Despite the Yakuza series' cult status, mainstream success has eluded it in the west. If you've never played a Yakuza game before, however, Yakuza Zero is a logical place to test the waters for yourself. It's the series' debut on PlayStation 4, and as a prequel to the first Yakuza game, it doesn't rely on preexisting knowledge of its principal characters. More importantly, you should play Zero because it's a fascinating game that combines equal parts drama and comedy, and is unlike anything else out there at the moment.
Such a statement is worth scrutinizing, so to be clear: It's Zero's flaws that leap out at you at first glance, be it some seriously outdated character models and textures or the repetitive nature of combat. A reasonable person would take these warnings as a sign that something's amiss--maybe it's not surprising that Yakuza continues to persist as a cult-classic series after all. But to get hung up on these shortcomings is missing the point. Where some elements languish from a lack of attention to detail, other facets of Zero are masterfully executed.
Take the story, for example, which jumps back and forth from the perspective of two different yakuza on opposite sides of Japan. Kazuma Kiryu is a young yakuza gangster from Tokyo with an iron first but a heart of gold. He's caught in the middle of a battle between criminal organizations seeking to take control of a valuable piece of real estate. On the other side of the country, in Osaka, we meet Goro Majima, a disfigured yakuza masquerading as the manager of a grand cabaret. Also on the outs with his clan, Majima's sent on a mission to kill a troublesome business owner, but soon finds himself unable to complete the job for personal reasons.
Majima and Kiryu are on the run for the majority of the game, and they stumble into conflicts with yakuza big and small on a regular basis. During story-related cutscenes, Zero takes its storytelling seriously: Nobody cracks jokes or makes empty threats. When yakuza are involved, everything is at stake, including your life, but also the lives of your family and close friends. As such, the story is relentlessly tense.
Both characters will surprise you, slipping out of harm's way by showcasing a hidden talent or by devising a clever plan, elevating them to herolike status in short order. Extraordinary luck or ability aside, it's the allies they meet along the way that prove to be their most valuable assets. By weaving a complex web of relationships and alliances, Zero's story grows ever more fascinating, proving to be equal parts surprising and exciting from beginning to end. In the final act, all the cards are laid out on the table, and you realize who your real friends and enemies are--and what Kiryu and Majima are truly capable of.
Zero's plot is definitely a high point, and it’s dutifully conveyed through effective camera work and strong voice acting. While the game is only playable with Japanese audio and English subtitles, the energy and attitude behind most characters doesn't need to be translated. When a yakuza boss snarls your way, you believe it. Bosses--or, more appropriately, captains--are often rendered with photorealistic facial features. Some textures go too far, revealing what looks like extreme cases of clogged pores, but blemishes aside, Zero's key characters look just as convincing as they sound.
Almost across the board, however, Zero's other characters exhibit middling animations. Where its most prominent characters offer nuanced expressions, the vast majority of models in the game move in a somewhat robotic fashion. Likewise, most passersby look as if they were lifted from the series' PlayStation 3 entries, if not from a PlayStation 2 Yakuza game. Given that moving through story missions is only half the Yakuza experience, this is a reality you have to confront on a regular basis.
Hand-to-hand combat is another key component of Zero that feels dated, despite its improvements over past games. Both Kiryu and Majima feature different fighting styles--three varieties apiece, no less--but Zero's straightforward beat-em-up trappings ultimately grow repetitive. By and large, you can choose one fighting style that works for you and focus on that for the entire game. Styles are developed by spending money you collect from fights and missions to invest in new skills and stat boosts, and you can get away with experimenting as much as you like.
Zero is nothing if not a brutally violent game. You’ll grind enemies' faces into the pavement, stick a bat in their mouth and kick the exposed end, and pile-drive thugs skull-first into the street.
Majima is by far the more interesting combatant, as he can fight with a bat or by breakdancing in addition to standard fisticuffs. Both characters can pick up weapons in the environment and use them for a limited time, but otherwise, Kiryu’s primarily a brawler, albeit at three different speeds. The enemies you face on the streets are somewhat diverse and include the likes of lonesome drunks, bikers, and lowly yakuza thugs. Thematically, the variety is appreciated, but mechanically, most enemies fight the same.
Zero is nothing if not a brutally violent game. You’ll grind enemies' faces into the pavement, stick a bat in their mouth and kick the exposed end, and pile-drive thugs skull-first into the street. Special takedowns like these add a necessary amount of flair to combat, saving fights from becoming truly rote. While these attacks would kill a normal person, enemies in Zero are able to walk their injuries off. This is your first sign that no matter how seriously the story takes itself, everything outside of cutscenes is a tongue-in-cheek affair.
The more you play, the more apparent it becomes that Zero wants you to feel both like a badass yakuza and like a participant in an absurdist comedy. The open-world structure of Tokyo and Osaka's fictional districts affords you the chance to interact with non-yakuza citizens through 100 optional missions that you discover by walking the streets and frequenting the game's various stores and amusement centers. Though these missions couldn't be more different from the main plot, that's part of their charm.
No one will argue that a yakuza on the run has time to pretend to be a random girl's boyfriend to impress her father or to stand in as a producer on a TV commercial, but these random and lighthearted challenges are excellent palate cleansers that often elicit a chuckle, make you scratch your head in bemusement, and refresh your perspective. You can also blow off some steam by taking on a handful of minigames, including bowling, darts, real-estate management, and ports of classic Sega arcade games like Out Run, Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and Hang-On. These events are shallow but ultimately serviceable, and the game includes enough of them to satisfy your curiosity should you grow bored of any one in particular.
Traditional for the series, Zero also doesn't shy away from thrusting you into erotic situations, be it it in the form of softcore-porn video parlors or in a minigame that involves betting on wrestling matches between two scantily clad women. At best, you can momentarily excuse its more tasteless pursuits as a reflection of Japanese society in the late 1980s or accept them at face value as a source of titillation.
