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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review - Exaltation Amidst Expiration

Publisher: Activision
Developer: From Software
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

From Software?s success with the combat-oriented Souls-like subgenre takes a new shape in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. While the game is still all about big bosses and precise conflict like the studio?s previous high-profile titles, Sekiro plays differently than previous works. In addition to mastering a new style of fierce and unforgiving combat, you also have to start thinking like a ninja, using every tool in your arsenal to tip the scales against opponents with tricky movesets and multiple phases. Despite having no traditional level-ups, you have many ways to advance your character by finding items in the world, acquiring new skills, and discovering vendors.

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Using Sekiro?s ninja arsenal is a joy. Grappling around the environment to find secret areas or set up a deathblow from above feels wonderful and snappy. Sekiro has access to a host of Shinobi prosthetics tailored to a variety of situations, including firecrackers to stun and scare beasts and an umbrella to deflect incoming attacks. You also obtain a wide variety of combat arts and ninjutsu that allows for special deathblow effects, giving you a plethora of combinations and skills to approach each encounter with. These abilities can often have both story and combat functionality, utilizing them in interesting ways to complete quest objectives or open up windows of opportunity during bosses ? but to say more about this aspect would spoil some serious surprises. And you need all the awesome combinations and applications, because Sekiro is a fascinating, frenetic dance of death at its best, and a frustrating exercise in futility at its worst.

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Sekiro?s intense boss battles are the absolute crux of the game. You must know your opponent?s every move, plan your timing, and practice it to perfection, because a single error can mean instant death. Many opponents can annihilate you in seconds, even with the resurrection mechanic to give you extra chances should you fall to an enemy blow or blade. The moment your mind snaps under pressure is the moment the fight ends, leaving you to exhale and wonder what went wrong. When things sync up, you amaze yourself by the sheer wonder of it all as you counter your opponents? every move and hammer them down, flowing like a waterfall of masterfully timed excellence. In those moments, you become the ninja. It?s a hell of a rush when it happens, but be prepared to spend hours on fights perfecting your rhythm and craft. The feeling when you get so close and make a critical mistake at the very end is soul-crushing. The death penalty adds to this, slicing off resources upon your demise and crippling friendly characters you meet along the way with a malignant illness. While it is psychologically damaging to see your friends waste away, the disease has gameplay consequences as well; characters afflicted with the rot may not have their questlines available until healed through the use of rare items.

Outside of boss battles, Sekiro?s ninja skills are a lot of fun in the world, which opens up around midway through the game. Sekiro has plenty of zone and enemy variety, so you won?t be confined to taking on soldiers and samurai in the castle for long. You can select multiple directions to travel, a great boon that lets you explore other zones if you get stuck on a boss. While your traversal abilities and speed make zipping through areas a breeze, you must stop to carefully explore to avoid missing critical items. Skills acquired late in the game allow for you to explore earlier spaces in different ways, accessing locations that were previously unavailable. Dozens of mini-bosses help increase your character?s survivability, and you can use your guile to make those clashes much easier, whether it?s with a special prosthetic to exploit their weaknesses or using the environment to set up a stealth deathstrike to begin the fight.

Sekiro?s story moves in strange and compelling ways that defy the initial adherence to the trappings of feudal Japan, and allows the player to discover multiple endings and confrontations depending on choices and secrets. It?s a challenging journey through a weird and wondrous world that forces you to learn and master its punishing combat to succeed. However, the sweet thrill of victory keeps you pushing forward despite myriad disheartening deaths. Sekiro is one of the most difficult games I have ever played, but for those seeking adventure, exploration, and a truly realized ninja fantasy, the trek is worth the high demands.

Score: 9

Summary: An intense, challenging realization of the ninja fantasy comes to life in From Software's latest offering.

Concept: Command a powerful ninja through a bloody tour of Sengoku-period Japan, using deception, cunning, and rigorous combat to take your enemies down

Graphics: A healthy variety of environments keeps things interesting as you proceed, with especially larger-than-life boss encounters

Sound: An excellent score highlights the intensity and tension during battle and adds additional life to each of the major zones

Playability: This is an extremely difficult game for those looking for a serious challenge. Not everyone will be able to complete or enjoy this title

Entertainment: Sekiro is a wild ride through narrative twists and shocking boss battles, and an amazing triumph or crushing defeat is only ever seconds away

Replay: High

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The Division 2 Review ? A Live-Service Shooter Done Right

Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Release:
Rating: Not rated
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

Ubisoft learned a lot of lessons during the evolution of its first looter-shooter, The Division, which steadily blossomed into a game that maximized its potential and earned an adulating fan base. But transitioning from of a fully fleshed-out live service to a sequel is a harrowing road filled with many pitfalls, as Bungie experienced with the bungled Destiny 2 launch. I?m happy to report that The Division 2 heeds those warnings and skillfully sticks its landing, offering a wealth of engaging content that should keep players invested long after they finish the campaign. 

The original Division earned detractors for its spongy combat. The cognitive dissonance of needing to unload a full clip into the head of a garbageman was hard for some to shake. This problem is largely diverted in the sequel; the time-to-kill is much shorter for basic enemies, the crazed rushers are often hopped up on some stimulant when they charge at you with wild abandon, and the biggest baddies are covered in armor you need to pick away at before revealing their meaty centers. The enemy A.I. doesn?t always make smart decisions, but when they coordinate and flank, the combat comes alive in a way that rivals the best shooters available today. The large variety of enemies creates a strategic layer that keeps engagements exciting well into the endgame. Intense satisfaction comes from a well-placed turret mowing down a legion of enemies or landing a shot on a suicide bomber that takes out other baddies in the vicinity. The main shortcomings that persist from the first game are the weak melee attacks, overly complex grenade-throwing, and a finicky cover system. Sometimes leaning out the side of cover unintentionally slides you into an exposed position, and the stickiness can mistakenly pull you into cover when performing evasive rolls. 

The combat also shines thanks to Ubisoft?s fantastic mission designs. The star character of The Division 2 is Washington, D.C. itself. The game takes you to so many historical landmarks, museums, and other popular destinations, the only thing missing is the sightseeing bus route. I battled through the U.S. Capitol, depleted enemy ranks around the Washington Monument, and ventured so many museums I started to think of the game as tourism with guns. It even has a photo mode for good measure. Many of these extended fights are memorable thanks to their surroundings; a planetarium firefight and the jungle skirmish in a Vietnam exhibit stand out in particular.  These battles are best experienced with a coordinated group of four agents, but a solo run is also viable provided you move and act deliberately. 

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Ubisoft?s ramshackle version of Washington, D.C. is packed with rich environmental storytelling about a nation undone, but if you look too closely, the story falls apart like a house of cards. We know the Green Poison ravaged D.C. just like New York City before it, and multiple nefarious factions are vying for power in the subsequent leadership vacuum. But Ubisoft never adequately explores how the country went from a shining beacon of democracy to a dystopian wasteland in just seven months. What little backstory the game offers about the world and its characters is largely relegated to the found-footage menus rather than worked into the plot in a cohesive manner. 

The Division 2?s plot may not keep you invested, but the well-designed loops should. The game doles out improved skills, weaponry, and armor at steady clip no matter what activity you are performing, and you have several ways to improve the situation in the capital. Completing story missions upgrades the base of operations, which is the White House. Civilians caught in the crossfire cloister in settlements you can improve as well; watching these survivors come together and rebuild is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game.

Piecing together the perfect array of gear with powerful bonuses stays compelling well beyond the campaign. Even managing your overflow is made more interesting thanks to the new projects system. Donating your extra gear to improve settlements nets you important blueprints for key weapon attachments, new bounties, and a load of experience. The unused gear you don?t donate can be deconstructed for parts or sold off. The stores don?t offer much of value beyond a slightly better piece of gear, but you also need to spend credits to craft or recalibrate, so the currency still plays a vital role. 

When you reach level cap and wrap the story missions, Ubisoft throws you a major curveball by introducing a dangerous new faction. The Black Tusk undo much of your hard work and retake critical buildings, which initially feels like a bummer after you worked so hard to capture all the control points. Thankfully, Ubisoft smartly changes up the mission replays with new objectives, and the fearsome new foes provide the most challenging and interesting fights in the game. You have plenty to do during this endgame loop, including three new specialization weapon progression paths, new projects, side missions, clan rewards, and daily/weekly assignments ? all of which merge gracefully with your main objective of maximizing your gear score. After playing 60 hours, I still have two full specialization tracks to develop while I piece together my ideal loadouts.

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Endgame is the perfect time to explore the Dark Zone, the dangerous region where enemies are more formidable, gear is better, and players can turn the weapons on each other. In a bid to incentivize more agents to venture into these contaminated zones, Ubisoft normalized the weapon stats so everyone is on an even playing field and split the Dark Zone into three smaller spaces. The normalization goes a long way toward evening the odds, which I appreciate, but encounters with opposing players are rare. Ubisoft also includes a couple competitive versus modes, but these feel more like experiments than full experiences. 

