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Vampyr Review: The City That Never Sleeps

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 06/04/2018 - 23:17

Vampyr may seem an unlikely game from the studio that made the narrative-focused Life Is Strange, but being an action-RPG doesn't preclude it from being a great vehicle for storytelling. It's set in a harsh city in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and much of the game involves potentially becoming the savior the world so desperately needs. If anything, Vampyr feels like the spiritual successor to the beloved cult hit Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, but with much of that game's vampire politics replaced by heartfelt interpersonal drama. It's a story strengthened through the power of choice, with the fate of thousands resting on your ability to sacrifice your needs for the greater good.

Vampyr takes place in England, 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic. You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned doctor just back from the frontlines of World War I. Not even minutes off the boat, he's violently welcomed back to his homeland by a vampire and subsequently shoveled into a mass grave. When Reid reawakens, confused and stark-raving mad with bloodlust, he attacks the first person he comes across. Before he's able to process his profound grief and confusion, a guild of vampire hunters chases him off into the night.

How deep you're able to dive into Vampyr's narrative rabbit holes depends on your dialogue choices, and whole subplots can be blocked off permanently by not correctly identifying what a patient needs or wants to hear.

Thanks to the help of a sympathetic stranger, your time scared and alone is graciously brief. It's not long before you're employed for the night shift at a hospital, and it's there that you also gain the support of Lady Ashbury, another vampire hiding in plain sight. Once acclimated, Reid aims to come to grips with his afterlife, maybe find a cure for his vampirism, and get some much needed answers as to why he was turned to begin with.

The larger story beats delve deep into the lurid lore you might expect from a turn-of-the-century vampire tale, but it's not until much later that it becomes the crux of the story. For the majority of the game, Vampyr goes all in on the idea of Reid as an altruistic doctor, a man tirelessly dedicated to the wellbeing of his patients and travelling around town seeing to their various needs. Much of the game involves chatting with fellow hospital employees, patients, and citizens about town, finding out how they're coping with the epidemic, and building a case file to get to the heart of whatever ails them. Sometimes, their problems can be fixed by simply lending a sympathetic ear. Some troubles can be fixed by concocting a bit of medicine in your lab. But the most engaging quests are resolved by getting down and dirty in an infected area of town, spearheading investigations no living person ever could. How deep you're able to dive into Vampyr's narrative rabbit holes depends on your dialogue choices, and whole subplots can be blocked off permanently by not correctly identifying what a patient needs or wants to hear.

Vampyr leans hard into the RPG side of the action-RPG spectrum, and though there's often a campy texture to the storytelling, it's very easy to get attached to its motley crew of characters. A factory worker waits on surgery to fix a near-gangrenous arm because his two attending doctors can't agree on an approach to treatment. A nurse and an ambulance driver rely on Reid to keep their interracial relationship secret. A man becomes an alcoholic due to his survivor's guilt over an anarchistic plot gone wrong. A non-ordained preacher goes around the city burning the sick alive, believing God told him to cleanse the flu pandemic with fire. Everyone you can converse with has a tale to tell, and the vast majority of them are worth the time it takes to hear them out.

It's impossible to avoid the fact that Reid needs to feast on blood in order to survive, but his thirst manifests in more subtle, diabolical ways than just a steadily declining hunger stat. Every little thing Reid does for the citizens of London adds to a pool of overall health for each of the game's four main districts, all of which contribute to the wellness of London as a whole. While that pool is useful for keeping an eye on the citizenry, it also just so happens you can explore that menu to get details on each of the citizens you've met. You can learn how nourishing their blood will be should you decide to feed on them--i.e. how much XP you'd get from taking their life--and refamiliarize yourself with their backstory. The stories of the city change depending on who, if anyone, you prey upon, and in much subtler ways than you might expect.

One of the best choices I made was to feed on a gruff man who Reid discovered was secretly a mass murderer. After his death, the man's mother, while certainly grieving her son, copes by deciding to take in the awkward orphan living nearby and giving him the love she foolishly gave to protect her own flesh and blood. Reid can certainly drive relationships into chaos in much the same way, but the fact that there's enough information to be had through your interactions to guide those decisions with is both impressive and empowering.

Walking the streets of London between residential districts, Reid is a persistent target for vampire hunters, brutal sub-human mutants called Skals, massive beasts, and highly skilled vampire elites. Encountering any of them means it's time to take a more hands-on and proactive approach. Using a combination of bludgeons, sharp implements, firearms, and terrifying vampire magic, you're quite capable of fighting your many enemies off, but these late-night battles are still difficult. Physical attacks and dodges drain a stamina meter that, if not carefully managed, leaves you utterly defenseless while it recharges. Your vampire powers are impressive and can devastate enemies, but they cost fresh blood to execute. While you can bite your enemies in combat to recover some, not only is stunning enemies to get the bite tricky--you either land enough hits in quick succession or parry an attack, which has a frustratingly small window of opportunity--the powers tend to use more blood than a single bite can replenish.

There are games that have tied survival and power to moral choice, but very few have managed to tie the lure of evil so perfectly--or seductively--to the core gameplay.

Mild combat frustrations are further amplified by performance issues. Playing on a PS4 Pro, Vampyr succumbs to frame rate drops and surprisingly frequent loading screens. You begrudgingly learn to live with these hiccups, but the most preposterous load times--stretching well over a minute--haunt you after death. In a game where enemies can one-hit kill you, and where bosses require a bit of trial and error to overcome, such long pauses aren't easily overlooked.

One of the best ways to avoid death is to trade in XP earned for ability and stat upgrades. You can increase bite damage and improve the amount of blood you draw with each attack, but the most interesting improvements come in the form of advanced vampiric powers. Some are simple, such as sharpening your claws mid-combo to increase your damage output, but you can also learn advanced spells, such as one that boils all the blood in your victim's body before causing them to explode. You can become an unstoppable force in London, but it all costs XP. And while you can gain XP from handing out meds or killing enemies, the payouts are a pittance compared to the thousands of points earned from killing just one of the proper citizens of London.

If you desire, you can work to improve the vitality (and XP potential) of everyone in town, only to drink your way through an entire district of healthy people in one night, personal connections be damned. This will make Reid nigh-invincible for hours to come, but conversely cause the district to descend into utter chaos as friends, family, and colleagues go missing, leaving those who remain in despair. Alternatively, you can play the game as a much more civilized sort of vampire, getting by only on the blood of rats and those who attack you first. Theoretically, it's even possible to play the game without killing a single soul, save the few mandatory boss fights. However, walking the path of the righteous man is the game at its hardest, especially as enemies jump up in level.

Ultimately, I opted for a balanced, Hannibal Lecter-like path: kindness and erudite mystery, coinciding with a predilection to savagely prey on the free-range scum of society--the occasional mass murderer here, a crime boss there, etc. It felt good, righteous, even, for a while. And somewhere around the time I reached level 20, I was still getting ambushed and demolished in two hits by a guy wielding a torch and cheap sword. The problem could be easily remedied by sacrificing yet another juicy, XP-heavy victim, but that could potentially put the surrounding community at risk of devastation. There are games that have tied survival and power to moral choice, but very few have managed to tie the lure of evil so perfectly--or seductively--to the core gameplay.

The narrative does take a mild decline as time goes on. The late-game answers to Dr. Reid's questions feel more focused on the game's fantastical threads than they do on Reid himself--though it cleverly delves into semi-obscure British/Celtic legend and very real macabre British history for inspiration. More and more as the game goes on, Reid's dialogue choices don't end up corresponding to the intended tone. And a few of the really huge choices to be made are no-win situations none of the characters deserve.

And yet, the credits roll on Vampyr with the realization of how seldom we see an open-world RPG experience like this, where being a citizen with a responsibility to a place and its people feels personal, even if that investment lies in who looks delicious tonight. Vampyr is certainly shaggy and rough in the technical department, but its narrative successes still make for an impactful and worthwhile experience.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers Review: Running On Fumes

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 06/02/2018 - 20:00

Dillon the Armadillo is every stoic hero of the Old West... but as an anthropomorphic armadillo. He doesn't say much because he really doesn't need to. His prowess with weapons and dedication to defending good folks just trying to make their way is essentially his whole character. And while, until now, he's been known for his forays within small downloadable games, Dead-Heat Breakers represents a big next step for the franchise.

Most of the game makes the transition well, in part because the premise is played in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Dillon's a no-nonsense guy, and seeing him surrounded by a colorful cast of goofy sapient animals works pretty well. But, after a time there's definitely the feeling that too little game is spread out over too much time. Dead-Heat Breakers grinds to a crawl at times, and while it's far from insurmountable, it's hard to shake the feeling that in this case less would have been more.

While Dillon may be the game's namesake and main action hero, he's not the actual protagonist. When you start up the game, you'll have a Mii of your choice polymorphed into an Amiimal. And it's this "person" that the story centers around. In short, you've narrowly survived an attack on your home town, and you've gone to get help from the infamous "Red Flash," Dillon. On your way, your big rig is attacked by some industrial monstrosities and Dillon and his sidekick/mechanic Russ happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Most of the proceedings are played for comedy, poking at the classic tropes of the western, while mixing a good bit of modern absurdity. Not too long after that encounter, for instance, Russ determines that the team needs a massive gun. And they aren't kidding. He maps it all out in his head and sets to work getting the materials to build a weapon that would put World War II-era train-mounted cannons to shame.

This pair of scenes (the battle between your would-be attackers and Dillon, as well as the process for gathering materials after the fact) make up the two primary phases of play. They loosely correspond to the day and night and will follow that pattern throughout. In the prep part (daytime), you'll wander around town doing odd jobs for the people and participating in mini-games to gather up the required gear for your nightly missions. This works well for pacing at first, but you'll start to feel the drag as the cycles wear on.

Daytime will put you through a few different main activities, including time-trial races and bouts against the series' most iconic foe--the stone-headed, space-faring Groks. Here you can earn money which you can then toss to Wendon for supplies, which go to Russ for assembly into the Breaker (i.e. that giant gun). These are meant to help give you some practice for the more rough-and-tumble nighttime bouts but are too dissimilar to serve as a proper warm-up, and not unique enough to feel like a good break from the main action.

When that time does come, though, you and the Amiimals of your friends and other Miis on your system will assemble into a group, ready to tackle the big bad of the night. This is where the series' touted tower defense-action fusion comes in. Here, like in the opening segment, you'll command the Red Flash and have the option of hiring on the different Amiimals to play defense. Each carries a different weapon with their own attack styles and strengths. Ostensibly the daytime's mini-games are there to help acclimate you to these differences, but in practice, over the game's 15 missions, you'll know who does what pretty quickly and can make your own appropriate choices.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers is best enjoyed in spurts. Powering through the game quickly reveals its many weaknesses (the toll on your hands, and the repetitiveness of the combat and day-night cycle being chief among them), but no part of the adventure is bad, really; it simply wears thin.

