slide1 slide2 slide3 slide4 slide5

Layers Of Fear 2 Review ? Surprise Over Sophistication

Publisher: Gun Media
Developer: Bloober Team
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

In horror, mystery and uncertainty are useful tools. However, when properly deployed, knowledge and context have even more power to transform simple scares into pure terror. Imagine you?re walking through a haunted house. Doors spring open every few steps, each one hiding a faceless corpse, and in the background you can vaguely hear the singing of a creepy voice. That?s pretty scary. Now imagine that all of those faceless corpses are replaced by the bodies of your friends and family, and the creepy singing is the voice of your first-grade teacher. Suddenly, your personal investment makes predictable horror elements compelling and chilling. This is a lesson Layers of Fear 2 never learns. It may excel at jolting you with quick scares, but the narrative and stakes are so obscure that real horror can?t take root.

This first-person experience sends players through a linear series of corridors and rooms that are ostensibly in a luxury ocean liner ? but the aesthetic doesn?t hold its form for long. That?s not a bad thing; like the original Layers of Fear, a big highlight of this sequel is how it toys with your perception of your surroundings. Sometimes you?re in a forest, sometimes you?re in a house, and sometimes you?re in a dreamscape. Doors slam behind you, and when you turn around to check, new hallways appear where blank walls were before. This instability is exciting and the visuals can be striking, producing a few well-designed moments that I won?t spoil here, along with plenty of jump scares.

Click here to watch embedded media

If you?re content with the shallow thrills that come from unexpected loud noises and quick flashes of disturbing images, then Layers of Fear 2 might be satisfying. If you want an oppressive atmosphere and creeping dread, those things never quite develop. You control an actor aboard the ship to star in a film, but your unraveling sanity blurs the line between reality and imagination. This setup raises questions I was eager to have answered, but the answers don?t enrich the tension. Instead, you scour the environment for collectibles like drawings and notes, and use those to assemble a fuzzy outline of a narrative ? a process that doesn?t arm you with the relevant information at the right times.

Stories don?t always need to be explicitly communicated. Some games benefit from an ambiguous delivery, but Layers of Fear 2 isn?t one of them. It feels like a six-hour trailer for a real game, teasing significance with vague foreshadowing and ominous dialogue like, ?There shall be a vast shout. And then, a vaster silence.? But those threads don?t converge in a compelling way, so at moments that seemed important, I was often left wondering what was happening and why. Players can eventually find those answers through new game+ and thorough exploration, but nothing kills a scary moment like relying on after-the-fact clarification to explain why the moment should have felt scarier than it did.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Beyond that narrative disconnect, Layers of Fear 2 also has some gameplay issues that are far more aggravating than fun. While you?re usually walking and poking around, a half-formed monster chases you at multiple points. These sequences are exercises in learning through failure; you can expect to die several times as you flee, and when you finally escape, it?s with a sense of resignation rather than victory. I was also frustrated by the conclusion, which factors in your actions to determine which of three endings you get. However, when you are making significant choices (or what you are even choosing) is poorly communicated, so the final scenes feel arbitrary ? not like the end of a path you?ve decided to travel.

Watching people react to fright can be funny, and the original Layers of Fear found an audience among streamers because of its abundance of jump scares. This sequel has many similar moments, and they are more interesting and paced less aggressively, so players aren?t desensitized so quickly. At the same time, Layers of Fear 2 shares its predecessor?s narrative shortcomings; it drops multiple clues that hint at a unifying story, but the bungled delivery and atmosphere prevented me from connecting to anything beyond the surface scares.

Score: 6

Summary: Layers of Fear 2 may excel at jolting you with quick scares, but the narrative and stakes are so obscure that real horror can?t take root.

Concept: The past and present converge as an actor explores a ship that isn?t bound by the rules of reality

Graphics: Though many rooms and hallways look similar, several areas are gorgeously foreboding

Sound: Creepy effects help the jump-scares land, and the few key voice performers (including "Candyman" star Tony Todd) do good work

Playability: Navigating the world is simple, but environmental interactions (like opening doors) can be inconsistent ? which is a problem if you?re being chased by a monster

Entertainment: Surprising moments succeed at sending occasional shivers down your spine, but the game doesn?t bring you deep enough into its world to inspire fear

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

Dreams Review ? Bringing Your Imagination To Life

Dreams Review ? Bringing Your Imagination To Life

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Media Molecule
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

More than any developer, Media Molecule has been driven by a singular goal: to empower players to make and share their own games. LittleBigPlanet focused this concept on the 2D platformer, but clever players spent years devising ways to stretch and twist their creations beyond the genre?s confines. With the release of Dreams, Media Molecule obliterates those confines completely, giving players a broad and flexible suite of development tools to create whatever their hearts desire. Dreams may not strictly be a game, but the tools are easy and intuitive enough to make the creation process fun for everyone, which delivers a wealth of entertaining experiences noncreators can enjoy.

As someone who spent hours tinkering with LittleBigPlanet?s editors but never published a single level, I didn?t hold a lot of hope for what I could create in Dreams. At best, I figured I?d muddle my way through the myriad tutorials, then spend most of my time ?surfing? the creations of other more talented players. Instead, the reality has been the reverse, my skepticism replaced by continual astonishment at the possibilities Dreams offers.

Dreams Review ? Bringing Your Imagination To Life

Foundational controls make sculpting and moving objects in 3D space a breeze, a visual programming language eases novices into computer logic, and a streamlined interface lets you hop between editing and playing prototypes instantaneously. You still need to devote several sessions to learning the ropes from Media Molecule?s video tutorials, but I can?t overstate how smartly designed everything is, and it makes the creation process feel less like work and more like experimental play.

Not only can anyone piece together a prototype out of primitive shapes, they can also make it beautiful with Dreams? ground-breaking art tools. Much of the magic lies in Flecks, small artistic brush strokes applied to the surface of every object that result in the game?s evocative, dream-like aesthetic. These Flecks can be colored, unraveled, and animated as you see fit, and can turn a simple hemisphere into a lush, grassy knoll in seconds. If you?ve ever felt the frustrating sting of having a drawing fail to live up to your imagination, Dreams delivers the opposite sensation ? I?ve routinely been surprised by how much better my creations turn out than I expected. Every facet of Dreams, from sculpting to painting to the application of animations and effects, features this same ease of use.

10 Coolest Tools In Dreams

No matter how easy Media Molecule makes it, more people will want to just play games than create them. Again I was skeptical of what Dreams would have to offer, and again I was pleasantly proven wrong.

Part of the entertainment of playing other people?s games stems from the novelty of knowing they used the same tools as you (?How did they make that?!?), but I?ve also played plenty that are fun in their own right, from simple puzzle games to clever platformers to throwback arcade games. One user?s riff on Geometry Wars is so polished you could easily mistake it for the real thing. A 3D Bomberman prototype already looks better than any official title Konami released in years. At this point, most offerings are bite-sized experiences or works-in-progress, but Dreams has only been in early access a few weeks, and the amount of content is expanding exponentially.

All Dreams creations are uploaded to the Dreamiverse, which is essentially Media Molecule?s take on what the Internet should be: a communal space full of positivity, sharing, and collaboration. Media Molecule tries to surface the best content for surfers via tags and filters, but more important is the ability to make and share collections. Once you find a creation you like, you can see what collections users have added it to, then jump directly into their other picks. I?ve spent hours falling down rabbit holes within rabbits holes this way, and other players? creations are more than just entertaining; they are inspiring.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Even with a healthy selection of tutorials, Dreams pushes you out of the nest a little too early, leaving you to figure out some of the more advanced gadgets and variables on your own. Media Molecule also offers little guidance in the way of actual game design lessons, a role the studio is uniquely qualified to provide. It?s no wonder many players have focused on creating clones of other games instead of tackling their own ideas. Dreams? ongoing development may very well fix this, as Media Molecule says it intends to add more tutorials and masterclasses, but I hope it also fleshes out the number of gameplay templates, genre examples, and design exercises.