Complex, shared open worlds have a lot of moving parts, so technical problems are inevitable. While The Division 2 is mostly stable, it has issues that need to be resolved. The scaling when pairing players of different levels needs recalibration; while the lower-level players deliver damage at a comparable rate, their armor isn?t adequately scaled, so they are often downed in one shot. Skills like turrets or drones sometimes reset when deployed, which can be a killer during frantic fights. I also encountered several crashes during the long stronghold missions, but the servers at least save your place and you reboot right back into the mission.

Story failings and technical hiccups aside, Ubisoft has a winner on its hands with The Division 2. The strong combat, interesting missions, and compelling loot loop kept me invested through the endgame, and I don?t plan to stop playing anytime soon. For a live-service game just getting out of the gate, that?s quite an achievement.

Score: 9

Summary: Thrilling combat, a great loot loop, and a strong endgame elevate this Tom Clancy shooter to new heights.

Concept: Restore order in the nation?s capital by taking out thuggish factions and collecting newer, better weapons

Graphics: Ubioft?s remarkable attention to detail fills Washington, D.C. with interesting environmental stories, and the dynamic weather creates evolving combat situations

Sound: The laughable enemy barks and meek-sounding weaponry make sound design a weak point of an otherwise stellar game

Playability: The classless skill system allows you to customize your play experience to your liking and swap on the fly. Gunplay is more satisfying than the first game, but the sticky cover system can leave you unintentionally exposed when moving to new positions

Entertainment: The story falls short, but The Division 2 is filled with loops to keep you invested in upgrading your agent well beyond the endgame, including gear score optimization, Dark Zone ventures, and daily challenges

Replay: High

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One Piece: World Seeker Review ? King Of The One Piece Games

Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Ganbarion
Release:
Rating: Rating Pending
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PlayStation 4, PC

Over the past 18 years, the anime/manga One Piece has received myriad video games across numerous genres. Among all those adaptations, World Seeker represents what is easily its most ambitious attempt to emulate what it might be like to be Luffy and be part of his Straw Hat crew. World Seeker may lack the detail and technical prowess of its open-world peers, but it delivers fun combat and exploration in an open environment with an enjoyable story to pull you along through the whole journey.

It all starts when Luffy and his crew, in their ongoing mission to acquire treasure, end up on an island that is home to multiple large pirate prisons. When it turns out the rumored treasure was just a ploy to get the Straw Hat crew to come to the island, Luffy escapes capture and decides to help the citizens get their homes back. This means getting in the middle of a decade-long conflict between those who appreciate the overbearing presence of the Marines on the island, and those who detest it. The prison island setting also serves as an excuse for some of Luffy?s familiar opponents to appear as bosses or fun cameos. The story feels like One Piece all the way, which is a compliment. Luffy and his crew are familiar with standing up for those in need regardless of the conflicted histories that plague the islands they visit. Whether or not World Seeker is canon to the larger One Piece story (which is never explicitly made clear), this tale feels like it could be.

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The thrill of moving through the world is World Seeker?s biggest highlight. Whether Luffy?s grabbing the sides of buildings or the tops of trees, his rubber arms propel you through the environments at high speed. It feels great, and after acquiring some upgrades, zipping from point to point lets you cover tons of ground quickly. Plus, it looks awesome. I enjoyed it so much, I often chose moving around that way instead of using the fast-travel system.

The open world looks nice and features diverse settings like a full city, forests, and a crystal mine embedded in a mountain, but it doesn?t feel particularly alive. Despite the size of the city, the population is small, and most citizens stand still to offer up bits of dialogue. It gives you a chance to get to know everyone at least a little bit, which pays off well in the finale, but it?s at the expense of the world not feeling particularly lived in.

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Outside of talking to citizens and delivering requested materials found in the world or just generally exploring, the main way Luffy completes missions is by beating up bad guys. The combat is simple without any complicated combos, but you can switch between a powerful one-on-one focused stance or one with a wider range for big groups of weak enemies and use super attacks pulled directly from the source material. You can also mark enemies from a distance and stealth your way through encounters, which is especially satisfying on higher difficulties. The combat animations are great, which is good because you do see the same attacks often, but the speed of fighting is brisk enough that I didn?t get bored.

A skill tree offers a collection of worthwhile upgrades, like being able to fly further when you launch yourself or spin your feet around like a helicopter to float, but a handful of duds mar the selection, like one that lets you open chests faster. Overall, the good upgrades and additional special attacks feel substantial, but not every skill is worth your experience points.

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You can also focus on material collection to create items and new costumes, or send your crew off on missions to collect additional materials while you attend to the main quests. Your interactions with the main cast of characters is tracked with the Karma system, which doesn?t offer a ton of in-game rewards, but I liked having a visual chart detailing my relationship with many of the characters I had come across in the adventure.

In terms of open-world game design, World Seeker isn?t an innovator, but it borrows and re-imagines familiar mechanics well (from the Batman: Arkham games, in particular) and proves why they are perfect for the One Piece universe. I had a good time flinging myself around the open environment while using stretch abilities to beat up bad guys and enjoyed the story. I was eager to upgrade Luffy?s best abilities, grow my Karma, and learn more about the island by completing as much of the side content as possible.

Score: 8

Summary: In terms of open-world game design, World Seeker isn?t an innovator, but it borrows and re-imagines familiar mechanics well (from the Batman: Arkham games, in particular) and proves why they are perfect for the One Piece universe.

Concept: Play as One Piece?s super-powered protagonist in an open world. The adventure sees Luffy and his crew helping the citizens of an oppressed island take back their home

Graphics: High-quality cel-shading makes all the characters look like their manga/anime counterparts, and the environments look great. Luffy?s movement and combat animation are particular highlights

Sound: The anime?s fun soundtrack is present and well-emulated when it comes to new tracks. The sound of the wind whipping by as you launch through the world really sells the speed of Luffy?s movement

Playability: Controlling Luffy?s movement feels great, and throwing punches and activating special attacks is simple and satisfying

Entertainment: World Seeker lacks the detail of contemporary open-world games, but moving around and getting into fights is fun. The story and characters (new and old alike) are engaging all the way to the explosive finale

Replay: Moderately high

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R.B.I. Baseball 19 Review ? Strike Six

Publisher: Major League Baseball Advanced Media
Developer: Major League Baseball Advanced Media
Release:
Rating: Everyone
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PlayStation 4, Switch

R.B.I. Baseball 19 is yet another swing and miss for a series that hasn?t hit a home run (or even found a way to get on base) in the six years since it was revived by Major League Baseball. The fundamentals of the sport are apparently as difficult to nail down as proving a Roger Clemens drug test, and continue to haunt this series to the point that the outcomes of games are frequently dictated by glitches and bizarre A.I. decisions.

In a situation with runners on first and second, I threw a slider that resulted in a weakly hit grounder to short, but the game gave me control of the third baseman for whatever reason, and the ball ended up rolling into the outfield untouched. In another nail-biting situation, the game messed up and applied the flyball indicator to pitches and removed it from actual flyballs. On the next pitch, the batter lofted the ball into short right field, but I couldn?t figure out exactly where it was going since the indicator was gone. The ball touched down in the grass and a run scored. Major League Baseball also didn?t create fielding outcomes for some situations, like a shortstop inducing a double-play by stepping on second and then tossing the ball to first. The shortstop stops dead in his tracks on the bag and then the ball magically erupts from his body and flies to first. I also witnessed errant throws sailing past the first baseman, but an out was recorded and the ball just disappeared. All too often, if a fielder gets the ball, but takes an awkward angle to it, he will perform an odd sidearm throw that rockets across the diamond at 100 mph. This is a matter of trying to deliver realistic outcomes, but not having animations that fit those scenarios.

On the bright side, the faulty A.I. sometimes works in your favor, as baserunners can be fooled into easy outs. When stealing, the A.I. may pull up short of the base, freeze in its tracks, and then foolishly try to go back to the previous base. The same strange faulty logic is at play for balls hit into the outfield. Odds are you may net a few outs a game this way, but the computer still has the upper-hand with glitches.

As spotty as the performance on the field is, R.B.I Baseball is making a little progress in its presentation. Over 350 player likenesses and animations have been added to this year?s game, and they aren?t trivial little additions. When a new waggle or stance is added for a batter, care was taken to make them look just right. I also liked just how deep MLB went with the legends in this game, bringing back over 165 players of yesteryear, which you can add to your franchise team?s roster.

