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Crossing Souls Review: Stuck In The Past

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 02/13/2018 - 14:00

It's easy to let yourself be lured into the 1980s world of Crossing Souls. The striking, Saturday morning cartoon cinematics pull you into an equally enticing pixel-art world, where every little detail is likely something significant from your childhood, at least if you're over 30 years old. But while there is some satisfaction in the game's core action, the way it utilizes and adheres to its retro-pop influences ultimately detracts from it in the long run.

Taking its cues from films like The Goonies, Stand By Me, and The Neverending Story, Crossing Souls revolves around a group of five teenagers as they discover an ancient artifact with mystical properties. With some tinkering from the group's incomprehensibly brilliant genius, they learn that they can cross into the spiritual world and interact with ghosts. Naturally, their discovery draws the attention of a ruthless paramilitary organization who will stop at nothing to obtain the stone for their own nefarious purposes, including harming the children and their families.

You control all five kids, guiding them through an action-adventure analogous to 2D Zelda games, and regularly switch between them to take advantage of each kid's unique attack and traversal abilities. Main protagonist Chris is an athletic type who hits things with a baseball bat, aforementioned genius Matt has a deadly ray-gun because he's smart I guess, "Big" Joe's large frame means his punches pack immense damage, Charlie (Charlene) has a skipping rope that provides great crowd control, and Chris' kid-brother Kevin can pick his nose, and that's about it.

Each kid has separate health and stamina bars, but depleting the health of just one means game over. Combat is a juggling act where you might be using the kid whose attack is most suitable for the fight, but also tagging them out when they take too much of a beating or become exhausted. It's a system that's surprisingly involved; taking out a group of enemies with a character's melee combo is easy enough, but you can very quickly become overwhelmed after a couple of whiffed blows or ill-timed dodges. The skills and abilities you have at the beginning of the game are what will carry you all the way through to the end since Crossing Souls eschews ability and equipment upgrades. But although combat isn't particularly complex, most attacks have satisfying feedback which give fights an enjoyable heft, and encounters are challenging enough to continually keep you on your toes.

Crossing Souls also features some equally demanding environmental puzzles. While simpler variants involve throwing switches, finding keys, and using Big Joe to move boxes, there are also a significant amount of unexpectedly challenging platforming sections where you'll use Chris' unique ability to jump and climb in tandem with Matt's ability to hover for limited distances, and flip back and forth between the two in quick succession. You eventually also get the ability to cross into the spirit world to phase through doors (although not walls or traffic cones, strangely), which introduces another facet to puzzles. The game's character movement and perspective isn't an ideal fit for precision platforming, and some later challenges introduce some downright devious scenarios that verge on aggravating, but even so, completing these puzzles feel like well-earned achievements.

The game seeks to maintain a balance of difficulty which teeters on that precipice of engaging and downright frustrating. But it's a thin line, and there are a handful of significant sections that feel like they err too much on the wrong side. One particular sequence involves an extensive fetch quest that makes you ping-pong through numerous NPCs to move things along, and then asks you to make a seemingly straightforward deduction. But it felt as if a step was missing, something that could help you deduce the specific location to apply that information, and this completely curbed my enthusiasm until I brute-forced my way through it.

Some boss fights have an overly demanding onslaught of projectiles for you to dodge at length. They're shoot-'em-up-style patterns you need to internalize and anticipate with little room for error, and in these scenarios, throwing yourself at it again and again while learning a bit more each time is what will eventually get you through it. But while I personally enjoy these kinds of challenges, Crossing Souls isn't a game that's tuned for precise, repeated action. So hitting one of these particularly tough battles, failing it because you've been stun-locked by mortar fire, and then having to watch an introductory cutscene again and again is annoying enough to make you walk away.

Outside of regular combat and puzzle-solving, Crossing Souls also weaves in standalone minigame scenarios that are directly based on iconic 1980s film and video games. Sequences that echo Double Dragon, Raiden, and the bike chase in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial are fun diversions, but these examples represent the extent to which the game leverages its influences in a significantly positive way.

There is plenty to enjoy on a superficial level, of course; the impressive visual style, pixel art in a fashion that echoes The Secret of Monkey Island, is bursting with dozens of small visual references to entertainment products of the era. There are little nods to everything from Nintendo, to Die Hard, to The Land Before Time, to Stephen King, and more substantial set pieces that replicate moments from Stand By Me, Ghostbusters, and Metal Gear. Mousers from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon appear as late-game enemies, and more modern references from Breaking Bad, Grim Fandango, and Half-Life are also present, seemingly just for the hell of it. But Crossing Souls' fervent obsession with its source materials is ultimately its biggest hindrance.

