mundane setting make this episode less compelling than the last

Replay: Moderate

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Resident Evil 2 Review ? The Greater Of Two Evils

Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

For more than a decade, Resident Evil has felt like a franchise struggling to find its identity. The seminal Resident Evil 4 put a greater focus on action, but subsequent entries lost their luster. Resident Evil 7 was a major course correction but still felt like a radical reinvention that was finding its footing. Fortunately, Capcom might have finally found the magic once again. This brilliant homage to Resident Evil 2 not only revitalizes many of the survival horror elements that put the series on the map, it paves a brilliant path for the future of the franchise.

In its era, Resident Evil 2 was the pinnacle of survival horror. While the original Resident Evil established a formula, its sequel raised the stakes in nearly every way with tense exploration and nail-biting action. In 1998, Resident Evil 2?s action was as intense as its atmosphere was horrifying, so it became a benchmark for PS One horror. Unfortunately, Capcom?s classic has aged about as poorly as a zombie-eaten corpse.

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Capcom?s remake gives Racoon City a much-needed facelift, but a new third person perspective does even more to update Resident Evil?s action. This remake returns to the series? slower-paced roots. Thankfully, slowing down the shootouts doesn?t diminish Resident Evil?s intensity. On the contrary, Resident Evil?s action feels better than it has in years, and its smooth shooter controls are incredibly intuitive. Zombies shamble forward like herky-jerky wind-up toys. These animations are unnerving, but they also create an exciting metagame in which you must time your shots perfectly to hit these brain eaters in the brainpan. If you miss your shot, they keep stumbling forward, meaning that even two flaking zombies can pose a challenging if you?re off your A game.

Resident Evil 2?s new visuals also create a darker, more haunting vibe. For those who think Resident Evil has lost its teeth, Resident Evil 2 might be the most intense game in the series. The original Resident Evil 2?s bold colors look almost cartoonish today, but the remake?s atmosphere is almost oppressive. Zombie heads pop in a sickening shower of brain bits. Grotesque body horrors skitter across the walls and ceilings. The station?s halls echo with steady footfalls. I normally have an incredibly steady hand, but Resident Evil 2 had me jumping at shadows, and I couldn?t escape the feeling of being stalked

Resident Evil 2 is also much more than a remake. In a lot of important ways, this feels like a brand-new experience. Fans will recognize locations within Racoon City?s police department and its sprawling sewer system, but Capcom cleverly reworked the entire layout so they feel fresh. Many of the environmental puzzles are more grounded, and moments like rewiring an electrical grid or looking for environmental clues to a combination lock offer a refreshing break from the action.

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Another big change from the original game is the removal of the zapping system. In the PlayStation original, players? actions with one character could affect events in a second playthrough with the other character. While the zapping system is gone, this modern update has a mode called 2nd Run, which allows you to play through the campaign a second time with the other character. These two campaigns don?t talk to each other as in the PlayStation game, but 2nd Run challenges you to take a different path through the station and gives you a few new tools to use in the process, such as a rapid fire revolver that burns through high-grade ammo. Leon and Claire?s stories are also very different, so this feature adds extra incentive to play through the game a second time. Fortunately, both playthroughs felt significantly different and I was excited to see what happened to both protagonists.

Over the years, Capcom has experimented with several different approaches to Resident Evil, but this is one approach I hope gets revisited. Resident Evil 2 not only looks great, it plays well, and it forces you into a series of dark encounters that are a total rush. Resident Evil is finally running on all cylinders.

Score: 9.5

Summary: Resident Evil 2 paves a brilliant path for the future of the franchise.

Concept: Revive Capcom?s classic survival horror game with more than a visual overhaul. This feels like a new game that plays homage to the original ? not a classic with a new coat of paint

Graphics: Its new third-person perspective and detailed 3D environments bring Racoon City?s police department to life like never before

Sound: The soundtrack is subtle but effective. However, creaking floorboards and other ambient effects do an even better job creating an uncomfortable atmosphere

Playability: RE 2?s action is slow-paced but intense; the environmental puzzles are clever and never grow frustrating

Entertainment: For Resident Evil fans this is a must-play, but even those without nostalgia for RE 2 will have a good time

Replay: High

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Vane Review ? Frustrating Fever Dream

Publisher: Friend & Foe
Developer: Friend & Foe
Release:
Rating: Everyone 10+
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

As Vane opens, a powerful storm rips apart a mysterious landscape, and you control a child clutching something to their chest. As the storm breaks the ground below your feet, you sprint to safety and the dark, synthwave soundtrack kicks in, accompanying your journey to a building in the distance. When you arrive at the door, a mysterious cloaked creature wearing a plague mask blocks your path, pushes you to the ground, and you are lifted into the air by the storm you were trying to outrun. Everything fades to black. Vane establishes intrigue early and asks many compelling questions during these moments, but it is not equipped to answer them. Frustrating moments pepper the experience, but a few high points almost make the full journey worthwhile.

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After the impressive opening, you are suddenly in a quiet, storm-free desert ? and you are a bird. You make your way forward along a deceptively linear path. As a bird you can fly anywhere and land in certain places, but you can also transform into a child who explores on foot. Much of the gameplay and puzzle solving revolves around swapping between bird and child forms. Flight gives you the chance to explore large areas and plan out puzzle solutions without restriction, but the child can actually move objects and pull switches. Controlling the protagonist is harder than it should be in both forms. The camera is erratic, making it difficult to land when you are the bird, and the child often gets hung up on geometry while the camera clips through the environment. I also had to restart one puzzle multiple times as the A.I. put in place to assist me would inexplicably lose its motivation or get stuck in corners. The immersion was constantly being broken when I should have just been looking around in awe.

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As you?re solving puzzles, you journey deeper into a strange dilapidated world that shifts and rebuilds itself around you while freeing your captured bird brethren or delivering gigantic strange golden balls to the masked creatures seen in opening. You don?t know exactly why you?re making your way toward your destination or doing what you?re doing, but the landscape is beautiful, showcasing a place that was built up like a city, only to topple and fall apart before your eyes.

It all looks stunning, but the direction you need to go is often unclear. The atmosphere is impressive, but getting lost made me struggle to appreciate it. In one instance, while trying to figure out my next path, I accidentally sequence-broke the game. This placed me in the next location without the tools I needed to continue, forcing me to fall back on a previous checkpoint.

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So many little things cause frustration and create unnecessary hurdles, but when the game is functioning, and you are able to maintain a reasonable pace of discovery, Vane delivers strange and creepy moments that compelled me to see what was coming next. The climax leading up to the finale is so odd and interesting that I immediately restarted after finishing and played through the whole game again just to try and wrap my head around it. I didn?t walk away with an explicit understanding of what this world went through and how I was connected to it all, but I am still pondering specific imagery from the journey, like conveyor belts transporting cages through a series of caves or the strange masked creature looking down at me from above as a violent storm swirled around it.

Vane feels like an indescribable fever dream when it works, relaying a wordless story about a transforming creature trying to figure out its place in a world that appears to be falling apart. Too often though bugs and a lack of clear direction reminded me that Vane could have used a little bit of extra development time for polish.

Score: 6.75

Summary: Vane establishes intrigue early and a few high points almost make the full journey worthwhile, but frustrating moments pepper the whole experience.

Concept: Explore a mysterious world and solve puzzles as a creature that can transform between child and bird forms

Graphics: The dark, atmospheric art style does a fantastic job selling a world that feels like it came out of a bizarre dream

Sound: The music is great, offering a moody, synthwave soundtrack that recalls the music of Blade Runner

Playability: Whether you?re controlling the child or the bird, movement is a struggle. The child gets caught up on the environment often, and directing the bird to specific landing spots is difficult

Entertainment: Vane?s atmosphere, music, world, and abstract story are affecting and strange, but the bugs and design lead to unnecessary frustration

Replay: Moderately low

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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review ? A Worthy Throwback

Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Project Aces
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is an adrenaline-filled thrill ride that soars high with excellently crafted dogfights, responsive controls, and payloads large enough to crack the planet in half. As your fighter rips through a narrow canyon in pursuit of a bogey with a death wish, Ace Combat 7 delivers top-tier intensity. In these moments, the music swells, your wingmen scream for immediate success, and if your rocket hits the mark, you feel like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star. The battles often culminate in exciting and nerve-wracking ways, but not without some turbulence.