The 10-year franchise mode hasn?t evolved much, and the A.I. logic still lets trades along the lines of the Cubs landing Mike Trout for Alec Mills and Victor Caratini go through. Sorting through free agents and the extended roster is still a bit of a pain as well.

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The best part of the R.B.I. ends up being the new soundtrack that you listen to while scrolling through menus. OneRepublic, Greta Van Fleet, and Chvrches deliver catchy tunes that will make you rock in your chair in the moments leading up to eventual disaster unfolding on the field. I know that's a sad thing to highlight, but there's little else to rave about. I also enjoyed the home-run derby, but the swinging timing seemed rather unpredictable, and I found most of my tower shots were on swings that were intentionally made early.

As much as we want a fun baseball game on Xbox One and Switch, R.B.I. Baseball 19 is once again not the answer. The problems with the series have reached legacy status, and although it?s clear Major League Baseball tried to make a better game, the efforts were not enough. The focus should be shoring up the gameplay first and foremost, not making sure some of the star players shake the bat the right way. For six years we?ve been saying ?maybe this is the year,? and the result is once again ?maybe next year.?

Score: 4

Summary: The series continues to struggle on the field

Concept: The annualized series is once again plagued by glitches and A.I. problems

Graphics: Stadiums are rich in detail, and many of the star players now have nicely designed signature looks and animations. The same cannot be said of the out-of-focus crowd or the robotic way the fielders move

Sound: The licensed soundtrack is good, but you may want to mute your TV when the game starts, as the umpire who calls the game couldn?t be more annoying

Playability: Pitching and batting retain their arcade qualities, but haven?t changed much since the series started. Even if you are throwing a great game, bug outcomes can lead to disaster

Entertainment: Games are quick but messy, to the point that you may try smashing your controller over your leg

Replay: High

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Devil May Cry 5 Review ? A Stylish Return To Form

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

The Devil May Cry series began with Dante, a lone demon hunter. Today, he?s not so lonely; other playable characters have rotated in over the years, including Vergil, Nero, Trish, and Lady. Devil May Cry 5 expands the cast again with V, a mysterious man who uses demonic companions to fight. V offers a unique approach to DMC?s stylish battles compared to the slash-and-shoot mechanics of Dante and Nero, but his addition comes at a cost: Bouncing among three characters provides fun variety, but it keeps you wading in the shallows of combat too long, rather than letting you dive into its impressive depths.

The core appeal of Devil May Cry is stringing moves together to form your own elaborate and spectacular combos. Devil May Cry 5 generally delivers a precise and satisfying (if familiar) version of that formula. You launch underworld abominations into the air, slice them up, and blast them from afar, all using responsive controls that make it easy to cut through the horde. The story is ridiculous and barely coherent, but it works thanks to a few awesome moments I can?t spoil here. All this serves as a consistently entertaining foundation, and all three playable heroes add their own variations.

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You start playing as Nero, who still uses his sword, gun, and grab to combine mobility and lethality. The biggest change from previous entries comes from his robotic arms. Each arm gives you different powers, like firing off a metal fist to pummel an enemy, super-charging your attacks, or giving you an extra mid-air dash. In theory, this system expands your arsenal with lots of new tricks. In practice, it isn?t fun to manage. Several arms have contextual utility, but you can?t switch among them manually; you have to break (i.e. waste) your limited supply until you get to the one you want. Plus, the arms cost orbs to replenish ? the same currency you use to buy your moves and health upgrades ? so spending resources on them feels like throwing your money away. Ultimately, they are fun to experiment with, but they aren?t powerful or interesting enough to warrant the hassle and expense.

Controlling V offers a departure from tradition, since his approach is all about staying back while directing his demonic allies? actions and summoning a brute when his Devil Trigger fills. Since his distance from the fray makes him less likely to get hit, I had the easiest time racking up SSS ranks with V. However, executing his companions? specific moves feels less reliable. Even though using V to plow through fodder enemies is cool, his haphazard style isn?t great for focused encounters, and provides a diminished sense of strategic accomplishment.

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Dante has some new weapons (like dual rocket launchers) and a twist on his Devil Trigger, but he is the least surprising and most fun of the three heroes. Switching among various styles and weapons feels like the classic DMC I love, and I?m glad Dante?s the one squaring off against DMC 5?s most fearsome foes. That?s not something you can change, since only 2 missions (of 21 total) let you choose your hero; the other 19 are locked in as either Nero, V, or Dante.

This assigned-character structure creates a few frustrations. You play as Nero for a bit, and then you switch to V. But V is a blank slate, so you have to start from scratch, often re-buying abilities (like increased speed) that are practically identical to what you?ve already bought for Nero. Then you do the same thing again when Dante unlocks. This gives the pacing a weird, start-and-stop sensation that makes it hard to gain momentum. Once you start to get in the groove with one character, a mandatory swap is always just around the corner.

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The diffuse gameplay focus also prevents you from accessing the full complexity of each character in a single playthrough. With my time (and orbs) split among three heroes, I felt like I only had the opportunity to climb halfway up the ladder to mastery with any one of them before I finished the final mission. Capcom must have recognized this problem, because the solution appears to be making sure none of the fights require full comprehension of your capabilities ? even on Devil Hunter, which is the hardest option available at the start. I?m not saying the game is a total cakewalk, but I was about halfway through my second playthrough (on the next difficulty level up) when I finally hit fights that tested my limits, made me practice techniques, and forced me to improve ? something Devil May Cry games normally deliver before the credits roll.

However, once you finally reach the depths, Devil May Cry 5 stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessors. Each character has a solid complement of moves and abilities to play with, and some of the more difficult enemy configurations almost feel like puzzles as you prioritize and control the crowd while trying to maximize your rank and keep your health high for the next encounter. I like how the removal of manual-use items (like green and purple stars) prevents you from brute-forcing tough fights, but I also appreciate that you still have gold orbs to let you keep fighting when victory is within sight. All of these wrinkles  (and more surprises I won't ruin) kept me hooked post-game, though I wish the game provided more gameplay-related incentives to keep playing on other than the simple satisfaction of getting better and finishing harder modes.

For all of its pacing issues, Devil May Cry 5 is still a lot of fun to play. Combat is a blast, and the cutscenes are delightfully absurd; fans of Devil May Cry 3 and 4 should feel right at home here. Capcom goes back to the baseline action I?ve always enjoyed, and executes that with the series? signature over-the-top style. However, this entry?s changes and additions to that core experience don?t enhance what the series does well; they feel more like roadblocks than steps forward.

Score: 8.5

Summary: This entry has the series? signature over-the-top style, but not all of the additions feel like steps forward.

Concept: Return to the classic stylish action of Devil May Cry with lots of flashy combos and familiar faces, plus a new playable character

Graphics: This more realistic vision of the DMC universe looks great, though some of the enemy designs seem to blend together this time around

Sound: The soundtrack is the usual mix of ambient gothic and rock music, and the voice performances are well done

Playability: Controlling Nero and Dante again is comfortable and intuitive. V?s combat style takes longer to learn and feels less precise, but offers something different

Entertainment: Chaining together impressive combos is as fun as ever, though hopping among three characters makes it hard to hone your expertise

Replay: Moderately High

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Trials Rising Review ? Stuck In The Mud

Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Redlynx
Release:
Rating: Rating Pending
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, Switch, PC

Trials gameplay is trapped in by its own excellence. With physics-based mechanics that are a real joy to master, this obstacle course platforming/racing hybrid has mostly maintained the same gameplay loop for years. Balancing your bike through a tough landing, bunny hopping across seemingly impossible gaps, and carefully scaling absurdly steep uphills takes skill and practice. It?s a tired formula that really can?t evolve without sacrificing what makes it special. To compensate for the lack of gameplay novelty, the tracks in Trials Rising are more bombastic and insane than ever. But a poorly managed progression loop and overreliance on microtransactions really drag down the experience.

Trials Rising offers a strong first impression. Early tracks are visually varied and impressive in concept, sending players careening through airplanes in-flight, across Hollywood soundstages, and tilting over windmills. Laugh-out-loud moments abound as you roll across the finish line to your inevitably dubious reward, like snagging a rocket that carries your hapless rider all the way into outer space. Many courses offer interesting shortcuts and elevated ramps for alternate paths, and figuring out the best line through a course is consistently engaging.

Meaningful side content is also peppered through the early and mid-game. Early contracts demand unusual twists on your run through a level, like doing a certain number of back flips. A smartly narrated ?University of Trials? set of tracks is the best tutorial the series has ever had. Skill games provide silly distractions, like seeing how far you can drive while on fire.

Unfortunately, Rising begins to reveal some big flaws as your hour counter ticks up. Subsequent courses are painfully slow to unlock, demanding a tedious grind through contracts and track replays, especially to open up the enjoyably challenging hard tracks. Levels reward gear crates, but the available customization items within are undesirable and bland, so you never get excited about earned rewards. It?s clear that the game is pushing players toward the more interesting cosmetic options available through microtransactions, a practice that always feels crummy.

