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Attack on Titan 2 Review: Colossal Action

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 03/16/2018 - 23:31

Far from being a mere video game adaptation of the anime, Attack on Titan 2 stands strongly as a character-driven action-RPG in its own right, with rewarding combat that feels fluid and fast and a story that's equal parts charming and shocking. While it shares many similarities with the first game in the series, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, the sequel feels like a better package overall with a cleaner visual style and tighter combat. Despite its story taking some time to really dig its anchors in, it gets there and then some, entrancing you all the way until the closing of the final chapter.

Based on the second season of the popular anime series, the story puts you at the center of the conflict between humanity and Titans--a race of giant, people-eating humanoids that one day appeared out of thin air, wiping out a large percentage of the population. Forced to seek a new life behind three huge walls built to keep the Titans out, humanity tried to rebuild, but the Titans managed to find a way through. Faced with extinction, it's up to you and the rest of the military to stop them.

After creating a character--who, if you choose a woman, will still be weirdly referred to as "our man" by the game's narrator--the game opens with you joining the military cadets and becoming a part of the 104th Cadet Corps. The first few hours cover the same ground as Wings of Freedom, putting you through military training and effectively re-living the events of the first game, albeit in a more condensed setting. Also, each character is voiced in Japanese, so you'll rely on subtitles to keep on top of things.

The plot closely follows the anime, so fans are already familiar with what's going on. But it's a story that will pull you in, hard, though not without its fair share of melodrama. While much of the early game feels a little dragged down by some excessive exposition, you come to appreciate those sequences later on, particularly as characters you grow to like face death in shocking ways. Not that the game is overly violent--although the Bloodborne-esque spatter from killing a Titan is pretty messy--it's more that the characters grow on you over time. Watching them struggle through the Titan invasion becomes less of a drudge and more an emotional rollercoaster.

The game is made up of numerous large combat areas and some smaller, peaceful hubs where you can go about your daily life: upgrading weapons, buying materials, and maintaining friendships that grant you different equippable skills that can upgrade your stats. While not all that interesting visually, the hub areas serve as a good bookend between each battle, as well as a chance to debrief with the other characters about the last mission and your next moves.

The larger, more-open combat zones, which vary from green valleys and large towns to snowy, abandoned villages and giant forests, are far more interesting to move through. A big part of what makes the movement so vital and exciting is your omni-directional mobility gear, or ODM for short. The ODM gear fires anchors into a distant object like a house, a tree or even a Titan, and with the help of two side-loaded gas canisters, thrusts you along the ground and up into the air. It can get a little janky; sometimes you’ll catch the underside of a roof or hit a cliff face that’ll halt your momentum. But more often than not, gliding through buildings or between giant trees feels effortlessly satisfying.

Similarly great is the combat, which manages to feel faster and better paced than it did in Wings of Freedom. Titans can only be taken down by slicing out the nape of their necks. You have to fire your anchors into any one of five spots on a Titan you can lock onto, circle around it in mid-air, and then launch at it, swinging your blades wildly. It can feel a little clumsy at first, but within an hour I was dodging attacks in the air and flinging between Titans like it was nothing. The rapid switching of targets and close calls while maneuvering between enemies during a fight never loses its allure, only getting more intense as the story builds.

The Titans themselves are the true stars here. With their ridiculous grins, ambling movements and saggy butts, they look amazingly creepy. On higher difficulty levels, the Titans become faster and more aggressive. Their limbs flail impishly as they freely counter your attacks, flick off ODM anchors like they're swatting flies, and pick fellow Scouts out of the air. Moments like this amp up the intensity tenfold, especially when you're caught between responding to an urgent request for help or going to the aid of someone who's been grabbed by a Titan. It's hard not to feel the pressure in the moment, and it's great.

Despite its slow start, Attack on Titan 2 offers exciting gameplay along with a deep and intriguing plot that, melodrama aside, tugs on the heart strings. It's well-paced and offers some impressive spaces to move through. The unique combination of the movement and combat mechanics combines with a gripping story to make Attack on Titan 2 one of the more surprising releases of the year.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 03/16/2018 - 11:15

Surviving Mars Review: Building The Final Frontier

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/15/2018 - 23:25

It's been said that city simulators are best thought of as a series of stocks and flows. You have essential buildings that supply resources, which are then distributed in a grand pattern etched by your design. Your success, then, depends on how artfully and effectively you've crafted your settlement. If that is the measure by which we are to judge city simulators, nowhere is that more beautifully or essentially or thematically distilled than in Surviving Mars.