For the most part, you can avoid these erotic amusements if you want to, but there's an ever-present air of sexism in Zero's story beyond the aforementioned "catfights". Stereotypically, yakuza view women as objects to be owned and manipulated, and this issue can't be avoided if Zero aims to present a realistic yakuza tale; just don't expect the game to address it in a meaningful way. While these elements don't outright poison the well given the basis for their presence, they’re ultimately an unavoidable and harsh reminder of the cultural valley of that exists between the game's setting and modern sensibilities.
Otherwise, Zero relentlessly adheres to its Japanese roots mostly for the better, and if you've ever traveled to Japan, the game's sights and sounds will almost instantly trigger fond memories and feelings of nostalgia. Its fictional slices of Tokyo and Osaka are based on real-life locations but tailored to custom-fit the adventure's scope and scale. For an open world, in terms of raw real estate, Zero's maps are small by modern standards. But what it lacks in scale, Zero makes up for with a wide variety of activities. It can keep you busy for 100 hours and then some if you take advantage of everything it has to offer.
By weaving a complex web of relationships and alliances, Zero's story grows ever more fascinating, proving to be equal parts surprising and exciting from beginning to end.
Were it not for the wealth of activities and side stories available around every corner, Zero would still be a riveting game for its story alone. It does a fantastic job of pulling you into the plight of its main characters and holds your attention through every step of their winding journeys. But, when you take in everything the game has to offer, Zero becomes something special. Yes, its presentation leaves a lot to be desired at times and the fights aren't always as engaging as they could be, but the rest of the game is incredibly diverse and engaging. The sheer amount of activities at your fingertips would feel overwhelming if they weren't so inviting--you're never pressured to do one thing or another.
Unless you have a strong aversion to violence, sex, or middling graphics, you owe it to yourself to give Zero a chance. Its story will surprise you, its inhabitants will make you laugh at every turn, and its ambitious scope will redefine how you think about open-world games. It's a fascinating adventure no matter how you approach it, and it’s proof positive that a game can be wildly inconsistent yet remain a great experience.
The original Gravity Rush had many positive qualities, but controlling Kat, its upbeat and unusually skilled hero, was the reason to play the game. With the ability to control her center of gravity, you could walk on walls and ceilings, and--most important of all--fly through a magnificent floating city in the clouds. The unusual gravity-based nature of Kat's powers made the age-old concept of flight feel fresh and managed to carry the imaginative yet underdeveloped adventure. But by the end, with untapped potential and numerous unanswered questions hanging in the air, Gravity Rush felt like it needed a sequel to finish its tale.
More than just a simple follow-up, Gravity Rush 2 exceeds expectations, filling in lingering gaps while simultaneously telling a new story. It also crucially doubles down on depth and scale, significantly increasing the scope of the adventure and the number of optional missions. Like the first game, you spend most of your time peacefully flying around looking for key items and characters to move the story along. But when the alien-like Nevi appear, Kat turns full action superhero.
Kat can pick off small enemies or weaken large brutes from a distance by magically throwing inanimate objects, but you typically rely on her kick abilities to get the job done--quick-and-dirty combos on the ground and measured homing attacks in midair. Nevi have sensitive red orbs on their bodies, and while you’re required to target them to inflict damage, built-in aiming assists make your life a little easier.
Kat eventually learns two new "styles" that mix up her relationship with gravity. Rather than merely changing the direction of gravity and falling at a fixed speed, the Lunar style makes Kat move in a floaty manner, with persistent low gravity, and makes her auto-targeting more effective. It also gives her the ability to leap great distances. The Jupiter style allows Kat to hit harder, but she moves in a much more deliberate, weighty manner. Kat's powers never feel lacking to begin with, but these additions give you a few new tools to wield during combat. Thankfully, you're rarely forced to use one style over the rest, so you're free to experiment and devise your own fighting style most of the time.
Fighting in midair in Gravity Rush 2 feels a lot like it did in the first game: exciting and unusual, and at the mercy of the camera. It's relatively easy to look past this issue since the camera only gets temperamental on occasion, but during tense, prolonged battles, this issue isn't as easy to reconcile.
More than just a simple follow-up, Gravity Rush 2 exceeds expectations, filling in lingering gaps while simultaneously telling a new story.
Kat's story is reestablished months after the conclusion of the first game, though you spend quite a bit of time in new locations before reconnecting with her past. After the appearance of a mysterious gravity storm, Kat and her detective friend Syd are violently whisked away to a mining camp. Dusty, Kat's feline guardian and the source of her power, is nowhere to be found.
Before she can locate Dusty and regain her powers, Kat has to navigate a slave-like existence at the camp. While this section does feel a little deflating given that Kat's powers are the first thing you want to explore, it thankfully doesn't last too long. If nothing else, the intro helps set up the new cast of characters and a new conflict for Kat and Syd to wrestle with.
After you break out of the intro, you're brought to a divided society where the rich live in opulence above the clouds, while the poor try to scrape by below. In working to bridge the gap between the two social classes, you come to realize that the poor aren't the ill-natured thieves the rich make them out to be; the rich, on the other hand, are mostly as slimy and greedy as you imagine. The examinations of these topics aren't revelatory or groundbreaking--Gravity Rush 2 loves silver linings--but they lend a small amount of relatability to the otherworldly realm.
Given the open world nature of the game, you’re free to explore its locales and pick from a selection of activities and missions that are automatically pinpointed on your map. With over 20 episodes and at least 40 side missions--including skill trials--boredom is never an issue. Through expressive avatars and minimal but effective voice acting--and the joy of flight, naturally--even basic missions are a treat and rarely feel like filler content. Gravity Rush 2 goes to great lengths to connect side missions back to the main story too, revealing new facets of seemingly minor characters that enhance your understanding of their position in society--and, thus, your perspective of the bigger picture.
