slide1 slide2 slide3 slide4 slide5

The Dullest Invasion

You cut through the maze of white picket fences, with a shotgun and only a couple of shells in hand. In the distance, you can hear them chittering. The three friends with you are growing nervous. ?Need some health,? one of them says. Suddenly that dreaded alarm bellows and out of the bushes jumps a massive beast, capable of slaughtering you all in a few swipes?only for half of it to suddenly disappear into a wall and become stuck. Its giant hands are swinging but failing to reach you. You all shrug your shoulders, put a hundred rounds into the monster, and then move on.

Earthfall, a co-op shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead and Warhammer: Vermintide 2, is filled with moments like this where there?s an amorphous sort of potential, a promise of fun or a challenging situation to discover around the corner, only for the game to stumble over its own feet even when it comes to the most basic qualities of a first-person shooter. Earthfall hedges more into the territory of clone than homage, with ?Left 4 Dead But With Aliens? being an apt description without caveat or modification.

Set in a world that?s been invaded by aliens after a massive meteor strike, you play as one of four characters (with the other three characters filled by players or bots) trying to survive long enough to gather up enough people to lead a resistance against these extraterrestrial jerks. You progress through linear levels, fending off swarms of aliens to reach the end, occasionally setting up shop with auto turrets and deployable barricades to survive swarms of foes. There are two campaigns, each with five levels, and none of them are particularly memorable. The threadbare story is also backed by ?lore entries? that you can collect by shooting enough enemies with weapons. Unless you like reading about random resistance fighters? fond memories of their assault rifles or clichéd lab reports on enemy foes, these aren?t worth the effort.

Earthfall?s biggest failing is that it apes the conventions and structure of fantastic co-op games without managing to engender the moments that make its influences so interesting. Earthfall?s weapons run the gamut from a machete to shotguns, but the many weapons all look generic and lack a satisfying punch. Enemy designs are also stale, with the countless drones that swarm you, all looking like gray crabs. More powerful, special enemies are capable of pulling players away from your group and doing damage to them until another player intervenes, but they?re also lacking in imagination when it comes to how they look. Like Left 4 Dead, Earthfall randomly sends out these special aliens to give you an extra dose of challenge but the lack of proper optimization, coupled with glitches leads to frustration more than it does excitement.

In a certain session, three, high-damage dealing brute monsters would spawn one after another in rapid succession, with no way to grab enough ammo between the encounters to fend them off. During one game, my group and I entered a small tunnel only to have one of those giant monsters spawn a few feet in front of us. You can only kill the beast by shooting it in the back so there was no way to escape or fight the monster off. We were trapped in an unwinnable situation; I closed out the session feeling cheated rather than spurred to head back in so that Earthfall could rob me of another 20 minutes of my time due to technical issues or lackluster randomization.

You can play Earthfall as a single-player experience but I can?t recommend it. Even with bots? skill set up to the highest competency, they?re still aggressively stupid, often letting themselves be beaten to death by monsters or getting stuck in hilly environments. The whole enterprise becomes more about managing the needs of your idiot partners when you?re playing with A.I. allies instead of  actual players, making an experience that already feels like a chore even more of one.

Earthfall just isn?t fun. The game has a solid foundation but that structure doesn?t hold anything that?s entertaining or interesting enough to merit the effort of playing it, especially when there are already several superior games that inhabit the same subgenre.

 

Nintendo recuts a semiprecious stone

The software lineup for the Switch?s second year doesn?t measure up to its blockbuster opening year. Fortunately, Nintendo still has a volume of critical hits that launched on the underperforming Wii U to help pad out a thin release calendar. Titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are robust ports of their Wii U counterparts. This rerelease of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn?t filled with nearly as many new goodies, but it remains a delightful romp for anyone who missed this treasure hunt the first time around.

I first fell in love with Captain Toad?s quirky diorama-like adventures in Super Mario 3D World. I adored helping the mushroom-topped hero dodge traps and enemies in a series of single-screen levels while hunting for rare treasures. When Nintendo expanded on this concept with a stand-alone adventure, I happily joined the expedition. Each level only took around five to ten minutes, and the bite-sized sequences were refreshingly free of fluff. Captain Toad?s levels aren?t challenging, but I discovered a peaceful joy in rotating the camera around each level as I shifted around the pieces of each environment like they were miniature puzzle boxes.

Bizarrely, this Switch version removes a handful of levels based on Super Mario 3D World?s environments. In their place, we get an entire bonus chapter of new levels based on the worlds in Super Mario Odyssey. This is more than a fair trade, because these new levels are some of the best in the game. I got a thrill at seeing my favorite worlds from Super Mario Odyssey again while helping Toad dodge Bullet Bills atop an upside down Pyramid, or finding a way to power the moving lifts underneath New Donk City. I just wish these new levels were available from the start; fans of the original release must play through most of the game again to unlock them, unless they have access to the Super Mario Odyssey wedding Amiibos.

Since Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker originally launched on the Wii U, it made full use of the Wii U controller?s touchpad, asking players to touch sections of the environment to move them around or to tap on enemies to slow them down. Sadly, this feature doesn?t translate perfectly to the Switch. When the system is docked, players use their controller?s motion controls to move a cursor across the screen, which acts as a stand-in for your fingers. These controls feel fine, but I got tired of watching the cursor buzz across the screen like an annoying fly when I wasn?t using it. Alternatively, handheld mode allows you to use the original touchscreen mechanics without a cursor, which is the ideal way to play.

Captain Toad?s only other significant addition is a two-player mode. Sorry, did I say, ?significant?? I meant trivial. Like many of the two-player modes in other Nintendo games, this is simply a tweak to the single player campaign, where one player controls Toad and the second player controls the camera while throwing turnips at enemies from off-screen. This is far from a destination mode, but it technically meets the back of the box requirements of allowing two players to interact with the game at the same time.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was a fun time when it hit the Wii U, and it?s still a fun time today. The new levels are easily some of the best in the game, but they don?t really justify a second purchase. I?m thrilled Nintendo wants to make use of this well-traveled fungi, but I hope the next time I see Captain Toad, he?s going on a completely new adventure.

 

Diving To More Difficult Depths

Splatoon has always keenly focused on multiplayer; every free update over the series? three-year history has delivered new gear, maps, and weapons to the competitive suite. As the first paid expansion in series history, Octo Expansion defies that trend, instead adding a new single-player story. For fans of the Splatoon?s Hero modes, Octo Expansion acts as a terrific test of skill.