Space is hard, and Mars isn't any more forgiving; your goal is to command a mission that can endure the punishing conditions of the Red Planet. You can take the reigns of an international consortium, a major private enterprise, or any number of real-world space-capable nations here on Earth. From there, you choose how to guide your Martian colony. Insofar as many simulators allow a degree of role-playing, your time on Mars is yours to do with how you will. But your progress is constantly evaluated by your sponsor country or organization, offering some very loose targets like "get colonists" and "keep them alive for a while." Beyond that, the direction is yours.

Your first forays on the planet are drone-based; RC rovers and semi-autonomous bots are your essential tools. They help you probe the surface of Mars and get your basics going. You have a bevy of options for obtaining vital resources--with each creating a slightly different relationship between your settlement and the planet. That's because everything here degrades. Ground down by the perpetual dust storms, punishing cold, and meteor strikes, nothing lasts and everything comes with a cost. Whether it's by extracting from rock, or sucking what little can be from the scant Martian atmosphere, even something as basic as how you obtain water influences countless other decisions down the line.

Choose the extractor, and then you need to design your outpost around the fact that it'll kick up far more corrosive dust into the air (among a half-dozen other considerations). The extractor's cousin, the vaporator, is a more environmentally friendly option...but at the cost of comparably low output, and requiring broad spacing between structures to be effective. The brilliance of Surviving Mars, then, is in forcing you to think systemically. Each choice is a commitment, a statement of how you think it best to run humanity's excursion to the new frontier.

Surviving Mars gets a lot of narrative mileage from this. As you progress, you're always fighting the exaggerated elements and forces of nature. Your structures are always degrading, and help of any sort is often months away--meaning that you either have strong supply lines for the necessary materials, or you're prepared to work around the long delays in resupply missions from Earth. Because your colony's development is connected to these choices, it also creates a powerful emergent narrative throughout, not unlike ones found in The Sims, for instance.

Those decisions might feel like setting up a trap down the line, but Surviving Mars' other stroke of genius is how permissive it can be. Instead of locking you into a given play style, the emphasis is on consequences and teaching you how to manage them. Your colony, at its most basic level, is governed by a set of rules. If you have X building, every so often you'll need Y resource to maintain it, and that resource comes from Z building, and so on.

The brilliance here is that all of these systems work and are responsive to how you play. Every choice matters, but none rule your destiny. Even if you can't get what you need from a Martian mine just yet, you can order it from Earth. Each of those choices, too, have consequences, though. And that means that at some point, you either fail to meet a condition and the system starts falling apart, or you keep going and surviving.

What helps here is that Surviving Mars may be delicate, but it isn't punishing. Sure, the in-game consequences of failure are...a little extreme (like watching your colonists suffocate, should you fail to keep oxygen flowing). But you'll often have plenty of time to fix them, and a series of warnings that encourage you to change course. How you do so, again, comes down to which consequences you want to take on, and how long you can keep paying those costs--at least, at the most basic level. At times, Surviving Mars may underemphasize some key parts--namely just how important supply chain management is--but it's delightful and elegant, tasking you with just enough management and planning to keep your role engaging. As you progress, drones can take on more, leaving you to handle larger-scale plans for the settlement.

That allows you to graduate to managing the lives of the colonists, your relationship with Earth, the fineries of your supply chains, and new expansions and additions to your colony (which follow their own systems and sets of rules). What makes all of this work is precisely that it is so scalably complex, gives generally great feedback on how well your choices are working, and giving you progressively larger goals to chip away at. It's a strong set of basic ideas that keep the game consistently engaging, and allows you to open up new fronts and address new challenges--like getting another adjacent settlement going--as you build the confidence to work through them.

Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul.

A more traditional, optional narrative is available as well. Each time you play, you'll eventually discover some sort of mystery, be it colonists with weird visions, disturbing black cubes, or legit aliens. These will nudge your colony in more specific directions, if you decide that it's something you want to explore. Often, these mysteries require you to do something specific, like construct a special building to start a sequence of narrative vignettes. While the core play of "maintain and survive against all odds on the Martian surface" should be a big enough hook for many players, it's nice to have an optional story that addresses the mythology of the planet throughout our real-world history and pop culture.

