Category Archives: Game Reviews

Unity Of Command 2 Review – Lifetime Supply

At first glance, Unity of Command 2 may look intimidating, the familiarity of the pint-sized tanks and military men that populate its World War II battlefields obscured by an impenetrable fog of unintuitive jargon and confounding icons. But once the confusion clears it reveals a surprisingly straightforward wargame whose keen focus on establishing and severing lines of supply delivers remarkable strategic depth.

This isn’t really a strategy game about marching your troops forward to attack the enemy. Unity of Command 2’s twist on the genre makes it a game about manoeuvring your units to occupy spaces that maintain clear supply lines to your forces and deny supply to the enemy. In fact, the winning move often involves holding your position. Sometimes you don’t even need to engage the enemy at all; you just have to starve them out.

No Caption Provided

Placing you in charge of the Allied forces in 1943, the campaign opens in North Africa before pushing up through Italy and into the heart of Western Europe. Missions arrive in groups known as conferences, one of the first off-putting terms you’ll encounter. At the start of a conference, you can spend prestige points on upgrading your field headquarters, extending their range and efficiency during combat, and on purchasing theatre cards that you can play in battle to grant additional abilities. Beat all the missions in a conference and you unlock the next, along with another chance to upgrade and purchase.

Luck and short-term planning combine here in an interesting way. The cards available to purchase are shuffled randomly, meaning you can’t always rely on picking up a favourite and may need to accommodate a curveball or two. And the choices you make are locked in for the duration of the conference, so you’ve got to manage with what you’ve got in terms of HQ upgrades and make those cards last over several missions. Knowing you have only three opportunities to use a naval bombardment over the course of a single mission does a lot to focus the mind. Such constraints force you to make bold choices about which targets you absolutely must hit and when precisely is the right time to do so. Get these plays right and you feel like the greatest general the world’s ever seen. Extra cards can be collected during missions as you complete certain objectives, but they arrive more as a relief package–an unexpected boon to your cause rather than a way to undermine the decisions you finalised at the last conference.

No Caption Provided

At the outset of each mission you’re able to survey the map and plan your approach. Usually there are a couple of primary objectives that must be fulfilled to complete the scenario, accompanied by a few secondary objectives that, if achieved, offer a bonus reward or even a slight tactical advantage in the next mission. These objectives are designed in such a way to guide you across the map, and the attentive player will glean useful advantages from them. For example, if the objectives ask you to take a certain town by turn 5 and a second town by turn 8, then it’s likely that taking the first town will be beneficial to your efforts to take the second. And if you’re tasked with taking and holding a location then doing so will undoubtedly accord an ongoing advantage. Clear, concise objectives provide a structure to each mission that makes it easy to digest what’s expected of you, and when you should be aiming to have it accomplished.

Rounding out the preparatory phase, the units at your disposal are pre-assigned as per the scenario, so you’re never burdened with choosing whether or not to deploy the US 13th Airborne or the 7th British Armoured Division–they’re already there, conveniently positioned on a hex, ready to go. Although units come in only two types–tank and infantry divisions–there’s a host of critical attributes that can distinguish one tank division from the next, assuming you can get your head around the collection of arcane icons used to describe them.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided

Units are composed of “steps,” an offputting, unfamiliar term that basically measures the health of the unit. All else being equal, a five-step unit will beat a three-step unit. Yet in these variable battlefields, things are rarely equal. Tiny stars and crosses next to a unit indicate whether it’s an elite, veteran or regular unit, but these icons are all-too-easily missed, and even after dozens of hours of play I still found myself occasionally not noticing I was sending a regular infantry to their doom against an elite. Other, multi-coloured symbols represent various specialists serving in the division, but there’s no tooltip or in-game explanation as to how a specialist can benefit a unit. I had to rely on an external guide, alt-tabbing out to remind myself that the dark blue icon with the chevron indicated a self-propelled anti-tank specialist while the chevron and dot meant it was a towed anti-tank specialist. There’s a lot to remember and keep track of, and unfortunately, the tutorials and in-game tooltips aren’t up to the job.