Dreams is an idealistic vision of game development, where people create, collaborate, and share games purely for the love of gaming. No Dreams game may ever reach the polish of a triple-A title, but they also lack the cynical business side of game development, where test groups and microtransactions take precedence over unbridled creativity. The prospect that we?ll someday see future developers who got their start in Dreams seems inevitable, but also moot ? in a very real sense, Dreams players already are game developers. We may have longer to wait for the official release and Media Molecule?s single-player story levels, but Dreams is already a magnificent wellspring for those who love playing, creating, and thinking about games in all their many forms.

Click here to watch embedded media

Score: 9.5

Summary: Dreams? robust design and sharing tools offer endless possibilities to creators and a growing tidal wave of fun, hilarious, and moving gameplay experiences for players.

Concept: Give players a robust toolset to create and share their own games, or specialize in one aspect of game development

Graphics: Dreams? ingenious Fleck system allows non-artists to create visually arresting scenes in minutes

Sound: The included library of instruments and effects provides plenty of flexibility, but the ability to record and upload your own sound banks is next-level

Playability: Dreams? gyroscopic controls massively simplify the movement of objects in 3D space, but they have raised accessibility concerns for some players

Entertainment: With an ever-growing wealth of content, few games continually surprise or amaze like Dreams

Replay: High

Click to Purchase

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 3 Review ? A Fork In The Road

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

On their way toward Mexico, brothers Sean and Daniel have had harrowing experiences change their lives and complicate their relationship. This episode continues following the ups and downs of their bond as the boys take refuge at a hippie camp and marijuana farm. It?s a wild premise, but new characters are boxed-in stereotypes and the episode struggles with poor pacing.

 

While the last episode focused on harnessing control over Daniel?s telekinesis power, this episode is more about embracing freedom and individuality. Among the hippies, Sean is discovering more about himself, and his younger brother resents him for it. Your decisions, particularly how you interact with Daniel, have been crucial this whole journey, and this episode is a fascinating culmination of the web of choices with a thrilling conclusion. However, the road to that end is sloppy and forgettable.

 

It starts off on a good foot, with a flashback taking place three months prior to the incident that led the brothers to flee home. I enjoyed trying to make amends with Daniel after treating him unfairly, as well as understanding the weight Sean bears by acting as a second parent after their mother?s departure. The flashback does a good job of showing some of the roots of the boys? relationship, giving the impression that their core bond can overcome anything.

 

Unfortunately, the middle parts of the episode aren?t as compelling. The setting, which takes place in a Californian forest and on a weed farm, is much more interesting than the events that occur within it. You spend most of your time doing painfully boring tasks; washing dishes, carrying water tanks, and trimming marijuana buds. That last chore is performed through a minigame where you perform timed button presses to continue onto the next plant. The minigame isn?t interesting, and the chatter from other characters during it is equally mundane.

 

Click here to watch embedded media

I continue to care deeply for Sean and Daniel, but their new hippie friends are forgettable, predictable, and painfully stereotypical. They are a group of dreadlocked young adults with tragic backstories who follow alternative lifestyles, but they come across superficial rather than deep. Two antagonists who run the weed farm are problematic as well, fitting neatly into their cruel archetypes without offering anything more substantial. They?re villains who are nothing more than narrative devices to push the story toward conflict.

 

Despite poor characters, I enjoyed some of the thematic moments of the episode, including its juxtaposition between freedom and oppression. Sean tries to tell himself he feels free, but the monotony of the weed farm feels like a prison. Daniel also struggles with who he is and what he wants, and the two butt heads about it throughout the episode. While Daniel wants more time with his brother, you can decide whether Sean goes along with that or follows his own path. Both choices come with big consequences, and the growing rift between the brothers is intriguing and dangerous ? especially since Daniel?s gift is uncontrollable during emotional turmoil.

 

The episode also does a great job of handling Sean?s sexuality and letting players decide how (or if) he explores it. You can choose from two different love interests: a young girl named Cassidy or a young man named Finn. You can opt out of both, but pursuing a relationship brings added complexity and tension to the final scene. Furthermore, because Sean has identified as straight his whole life, exploring his sexuality through Finn can, for now, only go so far. This creates some agency for the player without sacrificing Sean?s established sexual identity ? something we don?t see often in video games. Sean?s queerness is a fascinating layer that Dontnod balances realistically as the young boy fumbles through his journey of self-discovery.

 

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

While the last episode lacked gripping choices, this episode is the exact opposite ? at least in the last 20 minutes. Your choices, not just from this episode but from the journey as a whole, impact an explosive cliffhanger with multiple variables. I can?t spoil anything, but I was glued to the screen during these moments, though I was also disappointed that it took so long for the episode to get there.

 

Sean and Daniel?s relationship continues to be the best part of Life is Strange 2. Will they continue to grow apart or will they find common ground despite their differences? I?m eager to leave behind the hippies and weed farm, and see what comes next for the Diaz brothers.

Score: 7.25

Summary: This new chapter in the Diaz brothers' journey has an explosive conclusion, but suffers from painfully stereotypical characters and poor pacing along the way.

Concept: Sean and Daniel continue their tumultuous journey to Mexico while making a pitstop at a camp run by hippies

Graphics: Beautiful redwood trees and gorgeous Californian landscapes make this episode aesthetically pleasing

Sound: A blend of folk and indie music continues to bring a good balance of emotion to heartfelt scenes

Playability: Navigating through environments, playing quick-time event minigames, and drawing in Sean?s notebook are all easy to control

Entertainment: Despite a thrilling conclusion, this episode suffers from imbalanced pacing and annoying characters

Replay: Moderately High

Click to Purchase

Observation Review - The Thrill Of Taking Back Control

Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: No Code
Release: Spring 2019
Rating: Rating Pending
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: PC

Horror games are often loud and immediate when it comes to the shocks they deliver. Even the more restrained of the genre?s offerings, like Soma and Amnesia, often have indestructible hunters that consistently instill smaller jolts of fright pursuing you. Observation is different, trading pulse-pounding scares for a sense of creeping fear. You play a space station?s artificial intelligence in the aftermath of a disaster, and this angle on puzzles and exploration produces a unique kind of horror ? one that takes the time it needs to tell an ambitious story without interruption, letting players marinate in its lake of dread before unveiling the terrors at its core.

You awaken on the station (itself called Observation) to find a scientist, Emma Fisher, begging you for help as the structure groans and burns all around you. S.A.M. (an acronym for ?Systems, Administration, and Maintenance?) is the A.I. in charge of taking care of the crew of Observation. S.A.M.?s memory cores and most of its functionalities have been wiped in the wake of whatever catastrophe has struck the station, meaning that as S.A.M., you have no idea what has happened and are at the mercy of Emma as she works to help you get all your functions back online.

Uncovering what happened to Observation is the heart of the game, and it?s a hell of a plot, packed with constant twists that leave a trail intriguing and unsettling questions. What is the role of Observation?s crew? Are any of them still alive?  Is S.A.M. a victim in all of this, or is it responsible for the disaster? And what else is lurking on the station beside you two? While these plot points all have satisfying resolutions, my favorite part of the narrative was watching Emma and S.A.M.?s relationship develop as the story creeps along. Emma fluctuates between trusting and suspicious, and who can blame her when S.A.M. can?t even verify that it?s not responsible for damaging the station?

Click here to watch embedded media

The pair?s symbiotic relationship is reinforced neatly in the gameplay as well, with Emma needing S.A.M. to restore functions to the station and open doors for her to reach new places. In turn, Emma gives you power-ups that grant you more maneuverability and access to the station?s various functions. Initially you can only manually operate various cameras in different wings of the station (think Five Nights at Freddy?s), zooming in on laptops and documents to obtain useful, story-progressing data. Eventually, you gain the ability to move throughout the station as a drone in order to conduct repairs and help Emma get where she needs to go. While these tasks sound mundane, they?re fun puzzles that help set Observation apart from horror-based walking simulators. For example, to bring back the power in one wing of the station, you need to restart various generators around the room. Jumping from camera to camera to access laptops and folders around the room gives you access to the schematics that you can use to dive in to the generators themselves and reboot them via a quick memorization puzzle. Other obstacles you have to overcome include time trials, math problems, and line puzzles. Observation is satisfying because its constant and well-designed puzzles make you an activate participant in the action as opposed to just an avatar wandering around. I needed a notepad to get me through a number of the harder puzzles, so you can expect to be challenged ? but not to an unfair degree.