Simply flying around the world is a captivating experience in its own right, both for the innate thrill of flight and for the beauty of your surroundings.
The only types of missions that wear thin are those that force basic stealth rules. Sometimes you have to sneak around a soldier-filled base and avoid their sightlines while you make for a key location, or you may trail a suspicious character to gather intel. These brief missions aren't very challenging, but should you be spotted, you're immediately kicked back to the last checkpoint. They aren't a major intrusion, but by and large, these missions fail to leverage Kat's strengths, and come across as dull compared to the rest of her high-flying adventure.
Truth be told, you don't even need to engage with missions to enjoy yourself. Simply flying around the world is a captivating experience in its own right, both for the innate thrill of flight and for the beauty of your surroundings. The world pops with color and character, building on the first game's strong, Studio Ghibli-esque visuals. And basic exploration is once again made more rewarding by the hundreds of gems--used for ability upgrades--strewn across the map. Kat flies with an awkward grace that feels totally unique, and though you occasionally need to let her fall for a second or two to recharge her power during a long flight, there's an undeniable sense of freedom to flying through the world, unencumbered by architecture or enemies.
Beyond littering the world with collectible gems, Gravity Rush 2 incentivizes casual exploration by introducing emergent events, generated by other people playing the game. On a regular basis, notifications pop up when you're flying to and fro, indicating a nearby treasure hunt. Accept the challenge and you’re whisked away to a specific point on the map. You're then given a chance to examine a photo of the relevant location in order to pinpoint landmarks and zero in on a treasure chest within a limited amount of time. This provides a fun diversion that tests your observation and navigation skills in new ways, and if you generate a photo that helps another player successfully locate some treasure, you'll receive a small reward for your work. It's a small touch, but treasure hunts also reinforce the feeling that you're part of world that operates independently of your adventure, befitting the new large, lively open world.
After more than a dozen hours of helping the poor, supporting your friends, and uncovering corruption at the highest levels of government, Gravity Rush 2 concludes its new tale before revisiting Kat's origin story. In the final act, you discover the answers to the biggest mysteries laid out in both games. You have to do a little detective work at first to get the ball rolling, but once you find the path forward, Gravity Rush 2 delivers a series of exciting, over-the-top boss battles--one with an unmistakable likeness to the olympic stadium battle from Akira--and narrative-heavy scenes that delve into Kat's pre-Gravity Rush past.
With a wealth of stories big and small to chew on, Gravity Rush 2 fulfills the needs of both a sequel and a prequel. The first Gravity Rush had enough going for it, but Gravity Rush 2 is stuffed with things to love. While its stealth missions are lame and it's disappointing to experience camera issues from time to time, Gravity Rush 2 excels in almost every other respect, making its predecessor seem quaint by comparison. This is easily one of the best video game sequels in recent memory, and an adventure truly worthy of its excellent lead character.
There’s a particular genre of arcade action game that has truly fallen off the radar in recent times--games where you control a character from a third-person view on a 2D plane, shooting objects and enemies in the background with a reticle while dodging shots and obstacles in the foreground.
I’ve heard this odd genre called many names: “shooting gallery,” “Cabal-like” (after the game that popularized it), but perhaps most commonly “crosshair shooter.” But while traditional platformers, run-and-guns, and even scrolling shooters have experienced something of a recent resurgence in popularity, the crosshair shooter has all but vanished from modern gaming--which is why the release of Wild Guns Reloaded is so exciting to retro-minded players.
Wild Guns Reloaded welcomes back Clint and Annie, the dynamic shooting duo from the 1994 original game, as they prepare to blast their way through several levels of gangsters and big, bad biomechanical bosses while collecting loot and dodging gunshots and the occasional creeper with an old-fashioned knife. This time around, they’re joined by a pair of surprising new heroes: Bullet, an adorable long-haired dachshund who fights foes with a special robot drone, and Doris, a large gal whose expertise with explosives ensures that she isn’t going to be taking any crap from anyone.
Similarly to many games of its ilk, Wild Guns Reloaded has a control scheme built around aiming when you’re shooting and dodging when you’re not. Pressing the fire button once also lets you melee attack close-range enemies and pick up sticks of dynamite thrown at your feet (which you can then lob back for a sweet, sweet payback explosion). By shooting objects and power-ups that appear, you can change your weapon briefly and collect bonuses. You can move and jump (and double-jump) when you’re not shooting, but when you’re in the middle of firing, you can only roll. Knowing when to roll--and when to just put the gun away to get the hell out of enemy firing range--is crucial to survival, because in Wild Guns, a single hit means a life lost.
You’ll be using all your skills to battle a rogues’ gallery of weird and wacky enemies: lanky gunslinging robots, divers with rocket launchers, jetpack jockeys, and creepy-crawly monsters. The humorous atmosphere of the game gives Wild Guns Reloaded a distinct personality quite unlike anything else, and the new characters, Bullet and Doris, also add a lot both in terms of style and gameplay, since they control very differently from Clint and Annie.
New stages, like the Underground area, fit in perfectly with the rest of the game and even add interesting visual quirks like pixel “fog” that obscures visibility.
Bullet has the unique ability to move freely (rather than being limited to dodging) when attacking, though his range when holding down the fire button is extremely limited. He can also hover using his robot drone, which makes him the most maneuverable of the bunch. Doris lacks traditional rapid-fire shots; Instead, she charges up a grenade attack when the fire button is held down, with the attack’s power (and the score multiplier) increasing the longer the button is pressed. While she’s slower in normal movements, she has a very fast, multi-part dodge attack, as well as a special jumping melee strike. Both characters offer new, distinct, fun ways to play through the game.
