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Building An Imperfect Union

No government is perfect. While many idealistic concepts give birth to new nations, the implementation of those ideas usually strays from the intent – and yet, governments can succeed and thrive despite their imperfection. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is the same. It chronicles the monarchy of King Evan with an ambitious framework that includes elements of traditional role-playing, city-building, and real-time strategy – which all sounds amazing in theory. In reality, these concepts fall short in their execution and leave the game’s full potential conspicuously unrealized, but those missed opportunities don’t prevent it from being charming or entertaining.

Ni no Kuni II is a brand new story, and doesn’t require any familiarity with the first game. It follows Evan, a young ruler forced to leave his homeland and start a new kingdom from scratch. I can’t exactly say that the narrative is bad, but the straightforward fairy tale doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Evan wants to create a world without war, so he sets off to unite the other kingdoms one by one. You collect a handful of archetypical party members along the way, but after their initial introductions, they fade into the background and stop playing any notable role in events. Because of this, most characters never grow; you know everything you’re going to learn about the smart and confident sky-pirate princess as soon as she joins your party early on. This means advancing a lot of dull text-box conversations that don’t convey much in terms of personality (due to sparse use of voiced dialogue and full-fledged cutscenes), and cast members who feel like interchangeable cardboard cut-outs.

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Though the story didn’t keep me interested, the gameplay propelled me forward due thanks to a clever kingdom-building system. Your realm, Evermore, starts as a meager encampment and grows into a sprawling city as you upgrade abilities, recruit specialists, and build structures like farms and shops. The brilliance here is how Evermore functions as your primary progression system. If you want better armor, upgrade the outfitters. If you want better items, invest in the general store. You can also research passive buffs that improve your experience gains or help you expand Evermore more efficiently. I was completely hooked on this loop; I loved chasing down sidequests that lured new residents that my kingdom. This gives you new research and construction options, and the abundance of available tasks always provides something enticing to pursue. Plus, I like how currency and items accrue in the background as time passes, so no matter what you do (even if you’re just standing idle), you’re making progress.

With things like weapon development and spell upgrades, much of what you accomplish in your kingdom funnels into combat. Battles are fluid and action-driven, letting you control any party member in real time and take down crowds of monsters with various techniques. The simple system is accessible and fun, but it is also the nexus for the myriad ways in which Ni no Kuni II’s ideas need refinement. Fights may be entertaining, but they also don’t provide much challenge, so you don’t have any incentive to learn its intricacies. For instance, you can craft and level up a vast array of magical helpers called Higgledies to assist you, but you can also get by just fine with a basic set, so the extra effort seems pointless. And despite your ability to upgrade spells, magic isn’t more efficient or useful than basic skills, so that endeavor also feels like wasted resources. The optimizer in me still enjoyed digging through my options and mowing down my opponents, but ultimately, my reward was making an already-easy game even easier.

A secondary combat system involves more strategic encounters that have Evan controlling a small army, but this idea feels half-baked. A basic rock-paper-scissor dynamic generally determines victory, so choosing your four units before the encounter carries much more tactical significance than any decision you make on the battlefield. I enjoyed getting new units and bolstering the strength of my forces, but the limited scope and clunky controls of these conflicts hold them back. I enjoyed engaging in these skirmishes occasionally for a change of pace (or to get a new citizen), but they were usually on the bottom of my to-do list.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom may not nail everything it attempts, but it gets the important things right. Building your kingdom is satisfying and engaging, even with the weak narrative hooks. The cycle of rewards became an obsession, and had me staying up late to recruit just one more ally, or complete just one more upgrade. Combat could be tighter, and other supporting elements could use some polish – but like any kingdom, this experience isn’t about individual contributions. It’s about how those contributions come together, and the fun of this experience as a whole outweighs its flaws.

The Dragon?s Fiery Conclusion

The Yakuza series is stronger than ever, with the recent wave of PlayStation 4 remasters and a new prequel game bringing Kazuma Kiryu to appreciative new audiences. Just as those fledgling fans are figuring out what loyal Yakuza players have known for more than a decade, Yakuza 6 comes along and upends it all. The latest entry in the series may mark the end of Kiryu’s tale, but don’t worry; Sega gives The Dragon of Dojima the sendoff he deserves. 

Without getting too deep in the weeds, Yakuza 6’s story centers on Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka Sawamura, who is struck by a hit-and-run driver early on. She was holding a child at the time of the event, and that child’s identity is paramount to the overall arc. The long story is told through an abundance of cutscenes, but I was engaged throughout. Players who are concerned about jumping into the finale without having played through all the other games shouldn’t worry, either. While the story is complicated, it’s largely self-contained. The game cleverly provides context for the important players in the world, and in rare instances when a cameo or reference didn’t click for me, I never felt lost.

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The story provides broad motivations, but much of the Yakuza 6 experience is about making your own way through the world. Between Kamurocho’s familiar neon playground and the comparatively calmer Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture, Yakuza 6 gives you plenty to do. The two locations are a joy to explore, and they’re brimming with optional activities. Kiryu has a lot of time on his hands, and I looked forward to every opportunity to keep him busy. Many of the missions provide rewards that feed into two of your biggest diversions; the people you help often want to join your baseball team or help take down gangs in your new Kiryu Clan. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Yakuza’s batting cages, and it was satisfying to show off my skills while managing my own crew of sluggers. I didn’t find the clan missions (which are basically tower-defense, minus the towers) quite as interesting, but I was still compelled to complete them all.

The brawler-style combat feels satisfying, whether you’re swinging your fists or whatever random props you can grab, and I appreciate little touches like the way terrain affects how you take down goons. Getting into scraps is quick, too, which encouraged me to seek out encounters even near the end of my adventure. Dragging enemies into stores, where the battles continue, is particularly fun – probably because I didn’t have to worry about picking up the mess. Thanks to a reworked leveling system, I leveled up abilities and unlocked moves the way I wanted, rather than having to work my way around a preset ability grid. All these little elements help deliver an exhilarating sense of freedom. 

One of my favorite things about Yakuza 6 is that it delivers surprises at such a steady clip. Kiryu’s quest has life-and-death stakes, but he’s pretty much down for whatever along the way. If you’re interested, you can spend countless hours in side missions and other activities, including spear-fishing, babysitting, and chatting up ladies online. Japan’s citizens have their share of issues, too, which don’t necessarily involve gang warfare. I was eager to lend a hand to everyone who needed help, partially because the rewards can be great, but also in large part because these side missions are so delightfully strange. More importantly, it’s a blast. A typical Yakuza 6 session – if such a thing exists – can include darts and karaoke, before concluding with a goofy quest to retrieve an engagement ring from an errant robotic vacuum. The game does a great job in delivering both a meaningful and emotionally resonant story, as well as some of the weirdest, silliest stuff I’ve seen in a long time.