1980s Spielberg adventures and coming-of-age films are the game's primary touchstones, and while the overarching supernatural adventure in Crossing Souls is uniquely interesting in concept, the character-level experience of it feels strangely empty. Though the story revolves around a group of kids going up against impossible odds, little time is spent exploring any individual child, or even their relationships with one another. You only get a broad outline, reliant on archetypes like the athletic white kid, the dweeby nerd, the fat kid, and the girl. There is no nuance in their personalities, so when a character has a sudden change of attitude, it feels like it comes entirely out of left field. When something utterly drastic happens, it doesn't really worry you. Though the story takes the stakes to some pretty wild extremes, Crossing Souls doesn't do enough to convince you that this band of kids actually cares enough to protect one another against the cartoonishly evil villains. The multiple antagonists are equally as shallow, with no real defining features aside from their ruthlessness; stereotypes are their primary traits.

In-depth character development supposedly takes a backseat to the density of nostalgic callbacks. An elongated sequence, mentioned earlier, is based on Back To The Future III and culminates in a Track & Field-style minigame to boost the speed of a DeLorean. But the entire section is inconsequential, having no real impact on any of the plot events that precede or follow it. And when you get a joke about the fat kid shitting his pants for the third time, you begin to wonder whether these spaces and lines of dialogue could have been better utilized.

Its strict adherence to familiar tropes also means that Crossing Souls adopts some of the more dubious traditions of 1980s pop cinema. An elderly, mystic Asian shopkeeper echoes the House of Evil shopkeeper in The Simpsons and Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, but it's a caricature that comes off as crass and half-baked--the game can't even seem to decide whether he speaks fluent or broken English. This shopkeeper, along with Big Joe, his mother, and a Prince look-alike, are seemingly the only people of color in a Californian town filled with dozens of visible NPCs. There are jokes made at the expense of a community of rednecks, forever dumb and drunk. Charlie, who hails from this group, is abruptly reduced to a damsel and love interest despite being one of the more combat-useful characters with a fierce personality archetype. Replicating these familiar tropes and caricatures from 1980s cinema may serve as an homage, but they feel dated and detract from what could have been a more meaningful adventure.

Crossing Souls has the building blocks of a rousing '80s adventure. Experiencing the significant, pitch-perfect moments of the story is great, because it's hard not to get energized by a John Williams-esque score, or get a little sentimental as the credits roll over a feelgood synthpop track. But when you emerge from the nostalgia-induced stupor, it's hard to deny that the characters and plot that underpin it all could definitely be more substantial. Crossing Souls has good mechanics, and its facade is a visual treat that is easy to be seduced by, but it fails to achieve a level of holistic enjoyment that raises it past the giant pile of references.

Dynasty Warriors 9 Review: Slice And Dice

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 02/13/2018 - 14:00

The story of Three Kingdoms-era China has been a mainstay of Dynasty Warriors since the days of the original PlayStation--and while it's gone through a number of iterations since then, Dynasty Warriors 9 represents the biggest shift away from the series' established formula since moving from a one-on-one fighting game to its more established musou form. While the feeling of cutting down entire formations of soldiers with a button press will feel more than familiar to fans of the series, the introduction of a massive open world changes the pacing in a way that allows the action to breathe. Although it suffers from a number of disappointing technical hitches and some typical open-world jank, Dynasty Warriors 9's sprawling campaign feels right at home in its new setting.

Given that the game's story mode is presented unconventionally, it can take a little while to figure out precisely what's going on. The entire story of the Three Kingdoms is told through the eyes of more than 80 separate playable characters from across four major clans--Wei, Wu, Shu, and Jin--as well as a handful of other smaller bit players. From the beginning, you're limited to a choice of three officers: Cao Cao, Sun Jian, and Liu Bei (the three lords of the Wei, Wu, and Shu clans, respectively).

Playing through each chapter unlocks the next one along with more characters, unfolding the differing perspectives of each clan throughout each battle in a way that's equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Seeing each battle from multiple perspectives is enthralling from a historical point of view--but it can mean playing through a lot of the same missions multiple times, which can be a little frustrating, given how similar each character feels on the battlefield. Thankfully, any powerful weapons, items, or horses that you acquire carries over across every mission, mitigating some of the grind.