Visually, Wild Guns Reloaded is every bit as beautiful as it was in 1994. There’s a tremendous amount of artistry and care poured into these hand-drawn pixel visuals, and little touches--like the fact that many objects in the background take visible damage from all the gunplay going on around them--give the game’s world an exciting, lively feel. Compared to the original SNES version, many of the game’s backgrounds and objects have been retouched while keeping true to the visual style and limitations of the 16-bit era. In some cases, this was done to accommodate the widescreen HD format, while in other cases, it feels like it was done just because the developers wanted to go the extra mile to really make things shine. New stages, like the Underground area, fit in perfectly with the rest of the game and even add interesting visual quirks like pixel “fog” that obscures visibility.
Being an old-school styled arcade game, Wild Guns doesn’t offer much in the way of tutorials or even warmups: You’re thrust straight into the action and expected to learn the ropes as you play more and more. Increasing difficulty levels offer new and different stage arrays, as well as limit your amount of lives and emergency smart bombs. Make no mistake: Even on Easy difficulty, Wild Guns Reloaded is one tough game. True to the genre’s arcade roots, if you’re going to try and clear the game in a single credit or go for high scores, you’re going to have to put in a lot of practice learning enemy patterns, movement timing, and locations of hidden goodies.
And that’s where the fun in this game lies: growing from a bumbling would-be marksman to an expert gunslinger as you invest the time and effort to learn the game’s intricacies. Given the amount of hidden secrets scattered in every environment, as well as the differences in play styles between the characters, there’s a lot to learn and uncover. Many of the unlockable rewards are behind skill walls, tool: For example, you can’t access the original SNES soundtrack unless you manage to beat the game without continues, which is no small feat.
Wild Guns is a fantastic representative of an underappreciated genre with an adorable pup riding a robot. What’s not to love?
But if you feel like you need a helping hand--or paw, as the case may be--you can bring along three friends for some four-player action. Things get awfully chaotic in this mode with four characters zipping around the screen, but working together with friends to take down waves of enemies is a rollicking good time. Unfortunately, there's no online multiplayer option, so you’ll need to have your partners all on the same couch to enjoy the frenetic fun.
Between the fine-tuned gameplay, the enhanced visuals and sound, the four-player fun, and the new gameplay-changing character additions, Wild Guns Reloaded is one of the best retro reissues we’ve yet seen on the PS4. It’s also fantastic representative of an underappreciated genre with an adorable pup riding a robot. What’s not to love?
Fans of old-school platformers have had plenty of choices lately, and WayForward’s Shantae: Half-Genie Hero--the latest in the series that debuted on the Game Boy Color--is yet another great addition to the list. The franchise has received two excellent, intentionally retro-styled adventures on modern platforms, but Half-Genie Hero mixes in modern 3D graphics with its traditional 2D gameplay, which makes for a game that straddles the line between new and old.
The Shantae series always had a distinct, engaging tongue-in-cheek quality to them, and that’s on full display here. Shantae herself is a self-aware caricature of 16-bit icons--she’s moody and snarky and giddy in equal measure and the side characters are all fun in their own way. The plot feels a little thrown together at times, quickly establishing characters and story elements with little explanation. Admittedly, depth of story usually isn’t the main element we look for in a classic side-scroller, but the overall story feels a bit weaker here than it did in Shantae's previous outings.
In her latest adventure, Shantae is still the Guardian Genie of Scuttle Town, a place that's constantly overrun with comically inept pirates, and regularly falls victim to crazy magical schemes. The town is once more attacked by the self-proclaimed Queen of the Seven Seas, Risky Boots. It seems Ms. Boots is after a set of Shantae’s uncle’s blueprints for a machine that has the power to protect the entire town--or cause immense destruction.
The reason this otherwise straightforward story feels disjointed is the relatively non-linear structure of the game. Shantae picks up new abilities by completing numerous mini-missions that pop up around Scuttle Town, and these abilities--usually in the form of transformation dances--enable Shantae to reach new areas within various levels.
It quickly becomes clear that these side-quest-like missions are integral to finishing the main story objectives, creating occasional confusion about what you should focus on at any given moment. There’s no map or real way to keep track of multiple ongoing quests, only an NPC who provides general guidance. But even that doesn’t always help. Some active goals simply can’t be completed until you acquire a specific power by completing one of the aforementioned mini-missions, though it's a guessing game to determine which one will give you the specific skill you need.
Levels expand beyond the town and into locations like deserts, factories, lush forests, waterfalls, and temples. Each world is chock-full of secrets to find, requiring multiple return trips to discover every last one. This process can get a bit repetitive, especially during the opening hour or two when you’re mostly going back and forth between the same few map areas, but the influx of new abilities helps build momentum over time. Thankfully, a couple quality-of-life options open up later that help expedite the process: you can buy a dance move that allows you to jump straight to the next part of a world, skipping superfluous sections altogether. Once you’ve acquired the target item or ability, you can then instantly warp back to town.
Generally, Half-Genie Hero is an accessible game, although you will stumble across a few challenging platforming sections. A big part of the gameplay's appeal comes from Shantae’s eight transformation dances. Turning into a monkey lets her jump much farther and climb walls, while a spider transformation gives her the ability to scurry across ceilings. As an elephant, Shantae can bash breakable blocks, and no item or enemy is safe underwater when she activates her mermaid or crab forms. Of course, Shantae still has her familiar hair-whip attack, and she can use magic to throw fireballs, create lightning, and form special shields.
The variety of powers at your disposal is one of Half-Genie Hero's strong suits, allowing for a lot of fun experimentation during combat. Like many classic action-platformers, enemies mindlessly move back and forth and attack on sight, with little apparent AI. Similarly, boss battles are entirely pattern-based, but fighting cartoonishly massive enemies is riotously fun--a giant worm, huge mermaid, airships, and other absurd, screen-filling battles await.