However, once you’ve taken stock there’s the opportunity to make some last-minute adjustments, adding more regular or specialist units to this squad or that, to better suit the strategic gambit you wish to employ. Deploying an engineer specialist to the siege at your primary objective will help whittle away the enemy’s fortification bonuses, but maybe you’re better off assigning them to the infantry in the east to help ford all those rivers and secure a secondary objective? All these resources are limited, though, and the trade-offs you’re forced into always carry weight.

The importance of every decision you make is heightened by the tight turn limit applied to each mission. Of course, you’re free to take all the time in the world on each turn. But Unity of Command 2 is a wargame with a fast turnover, and that’s precisely what makes it so accessible. Brief skirmishes are the order of the day rather than long, drawn-out stalemates. Often you’ll be asked to tick off secondary goals within three or four turns while 10 or 12 turns is a generous amount of time to secure the primary objectives. Experimentation is encouraged by the short time scale. Roll the dice on one strategy, fail quickly, and then before you know it you’re back at the battle planning stage, pondering a more effective approach based on the lessons taught by your unsuccessful sortie.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided

Battles are won through a combination of clear, decisive strikes and a conservative support structure that can swiftly respond to any breach in your line. The way you have to manage logistics through the supply line system turns what could have been a puzzle game about finding the correct solution into a meaty strategy game brimming with flexibility. Victory is all about identifying where you really need to break through the enemy line to secure that vital railroad junction that will cut off supply to every enemy unit in a particular region of the map. Or it’s about realising that you can drop those paratroopers behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge that will deny the Germans’ ability to keep supplying the frontline. Seeing your plan executed successfully is incredibly satisfying, but at the same time, it’s still entertaining to see a plan fall apart as enemy tanks overrun a key chokepoint, suddenly finding yourself scrambling to hold the line and divert supply to your now-stranded troops.

Unity of Command 2 is an overall excellent wargame. The early going can be tough as it takes time to acclimatise to some idiosyncratic terms and learn to interpret the raft of poorly-explained icons. Persistence–not to mention some handy community-written guides–does pay off, though. Stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest strategy games in recent times.

Source: GameSpot.com

Wattam Review – Forever Wondering

There’s a part in Wattam where your friend (an old-fashioned telephone) is crying because the sun took its receiver and is making a long-distance phone call. To solve this cellular problem, you have to gather all of your friends, stack them up, and climb on top of them so you can explain the situation to the sun and ask for the receiver back. Once you get up there, the sun gives it back and apologizes for the misunderstanding. The telephone says that it’s okay, and then you carry on with your day.

That might sound like a hallucination, but that’s the heart of Wattam. It’s a bunch of silly concepts and weird actors being constantly thrown into head-scratching scenarios that you have to solve. In this world, it doesn’t really matter that everything is so bizarre. What matters is ensuring all of your friends are happy, and every character would do absolutely anything possible to make their reality a friendship utopia.

Every character in Wattam is a vibrant random object that changes shapes, forms, and sizes the more you progress and interact with the world and its environment. The game starts with one character, but you meet plenty of new pals, and later in the game the screen becomes charmingly cluttered, like a kid dumped a bunch of their toys on the floor and didn’t clean it up. Among the characters are trees that can gobble up others and turn them into a fruitified version of themselves, a toilet named Linda that can turn characters into poop, and a nose named Ronald that can sniff up characters that are buried underground. The characters always seem to be having fun, embracing the change and sometimes adopting new personas and using catchphrases to parody genres like action movies and whodunits. They treat each other like old friends and run around and play with each other even when you’re not controlling them. Watching them all interact and utilize their powers together adds a sense of life to this zany world–it may be weird, but they have their own fascinating ecosystem going on.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