As fun as it all was, I’m still sad to see Kiryu off. He leaves the series on his own terms, and the conclusion is a fitting tribute to the character. One of the things I’ve liked most about him is how he remained decent, even though his lifestyle frequently put him into contact with decidedly less decent folks. Heck, one of the game's lengthiest mission chains is focused on making friends with all the patrons at a bar. Kiryu approaches the bizarre situations he encounters with grace and empathy, while also bringing a righteous rage when necessary. I’ll certainly miss Kiryu, but we clearly haven’t seen the end of Yakuza.

The Pink Puff Goes On Auto-Pilot

For better or worse, Kirby is Nintendo’s most consistent franchise. New entries come often, and they don’t stray too far from the “pretty good” mark in either direction. On that scale of inoffensiveness, Star Allies rests a bit on the low end, offering a bland Kirby experience with few new mechanics.

The premise this time around is evil things are invading Dream Land and Kirby must expel them by grabbing some friends and beating up bad guys. The twist for Star Allies is Kirby can throw hearts at select enemies to add them to his team. It can be played cooperatively with up to three others, but if you play alone, A.I. controls the partners. The game delivers standard-but-unsurprising Kirby action, but the final boss does stand out as a large and interesting finale – though I won’t spoil it here.

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The option to play with friends is nice, and the Switch’s Joy-Con setup makes jumping in and out of cooperative play easy, but the overall design suffers tremendously from the multiplayer options. Having four players makes combat a cakewalk. Kirby and pals steamroll their way through every encounter, and every boss is a breeze. As a series, Kirby titles are generally designed to be friendly to younger players, but when gingerly tapping the attack button without any regard for position or stolen ability is enough to complete any objective, it gets boring. Having A.I. partners makes things ridiculously easy, as they do most of the work; they can even solve puzzles for you before you get a chance to consider the solutions.

The last two mainline 3DS Kirby titles, Triple Deluxe and Planet Robobot, proved Kirby is capable of interesting level design, but Star Allies plays out as a series of flat, horizontal slogs. Apart from a few barrel-blasting sequences (in the style of Donkey Kong Country) and moments where Kirby and his partners roll along as one giant ball, you won’t find much to do other than move from left to right.

Star Allies gets credit for a great soundtrack, great controls, and an epic finale. Even if the visuals are the epitome of generic Kirby, they look sharp. HAL delivers a polished Kirby experience here that plays well, but it ultimately amounts to a forgettable adventure that demands so little from the player that I sometimes felt like I was barely involved at all.

War And Laughter

Let it never be said that indie developer The Behemoth hasn’t carved out its own unique identity thanks to the studios blend of stylish art and offbeat humor. Following on the heels of Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theater, Pit People channels the exaggerated art style of its predecessors while embracing a more strategic mode of gameplay. The result is a romp of a game that rewards you with hilarious jokes for dominating foes on the battlefield.

Pit People embraces absurdity out of the gate, opening on a blueberry farmer named Horatio fending off cannibals who want to eat his son, Hansel, while the world is showered in green good and a cosmic narrator mocks the farmer. Things only get wackier from there, with Horatio going on a quest to rescue his son after the bear kidnaps him, recruiting a gallery of characters to help out. Though Horatio doesn’t have much personality, the crew surrounding him is hilarious and memorable, like Sofia, an explorer who passionately claims every new area you come across in the world “in the name of Spain.” You also have a literal cupcake named Gluten to serve as your healer, and the mischievous-yet-loyal cyclops Yosef.

Your quest takes you through an overworld filled with every biome imaginable: deserts, snowy plains, forests, candy mountains, and cities made of circuit boards. Pit People’s world doesn’t have a unique identity, since more than anything it exists as a series of disparate environments stitched together. But that ultimately works, because it draws attention to Pit People’s biggest offerings: zany characters and battles.

The battle system is an odd blend, eschewing a surprising amount of unit control for a hexagonal battlefield where placement rules supreme. You can’t specify which enemies your units attack. Instead, you move them within range of enemies, and they attack whatever foe is there. If multiple foes are within that unit’s range, then they randomly strike one of them. This lack of control can be frustrating, like when the enemy with a sliver of health remains on the field because your unit attacks the foe next to him, but it also adds a kind of unpredictability that’s often missing from strategy games and can have its own rewards. For example, I once meant to shoot an enemy unit with an arrow but instead shot his companion. The companion died and exploded, dealing severe area damage to everyone around him, clinching in one exhilarating moment a battle that was uncertain from the get-go.

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At least half of the strategy in Pit People comes from pre-battle preparation. You have a certain number of slots in your party. You obviously want attackers and defenders, but how do you break that up? Do you have an archer for your long-distance attacks? Or a mortar? Do you sacrifice two spaces in your party to make room for a cyclops capable of dealing heavy physical damage? Should you bring a healer even though your units regain health when they level up in battle? Once the encounters start in Pit People, you’ve already made the important decisions that determine the flow of the fight. Ultimately, I think the uniqueness of this setup makes for a more interesting strategy game, but arriving to a battle and being screwed from the get-go because you don’t have the right unit can be frustrating.

If you want to add another element in the mix, you can also play Pit People co-op (local and online), with you and your partner splitting the characters between you. It’s a neat feature that adds another dimension to tactical play, but it’s not particularly deep or necessary to enjoy Pit People. You can also play battles in the pit, an in-game arena, to earn money to buy goofy cosmetics for your characters and mercenary characters to wage war for you.

The first few fights are surprisingly difficult, as I struggled to get my bearings with the idiosyncratic system and understanding how important preparation was. After the first couple of hours, I started building my army by capturing units during battle (buy the item that lets you do this) and making sure each slot had a character with a defined purpose. Soon I was devising tactics for my units, like using my healer as bait to draw enemies into firing range of my mortar. Figuring out how to manage your units and eventually triumph is immensely satisfying, as are the gags.