Developer Project Aces taps into the latest military technology to introduce new planes and more potent adversarial forces for the series, but the overall game design resembles an old warbird that feels like it?s going to shake apart before it reaches the runway. The missions, their pacing, and the rewards they bring leave much to be desired. The game is designed to be a throwback to the glory days of the series, drawing heavily from the gameplay direction of Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. While honing in on what made combat great in that title, missions have a lot of downtime, and objectives like scoring challenges feel like filler activities in between the meaningful dogfights.

When you are engaged with rival ace pilots, different weather conditions often up the challenge; you may need to dart into the clouds of a raging storm to trail an adversary. This affects visibility conditions, and your plane gets batted around by strong winds ?  maybe even struck by lightning. When this happens, the electrical surge scrambles the HUD, making targeting and tracking enemies more difficult. It?s a little annoying to lose targeting, as it seems like it comes down to the random chance of a lightning blast, but it ups the chaos and makes you panic ? it?s effective. Weather and low altitudes are also used to give missions a layer of complexity. For instance, you sometimes must fly at dangerously low altitudes to avoid radar detection ? the series? version of stealth, which functions well and delivers plenty of excitement in slower moments of specific missions.

The dogfighting mechanics are Wright-brothers-old in terms of gameplay design, but are still reliable, dynamic, and all about outsmarting your foe. After highlighting an enemy, the dance of positioning begins, with a large green arrow telling you which way to fly. To an onlooker, this may look ineffective at times, as your plane appears to be looping aimlessly, but the goal is to line up behind your adversary as close as possible for a quick rocket blast that can?t be evaded with flares. This process is as challenging as it is thrilling. As you spin through the air, you and your adversary exchange lock-on warnings before one of you eventually lands a shot. The skill-sapping targeting from Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is nowhere to be found in this installment; it?s old-school Ace Combat design against the series? hardest foes and it's glorious.

Yes, you square off against a new group of rival aces, but the biggest threat comes from drones, which can turn on a dime and are not affected by g-forces. These new threats are tied to a complicated story that once again sees the Osean Federation locked in war with the Kingdom of Erusea. The Ace Combat series has told great stories in the past, but this is not one of them. It begins as a fascinating tale about a mechanic struggling to find her place in her family?s shadow, but quickly becomes a preposterous journey of prisoners being forced to fly fighter jets to save the world. It plays out like a  Fast and the Furious story that is trying to be touching and serious, but it just doesn?t mesh. I ended up laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, but yes, it does make for some silly fun.

Over the course of the 20 story-based missions, you earn credits to purchase aircraft, weapons, and upgrades, but you can?t freely pick what you want. You need to purchase items along paths that make up a sprawling, spiderweb-like store. If you see a plane you want, you may have to buy some stuff you don?t desire just to reach it. This design keeps the balance in check, as souped-up craft are at the ends of the paths, but it creates the problem of the using the same vehicle for numerous missions in a row, as you likely can?t afford other planes that will make a difference when you need them. The series was better off when it handed out planes as rewards for progress and kills.

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You can earn additional money by venturing into multiplayer, which includes an eight-player Battle Royal mode (no, not "royale," but it is everyone against everyone). Taking on other players is a test of skill, but almost every one of my matches ended with no one being downed. The player that dealt the most damage ended up winning. Part of the problem is a five-minute time limit, but it mostly comes down to the evasion and dogfighting tactics being damn good and players knowing how to survive. The homing capabilities of missiles definitely could use a boost here, as the matches end up going nowhere. You see a couple of enemies go down in team death match, which allows for multiple planes to engage a singular target, but battle royal has been hilariously uneventful for me.

For fans of this long-running series, this is the Ace Combat we?ve known and loved for decades, and it?s great to have it back. The dogfighting is rightfully the highlight and will give your reflexes a good workout.

Score: 8

Summary: This is the Ace Combat we?ve known and loved for decades, and it?s great to have it back.

Concept: A thrilling continuation of a series that hasn?t had a mainline installment in 12 years. Dogfighting is once again the main attraction, but the story and missions often miss the mark

Graphics: The aircraft are highly detailed, and the settings that have sci-fi inspirations look great. Trees and buildings occasionally pop in, but dense clouds and weather conditions often hide it

Sound: The soundtrack is all over the place, bouncing between choirs belting out doomsday tones and guitars playing upbeat melodies. The odd arrangement works well, and is joined by constant chatter of wingmen and roaring missiles

Playability: Even on the advanced settings, the controls are arcade-like and designed to keep the action simple to manage. Each plane and weapon brings something different to the battlefield

Entertainment: The game makes you work for each kill, and as a result you feel like you?ve achieved something notable with almost every ace you down

Replay: Moderate

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Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes Review - Returning To Bat Country

Publisher: Grasshopper Manufacture
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: Switch

Although Goichi Suda has had his name on most of developer Grasshopper Manufacture?s output, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes is billed as his return to the director?s chair for the first time since the original No More Heroes. Travis Strikes Again is smaller in scope than most recent Grasshopper titles, but it?s a confident return to the wilder side that made the studio famous, in both its rough edges and its willingness to venture into strange places.

Travis Touchdown is looking for the six mysterious Death Balls, a collection of game cartridges for an obscenely rare and deadly console called the Death Drive Mark II. The Death Balls are said to grant one wish to whoever collects and beats them all, and Bad Man, whose daughter Travis killed in the first No More Heroes, hopes to revive her. As Travis and Bad Man team up to descend into the world of each Death Drive game, they find the games corrupted by bugs and taken over by Juvenile, an eccentric game developer with a sordid history. The plot functions more as a vehicle for cool moments than anything else, but those moments are pulled off with aplomb.

While the setup implies each game will be vastly different, they all use the same hack-and-slash combat as their base. Fights move quickly, with a mix of crowd-controlling fodder enemies and zeroing in on stronger enemies that require a little more finesse to take down. Early encounters are a bit mindless as you learn how to maneuver and execute different attacks, but later encounters required me to think more critically about how I approached them. 

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You also find a number of equippable skills that let you tailor Travis or Bad Man to your liking, adding an interesting layer to combat. While I wound up with a couple of staples, I regularly came up with combos I thought were unbeatable (like dropping a time-slowing field to set up a guided laser that took a few seconds to fire), only to swap them out after facing a boss or fight that kept me on my toes. It?s not as intricate or engaging as other action games, but each level introduces just enough twists to keep things fun, even as the enemy and combat encounters taper off near the end. 

You can also play the entire game in co-op to make things easier, but unfortunately my partner and I kept finding ourselves offscreen since the view doesn?t zoom out to keep up with the action.

What makes Travis Strikes Again shine, however, is how it brims with style, and how it uses its combat as a jumping off point for some cool aesthetic touches and setpieces. In one game, you fight through waves of enemies in order to get parts for a motorcycle, which you then use to compete in drift races with vector-graphics. Another pays homage to the original Resident Evil, with a mansion foyer acting as a central hub. And without spoiling too much, things only get weirder and more referential from there.

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Between levels, you learn how Travis acquires each new Death Ball by reading through a retro visual novel, which has its own share of references and surprises. You can also explore Travis? trailer, reading blog entries about the different kinds of ramen you eat throughout the game, buying and wearing different T-shirts (most of which feature logos for various indie games like Undertale, Hyper Light Drifter, and Hotline Miami), and reading short magazine spreads with fun write-ups of every game and a few cheat codes, both real and fake. Although these segments are relatively minor, they made for a great distraction and doubled as a change of pace from the combat.