Splatoon?s core gameplay carries over into Octo Expansion: ink flies as you shoot, swim, and splat your way through 80 single-player tests. You step into the shoes of Agent 8, an Octoling trapped in an underground test facility with chambers connected by a series of subway lines. Your mission is to travel between the lines, collecting key items needed to escape. I enjoy the narrative, but there isn't much meat on the bones; you learn backstory about characters like Pearl, Marina, and Cap?n Cuttlefish through entertaining chatroom logs. These chats are optional, but the dialogue is humorous and those interested in the lore of Splatoon have plenty of new material to fuel those fan theories. However, the tests are the main attraction.

You aren?t facing off against other players, but the challenges are even more daunting. From navigating solitary platforms dangling over an instant-death pit while sniping enemies with minimal cover to pushing a ball along a treacherous, enemy-laden path toward a goal, Octo Expansion does not mess around when it comes to creativity or difficulty.

Octo Expansion?s many challenges often home in on one element of your Splatoon skillset and push it further than you?ve likely experienced. Stages, like one that requires you to grind on rails while hitting targets, with one wrong move meaning failure had me yelling at my Switch in frustration. Despite this, they?re so much fun I was happy to keep trying until I was successful. The levels are tough, but always fair, and the feeling of surmounting a stage you?ve been stuck on can be close to euphoric.

Most levels give you a small collection of weapons to choose from, while others demand you use one particular weapon. Terrible with sniper rifles? You can likely choose an automatic weapon for that test, but you?re going to need to get creative with how you approach some of the sequences designed with long-range weapons in mind. My favorite moments are when you?re given an ultimate ability to use infinitely as you make it through platforms and enemies; these often aren?t the most challenging sequences, but I love how powerful they make you feel.

The variety of distinct obstacles in each stage makes for a fresh experience through to the end. Several gimmicks repeat by the campaign?s conclusion, but typically these repeats expand on the original concept?s formula substantially enough to warrant an encore.

With Octo Expansion serving up such difficult gauntlets, you can avoid troublesome levels through a couple of different methods. If you fail enough times, you?re given the option to outright skip that level. While I?m glad that option is available, I always opted to use the subway-style hub world to jump to another line and circumvent the one I was stuck on. This felt like I wasn?t giving myself an easy out, plus finding an alternate route around the road-block stage is rewarding.

 

The majority of the levels are creative, but I?m disappointed by the lack of original boss battles. The bosses you encounter (save for the intense final sequence) are more difficult variants of encounters in Splatoon 2?s base campaign. With how unique and compelling the rest of the expansion is, it?s disappointing to see the series? typically inventive boss battles be so derivative.

While Octo Expansion focuses entirely on single-player content, you receive cosmetic multiplayer rewards for progress earned. As you complete lines of the hub world, you earn new gear to equip to your multiplayer character. However, making it to the end of the story and completing the final sequence yields the best reward: being able to play as an Octoling online.

Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion is a reminder of how good the series? single-player content can be. Brimming with tense, precision-based challenges and creative ways to force you out of your gameplay comfort zone, Octo Expansion is a terrific reason to once again take the plunge into Splatoon 2.

A Compromised Masterpiece

Bethesda was one of the few third-party publishers to embrace the Switch early and bring over games geared toward older audiences, releasing robust ports of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the reboot of Doom. The latest port to join the fray is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a game I adored when it originally released last year. So how does the version designed for Switch stack up? It captures everything that makes this tale of revolution and adventure so satisfying ? with only a few compromises to bear.

Woflenstein II picks up immediately after the conclusion of the first game. After conquering the evil Dr. Deathshead at a high cost, hero BJ Blazkowicz is crippled and the Kreisau Circle is on the run, trying to keep the revolution alive as the Nazis hunt them. Players are thrown into a strange world where Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan hobnob in the streets of Roswell, and actors board shuttles to fly to planets for auditions in propaganda films. The New Colossus goes all in, offering heartbreak and wild, weird moments in equal measure. One minute, you?re watching a drunk BJ ride a pig through the belly of a U-Boat. Another minute, he is comforting a woman mourning the loss of her husband. Though this mixture of tragedy and insanity might not be for everyone, the powerful concoction makes The New Colossus unlike any other shooter.

The Switch version of Wolfenstein II is solid no matter which way you choose to play it. The docked version of the game looks the best, nearly 1:1 with the original release. Fuzzy draw distance for larger areas and uglier textures for weapons and enemies are compromises, but they aren?t big ones. Visuals take an even bigger hit on handheld mode, amplifying the issues. However, even with these graphical downgrades in mind, Wolfenstein II is a fantastic-looking game, especially with regards to art design. Roswell remains a vivid, chilling portrait of a country that?s willingly given its soul to fascism, with all its propaganda art and exaggerated ?50s-style décor. Firefights are still as intense as ever, with impressive particle effects firing off in every direction, and I never encountered a single framerate slowdown during the whole campaign. Cutscenes in Wolfenstein II look great, but there are a handful of in-game sequences that have close-ups on characters? faces that serve as the most egregious visual hit. Luckily, these sequences are few and far between. 

The New Colossus also plays surprisingly well on the Joy-Cons. The Pro Controller is obviously the way to go if you have one, but the Joy-Cons do an admirable enough job letting you control BJ?s movements both in and out of tense combat situations. I played through the majority of the game in handheld mode using the Joy-Cons, and never felt frustration with the control scheme.
 
My biggest disappointment with this incarnation of Wolfenstein II is that it only contains content from the original retail release, and doesn?t integrate any post-launch enhancements. That means the combat simulations that were added into the base game are missing (essentially an Arcade Mode where you could replay levels from the game to build scores with bloody Nazi-killing combos), as are quality-of-life updates like a more generous grenade indicator. The Freedom Chronicles DLC is also not included (and there?s no way to buy it). Bethesda says that none of this post-release content is currently planned for the Switch version. While these components aren?t an essential part of what makes Wolfenstein II so special, leaving them out makes little sense. Expecting a full-priced retail port of a game released last year to include at least some improvements made to other versions is not unreasonable ? especially when the Switch ports of both Doom and Skyrim do. 

Make no bloody, broken Nazi bones about it: The Switch version is the least visually appealing version of Wolfenstein II. However, for me, that compromise is easy to accept when I can take Machinegames? opus with me wherever I go. Even the worst version of The New Colossus is an incredible, must-play game for anyone who loves zany action and honest, powerful stories about the cost of hope.

 

D.K.?s Detour Is Fun While It Lasts

Ubisoft?s Mario-infused mash-up drew a lot of surface comparisons to XCOM when it debuted, but the increased mobility and wild team combos helped the lighthearted turn-based title carve out its own niche in the strategy genre. The new expansion introduces more of what made the base game so great, but having to start from scratch on D.K.?s abridged adventure prevents it from reaching the same heights.