Pit People is a ridiculously funny game. If you’re fan of Monty Python’s wacky brand of humor, you’ll feel right at home with the jokes here. Whether it was the mocking and villainous space bear, who acts as the game’s narrator, or the whimsical Loki-like Jerkimedes tricking me into slaughtering a retirement home of cupcake people (oops), Pit People had me in stitches. The many sidequests are also hilarious, with several of them functioning as multi-step short stories centered on memorable characters, like Harry the Troll detective, who speaks as though he’s reading a gumshoe novel.

Pit People does a lot of things right, but it also has abundance of unnecessary systems that give rise to mild frustration. For example, when you leave your town to go out into the world, you have a limited inventory that you can use to store healing items, recruitment items, and the spoils of battle. If you’re completing side quests littered throughout the world, that inventory fills up quickly. And since there’s no fast travel to your home, you have to constantly journey back to to your base. This is tedious, especially since the fog of war on the overworld never goes away, meaning you have to constantly check your map to see where you’re going. The main quest also has a questionable stealth level that’s not insurmountable, but it sure is annoying.

When all is said and done, it’s the potential for laughter that proves to be Pit People’s standout achievement. The tactical gameplay is interesting and entertaining, but the comedy is the star of the show here. I enjoyed my time with The Behemoth’s new, funky world, as well as the cast of lovable characters who inhabit it, and will fondly remember many of its gags for a long time to come.

Weathering Life And Loss

The first Life is Strange made its mark for showcasing the hardships of life and the parts about us we often hide from the world. The developers’ courage to pursue topics like grief and depression authentically is what made the series so special. Before the Storm continues to be brave and bold, presenting difficult situations similar to those we saw in the original. This prequel gives new insight into Chloe, showing her gaining confidence while she struggles with the loss of her father. With Rachel, a character we only heard about in the first game, we now know what was so unique about their connection and have plenty of their moments to cherish. Before the Storm’s greatest asset is how it builds a genuine relationship between its two leads, making you root for them and understand what they mean to each other as both their lives fall apart. 

The tale takes place two years after the death of Chloe's father (and three years before she reconnects with Max). Chloe is testing her boundaries, sneaking out to concerts, and ditching school. It may be a cry for help, but it’s also the best way she can deal with her grief. Enter Rachel, a girl who seems like she has everything: She’s popular, gets good grades, and has an ever-present aura of confidence. Rachel is tired of it all, though; even if you seem to have it all, that doesn’t mean your life is perfect. The girls find each other at a time when they desperately need someone else to understand their struggles, and it’s a great reminder of how listening to someone can go a long way.

Before the Storm’s biggest accomplishment is how Deck Nine developed one of the most genuine relationships I’ve seen displayed between two women in a video game. Since this was only a three-part arc, some episodes seem rushed (especially the finale), but Deck Nine creates a bond and makes you care for Chloe and Rachel as individuals and a pair. The writers also offer plenty of moments to accentuate their connection, from Chloe and Rachel’s performance in a play to Rachel’s disastrous family dinner with only Chloe there to help her pick up the pieces. Watching Rachel and Chloe’s relationship unfold is the core of the experience, but it isn’t perfect in its depiction. After knowing each other for only a few days, Chloe and Rachel’s relationship progresses at an accelerated rate, but the chemistry is there from the beginning so it doesn’t feel completely out of left field. 

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I also wish we saw more about how they had their falling out from the first game, and how Rachel eventually gets involved with Frank, but I’m also okay that the writers chose to showcase the early blossoming of this beautiful friendship. Before the Storm makes me feel for Chloe more than I ever did, and I now care about Rachel, who was merely an ephemeral, missing girl in the original Life is Strange. 

The bulk of the game centers on dialogue choices and some simple puzzles, where you locate items in the environment and put them to use. A new “back talk” option gives you a way to act out as Chloe and talk your way out of situations. This mechanic feels out of place in some instances, as her reactions are so over-the-top, but it becomes toned down as the story goes on. 

Unlike Max, Chloe doesn’t have supernatural rewind powers, so Before the Storm is grounded in reality. This forces you to own your choices, for better or worse. Your decisions may not completely alter the narrative, but you get little callbacks that make them satisfying, like another round of D&D or seeing that stealing wine actually turned out to be a good thing. The hardest decision comes at the end of the game, and it builds on the themes of growing up and living a facade. The game doesn’t judge you for this choice, but it says a lot about your vision for Chloe’s character and her relationship with Rachel. 

Before the Storm made me care about Chloe and Rachel, giving me backstory into both of their lives before Max comes back. The journey is bittersweet, knowing the tragic events from the first game for both characters. As a prequel, Before the Storm succeeds because it tells its own story that leaves you content, while also connecting to the original game in a meaningful way. Deck Nine may not have a hand in the original, but it made sure to do Chloe and Rachel’s story justice, capturing the essence of Life is Strange while providing plenty of nods to fans.

Bonus Episode: Farewell
Fans who purchased the deluxe edition were treated to a bonus episode with Chloe and Max’s original voice actresses. This story is told from Max’s point of view, right before she tells Chloe her family is moving. The two live out their childhood once more together, playing pirates and reminiscing about their friendship, like when Chloe got into magic tricks and they both loved boy bands. Sadly, their lives take drastic turns, forcing them to grow up in different ways. I enjoyed the episode for what it was, showing Max and Chloe going down different paths and why they both changed. Just don’t get your hopes up too much for this short epilogue; look at it as one last goodbye to these wonderful characters rather than something that expands the story in meaningful ways.

Note: This review is an overview of all three episodes of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. You can read individual episode breakdowns here, here, and here.

Solid Survival Shooting

The concept of H1Z1 is simple: Hit the ground running, grab a backpack and whatever weapon is handy, and head to the safe zone while blowing away 149 opponents. Anything can happen during a match, including stealthy shootouts from behind crates, getting shot in the back while trying to cross an open field, and snagging a risky airdrop for some potent weapons and armor. Variety is the spice of life, and it’s also the cornerstone of H1Z1 that keeps you coming back for more.

The core mode can be played solo, with a friend, or with a team of five, so you can enjoy the bloody melee without having to worry how many friends you have around. Making it down to the final circle of play while dodging airstrikes, bullets, and poison gas is often a thrilling experience, and you can go from hero to zero with the single crack of a shotgun. Whatever your skill level, making it to the last moments of a match is fun and frantic, and snack-sized stories often happen along the way. A player who gives away their location with proximity voice chat by accident when his mom calls him downstairs for chicken tenders, the player who just does donuts in a cop car around a warehouse waiting for someone to come pick a fight, or the jaded sniper waiting for you on top of the final hill. These are all memorable moments that make a match interesting and engaging.