While there are no game-over states, failing to solve certain puzzles alters segments of the story in subtle and neat ways I won?t spoil here. Besides progressing through the plot, solving puzzles also helps S.A.M. The further you get, the more access to different wings of the (giant) space station you gain, eventually letting you jump from place to place like the eye of an all-seeing god. Outside of some fantastic plot-specific moments, this function is useful for exploring the station in search of optional collectibles like audio logs, photos, and journals that help flesh out the crew and take in some of the impressive architecture both in and outside the station.

Observation (the space station) is a strong setting. Instead of a techno-haunted-house aesthetic, it uses realistic NASA-style construction with blue panels, sterile white walls, and constrained tunnels adorned with posters and family photos that serve as a cramped home for the crew. These trappings make the station feel eerily familiar; watching such a realistic space shift into something more horrific over time is an unnerving experience, with the literal structure of the station changing depending on what happens to it throughout the story. Even the act of moving through that space in either camera mode or as the drone is disturbing, as you never know what gruesome scene might be around the bend.

I ripped through Observation in one six-hour sitting, propelled forward by the novel blend of challenging puzzles and gripping storytelling. Though at first glance, Observation may appear to be your traditional first-person horror game, I?ve never played anything quite like it. Challenging and unnerving in equal measure, Observation shouldn?t be missed by anyone in search of a mind-bending and unsettling thrill. 

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Score: 9

Summary: Challenging puzzles and a fantastic plot make this horror adventure an unmissable game for fans of the genre.

Concept: You and your colleague are trying to figure out what?s gone wrong aboard a space station. Plot twist: You are the space station

Graphics: The memorable setting and characters are brought to life with impressive textures and lighting that heightens the dread

Sound: From its creepy electronic score to all the station?s creaks and terrifying noises, Observation sounds as good as it looks

Playability: Navigating the station is easy thanks to a snappy interface and simple controls

Entertainment: Observation is a fantastic horror game thanks to its twisting plot, well-realized setting, and challenging puzzles

Replay: Moderately high

Click to Purchase

Total War: Three Kingdoms Review - Elegantly Embellishing An Era

Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PC

As a franchise, Total War is known for realism, with lowly axemen eating barrages of arrows as trebuchets tear into city walls. Then the Total War: Warhammer games bent those rules, and now that bending continues with Total War: Three Kingdoms,  albeit in a less extreme fashion. This installment embraces Chinese fantasy in the era of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with larger-than-life commanders and their reigns. History-driven battles take a backseat to lively hero duels and big personalities. The experience is more enjoyable if you?re willing to suspend your disbelief and engage in a massive rise to power with a bit of wondrous awe ? as if someone was regaling a crowded feasting hall with an embellished tale, rather than coldly narrating from the annals of a historical text.

Click here to watch embedded media

On the real-time battlefield, the moment-to-moment tactics are a bit underplayed because of the focus on the legendary commanders and their skills. With various commander types to pick from, hooking them up with weapons, armor, and horses and tapping into their special abilities to turn the tide of battle feels flavorful and suitably epic. Watching two magnificent lords tear each other apart in a crazy one-on-one in the middle of a huge fight doesn?t feel like traditional Total War, but it?s pretty satisfying all the same. Battles are often won and lost on the backs of these epic encounters, which can leave the little men out. 

One of the ways to play, called Romance mode, also has less of a realistic emphasis on how your armies consume resources and supplies; it?s more about letting you get in and play around with your whimsical warriors of note. A separate option, Records mode, lets franchise purists dial back on the fantasy elements, with none of the insane powers and more realistic resource management for armies, but the major draw (and the place where the interesting innovation is happening) is on the fantasy-tinged side of the battlefield.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Three Kingdoms is beautiful on the turn-based map and beyond. Cherry blossoms bloom on your development tree, snow splashes softly across the land, and awesome animated cutscenes punctuate world events and major occurrences, capturing the pure romantic notion of ancient China. Your road to emperor through a combination of military might, city-building and expansion, and shrewd diplomacy is paved with elegant and exquisite detail that make it one of the most aesthetically appealing titles in the entire series.

Diplomacy, espionage, and trading are easy to work with and essential to ruling your ever-growing sphere of power off the battlefield. A streamlined system allows for single-click dealing and negotiations if you just want to get on with the next turn. Managing your relationships is critical, and it feels good to be held to your alliances and contracts or face fairly significant consequences. Myriad opportunities arise to make fun choices outside of your standard building and battling ? faking my own assassination attempt to boost my image was a fun little side moment. Your characters also build and destroy reputation with each other in battle, so you can separate those that don?t get along and put friends and family together. Your court is always ready to give you bonuses by installing commanders in various roles and positions.

While those looking for the pure historical war experience may find themselves wanting a bit more, with such a critical emphasis on the commanders and their supreme battlefield presence, those willing to indulge in a more prodigious past have lots to enjoy. With strict historical adherence out the window and a bit of a streamlined tactical combat experience, Three Kingdoms still has a lot to offer the strategy enthusiast.
 

Score: 8.5

Summary: A captivating dive into warfare and political intrigue.

Concept: Unite the kingdom and become emperor in a world based on the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Graphics: From snow-scattered landscapes to beautiful cutscenes and animations, the graphics immerse you in a captivating and compelling land

Sound: The sounds of clashing swords and prolonged sieges are standard, and solid music accompanies the brutal battles and political intrigue

Playability: With countless choices to make (some even a game begins), the game is inherently complex with many layers of customization and strategy, despite massive onboarding options

Entertainment: Three Kingdoms is a striking addition to the Total War series with plenty to love, though it takes a slight dip in on-the-field tactical choice

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

Team Sonic Racing Review ? Falling Short Of The Podium

Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release:
Rating: Everyone
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, Switch, PC

The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise was built on a foundation of speed. That longstanding marriage lends itself well to the racing genre. Team Sonic Racing carries on the legacy of the Sega All-Stars Racing series from last generation, but adds new team-based mechanics and a sole focus on characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog universe. While the new teamwork elements create unique ways to compete on the speedway, they don?t elevate the experience enough to rise above the middling racing action.

Speeding around as Sonic and company is fast and enjoyable from the first lap. Easy and approachable controls lower the learning curve, making it so anyone can pick up and play with little introduction. While the driving mechanics aren?t particularly deep, new team components and a collection of 21 well-designed tracks full of alternate routes and shortcuts give you reason to dig past the surface of this kart racer.

You choose from a roster of 15 characters with unique attributes split into five teams. While I prefer speed-based characters like Sonic and Shadow, I like experimenting with the other classes. Technique characters like Tails and Chao can avoid getting slowed down by rough terrain, while power characters like Knuckles and Big the Cat can plow through obstacles.

Click here to watch embedded media

Within this system, teams have multiple ways for teammates to help each other; from passing items to your teammates to skimming a wiped out teammate to give them a boost, you have plenty of ways to pick up a downtrodden teammate. Every team-based action builds your ultimate meter, which has race-changing implications as your entire squad is made temporarily faster and invincible. I love the idea of working together with my team to ensure they all finish near the top, but it doesn?t always pan out how I?d like.

While the team mechanics are a net positive addition to the kart racing formula, watching a weak link bring you down in a race is frustrating. In a handful of races where I finished first, I offered nearly all my powerups to my lagging A.I. teammates, but they still finished in the lower rankings. Since your overall placement takes your entire team?s rankings into consideration, my high placement wasn?t enough in these cases.