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Perhaps as a push to force engagement with the community, every track has you racing against A.I. or opponent online player ?ghosts.? Many players will wish to do what I did, and turn the ghost opacity all the way down so they?re invisible, so you can practice in solitary peace. Several poorly balanced ?boss? tracks in the stadium finals demand insane levels of perfection to surmount, but connect relevant unlocks to their completion, like the availability of certain new contracts. The crowded world map is hard to parse, and is just one of several menu and UI functions that don?t feel intuitive. Taken together with the poor rewards system, these problems detract from what could be addictive engagement and transform progress into a chore. 

Beyond the core investment loop, Trials Rising has no shortage of extra features to lend replay value. A tandem bike mode lets you race through many of the tracks with a friend; hilarity commonly ensues. Simple but engaging multiplayer is available in both local and online varieties. A robust (if hard-to-learn) track creator lets creative Trials builders craft their dream runs, while the Track Central feature lets the rest of us take advantage of their expertise and imagination.

Trials Rising feels like a pure incarnation of the series, and its significant structural and progression problems could be addressed over time as the live game evolves. But that revision (if it ever comes) is not the game currently on offer, and the current playthrough offers too much frustration in return for the moments of humor and skill mastery. I?m still an enthusiast for Trials, but when your gameplay is this established and staid, there?s no excuse for the surrounding trappings to be subpar.

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Score: 7.25

Summary: Excellent physics-based mechanics remain intact, but a frustrating progression grind puts the brakes on fun.

Concept: Race through an increasingly ridiculous sequence of obstacle courses around the world

Graphics: The huge variety of backdrops is impressive

Sound: Even the most generous listener may have a hard time hearing these tunes as anything but distractingly awful. The soundtrack actively detracted from my enjoyment until I turned it way down

Playability: Years of sequels have done little to change the immaculate physics-based controls of Trials, and that?s as it should be. Excellent tutorials this time around help bring newcomers up to speed

Entertainment: Crazy motorbike obstacles will likely always be fun, but a grindy progression loop drags your cycle into the mud

Replay: High

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The Occupation Review ? Stumbling In The Dark

Publisher: Sold Out, Humble Bundle
Developer: White Paper Games
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

The year is 1987 and the United Kingdom is in the midst of political unrest. Mobs take to the streets to protest overbearing economic conditions, as well as an upcoming piece of legislation called The Union Act, which is focused on keeping immigrants out of the country. A bomb has just gone off, killing a crowd of civilians and leaving an obvious suspect ready to take the blame for it all. But things are a little too clear cut. That?s where you come in in this tale set in an alternate timeline from ours. As a journalist with a national paper, your job is to investigate a government office to uncover the truth of who?s behind this bombing and why. But the clock is ticking. The Occupation?s setup has the potential for greatness, promising a political tale where your choices shape the fate of an entire country, but only a few shreds of that promise survive due to uneven execution.

The Occupation?s main hook is how it plays out in real time. You arrive at the governmental office in the early afternoon, and you have four hours to solve the mystery by investigating the building and avoiding security patrols. This first-person stealth adventure is split up into several chapters, with each one ending with a segment where you interview a subject with the evidence you?ve found. You have an hour for most chapters to get what you need, with the most important clues being turned into vital questions you can ask during these interviews that contradict whatever account or information your interviewee is presenting. Missing out on vital questions can radically change the ending of the game.

During the hour of prep, you?re combing through various sections of the building, avoiding guard patrols and searching computers, waste bins, safes, and file cabinets for anything that will ultimately lead to an interview question. Multiple paths exist to the various bits of intel you need to collect. For example, to get into a restricted area to obtain a floppy disk, you can steal a keycard from someone?s mail, or simply use the building?s ventilation shaft to get there. Unfortunately, the ventilation shaft navigation towers over all the more impressive solutions due to the time limit, which discourages you from exploring options when you have such an easy path to progression in front of you.

Every significant clue you discover is added to your dossier, with incremental bits of evidence helping you get the whole picture of the conspiracy at hand. The actual investigation aspect is compelling; I loved combing through my notes, listening to recorded tapes of suspects, and poking holes in alibies as the clock ticked down. However, all of that takes a backseat to stealth-centric gameplay. Though I appreciate the open-ended navigation, the other aspects of sneaking around are a bummer.

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You don?t have much to help you evade the guards except hiding and hoping for the best. You have no weapons, and no useful tools in your inventory to distract your foes. More often than not, the only real choice is to scamper down into a ventilation shaft or hide under something. If caught, you lose around 15 minutes of time as a punishment. While I loved digging through files and ransacking offices for the next thread in this mystery, I detested every time I had to hide under a table for several precious minutes while someone looked around with their flashlight. It?s just so boring.

A host of technical issues makes the experience even more frustrating. Guards were often capable of inexplicably seeing me through walls or window blinds I had closed moments before. One guard glitched across an entire floor in a matter of seconds, making avoiding him impossible. Another one became stuck in a doorway, forever investigating a single office and essentially giving me free reign of the building for the rest of the chapter.

The dull, broken nature of sneaking about is also disappointing because it weighs down the few genuinely compelling mechanics, like using pneumatic tubes throughout the building to get floppy disks by data-wiping gates. However, the sheer monotony of diving beneath a desk or peeking from corners for minutes at a time makes the novelty of these ideas dry up fast.

Something special lies at the heart of The Occupation, but the gameplay and technical issues get in the way of its most interesting qualities. The storytelling happening beneath all the clunky stealth is great. I grew to care for the characters I was reading about in dossiers or interrogating in intense interviews; the conflicted, guilt-ridden government employee Scarlet is a standout among a cast of morally complicated individuals. The bleak resolution that I reached, which took me to task for my failure to uncover all the clues, was a powerful conclusion to a story. I just wish it wasn?t such a chore to get to that point. The Occupation?s technical issues and consistent dullness will likely keep me from playing through again to see just how many consequences exist for your failures and successes, and that?s a shame.

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Score: 6.75

Summary: A fantastic story is buried too deep within The Occupation's dull stealth gameplay and technical issues.

Concept: Uncover a political conspiracy with clandestine reporting and determine the fate of an entire nation

Graphics: The painterly outlines of The Occupation?s otherwise realistic world and people make it stand out visually

Sound: A fantastic soundtrack comprised of convincing ?80s punk tracks created just for the game makes sub-par voice acting easier to deal with

Playability: The Occupation?s stealth is bad and its controls are clunky, hampering what could be a great interactive political thriller

Entertainment: If you?re willing to push past a large number of technical issues and poor stealth gameplay, there?s a fantastic story buried deep in The Occupation?s heart

Replay: Moderate

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The Lego Movie 2 Videogame Review ? Falling Apart

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: TT Games
Release:
Rating: Everyone 10+
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PlayStation 4, Switch, PC

Everything is not awesome in the game adaptation of The Lego Movie 2. Emmet may be as happy as ever, but his smile contradicts the true state of things. The world around him has transformed into a wasteland of bricks and sand, and the gameplay that previously put his misfit group of heroes on grand adventures has similarly fallen apart and is a ghost of its former self.

For this sequel, developer TT Games moved away from the tried-and-true Lego formula that players have come to expect from its movie-based experiences. You won?t be collecting gold bricks, hunting down minikits, changing characters for puzzles, or even assembling piles of bricks that you stumble upon. Instead, TT Games created an experience similar to the freeform Lego Worlds game, with players completing small tasks for characters scattered across various open-world environments. While I applaud the decision to try something different, the change fails to capture the spirit of the film, and more importantly, it just isn?t that much fun. The experience is shallow and repetitive with the sole sliver of interest revolving around collecting building pieces for your own customizable world.

The game begins in the post-apocalyptic version of Bricksburg, which is a fitting space for a tutorial that fails to deliver much hope. The first thing you learn is that destroying Lego-made objects produces two kinds of currency: the studs of old, and something new called bricks. If you smash something that is red and blue in color, you receive a handful of bricks of the same shades.

Bricks are needed to assemble various objects, both for the buildings you want to add to your home world, and various tools needed for objectives. This is a fine idea that illuminates the building aspect of Legos, but isn?t put to good use. If a character asks you to build something, you just go into a menu, select that object, determine where to place it, and that?s it. They cheer you on for your deed and you move to the next character. If one of these people requires electricity to power a device, you just need to build a generator. It?s a surprisingly simple activity that serves as the game?s biggest task and it gets old quickly. I grew bored of the core story missions in the first world.

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Most missions can be completed within seconds, and if you don?t need to build something, you may just be asked to beat up three enemies, point a wand at an object to change its color, or track down a specific item that is usually right around the corner or over a hill. I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again without much payoff. When any task is completed, the player earns a purple brick. Gather enough of those, and you can reach a new planet and progress the story.