Travis Strikes Again finds a good balance between fun, approachable action and reveling in Suda51 and Grasshopper?s signature style. It?s not the most intricate action game out there, but the simple combat works well as a vessel for several one-off moments that elevate it above its simple premise. It?s more of a prelude than a main event, but both on its own and as sign of things to come, Travis Strikes again is a promising return to form. 

Score: 8.25

Summary: Travis Strikes Again is smaller in scope than its predecessors, but no less weird and surprising.

Concept: Return to the world of No More Heroes in a side story that?s smaller in scope and offers a different flavor of weird

Graphics: Characters, bosses, and levels have a lightly cel-shaded style that looks dated, but the stylistic trappings that permeate the game more than make up for them

Sound: Some neat remixes of the No More Heroes theme are the highlight of the soundtrack, which mostly sticks to standard synth and boom-bap loops

Playability: Combat is fairly simple and can occasionally be frustrating, but the emphasis on crowd control and skill combos keeps things interesting for most of the campaign

Entertainment: Travis Strikes Again returns to the more stylish tendencies of early Grasshopper Manufacture, with decent combat elevated by a strong sense of style and writing

Replay: Moderately low

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Last Year: The Nightmare Review ? Stylish Showdowns Struggling To Make The Cut

Publisher: Elastic Games
Developer: Elastic Games
Release:
Rating: Not rated
Reviewed on: PC

Horror fans have had a number of asymmetrical multiplayer games to choose from in the past few years, from the procedurally generated killing fields of Dead By Daylight to the iconic Camp Crystal Lake in Friday The 13th. Last Year: The Nightmare (launching exclusively on Discord) joins the fray with tense and stylish five-versus-one matches that faithfully capture the gory kills and cat-and-mouse chases the genre revels in. Unfortunately, Last Year isn?t just late to the party ? it?s also underdressed, lacking the depth and variety of content necessary to keep players coming back for the long haul.

Like the other titles of its ilk, Last Year is built on a simple premise: Five students are trapped inside their school by a maniacal killer, and must escape or die trying. Reaching the exit requires the endangered teens to first accomplish a few basic objectives on each map, such as finding gas canisters to fuel a generator or retrieving computer disks to operate an electronic door. They can also increase their chances of success by barricading doors, rescuing killed allies from the closets they respawn in (a mechanic taken straight from Left 4 Dead), and using scavenged scrap to craft class-specific items, such as smoke bombs, flamethrowers, and the almighty football helmet, giving them a little extra incentive to explore and prepare.

The students can?t dillydally, since the pursuing psychopaths have their own tricks. In addition to a character-specific ability such as snagging victims with a throwable hook or smashing through walls like a murderous Kool-Aid Man, each killer can also lay out beartraps, rig crafting materials with poisonous gas, and teleport to new locations when the survivors aren?t looking. This makes the lone player controlling the killer a much more powerful and deadly predator than the students he or she is stalking.

While not particularly original, Last Year?s core formula is still exciting, occasionally delivering genre-perfect jump scares, like when the Slasher shatters through a skylight and plants his axe in a target?s head, or when the Strangler ropes a victim down into a dark vent for a Pennywise-inspired instakill. Each map also ends with its own unique dash to freedom, setting up exciting escapes and heroic sacrifices as the clock runs down. These final races to the exit always provide a satisfying thrill, assuming the survivors live long enough to see them. 

Unfortunately, surviving comes with quite the learning curve. Last Year features no tutorial or ability to practice with the characters, so you?re forced to learn on the job during your first several matches. In addition to getting a handle on the unique ability and crafting items of the different classes, knowing the routes, bottlenecks, and shortcuts of each map is also vitally important. As such, newcomers are a serious drag on experienced teams, which isn?t fun for anyone. The same is doubly true for playing as the killer. Expect to serve up lopsided victories to well-coordinated teams as you learn when and where to engage players and how best to use your abilities. Playing as the solo player in five-versus-one games is always a stressful affair, and Last Year?s total lack of onboarding doesn?t help.

While Last Year?s learning curve can be overcome with time, you will likely have grown tired of the game?s limited content by the time you get good. Last Year currently only features one mode, three maps, and three monsters to choose from, allowing you to see and do pretty much everything in an afternoon. The complete lack of progression (outside of some rudimentary leaderboards) also leaves little incentive to keep coming back. Like with many multiplayer games, Elastic Games plans to provide a steady stream of content updates to players, but the game is starting well behind contemporaries like Dead By Daylight and Friday The 13th.

Playing as the survivors is heavily dependent on communicating and coordinating with your team to stay ahead of the attacker. Being on mic is a virtual necessity; you can?t just forgo voice chat entirely and expect to fare well. The random strangers I was paired up with (and forced to listen to) had a huge impact on my enjoyment from match to match. Landing on a friendly team makes all the difference for newcomers, but is far from guaranteed given how small the playerbase is at this point, which isn?t exactly a great sign for the game?s future in its own right. Muting offensive players is an easy enough option, but unless you?re the killer, you are handicapping yourself more than most games every time you silence a teammate ? even if they really deserve it. 

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In addition to a crazed killer, players must also currently face a number of bugs and balancing issues. In one match, I crafted a helmet only to have it hover directly in front of my face, completely obscuring my view for the remainder of the match (which didn?t last long, as I blindly walked off some scaffolding a few minutes later). Balancing issues like the overpowered taser and the uphill battle killers face on the library level are common topics of complaint in group chat, as are connection problems and lag. So far, updates have been sparse since launch, which raises serious questions about whether the small developer can deliver on the loftier promise of providing new maps, killers, game modes, and more as part of its ?evergreen content strategy.?

Every match of Last Year begins with a cutscene of the students poring over a blueprint of their escape, a rudimentary roadmap of the adventure to come. At this point, that feels like the development stage Last Year is currently at. The core gameplay offers moments of undeniable excitement, but without more depth, variety, and some sense of progression, Last Year won?t survive long against the competition.

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Score: 7

Summary: Last Year's five-versus-one matches deliver plenty of thrills, but the game needs more content to keep players coming back.

Concept: Give horror fans another chance to live out their slasher-film fantasies in five-versus-one multiplayer matches

Graphics: Last Year looks great thanks to a strong, exaggerated art style that brings the schoolyard environments and humorous character archetypes to life

Sound: The purposely campy voicework is well done. All of the killers sound appropriately demented in their own ways

Playability: The control scheme is simple enough, but you need plenty of practice to be competitive

Entertainment: Last Year?s core gameplay is solid, but the thrills are short-lived due to a lack of content

Replay: Moderately Low

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The Eternal Castle Remastered Review ? Stumbling Into The Past

Publisher: Playsaurus
Developer: Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, Giulio Perrone
Release:
Rating: Not rated
Reviewed on: PC

Thanks to classics like The Prince of Persia and Another World, the cinematic platformer was the genre of style in the early ?90s. The combination of rotoscoped visuals and movement gave characters weight, which made these games fascinating to play ? even with their awkward controls and cheap deaths. In spite of its name, The Eternal Castle Remastered is not an actual remastered game from 1987; it?s a beautiful homage to the genre that has you playing a wanderer (whose gender you select) in a mysterious land searching to repair their ship and rescue an acquaintance. Along the way, you have to fight bosses, solve puzzles, and exercise your shooting finger against an arresting pink-and-blue backdrop of a CGA-inspired alien world. The particulars of the story are nothing special, but the setting and visual vibe are enthralling.

The Eternal Castle Remastered is an unabashed nostalgia trip. At its best, it conjures dazzling vistas and convincingly spooky houses with black shadows. Watching the pixelated figures move across the screen animatedly is also a joy to behold. From its menus to its gameplay, The Eternal Castle is as believable as a cinematic adventure game from 1987. Unfortunately, that also means it isn?t always fun.