The main character is a green cube with a bowler hat named The Mayor. At the start of the game, The Mayor finds out about “Kaboom,” the hidden power of its hat which launches everyone in the nearby radius into the sky in an explosion of laughter (the people love a good Kaboom). With your newfound ability and the strange charisma of a cube, it’s your job to explore the world, learn its history, and keep everyone happy. Most of the time you’re acting as a mediator, walking up to whoever is crying at the given moment, asking them a genuine “What’s wrong?” and then solving their problems via a mini-game. It’s tough work at times due to some pushback from awkward controls and sudden frame rate drops, but it never gets frustrating. You just look down and realize you’re playing as a cool little apple who loves to dance and you finish the mission. It’s also satisfyingly worth it at the end of each puzzle when you see your motley crew of inanimate objects cheering you on and having a blast together in this world you helped soothe.

You can play as anything on the screen, and when you swap into a character, it changes the main instrument in the song that’s playing in the background. Each character has their own designated sounds: If you switch to a plant bud you’ll hear the theme with a xylophone, for example, and if you switch to a poop you’ll hear fart noises. Each quirky object has a clear and thoughtful theme tune, and the soundtrack as a whole always has you grooving. Sometimes I’d take a break from the main story to swap to a character and just listen to how the songs sounded from their perspective. There’s a jazz song on the soundtrack called “A Long Time: The Six Years” that has no business going that hard.

Wattam is a collection of plotlines with objectives that can be completed in a few minutes, so each time you go back to the game it feels like a vastly different experience than what you were doing half an hour previously. One moment you could be running around as a miniature acorn, trying to find a spot to bury yourself, and the next you could be meeting a golden bowling pin that wants you to stack your friends to its exact height. It could so easily have been disorienting to be forced to constantly learn new mechanics and to always be playing the game in new ways every few moments, but Wattam isn’t overwhelming. There’s a sense of intrigue whenever a new character needs help, because whenever you help one, something in the game changes significantly–someone will gain a new power or maybe a mysterious staircase will emerge for you to investigate.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8

While it’s essentially an anthology of short mini-games, Wattam has an underlying plot that’s revealed over the course of a few cutscenes. These stop all the tomfoolery to tell a story of the apocalyptic events that happened right before the start of the game; it’s a surprising tonal shift but it still fits very well with Wattam’s ethos. Wattam is cool because it isn’t just eccentric for eccentricity’s sake–it also has a message it wants to share. You meet a few characters that come in the form of scroll, a book, and a futuristic floppy disk that explain that message and why connections and bonds are so important in this world. While they aren’t the deepest cutscenes in the world, Wattam’s message inside of them is ultimately heartwarming and offers context to things you wouldn’t think are connected.

It isn’t often that you play something that is so pure and unapologetically itself, but that’s Wattam. I don’t know if I’ll ever play another game that makes me turn all of my friends into fruit so I can progress. It oozes passion, and it has an infectious enthusiasm that’s present in each and every aspect of it. Wattam never takes itself too seriously, and that makes it easy to buy into its world and suspend your disbelief. While the gameplay is all over the place, Wattam is held together by themes of friendship and a cohesive soundtrack that actually leave you grinning long after you’re done.

Source: GameSpot.com

Supermash Review – Flop Jam

It’s easy to think of how some of your favorite video game genres might fit together. In the space of just pure imagination, it’s possible to completely deconstruct familiar tropes and wildly throw them against a wall to see what sticks, challenging established norms without consequence. It’s this sort of unhinged creativity that makes Supermash initially hard to ignore. By making it easy to choose two genres and mash them together with randomly determined results, Supermash seems to promise a near endless supply of retro concoctions. But instead of delicately blended results, the games that Supermash does spit out lack any identity, while feeling too similar to one another when they do work and downright frustrating when borderline broken.