And that's just it. Mars is more than a planet--it's the next big goal for a healthy portion of people here on Earth. Surviving Mars nods to that with a pursuit of real-world influences and designs, plus as many plausible technologies as it can pack in. While the game definitely takes some liberties, most of the structures, ships, and technologies will be familiar to fans of spaceflight. The basic supply and passenger ships, for instance, are modeled after SpaceX's forthcoming BFR ships.

Surviving Mars, above else, is about hope. So many strategy games hold to their gameplay, eschewing any overarching themes or messages. But, as corny as it sounds, for those who believe in the majesty of spaceflight, for those who are keen to marvel at how pernicious our plucky little species can be, Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul. It shows the challenges that come along with planetary migration, but it also shows that they are solvable. With the right planning, drive, and ingenuity, we can do great things together.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 03/15/2018 - 16:45

Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life Review: Tokyo Drifter

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/15/2018 - 07:00

The Yakuza franchise is over a decade old, and in that time, its feature set has predictably grown. Over six mainline entries, free-roam areas became more substantial, additional playable protagonists were introduced, combat mechanics were expanded to incorporate multiple fighting styles, and more and more minigames were steadily piled on. Surprisingly, the latest installment goes the other way, discarding components that certainly won't go unnoticed by series devotees. But that doesn't end up being a bad thing, because Yakuza 6: The Song of Life successfully uses its smaller footprint to create a deeper, more meaningful impression.

The final installment in Kazuma Kiryu's story focuses on him alone, with the plot seeing the large cast of series-significant characters like Majima, Saejima, Daigo, and the children of Sunflower Orphanage make only the briefest of appearances before being tidied away. Adopted daughter Haruka, sympathetic detective Date, and hobo-turned-loan broker Akiyama play important parts, but exist on the fringes. The Song of Life centers on Kiryu as he returns from another long stint in prison, separated from the Tojo Clan, and unravels the mystery of an infant who's suddenly come into his care. The setup distinctly echoes the events of the first game, a seemingly purposeful decision which lets The Song Of Life act as a fitting refrain, giving Kiryu's final sojourn a roundness that brings a nice sense of closure to his series arc.

His investigations bring him to the port town of Onomichi, Hiroshima, where he encounters a lowly blue-collar crime family led by an aging, but supposedly legendary yakuza portrayed by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (a yakuza film icon in his own right, though his subtle mannerisms don't completely survive the transition). While the game unsurprisingly spirals into a complex and dramatic story involving underworld political alliances, age-old conspiracies, and a healthy dose of deception, what's ultimately memorable are the threads and character developments that explore what becomes a very significant, widespread theme: family. Kiryu's time meeting new people from different walks of life in a closely-knit small town has him reflecting on remarkably ordinary ideas as they exist in different facets of society--bonds of friendship in the face of adversity, loyalty in times of uncertainty, and caring for your ward as a parental figure.

These themes resonate consistently throughout the better part of Yakuza 6's narrative, and this includes the numerous, optional substories. You'll help children and parents resolve conflicts and try to understand each other's point of view. You'll see Kiryu finding true strength and loyalty in the smallest of gestures, along with the different ways friends and strangers can support one another. The writing in these stories is often corny, but that doesn't mean there isn't an endearing sincerity that regularly shines through. When the sentimental piano melody kicks in during pivotal scenes of moralistic resolution, it's hard not to be swept up by it all. The series' penchant for goofiness still exists, though it doesn't return to Yakuza 0's ludicrous levels of absurdity. Particularly memorable substories are ones which humorously explore Kiryu's unfamiliarity and disdain towards modern technology like drones, robot vacuums, and YouTubers. But even the game's most comedic series of quests, which involve Kiryu dressing up as Onomichi's adorable character mascot (who has an orange for a head and a fish for a purse) ends up becoming a touching reflection about having loyalty in town pride.

These heartwarming stories are also a key component of Yakuza 6's new minigames. There are less of these side activities than previous entries, but much of what's included is more robust than usual, and in many cases, the substories attached to them are enjoyable enough to stop the simple mechanics from wearing thin too quickly. Spear Fishing is a score-based on-rails shooter that finds Kiryu helping an injured fisherman and orphaned fishmonger track down the shark that ruined their lives. The Onomichi Baseball League involves some light team management, pinch-hitting, and player scouting, but the story of Kiryu rallying a team of no-hopers is what really makes the whole affair great. The Snack Bar minigame stands out as a real highlight in this regard. It involves attempting to become a regular in a small, Cheers-style local's bar where Kiryu tries to forge personal relationships with a group of relatively unextraordinary, blue-collar folk. Its key mechanic is participating in group conversations where one patron has a vent about their woes, and Kiryu's role is to help provide supportive dialogue and refrain from saying anything selfish or dumb. It's lovely to see Kiryu try to resolve everyday, down-to-earth dilemmas and provide genuine acceptance and friendship.