If you want to compete on your own, you can do so in standard races. However, stripping away what makes Team Sonic Racing different highlights how it is a competent-yet-unremarkable racer. Drifting around a corner to get a boost feels good, and the game has a solid sense of speed, but the uneven team mechanics are all that sets this apart from the other kart racers. Even the suite of 14 Wisp powerups are mostly just generic takes on Mario Kart?s items. It?s unfortunate since the team mechanics deliver a unique feel, but Team Sonic feels bland outside of that fold.

The Team Adventure story mode is an inconsequential narrative told through still character images over background environments, making the uninteresting plot even less engaging. While the story is boring and nonsensical, I like the structure, which grants you stars and keys for competing in races and other events in a hub world. While simply doing well in the events is good enough to progress, the mode also offers optional objectives like finishing first individually or not using any powerups. I always tried for the highest score, but I didn?t fret if I missed an objective or two; outside of completionism, there is little incentive to complete these bonus tasks. However, I love the timed minigame-style events in Team Adventure mode, like Eggpawn Assault, where you need to destroy as many A.I. robots on the track as possible, or Daredevil, where you drift close to Star Posts in an effort to score style points.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

If you?re sick of racing against the A.I. and want to throw down against other players, you can do so locally with up to four players, or online against a full race of 12. Competing with human players on your team makes for more exciting moments, like activating your ultimate to come from behind and win. Custom lobbies allow you to set your own rules online outside of the typical casual and ranked matchmaking, helping bolster the online offerings. By the time I wrapped up Team Adventure mode, I was excited to play against human competition, so I?m glad it ships with an enticing online suite.

Team Sonic Racing delivers a fun, easy-to-play experience that bolsters its adequate gameplay with distinct flavors to help it stand out from the rest of the genre. Unfortunately, the core gameplay provides mediocre action, limiting the fun of the otherwise promising racer.

Score: 7.25

Summary: Team Sonic Racing implements interesting ideas, but ultimately fails to stand out in the kart racing genre.

Concept: Hop in a car as Sonic and other characters from the franchise and speed around various tracks in a kart racer with a team-based twist

Graphics: All 21 tracks look great in motion, with a ton of action on screen. When things get too chaotic, the framerate suffers

Sound: Sonic games typically have strong soundtracks, and Team Sonic Racing is no different, with its collection of original compositions and modern nods to the hedgehog?s past

Playability: Even in a pick-up-and-play genre like kart racing, Team Sonic Racing?s smooth and simple gameplay is accessible to players of all skill levels

Entertainment: The team-based mechanics help Team Sonic Racing stand out from other kart racers, but Mario Kart is in no danger of losing pole position in the genre

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

A Plague Tale: Innocence Review ? A Rat-infested Gem

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Asobo Studio
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

The middle ages were harsh. Deadly plagues ravaged entire villages, bandits laid in wait to pillage weary travelers, and those who survived even common illnesses could be undone by the era?s insane medical practices. But the version of the 14th century in A Plague Tale is even deadlier. After the murder of their parents, two kids discover how sacrifices must be made to survive in the wild. Sadly, A Plague Tale manages to be both a harrowing journey and a bit of a slog.

Asobo?s recreation of France circa 1349 is visually breathtaking, and its heartbreaking survival tale about two young orphans was so compelling I couldn?t look away. Amicia de Rune is a 15-year-old girl entrusted with the care of her kid brother Hugo. Meanwhile, Hugo is a sheltered, wide-eyed child stricken with a debilitating illness. Their journey forces both kids to wade through rivers of black, flesh-eating rats while dodging bands of patrolling Inquisition soldiers. Aside from a few awkward dialogue moments, A Plague Tale?s narrative is emotionally driven and earnest, and I was quickly absorbed by the political conspiracy that consumes these two kids.

Click here to watch embedded media

As Amicia, you spend a fair amount of time holding Hugo?s hand, helping him climb over ledges, and shielding him from environmental dangers. I never felt burdened by Hugo?s presence; on the contrary, I felt something close to a sibling bond as I sheltered him from trouble, and I grew nervous every time I sent him off on his own into small crawlspace to unlock a door or fetch a torch. Hugo is an adorable and innocent child, and the relationship between these two kids is genuinely touching.

While A Plague Tale?s narrative had me racing towards the credits, the basic gameplay is full of speedbumps. One of the biggest threats to the de Rune children?s safety is a plague of black rats that scurry through the shadows and threaten to overwhelm any living creature. The rats are terrified of light, and most environmental puzzles involve finding fire and using it to create a safe path. A simplified crafting system allows you to create consumables such as explosives or rat bait, and I liked being able to control fire, but I rarely felt a need to scour the environment for crafting materials, because you often find the necessary components only a few feet from every puzzle. Also, most puzzles usually have an obvious solution, so instead of feeling like I was cleverly engineering my way out of a jam, I felt like I was just going through the motions.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

When you?re not dealing with rats, you?re dodging Inquisition soldiers who have orders to separate you from your brother and drop your corpse in a rat nest. Amicia is equipped with a sling and can hurl rocks like bullets at enemy temples, and the generous auto-aim helps compensate for its clumsy controls. You?re generally better off running and hiding from a fight, but the stealth mechanics are weak. While I never grew tired of extinguishing an enemy?s torch and watching the rats swarm them, most stealth sequences tested my patience more than my wits. Enemies have basic patrol routes and the environments are so small that you often only have one route to your destination. As a result, throwing rocks to distract enemies has all the tension and pacing of hitting the button at a crosswalk.

A Plague Tale is a double tragedy. On one hand, Amicia and Hugo?s tear-filled journey through rural France is marked by adversity, but the bigger misfortune is how this powerful story of sibling love is soured by simple puzzles and clunky stealth mechanics. A Plague Tale is a forgettable game wrapped around a memorable adventure.

Score: 7.5

Summary: A Plague Tale excels in its narrative and setting, but the moment-to-moment action is uninspired

Concept: A group of battle-hardened children struggle to survive a plague-ridden world during the middle ages

Graphics: This recreation of 14th-Century France is vibrant and detailed. The rat swarms are appropriately creepy, but sometimes struggle to accurately navigate the environment

Sound: This voice acting is impressive for a cast full of kids, and the score helps drive home the tension at the right moments

Playability: Combat is a bit clumsy but functional. Sadly, the stealth sequences are boring

Entertainment: A Plague Tale excels in its narrative and setting, but the moment-to-moment action is uninspired

Replay: MoModerately Low

Click to Purchase

Rage 2 Review - A Blunted Bloodbath

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Rage 2 is a disparate experience. The shooting and arsenal are top-notch, allowing players to wield great weapons like a kickass shotgun that dishes out deadly spreads and potent focused fire with an alternate attack. That combat is enhanced by an overdrive mechanic that lets you cut loose and absolutely destroy hordes of enemies in a psychedelic bloodbath as you gain more powerful attacks and serious life regeneration during these berserker states. But outside of the heat of battle, Rage 2 has serious flaws including weak characters, boring activities and enemies, and an absolute snoozer of a shallow open world.

Click here to watch embedded media

You play as Walker, last of the rangers, on a mission against General Cross and the evil Authority. The world serves up deserts, houses, swamps, sewers, and more, but the areas all blend together in sort of a grayish mush that simply serves to house by-the-book bland activities that get monotonous fast. Stopping to kill your fifth Authority tower for a couple of bucks and some upgrade points hardly gets the pulse pounding, and going off-road to explore rarely feels rewarding, because there?s simply nothing exciting out there to find.