The core conceit of Supermash is the ability to create new games from templates of genres. The genres on offer are varied, ranging from a classic NES action adventure in the vein of The Legend of Zelda to the sneaky steps of a Metal Gear-inspired stealth game. Each genre template plucks a core idea from its inspirations and uses that as the core mechanic for your eventual combinations. For example, a JRPG will lend turn-based combat to any game it’s matched with, while a shoot-’em-up will introduce vertically scrolling terrains to whatever other genre you choose to pair with it.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Supermash is incredibly easy to get going–pick two genres, decide on a desired game length and difficulty, and use mostly single-use collectible cards to make small cosmetic and gameplay changes to the initial result. The rest is handled by Supermash’s procedural generation, which doesn’t always do the best job of masking the limited templates it’s clearly working with. Within an hour, I was recognizing the same layouts in both stealth and action adventure mashes, and even routinely seeing the same visual palates used to dress them up in. Seeing the strings behind the puppetry would’ve been disappointing but forgivable, though, if the games themselves were any fun to play.

Most of the creations lack any substantial differences between them. Whether you’re playing a shrunken-down Zelda-like dungeon or jumping through a Mario-inspired platformer, you’re generally doing one of three things: finding a specific character, retrieving a specific item, or killing a certain number of a specific enemy, all within a short timeframe. These don’t change with the genres you’re putting together, which often makes genres meant to be less linear pointless. Genres like JRPGs or metroidvanias are much more than just their styles of combat or collectible upgrades, but Supermash never gives you levels or goals that reflect this. And even when the objectives do coalesce with the main genre influence, they’re just unsatisfying to play. Platforming feels floaty and imprecise, dungeon crawling becomes nothing more than a repetitive checklist, and shoot-’em-ups never capture the exhilaration of their inspirations.

Randomly assigned modifiers called “glitches” can somewhat differentiate one mash from the next, but more often than not, they result in more game-breaking issues. A glitch can, for example, spawn a new enemy every time you attack, or conversely heal you every time you take damage. These serve to either eliminate any challenge or increase it to frustrating levels, regardless of the difficulty setting you assign prior to making the game. Others are more frustrating, though. I had a glitch that moved me in a random direction for a few seconds after each attack, which made simple movement a chore. It forced me to just forgo combat entirely while navigating a dungeon, further restricting the already limited actions I had. There’s no way to turn these randomly assigned glitches off either, so when you’re dealt a bad hand, you just have to restart and hope for a better result next time.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some combinations that aren’t at least amusing. Playing a 2D stealth game with the turn-based combat of classic Final Fantasy games doesn’t work mechanically (having to go into an action menu to perform a stealth kill is ridiculous), but it does remind you of how good each of the individual parts are in other games. But Supermash’s multitude of little games never come close to reaching the entertaining heights of the genres they attempt to recreate, which makes it difficult to want to test the abilities of its random generation further after your initial attempts.

Encompassing all of this experimentation is a thin story about three friends trying to keep their video game retail store open, with the crew hoping to package and sell some of these new creations to spark some interest. Story objectives set some parameters for your next mashup, indicating what genres and modifiers to use, without really steering you towards any great outcomes. There’s an additional journal to work through with objectives tied to each genre you have at your disposal, each connecting small but throwaway stories within them.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Progressing this journal is incredibly frustrating, though, since the items required for completion are populated into your generated levels at random. You’re forced to repeatedly mash together the same genres in the hopes of finally getting one that has what you need, which only serves to expose the repetitive nature of them even faster. Each chapter culminates with a boss fight specific to the genre you’re completing, and despite being some of the only handcrafted bits of retro action in Supermash, they fail to be any more exciting than the random contraptions you put together. Most are one-note and devoid of challenge, only requiring repetitive attacks and simple movements to overcome. They’re not worth the time you need to invest to unlock them.

It’ll be rare for you to want to save any of the creations Supermash lets you construct, which is indicative of how shallow and unsatisfying they all are at their core. In a bid to try and do so many things right, Supermash forgets the fundamentals of all the genres it tries to encompass, while also overreaching by trying to make them all work in some way together. None of Supermash’s creations feel close to replicating the joy of their inspirations, and instead serve as reminders that there are far more focused and polished attempts at each individual one that will reward your time better. There’s no doubting the imaginative idea at Supermash’s core, but it ends up choking on its ambition.

