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Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition HD Review - Nintendo Switch

Game Spot Reviews - Sun, 09/30/2018 - 20:28

On platforms where the full experience exists, Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition is in a strange position. The version of Final Fantasy XV released two years ago is a sprawling behemoth of a game where it's fully expected and encouraged for players to just meander around for the first three to five hours, getting to know Noctis and his friends, toying with the mechanics, and meeting the people of Eos. It's one of the scant examples of a game where an extremely pared-down experience--which is, ultimately, what Pocket Edition is--remains as engrossing and immense an experience as the average 30 hour JRPG designed to be such.

The main story and the fundamentals of the game’s combat are reproduced here, save a few minor narrative beats and some of the fancier gameplay flourishes, like Link Attacks. But regardless, it's still the story of the warring kingdoms of Insomnia, Niflheim, and Altissia. The three countries are on the verge of a peace that will only be solidified if Insomnia's King Regis signs a treaty with Niflheim and if the prince of Insomnia, Noctis, enters an arranged marriage with Lunafreya of Altissia. Noctis, still immature and lackadaisical about his future, is fond of Lunafreya, but not necessarily ready for the responsibilities that come with marriage, and as such, decides to take one last road trip with his three best friends, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus, toward the altar. When the signing of the peace treaty turns out to be a trap, leaving Insomnia devastated and the prince without a home to go back to, Noctis is forced to gain the divine blessings of his ancestors and claim his birthright ahead of schedule.

Like most demakes, a lot of Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition's charm is largely in seeing how it compares to the original game. In this case, FFXV's stunning locales and photoreal CG have been redone in a bright, abstract, cartoon aesthetic, akin to watching the game acted out by Funko Pop figures. There's an element of warm, familiar nostalgia to it all. Having to fill in the visual blanks of a heavy scene being played out by these expressionless dolls gives you the feeling that you’re just playing a souped-up 32-bit Final Fantasy game. The visual dissonance of blocky, polygonal Cloud mourning an equally blocky Aeris can very easily vanish when you're swept up in the moment. It's much the same here, watching giant-head Noctis grieve his father and the fall of Insomnia. It only stands out as dissonant because unlike, say, Final Fantasy VII, you've likely seen what a photoreal version of these same scenes looks like.

Really, losing nuance from the world itself is more noticeable than losing out graphically. One of Final Fantasy XV's greatest strengths was leaving a lot of narrative details about the world of Eos to the environment, hearing stories from the people you meet, overhearing gossip, and taking on sidequests. The vast majority of that has been stripped away. Also, the wide-open world has been pared down to an ongoing series of linear top-down maps. Pocket Edition's quest is, quite literally, a critical path only that only communicates the essentials, with very little ability or reason to wander off. Yes, that means no fishing, no photography, no Hunts, no Justice Monsters Five, no Formouth Garrison, no Pitioss Ruins, no messing around. Ignis' recipes are still part of the mix, but in a much more limited capacity. It says a lot about just how dense and layered Noctis' journey was to begin with that even having so much of the original game and its narrative jettisoned off still leaves enough material for a very traditional, linear JRPG to take place.

With these limits in mind, it's rather impressive how meticulously the most vital locations and story beats in the game had been reproduced. Having played the main game twice, it's a delightfully surreal experience seeing how much of the world I was able to move through by sheer memory, knowing where traps, shop, and enemy ambush locations would be long before the game decided to point them out. A new player will likely have to refer to the map fairly often, but each area, even the more twisty dungeons in the game, is small enough where the potential to get lost is diminished relative to the original game.

Combat is similarly streamlined, though this is the one area where the main game's depth is deeply missed. The fundamentals are, as mentioned, the same: hold the attack button and Noctis will spam attacks until you let go. You can dodge and roll out of the way, and you also have the Warp Strike, allowing you to close great distances and strike hard against a target clear across the screen. The arsenal is here, but there's far less actual thought that needs to go into the majority of encounters in the game. Only one magic spell can be held at a time, and there's a strange delay before Noctis can even cast it. Weapons like the Greatswords and polearms only vary in terms of striking speed, but generally do the same damage. And even when Noctis dies, with only a few exceptions later in the game, it's so much easier to either throw yourself a potion or wait for an ally to revive you. For most of the fights in the game, you're just holding attack and the left stick in the vague direction of the thing you want to kill. That likely made sense when Pocket Edition was solely a mobile title, but it's a bit undercooked on consoles.

Thing is, though, as flashy as it could be, combat wasn't exactly a shining example in the genre in the full game either. Final Fantasy XV's brilliance shone forth in the interactions Noctis had with the people of Eos, friend and foe. Family friends reappear in Noctis' life to offer guidance and comfort. Locals in every town have their own inner lives, surviving under the occupation of the Empire, and will gladly take Noctis on a tour of their town to see what life outside his kingdom is really like. The bounty hunter who tries to kill him while on a secret mission will later escort Noctis' group through a dungeon and speak honestly about her own government job for the first time. The characters, their stories, and how they all contributed to Noctis growing into the man he needs to be to become king were the soul of Final Fantasy XV.

All these things have been admirably translated, in a way far less intimidating to newcomers and logistically fascinating to veterans. You get the parts of that experience that count the most towards the narrative from Pocket Edition, and the gameplay, rudimentary it may be, has been as elegantly streamlined as possible to obtain that experience. This is still, ultimately, Final Fantasy XV, and while there's a lot of the game that you might want out of Pocket Edition, there's an argument to be made that this version of FFXV will serve you just fine.

Dragon Ball FighterZ Review: The Fast And The Furious

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 09/29/2018 - 22:30

Despite the countless Dragon Ball games that have appeared since the manga debuted in the mid-'80s, the series has never needed them to sustain its popularity. Most are forgettable, some are good, and even fewer are truly great. Thanks to developer Arc System Works' particular talents, Dragon Ball FighterZ is one of the great ones, if not the best yet. Even if you think Dragon Ball is old hat, and even if you're intimidated by fighting games, there's a good chance you'll be drawn into the explosive action and personalities that expertly evoke the anime's infectious spirit.

Arc's prowess for making 3D assets look like 2D cel animation is as strong as ever, and its artists display a clear understanding of Dragon Ball's characteristic details. The screen is constantly filled with saturated colors and special effects, and super attacks are framed in a way that pull you out of the fight and into a momentary state of awe. Whether still or in motion, FighterZ's art looks like Dragon Ball at its very best, adhering closely to the standards set by the series creator, Akira Toriyama. And no matter how you may have watched the show, the option to choose between Japanese and English voice acting makes it easy to feel connected to the events on-screen.

Within the convincing Dragon Ball shell lives a fast-paced 3v3 tag-team fighting game that will feel familiar to Marvel vs. Capcom 3 veterans. But despite a few familiar parallels, FighterZ is distinctly Dragon Ball. Characters can jet through the air in a flash at any time, toss energy blasts like it's nothing, and unleash a flurry of smaller punches and kicks to stagger a hesitant opponent. Every fighter emphatically shouts at the top of their lungs (in a good way) every few seconds while attacking, and you understand why: these super beings are incredibly powerful, and FighterZ translates that energy to the screen perfectly. It also makes it easy for anyone to tap into that power, with relatively short special attack lists and one-button or two-button activations for universal mechanics. Not that it's recommended, but you can theoretically play with one hand and capably close the distance to your opponent to kick their ass in style regardless of the character you choose--all without any directional inputs.

Like any great fighting game, FighterZ doesn't lose depth just because it's accessible. Super attacks and teleports are easy to pull off, but they come with timing and combo conditions that allow for expert-level analysis and strategic play. It's also important to properly manage the lone meter that fuels most of your special abilities, a setup that makes a fighter's next move more unpredictable than usual, compared to some games with multiple, ability-specific meters. With seven levels of charge that feed into both offensive and defensive moves, it's never exactly clear what someone will do next, but you know a full meter means trouble, and a potentially chaotic back and forth between two crack fighters.

It also means fun is just seconds away. Being that it's so simple to cover ground, participate in mechanical mind games, and look impressive while doing it, there's practically no barrier to enjoyment provided you are fighting with opponents of a similar skill level. When the balance of skill in your opponent's favor, with no means of escaping a combo once you're trapped, there are times when you have to accept fate and wait for them to finish their onslaught--or until your current character dies--again, not unlike MvC3. Thankfully, online matchmaking is set up to auto-match you with players of similar experience, and lopsided fights are (so far, based on the open beta) few and far between.

You also don't need to be an aspiring online competitor to enjoy FighterZ, as it includes a significant story mode that can last a dozen hours or more if you seek out every possible cutscene. While a bit drawn out in places and relatively easy until the conclusion, it's still a treat for Dragon Ball fans with plenty of new vignettes staring classic characters. Though the plot is split into three arcs, you are technically seeing one arc from different perspectives, with a few alternate events to keep things interesting.

The gist is that a bunch of clones of the planet's strongest fighters are running amok, Dragon Ball heroes and villains (some who have been resurrected from death) must work together to stop them, and a new character, Android 21, is somehow at the center of it all. Because there's practically zero time spent introducing you to characters or their world, it's difficult to imagine how a newcomer to Dragon Ball would understand things like the Ginyu Force's proclivity to pose dramatically or the reason why Krillin doesn't have a nose, let alone the broad concepts of Super Saiyans and Dragon Balls. Then again, the mix of oddball antics and hyper-serious face-offs is inherently appealing for the confident cartoon expression on display.

As in combat, Arc's capable design skills make the 3D models and environments in cutscenes look stunningly close to actual 2D animation. There are moments when it feels like you're watching a new episode of Dragon Ball Z. But there's a catch: you're forced to press a button to advance dialogue, rather than allowed to kick back and watch the show. When FighterZ gets achingly close to recreating the look of the anime, the forced interaction feels like a step in the wrong direction, albeit a minor one in the grand scheme of things. Generally speaking, story sequences often elicit a smile or a laugh, only occasionally feeling like filler made to advance the story. One of the most strange yet likable qualities is the way the game contextualizes you, the player: a spirit that has randomly inhabited Goku (or another character depending on the arc in question) and can be passed to other fighters. It's unexpected and weird, but you have to give Arc System Works credit for pulling you into the room as opposed to simply breaking the fourth wall.

FighterZ is complex and distinct enough to be enjoyed by fighting game competitors, but there's no question that it's been designed to tap into the hearts of Dragon Ball's most dedicated fans...

Story mode's only real downfall is how repetitive it becomes--you fight clones of only a portion of the game's overall roster ad nauseam. Each chapter is presented like a map with locations connected by a branching path. In order to get to the chapter boss, you have to navigate the board and pick and choose your fights along the way. Given that there are optional pathways in each chapter and that you can concoct your own team, it's not surprising to learn that there are optional cutscenes to unlock depending on these conditions. Despite the rewards being largely enjoyable, after a handful of hours fighting lackluster opponents, the idea of replaying story chapters to see a quirky character interaction is unfortunately one that's easy to sideline.

Similarly, the game's basic, small overworld feels unnecessary even though it attempts to add value. Modes are divided among spokes around a circular hub, and you can run around as small versions of the game's characters, sometimes in alternate outfits. While cute at first, you soon learn to just hit the quick menu button and avoid running around at all as there's no benefit other than visualizing visiting a different venue for each mode.

The game tries to incentivize you through unlockable avatars for the overworld, but even if this sounds good, you can only earn them through randomized loot boxes. You earn money as you fight and complete story mode milestones and these can be cashed in for a capsule which turns into a random cosmetic item, be it graphics for your fighter profile, the aforementioned avatars, or alternate color palettes for in-combat outfits. The premium currency in the game can be earned when you open a capsule to find a duplicate item. Spending premium currency will simply net you an item that you don't already own--not one of your choosing. Rather than harm the game, the system feels a bit unnecessary as none of the rewards are critical to enjoying what matters most: participating in explosive battles and enjoying interactions between Dragon Ball's lovably bizarre characters.

Though merely a small piece of the overall puzzle, the rare Dramatic Finishes are perhaps the most respectable and impressive nod to fans in FighterZ. Anyone who's spent years watching Dragon Ball Z unfold over nearly 300 episodes will gasp the first time they trigger one, which will only happen with certain matchups under particular conditions. They have nothing to do with FighterZ's story, but they have everything to do with the revered history of the series at large.

Any concerns that FighterZ might feel lackluster on Switch are immediately dashed once you begin your first battle. Fights remain ruthlessly kinetic, and the power behind every blow, sprint, and scream is as palpable as ever. There's an inherent disadvantage to overcome when playing handheld if you favor using d-pads over analog sticks, but otherwise FighterZ is immediately recognizable. It's partially due to the Switch getting a great port, but it's also a credit to FighterZ's efficient and flexible combat mechanics. Even if you're rusty it's easy to regain your flow in a matter of minutes. Despite mildly optimized graphics, FighterZ feels every bit the invigorating fighting game it was on other platforms, and it has the distinct advantage of bring portable.

FighterZ is complex and distinct enough to be enjoyed by fighting game competitors, but there's no question that it's been designed to tap into the hearts of Dragon Ball's most dedicated fans, and no doubt those same qualities will win people over who've never given the series a chance. Where past games attempted to get there through huge character rosters and deliberately predictable trips down memory lane, FighterZ has bottled the essence of what makes the series' characters, animation, and sense of humor so beloved and reconfigured it into something new: a Dragon Ball fighting game that can go toe-to-toe with the best of the genre.

Editor's note (Sept. 29, 2:30 PM PST): Additional text has been added to reflect our impressions of the Switch version of Dragon Ball FighterZ.

Editor’s note (Jan. 30, 12:38 PM PST): Shortly after release, Bandai Namco's servers were inundated with eager players, to the point that it was at times difficult to get into a lobby at all. This no longer seems to be an issue, though even when servers behave as they should, the hub world at the center of it all proves to make matching up with friends a more complicated process than it ought to be. Rather than simply inviting a friend into a match, you have to coordinate to make sure you both log into the same server, and the same lobby, before finding each other's avatars and creating a private match locked with a password. It doesn't take long to get used to, but it's also another sign that the hub world is an unnecessary complication.