Conversely, there's the incredibly involved Clan Creator Mode, which sees Kiryu unwittingly intervening in a war between youth gangs (whose leaders include real-world New Japan Pro Wrestlers, because why not). Taking leadership of one of these groups, you'll help Kiryu scout for soldiers, organize hierarchy, and participate in simple, real-time strategy-style street battles. You'll take a bird's eye view in skirmishes, where you can dispatch autonomous grunts as well as a limited number of leader characters with special abilities. Clan Creator is Yakuza 6's most substantial minigame, boasting online network functions that let you compete against other players, tackle daily missions and participate in a ranked ladder. Unfortunately, it's also the most tedious to play. Victory strategies stem entirely from massing as many troops as possible and grinding missions to keep your leaders at a capable level. Battles don't really become challenging until the many substory missions are already done, and even then, the strategy more or less stays identical. For a mode with such ambitious scope, its mechanics and relatively uninspired plot--which mainly seems concerned with spotlighting its celebrity guests--aren't satisfying enough to make the long ride enjoyable.

Elsewhere, the Club Sega arcade once again offers playable classics like Super Hang-On and Outrun, but there's also complete, multiplayer-capable versions of puzzle action favorite Puyo Puyo, and the seminal Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, both robust offerings in their own right. Mahjong is back, a gym offers track-and-field-style minigames for above average experience gains, karaoke and a cat cafe provide enjoyable distractions, and a simple-to-master darts minigame features a substory that lets you take on a real-world darts legend.

Yakuza 6 also maintains the series convention of including more titillating pursuits. Cabaret clubs return, with a choice of six hostesses for Kiryu to woo through conversation minigames. Also notable is the particularly risque Live Chat, a minigame which sees you pay money to watch live-action webcam shows (featuring real-world AV idols, no less), while hitting button prompts to progress to the point where you can watch the models strip their clothes off and moan suggestively. The unambiguous objectification of women in these minigames continues to make their inclusion uncomfortable in their own right. Their presence does truthfully reflect prominent parts of the real-world Japanese nightlife and adult industries, but these kinds of minigames have always perpetuated an unbelievable inconsistency of character for Kiryu. There's a conflict between the canonical depiction of him as a strong, stoic, honorable saint, and a version who is a creepy, bumbling pervert. After ten years, it's still hard to believe Kiryu is someone looking to build a harem as big as the orphanage he owns, who madly exclaims "BOOOBS" and "IT'S GROWING" when a woman takes her top off. These activities do have their moments, though--the text-based quips of Live Chat participants can sometimes be laugh-out-loud funny, and courting hostesses mean you get to see additional, phenomenally good karaoke videos. But in the grand scheme of Yakuza 6, where heartfelt themes pervade all of Kiryu's character interactions, these minigames feel like distant outliers.

The iconic red-light district of Kamurocho still plays a big part in the story, though it has a noticeably smaller area size this time around. You'll still feel at home if you've visited the area before, but there is a significantly disappointing lack of access to the Champion District and Park Boulevard areas. However, the distinct sense of a vibrant, bustling city still remains, and that's amplified by what feels like a more detailed and densely populated world. Walking around in the first-person mode is enough for you to appreciate all the surface level intricacies and changes, and there's a new element of verticality with increased rooftop access. But there are also some great advancements in the way the city invites you to engage with it.

Yakuza 6 now rewards you for interacting with the world in a way that previous games didn't. Eating at the game's many restaurants, which was previously really only worth doing if you needed a health boost, is now the most convenient way to rack up experience points to spend in the game's extensive upgrade system, though you're limited by a new stomach capacity meter. Purchasing and drinking beverages from one of the numerous vending machines around the world will give you cheap, temporary combat buffs. Every mini-game, from the batting cages to playing a round of Space Harrier will also earn you experience. The result is that slowing down and taking your time to soak in the atmosphere of the city will benefit you, and the world is no longer just a pretty path for you to run down to get to your next objective. Now, you don't necessarily have to feel guilty for letting yourself be distracted by Mahjong for hours.