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The one-life, last-person standing structure creates a high-tension slaughterhouse that is is the bedrock of H1Z1, but it has other neat modes that differentiate it from battle royale competitors. One is Combat Zone which lands players in a small playing field, forcing tons of immediate action for all participants, and everyone starts fully loaded with a rack of weapons ready to rock. More importantly, it also allows players to immediately respawn and get right back into the endless battle.

Combat Zone is an excellent way to get a handle on how weapons fire, combat tactics, and more in a zero-stress environment. It is the perfect aperitif if you’re a seasoned player looking to practice with certain weapons, or if you’re a new player who wants extra trigger time before stepping into a mode where the stakes are higher.

Getting behind the wheel in the standard game is a powerful way to zip around the ever-shifting field of play, but vehicular gameplay is taken to a new level in the Auto Royale mode where teams are stacked into cars at the beginning of the game. You can’t get out of the vehicles, so your driver had better be adept at slamming on the nitro boosts, hitting the jump pads, and plunking down land mines while the rest of the team unloads buckets of ammo at supply crates and opposing vehicles. If your car goes up in smoke, that’s the end of the match for you. The novelty of Auto Royale is fun for a few rounds and a nice palate cleanser, but it lacks the compelling gameplay loop of the core mode and ultimately feels like a tacked-on diversion.

H1Z1 has some cool modes that give it some extra oomph, but the field of battle royales already has some excellent choices. H1Z1 has a solid foundation of scavenging, shooting, and surviving, but it needs a little more vim and vigor to really compete in the battle royale free-for-all.

Straying From The Path

My biggest problem with side-scrolling brawlers has always been their mindlessness. Even when a few upgrade trees or RPG systems are thrown in to make them more intricate, I can’t escape the feeling I’m just mashing the punch button until everyone’s dead. Way of the Passive Fist addresses this issue with more mindful combat that wants you to pay close attention in every fight. But while its combat is novel and fun at first, it doesn’t lift the experience above some glaring issues.

Rather than punching your way through legions of street thugs, Way of the Passive Fist has you hanging back and watching the movements of the many bandits, robots, and monsters you face as you make your way through a thin, post-apocalyptic plot that serves more as context than a real pull. Your main weapon against your enemies are well-timed parries and dodges, which drain your foes’ stamina until they keel over from exhaustion. 

Every enemy has their own multi-hit attack strings to memorize, giving combat a rhythmic feel.  Once I had learned most of the enemy patterns, I was parrying punches, dodging throws, and returning throwing knives to their senders in a matter of seconds, which made me feel like the center of a well-choreographed action movie fight scene. As you parry attacks you build up a combo meter, giving you access to powered-up moves like charged-up punches and grabs. Saving up these attacks for clusters of enemies or hulking brutes adds a fun strategic layer to all the parrying.

Unfortunately, combat grows stale over time. Though later levels introduce a few new enemy types, they’re mostly palette-swapped foes with faster, more difficult attack patterns, which don’t do much to stave off how repetitious combat can be. Although it can make for some cool maneuvers, the rhythm-based combat isn’t as satisfying as you’d expect; instead of feeling like I’d accomplished some feat of dexterity or skill, I was rewarded simply for paying attention and playing long enough to memorize each enemy’s pattern.

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Moving around during combat is also a bit of a chore, which causes a few issues. It isn’t a constant concern since you and your opponents are usually standing still as you defend against their attacks, but a few levels emphasize deft movements. The side-scrolling view isn’t great at relaying whether you can hit an opponent, making for some frustrating situations in which my charged-up punch missed because I wasn’t at the right height (which is especially aggravating during boss fights). Positioning causes problems during levels that have you dodging lasers or bombs; if you’re in the middle of parrying a string of attacks when you see your cue to dodge, you’re probably going to get hit. I also had times when enemies’ attacks would overlap with each other, asking me to parry attacks from two sides at once, which is impossible.

One way to mitigate these problems is with difficulty sliders, which let you tailor various gameplay aspects to your liking. After finishing the story mode, I wanted to test my parry reactions but didn’t want to deal with health management, so I made it much harder to land parries, but made it health pickups more abundant. This is a smart way to let players learn and experiment, and I like that no content is gated based on difficulty.

A few arcade modes encourage you to replay levels to get high scores and bragging rights, but I felt as if I’d seen everything interesting on my first time through. Enemy encounters don’t drastically change between playthroughs, either, and the lack of multiplayer means it lacks the party-friendliness that can liven up subsequent runs.

The rhythm-based combat and malleable difficulty set Way of the Passive Fist apart from most brawlers in an interesting way. But while it starts strong, the combat doesn’t carry it over a host of issues. Without other ways to keep players busy it isn’t worth going back to after the first unsatisfying playthrough. Way of the Passive Fist offers an interesting alternative to the mash-happy games of the genre’s past, but after the novelty wears off, it fails to connect.

Dead On Revival

In 2000, Kronos Digital and Eidos released a unique anime-inspired action game called Fear Effect for the original PlayStation. Its slick presentation, Ghost in the Shell-inspired world, and mature narrative earned it a cult following. That following had reason to rejoice when Sushee's Kickstarter campaign promised to bring the series back. Unfortunately, Fear Effect Sedna could serve as a case study on everything that can go wrong when resurrecting a franchise.

The original Fear Effect and its prequel were some of the first games to bring anime-like visuals to life, and their smooth storytelling helped them stand out. Sedna fails to recapture any of that magic. The generic environments lack the neon glow and exotic technology that made the original series so dazzling, while the story is a mess of cringe-inducing dialogue. I didn't know who the main antagonist was until the final boss fight, and even then, their motivations were unclear. When the credits rolled, I was left wondering, "What was the point?"

As bad as the story is, things are worse between cutscenes. Sedna attempts to mix top-down shooting with stealth and strategy, but its execution is bad in every category. As a top-down shooter, Sedna feels unresponsive and clunky. During battle, you have the option to pause the action and issue commands to your party, but the combat isn't built around this type of strategy. A single attack does little damage, and you don't have a wide variety of abilities to choose from. This makes the action plodding and monotonous if you're pausing frequently. Hardcore strategy also isn't necessary because the A.I. is so stupid. It doggedly locks on to one character and rarely looks away; I often had that character hide in cover and wait until the rest of my companions took out the inexplicably fixated enemy.