Movement is just as clunky as it was in the platformers of yore and the controls are often frustrating, sometimes bordering on infuriating ? especially when you?re required to complete multi-step actions like running and jumping off a ledge to grab onto another ledge. Moving often feels like your character is sliding across ice rather than moving with two feet, making delays in starting and stopping frustrating and often fatal. One segment has you running across rooftops while fighting or avoiding foes ? sometimes mutant monsters, sometimes humans ? and a miscalculated jump can send you plummeting to your doom (and there are a lot of jumps).  A generous checkpoint system and laborious stamina meter that depletes with every action are the only genre modernizations The Eternal Castle brings to the table, but it?s not quite enough to offset the annoyances of its adherence to archaic design.

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The stamina-based combat is as frustrating as navigation. The only maneuver you can do to avoid blows is roll across the ground; the rest of the time you?re just spamming the attack button to shoot or strike. Your stamina bar ticks down every time you punch, run, roll, or jump. This isn?t a big deal when you?re fighting off one or two enemies, but the combat isn?t fun to pull off, given that you?re just hitting one button over and over until the foes is dead. It?s fighting that requires no rhythm or strategizing ? most of the time success comes down to plain luck more than skill.

Things get more disappointing in big battles, though. One section has you fighting against a lot of foes in a narrow hallway with only a hammer. The setup is a cool idea (riffing off the infamous Oldboy scene), but you?re just repeatedly knocking down foes in the hopes that your stamina meter doesn?t deplete before you kill them all. In the end, these encounters feel like a bunch of enemies are lining up for you to punch them more than you actively fighting a group of foes in a frantic battle. Likewise, the few boss fights are great to look at but mostly frustrating to complete. The bosses move quickly and have a fair amount of health, so they just pummel you until you manage to roll around enough to dodge them and trick them into hitting each other. It doesn?t help that every time you lose one of these fights, you have to watch the intro to it all over again. The Eternal Castle has all these grand, fantastic-looking set-pieces but none of them are actually entertaining to play.

Instead, The Eternal Castle Remastered is at its best when it turns down the action and plays more like a conventional puzzle-adventure title. One early segment has you facing an armed opponent telling you to vacate his property. You can draw your own gun on him, but you don?t have nearly enough ammo to take him down. Instead, you need to look around for an (immensely enjoyable) solution in the environment. The simplistic stealth sections, which have you crouching in the shadows created by a graveyard?s tombstones or house?s furniture to avoid monsters as you look for solutions to a puzzle, are also satisfying because they instill a sense that you?re overcoming the odds by using your wits rather than your brawn.

I left my time with The Eternal Castle Remastered extremely impressed by its aesthetic achievements but more than a little let down by how much the gameplay feels like a chore. The quality of its visuals are undeniable, but sometimes it?s better leaving certain things, like clunky controls, in the past.

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Score: 6.5

Summary: The Eternal Castle captures the magic of cinematic platforming's past but the past isn't always a great thing

Concept: Explore and escape an alien world in an adventure that seeks to capture the magic of classic cinematic platformers

Graphics: Every frame of The Eternal Castle is beautiful, though action and animations are sometimes hard to read

Sound: The lack of a score highlights every thump of a body landing and fist thrown, which makes the atmosphere engaging

Playability: Though the basics are easy to understand, the player is expected to accomplish a surprising amount of complex tasks with limited functions. As a result, The Eternal Castle is often frustrating

Entertainment: The Eternal Castle successfully captures the visual magic of cinematic platforming, but it?s unnecessarily frustrating thanks to poor controls

Replay: Low

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Mario & Luigi: Bowser?s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.?s Journey Review ? Get Pulled Back In

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: AlphaDream
Release:
Rating: Everyone
Reviewed on: 3DS

The Mario & Luigi series, which is a spiritual successor of sorts to Mario RPG for Super Nintendo, has received five entries since the release of Superstar Saga in 2003. The series is well-liked, but generally speaking, Bowser?s Inside Story is the fan-favorite. It has the best writing, highlights the series? best original villain, Fawful, and makes Bowser a playable character in a big, fun way. The original holds up as a fun RPG and is playable on 3DS thanks to backwards compatibility, so it wasn?t one fans were demanding receive a remake, but it?s here now and is worth a look, especially if you skipped the original.

As the title implies, much of adventure takes place inside of Bowser after he eats a magical mushroom that makes him inhale everything in his path. You switch back and forth between the Mario brothers walking around inside of Bowser, helping and hindering him as the situation demands, and playing as Bowser as he explores the overworld in an attempt to take back his castle. The story and dialogue is some of the best in the Mario & Luigi series, and all of that moves forward for the remake generally unchanged. The characterization of the cast, both the longtime Mario staples and the original characters, is enjoyable and often genuinely funny.

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The story is mostly unchanged, making the biggest update for this remake the visuals. It?s still a 2D game, just like its original 2009 release, but more detailed sprites and animation can be found in everything. Watching Mario and Luigi bounce in place as they wait for your inputs is a joy, and the improved lighting effects add a whole new layer of fantasy to the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser?s innards. Everything, including the backgrounds, feels more expressive and colorful overall.

Other changes are harder to notice, but welcome. Some of the cutscenes and dialogue have been changed here and there, and the overall pace is better thanks to better checkpoints and the option to skip frustrating sections, which is great for young players who are potentially playing an RPG for the first time. A dedicated button has also been relegated to making Mario and Luigi jump simultaneously which makes controlling the pair much easier.

The other big addition is Bowser Jr.?s Journey, which is treated as a separate story/mode in the main menu. The mode is similar to Bowser?s Minions from the 2016 remake of Superstar Saga, but in that game the new mode was integrated into the main story and it took a long time to unlock. I prefer its integration here, letting those who played the original skip right to the new stuff.

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Bowser Jr.?s Journey is a tactical strategy game where you set up rows of familiar Bowser minions to clash with opponents. The strategy lies in how you set up your rows; the actual combat is a passive experience. You cross your fingers and watch, hoping your setup leads to a win as you occasionally press a button to try and prevent an enemy?s attack or try to power up your own. The highlight of the mode is the story content it adds to Bowser?s Inside Story. You get to see a narrative that takes place alongside the main experience and read new, witty dialogue related to everything that?s going on. The main campaign is still the destination, but I appreciate this new, wholly different content.

The updated visuals are attractive and the new mode is interesting ? especially if you want to spend more time in that world ? but if you played the 2009 original and consider yourself satisfied with that experience, then the incentive to return is small. If you?ve never played Bowser?s Inside Story, this is a fantastic way to experience what is probably the best of the Mario & Luigi games. As a remake, it doesn?t drastically change the experience or improve on it in a big way, but that?s a testament to the original?s quality more than it is a knock against this version.

You can read our original Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story review right here. You can also read our thoughts on the remake of Superstar Saga here.

Score: 8.5

Summary: The remake doesn't drastically change or improve Bowser's Inside Story, but that doesn't change the fact that it was always a great game.

Concept: Remake arguably the best Mario & Luigi game, improving the visuals and balance, while adding a new story with new mechanics

Graphics: Everything looks sharper and more expressive from the character faces and movement to the backgrounds. The lack of stereoscopic 3D is odd, but not missed

Sound: The soundtrack is fun and offers frequent callbacks to familiar Mario tunes, and the abstract mutterings of Mario and Luigi are consistently silly

Playability: Controlling Mario and Luigi simultaneously during the 2D segments inside Bowser?s body leads to the occasional annoyance, but combat is satisfying, and stomping around the overworld and setting things on fire as Bowser feels good

Entertainment: The excellent writing, silly premise, and fun combat all translate well to the updated visual style. The added Bowser Jr. mode is worth exploring, even if it?s not the main attraction

Replay: Low

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Bury Me, My Love Review ? A Powerful Story Of War-Torn Lovers

Publisher: Playdius
Developer: The Pixel Hunt, Arte France, FIGS
Release:
Rating: Everyone 10+
Reviewed on: Switch
Also on: PC, iOS, Android

You wait impatiently for your wife to answer. It's been an hour, but it feels like forever. Your only connection is through text message, as she journeys through war-torn Syria in an attempt to flee for her life. Just as you're about to text again, a notification pops up.