Onomichi, Hiroshima is a region that is larger than previous accompanying locales have been, although the sleepy port town is a much quieter, more unassuming area than Kamurocho. Situated by the seaside, cute greenery arrangements line its single-story businesses, an above-ground train splits the area, and narrow pedestrian walkways snake up the steep hills, leading to an impressive temple with spectacular views. It's a charming, authentic-feeling recreation of the more tranquil parts of Japan, which both you and Kiryu learn to cherish. The town's relaxed atmosphere and characters exemplify the Song of Life's wholehearted themes.

Of course, in order to keep that tranquillity, sometimes you need to pound a few dirtbags into the ground, and the game's updated combat system follows its philosophy of slimming and focussing. Gone are the variable fighting disciplines introduced in Yakuza 0--the Kiryu of Yakuza 6 is equipped only with an expanded version of his signature brawling style, perhaps another refrain to the series' beginnings. It still maintains its characteristic weight and rigidity, but there are additional factors that make the act of fighting feel more fluid than it's been in the past, turning encounters as a whole into more dynamic and exciting experiences.

Enemy mobs are larger in The Song of Life, and crowd control takes a more prominent focus because of that. Set-piece fights that make up central story moments regularly see Kiryu and his companions go up against dozens upon dozens of enemies at once--a ratio that is frequently amusing. As a result, the properties of Kiryu's attacks have been altered. His throwing maneuver swings a victim around before letting them fly. Each combo string now allows him to execute two finishing blows as a default, and the second typically lunges forward with a wide attack radius. Starting a hard-hitting combo with some wise positioning means that Kiryu can feel like a human wrecking ball as he cleaves and plows through a group of assailants. You can frequently create domino effects that send enemies crashing into each other, and thanks to the game's new physics engine, into environmental objects like rows of bicycles, through glass windows, and potentially, into stores and restaurants.

That's the most significant change to combat--it now benefits from seamless transitions between world exploration and battles. Getting into a fight on the street no longer means coming to a jarring halt for a few seconds while a splash screen pops and civilians gather to restrict you to a small area. Fights now have the potential to move through the city and into areas like stairwells, rooftops, convenience stores, restaurants, and a handful of other accessible building interiors. It also means you have the opportunity to make a break for it if you're not in the mood to throw down. The dynamism and uninterrupted flow this gives to Yakuza's combat is a real wonder, and means that random battles are less likely to eventually devolve into monotony, as they could in past games. You could be strolling down the street, leisurely drinking a can of Boss coffee or taking a selfie in front of the cat cafe, and a gang of thugs can suddenly interrupt you, forcing you into a tight stairway brawl that eventually spills out onto a rooftop. Or, you might try to run and hide in a convenience store, unsuccessfully, and find yourself destroying shelves and sending snacks flying until you put an end to the chaos by slamming a thug's head into a microwave--just don't expect the clerk to serve you afterward. Combat in Yakuza 6 is exciting, and the situations you might find yourself in positively echo the kinds of scrappy, tense struggles you see so commonly in East Asian gangster films.

Another sticking point is one that's been present in all of the game's iterations--the inconsistent visual presentation. While the scenes that deliver pivotal plot events are absolutely spectacular--with uncannily lifelike character models, dramatic cinematography, and exceptional Japanese language performances--scenes that present lesser moments, like substories, are a dramatic drop in quality. As in previous games, they feature far less detailed character models and wooden, sometimes non-existent animation. Static camera angles also play a big part in aggravating their dullness. Substories make up a significant part of Yakuza games, so the low-end visuals continue to be an unfortunate blemish. Yakuza 6 is also entirely voice-acted for the first time in the series, and because the performances go a long way in enhancing the humorous and earnest moments these missions can contain, it's a shame that the presentation doesn't go to the same efforts.

Yakuza 6 reins in its scope, but doubles down on what has made the series great. It's a unique and fascinating representation of the modern Japanese experience, worth playing even if you're a newcomer. The narrative is dramatic and sincere, and the game's endearing characters--coming from all walks of life--are interesting studies. The world is dense and rewarding to exist in, the dynamic combat system stays exciting even after you've kicked the crap out of five thousand enemies, and perhaps most importantly, Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life serves as a fulfilling conclusion to the turbulent, decade-long saga of its beloved icon, Kazuma Kiryu.

Bravo Team Review: Back To Basics

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/14/2018 - 19:00

Well into 2018, we are past the point where VR is a new and novel experiment. Had Supermassive Games' Bravo Team released when the PSVR launched, we could at least excuse the game's milquetoast nature as a first, uncertain step; an experiment in trying to bring arcadey, cover-based shooting to a new format. Released two years into the PSVR's lifespan, however, Bravo Team already comes off as archaic, a game that's been outclassed several times over in the system's first year.