Donkey Kong Adventure begins with Rabbid Peach and your Roomba-esque robot Beep-0 getting sucked backed into the dimension-hopping washing machine and promptly spat out on a completely new island inhabited by Nintendo?s beloved simian. The story is as flimsy as the original, and the adventure is completely sequestered; players can only access the new content via the main menu after beating the first world, and any progress you made with Rabbid Peach doesn?t carry over. Neither do any of the weapons or other characters that you?ve unlocked. Instead of adding on to Mario + Rabbids, Donkey Kong Adventure simply rehashes the experience in a few hours across 19 new battles.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle ? Donkey Kong Adventure

To get back to Mario and company, Rabbid Peach and Beep-0 must once again topple Rabbid Kong, who was also sucked into the new dimension and wasted no time setting up his own regime of demented rabbid minions. Luckily, they?ve got some extra help: Donkey Kong and Rabbid Cranky are willing to lend helping hands, providing some fun new weapons and abilities to play with.

Combat remains the star of Donkey Kong Adventure, and the titular ape offers up the most interesting twists on the core formula. Donkey Kong uses strategically placed vines to swing clear across the battlefield, and he can also pick up cover blocks, enemies, and teammates to hurl as he sees fit. Even better, D.K. can grab buried rabbids by their ears and pull them out of the ground before they emerge the next turn, giving you a head start on dealing with the next wave of enemies. D.K.?s banana boomerang is another great addition, and it can be upgraded to hit up to five enemies in a single throw.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle ? Donkey Kong Adventure

Rabbid Cranky is less revolutionary, but holds his own in battle thanks to his area-of-effect Grump Jump and his Long Story ability, which puts nearby enemies to sleep. Rabbid Peach remains the same, but her multi-dash attack and healing ability nicely complement her allies. Altogether the team feels great to play with, even if you are forced into using them instead of choosing them freely.

Donkey Kong Adventure features all-new environments, but the enemies follow the same archetypes as the base game, as do the battle objectives. The abridged adventure also leads to less experimentation, since you are using the same three characters the entire time. After a few upgrades, I was stomping on rabbids left and right, and found little reason to change up my overarching strategy.

That said, I still find Mario + Rabbids? combat enthralling. Figuring out how to eke out every hit you can from main attacks, movement attacks, and team combos in a single turn remains a fun puzzle, and D.K. is a fantastic addition to the series. The difficulty level also ramps up nicely from one battle to the next, and although the final boss battle is underwhelming, a score of post-campaign challenges promise to push your combat skills to the limits.

 

Off the battlefield, Ubisoft once again tries to flesh out the world through simple puzzles and exploration, and once again the experience falls flat. Pushing around blocks and flipping switches is even less interesting this time because the vast majority of the rewards only unlock 3D characters models or songs. As great as Grant Kirkhope?s soundtrack is, the series still needs better incentives to venture off the beaten path. These elements are easy to ignore if you just make a beeline to the next battle, but I don?t want to; I enjoy the strange mash-up universe Ubisoft has crafted, and would love a better excuse to spend more time in it.

Donkey Kong Adventure adequately recaptures the same lighthearted irreverence and manic battles of the base game, but as much as I still enjoy the combat, simply offering more of the same feels a little late at this point. The inability to bring any of the new characters and weapons back into the main game relegates Donkey Kong Adventure to being a fun but forgettable detour. I still enjoyed my return trip to Mario + Rabbids? wacky world, but hopefully the next visit is more meaningful.

Lost In America

Like some American lives, The Crew 2 experience basically amounts to being bored, frustrated, and wanting to get the hell out of Florida. This sequel gives you various ways of racing across the country, but it counters this freedom with limited gameplay and the feeling that this isn?t really the land of opportunity. Like the first game, developer Ivory Tower?s vision of America is not one that captures the imagination.

The Crew 2 has no shortage of things to do. With plenty of events to tackle, you earn reputation and money to take on rivals in specific racing disciplines. Planes and boats are new for The Crew 2, offering their own gameplay nuances such as learning not to scrub off speed while turning in a boat. However, you can go long stretches without coming across an event or an environmental skill challenge. After a while, I didn?t use the map at all; I went from race to race via the pause menu since I didn?t want to drive everywhere with the chance of nothing happening along the way. The police cars and landmarks of the original game have been removed, which exacerbates the feeling that there?s not a lot going on. I miss the landmarks in particular since they rewarded exploration while offering a flavor of the surroundings. A photo mode alerts you of pictures you can take of animals, but I stopped doing these since it isn?t fun creeping along slowly trying to find the creatures.

The story is the barest of setups, and it doesn?t curate the experience to offer choice moments on a platter. While the freedom to race a larger selection of events at any one time is an improvement, I quickly realized that throwing the doors open to the whole country isn?t as fulfilling as it may seem, since The Crew 2 doesn?t have much compelling content within.

Despite the general lack of inspiration, The Crew 2 still has some fun spots. Interestingly, these were freeform moments outside of the basic races, like hopping sand dunes in a buggy or bouncing from crest to crest in a speedboat. But these flashes are simple and fleeting, and the majority of events and random skill challenges struggle to hold your attention either because of aggressive rubberbanding, lack of difficulty, or uninteresting layouts. I like flying planes, but you can only be asked to do so many barrel rolls before they lose meaning. A checkpoint race that brags you can use your imagination to get from gate-to-gate doesn?t do much good if it funnels you into a single path before a checkpoint.

Multiplayer should be a way to fill the gaps, but The Crew 2 has no PvP at launch (only leaderboards), and provides no compelling reason to team up with friends to defeat an event since you?re off in your own areas and don?t need each other to complete the event. Similarly, the game fails to connect players meaningfully or add to its world, despite its title, because you can?t spawn spontaneous in-world challenges, and your friends are not part of a larger organization to bind together all you?ve done. The consequence is even your friends feel like acquaintances barely relevant to the experience.

In what I can only assume was an unintentional parallel, progressing in The Crew 2 depends on getting enough social-media followers to up your reputation to unlock new tiers of events so you can do it all over again. Jumping through all these hoops for other people?s amusement (but not my own) is a hollow purpose ? a kind of vain attempt for validation that quickly grows thin.

Prime Cut Paranoia

Arkane Studios? immersive reboot of Prey was entertaining, even if it lurked a little too long in the shadows of Deus Ex and System Shock for its own good. I loved exploring the mysterious space station Talos 1 and learning how to bypass obstacles by turning into coffee cups or raising former crewmates to fight my battles. However, tedious backtracking and dull combat often muddied Prey?s offerings. The Mooncrash expansion pack remedies most of the base game?s ills and creates the experience I wish I had played last year.