Once you've made your choices, you're off to the fight. Your job as Dillon is to keep the pressure off the Amiimals. Using a powerful accelerator as well as Dillon's natural claws and thick hide, you can slam and slash your foes while zooming about the map. On the bottom screen, you'll be able to see a breakdown of the map, the attack range of your team, and which places need your help.

Recruiting more teammates helps take the pressure off you but depletes your coffers and therefore cuts your strategic options for later down quite a bit. Therein lies the big question for how to allocate resources.

Dillon himself can be great fun to play, but the controls are perplexing. Most everything is handled with the joystick and the A button; attacks are somewhat contextual but rely on holding the button down, releasing before pressing, and holding or tapping quickly to different moves. This isn't ideal as it can be occasionally easy to accidentally dash instead of landing an attack, and the constant strain on your thumb during combat sections would have been reduced if you simply used another button or trigger when your attack was ready.

Many of these sequences devolve into high-speed chases where you'll have to clear out every foe during their final assault. There's an excellent bit of white-knuckled tension as you rush from enemy to enemy, spinning up, bashing them, and slashing to bits. Combined with some smart visuals and a great system for snapping you to baddies so you don't inadvertently overshoot them makes these segments a great bit of intense fun--even if they leave your thumbs sore.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers is best enjoyed in spurts. Powering through the game quickly reveals its many weaknesses (the toll on your hands, and the repetitiveness of the combat and day-night cycle being chief among them), but no part of the adventure is bad, really; it simply wears thin. It's a competent, fun little outing that's almost perfectly suited for kids who need something silly and ridiculous that won't require too much thought or technical mastery.

The Forest Review: Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 06/02/2018 - 18:00

The broad premise of The Forest is far from unique. A plane crash lands on a seemingly deserted island, and you, a lone survivor, have to figure out a way to survive. It doesn't take long, however, until blood curdling screeches fill the night and glowing eyes appear in the distance. Once it sets in that your new home isn't as empty as it first appeared, The Forest evolves into a uniquely harrowing adventure that you won't soon forget.

Cannibals inhabit the grassy fields and pristine lakes around you, watching your every move; they are the source of The Forest's ever-present tension. You might expect monsters like this to attack on sight, but their behavior is erratic. Sometimes they'll charge forward to unsettle you during daylight but stop just outside striking distance to simply stare in silence. Other times they might feign a retreat before leaping into nearby trees to quickly get behind you. The Forest's enemies aren't easy to predict, which makes each encounter thrilling.

The breadth of enemy types is impressive too, and they can get surprisingly weird. As you explore the island more and dive into terrifying, pitch-black caverns, enemies transform into terrifying body-horror figures--amalgamations of appendages that bellow deep, disturbing howls. They're frightening to behold and even scarier to fight.

The Forest does a good job of trickling out these surprises while you're already struggling to manage vital meters and resources. It's also imperative that you keep a close eye on the quality of the resources you find. Not every berry bush contains a bounty that won't poison you, and not all water is safe to drink. Meat you gather from hunted animals will rot if not cooked quickly. None of the resulting illnesses are serious enough to dissuade you from eating questionable food if you have no other choice, but needing to think about what you eat adds an additional layer to the minute-to-minute hunter-gatherer gameplay.

Chopping down trees for logs or scouting a route to clean water is paramount in your first few days on the island, and once you establish yourself, this goal shifts to fortifying your position with a base, and perhaps complex spike traps and tree swings. The sheer number of structures you're able to build is impressive, and thankfully The Forest doesn't gate your ingenuity with illusive blueprints. You're given a notebook filled with outlines at the start.

Building has a tangible effect on the island in several ways. Resources like small game and shrubs will respawn over time, but larger trees will remain felled for the entirety of your stay. You might turn a dense forest into an open field of stumps not long after you start, which gives enemies a clearer line of sight into your doings. The more you impose yourself on the island, the more aggressive your aggressors become. Patrols will grow and the more monstrous creatures will emerge from their caves for an all-out assault. The Forest doesn't force you to play in any specific way though, so a more reserved nomadic approach is sometimes safer and more viable. But the sheer delight at seeing an enemy trigger a well-placed trap during a raid is priceless, and well worth the risk of angering the locals.

There's a lot to think about when it comes to surviving in The Forest, but the balance between each of its interlocking parts keeps the game moving at a riveting pace. For every danger the island offers, there's a smart solution around the corner.

Crafting smaller items plays a big part when it comes to personal safety, too. Your inventory screen allows you to combine items you've collected to create new tools; from something as simple as combining a few sticks and stones to make an axe, to creating high-powered explosives using a combination of wristwatches, electrical boards, and spare change. The number of items you can both collect and craft is vast, but the inventory page eventually becomes cumbersome and overwhelming to navigate. And with only four customizable hotkeys, you don't have easy access to everything you want in a pinch.

Although it's constantly testing your perseverance and wants you to feel stretched thin, The Forest never feels overbearing. You'll always be able to depend on your crafted weapons as they aren't hampered by durability. Your pocket lighter will always help you see in the dark, never running out of vital fluid. This reliability frees you from the burden of worrying about the lifespan of any potential upgrades you can make to items too.

Exploration in survival games is usually tied only to your immediate well-being, but The Forest features a narrative that's slowly uncovered by exploration and incidental environmental storytelling. Abandoned camps are a great hunting ground for modern resources and offer hints at past and present events. Putrid remains of long-dead victims aren't an uncommon sight, but you'll also come across small photographs, videotapes and magazines that flesh out a conspiracy with the island at the center.

Uncovering The Forest doesn't have to be a lonely experience, and it offers co-operative play for up to eight people. The time spent getting a fortified settlement up and running is drastically reduced, but remains just as compelling. Co-operative play does, however, deflate the the feeling of being exposed. Larger groups of enemies become easier to deal with, and the fear of diving into caves alone is undercut by both voice chat and the fact that enemies don't scale accordingly. The Forest might be silly fun with friends, but it's at its best when playing alone.

There's a lot to think about when it comes to surviving in The Forest, but the balance between each of its interlocking parts keeps the game moving at a riveting pace. For every danger the island offers, there's a smart solution around the corner. Combined with unpredictable enemies and captivating horror set-pieces, The Forest strikes a compelling balance between survival and horror that you won't soon forget.

Agony Review: A Captivating Disappointment

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 05/31/2018 - 17:00

Hell, by its very nature, shouldn't be enjoyed, but there's still something enthralling and entertaining in seeing creators imagine it in various ways. Agony, on the other hand, is less about Hell as a vehicle for entertainment or even fear. Agony's version of Hell is simply a place of unimaginable horror. It is depraved beyond reckoning, a place whose very brick and mortar is composed of atrocities. It is a place that never opens its sick, emaciated maw except to blaspheme and torment. Hell is terrifying in Agony, which goes hand in hand with the fact that the game is also torturous to play.

In Agony, you are a freshly fallen wretch who wakes up at the gates of Hell with his memories--including his true name--burned away during the trip down. Under normal circumstances, it'd be torture time for the rest of eternity, but somehow, the new meat walks through the gates with most of his wits about him, and only one piece of knowledge: that Hell has a guardian angel, the Red Goddess. Only she can help him regain his lost memories, and help him escape perdition. So begins a long, arduous journey of survival horror--closer in function to Clock Tower or Alien Isolation than Resident Evil--to meet the Goddess, and beg for her dark blessing.

Agony's single most breathtaking achievement is Hell itself. It is an enormous, heretical province of terror, the ungodly conceptual Venn diagram between Hieronymous Bosch, H.R. Giger, and Clive Barker. The very ground you wake up on in the game's first level is made of rotting pink flesh, the mortar made from the crushed bodies and blood of the hideous unborn, a process a later cutscene even shows you in great detail. The architecture all around you is a pulsating gothic nightmare, cathedrals of wide-eyed corpses and skeletons, some of whom are still alive, trapped twitching inside for eternity.

It's because the world itself is so impressive that the enemy design then comes across so disappointing and predictable. While beautiful in detail, demons look mostly like the typical Doom interpretation of demons, and female variants tend to veer closer to being strippers-with-sharp-teeth as opposed to something legitimately imaginative. The Red Goddess herself is a near constant source of eyerolls, mostly coming off as a bloodied burlesque performer, with an inappropriately over-the-top voice performance that wouldn't be out of place in a commercial for a sex hotline. There are design elements that push the envelope--mostly centered around some truly unsettling perversions of genitalia--but the game's ham-handed attempts to be sexy, even in a sinister manner, is incongruous with the skin-crawling nature of the rest of the game.

All the wretched humans shambling around Hell--you included--are little more than desiccated revenants. You can walk--or, more accurately, shuffle along at a snail's pace--perform a limited sprint, and jump. There are no weapons to be had, though you can pick up torches, which provide light, but little else. When you come across an enemy, you have only three options: run or hide. You can technically sneak around, and there’s even a power-up to be gained later that supposedly lessens the noise you make. It is still very, very easy to be heard and seen, hiding spots aren't always close by, and aside from a rising musical sting, there’s no indicator of where exactly an enemy is in relation to you.

There's only a few different classes of enemy you see throughout your play time, ranging from swarms of insects to Lovecraftian behemoths that can snatch up your soul. With only a couple of exceptions, getting caught by an enemy is typically a one- or two-hit death. As such, an hour's work can be flushed down the toilet just by hitting the wrong enemy in a group. Later on, you can actually possess a few classes of demon, but this is never as empowering or thrilling as you might expect. Agony doesn't seem to know how to capitalize on its most promising aspects.

You do, however, have one big trick up your shriveled sleeve: if you should die another death in Hell, your soul can actually fly out of your current body, and forcibly possess another. That's only if you can find a vulnerable victim, though, and pull off the black shroud preventing them from being possessed. Otherwise, after about 10-15 seconds of being dead again, your soul dies a true death. The trick of it is not just finding the last person you unshrouded, but typically finding them in a maze, with an extremely limited and obscured field of vision while disembodied. If/when you die, the Goddess keeps you in Hell, though, and sends you back to the last checkpoint. Even then, checkpoints are a whole other problem. They're represented by a special mirror, where a soul must be sacrificed, but the mirrors are hidden deep in each level. Agony treats basic progressional milestones the way most games treat obscure collectibles.