Bravo Team's banality is obvious during its opening minutes. You and your online co-op partner or A.I. brother-in-arms are charged with escorting the president of a made-up eastern European country back home to deliver a unifying speech that will hopefully bring peace to her nation. Of course it goes wrong; the president's envoy gets blown to bits, and a deposed military leader kickstarts a bloody coup d'etat that you and your partner must shoot your way through in order to get home. The mission plays out with stone-faced seriousness, with the monotony of our two masked heroes broken up only by the determined British timbre of your commanding officer. There isn't even a musical score to accentuate the action, so even the most dramatic moments happen in an uncaring void.

Bravo Team's presentation leaves a lot to be desired

The set up might be indistinguishable from Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, or any number of grim, washed-out shooters, but, really, Bravo Team's gameplay has more in common with games like Time Crisis. Most of your time is spent hiding behind cover, popping out to line up your shots and fire. You can play with the DualShock 4 or the Move controllers (and this is even one of the few times where movement feels natural with the latter). However, the PS Aim gun controller is where it's at in that regard, and what thrills do exist in the game come from the inherent thrill of the Aim lending a dose of immersion.

You also get a little bit more freedom to move than in a game like Time Crisis. You can point your gun or just tilt the PSVR headset at a certain area and you'll get a visual prompt telling you whether you can move there or not. The flaw here being that actual movement takes the game out of first person into a third-person view that rips that immersion away every single time.

The presentation, with its dull, anemic color schemes straight out of 2007 and a rampant, unfathomable problem with pop-in and blurry textures, is the most prominent flaw. The same three classes of enemies you encounter in the first stage--generic grunt, armored grunt, armored grunt with chaingun--are the same ones you see every step of the way. The last half hour or so introduces two sections with melee soldiers and snipers, but they're gone almost as soon as they enter the scene. There's only four guns--a pistol, an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle--and you only see two of those in the last 30 minutes as well.

Playing co-op is probably the best way to experience what little Bravo Team has to offer.

Seemingly in an effort to break up the straightforward gunplay, stealth kills are possible. But outside of the tutorial, it's impossible to maintain stealth for more than two or three enemies before, without fail, another enemy stands at an angle where he can't be stealth killed. It doesn't help that your supposedly silenced pistol gives away your position 75% of the time. The most fun in Bravo Team comes from its online co-op, where at least you have a partner to bounce dialogue off of, give directions to, or request recovery when you've fallen. It's a salve, albeit a temporary one.

Instead, Bravo Team slogs on, stranding you in huge spaces, throwing wave after wave of cannon fodder your way, making its short play time feel hours longer that it actually is. Bravo Team is a game that feels unsure and tentative about ideas that have been tried and tested for years now, even in VR.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 03/14/2018 - 16:45

The 25th Ward: The Silver Case Review: Obstruction Of Justice

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/14/2018 - 15:00

As a direct sequel to The Silver Case, it will come as no shock that The 25th Ward is a fundamentally bizarre game. It plays around with fever dreamy, Twin Peaks-esque logic, with a profound disregard for how reality works. That's all to say: it is very much a Suda 51 game. It's also not too surprising, then, that The 25th Ward is rough around the edges; sometimes purposefully so, and sometimes not. Disorderly it may be, but dull it certainly is not.

Set four years after the events of The Silver Case, The 25th Ward takes place in a completely new planned community in Japan, marketed as a home for the super elite. Its residents are specifically chosen to help establish a city with absolutely no criminal activity or negative elements, kept utterly spotless, and where every rule is followed to the letter. The price for even minor infractions--taking your trash out on the wrong day, being rude to a neighbor, playing music too loud--is typically death, either by being shot or having your brains scrambled to the point of being a drooling zombie.

In the most basic terms, The 25th Ward is a visual novel, its storytelling told predominantly through text and still photos punctuated by point-and-click adventure game tangents. Scenes will stop to force you to look around, move through hallways, use a particular item, talk to a specific person in the area, or type in a password. The game is structured as a compilation of three separate stories based around the people who're responsible for upholding the draconian law in the ward. Two of these tales, Match-maker and Correctness, follow the efforts of the presiding law enforcement branches of the ward: the Heinous Crimes Unit--essentially, a CSI team--and the Regional Adjustment Bureau. The third scenario continues the Placebo plot from The Silver Case, once again following hard-boiled reporter Tokio Morishima, now an amnesiac, as he loses his sanity investigating a mysterious death in the ward.