Mooncrash is a side story, taking place after the base game. You assume the role of Peter, a hacker working for TranStar?s chief competitor, Kasma Corporation. Peter?s been monitoring TranStar?s secret lunar base. Something?s gone wrong on the moon, and he has to find out why by running simulations of five base personnel who made it off the base, then recording that data for Kasma. The setup is delightfully odd,  a strange structure that wisely puts experimentation with Prey?s enjoyable toolbox of skills and weapons first, even if (once again) the narrative payoff is lacking.

The narrative wrapper requires that you play as all five crewmates. Each one represents a different character build you might have made during the Prey campaign, like the gifted mentalist who has access to a ridiculous arsenal of powers (such as telekinesis or energy blasts) but limited health, and the security officer who?s good with a gun. While the universal goal for everyone is to escape the moon by any means possible, each character also has a special objective for you to complete. Most of them are enjoyable short stories that give you a little insight into each character, like the security officer?s friendship with a custodian who?s actually a backstabbing Kasma operative. The tales make each playthrough more interesting than just getting out alive. You also have to complete certain story missions to unlock other characters.

Mooncrash?s biggest feature is its roguelike ambitions, which is the expansion?s biggest success and failure. If one of your characters is killed by an enemy or environmental negligence, the whole simulation resets, wiping out your progress and creating a new base where enemy and item layouts are randomized. To make matters worse,  a corruption timer ticks away during every simulation. With every new level of corruption it reaches, enemies you?ve killed respawn stronger than they were before. Once corruption hits level five, the simulation crashes. Though you have a way to reset the corruption level counter, the countdown is more of an annoyance and resource drain than a mechanic that intensifies gameplay.

To help alleviate the stress of losing everything, discovering fabrication plans for items during a simulation means you can purchase those items before each run using skill points earned by accomplishing objectives, discovering items, and killing monsters. While it might sting to lose your characters? progress in a simulation wipe, at least you can start the next run with that high damage dealing pistol you crafted (if you?ve got enough skill points), keeping losses from being too frustrating.

One of Mooncrash?s wrinkles that I love is how every choice you make affects all the characters in that simulation. For example, you might be tempted to take all the snacks you find in one area to replenish your health, but it means that another character won?t be able to access them. A bigger, more concerning example is that the moon only has five ways to escape. If you use the shuttle to escape with your first character, you can?t use it again to escape with another. Each escape method is also more than just discovering and selecting the method. A second or even third step is always involved, like searching out a pilot?s corpse and injecting their knowledge of flight into your brain so you can escape with the shuttle. These objectives are enticing to the point that I don?t want to spoil any of the others here, but rest assured: plenty of zany and grotesque sci-fi story beats are waiting to be found. The multi-tiered objectives liven up every area, and character playthrough makes exploration an exciting prospect as opposed to the tedious backtracking that made Talos 1 feel woefully underused.

Like Prey, the expansion pack rewards only those who play carefully, sneaking around corners, scavenging everything in sight, and wisely managing resources. Unless you go in guns blazing or have tremendously bad luck, you can get out of most scraps if you take the time to study your character?s abilities and play to your strengths. While this might sound disappointing to those expecting a hardcore challenge, I never felt the tense atmosphere relent, knowing that every mistake could cost me all my progress with these characters. Deadly encounters with the dreaded psychic behemoth telepath left me running to lick my wounds and restock on ammo and objects as the timer ticked down. Following up those moments with a Hail Mary play is an exhilarating experience, like sucking the horde of enemies about to lay the killing blow into a miniature (and fatal) dark hole with a special grenade.

Those who yearn for more gadgets will be disappointed, as Mooncrash only offers a few, such as the admittedly cool Psychostatic Cutter energy dagger. However, the expansion pack?s achievement is more substantial than a bunch of doodads thanks to how it takes the promise of the base game, slices out the fat around it, and then serves up an experience as thrilling as it is challenging.  Arkane Studios excels at creating fun, inventive playgrounds in which players are given a bevy of tools that wreak havoc and create memorable moments. In that regard, Mooncrash ranks among the developer?s strongest offerings.

 

A Great Escape

Video games are often described within the context of escapism, immersing players in wondrous worlds and putting them at the center of epic quests. From that angle, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is relatively mundane; it?s set in a plain house on a regular Saturday morning, and stars a typical kid obsessed with superheroes, robots, and dinosaurs. Even so, the concept of taking refuge in fantasy is the compelling core of this sad and powerful story, which is partially about the places we escape to, but even more about the situations we escape from.

It may not have ?Life is Strange? in the title, but The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a new (and free) tale in that universe from series creator Dontnod Entertainment. Players control Chris, a 10-year-old boy who lives alone with his dad. Chris? mom was killed a few years ago, his dad is an alcoholic, and life in their house is not easy. The situation is painful, but it also paves the way for the game?s best narrative flourish: As a reprieve from his unpleasant reality, Chris often retreats to a fantasy world in which he becomes the heroic Captain Spirit.

You spend most of your time doing chores in the house and yard. The gameplay consists mainly of walking around and examining highlighted objects, but Chris? wild imagination transforms these interactions into comic-book scenarios that capture an authentic sense of playfulness. Through the eyes of Captain Spirit, a beat-up truck is a spaceship waiting for take-off. A box of mementos is a secret treasure to protect. A water heater is a sinister foe lurking in the dark. These vignettes are creative and interesting, whether they are accompanied by visual transformations, sci-fi sound effects, or simple dialogue. I always looked forward to seeing how the spectacle of these scenes contrasted with Chris? normal actions in reality.

At the same time, these interludes are also bittersweet, because you can?t separate them from their sad circumstances. Chris? dad spends the morning drinking whiskey in front of the TV, leaving Chris to tidy up the filthy house, do laundry, and wash dishes. Left with these lonely tasks, it?s no surprise that Chris turns to a superhero alter-ego to make his life more exciting. Sometimes, you even get the option to super-charge your basic interactions, like ?irradiating? the mac and cheese you?re microwaving, or turning on a TV with your mind (and a remote control). All of these retreats into imaginary exploits remind me of a less grotesque Pan?s Labyrinth (or a darker Calvin & Hobbes), and are portrayed in a way that feel genuine.

 

The insidious nature of the dad?s drinking problem is also handled deftly. Alcoholic parents are often shown as screaming and slovenly monsters, but here the menace is more complicated. In one scene, Chris? dad worriedly asks if anyone has noticed the bruises on Chris? arm. But minutes later, the two characters are playfully shooting Nerf darts and pretending to be monsters. These interactions are complex and uncomfortable; you see the world from Chris? perspective, and it emphasizes how difficult it is for children to process bad situations ? especially involving the people they love.

Though the general scenario and storytelling prove captivating, the segments that lean into more traditional adventure game mechanics are the weakest. Aligning two images to make a map, or finding a PIN to unlock a phone isn?t fun, and does more to pull you out of the world than draw you in.