FIFA 19 Review - A Game Of Two Halves

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 09/29/2018 - 01:10

FIFA 19 runs the gamut with ways to enjoy the game of football. Kick Off modes and on-pitch enhancements, as well as the ever-engaging Ultimate Team, make up the core of FIFA 19, and the new Champions League license adds a neat touch the package. Sadly, Career Mode and Pro Clubs remain stale and are in dire need of a refresh, on top of repeated missteps from previous entries. Regardless, it comes much closer to properly representing the game of football.

FIFA has struggled on the pitch in its past few iterations, with matches deteriorating to frustrating slogs. For years we've been unable to play FIFA like football is played in real life--instead we've been zig-zagging the ball up the pitch and abusing pacey wingers to breach the opponent's defence to swing in an unstoppable cross for an equally unstoppable header. FIFA 19's matches are more natural and more varied in the way they unfold, in large part because EA finally has all the pieces needed to make it so. Although it introduced a slower pace in FIFA 18, the newest iteration finally makes this work by tightening up players' responsiveness. Through passes work again, and they (along with player pace) seem to be in a good place in terms of balance--neither under- nor overpowered, as has been the case for too long. FIFA 19's ball still doesn't feel as satisfying as PES 2019's, but it does at least feel something like the real-life sphere it's imitating.

FIFA 19 includes new tactical options for wannabe managers to fiddle with, such as how many players you want to commit at corner kicks and whether you want your full-backs to over- or under-lap. These are undoubtedly welcome, and tactical changes in your defensive technique--press after possession loss, constant pressure, and drop off are among five options on that front--make a tangible impact in-game, allowing you to further tailor your play style.

However, the much-vaunted new feature of game plans is a bit of a mess. You can set up different tactics for various in-game situations before a match and then quickly switch between them on the pitch, but any change to one game plan, including your default starting plan, is not automatically reflected in your other four plans. So say you decide to switch your wingers over for one particular match or tweak your formation to counter an opponent's star player; that change will be lost if you change to attacking or defensive during a match. This isn't a dealbreaker of course, but it inevitably ends with you spending more time in the team management menu, which is exactly the kind of admin work this feature should have eradicated. And despite the added depth of options, the vast majority of AI teams still behave in a broadly similar (and often unrealistic) way--Wigan Athletic managing to pass their way out of my press with sublime one-touch football was a difficult one to take.

FIFA's brand of football is more physical this year, with strength becoming a far more important stat and crunching collisions feeling much more realistic. You can see and feel players battling for the ball, and goalkeepers are not quite as invincible from crosses as in previous years. Long ball tactics are slightly more viable than last year as a result--including, mercifully, from free kicks--and it feels satisfying for your target man to knock one down for your striker to smash in from 12 yards. Despite this, and the new tactical options, there's still no way to determine which players go up for corners and free kicks, meaning your 6' 6" center-back will still frequently be found on the halfway line at set pieces rather than getting his elbows out in the box where he should be. Timed finishing attempts to add more depth to FIFA's pitchwork for expert players, and while it can be a little temperamental and fiddly, it does add a nice risk-reward layer to what was an afterthought run on muscle memory.

Meanwhile, EA's implementation of the newly-acquired Champions League and Europa League licenses is excellent, with the official branding, specific commentators, and authentic atmospheres adding to the feel of this being club football's biggest event. The competition has its own mode in FIFA 19, as well as implementation in The Journey, Ultimate Team, and Career Mode, and to its credit EA utilizes the license in a much more comprehensive way than Konami ever did.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much it in terms of new Career Mode features, and this is where FIFA 19 suffers. Career Mode is the most in-depth single-player mode remaining in FIFA, and yet it has seen almost no meaningful improvements for years. This year the mode has not been touched at all, save for the implementation of Champions League, and the cracks are showing. That means you get the same "Boss, I was hoping you might be experimenting with the team?" messages; the same bugs and problems (such as the inability to loan out newly purchased players); the same typos and grammar errors in news reports; and the same lack of depth when it comes to club strategies like hiring and firing of staff or stadium expansions. Similarly, Pro Clubs is exactly the same this year as it was in FIFA 18, and it's hard not to sympathize with those who speculate around EA's shifting priorities, given how much ongoing attention the microtransaction-driven Ultimate Team receives in comparison. Frankly, two modes as big and popular as these receiving no new features or even any quality-of-life improvements is unacceptable, and EA needs to up its game in this regard next year.

Kick Off is where most of EA's offline attention was focused this year, with the introduction of detailed stats and some interesting new sub-modes contained within House Rules. These allow you to turn off fouls and offsides, turn on the battle royale-like Survival Mode--in which a goal results in one of your players being sent off--or disallow any goal not scored from a header or volley. These modes are shallow, and being available in local play only is a baffling decision, but they offer a nice change of pace for when you're playing with a friend. It's surprising how much rewiring of your football-addled brain they require; after 23 years on this planet appealing for offsides, it's quite hard not to scream "REF!!!" at the TV when my brother scores his fourth of the game, even when the traditional rules have been thrown out.

FUT's major addition this year is a new sub-mode named Division Rivals, a replacement for the now-cut online seasons mode. It's another, shorter way to qualify for the FUT Champions weekend event, and it adds to the ever-growing and -evolving behemoth Ultimate Team has become. Otherwise, Ultimate Team remains largely the same year-over-year, but the mode's strength lies more in its constant live support over the course of a season, which is shaping up to be exemplary once again. Champions cards, limited-time packs, daily and weekly objectives, special events and tournaments--Ultimate Team has something to draw you in every week, and it is truly the lifeblood of FIFA 19.

The Journey's third year sees the conclusion of Alex Hunter's story, but sister Kim and best mate Danny Williams join him in a GTA V-like three-pronged story. You can switch between the trio to play their individual storylines at any point, though there is a recommended path to follow that keeps their narratives vaguely in line with each other. Each character also has their own special features, such as Alex's choice of mentor squad at Real Madrid (spoilers!) or Danny's choice of advert he wants to take part in. The Journey's scripting and acting isn't exactly outstanding, but it remains a unique way to play, and I hope EA continues it after this Champions League special episode concludes.

Ultimate Team has something to draw you in every week, and it is truly the lifeblood of FIFA 19.

As impressive as FIFA 19's recreation of broadcast football is, there are a surprising number of details that remain inaccurate. You still don't get a fourth substitute in extra time, for example, and the double jeopardy rule--where a red card cannot now be shown inside the penalty area if a player is deemed to have attempted to play the ball--is still not applied in FIFA, despite these law changes having been introduced over two years ago now. Transfer deadline day still comes on August 31 in Career Mode, despite English clubs having the earlier close date of August 9 this season, and many teams that are not deemed one of the "big" clubs do not get third kits or away 'keeper kits. When the rest of FIFA's presentation package is so impressive, it makes these smaller, incorrect details stand out, especially when they appear to require small tweaks to fix.

It's promising that EA is listening to its community. FIFA 19 is much more responsive on the pitch than last year, and the company continues to evolve FUT to keep it fresh. However, the lack of progress in Career Mode and Pro Clubs is sorely inadequate. Thankfully, The Journey's continued entertainment, FUT's long-lasting nature, and some inventive new Kick Off modes mean I'll likely still be playing FIFA 19 by the time next year's game rolls around.

Transference Review - In Another World

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 09/26/2018 - 20:40

The pursuit of immortality has several avenues, but Transference settles with one of the most prevalent approaches in sci-fi: the ability to upload one's consciousness into a digital space. Should we do it if given the chance? That's the single question Transference grapples with, while also juggling themes of domestic abuse and troubled family dynamics. While it can be heavy-handed with its themes at times, it also neglects to engage with its distressing subject matter in a meaningful way. But Transference is also full of clever approaches to standard horror tropes, with an eerie atmosphere and challenging puzzles that engage you in its setting.

Transference switches perspectives between each member of a small family. Raymond is a brilliant but disturbed genius, using his intellect to pursue conscious existence after death without considering the impact his work has on his wife and son. Katherine feels trapped, compelled to remain with Raymond for the sake of their preadolescent son while losing her attachment to her musical career. Benjamin is stuck in the middle, attempting to impress his distant father and connect with his depressed mother. Their lives intertwine into a tragic tale of struggle, eventually taking a more dangerous turn for the worse when they find themselves trapped within the digital prison Raymond has constructed.

Intriguing puzzles within the confines of the cramped apartment move Transference's story forward. The ability to swap between different perspectives using light switches provides the crux of their construction. A radio, for example, might need to be tuned to specific frequencies across two different realities to relay a cohesive conversation. Keys for locked doors might be in one space and required in another. Exploring each version of this apartment is crucial to unravelling its puzzles, which evolve from simple find-and-fetch exercises to more perceptive challenges that test your attention to smaller details.

Each character has their own version of reality that populates the apartment. Benjamin's world feels lonely, with scribbles of his dog across some walls and numerous academic accolades hidden around the house. Katherine, on the other hand, envisions herself in a prison; the apartment's wooden doors change to more oppressive metal sliding doors, while pictures of cages are strewn across the walls to replace the whimsical scribbles of her son. Raymond's singular focus on his work unsurprisingly dominates his own reality, with only small slivers of his family life shining through his obsession with success.

These visual cues help you quickly piece together the troubles the family was grappling with before becoming trapped in a false reality, and it's clear there's substantial neglect, depression and domestic trauma lurking throughout. It's effective to see how each character paints the same reality in their own way, which is built upon with numerous FMV video logs that are strewn around the house for you to view. They obscure answers to the exact events that preceded their current dilemma, but each new titbit paints a grimmer picture of a sorely splintered family.

Strong performances from the limited cast ground each FMV sequence, which helps mitigate the jarring switch from gameplay. Their portrayal of each character's troubling circumstances contributes to the distressing atmosphere, with fears that feel extremely relatable without the reliance on common supernatural horror tropes. The only exception to this is the appearance of a digital demon whose only purpose is to provide scarce jump scares. There's no action you can take against it and vice versa, making each encounter more predictable and less frightening as you progress. It fails to provide a meaningful contribution to the more frightening themes of the story, before disappearing entirely without any real reason. Its existence feels unnecessary, shifting Transference's mood momentarily for no earned reason.

Transference also doesn't concern itself with commenting on its many themes. It uses these themes to aptly window-dress its creepy setting but settles just before it attempts to explore each of its characters deeply enough. There's a clear chain of events to follow by the time credits roll, but there's an unshakeable sense of dissatisfaction with its abrupt conclusion. Each of the characters is robbed of an ending to their story, with only an ambiguous final message that fails to provide answers or raise interesting questions.

Exceptional sound design makes traversing these different realities an even more terrifying prospect. While the FMV clips paint a grisly picture of past events, frequent sound cues instill a greater sense of dread with smartly timed shifts. Benjamin's cries for help are regularly broken by his screams; his fear of being trapped alone within a space populated by past traumas conveyed in chilling detail. Katherine's mutterings to herself are juxtaposed against her pleads for freedom--not only from her virtual reality, but from Raymond, too. Whispers and screams fill your ears constantly, creating an unnerving atmosphere that is unrelenting throughout Transference's three-hour runtime.

Transference is terrifying without a VR headset, but it's unsurprisingly more intense with one.

While Transference can be played in a standard fashion, it's also playable in VR, which enhances the experience. Being cut off from external visual and auditory stimuli makes you appreciate Transference's smart sound design and dimly lit corridors even more. VR support allows you to play with a fully unlocked camera or one that rotates by fixed amounts for more comfort, and the purposefully slow movement lends itself to VR play nicely too. There are no sharp movements that might otherwise induce motion sickness, and additional options that allow you to tweak blinders around your peripheral vision help reduce any negative effects of free motion control. Transference is terrifying without a VR headset, but it's unsurprisingly more intense with one.

A captivating albeit disturbing setting is Transference's greatest asset, rooted by strong performances from the cast and a smart approach to storytelling. Transference revels in its uneasy subject matter a bit too much, though, and fails to wrap up its messaging in a cohesive way. It's an uncomfortable experience that mostly doesn't rely on common horror tropes, while offering some challenging puzzles to solve along the way.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season Episode 2 Review

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 09/26/2018 - 20:10

Editor's note: Prior to the launch of Episode 2 - Suffer the Children, developer Telltale Games was hit with extensive layoffs and as of this writing is no longer continuing its existing projects. As The Walking Dead: The Final Season had four scheduled episodes, this review is reflective of those outside circumstances and evaluates Suffer the Children both as an individual episode and the potential end to Telltale's Walking Dead series. This review also contains spoilers for Episode 1 - Done Running.

There's a moment maybe two-thirds through Suffer the Children where the kids of Ericson Academy are sitting around playing a game, a sort of hybrid between the card game War and Truth or Dare. The youngest of the kids, Tennessee, is asked about a thought he has or a belief he holds that he doesn't tell anyone else. Tenn's answer is simple. History moves through ages: The Stone Age, the Ice Age, and so on. It stands to reason that the age of walkers would, eventually, come to an end just as simply as those ages transitioned into each other.

Nobody would've figured Tenn had been speaking so literally. Suffer The Children ends with the near-requisite cliffhanger, oblivious to the fact that Telltale may never get to finish what it started. Had Suffer the Children ended just 10 short minutes earlier, it would almost--almost--work as a best-case scenario ending for the whole series.

Episode 2 of The Walking Dead's final season begins the process of wrapping things up, making the potential endgame much clearer. It's a dire beginning, though, with Clem and A.J. dealing with the fallout from an out-of-nowhere bullet: A.J. doing exactly as Clementine taught him and aiming for the head. In this case, it's the head of Ericson's de facto leader, Marlon, even though Clementine had him subdued. Everything about the situation is a mess, and Clementine is left wracked with guilt and the horrific realization that, despite her best efforts, she may have raised a murderer.

It's a delicately handled sequence, making good on the Final Season's promise that A.J. is learning from Clementine, but perhaps too well. It's also a good representation of the beautiful inversion of the Final Season's moral outlook. So much of The Walking Dead's prior seasons had been spent trying to keep Clementine away from the abyss; this is the first time we're dealing with people who have known literally nothing else, something A.J. mentions after Tenn's musing during the card game. What is that world going to look like with blood on his hands at such a young age? What will it look like for Clementine, who has a lot more on hers?