"Majd?"

Relief washes over you as you read the message, but you're still tense. After all, she's never truly safe, and neither are you.

This is what it's like to play Bury Me, My Love, an adventure game told through text. You speak to your wife, Nour, and guide her through difficult decisions as she leaves Syria for Europe. The only way to communicate is through text message, which is similar to how many migrating Syrians reach out to loved ones. Since the civil war began in 2011, millions of Syrians have been displaced. Bury Me, My Love doesn't just effectively humanize Syrians trying to escape, but also puts a spotlight on those left behind. Through realistically written messages and occasional photos, you empathize with a couple's bleak reality in a story that is as tragic as it is inspiring.

Bury Me, My Love has a simple, clean interface that resembles a phone's texting screen. As Nour's husband, you are often given a couple options of what to answer for bigger decisions. Sometimes you answer with words, but other times, an emoji may be more appropriate. Nour's responses and situation can change from one text to the next. I enjoyed the back-and-forth conversation because of how natural it is, making the experience feel genuine.

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Choice and consequence are some of Bury Me, My Love's strongest points. With 19 different endings, Nour's fate can be impacted in many ways. Advising her to act on a dubious decision like trusting a smuggler could be dangerous, bringing a true-to-life intensity to decision making. However, Nour can be stubborn and she doesn't always listen to your advice. When you caution her not to approach a bomb site, she does so anyway to help the injured. She's determined and has a mind of her own; sometimes she consults you beforehand, and other times you're left with dire circumstances. Luckily, you can often mend potentially disastrous situations such as urging her to return a stolen passport. These small complexities to choice bring a wide variety of consequences and introduce another layer of realism to Nour's well thought out personality.

Although it's a grim story, I enjoyed the little moments, like when an inside joke forms between the couple about auto-correct. Seeing how these small instances evolve and getting to know the characters on a deeper level is extremely captivating, even during mundane conversations such as what kind of life jacket to buy. You only get to know Nour and Majd (outside of mentioned passerbys), but I never grew tired of them. They're strong-willed and have a deep love for one another, despite occasional squabbles. Even during arguments, I could tell both their reasons came from a place of caring, which made me root for them more. The two lend each other support in seemingly impossible circumstances. Majd sends comforting pictures, such as one with his head nestled against a pillow, asking Nour to imagine him next to her. Occasionally they crack jokes, like when Nour is feeling uncomfortable approaching other refugees at a camp. Majd laughs, and says she is the least shy person he knows. The well-placed humor works, adding moments of respite in an incredible tale of human strength. 

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Unfortunately, I encountered a couple bugs on the Switch version. Being briefly unable to access settings and having the game crash distracted from my otherwise positive experience. I enjoyed playing with the screen rotated vertically, so it better mimics a phone, but the touch screen isn't reliably responsive. I kept joycons in-hand throughout. These are minor annoyances, making the mobile version superior, but the strong story continued to pull me in.

Rather than focusing on the political or militant side of war like many games do, Bury Me, My Love's humanistic approach is refreshing. This window into war never feels heavy handed or disingenuous; it's grounded in its storytelling, and kept me glued to the screen until Nour's journey concluded.

Score: 8.25

Summary: This text adventure about Syrian refugees is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Concept: A text-based adventure that tells a powerful migrant story about Syrian refugees and has you make tough decisions throughout

Graphics: Bury Me, My Love's text message interface is simple and clean. Beautiful, hand-drawn photos are shown periodically, which helps humanize the characters and world

Sound: A mellow tune plays in the background, adding emotion to heartbreaking moments

Playability: Bury Me, My Love is easy to play by selecting dialogue options and scrolling, but minor bugs and crashes distract from the experience

Entertainment: This excellent story is equal parts heartbreaking and captivating, by giving insight into the arduous journey Syrians take to escape their war-torn home

Replay: High

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New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe Review ? Not New, But Still Super

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release:
Rating: Everyone
Reviewed on: Switch

As the most recent entry in the modernized 2D platforming series, New Super Mario Bros. U provided a wide array of fun, colorful stages for you to run, jump, and explore through. The post-release add-on New Super Luigi U added a second campaign featuring shorter levels and a light speed-running element. With New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Nintendo bundles these two campaigns into one package and adds a new playable character to give Switch owners the best way to experience this fan-favorite platformer from the Wii U era.

With both the base and downloadable content in tow, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe delivers a substantial 164 levels to play through. Mario U?s story houses standard series fare, letting you take your time scouring for hidden locations, while New Super Luigi U gives you less time to run through levels designed for Luigi?s high jump and slippery controls. With each level holding myriad secrets to uncover, both stories give you reason to revisit ones you?ve already completed. Discovering every tucked-away area is exciting, but my favorite reason to keep playing is to collect the star coins hidden in each area, as they unlock bonus levels.

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The story modes start out simple, but up the ante as you approach the final showdown; simply jumping from ledge to ledge while stomping enemies in the early goings quickly escalates to dodging fireballs and invincible baddies while riding a snaking platform through a mid-game castle. Regardless of the difficulty, I had a blast platforming through the thoughtfully crafted challenges, never feeling overwhelmed by the task in front of me.

Playing using the original lineup of Mario, Luigi, and Toad offers a fun, satisfying challenge. When New Super Luigi U first released as DLC for Mario U, it added the pseudo-antagonist Nabbit as a playable character. While a new character is always a welcomed addition, Nabbit is impervious to any damage from enemies, so it felt more like a cheat code than a new way to experience the game. Nabbit is still available for the least experienced players, but Deluxe introduces Toadette, who controls and takes damage normally. She is also the only character who can pick up the Super Crown power-up, which transforms her into a Princess Peach-like character known as Peachette. As Peachette, you can float gently to the ground, covering large distances, and double jump, making sequences a bit easier. Toadette is a great in-between character for players who want to experience the stages with a bit less difficulty, but don?t want to breeze through as Nabbit.

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Outside of the main stories, you can also complete challenges to earn medals. These act primarily as diversions to the main attraction, but trying to beat your time in a speedrun or topping your score of bouncing off of strategically placed enemies is addicting. You can also play Boost Rush, where you collect coins to increase the auto-scroll speed, and Coin Battle, which pits you against friends to see who can grab the most coins in an area.

One of the big draws for the New Super Mario Bros. series is its fun local cooperative play. Sitting next to friends and running through the stages is always fun, even if things get increasingly chaotic the more players you add; if you want to make real progress, you should probably steer clear of four-player mode, but inadvertently bouncing off each other?s heads and into enemies or lava pits always results in laughter. Each player uses a single Joy-Con, so you need to buy extra if you want a third or fourth person to your co-op chaos.

With so many stages to explore and master, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is a terrific way to experience this game again or for the first time. Toadette is a good addition for less-experienced players, and she makes some of the star coins easier to reach. While I?m disappointed that this release doesn?t include more additions to the original package, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is still a great game at its core.

Score: 8.5

Summary: This port doesn't add a ton of new content, but it's still the best way to play an already fun platformer.