Compared to its predecessor, each of the scenarios feels distinct. Only Correctness was actually penned by Suda, and it has his jagged, pulpy fingerprints all over it, from the hard-as-nails, sailor-mouthed teammate to a string of attempted assassinations on an HCU detective playing out--for no rhyme or reason--like an 8-bit RPG. Non-sequitur discussions occur with the HCU's coroner about his burgeoning snuff film addiction and perfectly normal conversations veer off into thoughts about how hungry characters are at that moment.

The other two scenarios were written by Masahi Ooka and Masahiro Yuki, Suda's cohorts on The Silver Case. Their respective chapters are much more cohesive, purposeful pieces of work. Placebo, in particular, takes on an unexpected but beautifully twisted cyberpunk bent. Match-maker's story wouldn't be terribly out of place in one of Sega's increasingly nutty Yakuza games, with just enough of the surreal involved to make the story unpredictable.

The very idea of the 25th Ward as a standalone, authoritarian dystopia disguised as utopia is enthralling, and all three scenarios manage to mine surprising depth out of the set up. Correctness is, at its core, a story about the mindset that creates crooked cops, while Placebo and Match-maker explore the specific societal factors that create crooked people. It’s far from being the first piece of fiction to tell a tale of how moral deviancy develops when the idea of what’s considered deviant behavior becomes ubiquitous, but it’s a very distinct way of telling it. It’s a game with some heavy thoughts on its mind, and those thoughts are exaggerated and abstracted to the extreme. Helping things out in that area is a singularly off-kilter synth pop soundtrack from longtime Suda collaborator Masafumi Takada, with some simple moody beats contorted around strange instrumentation and eerily hypnotic melodies. The visual style follows suit, with each scenario adopting its own particular stark, gritty art style, from Correctness’ black-and-white, under-lit shadows, to Match-maker’s abstract, bloody, police sketchbook style. It’s all perfectly suited for the kind of crazed psychotropic Law & Order stories being told.

The 25th Ward's stories were originally released episodically, which makes it slightly easier to forgive just how sprawling the narrative is. Having said that, all three stories inhabit the same time period, each imparting information that helps fill in some of the blanks of the other episodes, though it's not like the game tells you that going in. While I played each scenario straight through, a more fulfilling approach would be to play each of the episodes in each scenario sequentially (all three episode 1s, then all the episode 2s, etc.). Otherwise, the stories being told, while still comprehensible, are annoyingly confusing instead of fascinatingly obtuse. Without a doubt, however, the game's biggest narrative weakness is its disregard for time. It's a game that luxuriates in making the wrong moments last, hammering minute character details down into dust, while forgetting to elaborate on complex plot twists. A 10-minute stretch is devoted to the unorthodox way a character eats a fancy dessert; 20 seconds are spent explaining how a major character seems to miraculously cheat death.

The game also has a bad habit of slowing you down with its disappointing "puzzles." They largely come in two flavors: elementary tasks, like memorizing a short series of numbers, or frustrating tests of patience. One such investigation requires you to narrow down which room a victim lived in, and provides 80 floors of a mostly empty apartment complex to explore. The very first room you go to gives a hint that the victim was in an even numbered corner apartment, and the next hint on the second floor tells you which rooms her favorite community groups met in. Narrowing down the target location seems like an impossible task, until you realize that the very first apartment on each floor gives new information, and after reaching the first apartment on the 5th floor, you're simply told which room to go to, at which point none of the previous floors' information even matters. I almost wanted to congratulate Suda on the A+ trolling, except there's no telling if that was the intent.

More commonly, your progress is gated by the need to exhaust every menu option in a conversation until the story progresses, but more often than not, the action in the menu doesn’t correspond to what needs to be done. The “Look” function, in particular, performs everything from moving into another room to completing a character's psychotic break and eventual self-actualization as a murderous sociopath. The amount of times “Look” actually means examining something can be counted on one hand. It's a problem exacerbated by a localization effort that, on top of some frequent, cringeworthy typos, has a tin ear for how character dialogue works. Many of the game's very grizzled, very adult characters occasionally drop into a very young millennial style of speech that occasionally threatens to break the game's immersion. It's a testament to what's still on the screen that it doesn't.