The checkpoint issue is one tiny facet of the game's overarching issue: Hell is too big for its own good. Your one navigational tool, the Destiny Lines, sends out a little neon cluster of lights that can point you in the right direction, but often the cluster gets just as confused as you are, leading you through walls or ceilings, instead of along a proper route, which can be difficult to discern in the chaotic and painfully dim environments. In addition, on the game's default difficulty, the Lines are a limited resource. The idea here is sound, if the idea was, in fact, to make surviving in Hell feel like a Sisyphean struggle, wandering a realm that mortal men have no mastery over. It doesn't make for an enjoyable experience.

When you're not losing chunks of progress, the rest of the game pits you up against two types of glorified scavenger hunts: collecting a small number of important objects and arranging them in a very specific way to open a door, or finding the correct sigil among dozens written in the environment that will unlock the next area. The first kind is usually easy enough, though oddly, the most difficult one in the game is right at the beginning, where you're thrown into an expansive labyrinth full of enemies, and no way to save your progress when you've grabbed any of the resources you need to continue. Others are easier, but still more of a trudging annoyance than anything. The second kind involves exploring around to find the sigil, often involving backtracks into dangerous areas, only to get back to the door and discover the sigil you picked up doesn't unlock your door. This kind of slow and infuriating repetition typifies Agony from start to finish.

These are issues ironically exacerbated by the fact that it's all taking place in one of the most abominable, depressing, and fundamentally disgusting environments imaginable. Worst of all, you grow numb to Agony's uniquely repulsive flair over time. You start thinking about the environment in practical nonplussed terms, instead of the grim wonder that strikes you in the beginning. Distress turns to disinterest, then--even as the bigger revelations about the protagonist and the nature of his torture come to light--turn to total apathy. I entered Agony’s Gates of Hell with a slack-jawed gasp. It is such a disappointment to have to have left it with a shrug.

Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection Review - Keep The Past Alive

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 05/31/2018 - 00:00

The Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection is another example of Digital Eclipse going above and beyond to properly port and pay tribute to a bounty of classic Capcom games. This anthology includes 12 Street Fighter arcade ports in all, and four of the best have been updated for online play. You can also find plenty of insightful history to unpack outside of combat. From soundtracks to sprite animation breakdowns, to high-res design documents for classic and cancelled games alike, there's a wealth of high-quality reference material to round out the robust selection of games.

All told, the 30th Anniversary Collection includes the original Street Fighter, five versions of Street Fighter II, three iterations of Street Fighter III, and the Street Fighter Alpha, Alpha 2, and Alpha 3. It's great to have all of these seemingly arcade-perfect ports in one place today, and with any luck, for many generations to come. Eagle-eyed aficionados will note the absence of Alpha 2 Gold and Alpha 3 Upper, both of which were available in 2006's Street Fighter Alpha Anthology on PS2, but their omission is far from a deal-breaker.

Likewise, while it may be momentarily disappointing that your favorite console ports are missing (understandable given the lofty scope of emulating multiple consoles) what is here plays wonderfully. If you already love these games, no matter how you played them in the past, the 30th Anniversary Collection will deliver a great experience. In some cases, you may just be looking for a quick trip down memory lane, because let's be honest, the original Street Fighter isn't great by modern standards; it is nonetheless awesome to see it preserved so well and be so easily accessible.

The enduring qualities of the collection's more notable games remain as strong as ever. Capcom's prowess for making exciting and attractive 2D fighting games was almost unparalleled during the '90s, and thus a game like Street Fighter III feels only marginally retro 19 years after the fact. In a similar fashion, Street Fighter Alpha 3's roster variety and variable fighting mechanics make it a fan-favorite to this day for reasons all its own. Does every version of Street Fighter II feel worth playing? Maybe not in isolation, but the evolution of that game in particular meant a lot to the community that grew up around it, and its prominent share of the games list helps tell the complete story of an important chapter in video game history.

Street Fighter's popularity rose out of tense face-to-face arcade bouts, and every game in this collection was released before the popularization of online battles. Over the years, however, Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Street Fighter Alpha 3, and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike would wind up on various connected platforms. Those same games makeup the selection of online-enabled games here, and they exist under a single roof (one lobby can support fight requests for all of the available games at once.) Digital Eclipse has implemented a customizable framework that allows you to dial-in settings tied to input latency, giving you a small but meaningful advantage in the battle against poor network connections.

Just as the 30th Anniversary Collection breathes new life into classic games, its supplemental material helps you appreciate them in all new ways. There's an interactive timeline that chronicles 30 years of milestone and obscure events alike, often with breakout galleries accompanying the release dates of the biggest games. Each of the collection's 48 relevant characters has a dedicated profile with an interactive sprite gallery that lets you manually scrub through their most iconic attacks from each game, frame by frame. Perhaps most valuable of all, it's awesome to have complete soundtracks for each included game. There's a notable lack of video content given what was included in the 25th Anniversary Collection, but Capcom has otherwise given Digital Eclipse a ton of great and never-before-seen content to work with.

That's more or less the story of the 30th Anniversary Collection. It won't satisfy every specific demand, but it's still a big collection of awesome games and behind-the-scenes content that no Street Fighter fan should miss. Street Fighter is a series worth celebrating and Digital Eclipse has managed to do so in a manner that feels respectful to the series and to the people who keep the spirit of arcade battles alive.


Quarantine Circular Review: Who Are We, Really?

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 05/29/2018 - 20:30

Much like its sudden release, Quarantine Circular aims to surprise. The second installment in Mike Bithell's short-story series doesn't have a direct narrative connection to the first game, Subsurface Circular, but it carries over the same sharp writing and intriguing central premise. This time the story jumps between characters instead of delivering its tale through a single lens, and while this structure leads to some tonal inconsistencies, Quarantine Circular is still a thought-provoking experience worth seeing through.

Like Subsurface Circular, Quarantine Circular is a straightforward narrative adventure. You never take control of its characters beyond determining how they respond to others during a conversation. A directed camera does a good job of keeping you engaged, utilizing sharp cuts and slow pans to evoke tension and serenity at the right moments. Its soundtrack, too, does an excellent job of setting the tone of each scene, especially after a sensational opening sequence.

Humanity is facing an extinction event in Quarantine Circular, which makes the simultaneous arrival of extraterrestrial life both inconvenient and suspicious. Taking place aboard a vessel tasked with maintaining a quarantine in a vulnerable city, you shift between multiple perspectives while trying to determine why the aliens have arrived and if they might be linked to the plague that's ravaging life across the globe. Although you never see the effects of the plague in action, Quarantine Circular ramps up the stakes quickly with a trail of clues that hint at what's happening outside the ship's confines. There's a palpable sense of urgency befitting the impending collapse of civilization.

Despite its brief two-hour runtime, Quarantine Circular manages to raise intriguing ideological questions about evolution, human nature, and tribalism. The arrival of extraterrestrial life opens questions about life beyond our planet at a time when there's little chance to preserve it. Issues concerning evolutionary fate and the human race's mistakes act as a centerpiece for the core conflict, which has some surprising twists before somewhat stumbling to a deflating conclusion. But it's a tale that will have you laughing moments before pondering deep existential questions, and it manages that balance with grace throughout.

Without the ability to see characters' expressions due to their bulky biohazard suits, dialogue has to do most of the heavy lifting.The color coding of each character helps keep things from getting too confusing, and it doesn't take long for Quarantine Circular to establish a strong sense of identity for each concealed face. Marc Peréz, for example, is a great early-game character with a contagious sense of optimism, and his inquisitiveness when coming face to face with the alien visitor for the first time mirrors your own. He eventually gives way to a set of characters with varied ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, all of which introduce differing yet surprisingly relatable perspectives for you to consider.

Conversational choices are often linear, giving you a handful of responses that sometimes loop back to the same outcome. They always align with the personality of the character you're guiding; you can't, in other words, role-playing however you see fit. You can't make a brooding security specialist suddenly sympathetic to a cause she doesn't believe in or work around the naivete of a young scientist. Quarantine Circular lets you make choices that affect events in some unexpected ways (so much so that you'll be enticed to replay certain sections to see alternative outcomes) but it never lets you mistake your role in its tale.

You also have the option to dive into alternative points of conversation that flesh out the premise and surrounding events. Sometimes you'll be limited as to how many of these conversational diversions you can take, and some choices lock out others. You'll never feel as though you're missing out on anything specifically crucial with your decisions, but your curiosity is often rewarded with morsels of information that influence more important choices down the line.

Infrequently, these focus points are used to inject some light puzzles into the story, which doesn't always work in the dialogue-heavy structure of the rest of the game. There's a section at the end that is specifically guilty of obstruction, bringing a powerful decision-making moment to a crawl as you rummage through character notes to hunt down a password. It breaks the flow of the game, but thankfully it's not a persistent hindrance.

What is slightly more annoying is the frequent hopping between characters. Quarantine Circular can shift perspectives multiple times in a single act, which gets confusing with the strict response options you have to choose from. The cuts feel jarring, and the writing is sometimes forced to acknowledge it. One scene cuts so rapidly that the responses are sign-posted to ensure you know who you're replying as. It's disappointing, too, when you're forced to change your perspective on a given situation during its potential climax, as it undercuts the emotional resonance the scene had built up all along.

Quarantine Circular's endings also struggle to prop up the stories that led to them. They aren't as surprising as the tales that they're meant to be rounding out, often concluding in transparent ways. They might factor in small decisions you considered inconsequential at the time, but the endings fail to encapsulate all the questions the story asks into a thought-provoking final message. Quarantine Circular ends too abruptly, and without much impact.

But it's still a tale worth giving the little time it asks of you, if only to be entertained by its intriguing characters and inspired by their existential pondering. Quarantine Circular is a mostly well-written sci-fi tale that doesn't succumb to tired tropes or obvious plot contrivances to draw you in. Instead it uses its limited working space to deliver a captivating tale about human nature and our theoretical place within the universe.

Wizard Of Legend Review: Fast-Paced Action

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 05/25/2018 - 18:48

Roguelike pixel-art games are so common that it almost feels like a cliché. Without a great hook, many of these would-be indie hits wind up lost among ever-filling digital storefronts. However, Wizard of Legend, despite a painfully generic title, manages to distinguish itself from its peers with fast, challenging gameplay. Despite a few missteps, it successfully delivers an engaging and endearing experience.

After a breezy tutorial framed as a series of interactive wizard museum exhibits, you finds yourself whisked away into a new dimension--one with an ever-changing, multi-floor dungeon inhabited by three all-powerful wizards. The challenges you face in this dungeon are called the Chaos Trials, and only wizards of truly exceptional skill have ever conquered them…meaning, of course, that you need to become a wizard of exceptional skill.