Source: GameSpot.com

The Touryst Review – Life’s A Beach

The first island you visit in The Touryst is a tiny, perpetually sunny place, and it’s full of spots to have a sit or a lie down. Having a rest doesn’t achieve anything, but I found that my immediate instinct was to give my character a moment to luxuriate on a bed in one of the island’s small personal rooms–this is a game about vacationing, after all, and on any vacation it’s important to relax. The Touryst is a soothing and relaxing experience thanks to the lovingly rendered voxel graphics and the (mostly) gentle gameplay, and despite some occasional moments of frustration, playing it really does feel like taking a mini-vacation.

You play as a moustachioed man in a loud shirt who is tasked with travelling between different island vacation spots and collecting cores that rest within the game’s scant few monuments–essentially short dungeons. You move between beach parties under orange sunsets, lush tropical expanses, and Mediterranean tourist spots, before diving into murky underground caverns that contain jumping puzzles and non-violent boss encounters. It’s a strange combination of elements, but The Touryst wears its strangeness on its sleeve.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

This is, above all else, a game about the joy of a holiday. As you play, you unlock new islands to visit, and while each one is small, they also all have their own distinct flavor, as well as unique activities to discover and engage with. The superb voxel art style imbues each setting with personality and makes the simple act of sightseeing a pleasure. Simply existing in these beautiful locations is inherently enjoyable, and while each new setting won’t take long to fully explore, I found walking around each one calming.

The monuments themselves contain puzzles and tests of your dexterity, and working your way through them is essential to unlock every island and complete the game’s story. They’re ultimately the least interesting part of the game, but they’re certainly not without their charms. They can be quite challenging, but the key is usually to just remember that there’s an optimal solution to the puzzles, even when it seems like they’re just asking you to nail precise jumps. Often, how you’re manipulating the camera to line up your angles and judge the space you’re in is as important as your ability to control your trajectory; if you’re messing a jump up often, it’s because you haven’t quite cracked what that room is asking of you.

Even so, every now and then, the game asks for a greater level of precision from your actions than the controls want to give you. The controls are a bit floaty for how small some of the platforms you’re landing on are, and one jumping puzzle took me, at a conservative estimate, 25 attempts to get. The rooms inside monuments are viewed from an isometric perspective, which can make judging gaps difficult. Any situation that requires you to throw an object with great precision is frustrating too because of how the throwing arc works, but these moments of frustration only stick out because they are rare.

No Caption Provided

Outside of these moments, The Touryst is a game with a lot of chill. One island doesn’t even have a monument at all–instead it has a movie theatre that shows a short highlight reel of moments from the rest of the game, an art gallery that you’ll eventually populate with your own photography, and, best of all, a retro arcade with three cabinets. There’s a racing game (based on the studio’s own Switch game Fast RMX), a strange platformer, and a Breakout clone, all offering brief diversions that successfully sucked me in for an hour. Completing the high scores in these arcade games (and earning the arbitrary cash reward) is challenging, but there’s something almost zen about a game that encourages you to waste your time like this–it perfectly captures my very specific childhood memory of discovering arcade machines in local pubs while on holiday and shovelling coins into them. The Touryst, appropriately, frames everything you do as an act of tourism.

Completing sidequests will earn you money, but cash is largely inconsequential to completing the game–by the time the credits rolled I had hundreds of coins left with very little to spend them on. The sidequests play into the shaggy nature of the game–you don’t complete them because they’re helpful, but because you want to see everything the game world has to offer. I spent a long time down a mine you encounter on one island, engaged with a spelunking challenge that lets you collect gems that can then be exchanged for money. I spent so much time down there not because I needed money–I never even traded the gems in. I did it because the mines are particularly enjoyable–they let you abseil down cliffs, swing between ledges, and even ride rickety minecarts as you delve deeper and deeper.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

There are plenty of other activities scattered across The Touryst’s small world. You can fix up a boring beach party, then liven it up further by buying new records for the DJ; you can show off your sporting prowess in surfing, soccer, and pull-up minigames; you can search the game world for photography subjects with the camera you’re given early on, or hunt down several carefully hidden scrolls. The sidequests are often very simple and easy but watching as island life slowly shifts and changes based on your actions is a delight.