Normally, games like this depend on satisfying narrative arcs to keep players engaged, but not this one. Instead of feeling like the first chapter in a multi-part story, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is more like a snapshot. It only takes a couple hours to finish, and depicts a routine day in the life of Chris and his dad. It has explicit connections to the upcoming Life is Strange 2 that have me excited, but The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit also stands alone as a clever and heartbreaking look at a kid who deserves better.

A Successful Return Serve

Nintendo and Camelot released Mario Tennis Ultra Smash for Wii U in 2015, and it was a shallow impersonation of the other games in the franchise. It did not have a campaign or interesting modes, and the one thing that set it apart, the Mega Mushroom power-up, was lame. Mario Tennis Aces rights the ship in a big way by adding a full story mode with RPG elements and the new Zone Shot mechanic, which is satisfying to pull off and integral to play.

The star of Aces is adventure mode, in which the people of Mushroom Kingdom inexplicably get obsessed with tennis, and Mario deals with a mystical racket that turns Luigi evil and Wario and Waluigi slightly more evil than usual. As you make your way to the final villain, you partake in mini-games, level up, collect new rackets, solve puzzles, and fight bosses that all revolve around tennis.

Leveling up increases stats like your movement speed and power, and I enjoyed seeing them climb even if the upgrades didn?t result in huge boosts. More so than standard leveling, acquiring new rackets is the main draw. Every racket you collect has a strange design, is more powerful than the previous one, and you get to take every racket into every match. If you don?t counter powerful shots correctly, your racket takes damage and eventually shatters, and you can perform the opposite trick on opponents to shatter their rackets. The more rackets you have, the more you can afford to break, which lets you play longer against the stronger opponents.

The bosses are a highlight, requiring Mario to aim for specific weak spots on large enemies, avoid Petey Piranha?s fireballs, or dodge a giant tentacle in a fight against a giant squid. I enjoyed all the non-traditional tennis minigames, too, like taking out a certain number of Koopa Troopers by whacking them with tennis balls, or figuring out which mirror to hit in a haunted mansion. The standard tennis matches against A.I. spike in difficulty frequently. Beyond the A.I. getting increasingly better, other frustrations make matches feel unfair, like explosive mechanical Bowsers appearing only on your side of the court.

The core tennis hasn?t changed much compared to previous entries. Aces adds a new power meter for pulling off trick shots with the right control stick, slowing down time, and executing the new Zone Shot mechanic. When you?ve powered up enough, you can jump in the air to hit the ball and the camera moves to first-person to give you hyper-accurate aim. Pulling off a high-speed Zone Shot is satisfying, and enough counters are in place to prevent it from being overpowered when used against you. The Zone Shot is integrated well and I was excited to use it during every match.

The smart move with the Zone Shot is to fire the ball just out of reach of your opponent, but you can also use it to break your opponent?s rackets to make them lose automatically. This strategy was my favorite way to win a match, and it also became my best option when the difficulty spiked during the campaign.

 

Multiplayer options are plentiful with online play, local multiplayer, and even offline Switch-to-Switch play. The option to play four-player doubles on two Switches is welcome. I had the most fun going one-on-one, as it keeps the court clutter-free and dials down the chaos. The Zone Shot mechanic is also simple enough that quickly getting a newcomer opponent up to speed on how it works isn?t too time-consuming.

A separate Swing Mode lets you swing the Joy-Con like a tennis racket to play. Pantomiming a true swing drove the ball out of bounds more often than not, but I also found that simply tossing the Joy-Con up in the air when the ball was near would usually execute a successful volley. I am glad Swing Mode is an optional mode. It may allow you to relive your favorite Wii Sports tennis memories, but the inconsistency of swinging is more annoying than novel or fun.

Aces delivers as a competent arcade tennis game, and the new mechanics are fun and important enough that I would be surprised to see them removed in a future Mario Tennis. The difficulty spikes in the campaign are frustrating, but not impossible to overcome. Leveling Mario even as you fail makes the losses sting less (though I would have killed for a quick retry option) and I was always eager to see what I would be doing next.

Weaving New Adventures

The original Unravel delivered exciting platforming sequences, creative-but-repetitive puzzles, and a touching story exploring an elderly woman?s memories. Unravel Two doesn?t stray far from those core concepts, but by introducing a second Yarny to control either solo or cooperatively, it injects new ways to approach situations and expands the formula to create a better experience.

In single-player, you bounce between both characters, though each player controls one in co-op. You can also combine the characters to rush along together. Swapping is remarkably smooth, and having the ability to dangle off any ledge and swing (while the other Yarny holds you) opens up some interesting possibilities in puzzle-solving. The simple nature of the gameplay makes for accessible and enjoyable cooperative play. Adding the second player not only emphasizes the teamwork aspect, but it significantly ups the pace of the action, since you don?t need to stop to switch between Yarnys.

Swapping and swinging are critical to nearly every challenge, and encourage you to think outside the box when conquering an environmental riddle or platforming section. For example, one level unleashes a chicken that chases you. To pass, you need to constantly distract the chicken with one Yarny by putting him just out of reach while the other Yarny progresses through the level. I enjoyed figuring out the right spot to leave the one character, then finding the best path with the other once the coast was clear.

Whether you?re playing cooperatively or going solo, the two characters are tethered, so you can?t venture far from one another. However, you quickly learn to use this to your advantage. With the characters? shared thread, you can dangle from any ledge, swing whenever you want, and wedge the yarn over obstacles to scale them.

Apart from the new character, the rest of gameplay should be familiar to fans of the first game. You jump and swing with precision though seven lengthy stages in the campaign, solve physics-based puzzles, and witness a passive story unfolding in the background. Unravel Two?s platforming feels great, but the swinging is the star of the show; I always got excited when I saw multiple grapple points lined up inviting a lengthy swinging segment.

 

Mirroring the two Yarnys? adventure, you watch a tale of two children getting into various kinds of trouble. It?s a wordless tale depicted though ghostly images in the background, so the specifics are left vague and open to interpretation. This makes the character and scenes hard to connect with, and only near the end of the game did I begin to feel invested. No matter how hard the story tries to be touching, it never quite succeeds.

The main stages likely won?t push you to the limit of your platforming prowess, but the 20 challenge levels might. These are much shorter than the standard stages, often consisting of a single screen, but don?t be surprised if they take longer to beat than the story levels. These challenges take skills you build in the main campaign and test your mastery, as well as your timing and reflexes. Vanquishing a challenge stage is always satisfying, and with the main story dialing back the difficulty, these levels are great additions to the package.

With thoughtful gameplay, seamless co-op, a breezy campaign, and challenges geared towards gameplay masters, Unravel Two delivers a strong platforming experience for players of all skill levels. Whether you want a unique side-scroller to play alone or a teamwork-emphasizing experience to play with a friend, this is worth a look.