Your wizard character has animpressive moveset, with a basic melee spell, a dash/dodge spell, and two powerful techniques with cooldowns mapped to each of the controller's face buttons. While a lot of roguelike games focus on smart usage of the random resources you find on any given run, Wizard of Legend's emphasis is more on skill-based action gameplay. By using your spells and movement skillfully, you can create powerful combos, stunlocking enemies with a flurry of melee attacks, ranged magic, and dashes. The fast, fluid movement of your character and timing-based combos make Wizard of Legend feel like classic action-RPGs of yore--a welcome change from the generally slower rhythm of similar procedurally-generated games.

Finding and learning new arcana magic inside and outside of the dungeons can also affect your gameplay; you might have acquired a really cool and powerful spell, but it's practically worthless if you don't learn to use it well in tandem with your other skills. The process of experimenting with the magical combinations you acquire--and augmenting their effectiveness with various artifacts--allows you to personalize your wizard's playstyle to suit your strengths. Just don't get too attached to the spells and items you find inside the dungeons--most of those won't be coming home with you after death.

As you make your way through the Chaos Trials, you'll encounter a variety of obstacles, enemies, places of interest, and treasures scattered throughout the catacombs. Defeating enemies and collecting treasure chests yields gold and gems; gold can be used to buy goods and services within the dungeon, while gems stay with you even if you're defeated and allow you to buy new spells, clothes, and artifacts in the shopping area before a new run. Only the goods purchased outside of the dungeon are permanent--with a few rare and valuable exceptions--making hunting for and collecting gems an important part of exploration. That doesn't make gold worthless, however, as you can use it to purchase temporary upgrades, health restoration, and additional, powerful spells. Yes, you'll lose all the stuff you bought with gold if you perish, but these skills and items can help make a run last a lot longer, which means more potential permanent loot in the long term. It never feels like a serious setback when a run goes bad; you just buy a few goodies, practice your new arcana, and jump back into the game.

It's plenty of fun, but there are a few annoyances. The environments are dull and lack visual variety, and in some cases it's hard to discern what things are due to the colors used and a lack of detail. The dialogue, sparse as it is, also feels like it's trying just a bit too hard, particularly when it goes for lousy puns. It's also an unforgiving game for newcomers, as enemies are relentless straight from the get-go, making the learning curve steep. But no matter how good you are, sometimes you'll just get a really terrible, unescapable battle in a room filled with hazards and projectile-slingers that feels like it's there simply to ruin your run. While the randomness in Wizard of Legend feels like less of a run-killing factor than in other games of this sort, when its RNG decides it doesn't like you, you'll know it.

With a buddy, however, things get easier. You can play local co-op with a friend, with the both of you sharing a common pool of permanent items and arcana picked up from all your runs up to that point. Having two players makes the more difficult enemy encounters and combo challenges feel less overwhelming, and a generous revival system that involves picking up energy from defeated enemies lets a fallen player hop back into the action fairly easily. However, one major fault is that both players must occupy the same quadrant of the screen, which makes for restricted movement in certain situations--like when one player is working to get in for melee strikes while the other is trying to zip around to set up ranged skills. Giving the camera the ability to zoom out during these situations would have been nice. (Also, as of this writing, you can only play local co-op on the Switch using the Joy-Cons, so forget about using that Pro Controller when your friend's over.)

Overall, though, there's a lot to love about Wizard of Legend. While it does have some issues, the cycle of exploration, discovery, failing, learning, and exploring again will keep your determination to conquer the Chaos Trials high. Wizard of Legend might not look like much on the surface, but there's some good magic underneath.


Conan Exiles Review: Dull And Dense

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 05/25/2018 - 00:00

For a game that’s based on the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Conan Exiles has remarkably little to do with any part of that universe. It’s a big, open-world survival sim that sticks true to its initial hardcore vision to a fault. When you combine the steep learning curve of a deep but confusing crafting system with largely monotonous gameplay and a spectacularly awful UI, Conan Exiles feels like it does everything it can to push back on those curious enough to step into its admittedly intriguing but highly flawed world.

The game opens as you regain consciousness in the scorching desert, completely naked and vulnerable. As an exile, you are trapped in a doomed and cursed land with nothing but the faint memory of being cut down from your crucifix by Conan, the giant hunk of man-meat himself. From there, you’re free to wander off into the wild yonder. The exiled lands are massive, made up of different environmental biomes that can be explored freely from the outset. Spectacular-looking sandstorms can roll in out of nowhere, forcing you to seek shelter lest they consume you. You can climb anything from mountains and trees to walls and buildings, provided you have the stamina. This adds an extra dimension to exploration, with the added payoff of some lovely views of Conan's varied world.

You start out small, picking up rocks and sticks and crafting simple tools. Almost everything you find can be broken down one way or another, and while it's neat to watch rocks chip apart and trees topple over as you hack into them, the humdrum motion of harvesting never feels rewarding. Eventually you’ll need to build shelter and a bed, which becomes your new spawn point. Given the game’s brutal permadeath mechanic, doing this sooner rather than later can save you some real heartache.

Shelter can mean anything from a small stone shack all the way to a giant castle, complete with reinforced walls, towers, and even a trebuchet. Building is block-based and relatively free form, allowing for hugely elaborate base designs that can be some fun to build, provided you take the time to gather the raw materials to build everything you need. That's all well and good, except for the part where you aren’t shown how to do any of it. It’s all up to you to simply figure out or dive head first into a wiki to have anything explained in detail.

If you aren’t motivated by curiosity, Conan Exiles' single-player mode will feel empty and largely aimless. It's more like a practice mode, with only a handful of NPC outposts and structures to find. When you do, most of them are hostile, and the few that aren’t only offer minimal interaction. Multiplayer changes this up for the better in a few ways, mainly through the addition of other human players.

More importantly, though, multiplayer gives you more purpose and clearer goals to achieve. This includes defending your base from other players as well as The Purge, an army of NPCs that might attack and destroy your base as you gain XP. You can also join Clans, which will allow you to build collectively, either on or near clanmates' already-laid foundations. For times when you do have to leave home behind, you can create Thralls--human NPCs with specialised abilities you can knockout, bind, and drag back to base to enslave--to help protect it, and they do a decent enough job.

Character progression in both single and multiplayer takes place in the Journey, a series of tasks grouped into chapters that, when completed, grant you attribute points to spend on any one of seven main ability slots. You also gain knowledge points to unlock new crafting recipes, of which there are a lot. The number of things you can craft is staggering; weapons, armor, survival items, and even religious altars to help to deify the gods of the world and earn their favour.

Once you start crafting more complex items, you get better acquainted with one of the game's worst aspects: its UI. There’s nothing intuitive about it, and like the rest of the game, there’s very little explanation given as to how it works. On top of that, it's overly complicated, requiring you to place the resources along with any fuel required into the crafting bench first, select what you want to build from the menu, and then hit the play button to actually craft it. There’s also almost no difference between the console and PC UI, so it's an absolute nightmare to do any kind of inventory management with a controller. And like in most survival sims, it’s what you inevitably spend a significant amount time doing, making it a constant source of frustration.

When you get tired of chipping away at trees and rocks, which you will, you can chip away at creatures or other humans instead. There are all manner of things in the exiled lands for you to kill or be killed by, from animals and beasts to monstrous boss creatures like a giant black spider and a huge, spiked Dragon. But despite the sizeable enemy variety and the large array of weapons you can smith--from daggers to axes and giant mallets--combat is just plain bad. Both light and heavy attacks feel unwieldy thanks to sluggish animations, and weapon strikes lack any impact, resulting in dull and monotonous fights.

Conan Exiles is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve ever played.

To top it off, Conan Exiles just feels really unpolished. The bodies of harvested enemies simply disappear into thin air, and large areas of the world can pop in and out of view at any time, clipping your character through the ground then respawning you somewhere else on the map. When the night starts to come, the moon’s light casts upwards from the ground, creating an bottomlit effect that looks atrocious. It’s also not in the most stable condition, with a number of crashes affecting gameplay randomly on both PC and Xbox.

Ultimately, Conan Exiles is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve ever played. Its crafting and resource systems may be dense enough that the ultra-patient could find something to enjoy here, but anyone else would likely walk away with their hands thrown up in defeat. The mind-numbing tedium of harvesting resources, woefully boring combat, and a slew of bugs left me feeling completely underwhelmed and unimpressed when it was all said and done.

Detroit: Become Human Review - To Err Is Human

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 05/24/2018 - 13:00

Detroit: Become Human posits a well-worn future, when androids have become so lifelike and so deeply integrated into human society that surely it's only a matter of time and circumstance until they break through to the other side and achieve consciousness. There isn't much time spent examining how such a seemingly preventable event might be possible; Detroit is primarily focused on androids' experiences during the process of their awakening, and their shock when looking at humanity with eyes unclouded for the first time. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide how they react in the face of adversity.

It is a gameplay-light experience broken up into dozens of chapters with hundreds of decisions to make during cutscenes and explorative sequences. The only real challenge is to be fast, thorough, and perceptive enough to guide characters towards decisions that match your moral compass--or not, if you prefer your stories messy and chaotic. As a result of the myriad crossroads in Detroit, few players will experience events in the exact same way. Pivotal moments gone awry can lead some characters to premature deaths, but even small deviations can have a lasting impact on the state of the people, places and events you encounter throughout. Many of the decisions may seem mundane at first, but however benign a choice may seem, they add up, and gradually draw you into each character's individual experience.

Detroit is purposefully designed in a disorderly fashion, leaving you with mini cliffhangers throughout the game as it cycles from one character's perspective to the next at the end of every 10- to 20-minute chapter. This may sound messy, but it actually works in its favor as the main characters Kara, Connor, and Markus each bring something different to the table. That variety ensures you're never bored and almost always surprised by what happens next.

Kara, a housekeeper android belonging to an abusive, drug-addled single father at the start, becomes a guardian on the run protecting Alice, the little girl she watches over. Kara is unfortunately naive, and as a result finds herself (and Alice) in trouble on a regular basis. The fact that danger for Kara also means danger for a young child significantly raises the stakes when push comes to shove. You strive to protect them from the worst examples of humanity gone astray, and though it's easy to identify the right choices to ensure their safety, getaways are rarely clean, and often messy.

By comparison, Connor's chapters are more personal and inquisitive. He assists a worn-out detective named Hank who loathes his presence due to a deep-seated prejudice, and the two must work together to solve a series of murders tied to rogue androids. Connor's partner isn't very likeable. He is gruff and rough around the edges, but he is nonetheless a good foil for you to play off of. Where Kara's owner is onenote and unbelievably harsh, Hank can be swayed to trust you over time and overcome his cynicism. It's not always easy to know what will convince him of your worth. Some answers may feel "right," but Hank knows better than to listen to someone who only tells him what he wants to hear.