That question gets an answer not long after, when Clementine and A.J. find themselves back on the road and running into a familiar and unwelcome face: Season 1's Lilly. Perhaps the first and most devastating case of the damage this world can do, Lilly has become a full-on survivalist. She's a member of a nearby community of raiders that has been secretly abducting kids from Ericson--with the deceased Marlon's help--to fight in an ongoing war with another community. The encounter is brutal, but it's the kind of wake-up call that both Clem and A.J. needed. Once they see what's on the other side of the abyss, the tone of the episode changes.

Of course, the walkers themselves are still a factor in everything that happens going forward. The dynamic zombie-killing mechanics introduced in Episode 1 remain a welcome and gleefully vicious change, though walkers aren’t as omnipresent as last time, and a particular sequence late in the episode involves Clementine slaying a horde of them with the weakest bow-and-arrow imaginable. But it's in the stretch of the episode where things have calmed down and the kids are just waiting for the raiders to come that the Final Season begins to truly blossom. While trying to prep the school for an invasion, Clementine finds herself stepping up to the plate to possibly lead this little city of lost children and keep them safe.

More than once, we see the group let its guard down with Clementine and A.J., revealing these are still kids and teenagers who can't help but have dreams and fears and childhood traumas that bubble up to the surface. There's an aura of hope, the perhaps naive belief that the kids are, in fact, going to be alright. You can play Clementine as angry, bitter, and cold, even to A.J., but the most wonderful and heartening moments in the season are gated behind that hope. A moment comes when Ruby, the ersatz nurse for the school, finds the actual school nurse trapped in a greenhouse, having turned long ago. Even after putting a knife through her skull, Ruby finds herself still wanting to bury the poor woman's remains. Earlier on, as the kids bury Marlon, A.J. wonders aloud what the point of a funeral is if the person is already dead. Here is the moment where Clem can practice what she preached. Here is the moment where Clem realizes that these are, and were, still people, not just walkers and those who haven't become walkers yet. Telltale is showing the light at the end of this dark tunnel, and it's a warm, wonderful thing to play as Clementine daring to imagine life after (walking) death.

We leave The Walking Dead on a Telltale firmly willing to make mechanical and tonal risks, nearly all of which pay off well in this episode, hinting towards a bright future we may never get to see.

The raiders do come, however, and it's a strangely magical moment. Clementine is full, accepted, prepared, and, if played just right, even loved, in a way we've never seen her. It's the moment we see Clementine as the person she's supposed to be. And she is ready for everything the world has in store for her--good and evil. It's the enduring image we should have of Clementine, if this is the last time we are meant to be with her. Not in peril, but in power.

But, as mentioned, there's another 10 minutes to go after that moment--a good 10 minutes, the aforementioned bow-and-arrow bit aside, but 10 minutes--leading to a cliffhanger. We leave The Walking Dead on a Telltale firmly willing to make mechanical and tonal risks, nearly all of which pay off well in this episode, hinting towards a bright future we may never get to see. If this is the last time we see her, the fact that she, and this series, have become what they’ve become is maybe the closest thing to a Happily Ever After as can be expected from The Walking Dead.

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 Review - What Doesn't Kill Us

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 09/26/2018 - 02:40

Politics ebbs and flows through Life Is Strange 2, whether or not the characters are always aware of it. Unforeseen circumstances upturn the lives of the Diaz brothers, and in typical Life Is Strange fashion, while the supernatural lingers around the edges, it's ordinary humanity that displays the ugliest sides of this heart-wrenching story. With a narrative that is unashamed to present a mirror to the most uncomfortable realities of the US in 2016, a diverse cast of characters who are fleshed out lovingly and respectfully, and mechanics that reinforce relationships between characters, the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 tells a story that deserves to be heard.

The plot begins a week after the final presidential debate between Trump and Clinton--and before tragedy strikes the Diaz family. You adopt the role of Sean, an artistic, sporty teenager with a tight-knit family supported by his single dad, Esteban. Sean's life at the beginning of the game is punctuated by his efforts to be a track star, begrudgingly taking care of his nine-year-old brother Daniel, and figuring out whether he should pack condoms for the party he's attending that evening.

Dontnod continues the pinpoint depiction of the teenage experience that it first displayed in the original Life Is Strange. Occasional unironic uses of words like "emo" and "BFF" rarely dampen the startlingly familiar conversations and texts between the game's primary characters. The messaging system which appeared previously in the series is back, and it's a delight to take the time to read each and every one of the dozens of texts in your backlog when the game starts. It informs the relationships between the characters and how they each see their place in the world; Sean's conversation with his best friend Lyla evolves from entirely believable teenage banter into a grim exchange over watching the final presidential debate, foreshadowing the sociopolitical climate that defines the events to come.

Conversations never occur in a vacuum, devoid of pre-existing relationships between the characters. Whether it's Sean commentating on how his Dad hates sushi but buys it for them anyway, or Lyla lamenting the price of therapists, Dontnod's writing makes almost every one of its characters feel like a fully realized person with their own fears, motivations, and intricate web of relationships. It's this writing, alongside the game's fierce attention to detail, which supports the strength of its overarching narrative and character development.

Interactions are also more dynamic and free-flowing than before. Changes in the world elicit a reaction from both Sean and those around him, which feels far more realistic and aids in grounding the characters in the world. If Sean switches on his music player he'll sing along to the cued up track from The Streets, and Lyla will comment on the music playing during their Skype call. Some conversations will even start automatically when you enter the range of a person who has something to say to you.

Small changes to the series' standard gameplay mechanics and their effects on the story deepen your immersion further. When the journey grows arduous, it's wonderful that the game lets you join in the boys' small moments of joy. While the brothers bounce on a motel room bed to Banquet by Bloc Party, the game ties your left mouse button to a camera zoom and mouse motion to bopping the camera up and down so you can jump along with them. The game's licensed tracks and original score by Syd Matters, who also scored the original, underpin the tone of the game and the internal states of the characters to great effect. There's a mix of teenage adrenaline, curiosity, and uncertainty in the score during Sean and Daniel's first foray onto the open road that does a good job of putting you inside Sean's headspace.

Sean can also observe and draw certain scenes in his sketchbook, an initially charming idea which unfortunately doesn't work in practice. While the "flick the left joystick about wildly" instruction is somewhat effective with a controller, these sections are almost unplayable with a mouse due to a lack of helpful feedback. There are a few other occasions where the presentation of the game and character reactions don't quite gel, such as Daniel asking Sean what kind of animals are in the woods after reading a sign that very clearly depicts a bear on it. Fortunately, these moments of disconnect are rare, and more often your interactions with the world are not only sensible but change what unravels later on in the game.

Much like the original game, the decisions you make will impact you and the people around you. This time around, your companion isn't a pot-smoking, blue-haired rebel, but your little brother, and he is impressionable. At one point you're given the option to purchase much-needed supplies from a general store. Your choices up to that point will have determined how much money you have and what supplies you already have with you. You can either buy what you can afford or opt to steal, but doing so will change the way your brother perceives you and his actions later in the game. His demeanor and actions will also change based on how you take care of him, how much respect you pay him, and the way you speak to others when he's in earshot. Scaring Daniel too much in the forest will give him nightmares later, while teaching him to skip rocks and bonding with him over being wolves brings you closer. This adds another layer to the care you put in when making choices.

The most striking and positive difference in Life Is Strange 2 is the diversity of its cast of characters and voice actors and the decision to tell stories from those perspectives. To Sean, who has lived in Seattle all his life, his ethnicity doesn't define the way he lives. Though, he and Daniel do giggle at a gas station flyer that claims to offer Spanish lessons and occasionally slip into Spanish, particularly when referring to each other. Sean's voicework, performed by Gonzalo Martin, doubles down on his characterization as a Latino teenager brought up in America. His accent is mostly American but with an occasional Mexican inflection, which is a lovely touch that grounds the character in his ancestry.

It's Sean's next-door neighbor that kicks off Sean's first major confrontation with racism at his doorstep. Esteban explains to Sean early on that "things are scary in this country right now." Sean's neighbor tells him to go back to his country, multiple characters say Sean is the reason they need to "build that wall," and one even threatens to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The tensest moments are heightened further by Martin's voicework, which shifts dramatically to a desperate, frightened delivery that brought me to tears more than once. It's wildly uncomfortable and heartbreaking being on the receiving end of confrontations which depict racism and witnessing police brutality.

While going into any more detail would be spoiling the story, Dontnod's deft and delicate storytelling style lends itself to depicting these important but rarely told perspectives with care, particularly in the face of highly charged and controversial issues. The commentary on a fragile and volatile modern-day America and how it impacts the people within it is a hefty, albeit admirable, undertaking. It will be telling how these issues are handled as the series develops through the episodes ahead. There were also some repercussions to my actions in the first chapter of Life Is Strange 2, but nothing that made me feel as if I couldn't recover from a bad choice; it remains to be seen what consequences may arise over the four episodes still to come.

As the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 concludes, Sean finds himself driving south, away from Arcadia Bay, the setting of the first game. The references to that town and all that happened within it are few and far between in the sequel, but the excellence in character and worldbuilding remain. Dontnod retains its expertise in depicting a teenager's unique struggles with their identity, relationships, and the way they fit into their world, while adding new gameplay mechanics that lend a stronger emotional investment to your decision-making. Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 is a triumphant first chapter, featuring a narrative that fearlessly reflects the lives of two Latino brothers living in our politically-charged climate.

Forza Horizon 4 Review - Vroom, Britannia

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 09/25/2018 - 08:01

Forza Horizon is a series that has always managed to deftly balance accessibility and complexity. It takes the realistic driving mechanics of Forza Motorsport but ditches the intimidating nature of professional racing and ruthless competition. Instead, it uses vibrant locations and positive vibes to amplify and celebrate the joys of driving--the giddiness of speed, the awe of vibrant scenery, and the spectacle of shiny cars. Forza Horizon 4 upholds this tradition. Meaningful changes add interesting gameplay considerations and improve progression flow, on top of its already accommodating difficulty options, a smorgasbord of vehicles, and a beautiful open world overflowing with activities. With Horizon 4, Playground Games continues to excel at making the act of virtual driving exciting, approachable, and entertaining without sacrificing complexity.

Horizon's fourth open-world locale is a version of Great Britain that amalgamates and condenses iconic regions of England, Scotland, and Wales, offering some fantastic terrain to explore. The rolling hills of the English countryside make cross-country driving more thrilling, the Scottish Highlands offer breathtaking highway routes, and the city of Edinburgh's windy, hilly streets serve as an interesting location for street races.

But the biggest change to Horizon is the introduction of seasons. Horizon's Britain cycles between summer, autumn, winter, and spring--and the weather in each season affects the world in tangible ways. These range from the obvious, like bodies of water freezing over, to the near-imperceptible, like the change in temperature affecting your tires. But seasons truly require you to adapt both your technique and your vehicle, and this variety produces a unique dynamic--the same dirt course you drive in summer will be boggy after an autumn rain, and asphalt roads will get slicker during the winter snow. In the first few hours of Horizon 4, the seasons will change after you've completed a number of activities, and this quick cycle reveals how necessary it is to consider and adjust your driving. But once you complete a whole cycle, the implementation of seasons changes: They'll then be tied to an online server, synchronized for all players, and will rotate every seven days.

Online functionality has a larger emphasis in Horizon 4--when playing solo, the game will discreetly connect you into an online session with up to 72 other players. You can also form a convoy of up to 12 people, as well as compete in ranked or unranked team adventures for seasonal prizes. It's still easy to focus on playing solo at your own pace, and you can still go offline completely and drive against AI. But Horizon 4's expanded online functionality does offer worthwhile activities to encourage you to connect with other people. Head-to-head races are more interesting against actual human beings, and the weekly change in weather comes with a selection of limited-time, season-specific races and championships as well as challenge missions.

Horizon also features recurring "#Forzathon Live" public events, which puts the call out to players in a session to gather together and cooperate to hit a combined score pool in a certain activity. You'll earn currency to spend in an exclusive Forzathon shop if you're successful, but these events become tedious quickly, as you'll be running the same activity--like a single drift zone or danger jump--repeatedly until the group hits the score target.

But the missed opportunity of Forzathon Live events is just a tiny scuff in Horizon's otherwise comprehensive and inviting gamut of activities. Irrespective of online seasonal events, there are a large number of vehicular disciplines to pursue, the majority of which allow you the great flexibility of shaping a race around your vehicle of choice--though you'll still need to use your best cars to perform well in things like speed and drift challenges. You're also now able to create your own custom courses, and the series' more creative pursuits return with story missions--which feature things like stunt driving and nice homages to other racing games--and the entertaining, if highly choreographed, showcase races against things like planes, trains, and Halo's Warthogs.

Progression has changed from Forza Horizon 3--you no longer expand multiple festival sites to uncover activities. Instead, each discipline has its own corresponding progression meter. Participating in a particular kind of activity enough times, win or lose, will eventually level up that discipline, reward you, and unlock more activities of that kind on the map. It's an exciting and friendly system that stretches you out to the furthest reaches of the world quickly, makes it feel like something new and interesting to do is always nearby, and rewards you no matter what you decide to participate in and how you perform. Even after hours and hours of play, Horizon 4 kept revealing surprises by introducing brand-new styles of activities, keeping the game's flow feeling fresh.

It always feels like there's a reward in reach, too. With both individual meters for disciplines and an overall progression meter, you're often just a couple more races away from earning a level-up prize. The slot machine-style wheelspins also return, now with a variant that lets you pull for three prizes, and thankfully they still remain siloed from any real-world monetary transactions. Horizon 4 has a larger variety of potential rewards, too. The bigger focus on online interactions means driver customization is a big deal, which throws hundreds of unisex clothing options, quick chat phrases, and dance emotes into the pool. This means you might occasionally get a boring prize like a pair of shoes, but the pace of compensation is steady enough to make this negligible and also makes the rare occasion of nabbing a free car all the more satisfying.