You encounter all kinds of completely forgettable wasteland denizens as enemies and allies, mutants and townsfolk. Everyone is trying as hard as possible to be edgy and failing, delivering swear words with all the enthusiasm of a sleeping accountant. You fight the same dumb mutant mini-boss over and over. You unlock some cool vehicles to cruise around the world, and even get to drive a tank, but going from point to point and taking on the occasional convoy feels like mundane filler. While you engage in a variety of activities during your romp through the wasteland, almost everything boils down to slaughtering a slew of enemies. Which is fine on a basic level, because that's Rage 2's strong point.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

You can upgrade your weapons for significant power boosts, like incredibly fast reload times, speedier shooting, and armor breaking. The weapons feel great, and mowing down a sewer full of mutants or a roadblock of goons is a blast. Chaining kills and working into the berserker state is fun, as you unleash hell on wave after wave of mutants and desert dwellers. Some of the longer encounters of the game have you in a constant state of overdrive, where you can feel a glimmer of the uncontrolled bloodlust from which the game gets its name. Moments like these are what save Rage 2 from its otherwise monotonous shackles, combining the great gunplay with nano-fueled abilities that let you crash into the ground from above or revive yourself after death.

While traversing the land, tons of various landmarks and side destinations await discovery, but they're all lackluster diversions that lose their luster after you've done each type of encounter a few times. Whether you're blowing up a turret or going sewer-crawling to smash some pods, you can see the vast majority of what the side content offers after a few hours. While the critical path takes about 8 to 10 hours, Rage 2 has tons of optional content to explore ? you just won't want to do it. Outside of the obvious perks like unlocking new weapons and abilities, it all starts to feel samey, bland, and boring.

For all of its attempts at garish glitter, Rage 2 is a muted, clichéd, and uninspiring experience propped up by spectacular shooting and neverending battles that sometimes live up to the promise of a carnival of carnage.

Score: 7

Summary: Classy combat and great guns carry an otherwise forgettable experience

Concept: Shoot and drive your way through hordes of enemies in defiance of the Authority

Graphics: For such an ?extreme? vision of the post-apocalypse, the visuals feel muted and sometimes drab

Sound: The sporadic F-bombs seem like they are trying too hard to be edgy, and they never land with impact. The crunchy blasting of bullets and heavy metal during overdrive massacres carries some oomph, though

Playability: Shooting your weapons and zipping around in various vehicles through the open world is easy, though navigating through multiple menus can be a slog

Entertainment: Rage 2 fails to deliver any interesting characters, environments, or activities. Solid shooting and cool weapons lift up the other elements of this title

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

Astrologaster Review ? A Dim Glow

Publisher: Nyamyam
Developer: Nyamyam
Release:
Rating: Not rated
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: iOS

The doctors of Elizabethan England had treatments that seem ridiculous and terrifying by modern standards, incorporating leeches, herbal remedies, and general superstition. In that era, imagine how dubious and outlandish a doctor?s methods would need to be in order to be ostracized and branded a fraud. In Astrologaster, you live on this medical fringe as Simon Forman, looking to the stars (and your own self-interest) to determine how to advise your patients. The idea is fun, but like the bizarre remedies of Forman?s time, Astrologaster doesn?t quite work.

The story attempts to weave strands of history and fiction together via vignettes of Forman?s consultations. You have a variety of regular patients with funny dialogue, including a struggling actor, a nosy neighbor, and a woman whose husbands keep dying. The presentation of these visits is the highlight of Astrologaster, with a neat paper-cut-out aesthetic and amusing songs that herald the arrival of each character. After they explain their medical issue or life crisis, you turn to astrology to diagnose and guide them ? but that?s when things start getting hazy.

Click here to watch embedded media

The star-gazing initially seems to have a deductive or puzzle-solving element; one of the first readings has you drawing parallels between the signs in the sky and the name of a vessel in order to recommend a ship to invest in. However, that falls by the wayside quickly, and you rarely need to decipher anything. The celestial elements influencing your choices (like ?Uranus represents a change in fortune?) are technically present, but they feel extraneous since each option you?re presented with has a pretty clear interpretation summarized at the top of the screen. All you need to do is read them and decide which one to select, so the astrology becomes more of an aesthetic trapping than a mechanic you actively engage with.

This means the core of Astrologaster is mainly selecting dialogue options, but it falls short in making that impactful. I appreciate how often the choices make you weigh telling the patient the ?correct? thing instead of what they want to hear, but the consequences are rarely satisfying either way. If you tell a woman she has evil digestion when she is actually pregnant, the number quantifying your relationship with her takes a hit, but she doesn?t stop coming to see you. If you give an explorer bad coordinates, he still comes back later looking for advice after a mild verbal reprimand. In my second playthrough, I resolved to keep a relationship together that I had sabotaged my first time around, only to discover that it falls apart no matter what Forman says. While rare encounters can have more significant outcomes, most of your selections just change a few lines of dialogue, which conveys the sense that you have no influence on the events.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Some of these situations are set in stone because of developer Nyamyam?s desire to achieve a degree of historical accuracy. Outside of Forman?s interactions with real people, the studio says that even the star positions are correct for the dates of his consultations. While that kind of faithfulness requires a lot of ambition and research, it doesn?t necessarily translate to fun. The details surrounding an event may be technically correct, but that isn?t much comfort when your choices as a player feel insignificant.

Astrologaster has a unique premise, clever presentation, and funny writing. Those elements all work in its favor, but the longer it goes on, the duller it gets. The story fails to make most characters interesting, and the illusion of choice (but without meaningful consequences) creates a sense of futility. It is worth checking out if you want to learn more about Elizabethan history and medicine, but those looking to increase their dosage of compelling narrative experiences should seek treatment elsewhere.

Score: 6

Summary: Astrologaster is worth checking out if you want to learn more about Elizabethan history and medicine, but it doesn't provide a compelling story.

Concept: Assume the role of a ?doctor? who employs astrology and questionable remedies to treat his patients

Graphics: Visuals have a cool pop-up-book flair, which compensates for the sparse details and animation

Sound: Voice performances are well done, but skipping text often results in characters talking over each other

Playability: A simple interface makes it easy to select your responses and advance the story

Entertainment: Despite a fun concept at its core, the characters and story don?t pull players in as events unfold

Replay: Moderately Low

Click to Purchase

Fell Seal: Arbiter?s Mark Review - A Tactical Tribute

Publisher: 1C Entertainment
Developer: 6 Eyes Studio
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Today's gaming world has no shortage of tactical RPG experiences from XCOM to Fire Emblem, but Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark goes all-in on adhering to the nostalgic inspirations of one of the genre greats, Final Fantasy Tactics. As an unabashed tribute to the legendary title, Fell Seal hits all the right buttons in terms of combat and customization, but is held back by repetition and an uninteresting story.

Click here to watch embedded media

Character customization is at the core of everything great in Fell Seal, with tons of classes to unlock and explore. Combining different abilities and movesets is a joy, stacking powerful passives with active abilities. You create gun-toting assassins, hybrid mages that blast and heal, and debilitating debuff masters. In addition, you have a wealth of powerful crafted gear and consumables to seek out, further adding to your arsenal. If you feel like really diving in and doing many extra battles and hunting down secret badges, you unlock special secret classes and monsters to add to your retinue. Character abilities, item usage, and combat all feel religiously true to Final Fantasy tactics, and fans will love every fight as they constantly progress and open up new avenues of advancement. Finding new shops, new items, and new classes stays exciting and fulfilling the whole game through.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Watching your off-the-battlefield decisions play out in combat is great, setting up big plays to kill enemies for bonus resources with special abilities, preparing massive area-of-effect spells to punish weaknesses, and getting the edge by taking advantageous positions. Despite mixing and matching moves to your heart's content and experimenting with class compositions, combat can get tiring. You are often chopping up the same bandits repeatedly to level up your characters in order to change classes and create the perfect combo of skills. The game is deft at attempting to challenge the repetition by offering special random enemies that show up as you engage in these ?patrol? missions that are essentially farm grinds, but you still feel the repetitive crunch if you are adequately preparing yourself on the standard difficulty or above.

The story is straightforward and forgettable, but is used as a vehicle to add even more class diversity to the game. As the story progresses, your core cast of characters unlocks special unique classes based on what?s happening in the world and their plotlines, giving you exceptionally powerful abilities that fit in with the lore, like one of your characters unlocking a hidden well of demonic rage or the main character tapping into the ancient powers of the chosen one. Some aspects of the graphics are neat, like setting your character outfits to fit the class, but something just doesn?t sit right about them; the visuals are like a Gobots-to-Transformers comparison, with amateurish sprite-based art and animations.