Each world is themed after locations from the film, but given how quickly you bounce from one task to the next, there isn?t much room for storytelling, and you don?t see much of it. In most cases, Wyldstyle narrates what happened in the film as the camera pans across a random shot in the world. The ending of the game completely ignores the final act of the film; Wyldstyle just tells you what happens instead.

The main worlds conclude with impressive boss battles against Lego creations as tall as skyscrapers. Each of these battles tasks the player to find different ways to trick their attacker into harming itself ? such as a hungry chameleon eating a fake fruit instead of a real one. When the beast is tricked, an awesome platforming sequence unfolds along its body. The sense of verticality and scale delivered in these fights is impressive, and ends up being the most ambitious part of the game.

As uninteresting as your objectives are, moving from one destination to the next encourages you to explore the open world for valuable treasure chests. Each chest delivers a haul of studs, bricks, and a loot crate or two. Yes, you read that correctly: a chest holds a crate. When the crate is opened at a shop, you earn new weapons to wield, buildings for your world, and characters to play as (although you never really need to swap anyone out since everyone can do everything). Given how bountiful chests are, I was practically swimming in stuff, and grew hooked on the collecting aspect of the game.

The first Lego Movie Videogame did a fantastic job of recreating the worlds and moments from the film, even if the gameplay relied on a 14-year-old formula. The need to switch between Batman, Unikitty, and a wide selection of characters for different tasks was fun. The Lego Movie 2 Videogame rarely pushes the player to do anything other than go into their building menu to select one object, and ends up being a shockingly bland experience in a series that has been mostly consistent in doing fun things with different properties.

Score: 6

Summary: The game adaptation struggles to find a pulse and ends up being a repetitive bore.

Concept: A departure from the tried-and-true Lego mold that delivers neither excitement nor an experience true to the film

Graphics: The characters are animated nicely, but most of the worlds are plain. Some are even crudely surrounded by giant walls

Sound: Several of the film?s catchy songs are joined by performers who do a great job impersonating the actors that didn?t lend their voices to the game

Playability: The objectives are repetitive and require little effort from the player. The result is a game that feels soulless, especially when compared to the other Lego options out there

Entertainment: Building a world is fun, but the quest you have to complete to get the materials you need is as dull as they come

Replay: Moderately High

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Dead Or Alive 6 Review ? A Low Blow

Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Release:
Rating: Rating Pending
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

The Dead or Alive series has long sat in the middle of the fighting game pack. It?s earned its keep over the years with a mix of sound combat and an idiosyncratic take on the genre, but usually sells itself on sex appeal instead of clever twists or reinvigorating overhauls. Dead or Alive 6 takes steps to encourage more people to dive in, and while it has some interesting ideas, this entry loses more than it gains in the move to modern consoles.

The core of Dead or Alive 6?s fighting keeps things familiar. Pumping out combos is still easier than most fighters, but reversal moves called holds punish repeated attacks and encourage you to think twice about how you approach your opponent. The critical system introduced in Dead or Alive 5 makes it even scarier to be on offense, since your opponent can counter some attacks while on the receiving end of a combo. I like how active the counter system is, even if being countered in the middle of a combo often feels jarring.

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A new fatal attack button is meant to ease in new players, but mostly feels superfluous.  Mashing it delivers a difficult-to-escape combo that automatically deliver a super move (albeit with reduced damage) if the accompanying meter is full. But because these attacks are easy to read, and because most characters already have a combo they can deliver just by mashing the punch button, it feels like an unnecessary layer. Break holds, a special move which can counter any kind of attack, are a much smarter addition, as they?re useful for both newcomers who don?t understand holds and veterans who want to avoid a mix-up at a crucial moment.

Lots of smaller, more incremental changes and a well-rounded (if familiar) roster underpin the larger changes, though including only two newcomers, NiCO (a scientist who can deliver some impressive lightning-based attacks) and Diego (a street fighter who relies on powerful, delayed punches) is a bit of a letdown. The tutorial introducing you to all the moves and jargon is fairly extensive, which I appreciated. It can last multiple hours depending on how much you know going in, but if you can internalize confusing terminology like ?hi counter strike,? ?combo throw,? and ?expert hold,? you should have a good idea of what you?re doing in a match once you?re done.

DOA Quest, a new mission-based mode, smartly extends that on-ramp. Each of the quick, 100-plus missions has optional objectives, like pulling off three expert holds in a match, that get you to explore the nuances of combat. If you don?t understand how to complete a particular objective, you can press a button to dive into the tutorial that teaches you how to do it. The recommended tutorial isn?t always the one you?re having issues with, but overall it?s a great way to build off the tutorial that makes learning feel less like work as you unlock costumes and accessories for characters.

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On the other hand, the story mode is a trainwreck even by fighting game standards. It?s broken up into several timelines, with one main timeline and several character-specific ones unlocking as you play. Scenes are wildly disjointed, poorly lip-synced and acted, lack coherence until you?re about halfway through, and are often shorter than the fights they lead into, with loading screens bookending the whole affair. 

It can take some effort to piece it all together, and the rushed, uninteresting story you get out of the ordeal isn?t worth the effort of having to edit it for yourself. Worse yet, it occasionally leans into the series? penchant for cringe-inducing fan service. If you aren?t invested in the continuing exploits of Dead or Alive?s characters, tournaments, or plotlines already, don?t bother starting now.

The online is also severely limited. Right now the only way to play online is through ranked mode, whether through a dedicated option or by waiting in training mode. You can?t create a lobby, spectate, view leaderboards, or even invite a friend to a match. Lobbies should be patched in later this month, but for a multiplayer game to launch with such a limited infrastructure is enormously disappointing. At least matches are decent, with solid fights interspersed with lagfests you can opt out of by declining a match with a bad connection.

Dead or Alive 6 sports a robust fighting system, but the framework around it doesn?t capitalize on that. While the tutorial and DOA Quest mode do a decent job of getting you up to speed on what makes combat tick, the awful story mode does it no favors, and the barebones online puts a damper on what could have been a second wind for the series.

Score: 6.75

Summary: Dead or Alive 6 sports a robust fighting system, but the framework around it doesn?t capitalize on that.

Concept: Bring the fighting series to modern consoles while making it a little more palatable to newcomers

Graphics: Character models are detailed, but also look kind of plastic. You can tone down the breast-bouncing if you want, but there?s still some eye-rolling creepiness

Sound: The mix of hard rock and synth quickly fades into the background, though the character select theme will probably get stuck in your head whether you like it or not

Playability: Dead or Alive?s mash-friendly attacks still meld well with its emphasis on exploiting repetition with counterattacks, though learning to construct combos around the critical system is cumbersome

Entertainment: Varied fundamentals and a new mission-based mode that drills into the series? intricacies almost help offset a disastrous story mode and lack of online options

Replay: Moderate

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ToeJam & Earl: Back In The Groove Review ? Funky In All The Right Ways

Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Developer: HumaNature Studios
Release:
Rating: Everyone 10+
Reviewed on: PC

The original ToeJam & Earl introduced a generation of console players to the concept of roguelikes, where success depended on negotiating randomized landscapes and using items that were as likely to harm as help the player. The Genesis game starred a hip-hop-loving alien duo with a penchant for funk and a fear of troublesome Earthlings, who survived thanks to their good luck and cartoonish gadgets. A pair of sequels reinforced the concept that, well, maybe not every budding franchise has enough gas in the tank to keep the rocket going. Now, 17 years after the last game hit Xbox, the pair returns. With co-creator Greg Johnson at the helm, Back in the Groove takes what made the original such an oddball delight and refreshes those ideas to return it to relevancy. 

Back in the Groove is essentially a remake of the Genesis original. If you aren?t familiar with that one, the concept is simple: Your spaceship has crashed on Earth, and you need to track down its 10 pieces so you can return to your home planet, Funkotron. As with the original, Back in the Groove trades the subterranean cave systems and confusing dungeon layouts you typically find in roguelikes for an outdoor setting. When you open your map, the sprawling mazes of nodes and paths may seem familiar, but with a notable difference from ordinary fantasy-themed roguelikes: ToeJam & Earl?s interpretation of Earth is one of floating land masses stacked atop one another. Stumble off the edge of a landmass or a narrow trail, and you fall down to the previous level. 