So, while some minor structural squabbles hamper Half-Genie Hero's pace, the overall game remains a delightful experience. The move to sharp graphics makes the game feel modern, yet the series' old-school charm lives on in the vibrant colors and expressive character animations. And the soundtrack is surprisingly catchy--with hilariously passionate (if minimal) voice work and a great score. It's easy to get wrapped up in fighting and platforming through Half-Genie Hero, which speaks to the pedigree of the series, and how well it translates to Shantae's latest adventure.
On the surface, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, but there are more adventures awaiting curious players beyond cultivating a rich and bountiful garden. From mining and fishing to making friends and falling in love, Stardew Valley's Pelican Town is stuffed with rewarding opportunities. As modern day woes give way to pressing matters on the farm and within your newfound community, Stardew Valley's meditative activities often lead to personal reflection in the real world. It’s a game that tugs at your curiousity as often as it does your heart.
Your journey begins in the field, cleaning up a neglected and rundown farm. Plotting and planning your garden requires care and attention to detail. What fruits and vegetables do you grow? How much room does each plant need? How do you protect your crops from nature's troublemakers? You learn through practice, and while the basics are easy to grasp, you quickly need to figure out the best way to outfit your budding farm with new tools and equipment.
Upgrades help speed up essential tasks like tilling the earth and watering your plants, but advanced equipment becomes a necessity when the time comes to break down large rocks and stumps that stick out in your garden. The crafting menu also entices you with optional time-saving tools; automated sprinklers that water the crops every morning, artisan equipment to make preserves or beer out of your harvest, and refineries, such as a furnace for turning ore into metal bars. If you want something, you can make it, you just have to scour your environment for the necessary components.
As your farm improves, you gain the ability to raise livestock. Animals are expensive to buy and maintain, and the barn they live in isn’t cheap either. You start small, with a barn just big enough for a few chickens and ducks. But if you run an efficient and bountiful garden, you can eventually afford to upgrade to a bigger barn and keep hearty livestock like pigs, cows and sheep.
You have to feed your stock every day, which can get expensive, but they will eventually begin to produce eggs, milk and other rewards for all your hard work. Beyond their monetary value, animals are simply endearing to be around. Give them a name and work a little petting time into your routine; before you know it, your commodities have become your friends. Like your crops, the goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.
The goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.
When your farm is healthy and your equipment set, Stardew Valley opens up and your routine expands: after you water your plants, feed your animals and tidy up in the morning, you get to head out in search of adventure and friendship. There’s a mine north of Pelican Town with a seemingly endless bounty of buried treasure, but also danger. Combat is simple--a plain swipe of a sword will brush back most common monsters--but the dangers you face grow as you delve deeper into the mine, pushing your basic tactics to the limit.
There’s a risk/reward relationship to seeking out valuable treasure, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to defend yourself from procedurally generated creatures the deeper you go. You hit checkpoints--in the form of elevator stops--every few floors, which both encourages you to keep going and to return in the future in search of grander rewards as checkpoints allow you to skip past the mine's early levels. The precious gems you find can be sold for profit, donated to a museum that will conduct and share research, or simply hoarded in a chest to be fawned over down the road.
When you grow weary of toiling underground, you can also spend time fishing on lakes, streams and coastal beaches. Fishing in Stardew Valley is straightforward--you use one button to reel in a fish and let go when the line is tense--but it gives you a chance to soak in your surroundings and experience the joys of catching a wide array of fish unique to specific seasons and locations. It’s a calming experience at sunset after a long day that gives you a chance to reflect on your progress and daydream about adventures to come.
Stardew Valley constantly encourages you to explore, be it mining, foraging for fruit in the woods, or collecting seashells, and your curiosity is amply rewarded. Every hidden area you find, every train track you follow, leads to new sights and discoveries that add detail and color to the world around you. Yet as fulfilling as farming and exploring are, visiting Pelican Town's community center pulls you ever deeper into your new life. Like your farm at the beginning of the game, the community center needs a little attention at first: you’re sent out on fetch quests to gather the necessary materials to fuel its reconstruction.
Outside of the community center, the rest of Pelican Town's inhabitants also need your help. In working together to achieve small goals, you grow to understand your neighbors' personalities and identify what makes them tick. Some are pursuing their hopes and dreams, while others fight day to day to overcome personal obstacles; others are quirky creatures of habit that round out the community's overall identity.
Relationships are gauged by a heart meter, and getting to a certain number of hearts results in a cutscene that offer a closer look into your new friends' lives. Offering gifts and completing tasks from a board in the center of town are easy ways to increase your connections, and slowly but surely you’re allowed in the inner circle of people’s otherwise private lives. You may befriend a father named Kent who’s dealing trauma after years at war. He’s working on his temper and trying to bond with his child after being away from home. The child, whom you meet in hiding in his parent's basement, is quiet and introverted. But when you put the time in to get to know him, he reveals that he actually doesn't mind being alone, even though he believes that he's at odds with his parents. These personal moments are touching, and encourage you to spend more time getting to know the people around you.
And if you decide to enter Pelican Town's dating scene, don't be surprised if you end up with butterflies in your stomach. Giving your crush the right gift and seeing the joy on their face makes you genuinely happy, but you have to put yourself out there first. Sure, working with townsfolk in general is a good way to understand the ins and outs of potential suitors, but no amount of preparation diminishes the impact of anxiously delivering a heartfelt gesture. Because you've invested so much time and energy into forging relationships, you get nervous when you expose your feelings, regardless of the fact that you're courting a pixelated crush. Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings: when your date shares his umbrella in the rain, you know he's the one.
Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings
Romance often buds during community events that take place each season. In spring you’ll attend a dance and try to get someone to be your partner. At the summer luau you’ll have to bring something delicious from your harvest for the community potluck. At each of these events you’ll have time to get to know the people within the community and see them in a different light than usual. Although it’s lovely to see them outside of their usual activities, it’s a shame year after year the comments and actions of the villagers remain the same. Still, you can learn from previous years, adding better food to the potluck and finally earning the affection of your favorite dance partner.