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If you're patient, you can attempt to take out some foes before they spot you by sneaking up behind with a knife. Most guards have simple patrol patterns, but your stealth movements are so slow that catching up with them is difficult. Progressing through areas using stealth is tedious because you can't hide bodies, and once an enemy discovers a fallen comrade, they sound an alarm and every enemy in the room rushes toward it. Again, the A.I. is so simple that they just look at the body for a minute or so and then return to their patrol patterns, but you have to wait until they're done examining the body before you can progress. I also had enemies pop up in front of me as I was trying to sneak through an area, so the stealth option never felt like a viable tactic.

You encounter a handful of puzzles between gunfights. Most are a chore to navigate, some boil down to brute force trial-and-error, and others make no sense within the world's fiction. For example, you have to diffuse a bomb by cutting the wires that match a series of numbers on posters in different rooms, but there is never any connection made between the posters and the bomb. Even worse, sometimes you don't know if you don't understand a puzzles logic or if you're actually solving it correctly, because bugs prevent some puzzles from being solved. In one case, I had to restart an entire level because a puzzle wasn't accepting the correct solution.

Fear Effect Sedna has a handful of other bugs that ruined my progress as well. At one point, a character got stuck in the stealth position and would only attack people with a knife. At another, the game just stopped saving my progress, which was a real problem since there is no manual save system.

Even diehard fans of the original Fear Effect should stay away from this mess of broken gameplay, system-breaking bugs, and slapdash narrative.

Lifeless Space

The Station tells a science-fiction story we’ve all heard before. Earth has lost contact with a crew aboard a space station, and you are sent in to investigate what happened to them. This premise usually reveals flesh-eating aliens, rogue A.I., or astronauts suffering from space madness. However, none of your discoveries made aboard space station Espial are substantial – just cryptic audio recordings and notes that hint at a larger story that never truly unfurls.

Following in the footsteps of similar narrative experiences like Gone Home and Tacoma, The Station gives the player little direction, and instead allows for freedom of discovery. The allure here is to take your time, study every inch of The Espial, and get to know the crew by the trail they left behind. Playing the role of an investigator is a satisfying experience, as The Espial feels like a real place, mixing state-of-the-art technologies with ordinary human things. The personalities of the crew emerge from their workplaces and living quarters, such as reading their personal emails, or viewing the photographs hidden in their lockers. You end up feeling more of a connection to each of them than the story you are supposed to be unearthing.

While discoveries are made in a nonlinear fashion, some of The Station’s best moments are tied to locked doors used to gate progress. These doors often bring puzzles, each challenging you in a different way, whether it’s learning a crewmember’s security code or figuring out how to awaken a robot. A couple of the solutions are a bit obtuse, but most of these moments either strengthen The Espial as a believable place, or give you a taste of how advanced human technologies are in this vision of the future.

Even after being stumped on a few puzzles, I completed The Station in just under two hours. The Espial isn’t a sprawling place, and most rooms contain just one or two points of interest, so you’re rarely left scratching your head for too long before stumbling upon an interactive item.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the crew, the game teases something greater. At the outset of play, you learn The Espial is orbiting an alien world, and is using a stealth technology to stay undetected. It’s here to determine if first contact should be made, but under the utmost caution, as the aliens are in the midst of civil war. As fascinating as this premise is, you don’t learn much about the aliens or the conflict, outside of seeing a purple trail of blood or a crewmember’s note stating these aliens can’t be trusted. The research done by the crew is mostly hidden away, with the focus falling more on their ethical approach to interacting with the aliens.

As interesting as the question of “What would mankind do?” is, The Station rarely has an answer. Perhaps thinking deeply about the dilemma is part of its charm, but it ended up being a hollow experience that didn’t deliver enough resolve on its alien ambitions.

A Noble Quest In Need Of Divine Intervention

Despite offering an endless tapestry of intriguing tales to draw from, the events of history remain criminally ignored by video games. Sure, exotic locations like ancient Egypt and decades-old wars occasionally serve as flashy backdrops for modern action, but too few games try to convey what life was really like in a historical time and place. Kingdom Come: Deliverance eschews the fantasy tropes of other open-world RPGs in favor of the real-life characters and conflicts of 15th century Bohemia. Unfortunately, the engrossing feudal adventure awaiting players is brought to its knees by a needlessly restrictive save system and a litany of game-breaking bugs.

One of the most successful outcomes of Kingdom Come's focus on realism is the story. Instead of guiding an almighty warrior to predestined greatness, you play as the unassuming son of a blacksmith whose world is turned upside-down when an invading army pillages his village. Kingdom Come succeeds in not only conveying the historical events of its small slice of European history to the player, but doing so from a peasant's perspective; much of the political dealings affecting the fate of Henry's home country are entirely out of his control. The best he can do is serve Sir Radzig Kobyla and a small council of other Bohemian lords, while hoping their efforts to retain power intersect with his own thirst for vengeance.

Henry's limited means make Kingdom Come's story feel personal in a way few games manage, and offer up plenty of meaningful choices and surprises along the way. Some quests take Henry on hours-long diversions, such as engaging in drunken reveries with a wayward priest, or entering a monastery disguised as a monk to track down a reformed bandit. The narrative is far from perfect (particularly the ending, which feels more like the cheap tease for a sequel than a thoughtful commentary on Henry's lot in life), but it kept me going.

Kingdom Come's focus on realism also results in a variety of intriguing gameplay systems, from the absurdly in-depth alchemy system to the demanding combat that takes hours to fully comprehend. Every skill Henry can learn – be it lockpicking, weapon maintenance, or even reading – offers another rabbit hole to devote his days to. The perks you earn from progressing are less compelling, as many confer stat penalties in addition to whatever they're buffing, but I still enjoyed learning the ins and outs of every activity.

Unfortunately, a few decisions made in the name of realism frequently drag Henry's adventure to a crawl. Kingdom Come's save system is downright draconian, requiring you to either drink an expensive and limited potion (that also makes you drunk), or track down and sleep in a bed you own just to back up your progress. The fast-travel system, meanwhile, is a blatant misnomer, as it requires you to watch an icon slowly travel to the desired location on your map, sometimes for 90 seconds or more. Waiting and sleeping also require staring idly at a wheel for no discernable reason, and are longer and more frequent than other RPGs that use the same convention. Kingdom Come's gameplay is already slow and laborious to begin with, and these systems add nothing to the experience except pointless downtime. Kingdom Come is not more challenging or intense or even more realistic because of these additions. It's just more tedious.