Horizon 4 boasts 100 more vehicles over its predecessor, with a total of 450 in the base game. While Japanese car enthusiasts will definitely notice the absence of Mitsubishi and Toyota vehicles (no more Initial D Sprinter), Volkswagen has held over from Motorsport 7 (bringing classic Beetles, Kombis, and Golfs), as have a few new vehicles like racing trucks. Once again, Horizon features an array of tinkering options for enthusiasts, as well as auto-upgrade options and a number of accommodating driving assists for those who'd rather only think about accelerating and turning.

Regardless of how you drive, vehicles feel weighty, handle believably, and each one now has its own individual perk tree. Earning skill points while performing both reckless and prudent driving maneuvers will allow you to unlock nodes that add buffs to your skill point accumulation, or earn one-off rewards like wheelspins or influence (the game's experience measure). It's a great change from Horizons 3's global skill tree, because it encourages you to stick with a vehicle, get to know it intimately, and have the advantage of a higher rate of reward. Skill points come readily if you're driving at least somewhat competently, and you're free to use points you earn on any vehicle, which makes swapping your go-to car less of a blow to your progression if you've already banked some extra points.

Horizon's global perks have been transferred to another new feature, Properties, which replace festival sites as your garage and customization hubs. Finding and buying properties around the map is relatively expensive, but the perks some contain are useful, and properties all act as valuable fast travel points. Fast travel still costs you in-game currency, at least until you find and break all 50 fast-travel boards, but Horizon 4 does make other very welcome improvements in the interest of accessibility and quality of life, including the ability to change cars for free and at any time.

There's such a diverse range of activities stuffed into every corner of Horizon 4, and meaningful changes contribute to smart driving dynamics and a more consistent sense of achievement. Everything you do in Horizon feels valuable, no matter how big or small--from the basic thrills of speeding a fast car down a gorgeous mountain highway to spending time tinkering with your favorite ride to manage seasonal road conditions to just hanging out with friends and strangers online and goofing off in friendly games. The charm of the Horizon series is as palpable as ever, a winning, all-inclusive recipe that celebrates the joy of driving above all else.

Star Control: Origins Review - Space Oddity

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/20/2018 - 18:00

Star Control II was released in 1992 and remains notable for its bold amalgam of seemingly disparate ideas. It combined space exploration, arcade combat, resource management, trading, questing and chatting with aliens in a way that suggested its creators were still eagerly discovering what a game could be. This reboot, from strategy game developer Stardock, is a mostly faithful adaptation. It delivers an expansive galaxy steeped in mystery, knowing sci-fi winks and modern interface convenience, but as a genre mashup it can at times feel shallow and the overall experience is uneven.

Star Control: Origins begins with the human race donning its crisp and immaculately tailored Star Control uniform and making first contact with alien life. Within moments you find yourself appointed captain of the only ship in the human fleet equipped with a hyperdrive and thus entrusted with representing your species in the fledgling field of galactic diplomacy. This is no lavish 3D space sim a la Elite Dangerous, it should be noted. Most of the time you'll be looking at a flat 2D starfield as your ship putters around the galaxy. In combat, it looks much the same, and all conversations are shown as cartoonishly animated 2D scenes with plenty of text. Elsewhere, there are sector maps to analyze and ship upgrade blueprints to pore over--even a hyperlinked captain's log that records all your discoveries. The presentation definitely leans heavily into the strategy portion of its genre mashup.

It quickly transpires that there are a lot of aliens in the galaxy, many of whom are well aware of the existence of humans and, let's be honest, seem surprised we're capable of rubbing two sticks together, let alone piloting a vessel between stars. Some of the aliens you meet will be friendly and keen to support your endeavors with advice, extra ships, and fuel top-ups. Others will be less friendly, interested in either taking advantage of your interstellar naivety by sending you on errands in exchange for their favor or shooting you on sight.

Aliens are painted in broad strokes, each species distinguished by their physical appearance and one or two glaring personality traits. The Mu'Kay are squid who are good-natured but really hate (and eat) fish, for example, while the Tywom are hapless but well-meaning slugs who have resigned themselves to being the most boring species in the galaxy. There's little nuance to the way each alien species is portrayed--they're all glib sketches with one element exaggerated for comic effect. Despite this, the writing is consistently excellent, regardless of whether you're hearing from an important quest-giver or generic NPC. A nice line about quirky details, good comedic timing, and the odd genuinely good joke elevates each alien beyond mere caricature. Encounters, even those that end in violence, are always played for laughs, resulting in a lighthearted, almost jovial tone that belies the starcharts and spreadsheet-style presentation elsewhere.

When you're not chinwagging with your new extraterrestrial friends, you're probably being pelted with laser fire by the Skryve or the Drenkend or one of the other new enemies you've offended by poking your helmet beyond the Milky Way. Combat plays out on a discrete 2D arena where you battle one-on-one with an enemy ship. There's some strategy here as you weigh up the odds of your weaker ships winning versus the likelihood you might need to save your better ships for the next fight. And there's some skill required to make effective use of each ship's weapon loadout and handling, as well as managing the power-ups scattered around the arena.

But for the most part, as a top-down shoot ‘em up duel where you only control one ship with two weapons, combat feels too slight, too simplistic, a deficiency exacerbated by the frustratingly erratic AI behavior that sees it veer between unerring accuracy and blundering idiocy for no discernible reason. It's as infuriating when a weaker enemy ship hits you with every single missile as it is hilarious when the next enemy ship blows itself up by repeatedly crashing into asteroids. You can't skip combat if it's not to your taste, though you can outfit your ship with an upgrade that leaves combat to the AI--and leaves you to suffer through watching it. I spent an hour or so saving up to buy the AI-controlled fleet upgrade, only to disable it immediately after despairing at how its idea of an effective combat maneuver was to follow the enemy ship in a circle and hurl itself at every proximity mine the enemy dropped.

Throughout, Star Control: Origins is at its weakest when trying its hand at arcade-style action. When you reach a new planet or moon, you can launch a lander to explore its surface, quite literally dropping you into a mini-game where you have to guide your vehicle through the atmosphere to the target landing zone. It's all over in a matter of seconds, and the only challenge is that sometimes a strong wind will blow you off course--a hazard that can be mitigated through lander upgrades.

Once on the surface, you drive across the dinky sphere, collecting resources and avoiding or shooting hostile droids and creatures. Much like the combat, it's a simple affair, but there's a certain fastidious pleasure to be had from strip-mining every last trace of neutronium from the earth. Yet it can also become tedious as the limited cargo capacities of your lander and your ship conspire to force frequent (and lengthy) trips back to the nearest spaceport to sell your loot in order to maintain the grind.

Soon, however, you'll stumble upon a point of interest on one of these spherical excursions and find yourself triggering a new quest to investigate a crashed ship or a mysterious distress call or pick up a lead as to the whereabouts of a post-human sect known as the Lexites. Before you know it, you're charting a course to a new system, filled with optimism about what you'll find on the next planet, what ship upgrades you'll soon be able to afford, what adventures the next alien you meet will inspire.

At its best, Star Control: Origins urges you to poke and prod into every corner of its intimidatingly vast galaxy, searching out ancient secrets and pun-filled absurdities. At its worst, it drags you through mediocre arcade sequences and generic grind. Genre mashups are far more common today than they were in 1992, but striking the right balance between adventure, role-playing and arcade action remains as tricky as ever.

Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/20/2018 - 17:48

Editor's note: Almost five years after its PC debut, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse has come to the Nintendo Switch, bringing its challenging variety of point-and-click adventure puzzles and complex but compelling narrative to the portable system. With it comes some elegant touch screen controls that make poking around the beautifully drawn and detailed environments feel more natural, though you can jump back to using the Joy-Con at any time, switching between the two methods without opening a menu.

As you progress through the familiar but still fascinating story you'll also unlock Switch-exclusive bonus movies from a making-of documentary about the game's development, including some great looking concept art. Even now, Broken Sword 5 still looks gorgeous, and although its murder-turned-conspiracy story feels somewhat rote these days, its characters and dialogue are still great fun to watch as the drama unfolds. The pick-up-and-put-down nature of a point-and-click adventure works especially well on Switch, and the excellent use of touch screen controls enhances the experience even more. -- James Swinbanks, 9/20/18 [We have updated the score to reflect our experience with the Nintendo Switch version. The original review follows below.]

You mainly play as George, but you switch between him and Nico while investigating.

A murdered art gallery owner, a helmeted assassin, and a missing painting. It's just another beautiful day in Paris, and for George Stobbart and Nico Collard, a brand-new case to be solved. After a seven-year hiatus and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the best-selling Broken Sword series has reemerged. Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse ushers the return of the franchise's protagonists, along with a host of favorites.

It has been quite a while since George and Nico have joined up to solve a case, and in that stretch of time, the two seem to have pursued their own ventures: George has become an agent for an insurance company, and Nico is continuing her career as a globetrotting journalist. But a tragedy strikes, leaving a man murdered for a painting that was worth considerably less than others in the gallery. Since it was George's company that insured the showcase, he feels obligated to uncover the reason behind the theft and find out what makes this painting important enough to kill for. The crime-solving duo are soon reunited and thrust into a murderous conspiracy, armed only with George's astute problem-solving skills and Nico's feminine charm and sharp wit.

The story weaves a smart, fascinating, and often humorous tale. George and Nico's latest adventure is fraught with murder, sabotage, and a seedy love affair, with just enough room for an ex-Russian mobster and an assassin or two to be thrown into the mix. You switch between the two characters as they follow a trail that has them trekking through France and London chasing down leads. As you progress, the plot begins to revolve around an age-old conflict between Gnostic and Dominican Christians, and at its epicenter is the painting: La Malediccio. The painting hides more secrets than what can be seen on the surface, and may be the key to an impending epidemic that threatens all life.

Broken Sword 5 follows the series' roots as a point-and-click adventure; you use the mouse cursor to control movement as well as to manipulate objects in an area, speak with people, or use items in your inventory to solve a puzzle. Like in many games in the genre, you pick up items and bits of evidence and store them. You use evidence to drag the truth out of people or suspects, while other items, even the most miniscule, such as a paper clip, 1970s cologne, or nail clippers, can be used or combined to solve puzzles down the line.

The two sleuths hop back and forth between Paris and London.

The order in which you procure these items is up to you. At times, you may only have a few clues, leaving you to scour the environment for more evidence necessary to drag information out of your target. Typically, all the evidence required to move the plot along is in your vicinity, if not already on hand. Any and all items in your inventory can be used in a conversation, sometimes to humorous results.

The puzzles in Broken Sword 5 are not too strenuous. Most of the time you already have everything in your inventory needed to complete a puzzle; otherwise, a quick hunt around the area yields what you need. The game plays a musical note when you're making progress in a puzzle or in your interrogation, cluing you in on when you're on the right path. The plot doesn't advance until you find every item or piece of evidence in the area, press the right series of switches, or receive an answer to all questions available. But if you do find yourself stumped, there's an optional hint system. The first hint or two gently nudge you in the right direction. If you still come up empty, the final hint presents the puzzle's full solution.

The various settings are designed with colorful, hand-painted graphics, and the cel-shaded characters blend effortlessly into the gorgeous scenic backdrops. Though Broken Sword 5 is aesthetically pleasing, it's hard not to notice the stiff and somewhat primitive animations, which are distracting compared to the game's overall beauty. Broken Sword 5's rich and vibrant world is complemented by characters who are interesting, entertaining, and often hilarious. The subtle nuances of their personalities shine through every conversation, and a great vocal cast makes each character believable and memorable.

George and Nico's latest adventure is fraught with murder, sabotage, and a seedy love affair.

Some of the standout characters include the returning Sergeant Moue, who plays lapdog to the bumbling Inspector Navet. There is also a stereotypically snooty Frenchman who stands guard at an empty cafe while quoting philosophical advice. Also starring are a lecherous art critic and a young man who needs presentation advice for his mobile shop of trinkets and collectibles. The many varied and unique characters reinforce the depth of the game's narrative, and the two protagonists demonstrate a particular chemistry that makes their longtime history feel convincing.

You are provided with an in-game map, but Broken Sword 5 keeps aimless wandering down to a minimum. There was never a moment when I stared at the map screen not knowing my next destination. Even when you choose the wrong direction, the game comes up with a reason for you to turn back and try the opposite route. Some adventure game fans may be turned off by the linear focus, but I felt the design allowed the narrative to move with a strong pace and clear direction.

George Stobbart is back with a new mystery to solve

Just how deep the rabbit hole goes is the one mystery Broken Sword 5 doesn't shed light on. After about six hours, the game abruptly ends just as things start heating up for our stalwart heroes, leaving more lingering questions and theories than hard answers. The game is the first episode of a two-part adventure, meaning we won't get to the bottom of the conspiracy until sometime early next year.

Smart, occasionally funny, and immediately charming, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse is easy to recommend based on its strong narrative, memorable characters, and artistic merit. The game is a vibrant return to form for the series, and should easily please the series' and point-and-click adventure game fans alike. The answers to the most pivotal questions remain on the horizon, but it's still good to see George and Nico back in action--they have been missed.

The Gardens Between Review - Dance Among The Stars

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 16:00

A game that can be completed in a single sitting is an opportunity to experience an idea from start to finish without external factors getting in the way. It could be a boss rush that's just a gauntlet of the meanest brutes around, or it could be a touching tale that makes the most of its brief runtime by getting to the heart of the matter. A short-format game risks wrapping up before its time has come, but paced properly, it can be the perfect fit when the right idea comes along. In the case of The Gardens Between, the heartfelt interactions that play out on-screen between two friends on a sentimental adventure make the game the definition of short but sweet.

It begins one dark and stormy night, when as if by magic the two friends are pulled into a strange world while hiding from the rain in their cozy treehouse. They materialize on a planet dominated by water, and the islands they sail between using their treehouse-turned-boat are manifestations of their memories, recreated with real-world objects. Supersized couches and knick-knacks function as structures and obstacles in the imaginary dimension, and sometimes as mechanisms used to solve puzzles. Your goal on each island is to reach the end of a path and deliver an orb of light--a process that solidifies the friends' memories as constellations in the night sky.