While Fell Seal: Arbiter?s Mark might lack graphical style and an enthralling story, the combat loop is the stuff dreams are made of for fantasy tactics devotees. If you?re a fan of strategy battles and a plethora of interesting unlocks, this is the game to take you back 20 years, when you met Ramza and Delita for the first time.
 

Score: 8

Summary: Create the perfect team of adventurers for this strategic journey.

Concept: Form a collection of adventurers to take into a ton of tactical fantasy battles

Graphics: The art and animations don't do justice to the action on the field, and even majestic spells play out as unimpressive poofs of pixels

Sound: Simple sound effects convey an adequate sense of the world around you with a solid (if limited) soundtrack

Playability: A variety of difficulty modes allow you to tailor the experience to your level of familiarity with the tactical RPG genre, so anyone can dive right in

Entertainment: Adheres to the tradition of Final Fantasy Tactics admirably, but repetitive encounters and lack of an interesting story drag the experience down

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

Shakedown: Hawaii Review ? A Delightfully Hostile Takeover

Publisher: Vblank Entertainment
Developer: Vblank Entertainment
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Switch, PlayStation Vita, 3DS, PC

Your empire is crumbling. These darn kids aren?t renting videotapes anymore. Brick and mortar? More like brick and mortared, now that online shopping with free shipping has reduced a thriving retail presence to rubble. And who wants to wait around for a taxi like a chump, when an app will summon a driver at a moment?s notice? Things aren?t looking great for Shakedown: Hawaii?s aging CEO, but he?s not ready to throw in the beach towel. Over the course of his hilarious journey, you reclaim his position on the big island and thrive while sticking it to his rivals in the process.

Shakedown: Hawaii takes the essence of classic top-down GTA and arcade shooters and infuses it with a wry comic sensibility that hits its mark with the same degree of accuracy as its arcade-precise weapons. You primarily step into the flip-flops of the CEO, but you also take to Hawaii?s streets as his idiotic son (and wannabe DJ) Scooter and business associate Al. Their goal is simple: Build up an open-world business empire as quickly as possible while also catering to the outlandish whims of these darn kids and their newfangled ways.

Getting back on your feet isn?t easy at first. You?re free to explore the pixelated world, but your company is feeling the squeeze from unhappy shareholders and a business rival. Early missions quickly highlight the arsenal of weapons, which are just another tool for this cutthroat businessman. There are run-of-the-mill pistols and machine guns, as well as less orthodox tools of destruction, such as scissors, hair driers, and Contra-like spread guns. The island is teeming with life and detail, and even if you miss a shot, it?s likely to result in a satisfying amount of destruction. Indulging in open-world chaos is reliably fun, but sooner or later you?re going to need to get to business, in more ways than one.

Click here to watch embedded media

The titular shakedowns are a low-hanging source of income when you?re first getting back on your feet, and they?re also home to some of the silliest moments. Before you can get your cut of profits from businesses, you need to intimidate the workers to show them how serious you are about forming a new ?partnership.? Sometimes that means punching a mannequin until the owner agrees to your terms. Or you might have to flush some paper towels down the office commode until the pipes burst. That barber has a nice head of hair ? it sure would be a shame if someone cut it all off. I quickly settled into a rhythm of scouring every block for these opportunities and was pleasantly surprised at how many different ways there were to show these civilians who?s boss. You have dozens of these shakedowns to discover, and even though scenarios repeat, they?re quick and fun enough to prevent them from feeling like a chore.

You can spend your cash on cosmetics, weapons, and a handful of character upgrades, but that?s short-term thinking. The real money is in real estate, which is also where the game shines during its first few hours. You can purchase a variety of different properties on the island, from homes and businesses to larger things like malls and an airport. Most of those acquisitions generate cash, too, which in turn allows you to buy even more. Eventually you can purchase upgrades for each property, which further multiply the amount of revenue your corporation earns from each location. The interface isn?t quite up to the task, however. I loved watching the numbers climb, but multipliers have to be purchased individually ? a significant detail, considering there are more than 400 different locations you can potentially invest in. It?s tedious, and it starts to feel like, well, work.

Most of these multipliers are tied to story missions, in which your aging CEO encounters a contemporary frustration like in-store credit cards or multilevel marketing. Told through animated vignettes, these moments tackle modern life with a scathing wit, whether they?re setting their sights on artisanal foods, medical quackery, or ? in one particularly great sequence ? the video game industry. Even though the CEO does some cartoonishly awful things in the game, his ?get off my lawn? attitude is endearing and made me look forward to every beat of the lengthy story.

 

Unfortunately, the game?s stingy economy quickly gives way to an overabundance of cash. It feels like a weird complaint, but in the last third of the game my company?s value had ballooned to the point where money didn?t have any meaning. Once you?re satisfied with the way your CEO?s sprite looks and have maxed out each of the easily affordable character upgrades, you have nothing else to look forward to in the economic layer. When my scheming opened up new buying opportunities in the campaign, I was able to buy buildings immediately and max out each upgrade chain without even bothering to look at the price tags. It fits into the riches-to-more-riches story, but the lack of aspirational purchases flattens out an otherwise fun system by the end.

Burying your nose in your portfolio isn?t all you can do. The island has loads of challenges to partake in, where you?re free to indulge in some of the game?s crazier elements. Each weapon in your respectable arsenal has an accompanying activity to try out. Getting gold rankings in these are an easy way to blow off some steam, and leaderboards let you show everyone how good you are at rocket jumping or tossing Molotov cocktails. It?s violent but not gratuitous; enemies die in a bloodless flash, accompanied with a hilarious lo-fi scream ? even when you run them over with a steam roller.

Shakedown: Hawaii does a great job overall of recognizing what it does well and regularly delivering those moments. Taking out a plantation of goons or clearing out gang strongholds can be challenging, but it never feels punishing. True to its arcade-style inspirations, enemies drop new weapons at a steady clip, and I never felt outgunned no matter how crazy the action swelled.   

 

The economy might be a little wonky, but Shakedown: Hawaii delivers a nice blast of classic arcade action and some solid laughs. A wealth of entertaining missions and a generous overall structure show that while the game?s CEO might be out of touch, developer VBlank most definitely isn?t.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                           

Score: 8

Summary: Shakedown: Hawaii delivers a nice blast of classic arcade action and some solid laughs.

Concept: Rebuild your "legitimate" business through intimidation, fraud, and old-school GTA-style beatdowns

Graphics: Whether you?re exploring the open world or watching one of the many animated cutscenes, the visual style is a pixelated wonder

Sound: The synthwave soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment to the onscreen carnage, and it has enough variety to keep you from pressing mute right away

Playability: The story might be amusing, but the controls are no joke. The action is quick and precise, with few moments of frustration

Entertainment: Bite-sized missions and an engaging empire-building layer make Shakedown: Hawaii a great destination ? whether you have minutes or hours to spare

Replay: High

Click to Purchase

Vader Immortal: Episode I Review ? A Satisfying Journey To The Dark Side

Publisher: Oculus Studios
Developer: ILMxLAB
Release:
Rating: Not rated
Reviewed on: Quest
Also on: Rift

Star Wars fans will soon get the chance to travel to the Galaxy?s Edge theme park to live out a fantasy of being a Jedi, smuggler, or more likely, a collector of expensive toys and plastic cups. If you don?t have the funds for a pricey Disney vacation, Vader Immortal is another way to achieve an intimate Star Wars experience. In this first episode of this three-part series, you spend time on a starship, get your own lightsaber, and learn just how bad of shots the stormtroopers really are. You also come face-to-face with Darth Vader.