The save system is elevated from "annoyance" to "fatal flaw" in the wake of the game's ultimate downfall: bugs. While my first 10 hours or so were relatively issue-free, the further I got, the more things fell apart. Collision issues left me permanently stuck in bushes, rocks, and other unstable geometry, requiring save reloads. I experienced over a half-dozen hard crashes, caused by basic actions like opening my map, pulling up the quest log, and unsheathing my sword. At one point the "surrender" prompt became a permanent addition to my HUD, forcing me to reload. Broken questlines consumed countless hours of progress, and in some cases compounded each other; I had one mission grind to a halt when an NPC was unable to sleep in his bed at an inn, because an NPC from a previous broken questline was still sleeping there. I lost four hours of progress in one session alone when the game inexplicably disabled saving of any kind.

After logging more than 100 hours into Kingdom Come, I shudder to think how many more hours I lost to bugs. Simply put, this is the kind of game where you should be saving every five minutes to safeguard your progress – except you can't.

Ultimately, Kingdom Come feels a bit like homework. If the historical setting and focus on realism appeal to you, then the deep gameplay systems and methodical pace are worth learning. If you'd rather be a magic-wielding wizard or the unequivocal hero, on the other hand, the source material will bore you almost instantly. Even if you are as in love with the premise as I am, however, the countless technical issues Kingdom Come requires you to suffer through land it in the stockade; until the developer brews up a comprehensive salve of patches and polish, you should avoid Henry's adventure like the plague.

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A Soulful Journey Through America

Wandering through the countryside, you hear whispers of devastation, unemployment, and dust storms that ravage people's homes. Other moments bring you courage in your tired journey, as you listen to a worker's hopeful song or watch hundreds of butterflies flutter overhead. Whether they're tragic, surreal, or humorous, each of these occasions are just as captivating as the next as you watch them grow into fantastical tales told around a campfire.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is an adventure game about sharing stories. After striking a deal with the devil, you're cursed to walk the lands of Depression-era America as a skeleton and collect the tales of its people. Both melancholy and thoughtful, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine paints a fascinating historical picture embellished by folklore, where the population is caught in dire times that cloud the American Dream. 

You spend your time walking from state to state visiting small villages and big cities that bustle with life. You can hitchhike or take a train to make travel easier, but this is still a slow-paced experience. That isn't a bad thing; the pacing is a perfect thematic fit, and it makes for a pensive experience that slowly provides twists and turns with every intriguing discovery. You visit rural areas often, finding interactive short stories in old mills, farms, and winding paths. Each takes only a minute or two to complete, telling you a strange tale about a camera that brings death to those it photographs or a simple story about a boy and the bond he shares with his dog.

Every short story you encounter is told with a beautiful illustration, and a gruff narrator helps build the scene. These stories present themselves as tiny text adventures, and as you continue to venture out, they become embellished as word spreads. It's always amusing to see what form an original story takes next and how much further it is from the truth, as though you're playing a game of broken telephone. For example, two men mistaking themselves for brothers later becomes ludicrously misunderstood as eight identical men from eight different mothers falsely believing that they're siblings. 

You also have agency in these tales, and a story's direction can change its tone completely. Helping a man find his lost glasses but choosing to steal his wallet in the process, for example, can turn an optimistic story dismal.

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The tone of these narratives becomes important when you encounter other travelers and sit by a nighttime campfire with them. This is the crux of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine's gameplay. Your collected stories act as currency in a series of interactions that progressively unfold through different chapters. This is a compelling concept that requires both keen planning and insight. You equip specific stories beforehand, and then during conversation, you choose them from a selection of tarot cards that have themed categories like authority and family. 

Every character wants something different, which brings a welcome variety. A young homeless boy abandoned by his family loves action-filled anecdotes, whereas a somber coal miner may prefer a lighter tale to remind him that hope still exists. My only gripe with these tales is that you can't listen to the vignettes again once they're completed, and with over 200 to collect, I sometimes forgot a story's message or tone. 

These fireside interactions, however, make up my favorite moments. The goal is to get characters to open up so that you can collect their stories too. They begin to trust you if you tell them the tales they wish to hear. In their ending chapters, characters' illustrations evolve into something symbolic, such as a priest struggling with his faith seen trapped in an angel's headlock. Others, like an African-American Pullman porter facing an identity crisis, is obscured behind crooked branches that hold white masks. I curiously awaited these transformations, eagerly wondering how these gorgeous artworks would portray a person's plight in a creative way.

Though much of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine's focus is storytelling, it also has some light survival mechanics. If you're not careful, you can meet an untimely death by overexerting yourself or letting your health get too low. Certain stories may physically injure you, and hopping a train without paying can leave you beaten by a cop. Accessing train stations in big cities requires cash, which you can acquire from odd jobs or sometimes by luck. Managing these needs and funds is a small but engaging addition, immersing you into the world and adding bigger stakes to decision-making.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a surprisingly beefy adventure game, offering over 20 hours of content and a treasure trove of stories that never cease to entertain. I laughed, reminisced about my own life, and enjoyed meeting the colorful cast of characters who opened up to me as time went on. Whether I was reminding travelers of their worth or offering an ear so they could share their sorrows, I felt as though I brought them peace in an almost spiritual fashion. Like a Grim Reaper collecting souls, I instead collected the essence of short stories, to help others struggling with demons find their way. It makes for not just a captivating experience, but an empowering one I won't soon forget.

Stripping A Solid Series For Parts

Metal Gear Survive is the first entry since Konami and series creator Hideo Kojima’s contentious split, and it shows. It features a non-canon, spin-off story and veers away from its stealth roots in favor of a survivalist approach. But while that might sound like heresy to fans, the most damning thing about Survive is how it squanders its own promise. It buries Metal Gear Solid V’s fantastic core mechanics beneath an abysmal campaign, skewed survival systems, and a tedious grind for resources.

Metal Gear is known for its intriguing, over-the-top geopolitical narrative, but that isn’t part of Survive. The story distances itself from the rest of the series’ fiction, as the Captain (you) gets sucked into a wormhole that opens up in the aftermath of the XOF attack on Mother Base at the end of Ground Zeroes. While that sounds interesting, the campaign spends far too much time justifying progression loops instead of constructing an interesting story, and the few tantalizing threads lead to tepid payoffs. If you’re looking for a plot that enriches the Metal Gear universe, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

The controls and mechanics of Metal Gear Solid V anchor most of Survive. Traversing Dite (a hellscape version of MGS V’s map) and sneaking up on unsuspecting zombies feels great. The Dust, a harrowing dark zone where your objective markers disappear and your oxygen drains, make missions tense as you’re constantly on the clock. Melee weapons are sometimes awkward to wield, but combat becomes more diverse and fun as you find new weapons, defenses, and traps.