Dripping With Unrealized Potential

When I was a kid, I tried assembling a model car. This was back before ?Nailed it!? was a meme (and before the internet in general), but I remember being disappointed by the disparity between the picture on the box and my final result. Compared to the idealized image, my car was lopsided, painted poorly, and glued together in the wrong places. This memory came back to me several times while playing Vampyr. Dontnod?s gothic action/RPG has conceptual components that could have been assembled into a great open-world vampire experience, but they weren?t. The gulf separating that perfect vision from the flawed reality is ever-apparent, and admirable ambitions can?t atone for clumsy execution.

You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a recently transformed vampire who must balance his need for blood against his desire to help treat London?s Spanish flu epidemic. The grim atmosphere is well-crafted, with evocative music punctuating your trips down foggy and deserted streets. You explore different parts of London, meet the residents, and fight beasts and hostile humans. The unique premise is Vampyr?s biggest strength, putting players in the position of a morally upstanding character who has to wrestle with immoral impulses to hold a crumbling world together.

Despite an intriguing narrative backdrop, a meaty chunk of Vampyr?s gameplay involves a clunky third-person combat system. Keeping an eye on your health, stamina, and blood (i.e. mana), you fight a too-small selection of enemy types like vampire hunters and zombie-like skals. You can also invest in various vampire powers, like a bloody claw slash or a blood shield that absorbs damage. These expand your options, but not enough; encounters are repetitive and the mechanics are functional at best, and battles never settle into a sweet spot because the action fluctuates wildly between too hard and too easy.

The team at Dontnod made it the player?s responsibility to tune the difficulty through their choices, which creates major problems. If you want to get stronger and unlock more health, stamina, and vampiric abilities, you need to drink blood for XP. The only significant source of blood is civilians (all of which are named and have dialogue), and when you kill them, you are locking yourself out of potential side missions or story content. This choice is interesting in theory, but punitive in practice because the things you?re weighing feel mismatched. One is narrative and one is mechanical, so you don?t get the fun of seeing different-but-equivalent paths unfold.

Considering how brutally difficult combat becomes if you elect not to feed, all but the most hardcore players need to kill to improve their stats. To make each sacrifice count, you must get to know your victims to maximize the richness of their blood. This fascinating idea occasionally makes you feel like a twisted predator; you help people, heal sickness, and build friendships all to make your ultimate betrayal as bountiful as possible. However, the process of talking to people and interrogating their friends to get clues feels mechanical. I got so sick of the back-and-forth and fetch quests that I eventually just did a sweep of London and murdered every civilian I could in a single night. Districts collapsed, innocents died, and my bad ending was assured, but I got a ton of XP to spend on powers that made every battle thereafter a breeze.

 

Vampyr?s attempts to let you forge your own destiny are ultimately unsatisfying. Though you can make decisions in dialogue trees, the game doesn?t respond to those choices in interesting ways. How you deal with the community pillar in each district has the most noticeable repercussions, but the game doesn?t provide a clear sense of what the outcomes might be. For instance, I unknowingly lost my opportunity to get an important treatment for other citizens by drinking the blood of a rogue nurse. I later learned that the optimal choice in these scenarios is to let the characters live ? in which case, offering the decision seems pointless.

Vampyr is also riddled with basic technical problems like long loads, odd collision, and stilted animation. The rough edges can tap into a similar appeal that I find in games like Deadly Premonition or Earth Defense Force, but they are also frustrating ? especially when the whole game crashes at critical moments. Nothing that Vampyr provides makes it worth putting up with these problems, or any of the other issues plaguing the game. Through the fog awkward mechanics and unsatisfying decisions (not to mention some dumb story twists), the fun and intriguing core of Vampyr is sometimes visible. Unfortunately, that fog lifts only rarely, leaving most of the experience shrouded in darkness.

A Square Peg In A Round Hole

Pokémon has seen its share of strange offshoots, but Pokémon Quest goes in unique directions with both its gameplay and art style. Taking place on an island where everything is shaped like a cube, the free-to-play Pokémon Quest has you exploring the region, collecting Pokémon, and powering up your monsters through fights. However, those high-level concepts are where the similarities to other games in the beloved series ends, along with the appeal. With uninteresting gameplay, frustrating collection mechanics, and tedious grinding, Pokémon Quest is spin-off that fails to live up to its namesake.

Pokémon Quest takes the familiar creatures from the first generation, turns them into cubes, and delivers a passive, top-down strategy experience. You select a group of three characters from your collection and guide them through levels. It?s more strategic than simply choosing your best Pokémon, as each of the 10 worlds grants a significant buff to a specific Pokémon type. I like that this gives you reason to level up creatures outside of your core squad; my team of fire Pokémon might breeze through one world, but they aren?t the best choice for the world full of water monsters.

Your Pokémon move through the level and toward enemies on their own; all you need to worry about is telling them which move to use. Combat is uneventful and unengaging overall, but I like the strategy of knowing which moves to use based on the situation. You factor in which attacks have pushback, or which ones have a chance to inflict a status ailment, like paralysis or confusion. If an enemy is gearing up to attack, you can also press the scatter button to cause the Pokémon to run in opposite directions, hopefully to safety. Navigating the user interface with a joystick-controlled cursor is clunky, meaning you should play Pokémon Quest in handheld mode to use the touch controls. 

Pokémon Quest is still about catching ?em all, but that has nothing to do with the wild-Pokémon encounters in the levels. Instead, you cook stews that complete after you play a certain number of levels. Filling out a collection of monsters is always addictive, but the process is far more frustrating than ever before. While you discover which dishes attract specific types of Pokémon, the creature that comes running at the end is random. Need a Squirtle? Rather than going to the level where you can find a Squirtle, you must cook the water-Pokémon dish and hope you don?t get your twelfth Horsea instead. You also receive a random Pokémon in your camp as a daily login bonus, which helps, but doesn?t solve the problem.

Leveling up Pokémon through battle is often slow, meaning you must grind to gain experience. Even when Pokémon level up, they only gain small stat boosts and slow progress toward a new gem slot. The random-drop gems provide the real stat boosts, as they improve that Pokémon?s attack or defense by hundreds at a time. Rarer gems also providing boosts to stats like critical hit and recovery time, but opening new equip slots for your Pokémon takes a lot of experience. I enjoy the decision-making process of which gems to equip to which Pokémon, and the choices of replacing a lower-level gold-tier gem that grants several additional bonuses with a substantially higher-level common gem is always excruciating. While I don?t like how random the drops are in the levels, I do enjoy the rush of securing a powerful gem and watching a Pokémon?s stats leap when I equip it.