Being in the presence of Vader is a fascinating moment, as it reinforces what an imposing figure he is. I took a step back when he entered the room and crowded my location. This series, penned by David S. Goyer (one of the writers behind The Dark Knight trilogy of films), gives the player a voyeuristic look inside of Vader?s world. When the episode begins, you are on your ship, the Windfall, enjoying a quiet moment with your co-pilot, a droid named ZOE3. This new character is voiced by actress Maya Rudolph who is bubbling with personality and wit, making her a great addition to the Star Wars universe.

In this tranquil moment of play, you can walk around your ship (using either the analog stick for fluid movement or a warp system to bounce around) and interact with various objects in your living quarters. You can hold up and examine an interesting relic from Jedha, check your travel log to see what planets you?ve been to, and also throw on a helmet, which appears visually around your head. All of these little moments are fun and interesting. As you conduct diagnostic work on your ship, you are pulled out of hyperspace and down to the planet Mustafar. The Empire wants you for something.

Your vessel flies along the planet?s molten surface and eventually come to rest inside Vader?s fortress. The amount of visual detail provided in this opening sequence is impressive. If you look up when standing in your cockpit, you see a massive star destroyer moving into position overhead. As you dock in Vader?s lair, stormtroopers are everywhere, many raising their guns to greet you. The first few minutes of play deliver the feeling that you are a part of a legitimate Star Wars adventure.

Click here to watch embedded media

I don?t want to give away too much, as the little moments and interactions are the true joys that come from this experience, but I will say I wasn?t fond of my character being a silent protagonist. I understand ILMxLAB?s desire to make players feel like they are present for this journey, but it?s a choice that makes the adventure feel more like a Disney World ride than a legitimate Star Wars story. Even if your character doesn?t end up having a voice, being able to communicate in some way with your hands would have helped create a connection to the world and story.

Big revelations about Vader and his power-hungry crusade are made as this short 40-minute tale unfolds, and I adore where it ends up. It goes places I didn?t expect, and dives deep into Mustafar?s history along the way. This planet has plenty of secrets to tell, and some are delivered in this first episode; others are teased for future episodes. You learn that your character is also important to both the planet and Lord Vader. As far as story setups goes, this one is dripping with intrigue in great ways.

Igniting a lightsaber is as cool as you would hope it to be in VR. Seeing the blade extend is mighty satisfying, as is hearing it hum as you wave it around. The saber will also leave scorch marks on the floor. Again, the little touches are great. Just don't expect much from the lightsaber when combat ensues. You are mostly asked to use this powerful weapon for countering techniques. You need to time your saber movements to knock back laser blasts and block saber strikes from robots. Though you can?t die, some skill is involved in blocking two to three attacks in a row, which exposes an enemy and allows you to strike them down. Moving the saber quickly into position is fun, but you don't really feel like you are a threat at this point; which could be a story beat ILMxLAB is building up to. As bare-bones as this combat is, battling eight-foot droids that are right in your face is exhilarating.

Some of the better moments in this episode are when you don?t have to use a lightsaber at all, and instead are asked to figure out ways to open doors. I know that sounds boring, but these little puzzles use your hands in clever ways, and make you feel like you are actually interacting with the environment. You are also asked to climb a few ladders and shimmy along pipes. These are the only two interactions that didn?t go off without a hitch; my hand grabs sometimes weren?t recognized, and I sometimes had problems dropping from a ladder to the floor. Once the story concludes, players can enter a separate lightsaber dojo to take on waves of enemies and unlock new lightsaber blade colors and other things.

Outside of an odd tutorial sequence that completely derails the experience for a few minutes, the action and story flow nicely from moment to moment, creating a fun ride into the inner workings of the Dark Side. The lack of involvement you may have as a character is a minor quibble in an otherwise fascinating Star Wars story that puts its iconic villain in the spotlight more than I expected. I can?t wait to see where this series goes next, as the tease at the end implies the Force will be explored in big ways.

Score: 7.75

Summary: Standing face-to-face with Darth Vader is a powerful moment in this fun story driven adventure.

Concept: A satisfying introduction to a three-part series that brings you into the heart of Darth Vader?s world

Graphics: Standing next to Vader is an awesome moment. Being blinded by the lightsaber in your hand is equally satisfying. High levels of detail are presented in both the characters and environments

Sound: The voice work is excellent, with the highlight being Maya Rudolph as ZOE3. She helps set up the narrative in a fun way

Playability: As fun as it is to swing the lightsaber around, it?s mostly used for defensive techniques and doesn?t deliver on the fantasy fans are likely hoping for. General movement and environmental interactions are handled well

Entertainment: Combat is a weak spot, but the story is engaging to the point that I didn?t want this episode to end

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

Supraland Review ? Little Guy, Big World, Great Puzzles

Publisher: Supra Games
Developer: Supra Games
Release:
Reviewed on: PC

In Supraland, you are the prince of the red people tasked with figuring out why the blue people are tampering with your water supply. Your whole world exists in the sandbox of a child who, according to the lore, built the elaborate environment over the course of six hours. Zooming out even further (by watching the end credits) you learn that much of the game was created by a single developer, David Münnich. As a result of the small team, the seams show occasionally and the production values are underwhelming, but Supraland overcomes those shortcomings by offering fantastic puzzle design and a big world that rewards exploration at a steady clip.

You explore a series of interconnected areas in first-person, solving puzzles and acquiring new items that help you get past previously impassable doors and blockades. In this way, it feels similar to the Metroid Prime series. Upgrades range from boosting your sword strength to getting a special magnet that lets you climb metal objects with ease. Even the smaller stat-boosting upgrades feel significant, and they?re tucked away in just about every nook and cranny, which makes exploration worthwhile and consistently rewarding.

Click here to watch embedded media

Supraland shines brightest with its puzzle design. You can generate a block out of thin air to help you platform or activate switches, but that?s just the beginning. Puzzle mechanics rarely repeat, and have you jettisoning yourself and bullets from jump pads to hit switches, using paint to re-color certain objects, and directing electricity currents through water. Up to the final boss, I was always stretching my arsenal of puzzle-solving tools in interesting and unexpected directions.

Combat falls short compared to the exploration and puzzle solving, but it only occupies a small portion of the total experience. You have a sword and a gun, but it wasn?t until I was about halfway through and had acquired a healthy collection of upgrades that I started feeling powerful enough to look forward to conflict.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

In the context of the story, the narrative is being directed by a young boy overlooking the sandbox. With that understanding, I suppose the bad dialogue and constant references to pop culture could be considered a purposeful choice, but I mostly found it distracting. At one point, a character dressed like Marty McFly from Back to the Future appeared to give me some help, but his outfit had no bearing on his character or the story. Even if the juvenile story is supposed to be coming from the mind of a child, the boy isn?t enough of a presence in the narrative (or physically in the environment) to reinforce that concept.

The dialogue and combat shortcomings ultimately make up a small portion of Supraland?s total experience. Exploring, tracking down upgrades, and solving the puzzles are where the game flexes its creativity and fun, and it leans on those strong elements with most of its weight to create a consistently compelling experience.

Score: 8

Summary: Supraland's production values are underwhelming, but it overcomes those shortcomings by offering fantastic puzzle design and a big world that rewards exploration at a steady clip.

Concept: Play as a little guy in a big world as you explore a series of interconnected areas filled with enemies, upgrades, puzzles, and secrets

Graphics: The environments look good and subtly point you in the right direction, but the designs of the characters, both friendly and deadly, are underwhelming

Sound: The music does little to stand out and the sound effects are generic

Playability: Moving, platforming, and solving puzzles in first-person feels great, but it takes a few upgrades before the combat feels satisfying

Entertainment: What Supraland lacks in production value, it more than makes up for with fantastic puzzle and level design

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

BoxBoy + BoxGirl Review ? Another Square Deal

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

BoxBoy never seemed like the kind of game that would develop into a series. When HAL Laboratory debuted BoxBoy on the 3DS back in 2015, this quirky puzzle platformer with low-fi graphics seemed like an experimental one-off that had somehow squeaked through the greenlight process. Since then, this little square-jawed hero has proven he's more than a one-hit wonder. For his fourth outing, BoxBoy is joined by BoxGirl and the tall box, Qudy, for a couch co-op friendly adventure filled with some of the most creative and diverse puzzles in the series.