What I love about Back in the Groove is how effectively it forces you to make tough decisions. Earth is filled with Earthlings, both beneficial and harmful, and the bad ones can take a significant chunk out of your health meter. ToeJam & Earl (and their friends) aren?t equipped to handle these hazards on their own, so they rely on items that come in the form of presents. These presents are strewn throughout levels, but they have a catch: You don?t know what they are until they?re opened. Some are good, some are bad, but even the good ones have situational uses. Some warp you right to the next spaceship piece. Others summon enemies. Arguably the worst one completely shuffles the presents, so the ones you?ve already identified are scrambled yet again. There are also amped versions of presents, which appropriately amplify their effect. These can be a godsend, such as giving you an extra-long speed boost with hitop shoes, or a bummer, like summoning an aggressively persistent storm cloud that hovers over your hero, intermittently striking them with lightning. 

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The beginnings of most of my runs would start with me opening everything I got, with occasionally disastrous results. Rocket skates are great tools when you?re expecting them, but when they catch you by surprise, you can easily get propelled off the edge of the world and lose a bit of progress. Similarly, tomato rain is an effective way to clear out attacking boogiemen and mall cops, but if nobody?s around when you open the box, it?s a bummer. You can pay a man in a carrot suit to get the presents identified, but if you don?t have the cash, you either risk a present?s negative effects or hoard your stash until you can safely ID the loot. Fortunately, money is treated with the same apparent disregard as gifts are in this version of Earth, and you can find cash by wandering around. 

Each run in Back in the Groove features 25 levels, and with only 10 parts to find, some levels don?t have much to find beyond an exit. As with the risk of opening presents, you have to weigh the temptation of fully exploring a level ? getting presents and cash for your trouble ? or making a beeline for the next stage. The more time you spend exploring, the more Earthlings you encounter, along with the dangers that come with their presence. You also gain XP by revealing tiles on the minimap, which in turn allow you to gain promotions throughout your journey. Along with new titles (including a personal returning favorite, ?Poindexter?) comes a chance to spin a wheel to get stat boosts ? a nice update to the original formula. There?s also more overall variety to the way each character plays. ToeJam is still faster, and Earl can withstand more damage before ultimately transforming into a harp-strumming ghost, but the systems run a bit deeper. 

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Each of the game?s nine characters (including two versions of the titular heroes) has unique passive abilities, stats, and starting presents. I gravitated toward Earl, because he?s able to eat and restore health from the bad food items scattered around the world. Players who like mobility might prefer ToeJam more, since he gets extra mileage from footwear items. Peabo?s high luck gives him a better chance to avoid taking damage when an Earthling makes direct contact, which can be a godsend if you struggle to avoid them. There?s not a night-and-day difference between any of the characters, but the subtle distinctions are there for players who want to tune their game a bit toward how they play. 

Back in the Groove isn?t going to wow players with photorealistic visuals, but this is also a game where one of the most fearsome enemies is an out-of-control ice-cream truck. The creators have gone with a hybrid style that works well and supports the overall weirdness. The terrain looks as though it was shaped out of modeling clay, while the characters and everything else are essentially crisply detailed drawings come to life. It reminded me of a hybrid of Dr. Seuss? stretched and skewed proportions, with PaRappa the Rapper?s wiggly, flat presentation. The effect is especially pronounced during the night levels, where your character?s flashlight helps to create some surprisingly great shadow effects.

I really appreciate how accessible Back in the Groove is, overall, even if you?re not the kind of player who naturally gravitates toward roguelikes. Failure is certainly likely, but it?s not inevitable here. I never felt as though I was ever locked into a terrible situation; even when I was surrounded by dangerous Earthlings and low on good presents, I could always jump down to a previous level and find another approach. It?s a solid experience as a solo player, but it?s even better in co-op. In addition to speeding up the time you spend finding exits and your spaceship parts, you can share health with a partner and even borrow one of their lives if you run out. Back in the Groove has so much good-natured silliness that it almost feels like a waste not to share it with a friend, either in local split-screen or online co-op.

Even after successfully reassembling my ship, I was ready to start all over again ? especially after unlocking new hats, which add fun new modifiers like granting immunity from the control-reversing Cupid?s arrows or providing a cash boost every time you use a broken present. These are strictly optional, however, so you can keep your roguelike experience pure if you?re into that sort of thing. Personally, I liked tinkering around with these elements to see how they upended the strategies I?d started to depend on.

All these years later, I wasn?t expecting a whole lot from ToeJam & Earl beyond a blast of nostalgia. In some ways, the original was ahead of its time, and it only took a little tweaking to bring it up to contemporary expectations. Back in the Groove is a great gift, tucked inside an earnestly funky wrapper.

Score: 8

Summary: Back in the Groove refreshes what made the original such an oddball delight.

Concept: Bring the funky roguelike action from the Genesis era to a new generation of players

Graphics: Surreal landscapes and a crisp-looking cast of weirdos are a delight to behold

Sound: It?s all about the funk, baby. The soundtrack is packed with familiar throwback jams and fresh new tunes that?ll keep your feet tapping

Playability: The basics are simple to grasp, but surprising depth lies beneath Back in the Groove?s candy-colored shell

Entertainment: Solid roguelike elements keep the action engaging and tense. No previous experience (or nostalgia) with the series required

Replay: High

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Ape Out Review ? A New Kind Of Ape Escape

Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Gabe Cuzzillo
Release:
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: Switch

Some games like to take their time and introduce you to their worlds and characters, doing the necessary legwork to draw you in and make you feel invested. Other games prefer to show you what they?re all about from the get-go, and Ape Out is definitely the latter. You begin in a cell. You break out. Your job is to make it across each procedurally generated maze while fending off attacking soldiers. This is the whole game ? and it?s an utter delight.

Ape Out is a great example of how to take a simple concept and flesh it out as much as possible. Your ape has multiple ways to defend himself, including attacking enemies by pushing them into walls (creating a messy splatter) or grabbing them and using them as human shields. The human shield method opens up several strategies as you navigate through corridors filled with soldiers. Every prisoner you take has a weapon they fire a few seconds after you grab them. You can use your prisoner as a typical human shield, letting them take a shot from a foe directly in front of you, and then rush that foe while they?re reloading. However, you can also dispose of that foe by simply letting your prisoner shoot them. Exploded enemies leave behind legs and torsos you can use to stun enemies in order to make an escape. Though Ape Out?s basic functions appear simple, it has a lot of leeway for creativity and strategizing.

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The men trying to contain you are initially just soldiers armed with rifles, but as you progress, you run into different kinds of commandos with their own dangers and benefits. For example, attacking the grenadier head-on makes him explode, killing you both. However, if you grab him, you can throw him into a group of foes like a bowling bowl and kill all of them with the ensuing explosion. Every new collection of levels in Ape Out (presented as albums, with each individual level being a track) takes place in a new location that also introduces obstacles and advantages. The second collection?s setting is a high rise where you can quickly whip enemies to their doom by tossing them out the window, but snipers across the street blast you if you stand too long in one spot.

The consistent introduction of dangers and tools to create havoc makes Ape Out a finely tuned experience. I was constantly amused by the scene changes as well as the challenges presented to me and how I overcame them. I died a fair amount of times, but Ape Out is generous, allowing you three hits from an enemy before you go down. That gives you ample opportunity to learn their A.I. patterns and develop strategies for overcoming them. My only complaint is that certain deaths feel unfair, especially when an enemy off-screen has killed you, but those moments are few and far between. The gorgeous stylized art as well as a soundtrack that creates a beat to your action in the game (banging a drum when you kill foes or blaring a horn when you rip off doors) also makes restarting levels after dying not that big of a deal since it?s just so enjoyable to play through them. The sound design is particularly satisfying, with the user-created soundtrack propelling forward the action in a lively way.

I played through Ape Out in single sitting (which took about two and a half hours), and I thought it was the perfect length for this sort of experience. The campaign levels also have arcade-mode and hard-mode variants for those who want to test their mettle as a fragile gorilla, so there?s plenty of ape-smashing content if you can?t get enough. Ape Out gloriously celebrates its simple, splattery premise with creative gameplay that I can?t wait to return to in the near future.

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Score: 8.25

Summary: Ape Out's brand of colorful, ultraviolet action makes for a great time.

Concept: You?re a locked-up gorilla. Escape and break anything (and anyone) who gets in your way

Graphics: Colorful, unique visuals are arresting throughout the entire game

Sound: The jazzy soundtrack and bam of a drum when you slam a foe into a wall never get old

Playability: Learning the basic movements is easy, but mastering the game requires you to hone your twitch reflexes

Entertainment: Ape Out is a wickedly inventive, ultra-violent romp that doesn?t overstay its welcome

Replay: Moderate

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Anthem Review ? Grinding Gears

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PlayStation 4, PC

Anthem suffers from an identity crisis, torn between its efforts to be a cooperative shooter and a single-player story. In this unusual pairing of styles, we see BioWare spreading its wings to deliver something new, but also refusing to let go of the past. This makes for an uneven journey in which players are united and then forced to disperse for chunks of time. Anthem periodically shows us how both of these elements can be interesting and powerful on their own, but struggles to unite them, leading to aggravating progression that is sometimes poisoned further by performance issues and peculiar design.