Hank and Connor will regularly investigate crime scenes together where you're required to analyse your environment, gather clues, and recreate events by interpolating evidence. Not every crime scene tells a compelling story, but the process of investigation is consistently engaging. Conor's allegiance to humans (and his first hand experiences dealing with Hank's blunt hatred) gives you a chance to better understand both sides of Detroit's embroiled society. If there's one android in Detroit who deserves his own story to be blown up and given more screen time, it's Connor.

The most pivotal character of the lot is Markus, and while he is involved with some of Detroit's most creative scenes, he is remarkably lacking in nuance. At the start, he has the most fortunate existence. His owner is a kind, elderly painter who encourages free thought and treats Markus as though he was his son. Meanwhile, the painter's actual son is a complete jerk who runs the risk of ruining his father's and Markus' well-being. This inevitably comes to pass, and it's from here that Detroit's big-picture plot kicks off: the fight for android equality.

The discussion is a valid one to have given the context at hand, but the way that the social disparity between humans and androids is conveyed in Detroit is such an on-the-nose series of references to the American Civil Rights Movement that it's hard not to to be taken aback. Androids are forced into the back of buses, segregated from some public areas and private establishments, and made to use the stairs instead of escalators… for some reason. When Markus rallies other rebellious androids and you get to pick their protest slogan, you are actually given the option to choose "we have a dream." These references are distracting, and at no point does it feel justified to lift from the history of actual people who've suffered--and continue to suffer--in the real world.

These moments are unforgettably lame, but it's a testament to the story's strengths elsewhere that they don't completely drag the experience down as a whole. Detroit excels at presenting dire situations. Danger seems to lurk around every corner, and because you are expected to react quickly under stress, you can't help but feel anxious when either Kara or Markus are at risk of being discovered by humans after going rogue. These moments can be quiet, slice-of-life scenes, but that would-be serenity only amplifies the tension; sometimes one misstep is all it takes to upend an otherwise peaceful chapter, and you don't want to feel responsible for triggering a chaotic turn of events. Generally, you still have a chance to fix a bad situation, but with so many potential ramifications in the air, Detroit always finds a way to leave a scar you won't soon forget.

Even if Detroit stumbles on a semi-regular basis, it is almost always captivating to behold.

For as powerful as those chapters can be, it's Detroit's most dreadful and horrific scenes that leave a lasting impression. Kara faces her fair share of terror, but Markus' transition to freedom is a hellish trip into the darkest corners of this fictional version of Detroit that's truly unforgettable. Detroit wouldn't be so effective at bringing you into this world if not for its overall stellar presentation. Some NPCs and secondary characters do stand out due to below-average production values, but it's only because most characters and scenes are so beautifully rendered. Even if Detroit stumbles on a semi-regular basis, it is almost always captivating to behold.

Writer and director David Cage is known for crafting these sorts of games (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls), but Detroit marks the first time you are presented with an explicit breakdown of the choices you made at the end each brief chapter--or during the chapter if you look in the pause menu. This is positioned as a feature, one that allows you to reflect on your actions and realize what you could have done differently, and if you so choose, to immediately go back and make different decisions. But in effect, this feedback methodology is ultimately detrimental, destroying your immersion by reminding you of the game you're playing, and reducing your influence to a point score that can be traded in for unlockable character models and documentaries. So far as I can tell, there's no narrative or meta significance to justify thrusting this information to the forefront before the game is finished. It's useful if you want to chase trophies or shy away from facing the consequences of your actions, but it sucks to be treated as if that's your default approach. There's no way to disable these flowcharts, and I really wish there was.

These unavoidable flowcharts, like the blatant and cheap appropriation of American history, drag down Detroit's otherwise gripping tale. It has the makings of a truly memorable game, and in many ways, pieces of it will stick with me for a long time. It is too beautiful, too haunting, and too impressive to forget.

Despite being built for multiple playthroughs, it's difficult to imagine jumping back in to fix "mistakes" or exhaust every possible outcome for the sake of completionism. I played with my best intentions. Things didn't always go the way I wanted, but that was a burden I chose to bear, and the story benefitted from my commitment, flowcharts be damned. After completing the game, I tried to go back and fight my instincts to see what would happen if I chose a darker path. It never felt justified nor worthwhile. Detroit is well worth playing, but it struggles to strike the right balance between giving you freedom of choice and reminding you that it's all a game in the end. Cage and Quantic Dream are getting closer to nailing this style of game, but it's obvious that there's still room to grow.


Runner 3 Review: A Bit Of A Trip

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 05/22/2018 - 19:40

Out of the numerous games to spring up under the Bit.Trip umbrella, it's not exactly a surprise that the most accessible of the bunch, Bit.Trip Runner, would be the one to transcend its retro-styled roots. In bringing the Runner games' mechanics to a fancier playground on the Switch, developer Choice Provisions has made its most ambitious game yet--but in doing so, may have revealed the limits to how far it can push the concept. It's also the most difficult, and if you haven't already invested in a good sturdy case for the Switch that might stand up to having the system thrown at terminal velocity out of a living room window, now would be a good time.

On paper, the gameplay is as deceptively simple as it's always been. Your character runs forward automatically, and it's up to you to jump, duck, slide, and kick down obstacles until you reach the finish line. The secret sauce of the Runner series is that every action and every item in a stage is plotted to work with its music, a whole game trekking along to simple melodies. Stages can be unpredictable, but if you have any sense of rhythm whatsoever, losing yourself to the music can get you through the tougher moments.

None of Runner 3’s tunes are terribly catchy, and quite frankly, it makes me wistful for the innovative chiptunes that accompanied the original Bit.Trip Runner. Most of the tracks settle for rudimentary and quirky when they could’ve absolutely gone big and eclectic. The furthest Runner 3 branches out in that regard is in the Danny Elfman-like haunted house tunes that accompany much of the second area of the game. At most, the music does the bare minimum: providing a beat for you to follow.

Most people will be able to blast through the first few stages easily, but Runner 3 ramps up the difficulty early on. Around the halfway point of the first area, stages start changing perspectives to an angle, but the shifts in viewpoint can make some of the jumps trickier than they need to be and obscure some obstacles. At its most aggravating, it's difficult to suss out where it's safe to land or what the timing needs to be to kick something out of your way. There are also moments where the game is too complex for its own good; for example, a machine that builds platforms as you run along, making anticipation impossible except through sheer trial and error--which can feel immensely cheap, especially as you get closer to the finish line.

That problem is made worse by the sheer length of each level. Although there are fewer stages in Runner 3, they go on longer than ever--a perfect run with no deaths can sometimes stretch on for four or five minutes. There are still checkpoints at the midpoint of each stage (and as before, if you like living dangerously, skipping the checkpoint gives you a ton of points), but each stage is so densely packed with obstacles this time around that those two minutes to get to safety can feel like an eternity. On top of that, the difficulty is wildly inconsistent; you might get stuck on an early stage that throws bizarre off-kilter obstacle patterns at you, and the next two stages could be walks in the park.

Compared to the relative austerity of the previous titles, Runner 3's environments go full-tilt wacky, overloaded with comical flourishes. The very first stage has you running through a breakfast island, a place where the palm trees are slices of cantaloupe and grapefruit, the rivers flow with milk and cereal, and the high roads are paved with waffles and toast. Later, another stage in Foodland sends you running through a giant refrigerator, bouncing off Jell-O cubes and jogging past some of the most outlandish and gross fake food products imaginable (personal favorites: Fish Errors, Beefmilk, and Cup O' Lumps in Milk Brine). Runner 3's levels are so immensely packed full of random amusements that you're equally likely to fail because you were busy staring at some visual gag happening off in the distance.

For those who do want more of a challenge, there are Hard variations of each stage, and ironically, there's a more gradual climb in difficulty with these than in the normal stages. In addition, the branching Hard routes tend to be where most of the game's collectibles are hiding, giving even more incentive for multiple playthroughs of an area. Said collectibles unlock a sizable amount of content, from the truly infuriating Impossible stages to new runners--with recurring characters from previous games rubbing shoulders with Shovel Knight and, for some reason, Eddie Riggs from Brutal Legend--to Retro stages which are built on a Hanna-Barbera aesthetic.

The greatest compliment to be paid to a game like Runner 3 is that after feeling the urge to toss a controller, it's hard to think of anything else except trying again. Runner 3’s greatest strength is in rewarding that perseverance. Getting through each stage means more jokes to see, more characters to play around with, and more secret stages to explore. Runner 3, over time, reveals itself to be a veritable buffet of weird and whimsical environments, and thrilling, precision-based gameplay, but make no mistake: you will have to work for your meal.

State Of Decay 2 Review: The Limping Dead

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 05/18/2018 - 02:00

State of Decay 2 sometimes feels like a far-too-real representation of the mundane reality that comes with surviving a zombie apocalypse. Consistently being on the hunt for food, resources to craft ammunition, and survivors to bolster your ranks doesn’t always translate into a captivating gameplay loop--especially when you’re faced with horrors other than the countless undead that roam around you.

Like the first game from Undead Labs, State of Decay 2 infrequently checks in with an overarching narrative. You’re given the choice of three pairs of survivors to start off with, each with their own bare-bones background stories. Those stories don’t really matter, but your decision does define your starting area and the preliminary survivors you’ll team up with to combat a growing sickness called the Blood Plague. The plague is the singular goal for you to work against, as your community strives to eradicate it from your town and build towards a brighter future.

That mission boils down to finding zombie-invested settlements that you’ll need to first scout out and ultimately destroy, with grotesque, beating Plague Hearts at the center. These fights are the only real way to measure progression through State of Decay 2’s otherwise open-ended campaign. Each settlement you conquer strengthens the rest, forcing you to step back and regroup before attempting to blow up the next. They're the toughest challenges the game has to offer, too, serving up waves of foes for you to fight as you valiantly lob another Molotov at the heart, hoping it vaporizes and takes all the nearby undead with it. Unfortunately, they are basic action set-pieces at their core, without much variety to help shake up the otherwise monotonous scavenging that surrounds them.

State of Decay 2 is primarily about survival, and it bears all the baggage the genre is known for. Although you’re spared the stress of dealing with individual meters for hunger and thirst, you’ll instead be engaging with ones that affect your community. Food, medical supplies, and crafting materials all factor into the stability of your community, with the overall mood of your survivors governing how well you’re doing. Supplies are littered around the dilapidated and abandoned settlements surrounding you, which are easily scouted with a little high ground. Your objectives hardly stray from going out, clearing an area of enemies, and scrounging around for consumables, gear, and large rucksacks of the more pertinent supplies you’ll need to keep settlers happy.