Though you can influence each character's actions, you don't directly control their movement. Rather than move them to and fro, you can shift time forward and backwards, and the two characters will walk along a path in kind. They each possess a distinct ability--one can carry a lamp to transport orbs of light, and the other can activate switches that reconfigure puzzle-related elements in the environment.

The environmental puzzles run the gamut from simple cause-and-effect scenarios to unorthodox headscratchers that require the use of dreamlogic. In practically every case the necessary hints are right before your eyes; shifting time to and fro and paying close attention to the way things change is often all you need to deduce a solution. The trick is usually the manipulation of objects that are free from time's grasp in conjunction with finding the right moment in time to let them loose.

Without these puzzles The Gardens Between would struggle to last an hour, yet despite being modestly challenging and inventive, they somehow feel unimportant in the grand scheme. There is no context for their existence as obstacles other than being opportunities for two friends to cooperate, but the tiny doses of narrative at the end of each island reflect the objects in the scene rather than the efforts used to pass through it. Puzzles are the "gameplay" that allows you to play a part in the two characters' journey and in a way make the realization of each memory feel earned, but they fall by the wayside when the spotlight is focused on the two teens.

Though the world they venture through is full of creative touches and small magical moments, the two characters own every moment. From the way they subtly peep at one another while crossing paths, to the adorable gestures they use to point out helpful objects in the distance, their body language clues you in to their special bond. They say so much without ever uttering a word. Their cute and quirky selves are infectiously adorable, and before you know it, you've tumbled head over heels into their world and ultimately the formation of a new, unforgettable memory by the end of their journey.

It may only take two to three hours to see everything The Gardens Between has to offer, but the warm and fuzzy feelings from start to finish ensure that your memories of playing it will live on. The expressive faces of the two teens and the relatable memories they share will speak to anyone who's ever had a close childhood friend, and while the puzzles won't go down as the most ingenious or demanding, they nevertheless give you more time to spend frolicking in a nostalgic and heartwarming world where friendship is all that matters.

Wasteland 2: Director's Cut Nintendo Switch Review

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 09/18/2018 - 01:27

One of the most beautiful facets of Wasteland 2 is its wistful, austere writing. Taking lots of inspiration from tabletop RPGs, Wasteland 2 masterfully brings the best bits of open-ended roleplaying games to the digital realm, bringing the genre's hallmark nuanced scenarios, deep roleplaying, and rich, atmospheric description along. Several years after its release, it's coming to Switch, and even now it's among the best in the recent roleplaying crop.

The Director's Cut, an updated release that was a free upgrade for most console players, is the edition getting the Switch treatment. There are thousands of lines of added spoken dialogue, but the text still does most of the heavy lifting. The bigger additions are the smoother graphical presentation as well as having more minutiae with which to customize your characters. Perks and Quirks, for instance, give you the option to swap a boon for some persistent disadvantage. While that sounds counterintuitive in a video game, it pays dividends in the actual role-playing: It gives you the ability to further refine your squad and encourage yourself to think a bit outside the box as you work around the traits. For some, that might be a turn-off, but Wasteland 2 embraces it.

You are, from the start, invited to craft your own troop of folks with whom you will travel the wastes. You can (and probably should) come up with your own backstories and use those to build out your squad. You don't have to, of course, but having a written paragraph or two, as well as hand-crafted motivations, Wasteland suggests, will help tie you to the world and your team of avatars. And damned if it isn't dead-on. While Wasteland 2 definitely offers up a decent chunk of narrative assistance for those who want to keep things simple, this is an adventure that pleads for you to give your all and is willing to reward the effort.

As you might suspect, your squad's goal is to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And, as is so often the case, it's obvious that the end of civilization came in the nuclear flavor. Soon after the opening, your crew joins up with the Desert Rangers, one of the only semblances of civilization that has emerged from the chaos.

Your group struggles alongside the people you encounter, and you can be assured that their lives are exactly as dour as they seem. By giving the people you encounter such depth--which, admittedly, still can often descend into cartoonishly exaggerated moral extremes--it can be a genuine struggle to be cruel. Still, kindness isn't the panacea you'd perhaps hope.

One moment stood out to me when I first played Wasteland 2, and it's just as haunting today. As I wrote in my original review: "One particularly tough scene had me slowly watching a woman die as she begged my squad to put her out of her misery. Trying to show an ounce of mercy in an otherwise cold and macabre place, I agreed. A child saw me and ran to tell his family--another group I had agreed to help by finding their stolen pigs. They were terrified of me, and left their home without food and water. They probably died."

Those consequences are made all the richer by your investment and your choice to engage with what the game has to offer. There is an unusually broad number of solutions to just about any problem, and it's often better to examine as many possible angles as you can before acting. Still, there's an anarchic resignation that underpins everything. No matter how you act, you'll often cause collateral damage. That posits a rather severe world, but then again, this is a hypothetical where people really did poison the planet and vaporize one another.

The fuzziness of it all tests your characters, too. And they can (and should) be rewritten as you go. Wasteland 2 doesn't just hit you with these conditions to wear you down, but to see how your characters respond. This is trying, it is exhausting emotionally for your crew. How do they handle that? Will their spark of optimism be ground away by the relentless struggle, or will it live on? More importantly, why?

The breadth of options to approach any given scenario or various other challenges is vital to backing that up. While the game has been touted as one where you can kill absolutely everyone, that really isn't wise and is a self-indulgent waste. In much the same way, it is possible, however unlikely, to make it through just about all of the game without killing people. That's less exciting for many, but it highlights the real point. The array of choices you can make are a means to an end--how would your character respond to this grim world?

To that end, combat is also remarkably diverse. In much the same way that your team can flex to meet the needs you encounter, combat, too has a lot of different ways to approach problems. At its most basic, when you shift into fights, you'll be arranged into a turn order and you proceed maneuvering through the area until all hostiles have been dealt with. Non-lethal options exist, but many of your foes are mutants, robots, and other rough-and-tumble, battle-hardened mercenaries. Maintaining control of the field against enemies willing to pull out high-yield explosives is a challenge, to say the least.

But that also hints at the relevant outcomes from the fight. Wasteland 2 is an RPG first, and your battles will have narrative consequences. As a result, your goals are often a little more refined than "blow it all up." And those going that route will be hard-pressed to care for the members of their team, who are just as vulnerable to the searing hot shrapnel from a stray grenade as your target is--so what you have is an array of options that are constrained by practical considerations.

Wasteland 2 seamlessly translates the myriad diplomatic and social options into a wide set of combat styles and approaches.

How much collateral damage are you okay accepting? How much risk are you willing to accept? When your crew starts bleeding out, will you run a medic over to patch them up, putting both at risk, or press the offensive? These options also have their own contexts within the narrative. How you use your party's skills to address puzzles and challenges in the main arc will have a big effect on if and when someone comes after waggling their creaky, rusted rifles.

Wasteland 2 seamlessly translates the myriad diplomatic and social options into a wide set of combat styles and approaches. Once again, more investment in the weapons your team carries and uses yields dividends. Having a few different types of weapons and the ability to support each, as well as an understanding of how to use them, allows your group to tackle just about any problem--regardless of whether they marched into or couldn't talk their way out of it.

In fact, the only substantive complaints are longer-than-comfortable loading times and the lack of extensive touchscreen support for the Switch edition. Given that much of the combat is tactical, and that a touchscreen works as a damned fine substitute for a mouse, the feature is an apparent omission that prevents the Switch version from being the best yet.

Wasteland 2 is still a very special outing. If you haven't spent your time in this irradiated desert just yet, this is one of the best times to do so--especially since the portability of the Switch reissue lets you take the journey on long treks of your own, or as a dense RPG to curl and nestle in with, as you might with an excellent book. On such a screen, the interpersonal dramas feel a bit more intimate, the tension of sneaking your way pay this or that NPC a bit more tangible. Plus, in the Switch's handheld mode, the rather dated-looking visuals aren't so grating. All-told it's a phenomenal port and still one of the better RPGs in recent years.

Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner - MARS Review

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 09/14/2018 - 23:00

Zone of the Enders got a bit of a bum rap as a series overall, being more famous as the game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo than anything else. Those with the patience, however, would discover one of the most distinct mech games of the day, with more than a heaping dollop of trademark Hideo Kojima madness therein. The 2nd Runner is an improvement on the original in many ways, to be certain, but held against modern standards, Zone of the Enders comes off awful rusty.

There is a story, but it's nigh incomprehensible, even with the caveat that Kojima's fingerprints are all over it. Having prior knowledge of the original doesn't help much either. Basically, two years after the events of the original Zone of the Enders, a miner named Dingo Egret on one of Jupiter's moons finds the frame-mech hero, Jehuty, buried beneath the surface. When the evil army BAHRAM nearly kills Dingo trying to retrieve the armor again, Jehuty is forced by a rebel spy to join with Dingo, keeping him alive using the mech's life support until they complete their mission of blasting the army straight to hell.

Ideally, you'd be able to simply barrel past the story and get to what's good, which is the mech combat, but The 2nd Runner's pacing stutters along. Every stride the game hits is interrupted to deliver more nonsensical ranting on unstoppable power, duty, and the nature of war. Soured even further by English voiceovers that are one step removed from Symphony of the Night-level broad theatrics, the story is a irritating rash all over what should be a fairly straightforward mech combat experience.

Simplicity, really, works in the game's favor. You have a sword, a laser, a rocket-assisted boost, and a shield. Each stage progresses on a fairly linear path, with tiny corridors and loading areas opening up into massive arenas where, for the most part, you're expected to kill everything that moves. Your enemies are generally either flying grunts around Jehuty's own size that go down easy, or swarms of tiny annoyances you can take down en masse by using a special missile barrage. That's generally the gameplay loop, and it only gets more exhilarating the more cannon fodder the game throws at you.

ZOE shows its age most is in its control scheme. It's not necessarily unworkable, but it involves unlearning 15 years of developers figuring out elegant ways of moving around 3D spaces. Two face buttons control elevation, while the dash button is unintuitively set to the shoulders. Despite much of Jehuty's moveset relying on dashing, and fast counter-maneuvers to get in and out of an opponent's space, the motions required to do so feel awkward, even in the new “Pro” configuration that remaps the shoulder buttons and subweapon selects.

The 4K bump in resolution and soundscape enhancements are certainly noticeable, but aside from introducing brand-new textures to the mix, ZOE was always going to wear its PS2 roots rather boldly. Honestly, the game would lose something without that trademark Kojima Productions cinematic judder during intense moments. Instead, Konami went the next step, allowing the entire game to be played in VR. It's a great idea, one that'd be a welcome experiment for a lot of older titles--there's certainly an extra level of immersion, and the aforementioned new soundscape really comes to life in VR, forcing you to use your ears more than your eyes to figure out where enemies and projectiles are coming from.

ZOE shows its age most is in its control scheme.

The control scheme still mucks things up quite a bit, however, and not being able to see your special moves as you use them is a pretty big detriment in busy stages. The game does try to mitigate this, keeping a holographic representation of your avatar as it would be in the regular game on the right-hand side of the cockpit, but taking your eyes off the action is a bad idea, especially during the game's frantic boss fights. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to; bosses have a bad habit of getting up close and personal. In a crowded area, the only thing stopping you from being cornered and slashed to death in three hits is the kind of situational awareness the VR mode doesn't inherently give you. There is a special VR difficulty mode that makes dealing with enemies easier, but it swings the game too far in the other direction towards cakewalk territory.

While Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner pushed the envelope when it first launched, it's more admirable for the ways in which it tries to inject depth into a formula that never required it to be successful. There are certainly ambitions to be appreciated, and Konami has at least put some effort into preserving the experience as it was, for better or worse. Still, those ambitions aren’t enough to fight the feeling that it hasn’t been outclassed several times over in the years since.

Undertale Review - Nintendo Switch Update

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 09/14/2018 - 18:53

Editor's note: Three years after its initial release on PC, Undertale has found its way to the Nintendo Switch--and of course, the game is every bit as charming, challenging, and harrowing as it was the first time around. Undertale may seem like a straightforward retro-style RPG, but it subverts player expectations every chance it gets, which never gets stale because of clever writing and an evocative chiptune soundtrack. Thankfully, it plays just as well as it does on other platforms without any performance hitches or bugs after putting about four hours into this version. Like its console counterparts, you can fill the screen with an adaptive border that thematically fits with the location you're in (Undertale plays in a 4:3 aspect ratio). Dodging enemy attacks in the bullet hell-style defensive phase in combat works just as well with the Joy-Con analog sticks.

Undertale isn't afraid to break convention, and because it does so in a way that's thoughtful and humorous throughout, the result is an emotional rollercoaster that fills us with determination. -- Michael Higham, 14 September 2018 [We have updated the score to reflect our experience with the Nintendo Switch version, in addition to the PC, Mac, and PS4 versions. The original review follows below.]

Undertale's opening cinematic hints at a cliche RPG where you awake in a mysterious world and embark on a journey in hopes of returning to your normal life. Despite the familiar premise, you quickly discover that looks can be deceiving. While many games can take a heavy-handed approach to teaching you the basics, Undertale does so in a way that not only introduces you to the tone of the game, but teaches you not to accept anything at face value. The first character you meet compels you to play nice, but as the cheerful music turns to sinister laughter and your new "friend" declares you an idiot, you get it: expect the unexpected. Undertale makes a name for itself with unusual storytelling techniques and combat mechanics, setting itself apart from the games it seems to imitate. It's also cleverly written and constantly subverts your expectations. There are so many wonderful experiences in store that are tempting to spoil, but to go into too much detail would ruin the element of surprise: one of Undertale's best assets.

While it seems to be a game that's designed for RPG fans first and foremost, a lot of Undertale's jokes have universal appeal. A pair of comically incompetent skeletons regularly spout puns and jokes while attempting--and failing--to halt your progress, and the social ineptitude exhibited by one character when they try to express their feelings for another is a regular source of laughter. With clever characterization and unexpected responses to actions we've been conditioned to view as predictable, Undertale elicits laughter and delight with ease.