Concept: Bring a 2D Mario game from Wii U to Switch, along with all its DLC and a new playable character

Graphics: New Super Mario Bros. U?s modern take on classic characters still looks great on Switch

Sound: From reimagined classic tunes to original compositions, the music is catchy and upbeat in all the right ways

Playability: Well-designed stages provide just the right amount of challenge, but if you have trouble, the addition of Toadette alleviates some of the struggle without making it a walk in the park

Entertainment: This platformer was fun on Wii U, and the Deluxe version gives the game a well-earned extra life on Switch

Replay: Moderately high

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Insurgency: Sandstorm Review ? What's Old Is New Again

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: New World Interactive
Release:
Rating: Rating Pending
Reviewed on: PC

With our reinforcements depleted and the enemy firmly entrenched in its defensive positions, the outcome of this battle looks bleak. Rather than desperately charging headlong into the fire zone like lambs to the slaughter, before we respawn our commander urges the squad to hang back as he coordinates one last-ditch attempt to capture the objective. After flanking the control point with his observer to find a good vantage point, he orders gunship support to pick off exposed snipers and drive the remaining enemies indoors. The rest of us pop smoke grenades to cover our movement before infiltrating the building housing the objective. 

Some of us won?t make it out alive. As the smoke begins to clear, we stare unblinkingly into the corners of the bullet-riddled room in hopes of spotting the last few defenders before they see us. My finger hangs deliberately over the mouse button ready to unload, but they fire first. The room erupts with gunfire and two comrades grouped closely together shriek their last breaths, but their deaths are not in vain. The rest of us spot the muzzle fire and rain revenge, securing the objective and completing the improbable comeback. 

At its best, Insurgency: Sandstorm capably delivers heroic moments like these, where the tension would suffocate if it weren?t for the equal dose of adrenaline rushing through your veins. This tactical shooter demands precision and rewards teamwork, but it also expects you to do your homework and survive without the conveniences of modern shooters.

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As the years have gone by, tactical shooters like Rainbow Six and Battlefield have slowly sanded away the rough edges from their spartan foundations to become more streamlined, bombastic, and inclusive. Insurgency is the old-school mercenary who fills that void for those craving the punishing realism of yesteryear. Bullets are deadly, and no medics are standing by to miraculously revive you after being downed. Grenades don?t have indicators when they land near your position, and the lack of mini-maps and killcams means snipers with good hiding spots don?t need to relocate. With no kill confirmations, you won?t even know whether you killed that soldier hiding behind cover until you see the dead body yourself. Those who prefer the more arcade-like approach to military games may find the lack of these quality-of-life systems frustrating. But if you embrace this more realistic combat and operate like your life is on the line, Insurgency comes alive.

Before you drop into a match, you must choose one of the eight classes. A few, like the commander and observer, have critical responsibilities, but the rest basically break down by weapon type. Developer New World Interactive smartly limits the number of players who can use the most powerful classes, which prevents matches from becoming frustrating due to too many snipers or rocket spamming. All the weapons and attachments are unlocked from the start, but your loadout is limited by weight so you have to make some tough choices. Do you carry extra grenades or fully invest in useful attachments for your primary weapon? The many combinations for each class encourage experimentation before you settle on a favorite loadout.

Each of the three competitive multiplayer modes focuses strictly on attacking or defending control points. Some require the attacking team to take them over sequentially, whereas others spread the fight out across multiple positions. Respawns come in waves, either based on a timer or gifted as a result of capturing a new control point. Patience is required, because you sometimes have to wait minutes rather than seconds before the reinforcements get deployed, and you?re often several hundred meters away from the hot zone once you drop back in. I appreciate respawning at a distance because it creates a natural frontline where you don?t feel constantly in danger of being flanked during your approach, but hoofing it as far as 300 meters brings to mind some of the boring treks in long-lost games like Delta Force. 

Over the course of battle, expect to see some technical glitches. Though my performance was generally stable, occasionally my soldier's hands would disappear or he would have problems vaulting through windows. The netcode also could use some refinement. There were times I made it safely behind cover but still took a fatal bullet mere nanoseconds after the fact. 

Though they lack the graphical polish of many modern shooters, Insurgency?s maps are well designed, with varied elevations, winding streets, and plenty of cover. But apart from the oil refinery, they all feel remarkably similar, as if they were adjacent war-torn districts of a no-name Middle Eastern territory. The game would benefit dramatically from some environmental variety; right now it doesn?t even include a map set during the night to mix things up. 

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Some of the maps include a truck with a turret mounted in the flatbed, but the controls are lacking and the absence of more deadly player-controlled vehicles is noticeable given its modern military setting. Commanders can call in gunships, mortars, and drones to aid the cause, but each is automated once you choose the attack location. In a game so defined by skill and execution, it feels odd to take control of these devastating weapons away from the player.

New World scrapped its plans for a story campaign during development, so the only option outside of competitive multiplayer is a cooperative mode where your squad commandeers control points from an A.I. occupying force. Respawns only trigger after capturing the next objective, which adds much-needed tension to the otherwise generic mode. Playing through each map for the first time is a fun way to get your bearings and calls to mind Rainbow Six?s terrorist hunts, but there isn?t enough depth or variety here to encourage repeated playthroughs. 

The progression system feels similarly underequipped. Ranking up earns you currency to buy new cosmetics for both the security and insurgent forces, but the options are unimaginative and paltry compared to options found in other shooters like Ghost Recon Wildlands. With no accolade or medal awards, the only real reward for a well-played match in Insurgency is the pride you feel for a job well done. 

Insurgency: Sandstorm isn?t for everyone. Its steadfast commitment to realism may off put those who like to jump right into the action, respawn immediately after dying, and get showered with rewards for ranking up. At the same time, fans who lament the mainstream evolution of tactical shooters like Rainbow Six and Battlefield may find solace in this unforgiving, undeniably tense combat. Insurgency: Sandstorm may be spartan, but its limited package can still deliver memorable moments.

Score: 7.75

Summary: Tactical shooter fans should find Insurgency?s skirmishes riveting, even if it's rough around the edges.

Concept: Strip away mainstream amenities from a first-person shooter to deliver a hardcore, tactical experience

Graphics: The transition to Unreal Engine improves the visual quality slightly over its predecessor, but the drab, dusty environments still lag far behind the genre leaders. The lack of environmental variety is also noticeable

Sound: The deadly thwak of gunfire is so loud it may make your ears ring. New World wisely placed a high priority on making sure you can hear the footsteps of encroaching enemies as well, which adds to the tension

Playability: Insurgency demands a methodical approach to combat, savvy tactics, and quick twitch skills if you want to emerge victorious

Entertainment: Tactical shooter fans should find Insurgency?s skirmishes riveting, if they can live with some old-school design in regards to respawn times, respawn distance to fire zones, and limited progression

Replay: Moderately High

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Below Review - Curiosity And Consternation

Publisher: Capy Games
Developer: Capy Games
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: Xbox One

Below is an experience shrouded in mystery and discovery. Your character is a mere speck on the screen, with a zoomed-out camera providing a sense of scale that shows how tiny you are in relation to a vast, often-unforgiving world. The highly stylized art style combines with Jim Guthrie?s enthralling soundtrack to create an immersive adventure that?s easy to get lost into. No matter how strange, everything in Below?s world feels like it belongs, from meandering foxes on a desolate beach to the soft breakaway of blocks as your lantern?s light creates a path through the darkness. But Below?s gameplay can be debilitatingly frustrating, because despite permanent progression through shortcuts and other unlocks, death is swift and devastating, and it can leave you without essential resources to collect your corpse with a fresh character.

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Arriving at a mysterious island, your tiny adventurer is armed with a sword, shield, and little else. You figure out how to manage many survival aspects (food, water, heat) while exploring your way to the depths of the island through many biomes and challenges. Sometimes the challenges are survival-based, like staying alive in a frozen cave. Others are more traditional dangers, having to battle off increasingly dangerous enemies, blocking with your shield, dodging out of the way of attacks, and letting fly a perfectly aimed bomb arrow. Or perhaps you need to solve a puzzle by landing an arrow, shining your lantern, or swinging a hammer.