The grind is accentuated by the fact that you can only complete five stages at a time before you must wait for your in-game battery to recharge (you gain one charge every 30 minutes). Playing through the same levels repeatedly and only making incremental progress each time, meaning you?re going to be playing a lot of older levels on repeat to push your Pokémon to the next level. By the time I was powerful enough to take on the next level, I was equal parts excited and relieved that I could finally move on. Thankfully, you can set the game to auto mode and let your Pokémon choose their own moves for a completely passive experience. This delivers the least engaging gameplay experience possible, but I was happy to I didn?t have to actively control my Pokémon as they fight through waves of Exeggcute for the eighth time.

You can also power Pokémon up through training, which can either give an experience boost or teach a character a new move. This process is particularly annoying, as you must sacrifice other Pokémon in your collection to have a chance at progress. The more Pokémon you sacrifice, the greater the likelihood of success. I hate losing creatures from my roster only to see the training fail. You can guarantee success by serving up the same Pokémon as the one you?re trying to train, but that?s usually not an option thanks to the random nature of Pokémon acquisition.

 

As you continue through the island, you earn statues that decorate your base and grant often-hollow rewards. Some give experience bonuses for Pokémon up to a certain level to minimally assist with the grind, but most just award a small boost in the number of cooking ingredients you earn from completing levels. The best statue grants you an extra charge on your battery to let you complete six continuous levels, but as you may have guessed, it?s also the most expensive.

These statues can be purchased using tickets you earn or buy with real money. I can?t imagine spending cash on the statues, as the bonuses aren?t worth it, and even the best ones aren?t completely out of reach to earn from your daily bonus tickets, meaning the microtransactions are thankfully noninvasive. If you?re tempted to buy statues or expand your Pokémon or item-storage boxes, you earn tickets at a steady enough rate that you can do so without spending real money.

Pokémon Quest delivers cute moments, but the novelty wears off fast. By the time I reached the later stages, I was disenchanted by the necessary grinding and random elements permeating nearly every aspect. I enjoy parts of Pokémon Quest, but the adventure never amounts to anything memorable.

Life Doesn't Always Find A Way

From your opening moments creating a small park with a handful of dinosaurs while you listen to Jeff Goldblum give appropriately cheeky warnings to deadly dinosaur breakouts and jealous sabotage efforts later, Jurassic World Evolution is true to its franchise roots.

At its best, you?re basking in the glory of your genetically modified titans bringing in tons of cash and visitors, living up the John Hammond dream. At its worst, you?re engaging with a deluge of menus, timers, and minutia that feel like fulfilling annoying chores, all while babysitting cooldowns and constantly clicking away. Jurassic World Evolution serves up a serviceable (and sometimes fun) fantasy for franchise lovers, but falls flat in critical aspects when it comes to consistent enjoyment.

You have five main islands to unlock and explore, beginning with a lovely little tutorial experience that provides some of the best hours of the game. Learning to complete contracts for cash and new building options, create efficient housing for your dinosaurs, and handle research, expeditions, power outages, and dinosaur escapes is all smooth sailing. Later on, you can unlock a sandbox island, Isla Nublar, where you can play around with unlimited resources and get goofy with your herd. Between these two entertaining extremes lies the meat of the game, and that?s where things get frustrating and messy.

Because this is a Jurassic Park game, dinosaurs get out of their pens and wreak havoc. The first few times, I had fun sending helicopters out to tranquilize and move the errant creations back into their enclosures. Issues arise from a management perspective in the islands that follow your initial jaunt. You?re continuously battling a barrage of timers ? watching research tick down, waiting for a dinosaur to spawn, setting your ranger teams on missions to replenish food supplies, repair fences, cure disease, and restore power to your accident-prone facilities. These constant cooldowns for your attention feel like a poor mobile game, where you?re inundated with objects requiring an exhausting marathon of click management.

Options also feel limited. While the contract system gives you different goals to unlock new buildings and procure significant resources, the challenges are often bland, simply getting to a new tier of income or creating some dinosaurs. Reputation gains with the three factions unlock a few new options, but they leave you with little room for meaningful decision making ? even in the later islands where you must manage devastating weather or budget crunches.

Dinosaurs are the star of the show, whether they are devouring your guests and causing subsequent lawsuits, or gently eating ferns in front of a crowd. Playing with their DNA isn?t a completely freeform experience, but the process has enough differentiation to experiment and have a good time. Priming dinosaurs with curious colors, longevity and disease resistance, or gearing them up for gladiatorial combat (yes, some contracts will task you with getting your dinos into a brawl) keeps you coming back to tweak your stable. Busting out bigger and better creatures as you move from island to island is a satisfying progression loop that keeps goading you forward, like a goat bleating in front of a T-Rex paddock.

Jurassic World Evolution is a mixed experience, at times reveling in its fantasy and becoming bogged down in its own systems in others. If you?re a fan of the franchise it?s a fun dip into the prehistoric pool, but the water isn?t deep enough to satisfy a voracious carnivore.

A Definite Fixer-Upper

In the realm of incredibly niche sim games, House Flipper certainly feels like a no-brainer. The concept of buying run-down houses, improving them, and then selling for a tidy profit has spawned countless television series, and makes for an enticing gameplay loop. Unfortunately, House Flipper has its own list of vital improvements that need addressing if it hopes to satisfy would-be interior designers.

Players start from humble beginnings in House Flipper, performing simple cleaning jobs for clients to earn cash for their first home purchase. These missions serve double duty as a lengthy tutorial, and the sense of progression is handled nicely; not only do you gradually acquire the different tools you?ll be using to improve homes, you also start unlocking a variety of quirky perks, like consuming less paint or the ability to identify dirt on your mini-map.

House Flipper Review

House Flipper gives you the ability to perform a number of remodeling actions, but the actual gameplay mechanics aren?t very interesting. Cleaning boils down to clicking on boxes and other litter to make it instantly vanish, or holding in the mouse button to wave your broom in the general vicinity of stains. The mechanics for painting, tiling, and mounting appliances are equally simplistic, and don?t leave much room for creativity. You have a little more freedom when it comes to demolishing and building walls and placing furnishings, but you won?t be impressing Chip and Joanna Gaines anytime soon.

After you?ve saved up enough money, you can forgo the set jobs and buy your own fixer-upper on the open market. The houses come in a variety of different sizes, prices, and levels of disrepair. After following the lengthy to-do lists of your previous employers, having the ability to do whatever you please with your new home is exciting. However, it doesn?t take long to realize your renovation options are less expansive than they first appear.