You're encouraged to stop and engage with NPCs rather than charge through the story, and you should, because the varied and entertaining cast of monsters reveal valuable information about the wider world. This quality isn't unique, but here, it leads to unusual exchanges that are filled with great quips, simultaneously poking fun at games and human nature alike. The script tip-toes into parody, but an air of earnest thought lifts it above mere mockery. Silly as it can be, Undertale delivers poignant observations that challenge the status-quo.

It's also the sort of experience that encourages you to come back for a second or third round. This is especially true because, over the course of roughly five hours, you make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The importance of choice is often felt during combat, which lets you pick between fighting or talking your way out of conflict.

Sometimes the secret to winning is a little bit of love.

Trying to pacify opponents is a far more rewarding experience than simply fighting, and its a process that's unique to each type of enemy. To earn their favor, you have to analyse an enemy's behavior and figure out the right course of action. In one scenario, you can attempt to befriend a violent dog, in another, you might want to cheer up a ghost with low self-esteem; your success will depend on your ability to empathize and react. Navigating social puzzles is a refreshing change of pace for what seems like traditional combat, and the variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Because not all enemies are easily wooed, you eventually need to defend yourself regardless if you intend to fight or not. Undertale handles this with a quirky mechanic that feels out of place at first, but it eventually grows on you because it makes combat engaging and unpredictable in a good way. Enemy attacks appear as waves of projectiles that fly within a square pen, and as they fly by, you have to steer a small heart icon out of their flightpath to avoid taking damage. It's an unusual mechanic, but it's simple to understand and rewarding in the sense that it lets your reflexes-rather than statistics or dice rolls--dictate the outcome of a fight.

The variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Even within combat, Undertale layers on the humor. Sometimes you're dodging bullets, but you also need to watch out for frogs, arms with flexing biceps, and even the tears of a depressed opponent. Linking the shape, size, and behavior of projectiles with enemies' personalities keeps things challenging, and opens the door for even more laughs as you fend off absurd attacks.

Hey, what are friends for?

It would be a crime not to mention Undertale's soundtrack, which is loaded with beautiful bit-based melodies that blend perfectly with the action on-screen. Each boss gets its own theme song, which do a great job of enhancing their particular personality. These tracks in particular bring energy and vigor, putting you on the edge of your seat as you try to fight or befriend your opponent. Outside of battle, tracks set the appropriate mood, too, from the quirky jingle in Temmie Village, to somber melodies that build tension near the end of the game. Regardless of its retro style, Undertale's soundtrack has timeless appeal and is great at evoking emotions.

Without spoiling the many ways it will screw with your expectations, it isn't possible to truly capture how wonderful Undertale is. You wouldn't know it with a passing glance, but it's one of the most progressive and innovative RPGs to come in a long time, breaking down tradition for the sake of invention, with great success.

NHL 19 Review -- A Barnburner

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/13/2018 - 23:01

With its brand-new pond hockey mode, introduction of legendary players like Wayne Gretzky, superb controls, and multitude of ways to play, NHL 19 successfully and impressively captures the spirit and culture of ice hockey. It has issues, including a lack of meaningful changes for veteran players, but the solid foundation makes NHL 19 an excellent hockey game.

One of the biggest new additions to NHL 19 is "World of Chel." An evolved version of the EA Sports Hockey League, World of Chel is an online hub featuring multiple modes, with character progression for your skater tied together in one place. The most notable mode within World of Chel is Ones, a game of 1v1v1 played on ponds and lakes. With shivering spectators in heavy coats on the sideline, no whistles, imperfections on the ice, and numerous collectibles like hoodies, beanies, and parkas to unlock and equip (that you can only get via regular progression), NHL 19 effectively captures the general aesthetic and vibe of playing outdoors. An over-the-top and colourful announcer who makes many silly quips and references to hockey culture helps the experience feel appropriately lighthearted. The 1v1v1 setup makes each two-minute match satisfyingly tense and highly replayable, though there are some downsides. For example, it's only half-ice, so the puck frequently gets jammed where the walls meet. With matches only running for two minutes, it's frustrating to spend time digging the puck out of corners. It is also disappointing that Ones is online-only; there is no local play, an omission that stands out when NHL 19's numerous other modes support couch co-op.

Returning from last year, and remaining the franchise's most exciting and engaging mode, is the ridiculously over-the-top Threes. This mode pits teams of three against each other in fast-paced and chaotic games with arcade-style scoring multipliers and the ability to play as the league's different mascots. NHL 19's standard modes feature true-to-life professional teams, players, stadiums, announcers, and visuals with an impressive attention to detail, but I kept coming back to Threes more than anything else for its constant action and delightfully wacky tone.

Aside from Ones and Threes, new this year is a Pro-Am mode that lets you take on NHL legends of past and present in a series of challenges. This mode, in addition to the impressively robust Franchise, along with Ultimate Team, Shootout, Be a Pro career, and online head-to-head, combine to give you numerous distinct and compelling ways to play. Be A Pro serves as NHL 19's career mode, and it delivers a satisfying path from low-level hockey to the pros. It lacks the depth found in the story modes of other EA Sports games like Madden and FIFA, but it is rewarding all the same to build your character and grow and expand their skills over time.

Franchise mode returns, and it remains a deep experience. New for NHL 19 is a more involved scouting system within which you can recruit, hire, and fire amateur and professional scouts to look for new talent by player, region, and team. A further layer to the new scouting mechanic is a "Fog of War" system that hides a player's true rating if you don't scout enough. These new features, as well as the numerous returning ones like morale meetings, trades, salary cap considerations, and more, combine to make NHL 19's franchise mode possibly the deepest in the GM experience across EA Sports. Ultimate Team is also back, and with Legends like Gretzky and Lemieux now in the mix, creating a dream-team is even more absorbing, though its inclusion of microtransactions may irk some. Given that there are so many different modes in NHL 19, it's nice that the menu lets you pin four different modes to the home screen for quick access.

The on-ice action in NHL 19 looks and performs better than last year. EA's new Real Player Motion tech that was used in Madden NFL 19 and NBA Live 19 is also implemented in NHL 19, and it helps add a strong sense of realism to the animations and physics. Skating in particular looks incredibly lifelike; some of the standout animations include seamless transitions from forward to backward skating, fluid crossovers, the kick of the leg during a fake shot, and how a player will situationally chop a puck out of mid-air or into the goal. The hitting physics have also been updated; a well-timed open-ice check will now deliver a crushing blow that causes the other player to crumple to the ice. The system is sophisticated enough to dynamically adapt to the awareness of the other player, meaning hits are gnarlier when the targeted skater doesn't see it coming and can't brace for it. On the presentation side, NHL 19 looks like a TV broadcast with finely detailed character models and crowd animations complete with rowdy fans holding red Solo cups, along with NBC Sports hosts Eddie Olczyk and Mike Emrick back providing excellent commentary.

NHL 19 nails the controls with a weighty and responsive feel. Moving the puck around is easy and intuitive, and with vibration feedback for passes and hits. Possessing the puck is critical in NHL 19, and the controls give you the tools you need to do so at a basic level and also with a huge amount of style and skill. The Skill Stick and Hybrid controls provide an amount of depth that allows more dedicated players to show off their skills with superstar dekes like windmills, spin-o-ramas, and advanced toe drags, to get around defenders and light the lamp. These dekes, of which there are many, can be strung together, which creates fun scenarios--especially in online games against other humans--to keep the defenders guessing. Alternatively, the two-button NHL 94 control setup is a fun return to basics for hockey fans looking for a simpler experience. Whatever scheme you're using, NHL 19's excellent controls make it feel wonderful to move players around the ice, complete tape-to-tape passes, dangle around opponents, and rip shots into the net.

NHL 19's drive to become a complete hockey game is further helped by the addition of NHL "Legends" as playable characters. Thanks to EA reaching a deal with the NHL Alumni Association, the names and likenesses of numerous hockey icons like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, and Mark Messier, as well as even older players like Jean Beliveau, are now in the game. There is a great attention to detail; Gretzky's trademark half-tucked in jersey is replicated in the game, while there is period-accurate gear, too, as players from the '50s and '60s like Beliveau do not wear helmets and use wooden sticks with no curve on the blade. With its use of legendary players, NHL 19 delivers the fun fantasy fulfillment of pitting Gretzky against current NHL superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and Connor McDavid.

NHL 19 further expands its reach by faithfully incorporating and letting you play as teams in other real-world hockey leagues. The AHL, national teams, and numerous international leagues from Europe and other parts of the world at different levels of professionalism are represented. This contributes to help make NHL 19 feel like more of global hockey game that represents the sport at more levels and in more regions.

NHL 19 succeeds mainly because of its best-in-class controls, authentic presentation, multitude of different ways to play, and its overall excellence in capturing the essence of hockey culture. The pond hockey mode is a fun new way to play with friends in beautiful outdoor environments, but it's the only brand-new feature, and that may disappoint veteran fans.

Frozen Synapse 2 Review - Cool-Headed

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/13/2018 - 17:00

With a futuristic, digitized look and rhythmically pulsating soundtrack, Frozen Synapse 2 is every bit as stylish as its predecessor. It's a deliberately slow and cerebral experience meant to be learned and played at your own pace. While some technical issues and annoying limitations to the campaign result in frustration at points, Frozen Synapse 2's compelling take on tactics and strategy makes up for this. Whether in single or multiplayer, its highly tactical combat requires patience and wit to grasp, but the steep learning curve is worth it, with every engagement brimming with brilliant tension.

While the game's style is undeniable, with gorgeous, procedurally-generated urban environments, Frozen Synapse 2's tactical, turn-based gameplay is the main draw. You control every movement of a squad of up to six Vatform units--repairable humanoid mercenaries hired for use in combat deployments--to take down enemy teams. Units are controlled by the strategic placement of waypoints, which you mark on the battlefield as you plan out your next turn. Once your plans are primed, you hit the play button and watch as the next five seconds of your movements, and those of your enemy, are played out in a real-time concert of bullets and shotgun blasts. It's a violent game of chess where, refreshingly, logical rules dictate the outcome of a gunfight, not the roll of a random number generator.

When making your plans, plotting out waypoints and moving units from one place to another is the easy part. Where the real effort comes in is predicting the movement of your enemies and anticipating what they're going to do next. At any point along a unit's path, you can add any number of commands, from "wait" or "engage on sight” to asking them to duck and stay low when moving. Your options are plentiful, letting you get as complex as you need to. Helpfully, you're able to plot out enemy waypoints as well, letting you test out theoretical counter-attacks that they might set up in response. But there's no certainty in war, and it's this uncertainty that makes each engagement feel wonderfully tense and unique. Even your best-laid plans can go horribly wrong, while at the same time, a hail mary might see things line up in the exact way you needed it to.

The lack of random chance makes planning out your moves more meaningful, as there is always an optimal solution for any given scenario. A stationary unit will always have a faster time-to-kill than a moving one, for instance. However, different units have their own time-to-kill stats, as well as effective ranges and reload times. These need to be taken into account when marking out your next move, as even well-placed units can struggle to make an impact when they're outgunned and vice-versa; shotguns are devastating in close quarters but are sitting ducks when left out in the open. Learning the intricacies of Frozen Synapse 2's combat is an exercise in both dealing with and overcoming the frustration of early mistakes, of which you'll make many. It only makes it all the more satisfying when the mechanics all finally click, which they will after a few hours of experimenting.

Frozen Synapse 2's single-player mode adds an intriguing real-time strategy layer to the game's strong combat systems in the form of the city map. The city is broken up into several districts, with the different factions operating within them. Both the districts and factions directly contribute to your overall budget, increasing funding as you complete contracts on their behalf, and decreasing it if those actions affect them negatively. Contracts are also time-sensitive, so if you fail to act in time or ignore it completely, another faction will jump at the chance, costing you precious funding and faction reputation. It feels like you're forever on the back foot, which can be a jarring experience at first.

Aside from the occasionally menu-heavy UI, the city has a gorgeous cyber-minimalist look to it. This is backed by a superbly written futurist sci-fi story, told through smart and occasionally funny character dialogue between Mettem, chairman of the city municipal council, your gleefully dry AI helper named Belacqua, and the various faction leaders, each with own clear sense of purpose. You are given the reins of the city's security forces as it deals with an increasing level of factionary violence as well as the outbreak of a sentient AI named Sonata that's also causing a fuss.

The campaign has some issues, though. It struggles to maintain stability at times, unexpectedly crashing to the desktop on rare occasions. Checkpoint contacts involve keeping a squad deployed on a street corner for an allotted time period, except immediately after a deployment, you're prompted to send the squad back to base. If you're not aware of this, you'll fail the contract and your time spent in combat there will be for nothing. There's also no autosave prior to mission deployment, so if your squad's too small or underpowered on a mission where failure is not allowed--a condition that isn't explained beforehand--you're forced to choose between trying to progress through impossible odds or restarting your campaign entirely. This mode is made to be replayable, but given the relatively slow pace of progress, a forced restart is a hard pill to swallow.

Thankfully, the game's superb multiplayer makes up for this. While single player AI is a good challenge, nothing quite beats the feeling of out-thinking a human opponent, and there's far more pressure to plan out your movements with total precision. Multiplayer is also built intuitively into the UI, allowing you to request opponents with a single mouse click or move between multiple games you have going on at the same time. The load time between each game is short, so if one opponent is taking their time, you can always run along and start a new game with someone else, mitigating any frustration at being made to wait while someone plots out their next move.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Frozen Synapse 2's style, but it's even harder to pull away once the game's combat gets its hooks in you.