Along the way, you find (and craft) new equipment that allows you to handle increasingly deadlier environments and enemies as you delve deeper into the heart of the island, including a pocket dimension that allows you to store resources for safekeeping. Each new special item you find, buy, or craft allows for satisfying experimentation. Below is unusual in that the deeper you go and the more interesting and wondrous environments become, the more the enchantment is stifled by the sheer weight of lethal traps and foes. From the darkened floors and beyond, death becomes an oppressive force that?s not just difficult or challenging, but unfun.

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It can be an absolute nightmare to recover your supplies from a floor that you haven?t unlocked a fast route to, and life without your lantern (which must be recovered from death each time, a critical item that many of the game?s mechanics hinge on) is bleak. By the time you get to take on a super cool boss, you?re left more concerned about your potential mortality than getting to really enjoy how precise and crafted the movements of the entity are. As you travel through the weird and wonderful, much of the enjoyment can be lost, channeled into death concerns, grinding for supplies to ensure that you can recover from loss, or simply running back through lengthy segments to get back to where discovery can begin again.

While every tiny unearthed secret provides a pip of inspiring joy, a singular misstep into a one-shot trap or dark creature can sap the fun in a heartbeat, creating a world where the fear of death reigns over all with an overbearing, heavy-handed truncheon. I also ran into a demoralizing bug where a critical progression item was unable to be recovered after death, leaving me locked out of advancing and forced to restart with a fresh save file.

Despite death?s cold grip threatening to ruin everything (a sense which grows the further you progress thanks to several significant difficulty spikes), the core concepts of discovery and exploration shine through. Finding out how to make arrow-bombs to take out tough foes, finding a shop, crafting a stockpile of elixirs, finding a critical elevator to the surface, and putting new gear to use in order to tackle new environmental hazards feels satisfying to figure out on your own. The first time you engage with new areas and mechanics can be awe-inspiring, as each area has its own special identity that feels like it truly belongs. Putting together the often-esoteric pieces of the puzzle and looking up at the sky from the top of the island is inspiring.

Below?s death mechanics can be devastating and off-putting, and caused me to bounce off the game several times. The survival nags are annoying, and the grinding for a safety net feels like a busy chore, but the overall combination of stylized graphics and soundtrack create an incredible universe that begs to be experienced. You need serious tenacity and perseverance to see the sights, but they are wonders worth seeing.

Score: 7.5

Summary: Cabybara's long-awaited roguelike is enchanting, but comes with some frustrations.

Concept: Brave the depths on a mysterious island in a roguelike adventure with little to no instruction

Graphics: The camera and environments work to create a profound, stunning world with numerous areas that feel alive

Sound: Jim Guthrie?s soundtrack is wondrous and mesmerizing, creating incredible atmosphere

Playability: Players are left to discover everything on their own, with significant difficulty spikes and punishing deaths ? elements that can be overwhelming and unwelcoming

Entertainment: Below is a beautiful, immersive experience that comes with extensive caveats. Survival can be frustrating for even the most seasoned adventurer

Replay: High

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Battle Princess Madelyn Review ? Retro To A Fault

Developer: Causal Bit Games
Release:
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch

Romanticizing the past is easy, but older games shouldn?t always be held up as examples to follow. The retro aesthetic has plenty of appeal, including a simplicity of concept and presentation that can be refreshing set against modern behemoths. But old-school styling and design can also add up to frustration, aimlessness, and exasperating difficulty. Battle Princess Madelyn nails the throwback vibe it?s shooting for, and in so doing, exhibits both the highs and lows of the games from which it draws inspiration. If someone told you this was a lost sequel to Ghouls ?n Ghosts rediscovered after all these years, it would be easy to believe.

Battle Princess Madelyn unleashes the titular royal on a side-scrolling world filled with creeping undead, giant snakes, and demonic trees. Her family has been kidnapped by a malevolent force, and she flings an endless supply of spears and swords to overcome the threat. Through charming (if simply drawn) characters and cameos, the story takes on a personal vibe, and showcases a plucky, capable heroine with spark and panache.

The game features two different game modes, using the same environmental backgrounds, but with totally different level designs and approaches to progression. The story mode is a lengthier quest with lots of new items to unlock and secrets to discover, while the arcade mode is a more straightforward and linear path through challenging battles and platforming. These modes result in significant replay potential.

The story mode provides a satisfying progression of new weapons and armor, though I was disappointed that I ran out of things to spend my currency on well before the game?s conclusion. I encountered a multitude of side missions to tackle, but the absence of a quest log or directional aids makes them all blur together, and it?s often difficult to tell the difference between critical objectives or missions that just net you some extra currency.

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I was continually impressed by the variety of monsters, animations, and environments to discover; the desire to see the next area helps motivate continued play. Simple but enjoyable fantasy combat kept me mashing buttons for hours, and the platforming is often difficult, but usually rewarding. Unfortunately, the levels are often confusing to navigate, offering little guidance on how to push the story forward. A smartly implemented hint system alleviates some of the worst offenses, if you check those tips out. In addition, your trusty ghost dog companion also barks and helps steer you toward important objects. Even so, the long checkpoints, frequent blind death drops, and extended vertical climbs that characterize many levels all add more frustration than enjoyment. Many story mode levels also demand backtracking after a boss fight or to find particular sub-levels; pacing would often be better if I was just teleported back to a dungeon entrance or quest completion.

The arcade mode offers a cleaner, more straightforward homage to the original formula. But players should be prepared for a devilish difficulty curve that might crush your spirit long before you see credits. I enjoyed the arcade style the most after first completing the story mode, at which point the added challenge felt manageable but still appropriately punishing.

Battle Princess Madelyn has a sweet, personal touch to it that shines through in the final product, as well as a message about the value of family. The game was built in part as a father?s message to his real-life daughter, and whether you know that backstory or not, it lends the story and gameplay a heartfelt and wholesome tone. The Ghouls ?n Ghosts formula is a lesser-tapped classic that is reinvigorated here with skill, but some structural and design elements hold the experience back from greatness. I hope we get to see more adventures with Madelyn and her family; with some refinement, this whimsically macabre world would be a joy to explore again.

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Score: 7.25

Summary: Like a long-lost sequel to Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Causal Bit's loving homage brings the good and bad of old-school styling.

Concept: Explore a loving homage to Ghouls ?n Ghosts that features an unabashed retro aesthetic

Graphics: A huge variety of monsters, environments, and effects helps the pixel art shine

Sound: Two distinct instrumentations of the soundtrack lend either an orchestral or chiptune effect to the adventure

Playability: Good platforming and combat controls, but the absence of quest tracking or maps is a real bummer

Entertainment: With both arcade and story modes, there?s a lot of old-school charm to enjoy, but be prepared for some old-school frustration as well

Replay: Moderate

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Ashen Review ? Turning Strangers Into Friends

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: A44
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PC

Ashen has a distinct look and its landscapes are imaginative, but no level of creativity can hide the fact that it is a shameless Dark Souls clone. New Zealand-based developer A44 fully embraces this inspiration to deliver almost identical combat, exploration, and a risk-based currency of souls. While feeling overly similar to From Software?s body of work, Ashen pumps out excitement and fun, and manages to carve out a hint of something new with how it handles cooperative play.

I died five times in a lengthy dungeon and began thinking I would never get through it. On my next life, I was joined by a player who complemented my style of play. We marched through this challenging gauntlet and made short work of its boss; I lucked out in finding a partner that could help me. This type of passive cooperative play is where Ashen establishes a somewhat unique and powerful pulse. If another player is at the same point in the story, you may be joined up together. As I illustrated, this can be a boon. Having someone draw the attention of enemies away from you completely changes the difficulty pendulum from an enemy?s advantage to yours.