Dynasty Warriors 9's open world is the big game-changer here, and it works to the game's advantage in many ways. This time, missions are picked up from non-player characters out in the world, and among the different cities that dot the landscape. Although the old menu-based quest option is still there if you want to merely move from mission to mission, traveling from one area to another gives you chances to find peaceful moments between each battle.

Your actions in the open world are also tied closely to each main quest. Completing sub-quests lowers the recommended character level for the main quest--so if you find a mission too difficult, you can polish off a few sub-quests to make it easier. Ditto for taking down squadrons on the open-world battlefield, which changes the frontlines and gives your clan the numerical advantage for next main mission. And while it's satisfying to watch this play out, it only felt essential when playing on the highest of the game's five difficulty levels, as combat generally feels weighted in your favor.

If you make your way off-road when moving towards the frontlines, the chances are good that you'll find a dangerous group of bandits to take down, or a pack of wild deer or tigers to hunt. Although many of the optional open-world activities--like hunting and fishing (of course there's fishing)--aren't especially inspiring in themselves, they net you ingredients which you can use to buff your attack or defense stats through cooking at a Teahouse. You can also earn special items from the Dilettante who deals in hunted goods, or trade in various different currencies earned from defeating enemies at the Coin Collector, who will trade you for scrolls (which are effectively blueprints required for crafting weapons and items from raw materials collected out in the world).

The world is massive, and in its own way quite pretty; its sparsity reflects the period, and the vast and varied environments flow seamlessly into one another. It’s serene in the way that a horseback ride through nature should be. The day/night and full weather cycles aren't just visual changes, but also affect the action: Soldiers won't march at nighttime, and bad weather slows them down. But overall, it also just looks plain grimy at times--many of the game's textures appear as though they've been lathered in thick coats of Vaseline. Cities and palaces suffer from this the most, as their elaborate architecture often fails to load with high-resolution textures at first, leaving them looking like big brown lumps in the world instead of beautiful, ancient Chinese palaces. At worst, full bases will phase into view a few moments after being loaded in to the world, but thankfully this is reasonably rare.

Aside from the randomly appearing geometry, Dynasty Warriors 9's graphical shortcomings are perhaps most noticeable in the character costumes. While character models and costume designs themselves are absolutely stunning, the textures within them lack the sort of clarity needed to work up-close. This, combined with rough animations and some truly abysmal English voice work--make sure you switch to the Chinese voice-over immediately--make the story cutscenes a little rough to look at, given the frequency with which they're shown.

Cutting down hundreds of enemies in a single sitting feels as satisfying as ever.

On the PlayStation 4 Pro, you're given a choice of two graphics options that focus on either stabilizing resolution or frame rate. Leaning toward the resolution option is meant to lock the game down to 30 frames per second at a higher resolution... but it struggles to stay anywhere near that, and looks arguably worse than when running the frame-rate-preferred option, which dials down the resolution in favor of trying to hit a consistent 60fps. And while it barely retains said consistency (especially during character-heavy battle moments), it's a far better experience overall.

If Dynasty Warriors is known for anything, its throwing huge numbers of enemies at you to cut through like a hot knife through butter, and Dynasty Warriors 9 is no different. Given the game's technical issues, it's a good thing that cutting down hundreds of enemies in a single sitting feels as satisfying as ever; entire squadrons can be laid to waste in mere moments. It's truly an epic power fantasy that, even after 50 hours of gameplay, continues to thrill. The soundtrack shifts from a softer, more traditional sound to crunching drums and wailing guitars, giving it a pure action game feel. Admittedly, the horseback combat doesn't feel all that great (mostly thanks to the horse lacking any subtlety in its movements), and using the bow can be underwhelming--but the melee combat remains the biggest draw, and the series' strongest pillar. It lacks nuance in some of the later one-on-one boss battles, but nine times out of 10, you'll come out of a battle with a smile on your face.

It's clear that Koei Tecmo and Omega Force have gone back to the drawing board with Dynasty Warriors 9, and in many ways, it's a big improvement. The new open-world format changes up the game in a way that helps the flow and pacing of its story mode, as well as its core mechanics. Despite the obvious graphical flaws and some issues with combat lacking finer controls, the streamlined menus, open world atmosphere, and laughably fun moment-to-moment play makes Dynasty Warriors 9 not just a must for fans, but worth a look for the merely curious.

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In Style Fashion News Feed - Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:00

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