The act of gathering these supplies is rarely gratifying, though. Although your settlement initially requires some quick work to get on its feet, State of Decay 2 hardly feels like it will fail you for slacking on your routine duties. Certain base structures, for example, have daily resources costs that might trick you into thinking you’ll need a steady supply coming through. But because days tick by so slowly (I finished my core objectives within the first 10 days) this never becomes a real concern. Resources only become troublesome when you need them to craft something specific, such as ammo or plague cures. They’re short-lived problems though, which hardly force you to pause and think about how you’re setting up your settlement. It’s rare for State of Decay 2 to make you feel pressure over the choices you make, which just make all of its interesting sub-systems feel shallow.

It’s a pity, too, because so many of them could’ve added a much-needed layer of strategy. As an example, your base features a threat level which governs how likely you are to attract a zombie attack. Creating new structures or powering them with generators creates noise and in turn increases the likelihood of an attack for a certain period. But even at the highest level, a community of just six members strong is often enough to fend off these attacks without needing explicit intervention on your part. Of the handful of moments that my character was radioed to return, the fight was over by the time I arrived. All structures intact, all survivors unharmed.

State of Decay 2 squanders systems like this by not giving you a reason to engage with them seriously. If your aim is to continually bring new survivors to a settlement but also worry about their well-being, your encounters with each new face should feature more scrutiny as to what they bring to the table. Their distinct abilities set them apart from each other, but not in a way that forces you to make tough decisions about who to invite into your settlement.

The friendlier survivors you encounter are injected with a sense of individuality thanks to numerous perks that come pre-assigned to them. One specialising in swordplay will be more effective with a bladed weapon, while another with computer skills can help expand your base of operations. The sheer breadth of options on offer might trick you into thinking that scrutinizing each potential new addition to your settlement is key, but that’s not the case. Frequently, State of Decay 2 informs you that clashing personalities are leading to fights at home base, but these never escalate to a point where you’re required to take action. You’ll never feel the need to exile an existing character or deny entry to one based on their lack of specific skills.

Graphical hitches are frequent, including enemies clipping through the environment and sometimes having entire hordes stuck on single piece of the environment.

Combat isn’t as dynamic as some character-specific abilities might suggest, but it is satisfying nonetheless. A single button is used for attacks, which depending on your weapon of choice could inflict blunt knockback damage and force an enemy to the floor or slowly slice away at them limb by limb. Each approach comes with its advantages and drawbacks. Bladed weapons deal with larger groups of enemies more efficiently but tend to be far less durable than a sledgehammer or tire iron. These bulkier weapons require you to take an additional action to finish off enemies on the ground, which might leave you open to getting surrounded. Either way, the gory finishers and gruesome sound effects really bring a weight to the melee action, even if you’re just mindlessly mashing the same button until your stamina expires. Firearms feature too, and ammunition for them is far more abundant than you might expect. Gunshots attract more zombies (even with silencers), but it’s the sluggish aiming that's ultimately more frustrating in practice.

State of Decay 2 does a fair job of mixing things up with the introduction of some new enemy types. While some less interesting additions suchs as exploding Bloaters feature more than they deserve to, two others shake up combat in delightful ways. Ferals will jolt around at high speeds, avoiding your melee swings and making firearms a nightmare to connect with. Similarly, Juggernauts make up the largest foes you’ll face on the frontier. They’ll soak up hits from vehicles and rounds of ammunition before giving you a chance to take them down with a satisfying execution. Combined with regular, lumbering enemies that will quickly surround you, Juggernauts make fights more about clever crowd control.

Often though, it’s the game itself that will do its best to deter you from playing rather than its lack of depth. State of Decay 2 runs extremely poorly, even on Xbox One X. Despite not standing out graphically in any regard, the framerate will frequently dip well below its 30 frames per second target, sometimes locking up momentarily when the action is thick on screen. As a result, inputs can often feel incredibly sluggish and unresponsive, which just becomes annoying when you’re trying to swing your way out of a supply run gone sideways. Lighting can sometimes be striking, especially in dawn and dusk situations, but State of Decay 2 lacks a visual theme to tie itself up with and just ends up looking drab and boring. This is all stacked on top of a motion blur that is so aggressive that even the slightest movement turns your surroundings into an unattractive smudge.

Bugs are prominent too and can range from slightly annoying to near game-breaking. Graphical hitches are frequent, including enemies clipping through the environment and sometimes having entire hordes stuck on single piece of the environment. Enemies also routinely drop from the sky if you’re racing across the map quickly, which you’ll do often when you’re travelling in any one of the vehicles present on the map. Physics will miscalculate, launching your vehicle in the air from a slight touch at low speeds. Companions are also particularly prickly. Some following you on missions will disappear for no reason, while I personally had a single instance of a community member disappearing entirely and being eliminated from my pool of characters upon starting the game. One other instance saw one of my characters locked out from use in perpetuity for no apparent reason, while other times some would be stuck in an endless loop of the same boring dialogue for an entire mission. State of Decay 2 is in rough shape as it stands.

Perhaps if State of Decay 2 had the kind of depth that drew you in, these technical faults would be easier to overlook. But it’s because of the lack of meaningful motivations that they stick out so predominantly. State of Decay 2 settles into a rhythm that might be easy for you to pass some hours with, but it’s never a ride with genuine surprises, excitement or purpose. There’s promise in so many systems that it introduces, but they’re woefully underutilized to make space for repetitive activities that are nowhere near as exciting to engage with. State of Decay 2 feels like the lumbering enemies that populate its country mountains. Aimless, wandering, and just out of place.

Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition Review - The Great Zelda Spin-Off Is Back

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:00

Hyrule Warriors is a beautiful, chaotic mess of a game. It's got all the glossy rupees, imaginative monsters, and fashionable characters you'd expect from the Zelda series (and plenty you wouldn't), topped off with some nods to the medieval hack-and-slash Dynasty Warriors series. In place of puzzles and elaborate levels or side-quests, you're here to do one thing--mess up some monsters.

This shouldn't be new to most folks, as the original run of Hyrule Warriors launched back in 2014, but the port to Nintendo Switch brings all the extra characters and items from the DLC, plus some added costumes and all the content from the 3DS version. That's a ton of content to bring to the table, but the game's central theme is the same as ever. That makes the Switch version a tough sell for all but the most dedicated fans of the original or those who have never set foot into the wacky world of this strange mash-up. Given the Wii U's relatively meager sales, though, this is a great second chance for the strongest Zelda spin-off ever.

For the unfamiliar, Dynasty Warriors is a tactical action game that tasks you with managing an army and controlling specific keeps or tracts of land. All the while, you are able to insert yourself directly into the fray as an uber-powered demi-god. That allows you to shift the tide of battle, essentially acting as the queen in chess. Powerful though you may be, you've also got to keep constant track of the field, and where you're needed most. That tension--between the battle right in front of you, and the tactical considerations of the field--represent the core tension of the series.

Hyrule Warriors doesn't compromise on that at all, and even mixes in plenty of mid-game quests and objectives to keep you juggling your goals and constantly weighing your best options. It's a lot to have going on at once, but it genuinely works. Choices are always billed as risks--should you go home and shore up the defenses of your base, or press-on for a valuable collectible? Understanding where you're needed most and how the various elements of a map all play together is important, but it's not so taxing that you can't fudge your way through a good chunk of it.

And that's part of the appeal. As Link or Darunia or Zelda or Impa, you've got the entire Hyrule cast at your back. Zelda isn't some rando, she's a monster-busting fiend. Even when you've got more important decisions to make, watching Zelda summon spears and swords from raw light and dispatching wave after wave of moblins is the kind of cathartic release many have been waiting decades for. This is fan-service at its most pure and most satisfying. Seeing the characters you've grown up with or idolized in new contexts that allow them to unleash their full might, is a bit like taking your favorite characters into Smash Bros. or Marvel vs Capcom. There's an essence of childlike fascination that comes along with it, and Hyrule Warriors wields that well.

Fans of Zelda lore and the like need not turn their noses up at this adventure, either. Provided you can buy into the initial premise and get some mileage there, the adventure is truly a fascinating one. You'll cross dimensions and timelines, bouncing between locales from many of the more recent Zelda entries, including Wind Waker, Breath of the Wild and Skyward Sword. All of this fits tonally too. With more than a dozen characters from all over the timeline and Zelda own history of world-swapping, time-warping weirdness, muddling the lines between worlds a bit to get everyone into the same game feels natural.

If anything, as we stated in our original review, the one major issue this brings up is the longing for flashier attacks and better combos in the mainline Zelda series. And when a spin-off makes you want more from the original, that's certainly a special sort of accomplishment.

New to the Switch version is split screen multiplayer. The original allowed one player to use the Wii U Gamepad, and another to play on the TV. This mode honestly, while nice, isn't much of an improvement. The Switch can still chug a bit when the action gets heavy, and trying pack two players, and the mayhem they cause onto a single screen feels a little tight. Still, it's always nice to have the option.

Those returning to the fray will likely be a little disappointed as there just isn't enough new content to rouse fresh excitement. For newcomers, though, Hyrule warriors is a delightful, bizarre outing that opens up the Zelda series, taking us places we've been before, just with thousands of monsters and awesome, screen-clearing magical attacks.

Framed Collection Review - Worth A Thousand Words

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:00

When it first released in 2014, Framed was declared game of the year by no less than Hideo Kojima. In the years since, this has been the game's enduring legacy--it's not just a good game, but one that inspired an industry heavyweight with its inventiveness. It's a fundamentally robust, unique idea executed well.

Framed Collection brings together Framed and its 2017 follow-up Framed 2 (a prequel, although the plot is largely inconsequential) to Nintendo Switch and PC--both were formerly exclusive to iOS and Android. They are essentially puzzle games in which you're trying to solve a narrative issue--they present comic books where the main characters die or get arrested on every page. Several panels are laid out on each screen, each one depicting different scenes, usually involving one or more of the game's unnamed protagonists trying to outsmart the police or overcome an obstacle. In the opening stages, all you need to do is switch the panels around so that the character can safely get to the end of the 'page' and escape it.

Once you have the panels in an order that you think will work, you press 'play' and watch what happens. To give an early example, if the first (immovable) panel shows two police firing their guns then you'll need to move the panel that shows a table into the second slot, so that the man who is being fired at can immediately dive behind it and take cover. If any other panel is placed second, he'll be shot. All of this is backed by a lovely jazz soundtrack and neat visual style that renders all the characters in silhouette. Framed has a great sense of style, and although some of the backgrounds can be a bit plain (especially in the first game), it's easy to read the action and figure out what is going to happen in each panel as you enter or exit it.

In both games, the puzzles grow more complicated and clever as you progress. Later puzzles will let you rotate panels, sometimes changing the orientation of objects within them, other times shifting a rectangular panel so that it's either vertical or horizontal (which changes the order the panels are 'read' in as well). Others will let you move panels around after you've pressed play, which means that getting through to the last panel on the screen will mean moving through some panels more than once. Everything works on silly video game stealth logic--you can assume that all the police are deaf to anyone behind them--but the game's internal logic is consistent.