I?m not the biggest remodeling show fan, but thanks to my wife?s obsession with HGTV, I?ve watched enough of them to understand the appeal, and House Flipper simply lacks the flexibility to deliver on the dream. Despite the real-world emphasis on curb appeal when it comes to selling homes, you can?t perform any landscaping or outdoor improvements to your houses aside from applying a new coat of paint. You also can?t add or remove windows, or alter outside walls in any way. The demolition mechanics are limited inside as well; you can?t tear down or move any wall that has plumbing fittings, so your bathroom layouts are bound to stay static ? unless you want a toilet in your kitchen. These restrictions put major renovations out of the realm of possibility and make the whole experience feel shallow.

Even if you?re happy with your home?s floorplan, touching up rooms lacks flexibility. Paint is applied one full-length, vertical strip at a time, preventing you from doing any kind of creative treatment aside from big-top circus stripes. Your color options are also underwhelming, and you can?t mix your own custom hues.

House Flipper Review

While House Flipper technically boasts hundreds of unique objects that you can place in your homes, drilling down into specific categories sometimes offers depressingly few options. You quickly get tired of placing the same doors, desks, and (one!) shower in all of your homes. Putting up shelves often left me at a loss for what to fill them with, and I found myself gravitating to the same few candles and plants to make rooms feel less barren.

While House Flipper?s tools are serviceable, you won?t be able to truly design your dream home, or incorporate your own creative flourishes beyond the ability to add custom paintings (which I had way too much fun with). This limited creativity isn?t a deal-breaker, but it results in generic homes, which makes the renovation process feel repetitive.

Fixing up homes is only half of the house-flipping loop ? you also have to sell them. Here too House Flipper offers an abbreviated and less-than-realistic simulation of the housing market. Once you?re satisfied (i.e. can live) with your renovations, your home instantly goes to an auction to see which of a dozen dedicated buyers place the highest bid. These buyers are presented as typical would-be home owners ? a business man, an elderly couple, a few families ? but will continue buying up your future homes no matter how many they own. Each buyer also has personal tastes that you uncover through the auctions, but their guidance is nebulous and sometimes downright contradictory. During one auction a buyer commented that ?the whole house is clean, very nice? ? only it was listed in red as a dislike. 

Even when buyers are clear about what they want, delivering can be difficult because the requirements for what registers a room as a specific space aren?t listed in the game. I tried catering to one couple by including a massive family room in one home, complete with a comfy sofa, entertainment stand, television, and bookcase ? but apparently because the room didn?t have curtains or a speaker, it didn?t count as a family room.

 

Ultimately, the wants of individual buyers don?t really matter much anyway. When I failed to entice the single businessman with a one-room home because it lacked a separate office (which I totally included!), a different family bought it anyway ? even though the home lacked the extra bedroom and playroom they were looking for. Not once did I fail to turn a profit on a sale, which once again undermines the renovation loop ? why spend more of your budget on extra furnishings that the buyers don?t really care about, when you?re virtually guaranteed a profit no matter what you do?

After your first few sales, House Flipper falls into a boring and repetitive rut: Buy a house; clean, plaster, and paint; add a few pieces of furniture, then sell and repeat. Aside from the initial price tag for a house, money isn?t an issue ? you have no ongoing expenses, and are in no danger of not finding a buyer, so there?s no risk or tension involved in getting a job done or making a sale.

House Flipper seems like a killer idea for a sim game, and while your first few sales deliver some of the before-and-after magic, the game fails to capture the larger remodeling fantasy. Empyrean has been delivering a steady stream of updates and improvements to House Flipper, but it?ll take a lot more elbow grease to get this fixer-upper ready for market.

 

Novel Puzzles In A Sushi-Obsessed Land

In Sushi Strikers, you aren?t sliding colored gems into groups of three or more on a grid, but the part of your brain that sparks when three of the same thing disappears after you make them neighbors lights up here. To make the whole experience more interesting, it?s all set in a humorous world of sushi-obsessed warriors who fight to the death to defend their right to eat uncooked fish.

While sushi striking, you look over a series of sushi-filled conveyor belts and highlight trails of sushi that are on like-colored plates. If you highlight a row of five blue plates that are on the conveyor belt in a row, you quickly eat the sushi, and then stack the plates to use as weapons. The more sushi you eat, the higher your stack of plates, and the harder it hurts when you throw it at your opponent. Whoever runs out of health first loses. The gameplay screen is dense with a lot of color and sushi, but the mechanics are simple and do click after you overcome the first few tutorial hurdles.

 

The conveyor belts move quickly, and you only have a few seconds to find your plate collections. Keeping track of four moving conveyor belts of moving sushi is tricky, and getting overwhelmed happens. Once you found your rhythm, ticking up big combos of plates and throwing the giant stacks at opponents is always satisfying. I used the touch screen initially, which was a good way to learn, but ultimately using the analog stick was my favorite way to select my sushi. It lets you see the full sushi layout without a giant stupid hand blocking the playfield. Despite practice, I was never fully satisfied with the on-screen cursor?s accuracy. Even later, I still occasionally selected the wrong sushi by mistake, and was disappointed to find no options to adjust the sensitivity.

As you progress, taking out enemies in a series of one-on-one sushi striking battles and leveling up your strength, health, and other stats, you collect creatures called Sprites. Sprites join you in battle and give you special abilities that can be charged up and used during a match. The starter Sprite, Jinrai makes all the on-screen plates the same color so you can execute one huge combo. A monkey-like creature, Sun-O, allows you to temporarily match plates even if different-colored plates are in the way. I liked finding these creatures and playing around with their distinct abilities as they let me to focus my strategies on my strengths, or just sushi strike in a different way.

The story starts out on an absurd note detailing a war that broke out over sushi and how when the antagonist won the war, it made it illegal for anyone to eat sushi. Your task is to end this tyranny and bring sushi to everyone in the world. The whole concept is very silly, and every character fully embraces the ridiculousness of a world obsessed with sushi in a way I enjoyed. I also appreciate the production values with fully animated cutscenes on par with anime you see on TV. Separate cutscenes were even made depending on if you choose to play with the male or female protagonist.

Multiplayer (both local and online) takes a surprising amount of time to unlock, as it requires playing the single-player. The campaign is my favorite part, but locking multiplayer behind it means anyone who wants to dive right into multiplayer with a friend out of the box will be disappointed. Playing local multiplayer, I worried walking a newcomer through the mechanics would be time-consuming based on my own experience in the single-player (which tutorializes each mechanic slowly. I was happy to learn that it only takes about one game to get someone up to speed when you don?t have to move at the game?s slow teaching pace.

Sushi Striker has an intimidating learning curve (if you don?t have someone on hand to walk you through it), but when you find your stride, maintaining it is satisfying. Accuracy using the controller is an issue, but it is an occasional annoyance as opposed to consistent frustration. Watching your level and your Sprites grow as you match sushi plates is exciting, and the charming world is like the little bit of gari at the edge of your sushi plate.