The cooperative play is designed similarly to Journey?s, in that you can?t communicate with the other player or try to become friends with them. They are with you for your current objective, and will vanish as soon as die or attempt fast travel. While there were players I wish I could have played the entire game with, the feeling of losing a helping hand is a part of what makes this experience tick. It?s a crushing loss, but at the same time, that person likely helped you reach a new milestone. You created that one awesome memory with them. Sure, there are players I played with that, well, sucked, and ended up wasting my time, but that?s all part of the luck of the draw. If another player isn?t around, you?ll be paired with an A.I.-driven teammate that can be reliable, but won't go out of its way to truly up your chances.

If you don?t trust random players or the computer, 4AA implemented an oddly complicated system that allows friends to journey together. I know this sounds like the preferred way to play, but it ends up being a pain given how many hoops you have to jump through to connect with a buddy. You are forced to change a couple of options, enter in a code that you must share with a friend, and stand in the same spot in the world. You then need to press up on the directional pad to summon your friend. In my play sessions, this technique sometimes would work without a hitch; other times we had to redo everything a few times before my friend would show up. We also ran into attempts where he wouldn't show up at all. If you fast travel or die, you must repeat all of the steps. I had great fun playing with friends, but every session ended with us questioning why it was designed this way. We found we were better off playing with randoms for the sake of time than trying to enter each other?s worlds.

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No matter who you are paired with, you enter the world of Ashen at a point of unrest. For thousands of years these lands have been blanketed in darkness. The awakening of the Ashen god has brought a glimmer of light and the hope of peace. You are tasked to help the light expand, and must protect it from forces that want the world to remain blanketed in darkness. Yes, this story boils down to the overdone light-versus-dark motif, but has a nice mythological undercurrent to it, and introduces several interesting characters along the way. They end up having decent stories to tell. As you complete missions for each character, they offer you a wider assortment of items and remedies, and you watch their home grow. It feels good to help them out, even if most of their missions are of the fetch-quest variety.

The journey embraces exploration and venturing off the beaten path to uncover secrets ? even if it means risking all to leap across bottomless pits. The jumping mechanics are solid, and the environmental puzzles are designed nicely ? offering a clear path to the loot once you discover it. The journey you are on is challenging, but fair. It pushes you to complete all the side content to stand a better chance as the difficulty escalates.

While players have a variety of weapon, armor, and talisman types to choose from, combat is sadly the most derivative part of the experience. Alternating between light and heavy attacks, dodge-rolling, and keeping an eye on your stamina meter at all times are just some of the ways it feels familiar. You even heal up in the same way.

Your journey will bring you to the chambers of five bosses, each is clever in design and can down you in seconds. None of the techniques you use to fell them rise above the standard hack-and-slash mix. The combat is functionally sound and reliable, but doesn?t stand out in any way.

Ashen is at its best when you and a stranger are standing victorious over the corpse of a giant creature. You want to say ?thank you,? or exchange a high five, but the only thing you can do is spin around in a circle or jump frantically to simulate a sense of glee. Even with so much of the experience feeling similar to something else you?ve played, Ashen delivers a great sense of wonder in its world, and ends up being a fun journey to undertake.

Score: 8

Summary: Even with so much of the experience feeling similar to something else you?ve played, Ashen delivers a great sense of wonder in its world, and ends up being a fun journey.

Concept: Drawing heavy inspiration from Dark Souls, this difficult journey feels familiar, yet successfully etches out its own identity by always having a helper at your side

Graphics: The game has a unique style, almost looking like it was molded out of clay. The characters and creatures look cool, even without facial features. The world hits the same notes, delivering beautiful backdrops that lack intricate details

Sound: Outside of the clanking of swords and roaring of monsters, the soundtrack is effectively quiet, sometimes offering just a strum of a guitar or a held note

Playability: Dark Souls? DNA was harvested for combat and traversal. Teaming up with other random players works well, but you run into instances where they have a different agenda than you do, and you are left on your own

Entertainment: Collecting souls is as nerve-wracking and rewarding as ever, but the real joy Ashen brings to this deadly dance is sharing those memories with strangers

Replay: Moderate

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Dusk Review ? Getting Old Schooled

Publisher: New Blood Interactive
Developer: David Szymanski
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: Switch

Big-budget, triple-A experiences have never been better, but modern games have no shortage of long cutscenes and hand-holding tutorial sequences. In contrast, Dusk is a nostalgia trip that strips away modern expectations and delivers distilled FPS thrills. Dusk doesn't mess around with leveling mechanics or a sprawling narrative; it hands you a shotgun and lets you loose on a demon army. This simplicity is Dusk?s greatest strength, because this no-frills shooter is an excellent crash course in basic game design.

Dusk doesn't hide its homage to '90s corridor shooters like Doom and Quake. These straightforward, boxy levels are relatively short and filled with colored keycards and hidden monster closets. But, given its graphical constraints, Dusk?s environments are incredibly well-realized. Animated scarecrows stumble out of cornfields while rundown barns teem with hooded cultists and demonic goats. Each level features its own twist on folk horror, seemingly inspired by films like The Wicker Man and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With sparing detail, Dusk establishes an ominous tone that completely sucked me in from level one.

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One of the biggest reasons to explore every nook and cranny of Dusk?s short levels is to gain access to powerful weapons. Early on, I fell in love with dual-wielding shotguns, but another favorite go-to became the rivet gun, which fires off super-heated construction rivets that explode like miniature missiles. Unlike many classic FPS games, I constantly rotated through Dusk?s arsenal thanks to each weapon?s specialization. For example, the hunting rifle is a long-range tool that packs an incredible punch, while the crossbow fires magical green arrows that rip through multiple enemies and even fire through walls. Each weapon is incredibly satisfying, and thanks to an ample supply of ammo scattered on the ground, my magazines rarely ran dry.
 
Mastering Dusk?s arsenal is important, because the action is frantic. Every firefight feels like a dance as you rotate through insanely powerful weapons and strafe dozens of incoming foes. Most enemies do little more than stand and shoot or run straight at you, but given the sheer number of foes and the fact that different projectiles move at varying speeds, I was constantly on my toes. Dusk is a shooter with no reloading, no cover, and no nonsense, so every skirmish is an absolute thrill ride.

Dusk?s intensity also pairs well with its oppressive atmosphere. You rarely have time to think about the horrors you?ve witnessed because the game is continually tossing enemies at you and letting you burn off that nervous energy in combat. Dusk is at once nerve-racking and cathartic.

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After you finish the extensive single-player campaign, you can jump online for 16-player multiplayer mayhem. While the online action remains fast-paced, deathmatch is the only multiplayer mode, and it only has a handful of interesting maps. I had no trouble jumping into online matches, but I did have trouble getting a full 16-player match going. An in-game link to a community Discord channel helps coordinate play sessions, but this feels like papering over a problem rather than providing reliable and robust matchmaking. Given online multiplayer's lack of options and intentional lack of progression, this mode feels more like a novelty. Fortunately, the single-player campaign is more than worth the price of admission.

The first-person shooter has evolved a great deal since Doom popularized the genre in 1993, but, in spite 25 years of innovations, Dusk proves that many of the old tricks still work incredibly well. Dusk might look and feel like a Quake mod, but it's so polished it feels modern. Anyone with even a hint of nostalgia in their bones for classic shooters should dive headfirst into Dusk.

Score: 8.75

Summary: Dusk doesn't mess around with leveling mechanics or a sprawling narrative; it hands you a shotgun and lets you loose on a demon army.

Concept: A faithful homage to the frantic first-person shooters of the ?90s

Graphics: These boxy environments and pixelated textures feel lifted from another era, but they look great thanks to high resolution and modern lighting effects

Sound: The guns are loud and in-your-face, and the metal soundtrack amplifies Dusk?s horror theme

Playability: Dusk's action will sweep you away, and it's small, memorizable levels can be played in short bursts

Entertainment: Fast-paced and violent action hits the ground running, but the intense horror atmosphere might turn off some

Replay: Moderately High

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