Mastering farming and earning the affection of your special someone in Stardew Valley are fulfilling journeys filled with surprising and rewarding challenges. But when you have those accomplishments under your belt, it's hard to know where you go from there. Divorce is an option, but if you put a lot of yourself into finding a spouse, dumping them merely to extend your game doesn't seem like an attractive path. Besides, with your money-making farm, cash isn't a concern either.
Ultimately, Stardew Valley's eventful world is so inviting that you may opt to simply start from scratch and forge a new life. For anyone who played Stardew Valley earlier this year when it launched on PC, the new console ports capture the same magic that made the game special all those months ago, and allows you to play from the comfort of your couch. Controls on console are essentially identical to what you get from the PC version's controller support. Console versions also get the fully updated version of Stardew Valley, which includes the aforementioned divorce option, new farm maps that focus on different skills, and a handful of new mechanics that add appreciable wrinkles to life on the farm and about town.
The sheer number of things to accomplish in Stardew Valley can keep you interested beyond the original three in-game years you need to reach the end of your story--you may just want to start over rather than continue on. You’ll work quite hard to gather enough money for your first horse, so that you can quickly move to the mines to get a mineral to complete a bundle at the community center. It’s all centered around whatever it is you want to accomplish that day. And that’s truly what makes Stardew Valley such a lovely experience, it encourages you to go out and be the best you can be, in whichever task that brings you the most joy. Stardew Valley motivates naturally, with blissful optimism.
Games based on licensed properties can sometimes cover up a multitude of sins by remaining close to their source material. Space Hulk: Deathwing is not one of those games. Although this shooter from French developer Streum On Studio boasts the grim atmosphere and brutal combat that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is known for, there are too many problems here for even the most hardcore fan to endure for long. For every impressive set piece and “wow” moment in combat, there are a dozen befuddling rules or mechanics that make you scratch your head in disbelief.
Of all the issues, tedium is the biggest offender. All nine levels of the campaign are slogs where you trudge down one corridor after another, pausing only to incinerate predictable waves of enemies. Beyond a few minor variations, enemy Genestealers come in two forms: ones that rush at you gnashing teeth and slashing claws, and hybrids that shoot at you from a distance with guns, rocket launchers, and psychic blasts. Bigger and tougher baddies are introduced during the campaign--including some bosses capable of shredding squads with ease--but by and large, the tactics you employ at the start of the game will carry you to the end.
On a positive note, battles are often as brutal as you'd expect from a Space Hulk game. There’s real weight to the thud of your weaponry and power armor as you stomp through dark corridors and chambers. Even the thump-thump-thump of the (relatively) lightweight storm bolter, the whir of an assault cannon, and the whoosh of a flamer are exhilarating because you feel like you’re doing real physical damage. Pounding on enemies with melee weapons is even more ferocious, if a bit chaotic and hard to follow, with the medieval-styled swords and hammers that send flurries of blood and flesh into the air.
Deathwing thankfully nails the look and atmosphere of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It's loaded with visual fan service like massive cathedrals, dissected bodies in laboratories, and humans wired into power systems. Everything is just as baroque and bloody as it ought to be, making for one of the most authentic video game interpretations of Warhammer 40,000's striking aesthetic.
While everything does look great, there’s little room for interactivity. Aside from shooting gas lines into flaming geysers and opening, closing, sealing, and smashing doors, you can’t do much to your surroundings. There are no weapons, no ammo, no health packs, or any other goodies to collect. Objectives never involve anything more than killing lots of Genestealers, taking out a boss alien, blowing something up, or turning something off or on. You just follow the orders leading from one corner of each map to another until you wrap up the final battle.
Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover.
Both the personality and texture of combat are vaguely reminiscent of the original Space Hulk PC games. You take the fight to the Genestealers in squads of three when playing with others online, or solo with bots filling out the ranks. Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover. Trying to take out gun turrets is a huge exercise in frustration, as your pals tend to just stand in the open and get blasted until they die.
AI Space Marines are prone to shuffling in place, turning their backs on attacking enemies right in their faces, and standing in the middle of doorways when you’re trying to seal off a room full of aliens. Enemy mobs can easily overwhelm them, and they tend to stand their ground and shoot mindlessly in the face of bosses that destroy them in a matter of seconds. They don’t do anything on their own, either. You have to tell your apothecary marine to patch himself up when his health is low--otherwise he just lets himself die. A radial order menu allows you to give rudimentary commands like Follow, Defend, and Heal, but it’s impossibly clunky to use during combat unless your Deathwing trooper has a deathwish.
Playing co-op is better by far, but it’s currently tough to find a suitable squad. Either hosts are kicking people or there’s something wrong with the online code; it's far more common to receive a server error message than it is to successfully enter a match.
Some core mechanics are also needlessly quirky. You can't swap your loadouts on the fly, for example. To swap weapons, revive dead characters, and heal everyone up, you have to activate a Psygate that takes you back to your ship for some TLC. Unfortunately, you only have three of these per level, so it’s easy to exhaust them and find yourself at the end of a scenario with the wrong weapon for the battle at hand. This adds to the intensity of the game by ramping up the consequences every time you trigger a return for some new gear and healing, but it also forces you to start levels from the very beginning at times, which isn’t quite as welcome.
While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best.
The game also crashes to the desktop fairly frequently. One of these crashes actually corrupted a save so that every time it reloaded, the mouse buttons and keyboard wouldn’t work. And when you aren't forced to replay significant chunks of time, you may end up loading an autosave and begin in the middle of a firefight--an impossible situation and a demotivating outcome.
While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best. Playing cooperatively with a couple of buddies helps smooth over some of these problems, but regardless, combat remains incessantly tedious. The one hope is that the fanatical Games Workshop community grabs hold of the game and starts modding, because the visuals, atmosphere, and ferocity of the combat could be harnessed and turned into something impressive. As is, even the most crazed Warhammer 40,000 or Space Hulk fan will have a tough time appreciating Space Hulk: Deathwing.