Despite a collection of problems, it's easy to occasionally admire The 25th Ward's ambitions. Where The Silver Case was a slog, punctuating long stretches of nonsense with blasts of pure horror, The 25th Ward consistently commands your attention with frighteningly relevant themes, bonkers plot twists, or even just the simple thrill of some beautifully rendered and twisted imagery. It's a game that demands patience and forgiveness, but rewards those willing to put up with its problems.

Kirby Star Allies Review: Take It Easy

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/14/2018 - 14:00

Kirby games are guaranteed to have a perky pink mascot, candy-coated platforming levels, and plentiful power-ups to wield and combine; all key pieces of Kirby Star Allies. But what sets the latest game apart from previous Kirby adventures is that everything is designed with co-op in mind, whether you have friends to play with or not. It's a welcome change that keeps the otherwise traditional gameplay fresh, and even though the extra help is overkill for most of the challenges that lie in wait, Star Allies still puts your cheerful chums to good use.

You've been able to team up in previous games, like Kirby's Return to Dream Land on Wii, but it's fundamental to Star Allies and far more flexible in practice. Rather than being limited to only playing alongside key characters like Meta Knight or King Dedede, you can now recruit almost any enemy you come across. And after you unlock a pair of extra modes upon completing the story, you earn the right to play as any character in the game in a speedrun mode. It's not a massive twist given that enemies play the same as Kirby does when he's absorbed their powers, but for a game built around its variety of personalities, it's an appreciated bonus to look forward to.

Star Allies perfectly executes its playful cartoon aesthetic from start to finish, stuffed with adorable animations and digital glitter. Meanwhile, the soundtrack swings from uplifting jingles to intense battle themes, providing ample motivation and entertainment, and is up there with the series' best works--many of which have been expertly remixed here. And now that you can team up with allies in unique ways--say, when you have a chef power-up and pretend-cook your friends in a pot to produce life-giving snacks--Star Allies is just relentlessly charismatic.

The story mode paces itself well, in part because it's so short. The procession of new ideas from one stage to the next keeps you wondering what clever platforming obstacle or power-up will appear next. These surprises may force your team to split up to tackle simple, large-scale puzzles, a feat the AI handles effortlessly without your input. You also occasionally group together to roll downhill as a wall-smashing wheel, hop on the back of a flying star for some casual side-scrolling shooter action, or line up to form a train and steamroll through enemies.

Reaching the end of a level or world is generally very easy. The only real challenge is to locate hidden items--puzzle pieces that are used to complete pictures, not unlike the 3DS StreetPass game, Puzzle Swap. Each stage has a unique pink piece, though you can regularly find randomized blue pieces or tap amiibo to generate them on the fly. The pictures you unlock are just that--pictures--which is a little deflating, as far as rewards go.

But rare levels contain hidden rooms with a switch that unlocks a new stage in the overworld. You're told when a stage contains a hidden opportunity, so the trick is to simply keep an eye out for suspicious-looking objects or doors during your travels. On some occasions an obstacle or object requires you to interact while using a specific ability (such as electrifying a power line or igniting a pile of leaves). Never one to make you suffer, enemies with the relevant power-ups are generally placed nearby so you won't ever feel totally unprepared.

Strolling through the story mode ensures a generous amount of expertly crafted whimsy and joy, but because levels are so easygoing, with lightweight platforming and a trio of friends watching your back at all times, Star Allies' campaign quickly runs out of steam. It's almost a good problem to have--a game that's so good that you don't want it to end--but it's tough to shake the disappointment when you cross the finish line.

The unlockable extra modes, then, are the game's saving grace. Nevermind the wood-chopping and meteor-batting mini-games, which are cute but undeniably shallow; the boss rush and speedrun modes are the main attractions. For the speedrun mode, Guest Star, you charge through five sets of levels as the Star Allies character of your choosing. These are the same stages you've played before, but the further you get, the faster, stronger, and more resilient you become. Your gradual growth, robust set of actions per character, and the race against time inject Star Allies with the energy to match its overflowing personality.

And to account for the lack of difficulty elsewhere, the boss rush mode (The Ultimate Choice) can be dialed up to unforgiving levels, where enemies hit harder, health replenishments are in shorter supply, and more bosses line up to battle. Both this and the speedrun mode can be enjoyed with a total of four players, which feels more beneficial compared to the pushover story mode.

Star Allies is yet another Kirby game, but it's up there with some of the best. It's an artistic showcase, and a great opportunity for co-op platforming. The one real complaint you can levy at it is that it gates off its more challenging aspects, but the fact that they are present to begin with will please anyone who's grown weary of the series' painless platforming.

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