There are six different modes to choose from, each with a light (enemies are always visible) and a dark variant (enemies are invisible unless they're within your unit's line of sight). While there's the standard deathmatch mode called Extermination, other modes are much more interesting. In Hostage, one squad attempts to hold the hostages placed in a square in the middle of the map while another moves in to free them. Charge sees the battlefield laid out like a football pitch; both players bet how far they think they can get their squad to the other side of the field, and the winning punter gets the chance to prove themselves while the other defends. No matter the game mode, every multiplayer encounter is fantastically suspenseful, with a palpable air of uncertainty surrounding the few seconds prior to your plan's outcome being played back.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Frozen Synapse 2's style, but it's even harder to pull away once the game's combat gets its hooks in you. While the single-player mode ambles through both high and low points, the multiplayer remains a steadfastly enjoyable experience. The anticipation as squads approach in preparation for battle is both thrilling and nerve-wracking, and the ability to switch between multiplayer games on the fly makes tracking multiple games elegantly simple. Technical hiccups aside, Frozen Synapse 2's incredible style and strong tactical combat make it wonderfully gratifying.

Nintendo Labo Vehicle Kit Review: The Most Fun Labo Yet

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/13/2018 - 14:00

Nintendo Labo's Vehicle Kit is the latest variant available for the Switch's paper crafting/video game hybrid, a separate retail product that features completely new builds, games, and activities. You could, if you wanted to, describe it as the series' latest piece of DLC--if DLC stood for Da Latest Cardboard, that is.

If you thought that last dad joke was bad, it's at least appropriate, given Labo remains an outstanding shared activity between parents or caregivers and the little squirts in their lives. At times intricate and yet appealingly simple, Labo sits in that gaming gap between juniors just starting to evolve beyond simple experiences on a tablet and jaded pre-teens who laugh at you for not knowing what the Fornite floss is. Its mix of real-world cardboard crafting and on-screen activities remains a winning one to experience with a child, although as with the first two Labo kits (the Variety Kit and the Robot Kit), there's really not much here for grown-ups to latch onto.

That's because, despite Vehicle Kit's stronger focus on more traditional gameplay-like modes, what's included still leans more onto the simplistic side and is more geared towards appealing to younger kids (both in scope and gameplay challenges). As the name implies, vehicles are the focus for this Labo experience, and you'll be building your own cardboard controllers for three different vehicles: a steering wheel for the in-game car, a flightstick for a plane, and a… third one featuring rotating dials to control a submersible. You'll also have to build an accelerator pedal, which is used across all three vehicles to control your speed.

Nothing has changed when it comes to the quality of the components you're working with in this latest Labo kit compared to the previous two, which is to say that putting together these cardboard complexities is as satisfying as ever. There's something immensely gratifying about handling the crisp sheets of paper, punching them through their perforated edges, and assembling them using the clear, concise on-screen instructions. As a grown-up, it's meditative to spend the hours needed to build the most complex creations in Vehicle Kits, but it can be slightly less so if you're building it with a junior partner (and how capable, amenable to instruction, or grumpy due to a lack of naptime that junior partner is). That said, while putting together the various Joy-Cons (the term Nintendo uses for the various cardboard creations) can be a fun solo project, it really shines as a shared activity with a child. Most of the builds are just complex enough that some adult supervision will be required, so there's real joy to be had in making Vehicle Kit a joint project with someone younger.

While the Vehicle Kit creations may literally just be stiff pieces of paper, they're still remarkably durable. In our hours of testing, all of the various Joy-Cons managed to survive the overexcited attentions of a nine-year-old and a four-year-old without breaking. And it really is impressive to see a thing you just put together from various pieces of cardboard work as a fully-functioning steering wheel or as an accelerator that detects even slight amounts of pressure. But while the tech and build behind these Joy-Cons are neat, they're still DIY creations, so there's not as much control finesse or nuance here that you would otherwise expect from dedicated, manufactured steering wheels or flightsicks.

This lack of fine control suits Vehicle Kit just fine, however, as the games and activities included don't really ever require you to pull off things like hairpin manoeuvres at high speeds around rain-slicked roads. To its credit, Vehicle Kit is a leap forward compared to other Labo variations, as there's actually a decent amount of gameplay to be found here (as opposed to tech demos as was the case with the Variety Kit). There are racetracks to compete on, rally modes to enter, and more. Vehicle Kit's main game is dubbed Adventure Mode, and is a fairly expansive, open world area that can traversed by car, plane or submersible. Dotted throughout this world is a substantial amount of tasks: you may be asked to fly your plane through five clouds in quick succession, use your submersible's hook to break open a cage, or drive a curious tourist around many of the world's sights. None of these challenges are particularly taxing, with most solutions presenting themselves after a little careful exploration. The challenge level--along with Adventure Mode's bright yet basic presentation--is aimed squarely at younger gamers, and there's probably not much here that will prove engaging in the long run for anyone older.

But if you're in that target demographic, then these otherwise rote activities become a little more engaging. My nine-year-old son was my primary partner in this review (occasionally joined by his four-year-old sister, who just really wanted to fly that plane), and from his perspective, the gentle pace and steady exploration afforded by Adventure Mode was immensely appealing. Nintendo Labo's Vehicle Kit certainly isn't for everyone. But if you have a curious, excited child, then it might be just for you.

Lamplight City Review - Cold Case

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/13/2018 - 05:00

Lamplight City is a high-concept adventure game that will win some players over on premise alone. You play as Miles Fordham, a former detective turned disgraced private investigator following the death of his partner, Bill, during a case. The game is set in 1840s New Bretagne (a borough of Cholmondeley, England) and follows Miles as he takes cases off-the-books to try and keep busy--and block out the voice of Bill, which now haunts him wherever he goes. There are five cases to solve over the course of Lamplight City, but there's an interesting twist: It's possible to either accuse the wrong culprit or find that the case is unsolvable because of errors you've made.

Lamplight City is not the first game to do this--Frogwares' last two Sherlock Holmes games, Crimes and Punishments and The Devil's Daughter, tried something similar--but this time it's all wrapped in a comfortingly familiar adventure game aesthetic, with pixel graphics, a simple point-and-click interface, and great-looking environments. The script is socially progressive and critical of the racism and homophobia of its 1840s setting, and Miles, for all his faults (he takes sleeping pills and drinks heavily to shut off Bill's voice in his head), is a likeable character. What the game lacks, unfortunately, is depth. It's full of great ideas, but isn't quite able to pull them off effectively.

The ability to fail a case is an interesting mechanic that is never actually explained or really commented on in-game. I accused the wrong suspect in the first case, having exhausted my other options; I said the wrong thing in a conversation and a character that could have given me vital clues stopped talking to me, meaning that I only had one suspect to accuse. For the rest of the game I saved regularly so that I could reload and avoid a situation like this again, but the only concrete indication that I'd arrested the wrong person was their denial during the arrest cutscene. Later, in the third case, I wasn't able to enter a certain area because a family member of the formerly accused threatened me, but otherwise, there were no repercussions or even explicit confirmations that I'd made the wrong accusation. I only know for sure that I picked the wrong culprit because of a Steam achievement I did not get.

But there was no room for misunderstanding in the other four cases. If you put in the work, you'll likely never find yourself in a position where there are multiple plausible suspects--it's very clear who the culprit is once you find all the evidence. The game will reward you, sometimes, for going the extra mile--if you locate the culprit in the second case before reporting their guilt, for instance, you'll earn a new lead in the fifth case--but doing so isn't particularly challenging, and a wrongful accusation is more likely to come from impatience than incompetence. These cases are fairly staid, and lack the spark of a good Agatha Christie mystery or the lunacy and twists of something like Phoenix Wright. While the final case--which sees you, inevitably, on the trail of Bill's killer--is a bit more exciting than the others, Lamplight City squanders a very good idea on mediocre cases where there's little room for error.

With this gimmick deflated, you're left with an okay adventure game that's low on exciting puzzles. You can brute force your way through most cases, visiting each location and clicking on everything and everyone to see if new interaction options have opened, with few real puzzles to solve. There's no inventory management, so you don't get to use 'X' on 'Y'--everything is context sensitive, and Miles will use items or ask questions automatically if it makes sense for him to do so. This means that it's easy to miss objects that can only be examined at first--signified by a magnifying glass when you mouse over them--but which become collectible after an objective is reached. The game's sense of logic is extremely fair, and there are no ridiculous or irritating solutions, but it's easy to disengage when cases involve asking the same questions of each character to see what turns up.

The characters are interesting, at least. The game's dialogue is mostly well-written, and having Bill's ever-present snarky voice in Miles' head is a smart way to provide flavor to endless item descriptions as you click on everything in a room. Miles' wife, Adelaide, is also a great character, and a subplot about their marriage issues is one of the more compelling strands. Sometimes the game asks you to make changes that have a proper payoff, and how you handle Miles' marriage is a prime example.

There are many little aspects of the world of Lamplight City that exist mostly on the periphery of your experience. You often encounter characters engaged in steampunk experiments, looking to harness a new form of energy called "aethericity," and there's an undercurrent of political turmoil running throughout much of the dialogue in the fourth and fifth cases. The divide between the working class and the aristocracy comes up often too, but a lot of the observations the game makes only skim the surface. These details flesh out the game's sense of place and give some context for the wider world Miles lives in. It's a shame that few of these end up being important to the actual cases, though--there are running plot threads that ultimately go nowhere and cases that seem to involve some of the game's kookier elements ultimately end up having mundane explanations behind them.

Lamplight City has a hell of a concept behind it, but unfortunately, the cases don't deliver on its promise. When you strip away the idea that the game will let you fail, and that you need to pay particularly close attention to what's happening, you're left with an adequate adventure game that is low on great puzzles. It's certainly not without charm, but the game's inability to make a strong delivery on its fantastic central gimmick casts an unfortunate shadow over its unique setting and likeable cast.

428: Shibuya Scramble Review - When Fates Collide

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 09/13/2018 - 00:14

The past few years have seen a rise in popularity for narrative-driven games in the West. Many of these games owe a lot to Japanese adventure and visual novels, which have enjoyed a long history in their home country. One of the most revered examples is 428: Shibuya Scramble, which originally released in 2009. Now, almost a decade later, players in the West can see what all the fuss was about--and that it was very much worth the hype.

428: Shibuya Scramble takes place in the titular Shibuya, a major area of Tokyo. It's a routine day for most people, but for five individuals, what's happening is anything but ordinary. Young detective Kano is currently caught up in the midst of a mysterious kidnapping case: Maria, the daughter of reclusive scientist Kenji Osawa, is missing. As Kano sets up Osawa's other daughter, Hitomi, to deliver the ransom money, a street punk named Achi wanders into the picture, fleeing with Hitomi when the sting goes awry. Meanwhile, freelance reporter Minorikawa is called by a suicidal editorial manager who needs to put together a magazine by day’s end to save himself from financial ruin, and a young girl named Tama finds herself trapped in a cat mascot suit, hawking dubious diet drinks for a scam artist at the famous Shibuya Crossing.

The story's five central characters--Kano, Achi, Minorikawa, Osawa, and Tama--all find their fates intertwining through five unique stories told over the course of a single day. What begins as a routine kidnapping soon reveals itself to be something far more sinister, turning into a thrilling story of colliding fates, character drama, and international intrigue. It's up to you to put together the pieces and save these characters, and perhaps all of Japan, from a potentially terrible (and occasionally ridiculous) fate.

428 is a visual novel game in the same vein as Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. However, the emphasis here is definitely more on the "novel" part; the game is written out like a lengthy story, with most of the gameplay centering around multiple-choice branches that influence how the characters behave in certain situations. What's also noteworthy is that multiple stories from different characters' points of view run parallel with each other, and if two characters witness the same event, it may affect them in very different ways.

This ties in with the multiple-choice system; sometimes a seemingly insignificant choice you make can have far-reaching effects. For example, if one character runs into the street to avoid pursuers, another character might wind up in a traffic jam caused by resulting car accidents and be late to a meeting. You can also "jump" into the thick of another character's story by highlighting certain onscreen words that tie two characters' stories together, even if they're not in the same location. While zipping around the stories is fun, you also have to be mindful of your decisions, as incorrect choices can often lead to a Bad End that'll force you to jump back in time a bit.

What makes this work so well is that all of the characters are engaging and well-written. Kano is a hardworking, earnest cop who is being distracted by a surprise visit from his would-be father-in-law. Achi's hotheadedness and desire to help Hitomi stems from family drama and his falling-out with a local gang. Minorikawa's a colossal jerk, but he's a jerk that gets results, and his brashness disguises a genuine passion and desire to aid those important to him. Osawa finds himself in a very dark place, questioning his relationships with his family and his business partners in some tense, introspective moments. And Tama… well, her particularly bizarre situation leads her to some unexpected places.

One of the particularly unique and memorable elements of 428 is its use of still photography to illustrate much of the story text. The thousands of real-life photos taken to illustrate the story accentuate the text perfectly, as does the impressive staging and use of close-ups, color, and camera pans. The text is delivered in a way that can't be replicated on the printed page: big, loud words appearing suddenly for emphasis, slow text crawls or fade-ins for tense moments and terrifying revelations. Music and sound effects are also used to highlight particular scenes and events. Occasionally, a clip of FMV or an animated image might show up to emphasize something, such as a serious event or a more comedic moment.

The wonderful blending of text, photo imagery, and sound in 428 is showcased especially well in several scenes throughout Osawa's scenario. Osawa is unbelievably stressed due to Maria's kidnapping and a conflict with his wife, and the combination of clever photo staging, sparse use of sound, and careful text presentation really helps to communicate the anguish he's going through. As he finds himself becoming irritated with the frequent butting-in of a police detective stationed in his home, you start to see intense colors and extreme close-ups in the photos that emphasize the rapidly increasing annoyance he feels. It's an excellent example of how the visual novel genre can transform the written word in an engaging way.

It's an excellent example of how the visual novel genre can transform the written word in an engaging way.

The vast majority of the time, the storytelling in 428 is top-notch, drawing you into the character drama and adding an air of tension to your choices. Occasionally there are parts that take you out of the narrative--an oddly misplaced comedic bit after an emotional or action-laden sequence, or a plot contrivance that feels a little too convenient. The game's interface can be a struggle at times as well. If you go back in time to fix some of your bad choices, you may wind up having to replay a chunk of certain scenarios to reach a stopping point you had previously opened, and whether or not the game lets you skip past already-read text seems arbitrary. There are also a fair few text display bugs, a handful of which cause serious formatting problems, and one I encountered actually softlocked the game.