Living up to BioWare?s RPG pedigree, Anthem?s world is inviting, mysterious, and filled with fascinating backstory and characters. We see humanity struggling to find its place in an alien land, hunkered down and on the brink of extinction in an old walled-up fort. The story setup succeeds in delivering the tone of desperation, but is muddied when you see the tools you get to use to help keep humanity alive. You don?t get a sword, or a banged up gun. You basically get to be Iron Man. You are given a powered exosuit called a javelin that is designed to be a one-person army-killer.

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No matter what color you make your javelin, or what helmet you choose, it ends up looking like some variation of Iron Man. BioWare?s adoration of Marvel?s property is clear as day, and is put to good use. The javelins are Anthem?s biggest triumph, making almost every little action feel like you are controlling a superhero capable of unleashing hell. Javelins give their users temporary jet-fueled flight and a wonderfully deep arsenal of offensive and defensive tools to play with. As the game goes on, that well of toys expands deeply and in exciting ways.

Flight is handled exceptionally well, allowing players to skim dangerously close to rocky terrain, plunge into water, dart out of it like a dolphin, and quickly transition into a hover where shoulder-mounted rockets and firearms can be used. Once you truly understand how these suits control, you can rip around the battlefield with calculated precision and unleash a wealth of strategies unique to each javelin class. All four javelin types are nicely designed and a blast to control. Raining down elemental chaos as the Storm is as good as it gets, but just blasting enemies with machine guns as the Ranger ends up being a great time too.

The javelins are deployed from the fort to take on story missions, contracts for specific characters, and can also be used to explore the world freely to tackle random events, harvest supplies, and find hidden nuggets of lore. In any one of these activities, Anthem begins to show cracks in its armor. No matter what you are doing, it all bleeds together in familiar ways. You arrive at a location, waves of enemies teleport in, and there?s a good chance you?ll be asked to track down a specific number of items in the nearby area to activate a strange device. Despite the combat being exceptionally fun, the gameplay loops stagnate quickly. No matter how much the characters on the coms try to sell the illusion that the scenarios and stakes are different, they aren?t. In one mission, I had to interrupt a weapons auction. The supposed auction ended up looking exactly like every other conflict with enemies standing around in a swamp. I kept hoping the next mission would change things up, but the only real differences are new enemies, or the same enemies with shields.

The four javelin classes are meant to complement one another, but coordination and teamwork are not necessary for most of the game. During the story-based campaign, we didn?t need to sync up attacks or send in the Colossus to draw fire. We annihilated every threat with relative ease. The only urgent teammate action needed was reviving someone should they fall. Marching into battle with friends and reigning over the opposition as super-powered titans of death is a fulfilling power fantasy, but it?s not because of any team dynamic. For roughly 20 hours, Anthem feels a bit like a single-player game masquerading as a co-op experience. The true vision of co-op isn?t realized until the player finishes the campaign and hits the level cap. At this point, the grandmaster difficulty levels are unlocked, and they live up to their name. Only at this point did I find the need to coordinate with other players to target specific enemies first, line up the timing of combo triggers, and position javelins to take down bullet-sponge bosses. The endgame doesn't offer much that the player hasn't seen up to that point, but the higher difficulty makes the missions and three strongholds far more entertaining. It's too bad it takes this long for Anthem to show its true colors.

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When any mission concludes, loot is handed out liberally, early on delivering a satisfying haul of goods that slows to a disappointing drip after level cap. Post-mission, the player is then forced to return to the fort. This is where the single-player story unfolds, and time basically stands still, especially if you are in a party of friends. BioWare wants you to get to know the characters on a personal level, much like the quality time spent on the Normandy in the Mass Effect games. I love that BioWare wants to tell these stories and connect the player to the world through narration, but this design doesn?t work. It alienates the cooperative dynamic, and is also guilty of feigning player choice. In most conversations you can pick from one of two things to say, but they?re all binary choices, and don?t change much of anything other than a character?s immediate response.

As much as I enjoyed Anthem?s side stories ? there are some heartfelt and hilarious arcs that remind me why I consider BioWare one of the all-time greats in terms of story ? the central plotline is a predictable eye-roller with ham-fisted drama and a terrible villain at its core. BioWare has struggled to create interesting villains before, but the Monitor is easily the studio?s worst. The biggest threat he posed until I eventually squared off against him was scrambling my HUD once. I also ran into numerous instances where I couldn?t resurrect teammates, my audio cut out completely, and the game crashed to the title screen, but I have a feeling those were unfortunate glitches that have nothing to do with the Monitor?s interference.

I ended up dreading going to the fort, not just for the story, but because of how long it takes to load. I can?t recall another game that loads so much. Just loading the fort or a mission can take minutes. If you just want to look at your weapons or change your armor in the forge, there?s a load. If you see a mineral in the open world that you want to harvest, you may become separated from your team, resulting in another load. I understand that the game needs to keep players close together, but the leash in this game is way too short. These narrow boundaries make it feel like you are being punished if you dare explore the world or do anything other than closely follow the player in front of you.

Anthem should have been all about that Iron Man fantasy. When the guns are pumping and the thrusters are ignited, the game is a legitimate blast to play. That?s where the experience shines, and everything else holds it back from being truly engrossing. This is one of those games that frustrates because you can see the greatness within it, but it's always just out of reach.

Score: 7

Summary: BioWare's cooperative shooter soars with combat but struggles with story.

Concept: A cooperative shooter that soars with combat but stumbles with story

Graphics: The blending of fantasy and science-fiction genres pays off handsomely in visual design. Few games shower the battlefield with a show of particles and explosions like Anthem achieves

Sound: A constant stream of character chatter is joined by a great score that hits unique notes during combat

Playability: Playing as Iron Man is a lot of fun, yet most combat scenarios end up unfolding similarly

Entertainment: Anthem tries to be too many things, and ends up losing focus in all aspects of the experience

Replay: High

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Dirt Rally 2.0 Review ? Staying Focused

Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Codemasters
Release:
Rating: Everyone
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also on: Xbox One, PC

Efficiency is the goal in rally racing, from your co-driver?s no-nonsense pace notes (while under duress, I might add) to the fix-only-what-needs-fixing-now scramble of repairs between stages. Even when you?re hurtling down a country road in Poland reacting at speed to the semi-unknown, moving the steering wheel only as much as you absolutely need to is the difference between surviving to the next turn and sending yourself into a race-ending skid. This model of efficiency gives Dirt Rally 2.0 focus, channeling your efforts in the right direction and guiding you when you need it most.

Codemasters? titles from the last few years have presented their own career mode wrinkles. Dirt Rally 2.0 certainly features a more fleshed-out racing organization than the first title, complete with staff to hire and car upgrades, but it isn?t the same as those in the F1 series or even the core Dirt franchise. Dirt Rally 2.0 is not as involved as those other Codemasters titles, but I appreciate that it cuts to the chase. Upgrading your staff gets you tangible improvements. Instead of a nebulous two-percent increase in performance, for instance, an upgraded staff takes time directly off your repairs and penalties for flipping off the track. That kind of specificity spurs you to put your credits where you need it most. 

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Upgrading your car parts centers on each car individually. For instance, your rallycross car in particular wears through the clutch and dampers faster, so those are the areas you can upgrade first. While there?s something to be said for the freedom to do whatever you want, at the end of the day I had more credits in my bank to spend on getting other cars and upgrades because I didn?t feel pressured to spend them on stuff that didn?t make a material difference in the end.

I like how the game approaches how your car parts wear down, allowing you to quick fix them during an event at the cost of imparting more wear (something upgrades decrease). Wear also factors into the used cars (which you can test drive beforehand), which come needing their own repairs ? something which would be helpful to know before you bought them.

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As prepared as I was with upgrades and repairs before an event, I was always nervous when starting a stage, even if I?d done it before. The track degrades in career events, which influences your tire compound selection and adds another variable to consider while driving. I tended to make my big mistakes at the beginning of a stage; even in the long, 10-minute-plus stages, I became more confident the longer I drove. I attribute this to both getting in a driving rhythm and with understanding how the car feels on the different surfaces. It?s also the game doing a good job in giving consistent feedback so I can subconsciously take into account the pacenotes, weather, surface, car handling, braking power, and other variables in an instant and usually make the right decision. Perhaps the outlier in this is the tarmac surface, which I struggled to get a handle on and was more slippery than I expected. I also would have liked more vibration through the gamepad to further differentiate the racing surfaces and conditions, adding another dimension.

While the staff setup and gameplay are Dirt Rally 2.0?s strengths, it?s only adequate in other areas. The multiplayer has timed events and championship sessions you can construct, but that?s the minimum you?d expect. The FIA World Rallycross Championship licensed season has no bells and whistles (and frankly I tire of going through all the successive heats in rallycross), and the random stage generation of Dirt 4?s Your Stage has been removed, cutting down on the number of stages you can race.