I found that as the credits rolled on The Touryst’s strange ending, I was keen for them to finish so I could jump straight back in and mop up the remaining objectives. Admittedly, even if you want to do absolutely everything, The Touryst isn’t very long—my completion total sat at 94% after five and a half hours. But perhaps it’s better this way–after all, the best vacations often end before you’ve had a chance to really get homesick. It’s the next best thing to an actual holiday.

Source: GameSpot.com

Phoenix Point Review – The Life Aquatic

You’ve earned the right to mess with the XCOM formula when you’re the person chiefly responsible for it. Julian Gollop was the co-lead designer on the original XCOM: UFO Defense in 1994, and Phoenix Point, from Gollop’s new studio Snapshot Games, is a self-described spiritual successor to XCOM. At first it feels all too familiar: You play the eponymous private military organisation defending Earth from an alien threat, patching holes in the sinking ship via tactical combat and strategic upgrades. But Phoenix Point reinvents the formula in both big and small ways, sending changes rippling across the strategic map and tinkering with the nuts and bolts of close combat. Not every new idea is equally successful, though many of them are welcome, and in sum deliver a refresh that points the genre in an exciting new direction.

As with the first XCOM sequel, Terror from the Deep, the threat here comes from the ocean. A mysterious mist is creeping at the coast, luring people into the sea and returning them as Lovecraftian fish monsters–all scaly-skinned, newly betentacled, and packing crustaceous heat, an army of soldier crabs. Phoenix Point is joined in defending the planet by three ideologically distinct factions: New Jericho want to destroy the aliens, the Synedrion want to coexist with them, and the Disciples of Anu want to synthesize human and alien life. Many of the missions you undertake will inevitably involve offending at least one of the factions and so, no matter how impartial you to try to remain, eventually you’re going to have to choose sides. It’s a depressing, relevant example of humanity’s failure to come together in the face of existential catastrophe.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

On the world map, presented here as it was in the original XCOM as the Geoscape, a rotatable globe pockmarked with scouted points of interest, the mist is a red miasma slowing enveloping the planet, a Doomsday Clock ticking closer to midnight one continent at a time. This strategic layer runs in real time as your Phoenix squads fly from one flashpoint to the next, while you work on increasing base capacity, manufacturing new arms, and researching new military solutions. All the while the red mist spreads, escalating the danger as new nests appear and strangling your ability to fight back as faction outposts fall. It’s the perfect visual representation of the odds you’re facing and the seeming inevitability of defeat. Despite the abstraction, it’s genuinely painful to see the mist consume a settlement you had heroically rescued only days earlier.

At a strategic level, Phoenix Point wants to let you pick your own path. The Geoscape is at the start shrouded in the fog of war. Through scanning nearby areas and aerial exploration it soon becomes a sprawling, cluttered morass of multi-coloured icons describing your own bases, factional havens, key quest destinations, potential scavenging sites, neutral colonies, alien nests, and other unidentified locations. You have considerable freedom in navigating your own route across this world. You can basically travel wherever you like and, when you arrive, you can usually decide whether or not to take on the mission you’ve encountered. Want to save this low-threat scavenging mission for some new recruits further down the line? Just hit abort and fly your veteran squad into more dangerous territory.

It’s liberating, at least early on, as you jet around, scouting the map, picking and choosing your next mission. Yet by the time you have multiple squads traversing the globe, and you’re juggling a handful of different flight paths across a Geoscape that has exploded into a galaxy of competing icons, that liberation is swamped by confusion. It’s not that it’s hard to tell what you could do next–important story missions and factional quests are highlighted–it’s more that there are so many things to do that it’s easy to lose yourself in endless distractions or worse, drown under an overwhelming wave of map markers.