Layered on top of this skeleton are various meters to manage as you build up your character and base. Survival is difficult at first; during my first dozen hours, where and how I’d score my next meal was always on my mind. While the idea of scavenging for food isn’t inherently flawed, your hunger and thirst drain too quickly. This constantly interrupts the fun of traversing Dite. It eventually gets easier to fill yourself up, but I still I spent large chunks of time wading through menus, figuring out the best way to feed myself and manage my resources and weapons.

The campaign was practically over by the time I had stocked my base camp with water, livestock, and staff, which made building them up unrewarding. They ultimately serve as pipelines for more resources, which is Survive’s primary reward for just about anything. You’re encouraged to keep playing after you’ve finished the main story, but aside from discovering a few secrets and opting into defending your base from waves of zombies, the post-game consists of tedious treks across Dite, doing the same rescue and scavenging tasks multiple times.

You also unlock new weapons and ammo to use, but they require too much micromanagement. Rare weapons are broken when they drop, and you must spend resources before you can equip them. Maintaining gear (which degrades with use) is costly, and even rare weapons become dull so quickly that I held off on using most of them until I had amassed the copious amounts of materials needed to maintain them. This killed the excitement of obtaining a cool new weapon, since I knew I’d have to grind out a few more missions before I could use it.

Co-op pits you and three other players against waves of bad guys, and it’s much more fun than playing the solo campaign. Coordinating with others to gather materials, build up defenses, run among various groups of enemies to fend them off, and tackle side missions presents of fun mix of things to do. Although you work with your team to get the most loot, you also need to be selfish. Killing enemies, completing side missions, and building up defenses scores points, and the winner at the end of each match receives a hefty bonus. This mix of cooperation and competition can be frustrating at times, as you sneak up behind an enemy guarding a side objective only for a teammate snatch up your rightfully earned points, but also offers a good incentive for everyone to pull their weight.

Unfortunately, you won’t be of use in co-op or get much out of it until you’re several hours deep into single-player story, since you have to progress through the campaign to unlock new maps. Though harder difficulties offer satisfying challenges (like defending two key objectives instead of one), the five current maps all share the same wave-based setup and aren’t enough to keep the grind for resources fresh.

This is when Survive’s microtransactions encroach on the experience. You can pay real money for extra character slots, as well as boosters to enhance your experience and resource gains. Common resources like iron and wood come easily, but rare materials are doled at low quantities, giving rise to a nagging urge to spend real money to speed up the process. Additionally, the time between waves in the single-player base defense can last as long as an actual day, but you can expedite the wait by paying real money (which is tempting when the next wave is set to arrive at six in the morning). You get a daily log-in bonus of currency, but the amount is pitifully minor; it takes days (and even weeks) to amass a useful amount with this approach.

Metal Gear Survive doesn’t fail due to its baggage or expectations. It blunders entirely on its own merits. Its co-op suite shows promise and could become legitimately great in time, but the rest of Survive is a boring, grind-heavy slog where the biggest reward is simply more stuff. For as many bits of metal, wood, and fabric I had after 70 hours of play, I couldn’t help but think I’d wasted all of my time.

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If You Give A Mouse A Mission

Moss represents an experiment inside the already-experimental world of virtual reality. It’s a third-person platformer, but it’s played from the perspective of a second character inhabited by the player. I have played games like this before – essentially an action game with an isometric camera, but Moss feels different because it is played in virtual reality.

You are the reader in Moss, literally sitting in a library reading the game’s story, guiding Quill the adorable mouse on a journey to save her uncle. She acknowledges you, and where reflective surfaces appear, you even see yourself as a masked spiritual figure. Seeing myself in the world for the first time was exciting. It made me feel involved in an interesting way, and demonstrates what VR (even when unevenly executed) can add to this genre.

The moment-to-moment gameplay has you controlling Quill as she platforms and climbs through the environment and occasionally unsheathes her sword to battle with enemies. The movement and jumping feel great thanks to Quill’s fantastic animation. She moves with amazing fluidity both in gameplay and in the custom cutscene animation.

She looks great swinging a sword, too, but the combat gets tedious fighting wave after wave of familiar enemies. I like the feel of battle, pulling off simple combos and quickly dodging attacks, but once you find your baseline tactic (slash, slash, dodge, repeat), Moss never gives you a reason to leave that comfort zone.

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As the reader, you also interact with the world directly, moving the controller to rotate platforms and move blocks. You also take control of enemies by hovering over them. This element is inconsistent, and I elbowed my chair frequently to get my hands into place. Every time the in-game icon would bounce around or not work properly, it would take me right out of the experience.

Quill’s story is a simple one. She finds a magical artifact that sends her on a journey to save her uncle and with its anthropomorphic animals in a medieval setting, it reminded me of Brian Jacques’ Redwall book series, which I loved when I was young. Quill’s journey is your focus, but the environments are littered with clues about the past, teasing that humans and advanced technology may have existed at one time. The final boss fight is satisfying, but it stumbles right at the end with a tease for a sequel. Wanting more from a story is usually a good thing, but in this case, the game held too much back and left me disappointed.

Moss struggles with some aspects of its VR implementation. Playing a video game with your neck isn’t particularly fun and the motion controls cause more trouble than they’re worth, but many moments are aided by wearing the headset. Seeing myself for the first time was a fun surprise, and directly interacting with Quill, like giving her a high-five after completing a puzzle, wouldn’t feel the same in a standard game. Despite its shortcomings, Moss is one of my favorite virtual-reality experiences, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Pulling Back The Layers

Simplicity and elegance go hand in hand in many mediums, and Into the Breach demonstrates that the same can apply for game design. After the remarkable success of FTL, Subset Games has crafted a follow-up that maintains the same structural progression and addictive replayability, but tacks away toward a fascinating hybrid of turn-based tactics and puzzle gameplay. The result is a cleaner and tighter game than FTL, and one that is more fun, strategically complex, and consistently rewarding. 