BoxBoy's mechanics are deceptively simple. You are asked to string together a limited number of boxes to use as stairs, bridges, and other makeshift tools that allow you navigate an austere and obstacle-riddled world. BoxBoy's plain aesthetic puts a spotlight on HAL?s puzzle design. Early puzzles start off a little too easy, assuming players haven't engaged with the series before. However, as you slowly unlock new abilities, the puzzles become significantly more captivating and inventive.
 

Click here to watch embedded media

Many of BoxBoy + BoxGirl's puzzles require some out-of-the-box thinking, but I was rarely stumped for more than a few minutes. If you ever get completely stuck, a hint system readily shows you the solution and can keep you from pulling out your hair. I also appreciate that you often have multiple ways to approach each objective. But if you really want to challenge yourself, you can tackle each level with a limited number of boxes, which earns you coins that can be redeemed for oddball cosmetic items. These cosmetics don?t affect the gameplay, but I had a lot of fun dressing up my boxes as cat detectives and balding vampires.

Some old power-ups return. For example, you can still chain boxes together like a grappling hook and zip to new areas, which is always fun. I was particularly surprised by BoxBoy's new skills, like his ability to fling boxes across the room or pound them into the ground. These new talents seem deceptively simple at first, but their merits are more apparent as you use them and each new level encourages you to use your abilities in novel ways. Every time I unlocked a new set of puzzles, I was surprised by the level of creativity and the unique solutions I was able to engineer from BoxBoy?s offbeat toolset.

But BoxBoy is only one of the stars of this show. A second campaign starring both BoxBoy and BoxGirl allows two players to solve puzzles together. Many of the mechanics and themes from the single-player campaign return, but they are given new life since you have two sets of boxes at your disposal, and you can build increasingly unusual shapes. Some puzzles even ask you to navigate certain characters to specific points in the level, which is a neat twist. You can play through this campaign by yourself, switching between characters on the fly, but I had the most fun coordinating my box stacking with another player.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

A third unlockable campaign stars an extra tall box named Qudy. Since Qudy's boxes are double-sized, he is able to quickly scale tall platforms and can practically vault over vast gaps. Qudy can rotate horizontally or vertically, which affects the orientation of his boxes. Again, this sounds like a simple change, but it has far-reaching consequences, and I was often left scratching my head trying to figure out how to squeeze Qudy's awkward body through a series of relatively simple-looking obstacles.

Despite consistent performance over the last several years, this blocky franchise remains relatively obscure, which is a shame because BoxBoy?s adventures are engaging. HAL Laboratory does a great job shaking up the mechanics from one set of levels to the next so the action never grows stale, which seems extra impressive after four entries. We?ve already been given more BoxBoy games than I ever expected, but I hope they don?t stop coming anytime soon.

Score: 8.5

Summary: BoxBoy returns with a couch co-op friendly adventure filled with some of the most creative and diverse puzzles in the series.

Concept: Use simple boxes to create complex shapes and solve a series of clever puzzles

Graphics: The stark, black-and-white world is endearing, and the simple visuals put a spotlight on the stellar puzzle solving

Sound: HAL Laboratory knows how to create light and cheerful background music, and that skill is evident here. Get ready to have the main theme stuck in your head

Playability: The controls are simple, and a few new mechanics add a welcome twists to the puzzle solving

Entertainment: BoxBoy + BoxGirl hits the sweet spot with a series of puzzles that aren't too hard, but occasionally make you think

Replay: Moderate

Click to Purchase

Days Gone Review ? Surviving In A Divided World

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: SIE Bend Studio
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

The pause menu of Days Gone keeps track of the time since Deacon St. John was separated from his wife, Sarah, who was helicoptered away during the chaotic zombie outbreak. Since that day, he?s been living a life similar to his old one as a biker, eschewing mandated responsibilities and trusting his own code above all else.

However, no man is an island, and as the remaining human settlements fortify themselves against the zombie hordes and each other, Deacon is more tethered than he first thought. He might not totally buy into the anti-government paranoia, militaristic, nihilistic, or rigid philosophies of those around him, but he?s not entirely selfish, either. 

Like Deacon, Days Gone sets off on its own path, landing between being a dynamic open world and a linear, physically constrained story. While its gameplay systems create fun and harrowing scenarios, the way Days Gone straddles the line between two extremes leaves me wanting more from both the story and open world.

Click here to watch embedded media

Resources are scarce in the ruined landscape, affecting almost everything you do. You have to maintain repairs on your bike, you can craft lots of equipment, and your melee weapons break frequently. The situation isn?t all grim, however. Days Gone does a good job making you feel desperate but not frustrated, leading to improvisation like making the most of your equipment. If I ran out of ammo for my favorite weapon, I might use a sound emitter ?to attract zombies to enemies? location. What about the subsequent zombie rush that inevitably follows? That?s a problem for another time. Hopefully ?I have some ammo by then, or maybe I switch to stealth or my crafted melee weapon ? a baseball bat modded with a saw blade.

Dealing with hordes ? massive gatherings of zombies ? is its own tense, terrifying challenge that requires you use more of your environment to survive since you can?t simply shoot your way clear of the throng before they tear you apart. You have to use their rage against them, funneling them into choke points where you can set explosives or shoot flammables to take out chunks of them before running away and regrouping. The unpredictable horde A.I. adds intrigue in successive tries since you can?t always predict where they?re going to go. 

You can buy better equipment and some supplies through human camp settlements, but only by earning their trust first by doing missions for them. These tasks, like clearing out a camp of Marauders or PCP-addled human Rippers aren?t novel, but Deacon?s dealing with the camps and their leadership help define him by juxtaposing him with each camp?s views on survival, such as Copeland?s anti-government conspiracy mindset. These camps also figure into your open-world activities; when you save survivors in the wild, you earn a big trust boost with the camp you send them to. 

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Rescuing survivors, hunting, and collecting random plants suggests an open-world structure ripe with possibilities, but Days Gone?s landscape is more dull than it appears. The map has a lot of land on it, but it?s not filled with intriguing side stories, characters, and situations. Instead, it contains prescribed missions and anonymous people to kill ? and these tasks were not tempting or rewarding enough to draw me away from the main story.

Days Gone?s narrative is standard and sufficient, but it trips up when it leans on minor characters at multiple points for important and/or dramatic turns in the plot. This strains credulity, makes the world feel too small, and pads out the experience with filler missions using otherwise boring stealth gameplay mechanics. My least favorite was being asked to search for a guy?s MP3 player as the story was all coming to a head.

On the technical front it?s also worth mentioning that Days Gone lacks polish for a first-party title. The framerate can vary, and the loads are surprisingly long and frequent on the standard PS4 ? something that shouldn?t be necessary at this stage.

Days Gone has good gameplay foundations. The scarcity of supplies and ever-present threat of zombies put me on edge as much as it gave me options to escape by the skin of my teeth. But the inability to fully deliver on either the story or open world fronts makes it a title of both possibilities and limitations. 

Score: 7.75

Summary: Bend Studio sets up compelling and sometimes terrifying survival scenarios, but the story and open world don't come off as well.

Concept: Deacon St. John is a drifter in an open world where different embattled groups of survivors fight the zombie hordes and each other

Graphics: Characters? faces convey a range of emotions, but the framerate is unstable

Sound: Sam Witwer puts in a good performance as Deacon St. John, and the game?s squishy guts and sloshy gas cans provide lots of ambiance

Playability: Some small things are annoying, like the camera during melee fights leaving you blind (it doesn?t affect your performance) and item pickup being finicky. Otherwise the controls are up to the challenge

Entertainment: Surviving the zombie throngs can be a thrilling experience, but the story and open-world structure come in second

Replay: Moderately High

Click to Purchase