Indeed, the chaotic, confounding clutter of the Geoscape is emblematic of some wider interface issues. The research screen throws every possible tech into a long list with scant attention given to how useful it might or where it might lead. There’s a research order function, but you can only send one tech to the front of the queue, not adjust the order further down. Inventory management is a mess when it comes to comparing different weapons to equip and deciding which new gear to manufacture.

No Caption Provided

The the freeform structure of the Geoscape guarantees no two campaigns will play out alike. What those campaigns have in common, however, is a mentally exhausted player. You’re pulled in so many directions. Two colonies are under attack in India but an alien nest needs eradicating in Malaysia. New Jericho wants to assist its research in China but the Synedrion wants you to sabotage Jericho’s research lab in Australia. And all the while there are dozens of unexplored spots in Africa that you haven’t even visited yet. But it’s worth battling through the stress and clutter to get to the combat.

What typically awaits at a destination is a bout of small-scale, turn-based combat. Occasionally you will stumble upon a simple narrative event that will give you a decision to make and readjust your resources or factional reputation in response, but for the most part, you will find yourself engaged in a firefight.

At a combat level, Phoenix Point is all about tactical flexibility. There are four primary classes–heavy, assault, sniper, and melee–but perk trees are semi-randomly rolled for each soldier, and you can also allow them to multi-class. This means no two soldiers have to be the same, and you have a lot of room to tailor each six-person squad to suit your preferred style of play. My first heavy was the typical tank character, lots of health and a big cannon, but later adopted a secondary class and would jet pack onto a roof and launch a few grenades to destroy the enemy’s cover before switching to a sniper rifle to finish them off.

Many of the man-made structures on a map can be damaged and destroyed. Grenades and other heavy weapons can remove that pillar you were relying on for cover. Even the humble pistol can shoot through a thin wall, hitting anything that was on the other side and leaving them more exposed for a follow-up shot. My jet-packing heavy nearly bit the dust one time when the roof they’d landed on gave way in an explosion, dumping them into the room below where a nasty crab creature lurked. Fortunately, on the next turn, they were able to jetpack to safety out of the newly renovated ceiling.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

When you take a shot, you aren’t given a percentage chance to hit while some dice are rolled to see if you did any damage. Instead, bullet trajectories are said to be physically simulated, meaning if you can see something, you can hit it. There are two ways to take a shot. The default has you aiming generally at the centre of the target’s mass. Take an aimed shot, though, and you’re given a first-person view where what you point at is what you’ll shoot. You can target an enemy’s limbs or their weapon or even another object in the environment, and for the most part you’re likely to hit it. There is a degree of fuzziness here–you’ll see the crosshair surrounded by two rings, the inner one indicating where most of the shot(s) will hit and the outer accounting for any remainder–and the accuracy and damage of any particular shot is still affected by the weapon’s range and other stats. But it’s very satisfying to destroy an enemy’s shield with one well-aimed sniper shot, then follow it up with an assault rifle round to the now-exposed head.

The ability to target specific limbs becomes vitally important as more diverse enemy types start populating the battlefield–you’ll very quickly need to worry about more than those wielding shields. The sheer variety of enemy types and behaviours issues an interesting challenge every turn and have you constantly thinking about cover, height, range, support, supplies, teamwork and priorities. In addition, every enemy is susceptible to a well-aimed shot that cripples a specific limb, thus slowing its movement, nullifying its special ability, destroying its weapon or inhibiting its mode of attack. As a result there’s so much more to think about in combat than just methodically moving your squad forward and shooting the enemy when they appear.