A few bugs, however, don't ruin the game. 428 is a truly rare beast, a special and unique experience that would have once been completely passed over for a Western release. While it's not without its flaws, it's hard to think of many other games that blend text-driven storytelling and well-constructed visuals and sound this well. From the first hour of the in-game day, you'll be riveted by this story's unexpected twists and turns. If you want a story- and character-driven game with a presentation you won’t see anywhere else, 428 is a game not to be missed.

NBA 2K19 Review - Another Year, Another Baller

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 09/12/2018 - 14:00

Every year, NBA 2K comes around to hype up basketball fans for the upcoming season and provide an avenue for living out dreams of dominating the court; this year’s iteration is no different in that regard. NBA 2K19 dishes out what you'd expect from the franchise: accessible yet deep core mechanics that often work just right and occasionally falter. Beyond that, there’s a full roster of ways to enjoy the sport thanks to a robust package of game modes. Unfortunately, microtransactions loom over everything, much like last year’s game, with a problematic system of virtual currency. Still, 2K19 remains an admirable representation of basketball itself.

NBA 2K19 is a basketball simulation at its heart. As with previous games, you're given nearly full control of footwork, ball handling, and defensive maneuvers with the Pro Stick scheme that puts both analog sticks to use. If there's a fundamental move in the sport of basketball, chances are you can pull it off in the game. Moreover, it's advantageous to understand when these fundamentals are most effective. For example, driving to the basket from the post with a quick quarter-circle on the right stick in the proper direction could help you blow by an inside defender; if a big stands in your way in the paint, knowing how to put up a floater gives you a better chance for a bucket than a simple layup. Pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops are simple to draw up and an important tool for executing plays, but they don't guarantee success on every possession; the best players have to adapt to how the field develops.

Much of the game is in your hands, from game plan customization when controlling an entire team to execution on the court when assuming the role as an individual player. It induces a high skill ceiling, especially when playing competitively. Momentum is also manifested in the new Takeover mechanic; if a player catches fire, a few extra moves become available and slight stat boosts are applied for a short time, depending on the player's archetype/position.

We're still getting used to seeing LeBron James in purple and gold.

While it's good to know that you have so much control considering the potential for challenge, it's disappointing when things break down. Of course, you should be punished for mistakes, like over-committing on defense while the opponent exploits an opening with a quick pivot or cut towards the basket. But frustration starts to settle in when there's a lack of responsiveness. Cutting across to lead the defender into a crowd is smart basketball, and if you're the defender, getting stuck on other players without controls appropriately responding to a change in direction highlights some inconsistencies and overall sluggishness in player movement. There are more hits than misses in how NBA 2K19 functions, but the times when it falls apart hold it back from true greatness.

Much of the game is in your hands, from game plan customization when controlling an entire team to execution on the court when assuming the role as an individual player. It induces a high skill ceiling, especially when playing competitively.

NBA 2K19 has the advantage of including top personalities from professional sports media; this includes renowned sideline reporter David Aldridge and the iconic voice of sportscaster Kevin Harlan. It's unfortunate, however, that while 2K has TNT's charismatic crew of knuckleheads from Inside The NBA--Kenny Smith, Shaquille O'Neal, and Ernie Johnson--their part in the game's presentation fails to capture what makes them great broadcasters (it's also missing Charles Barkley). Generally, commentary gets redundant even with specific anecdotes and callouts to players' history. The soundtrack curated by hip-hop artist Travis Scott includes a few of his own songs along with other artists/groups like SOB x RBE, Migos, P-Lo, and Toro y Moi make for a fun vibe throughout the game.

As for game modes, MyCareer takes the spotlight again, combining a personal narrative and an RPG-like progression system around a player you create. Not only do you have to choose your position wisely, but you'll pick out a primary and secondary skillset that carves out specific strengths for your player, much like character classes in an RPG. This new story, dubbed The Way Back, tries for a more heartfelt tone this time around. Your created player goes undrafted after college, and you have to prove yourself in China and in the NBA G-League--it's worth noting that the chapters in China feature authentic Mandarin dialogue and commentary. An old college teammate acts as a throughline, drama follows you everywhere, and betrayal is just around the corner. While it's more gripping than last year's journey at times, it often falls flat due to nonsensical story beats with superficial drama permeating pivotal moments. Despite this, the performances and voice acting from the likes of Haley Joel Osment and Anthony Mackie are top-notch and frequently strike a natural conversational tone; it's a good execution of a bad script. At the very least, it breathes life into your player, providing a backstory that's carried on throughout your time in MyCareer.

There's something special about having your player succeed on an NBA team.

The story mode is just an appetizer in MyCareer, and if you want to get straight to the main course, you can skip cutscenes and simulate outcomes for games. After signing to an NBA team and getting a house to call your own, you're dropped into a slick MMO-like social hub known as The Neighborhood with random players online. From here you have access to several ways to build your player and ball up. Continuing the journey through the NBA will put you through full NBA seasons that sprinkle in a bit of personality by incorporating events from The Way Back--this includes sideline interviews and faux-taped conversations that look true-to-life. You'll work your way to the starting lineup over time after riding the bench for limited minutes on the floor, and it feels pretty good to see my player work up the ranks of the Lakers roster and drop dimes to LeBron James for clutch baskets in close games. Between each game, there are also team practices where you run drills to fine-tune your ability to execute in certain in-game situations, driving home that sense of being part of the team.

Building out your player's stats and rising up in overall rating is satisfying nonetheless, especially since you can't strictly buy your way to maxed-out stats.

Outside of becoming an NBA star, you'll use The Neighborhood to customize your player with sweet tattoos, new kicks, or fresh outfits at shops. More importantly, street ball in The Playground has random roaming players or squads matched up in 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 pick up games. These are a ton of fun with a grounded atmosphere that'll feel home to amateur ballers, but there aren't sensible matchmaking tools to help players join in a snappy way. You can hop into the Jordan Rec Center, which is just as enjoyable, to get matched up, but it can take a while to get going.

The MyCareer ecosystem all feeds into character progression, so you're constantly working towards something and earning rewards whether you spend time in the NBA season or grind away in street ball. But at the end of the day, virtual currency (VC) rules everything around NBA 2K19--VC is used to upgrade stats, buy cosmetics, and purchase boost cards that provide a temporary ratings bump. Despite a slight shift towards rewarding those who grind for VC compared to 2K18, the system still feels as if it prefers you engage in microtransactions and buy VC with real money. It's also a bit tasteless that players can wager VC in basketball matches in the lavish casino-like Ante-Up building that is bordering on gambling.

Building out your player's stats and rising up in overall rating is satisfying nonetheless, especially since you can't strictly buy your way to maxed-out stats. When the general experience bar (MyPoints Cap Breaker) fills up, you unlock the potential for higher ratings in certain skills. But you're required to spend VC to actually acquire those stats, as if VC were skill points.

For something a little different, MyGM offers a visual novel-esque story experience that picks up right where 2K18 left off. It takes your player model and puts them into the role of general manager to essentially build a team from scratch (ahem, or basically bring back the Sonics). MyGM can be a nice change of pace with some hilariously hammy moments and conversation options, but be prepared to read a lot of inane dialogue as none of it is voice acted. You'll make personnel decisions and manage the team's location, but it's less than glamorous with a few inconsequential playable scenarios on occasion.

For those who are into card collecting and building a fantasy team, the MyTeam mode is another avenue to play ball. Here, you start with a modest pool of players from a few card packs to create a lineup, then use them in challenges scenarios and games against NBA teams. You'll earn MT coins, a currency only earned by playing, which is used to purchase additional card packs. But because you can buy card packs with VC, a lot of the grind can be undercut. Aside from that, an extra layer of objectives are set to earn tokens which give you options to pick up NBA stars from the past. It's another significant time investment, but it's neat to make the most of what you're given under the mode's unusual circumstances.

It's impressive that the game of basketball has translated to controllers and screens in the way it has. If you want to immerse yourself in the sport and culture, NBA 2K19 has you covered with a breadth of content. But even that has its limitations after several years of iterations. Although those willing to grind for everything will eventually get rewarded, the system of VC still comes off as exploitative. But there's a lot of fun to be had in NBA 2K19 despite its flaws, especially if you have a strong love for the sport.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 Review - Soar High

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 09/10/2018 - 14:30

Valkyria Chronicles 4 marks a forceful but necessary return to the franchise's strategy roots, much in the vein of resetting a broken bone. The most recent Valkyria Chronicles game in the industry's memory is Valkyria Revolution, which had a decidedly action-RPG outlook and ultimately paid the price for its experimentation. Revolution was a jagged pill to swallow, but Valkyria Chronicles 4 more than redeems the spin-off’s mistakes. It retreads the central thematic conflict of the original Valkyria Chronicles, which makes for a story that is poignant and comedic in turns without losing sight of what made the series so popular to begin with: guts.

You're deposited straight into the hot-seat of the Second Europan War as a Federation soldier, Claude Wallace, with your rag-tag bunch of friends including an adorable dog and a number of potential anime love interests. Unsurprisingly, your enemies are the Imperial Alliance, who all sport quasi-Germanic or Russian names and have an overwhelmingly burgundy color scheme for their uniforms. Any real world resemblances here are likely intentional; this is a fictional take on a world war that we've all read about in some way, shape or form in our own history books. Valkyria Chronicles has always drawn from a hodge-podge of WWI and WWII to create its own canon, and that mix is more pronounced than ever here. The timeline broadly overlaps with that of the first Valkyria Chronicles game, so be prepared to notice mentions of conflicts that series veterans will already be more than familiar with.

The similarities between the two games are much more substantial than that, however. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is alike in almost every single way to the original except in name. The series continues to stay true to its blend of classic artistic European landscapes; there's rolling hills, snowy mountains, and vast bodies of water. The gameplay is still a unique take on traditional strategy RPGs which does away with the grid movement system of stalwarts like Fire Emblem, instead preferring to rely on a mix of turn-based tactics and real-time movement and fighting, creating ample room for reactive play and tense skirmishes. You deploy your troops in advantageous positions, move them until their action points are depleted, and fire at the enemy--it's a satisfying cycle.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 also hones in on the way that the war affects a core group of childhood friends and former innocents, simultaneously decrying violence whilst also thrusting you headfirst into situations where it's unavoidable. It's in those moments, where you're backed into a corner with nowhere to go but through faceless enemy ranks, that the senselessness of the conflict really stands out, and those are some of the game's strongest moments.

Accordingly, making sure that you have a squad that will be able to survive those skirmishes is key to your enjoyment of Valkyria Chronicles 4. You'll take command of a whole host of different soldiers throughout your journey, and each of them is special in their own way. Whether it's a brash Shocktrooper who gets an attack buff when he's around the ladies, or a timid Sniper who can't quite shoot straight when she's alone, each person that you deliver orders to is unique in some way. Soldiers have a chance of activating Potentials based on those personality quirks, which are buffs or debuffs affecting anything from unit accuracy to how terrified they are in the heat of the moment. This leads to plenty of friendly chatter on the battlefield that adds depth to your interactions with troops; in the absence of a formal social link system, these moments feel honest and raw when set against their backdrop of percussive gunfire and chaos.

Chaos is really the name of the game when it comes to the broader military campaign, and your first few fights will probably feel that way until you get used to how the game's battle system handles. Valkyria Chronicle 4's first few hours serve as a lengthy tutorial, and you'll still be learning things even after you're multiple chapters into the main story. Troops work the way you'd expect them to--snipers, anti-tank units, and grenadiers do what they say on the tin, and there will be almost no surprises to those who have played similar Japanese-flavored military titles before. Mechanics are built around things like cover, return fire, and ammo management, and balancing all of those are key to victory. There are some improvements from the original Valkyria Chronicles, primarily in troop variety and quality-of-life niceties, but it isn't a significant overhaul. Getting accustomed to the way the quirks of your soldiers work in battle is the primary challenge of the game, and figuring out just how you can push the combat system to its limits is another. Those who know the system will find it easy to create overpowered combinations of troops, which can trivialize the early to mid-game experience to a point, if you can be clever enough.

The overarching chaos also comes from the enemy's single-minded pursuit of the Federation's destruction, and you'll meet this beast at every turn possible. The Alliance is both an immediate, militaristic threat and an ideological one that overshadows every encounter and every non-combat interlude. It's not just a matter of turning the tide on the SPRG field and winning. The narrative drives you into increasingly hostile and inhospitable situations with odds that appear ever tipped in the Alliance's favor.

You don't have the luxury of picking which battles to fight, and loading into a battle with flames as high as a barn licking at your troops and screaming coming through the static whirr of your communications device is confronting each and every time. On Nintendo Switch, HD rumble is employed smartly with vibration patterns changing depending on the type of weapon used, and sounding off both on impact and when you fire. Immersion can be affected somewhat by small issues with hitboxes, pathing, and line of sight displaying oddly in cramped conditions, but these instances don't really detract from the weighty atmosphere that the game works hard to perpetuate.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 really excels in those sobering moments where it makes tough choices and leaves you to pick up the pieces. You feel like a cog in the Federation war machine because you are merely a cog in the war machine, and the story does a good job of hashing out age-old debates around ethics in wartime, necessary sacrifices, and whether or not there are truly any victors. That being said, the day to day operations of the game doesn't always carry the same big-picture weight, and the pacing is stronger for it. Much of your active time will be spent embroiled in a military conflict of some kind; your superiors point your squad in the direction of something that needs killing, and you do it. Some may see this as a lack of opportunity for true role-playing, but the absence of freedom of choice is arguably necessary in a game where the military hierarchy is a key component of the history that it seeks to reinterpret.

Ultimately, this is a return to form for the Valkyria Chronicles series as a whole. It stays so true to the franchise's first iteration that it'll feel as if almost no time has passed in the decade or so since the original game first came out. In revisiting the concerns and the environments of the first, it makes the most of those parallels and invites comparison in a way that highlights its strengths. Valkyria Chronicles 4 doesn't necessarily tell a new tale, but it doesn't have to; for all of its clichés and expected twists, there's a charm to the game's unwillingness to let up as it drives you and your friends forward at a rapid clip towards its bittersweet end.


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