Kaiju-like giant monsters have devastated the world, but the distant and ruined future has given rise to technology that might have made the difference: vast mechs with the power to end the threat before it shatters humanity. In one threatened timeline after another, you travel back in time and save what you can. Into the Breach’s slick sci-fi hook feeds the endless loop of rogue-lite playthroughs that players confront. Each play session is filled with new weapons to acquire, like boulder flingers and lightning-tinged smoke. You receive new battle objectives to surmount, from saving a passing train to terraforming the land. Whether charging into a battle with a squad of flaming behemoths that singe the towering creatures to a crisp, or using positional powers that maneuver each beast into its ally’s line of fire, the flexibility of tactical options is continually impressive.

Across a series of distinctly tiled islands, players tackle one grid-based tactical battle after the next, each with semi-random events and procedurally generated layouts. The small 8x8 grid, countdown-to-victory turns on a given stage, low hit points, and limited weapon options on any given unit all combine to keep battles brief and constrained. But that constraint makes every action and unit on the board essential and powerful. Nothing is wasted, and almost every single turn can be a dramatic victory, or the end of your whole playthrough. 

In these turn-based encounters, enemies telegraph everything about their forthcoming actions, so each time your mechs can act, you’re faced with a devilish tactical dilemma facilitated by often-diabolical enemies. Frequently, the solution lies in finding that one narrow window by which you can avoid disaster for just one more round, like pushing a scenario-ending boss into the water in the last turn before he destroys an essential objective. While playing your turns at a lightning pace is possible, I had more fun examining each turn like an intricate puzzle. Sometimes, only after minutes of staring did I suddenly have that “aha” moment that would completely thwart the enemy and set up a perfect counterattack.

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At first, unit action options seem uncomplicated. Pull an enemy one space. Strike a distant target over obstacles, but only in a straight line. Punch something to move it back one square. But those easy-to-grasp fundamentals only get you so far; you never seem to have enough firepower to hold the line. Instead, the fascinating interplay between both your allied units and enemy actions save the day. Punch the giant bug into the line of fire with one mech, so your artillery can hit it again, and in so doing pull another baddie into a space where it inadvertently blasts another foe into corrosive acid. Nailing these intricate combos feels amazing. And because even a keen eye sometimes misses a crucial element, you’re given the chance to rewind time and restart your turn once every battle, helping encourage experimentation. 

Whether your playthrough ends in success or failure, each attempt leads to new achievements, mechs, and unique time travelers, which in turn opens the door to additional achievements the next time around that are attainable only with your newly acquired units. New options unlock at a steady and satisfying pace, demanding attention to objectives, but without long periods of stalling out. More importantly, new mechs dramatically change the way you play, helping every playthrough feel fresh and surprising. One squad might be built around damage-over-time, while another team is all about repositioning foes so they hurt each other.

As you make your way through one timeline to another, the other great triumph of Into the Breach becomes apparent – accessible, challenging play for virtually any skill level. Each difficulty setting is thoughtfully balanced and fun. Plus, you can make progress in your unlocks at whatever challenge level you choose. Once unlocked, you can confront any island in any order on subsequent playthroughs. After two completed islands, you can jump ahead to the final battle, or extend your timeline (and score) by confronting the remaining two islands; I love how this feature lets me curate my own session duration. That final island (in contrast to the inexplicable difficulty spike of FTL’s final boss) offers a tough-but-reasonable confrontation that scales to how many islands you’ve completed. 

Into the Breach demands concentration and lateral thinking, and some players may balk at the painful sacrifices that become necessary at higher difficulties, and how they arise from random factors of unit placement. Others may struggle at the necessity of such deliberate planning on each turn. But those are less faults of the game, and more variations in player taste. Subset Games has put together a carefully curated playground of tactical puzzles which hide behind a façade of simplicity. 

An Earnest Tale About Ordinary Love

Portraying love and relationships in games can be tricky, and developers often struggle with how much interactivity, or even significance, should be given to intimate moments. Florence, an interactive graphic novel, finds a powerful balance in its exploration of love, offering a breathtaking experience.

This breezy game puts you in the shoes of 25-year-old Florence, who is wrapped up in a mundane routine. She snoozes her alarm several times before waking up, mindlessly browses social media on the bus, and chats on the phone with her worrisome mother. When she meets Krish, a cellist whose music enchants her one day during a stroll, her world lights up. The relationship that unfolds has its share of ups and downs, as the two do a careful dance of growing closer and growing apart, making the game feel authentic.

Florence tells its story mostly without words and requires minimal interactivity, but this simplicity adds to its allure. For example, in several short chapters, you match pairs of numbers to help Florence’s productivity at work or interact with a slider to put images in focus to advance a scene. These moments make the experience smooth, like conversation flowing naturally between two love-stricken partners. The simplicity keeps the focus on the narrative, so that I could better enjoy Florence’s clever and creative methods of marrying its thematic visuals with interactivity without complicated or distracting systems.

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Florence doesn’t just excel at portraying good moments; it also appropriately enhances the tense scenes with distinct aesthetics and changes to gameplay. Florence’s simple color palette can make the world comforting, while other times it makes more striking colors pop to accentuate strong emotions. For example, Krish’s cello-playing is overwhelmingly alluring when Florence follows floating music notes that grow into a vivid yellow background, and arguments are jarring and uncomfortable when the two wear bleak grey attire as blood red speech bubbles zoom upward. 

These fights are especially well done, as you try to fit puzzle pieces into speech bubbles quicker than Krish while harsh music plays. Though failing to be quicker doesn’t come with consequences, it tilts your view like a sinking ship. This imagery immersed me, as I envisioned the argument like a fierce tug-of-war. I imagined what terrible things the two were saying to each other while tears fell down their cheeks silently.

Despite not having agency in the story’s direction, I felt a connection to Florence. I cheered her on as she discovered new inspirations, and felt a knowing pang of sadness as she brushed her teeth solemnly without someone by her side. She’s relatable in some of the simple ways all humans are – we all want to be loved – but she’s also young, idealistic, and finds passion through those she admires. It makes her plight more engaging and relatable. My interactions helped her through this snapshot of her life as I eagerly turned the digital pages of what felt like a personal journal.

Florence is a beautiful experience that isn’t afraid to tell an ordinary story. This isn’t an action-packed, heroic tale or a somber story filled with tragedy, but it still hits some of those notes in subdued ways. Florence is happy, distressing, and admirable in its reflection of young romance, and it left me with a sense of unexpected hopefulness.