Shocks just keep coming in the second episode of Season Three of The Walking Dead. Telltale continues with the brutal moments and surprise tragedies that kicked off this season, showing that nobody’s safe in the New Frontier. This fast-paced conclusion to The Ties That Bind two-parter sees the new group of main protagonists fronted by the remains of the Garcia family and Clementine facing internal revolt, external challenges, and the looming question of who you can trust in this brutal new world--even if they’re family.
Episode Two picks up immediately where Episode One left off. It begins in sort of a slo-mo style that really sinks the knife in when we witness grief-ridden scenes play out before our eyes. Although the victim and source of everyone's sadness was only around for one episode, they already felt endearing, thanks to a handful of small but meaningful moments. As a result, Episode Two gets off to a touching and somber start.Prescott is such a great little town that everyone wants to move in.
This sad interlude is soon replaced by a plot that hastily moves to tear down some of what was established in Episode One and build up what’s likely going to carry the protagonists right through to the season finale. One thing that you can bet on in any Walking Dead story--whether its told in a game, comic, or TV show--is that safe spots tend to get overrun by walkers or bad guys in short order. So, before you can even settle down in Prescott, with its windmill and corrugated dive bar (the place looks like something out of Fallout), it's not a total surprise when you find yourself on the road again.
Most of this episode takes place on the run. The gang is trying to get to Richmond, both to escape an incoming threat, and to seek help for a wounded character. So while there are a number of big decisions to make--including a horrible life-or-death choice--there’s a ton of action here courtesy of the usual QTE zombie combat. You’re called upon to shoot, bash, and knife a lot of walkers in pretty graphic ways.Season Three continues to paint captivating scenes with expert use of light and shadow.
All this killing happens mainly during the episode’s big set-piece moment, which takes place alongside a gas station where the road has been intentionally barricaded by cars strewn across the mouth of a tunnel. As with the action scenes in the first episode, these moments seem a little more challenging to get through than any from the first two seasons. Hesitate even for a second, and you may end up hurt--or worse, bitten. Still, don’t expect to die very often; this is still a game geared for a casual audience.
Even though Season Three of The Walking Dead has just started, you can already notice a number of key themes emerging. The notion of family is paramount, and its likely Javy will have to second guess the trust he's placed in his family...or if he ever should have relied on them in the first place.
This chapter--The Ties That Bind--comes to an end in the second episode. It moves quickly--and in some pretty familiar directions, given how we’ve seen events like the attack on Prescott and the desperate search for a new refuge many times before. But not everything is as expected here, and the dramatic weight tied to unpredictable moments--as well as the amount of action--provides more of the franchise alluring edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
Telltale Games kicks off the third season of its Walking Dead series by introducing a fresh cast of new characters--a logical start for a season dubbed "A New Frontier." The story's lens shifts focus across the country to peer into the lives of a struggling family, rather than the exploits of downtrodden survivors. Yet even with all of these changes and scant undead creeps, A New Frontier's premier episode will feel familiar to fans of the series. Episode one establishes a heady moral stew loaded with hard choices and heartbreak, and is one of the best additions to the series since it began in 2012.
A New Frontier diverges from its two preceding seasons rather dramatically at times, rolling the clock back to the initial zombie outbreak. Here we are introduced to the Garcia family, located on the West Coast. Javier (Javy to his friends) is the new lead--a likable twentysomething and the black sheep of his family. In the opening scene, Javy races to his brother's house to see their terminally ill father before he dies. But traffic, due to the outbreak, stops him dead in his tracks. When he finally arrives, he's too late. Emotionally spent, Javy's brother David punches him in the face, followed by smack from his newly widowed mother. Once again, in their eyes, Javy failed to be there for his family when they needed him the most.Where past seasons aimed to stay true to The Walking Dead’s comic book roots, A New Frontier's cutscenes employ notable cinematic flair.
Where the first two seasons of the walking dead were mostly about forming familial ties with strangers you meet along the way, here we’re dropped into the middle of a traditional family with preexisting issues; stepmom immediately whips out a joint to relieve the tension of life on the run. There's illicit yet unspoken romance, hatred between family members, and ghosts of past transgressions lurking beneath the surface. Telltale has come a long way from the melodrama of past seasons, which revolved around the too-often-hysterical Kenny. In A New Frontier, Javy, Kate, Gabe, and Marianna are completely authentic in the way that they act and talk among each other, drawing you into their plight and earning much-deserved empathy.
Like its predecessors, this is an adventure that calls for casual interaction with only a few rudimentary puzzles to solve along the way. Nothing here is wildly challenging--although the quick-time-event combat scenarios do seem a bit more involved than in the past. The meat of the game remains the tremendous dialogue and the sheer number of choices that need to be made when deciding upon a course of action. The plot changes depending on what you do, which can have ramifications on everything from what somebody thinks of you, to who lives and who dies. This pumps up the replay value, with different outcomes motivating you to replay the two-hour story and reconfigure your choices.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Walking Dead game without Clementine. The ballcap-wearing heroine of the first two seasons is back, a little more grown-up and much more of a badass than she was at the end of Season Two. Flashbacks reveal pieces of what she's been through in the interim, and it isn't pretty. As a result, Clem now totes a combat shotgun, and her character has become something of a mystery, who may or may not be trustworthy. This is a gutsy direction in which to take a character who, up until now, has been the stainless moral center of the bleak Walking Dead world.Clem's motives seem mysterious at the start of season three, but one thing's for certain: she's grown up a lot since the end of season two.
Season three supports saves from previous seasons across various platforms, so you can port in your past progress--and Clementine's--no matter how you played Season Two. If you misplaced your old saves, however, the “Continue Your Story” option lets you custom-craft Clementine's personality through a series of questions related to the first two seasons' events. No matter how you go about it, when you choose to continue the saga, and you get flashbacks to Lee, Kenny, and the rest of the gang. Start an all-new game, and you get more generic flashbacks to Clem's life on the road.