Dirt Rally 2.0 doesn?t have every feature under the sun, but I trust it. I know I can put together a good team that?s going to help me win events, and the gameplay delivers, letting me skate that line between confidence and foolishness without knowing the difference.

Score: 8.75

Summary: Codemasters delivers another captivating rally title that will have you swearing in fear and delight.

Concept: Add more career-type elements to the racing, which remains the real meat of the franchise

Graphics: The game is gorgeous overall. Objects occasionally pop in, but it?s not distracting. Lens flare and other graphical effects, however, can force you to favor certain cameras depending on the situation

Sound: The co-driver?s pacenotes are informative and excellent, even including this quip: ?Is that a puncture on the right rear?? He knows damn well it is

Playability: Even without the luxury of being able to rewind after crashes, the game has enough assists and other ways to customize the difficulty so you can enjoy it at any skill level

Entertainment: Codemasters delivers another captivating rally title that will have you swearing in fear and delight

Replay: Moderate

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Tetris 99 Review ? Winner Winner, Tetris Dinner

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Arika
Release:
Reviewed on: Switch

When the battle royale genre began its rapid climb of popularity and it was clear others would be adopting the format into their own games, the idea of Tetris battle royale became an absurd joke meant to undercut the industry?s eagerness to embrace popular trends. Tweets and Photoshops imagining what a Tetris battle royale would look or play like appeared and we all laughed at the ridiculous idea. Now that it exists, we should all feel collectively dumb, because it?s a lot of fun and it can get surprisingly intense.

In the aptly named Tetris 99, you play classic competitive Tetris against 98 other players simultaneously. The typical Tetris gameplay is fully integrated here, and it looks nice and plays well. You can employ familiar tricks like saving blocks and hard-dropping pieces by pressing up on the d-pad. You see miniature versions of all the other games happening around you, and watching the other players live makes the whole experience exciting and intense, especially if you make your way to last handful of players.

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Just as you have in the past when playing Tetris against others, you send your deleted lines to opponents, and you receive the deleted lines of other players. You can play Tetris and have a good time by just letting it default who you are competing against randomly, but some additional depth is mapped to the right control stick allowing you to choose who gets your deleted blocks. You can send your blocks to those attacking you, those who have the most badges, or to those who are in danger of being defeated soon. You can also manually select from the individual 98 other players with the left control stick, though this is an admittedly difficult tactic.

As you defeat opponents, you get badges, which let you send exponentially more deleted lines to the competition. Getting to choose who gets your blocks expands Tetris? baked-in thoughtful puzzle gameplay and it adds a fun layer of strategy to the endgame. Figuring out how those new mechanics work on the fly can be intimidating, though. A tutorial would have been helpful, since I spent my early rounds not really understanding what I was doing, even if I was playing Tetris well. Thankfully, if you?re a skilled Tetris player uninterested in those new mechanics, you can succeed without fully engaging with that element.

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The random nature of who you are competing against leads to frustrating rounds where you get unfairly decimated within the first few minutes. An overwhelming number of lines can get dropped on you at once, and even if you were playing well, it can knock you out. Thankfully, jumping into a new round is relatively quick, so you won?t feel the sting of defeat too long.

You level up as you play, but outside of the number next to your name going higher, and the icon representing you changing at certain tiers, the progression isn?t particularly rewarding. The overall scope of the game is limited, but it?s engaging enough to keep you coming back for more.

Tetris 99 is a pleasant surprise, and is my favorite content offered by the Nintendo Switch Online service to date. The idea of playing Tetris against 98 other players at once seems ludicrous but is fun in practice and delivers intense moments just like when you?re among the final few in a battle royale game.

Score: 8.5

Summary: Tetris 99 is a pleasant surprise, and is my favorite content offered by the Nintendo Switch Online service to date.

Concept: Play competitive Tetris with 98 other players simultaneously in a puzzle-based battle royale

Graphics: Seeing all your opponents playing in the background is busy, but it does a good job of making you feel like you are in the middle of a huge Tetris battleground

Sound: The nostalgic and catchy Tetris theme orchestrates your drop-blocking and is remixed where appropriate in fun, intense ways. The new music in the menus is good, too

Playability: The Tetris gameplay works great, though I did have some issues hard-dropping pieces with the Pro Controller?s d-pad. Swapping between opponents with the analog sticks is well-integrated

Entertainment: Tetris 99 delivers a fun and intense experience while taking inspiration from gaming?s most popular multiplayer trend

Replay: High

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Jump Force Review ? Super Smash Blunders

Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PlayStation 4, PC

Jump Force is not the first time characters from disparate Shonen Jump manga and anime franchises have faced off against one another in a fighting game, but this release represents the biggest and flashiest mashup brawl they have ever engaged in. The 40 characters have multiple bombastic animations for their noteworthy attacks, and it?s all wrapped up in a goofy story where universes collide. Unfortunately, the combat never becomes totally engaging, and the sloppy presentation drags down the other elements that had potential.

The combat is Jump Force?s strongest element. It is a fighting game, but not in the traditional sense. You don?t need to learn every fighter?s best combos and counters; every character plays similarly, and pulling off their big special attacks is more about keeping an eye on the meters that build up as you take and receive damage. I like how combat is more about finding the best windows to execute your big attacks, and I enjoyed experimenting with finding the best three-character combos to take into the fray, which highlights the fun mashup nature of the game. Playing as Midoriya from My Hero Academia and hitting Goku from Dragon Ball as he charges up a Kamehameha with a Detroit Smash is an exciting thing ? which is admittedly difficult to explain to non-fans.

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When you find the rhythm of combat, the experience becomes a spectator sport, for better or worse. The big, flashy combat animations are impressive, but they are also time-consuming and emphasize the back-and-forth nature of each fight in a bland way. It boils down to: ?You do your big attack, and I will wait until the animation completes. Then I do mine, and you do yours again until someone?s health reaches zero.? Even with the myriad special attacks you can see by choosing different characters, it all becomes repetitive.

The story conceit for why everyone gets together is silly ? maybe even dumb ? but that?s fine. It?s an excuse to get characters like Goku and Luffy in a room together to talk about how hungry they are. or to see Trunks and Kenshiro connecting because they are both from apocalyptic settings. But those character moments have no emotion to them. Nearly every cutscene amounts to an assortment of characters standing still and, at most, turning their heads towards one another to speak. On the rare occasion that a cutscene has movement, it is the least amount of movement possible. At one point, when a character was meant to leave the frame, they just slid out of view without taking an actual step. These low standards for presentation make every potentially interesting moment feel cheap and boring.

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Getting to those story moments is also needlessly obtuse. When there aren?t story missions available at the mission counter, I just had to walk around the large hub area until I found the next character who had an exclamation point over their head. The hub area is boring, and if you?re playing online, it is overloaded with online players crowding the mission areas and clipping through one another, sometimes even making it difficult to talk to the NPC to accept a mission. It makes it feel like you?re trying to order a drink at a busy bar instead of rushing to save the world from devastation.
    
To make all of it worse, the loading is insufferable. The load times leading into a cutscene or fight can take 30-45 seconds ? sometimes longer than the thing you?re waiting to see. The loading also makes the already-obnoxious elements that much worse. Even accessing upgrade menus or stores requires a load. The store to buy fun, referential clothing items and accessories for your customizable character is especially long, and it doesn?t let you preview the clothing you want to buy on your character. One of the biggest incentives for continued play in Jump Force is the opportunity to dress up your avatar in Shonen Jump paraphernalia, so it?s disappointing that the process is so difficult.

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For all the harm the middling presentation does to Jump Force, the fighting does have satisfying explosive moments and the online versus mode does work well. There is depth to uncover in the combat, but it never truly sang to me or made me excited to tackle the next fight. Mostly I was just happy to not have to repeat a fight when I won, even if I was performing iconic attacks from some of my favorite anime.

Score: 6

Summary: For all the harm the middling presentation does to Jump Force, the fighting does have satisfying explosive moments and the online versus mode does work well.

Concept: Make a 40-character mashup fighting game using the popular and obscure characters under the Shonen Jump umbrella

Graphics: The realism afforded by the Unreal engine does no favors to any of the characters, all of whom were born from the pages of manga

Sound: The music vacillates between scary orchestration and upbeat pan flute at the drop of a hat. It?s often jarring and confusing

Playability: Executing flashy special attacks is easy, which leads to satisfying moments in combat. Outside of combat, controlling your avatar in the hub area is awkward

Entertainment: Seeing characters from different franchises fight one another is exciting, but the overall presentation drags the whole experience down

Replay: Moderate

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