It's a clever system, albeit one that feels like it could have been pushed just a little further after finishing both short games. Played back to back, it's the original Framed that stands out the most. It's not necessarily better, per se, but the game has held up well since its initial release, and still feels like a fresh idea. Framed has a loopier structure than the sequel, one that calls attention to the game's weird frame-switching conceit with a plot that is hard to fully understand, but is neat in its ambitiousness. The original game introduces all the series' best concepts and ideas too, and as such ends up feeling a tad more inventive just by virtue of being the first one.

That's not to say that Framed 2 isn't also good fun. It's much nicer visually, and the puzzles are more playful in the sequel--one sequence where you need to change a character's outfit by continually switching around panels so that they alternately put on and take off various items of clothing is a stand-out, as is one scene that lets you rotate the hands of a clock to affect the angle at which one of the characters leaps off it into the next panel. Some other set-pieces, like a fist fight and a sequence where you need to figure out a four-digit code based on a tableau taking up most of the screen, play out as cute proofs-of-concept rather than full-blown ideas, but they're in the minority. Both games have plenty of lovely 'a-ha' moments, where a puzzle clicks and an obvious solution that was staring you in the face suddenly leaps out. Neither is particularly difficult, and while that's not a major issue both games also end abruptly--some further complexity would not have gone amiss.

Framed Collection's only real significant addition is a fast-forward button, which lets you speed up the action after pressing play. This is a bigger deal than it sounds--having to watch the same scenes slowly play out every time you pressed play after organizing panels was the most annoying part of Framed on mobile, and the problem has been mitigated here. You can play either game in TV mode with the Switch, but it's better in handheld mode with touch controls--using a controller just doesn't feel natural, especially when you need to switch between panels quickly. Playing on PC with a mouse is a great fit, too; these games are well suited to a bigger screen, and the art scales well.

Framed Collection is a pleasant reminder of why these mobile games struck such a chord. I wouldn't go as far as Kojima and declare them game of the year material, but I'd be up for a Framed 3 that took the building blocks established by the first two games and found new ways to piece them together. If you've already played Framed 1 and 2 on mobile there's not much reason to come back, but if you haven't these are the best versions of the unique and enduring puzzle games.

Battle Chasers Nightwar Review: Switch It Up

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 05/15/2018 - 20:00

Based on a hit comic book series from the late '90s, Battle Chasers: Nightwar successfully translates the look and feel of a comic into a turn-based RPG. The mesmerizing animated intro shows exactly what you're in for: a wild world where steampunk meets Dungeons & Dragons, rendered in beautiful, deep-shaded colors. It was a spell that was frequently broken when it first released. After months worth of patches, tweaks, and improvements on other platforms, however, it's a very different, and much stronger experience right out of the box on the Nintendo Switch.

The broad premise of the Battle Chasers comic is that a girl named Gully has taken a pair of magic gauntlets, along with a motley crew consisting of a sellsword, a wizard, and a kindly robot, on a journey to find her missing father. The Nightwar chapter, however, is a minor sidetrack from that journey. The crew gets shot down from their airship over a mysterious island with serious problems of its own. Supposedly, the island is home to a mother lode of mana, which has prompted something of a magic-based gold rush. Mercenaries, thieves, unsavory merchants and, most worrisome of all, the attention of an evil sorceress named Destra, are drawn to the island. The crew's plans to depart dissolve into a trek that goes deep into the island's darkest regions.

Battle Chasers endears you in the process of establishing its world, characters, and combat systems. Garrison, the mercenary, is exactly what you might expect from a square-jawed warrior with a tragic backstory: his terse personality keeps him at arm's length from his cohorts. On the flipside, the hulking mech, Calibretto, is a gentle soul who acts more as the defacto healer, and the beating heart of the story as it goes along. The cast at large brings infectious personality and energy to every scene, and all of this is underscored by a delightfully diverse soundtrack, flavoring typical medieval adventure anthems with everything from Chinese string instruments to bassy, trip-hop backbeats.

The game's overworld is dotted with opportunities to battle oozing slimes, vicious wolf men, and surly prospectors. Dilapidated little shanty towns pop up along the way, as well as occasional side quests, which usually impart a bit of lore before asking your band to thwart a high-ranking enemy in a dangerous place. The bread and butter of the game, however, is its major dungeons. Eight in total, the dungeons are procedurally generated. Despite the randomization, each room and its layout is impressively detailed, with smoothly integrated puzzles, that most of the time it's impossible to tell every dungeon wasn't meticulously laid out until you reset one, and re-enter to find an unrecognizable location.

From the outset, combat is fairly standard turn-based fare. Veterans of the game will find that the difficulty curve has been evened out in a way where early battles are still very doable, but don't go too easy on new players. The first few hours are full of hard hits and unexpected deaths for those who don't stay vigilant. Basic enemies hit for dozens of points in damage in a single wave, leaving debuff effects like Poison and Bleeding in their wake before you even really know what they do.

Thankfully, it's fairly easy to turn the tables. Every character has a special skill to affect enemies within dungeons--proactively stunning, ambushing, or igniting them--just before a fight kicks off. The principal gimmick during a fight is the Overcharge system. Basic attacks contribute to a special pool of red mana points that can be used to cast magic and tech attacks, rather than actual mana points. The new balance of progression makes it much easier to gain a foothold in the world, where no fight feels too unwieldy. For the fights that do, the removal of level restrictions on equipment also means that the right tool for the job is never too far out of reach. MP still remains in short supply as the game progresses, however. One should still be mindful about whether to build Overcharge or expend mana when using abilities. This gets increasingly tricky, but in a way that keeps you engaged in every battle, no matter how small.

There were two major problems with Battle Chasers when it first released: A severely steep difficulty curve as the game progressed into its second and third acts, and frequent, aggravating load times going into both battles and new areas. The bad news is that the second issue remains. Even on the more powerful PS4, months of patches still leave a problem where even just getting into a fight in the overworld map can stop the game dead for 30 seconds to load a single, low-level enemy. At least that system gets 60fps fights as a consolation prize. The Switch gets no such benefit, with not just a lower resolution, but intermittent stutters in framerate the more active and flashy the attacks. On both systems, going from the overworld to a dungeon or vice versa can keep you trapped on a loading screen for close to a minute.

The good news is that everything else feels great. Changes to the game's XP and various store economies make it easier to keep your companions ahead of the curve through regular gameplay instead of through tedious grinding—though that's still an option if you want it to be, and the rewards are now much more worthy of the effort. The same considerations still have to be made with each new piece of gear. Armor typically raises a character's HP, stamina, and speed, but drastically lowers physical and magical defense--stats that matter against stronger enemies. The trick of it is finding items that counterbalance the loss, and the odds of that happening, as it stands, have been improved for the better.

Beyond the challenge of combat, Battle Chasers is sustained through the strength of its story, a rollicking tale that takes our heroes literally to hell and back. It's bolstered by some sharp dialogue, gorgeous artwork, and an ensemble that plays extremely well off of each other. Lots of work has gone into Nightwar since its first release, and the balancing improvements make it an easy game to recommend on all platforms.

FAR: Lone Sails Review: Come Sail Away

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 05/15/2018 - 15:00

FAR: Lone Sails, the debut title of Swiss developer Okomotive, opens with your character--an unnamed, ambiguous figure in red--wordlessly paying their final respects at a grave behind their home. As you guide them from left to right, through their residence and out the front door, you leave it behind and set out on an unclear journey. The world is tinged grey, broken, abandoned. You quickly arrive at the vehicle that serves as your dwelling for the rest of the trek, a landbound ship that uses petrol, steam, wind, and its giant wheels and sails to propel itself forward. You henceforth pilot the ship in a straight line away from your home, unsure of the specifics of your destination or purpose--it seems like you're simply trying to go as far as possible.

Lone Sails is a 2D puzzle game in which there are no enemies, few challenges, and a purposefully vague narrative. These are all ideas we've seen attached to plenty of other indie platform-puzzle games, and in the opening few minutes described above it all feels very familiar. But it does not take long for Lone Sails to emerge with its own distinct voice and identity, and that's thanks to the ship you're piloting.

You'll spend at least half your time running around inside your ship--presented from a bisected viewpoint whenever you enter it--pressing the big red buttons that operate its various functions. You'll need to make sure that you've got fuel in the tank before firing the engine, meaning you'll often have to stop and collect canisters of it from outside during your journey (at no point in my playthrough did I come even remotely close to running out). Steam will build up if the engine runs for long enough, and pressing the associated button releases a valve and gives you a brief speed boost. Aside from these functions, most parts of your ship don't require frequent attention. You have a hose for fires and a repair torch, but they're generally only needed during or following set-pieces; a brake that brings you to an immediate halt; and, following an early upgrade, a set of sails that you can coast with if the wind permits.

There are plenty of sections where the ship must be brought to a halt so that you can leave and fiddle around outside to clear a path or get yourself moving again. These are Lone Sail's puzzles, and they're generally quite gentle, usually not involving much more than figuring out the right order to hit a series of red buttons or attaching your ship's winch to something. But even if they're not challenging, these set-pieces are usually delightful, either in how much your meddling changes the environment around you, or how the world's vistas stretch out behind you, or because they end with your ship getting a neat upgrade. FAR: Lone Sails is consistently engaging, with a tactile pleasure to pulling boxes, pressing buttons, and jumping around as needed.

But there are also long stretches where you'll likely find yourself doing nothing--the wind is carrying your ship, everything is organized below deck, and there's not much to do but sit on top and admire the view while listening to the soft orchestral soundtrack that kicks in during these quieter scenes. In these moments, as you take a moment to appreciate Lone Sail's beauty, the storytelling feels especially confident and focused. The world is beautiful, even though it's vaguely post-apocalyptic, with much of the landscape made up of a drained sea-bed and abandoned buildings. There are little hints at what may have happened to the world here and there, but ultimately the world outside of your ship doesn't matter so much until near the end of the journey, as the game's final act unfurls in a way that informs everything that came before it. Coming to appreciate the extended stretches of tranquility that Lone Sails often stretches out is one of its greatest pleasures.

You are always alone, and because of that, your attachment to the ship grows deeper. After a while, exiting the ship for any period starts to feel dangerous despite the lack of enemies. When bad weather conditions kick in at various points, leaving the ship feels akin to having to get out from under your blanket on a cold night. The ship feels alive and reactive, thanks in large part to great visual and sound design. Watching the turbines whir and embers shoot out from the back when you release steam, or even just sitting on top of the ship as it blasts along a flat with its sails out, is a bonding experience.