While the game continues with the graphic-novel style of the visuals, they’re not as bound to the comics as they seemed to be in the past. Scenes are set with more cinematic flair, with dramatic camera angles and evocative lighting setting the mood. The earlier games Walking Dead games from Telltale looked great in their own right, but this episode takes things to a higher level, exemplified when you see the Garcias' van speeding down a road under eerie moonlight, and when Javy rides on horseback to rescue his family as the sun rises over a run-down auto yard.
Telltale has crafted another entertaining chapter in the always-growing Walking Dead story. The Ties That Bind Part I takes the series in a welcome new direction with the Garcia family while still staying true to the moral dilemmas and zombie-chomping action that made the first two seasons so compelling. The New Frontier is off to a great start, and its troubled cast's harrowing journey is just getting started.
With a trio of assassins, I prepare to breach the outer gates. I make one of my assassins toss out a tasty flask of sake to distract a guard, while another slit the throats of two unwary henchmen nearby. The third, a sniper, perches in a high tower and finishes off the remaining enemies. A few moments later, we're ready for the shogun--our real target.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is an elegant answer to a simple question: How do you make sneaking unnoticed from Point A to Point B compelling? Many games have built themselves around that concept, but few stealth-focused games manage to make sneaking as interesting as Gears of War makes shooting or Portal makes puzzle-solving.t
That's because the language of games, for better or worse, is usually conflict. But stealth games call for a subtler hand. Often you'll have to wait for enemies to be in the right place at the right time to make your move, and if you step out of turn and accidentally blow your cover, you may have to say goodbye to your progress and start from scratch.
Shadow Tactics can be challenging, but isn't as punishing as most stealth games. From the very beginning, you're taught to save--constantly. If you go more than a minute without saving, a timer appears onscreen to remind you, growing more intense with each passing minute. Once saving becomes a habit--executed with a single keystroke--you grow more comfortable trying out creative strategies without fear of risking hard-fought progress.
Shadow Tactics frontloads almost all of the training you'll need for the remainder of the campaign. You have five different assassins under your control, each with their own specific skills. Some can target two or three enemies in a single turn, while others can vault up onto rooftops to gain the upper hand. By the end of the first level, you'll have working knowledge of every major tactic and ability at your disposal. After that, it's just a matter of which specific combination of abilities you'll be able to bring to any one level.
From a serene, wind-swept snowscape to the towering castles of Japan's Edo period, Blades of the Shogun's cel shaded environments are all beautifully rendered, and each one introduces a distinct mechanic that alters the rules of stealth. Guards will track footsteps through snow on one map, for example, ratcheting up tension and forcing you to be more rigorous in your approach. With its rules in flux, Blades of the Shogun is consistently tense and challenging, forcing you to plan and react in new ways as you pursue one target after another.
At times, the complexity of any given level--with potentially dozens of guards and obstacles--can seem overwhelming. But no matter how dire things appear, there are systems in place to give you a fighting chance. You'll never be surprised, for example, by a guard's sudden attention. Their cones of vision gradually fill with color--they confirm your location when it's full and sound an alarm to summon reinforcements. In the brief amount of time it takes for an enemy to take action, you have a chance to get out of trouble, either by throwing a shuriken or quickly ducking out of sight.
If you do trigger an alarm, however, a swarm of new enemies appear and stick around for the rest of the scenario. This presents a series of interesting choices for you to make. You can, if you so choose, take the spike in challenge in exchange for removing one or two particularly pernicious henchmen. They may be replaced, but the newbies won't pick up the exact patrol pattern or position, so, in some cases, it's still worth it.
No matter how dire things appear, there are systems in place to give you a fighting chance.
Sudden turns also help develop the relationships between Shadow Tactics' five main characters. They'll trade barbs and anecdotes as they tell one another about how they came to this line of work and why they chose to fight. Party members range from the sturdy samurai, Mugen, to the lithe master of disguise Aiko. Hayato is the de facto leader, a dyed-in-the-wool ninja and master of stealth. The thief, Yuki, is faster and lighter, relying on traps and tricks to take down most foes. Last is Takuma, a wise old man and a patient sniper.
Each of their abilities can be chained into the skills of other characters, requiring extremely tight coordination. Over the 20-hour-plus adventure, they grow and learn together as they face mounting challenges and an uncertain future. The story isn't groundbreaking by any means, but the repartee is relatable and earnest, providing sufficient context for the adventure.
Across thirteen dense, beautiful areas that can each take a couple of hours to work through, you'll pick and probe, chopping through complex patterns against what seem like impossible odds. If there's one complaint, it's that while each of its parts work together seamlessly, it can often feel like there's only one correct solution--like you're trying to find the solution to a puzzle instead of working within a living, breathing world. However, those frustrations are blunted somewhat by ever-present tension, as you'll often face unexpected twists that prevent you from feeling too comfortable.
Shadow mode, as the game calls it, leads to glorious moments where you get to see all of your hard work, your observation, and attention to detail pay off. It tests your ability to keep track of all the moving pieces in a level and put a plan in motion. You can have a samurai kill off a small band of guards with his special ability, then snipe an officer as he moves in to investigate. Then you can have your other characters stash the bodies to avoid detection--all before the next set of troops rounds the corner. When a plan comes together, it's a thing of beauty--a symphony of action.
Shadow Tactics understands what makes stealth games so special. It pushes you to organize your own plans such that you’re never seen at all, living up to Thief's thesis that masterful warriors are ghosts that wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. And it takes this concept step further, giving you enough options to ensure you're never trapped or stuck without recourse. Shadow Tactics' basic ideas are masterfully executed, making it one of the best stealth games in recent memory.