This is a polished game, with only a few minor issues that I encountered. Every now and then an object in the foreground would obstruct my view of some parts of the ship, but the ship's layout is easy enough to remember that this was only a minor roadblock. Twice I had to reload my most recent checkpoint because I got stuck--once it was my own fault, the other time I was trapped by a rare invisible wall designed to keep me from going a certain way. But the checkpointing is generous enough that I didn't lose more than two minutes of progress, and I generally felt totally in control of my ship. It's also quite easy overall, and up until a surprising death towards the end of it all, I didn't even know you could die.

Lone Sails is a transfixing, lovely experience, one that takes recurring indie game tropes and does something unique and fun with them. It's short enough that you could play through it in a single two or three-hour session, but it will likely stick with you for a long time. I can see myself going back in a few months just to revisit the ship, like checking in on an old friend.

Destiny 2: Warmind Review - Back To Work

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 05/12/2018 - 16:00

Destiny 2 has been struggling to keep its players invested for a while now. Going into its second expansion, Warmind, the biggest question was whether or not Destiny 2 can entice people to come back to it. This expansion is geared more toward the hardcore players, offering difficult endgame activities and a slower, more demanding level grind to get there. If you aren't interested in those things, though, there's not a lot here besides the same old Destiny 2 activities to draw you in.

Warmind's campaign consists of a handful of missions, and it takes around an hour and a half to complete. If you haven't played Destiny 2 much since Curse of Osiris, it's easy to jump back in; I started at 310 power and did some minimal grinding to keep up with each mission's recommended level. It remains a very welcome change from Destiny's more punishing pace, where skipping a few weeks meant another few weeks of intense grinding just to catch up.

Like most story-centric activities in Destiny 2, Warmind's campaign does just enough explaining to justify fighting enemies in the first place and leaves you to fill in the rest yourself. That can work really well, but in Warmind, a lot of seemingly important things are packed into a very short amount of time; a buried Golden Age research facility, new information about Rasputin, a crazy-powerful spear, and suddenly a giant worm that you have to kill. It's not that those things aren't connected but rather that there's no time to absorb anything before you're in the final fight, and it's anticlimactic as a result.

Individually, Warmind's different components are actually kind of cool. The Valkyrie spear can take out swarms of enemies in one very satisfying throw, and fighting a huge, serpentine monster is fun just for the spectacle of it. The new ally character, Ana Bray, is almost interesting--she's related to Clovis Bray, a historical figure in Destiny lore, and can speak to Rasputin--but she doesn't have enough time to develop into anything substantial. Though Warmind is an expansion about a hyper-intelligent AI that's been around since the first game, it feels like these are just the building blocks for what could be a compelling story.

For laidback Destiny 2 players, the more accessible activities are a great way to test out the new Exotic weapon changes that launched alongside the expansion. The 1.2.0 update is available even if you don't have Warmind, but it's at least nice to have a reason to try out the Exotic buffs. My personal favorites are the Graviton Lance, which now fires a two-round burst with a heftier and more satisfying explosion on impact, and Riskrunner, which deals more damage when its Arc Conductor buff is active. They actually feel like true Exotics now and as a result are loot worth chasing, so much so that the changes kind of steal Warmind's thunder.

Two of Warmind's story missions are disappointingly repurposed as Strikes, just like in Curse of Osiris. The addition of Nightfall-like modifiers to Heroic Strikes makes them a lot more difficult, at least, but the loot chest reward for completing them doesn't match the challenge--weapons and gear drop at 340 power, which is right about where you'll be when you finish the story. The new cap is 385, leaving a large gap between the "easy" content and the endgame that could have been filled with mid-tier Heroic Strike rewards. As a whole, the mid-level section of the expansion is unfortunately pretty empty of anything to motivate you to keep going forward.

The new destination, the polar ice caps of Mars, is around the size of Io. In addition to new Adventures and Lost Sectors, Mars has new secrets to hunt down in the form of Sleeper Nodes. They're primarily for other quests, but they can be fun to look for and a good excuse to explore. Mars also boasts a new activity, Escalation Protocol. It works kind of like a Public Event in that anyone in the area can join, but it's way harder, throwing waves of high-level Hive at you. As of week one, it's basically impossible to complete it, which makes it a nice accomplishment to chase if you've been wanting more to do in the late game. So far, Escalation Protocol is the most intriguing thing in Warmind--I actually want to level up enough so I can see what happens and what kind of loot I can get.

It certainly feels like Warmind has a slower burn than vanilla Destiny 2 or Curse of Osiris. In order to get the Exotic fusion rifle Sleeper Simulant, for example, you have to complete a time-intensive multi-step quest that involves running both Heroic Strikes and Escalation Protocols. On the hardcore end of things, the challenging new Raid Lair is a big incentive to get your power level up. The grinding alone will likely keep the most dedicated players busy for a bit, and figuring out and implementing a viable strategy once you actually make it to the Raid Lair is, as always, a reward in itself.

However, if you aren't already dedicated to reaching the level cap and completing every late-game activity, Warmind doesn't offer many draws for you; the only reason to do anything is to level up or get new loot, and that can keep you busy for a while this time around. How busy depends on your patience when grinding and your desire to jump through every hoop to get there. That barren middle-tier--when you've beaten the story and need to grind 20 or 30 power levels so you can reach the endgame--is a very easy place to lose steam.

Pillars Of Eternity 2: Deadfire Review - A Pirate's Life For Me

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 05/08/2018 - 18:00

Pillars of Eternity was something of a herald for the second golden age of classic computer role-playing games. It was an inspiration, and was quickly followed by games like Torment: Tides of Numenera and Tyranny, and plenty more have filled in the gaps since then. And that's before we even get to the reboots and re-issues of some of the genre's aging classics like Baldur's Gate.

All of this is to say that the standards have shifted quite a bit since Pillars of Eternity released in 2015. It's remarkable, then, that Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire not only keeps pace with its contemporaries, but brings its own vitality and character that sets it apart from a genre that has been feeling a bit crowded of late.

Deadfire is a direct sequel to Pillars of Eternity, but you don't need to have played the first game, as you'll get solid recaps as well as the ability to make some general choices that will affect how Deadfire plays. That said, having a familiarity with the characters and world greatly adds to the game's overall appeal. These folks have aged, wizened, and grizzled a bit in the pirate-infested Deadfire Archipelago--the expansive, maritime stage on which our adventure is set. One old friend has taken to smoking a pipe, for instance, growing a bit more lax and observational, punctuating thoughts and commentary with tokes to help process his thoughts.

For the most part, character progression and the nuts and bolts of play work just as they did before. Character creation is deep and complex, designed to mimic the process of mapping out a character in a tabletop RPG. From there, you play a half real-time, half turn-based adventure, with exploration done in the former style and combat in the latter. If you’ve played just about any of the iconic CRPGs of the last 20 years, you’ll be immediately familiar with the basics in Deadfire.

On top of that, though, Deadfire blows out everything from its predecessor. There’s more of anything you can think of--more options for character setup, more classes and skills, more specialization, more items, and more levels. You can also explore open waters on a ship that you manage, from crew to cannon. In much the same way that an advanced player’s guide adds fundamental upgrades to the way a tabletop RPG works, Deadfire is bigger, but also deeper. New character sub-classes and the ability to multi-class your character will allow you to refine your options in combat or play more nuanced roles.

That said, the real value of Deadfire is how its setting tees up new stories and tales of exploration and adventure. The Archipelago has been settled throughout, but plenty of islands still contain ancient secrets and eldritch horrors. Moreover, the rough-and-tumble atmosphere demands sturdy defenses and plenty of able bodies to maintain your new ship. Life on the seas is brutal, and your first major craft will barely have the gear needed to survive even minor engagements. Kitting out your mobile base of operations becomes another major focus, and you'll always have to worry when another ship comes into view.

Your ultimate goal is track down Eothas, a god who has possessed a stone colossus. Mysteriously, your spirit and life force is tied to the god, and only by chasing him to the archipelago were your companions able to keep you alive. Now you must set out and figure out how all this happened and why, while trailing Eothas. This works particularly well as a means of pacing out the journey and developing a strong throughline of adventure.

So you set out for whatever towns and islands you can spot, and build from there. At this stage, curiosity is a virtue. Questions and probes yield small, intimate stories and clues for tracking down the big bad alike. These arcs build out the texture of the world and offer some of the most beautiful moments in the game. Plus, having extra gear and experience can only add to your proficiency in the game’s main thrust. How and when you engage with the world is up to you, but you'll be partially limited by the capabilities of your ship and the information you've gathered.

Deadfire's characters are bright and nuanced, and their descriptions weave personality into the simplest interactions.

Ship combat, perhaps the single largest mechanical addition in Deadfire, is well constructed. Bouts are turn-based and will be determined by everything from the abilities and experience of the crew you've gathered, to the tactical choices you make. These largely center on positioning, which is important to keep in mind when attacking or defending. Most vessels will have a few different types of guns, so you'll be working on closing or creating distance and repositioning so you can get the best shots off at the right times. Boarding, of course, also plays a huge role, but that works more or less the same as any other battle on land.

All of this, too, feeds into systems that impact how successful you are at general pirating. Your crew's morale will need to be kept high, for instance, or you could run the risk of a mutiny. While that could have been little more than set-dressing, Deadfire pulls those threads into the rest of the game--primarily through its art and writing.

Rich, detailed prose focuses on setting the scene and building an atmosphere. Deadfire's characters are bright and nuanced, and their descriptions weave personality into the simplest interactions. All of this makes for an enriching read--if you've got the patience for it. Like the first game, the writing is phenomenal overall, but some sections can be unnecessarily verbose, and that can occasionally strike as a weakness. But, more often than not, vivid text is a means to help you escape to this fantastical world. Thankfully, though, it's not the only trick Deadfire's got.

While the isometric view is a bit of a throwback, the art and visual detail of the world stands abreast with the writing as one of the adventure's strongest points. Not only is this a visual feast, mostly because of its imaginative settings and application of the arcane, but its direction is poignant and gripping. The seaside shacks and exotic, otherworldly creatures are a stark departure of the classical fantasy setting of the previous entry's Dyrwood. The cliched stylings of Caed Nua castle give way to Treasure Island, with all the monsters and magic of DnD. In other words, this is more a fantasy adventure in a pirate-y tone than the other way around. And that works just fine--keeping enough of the original appeal intact while folding in sharp new ideas and ambiance.

Deadfire is dense, and it isn't a small game, easily dwarfing its predecessor in terms of scale. There's a lot to do, and it's easier than ever to get lost in the little stories you find, without following the arcs that the game has specially set out for you. Still, it's worth taking your time. The richness of Deadfire takes a while to appreciate, and like the brined sailors that call it come, you'll be left with an indelible attachment to these islands when you do finally step away.

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