The flexibility is heightened by the action point system that provides more options than just moving and shooting. Every soldier has 4 APs, but different weapons and abilities use different amounts, and the ground a soldier can cover in 1 AP is affected by their speed stat. Two of my assault troops worked in perfect tandem: one was a shotgun expert with the speed to close quickly on their target and use a debuff that reduced the APs of nearby hostiles, the other hung back a bit, offering support with their longer-range rifle, entering overwatch every turn thanks to its cheaper cost, and running in with a medkit if the other took damage. Both characters started out the same, but the wildly different level-up choices I made for them, coupled with the capacity to spend their APs every turn on a mostly unique suite of options, meant they felt distinct–like characters whose behaviour I had authored and who I was personally responsible for. I’d invested in their stats, tweaking them in parallel to become complementary, and as a result, had become emotionally invested in them.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided

When you lose a soldier it hits hard, of course. Any soldier that goes down in a fight is permanently dead, and you have to recruit a novice to replace them. Yet while your emotional investment can never be fully recovered, the stat investment can be at least partially reclaimed. This is because experience points earned from completing missions is awarded to each individual soldier who participated and to a common pool. You’re free to dip into this pool whenever you wish–maybe you just need a few more points to unlock that next tier perk you’ve had your eye on–but my strategy was to save the pool for new recruits. Every time I hired a new soldier I was able to level them up several times before they had pulled a trigger. It’s a clever, flexible system that means veteran troop losses are a setback, but never a debilitating or irredeemable one.

The tactical combat doesn’t suffer from the clumsy interface design that plagues the strategic layer. There are convenient overlays informing you of movement ranges, AP consumption, and targeting possibilities, it’s easy to scroll between different terrain heights, and everything requires deliberate selection so you don’t end up performing an action you didn’t intend. However I did very, very occasionally run into a problem where the overlay would tell me I had line of sight from a certain tile if I moved there, only to move there and discover I couldn’t actually see the enemy. And after dozens of hours of play, I still have no idea why my soldiers would sometimes start a new mission with their weapons needing reloading, nor indeed how to reload them when not in a mission. But these feel like trivial concerns in the grander scheme of what is an overall robust combat engine.

Phoenix Point has plenty of bold new ideas for the XCOM genre, but not all of them have the same level of shine. It can feel a bit unwieldy at times, a bit less user-friendly than you’d hope. But it’s a game that feels more concerned with experimentation than perfection, that’s more interested in discovering new paths to take than walking one that’s already well-trodden. As a hybrid tactical/strategy game, it’s dynamic and deep with the occasionally disorientating misfire along the way. As a contribution to the genre XCOM first defined, it’s a well-aimed shot.

Source: GameSpot.com

Darksiders: Genesis Review – Lucy And The Horsemen

Hell is teeming with demonic masters tricked into subservience by Lucifer himself–or Lucy, as Strife affectionately calls him in Darksiders: Genesis. An isometric hack-and-slash bonanza, the latest instalment in the Darksiders series sees you puppeteer dastardly duo War and Strife in a combat-fueled romp filled with bombastic brawls, infernal abominations, and quippish one-liners.

The protagonistic pair form one cohesive half of the Four Horsemen–a parade of soldiers born from the ungodly union of angels and devils. And yet Genesis’ story is wonderfully witty and whimsically warm. War is a belligerent and straight-laced gladiator who takes everything very, very seriously, and Strife has brilliant fun hurling droll jests his way. “Knock knock,” opens one exchange. “What?” replies War. “You’re supposed to say ‘Who’s there?’,” retorts an incredulous Strife. “Why would I give away my location? I would simply smash through the door and face my assailant,” reasons War.

The pair are so radically different to one another that the writing really has room to blossom into something special. To make this even more charming, the majority of Genesis’ cutscenes unfold in a comic-book panel aesthetic–much like previous Darksiders games. The animation is stylish and memorable, and helps to ensure that Genesis never gets too grave–quip after quip, panel after panel, it’s a game about Hell and the end of the world that maintains a delightful degree of charisma and warmth. It’s also spectacularly garish, to the extent that its inherent campiness becomes its biggest strength.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Each of the two characters has their own distinct playstyle, both of which are excellent. War uses his gargantuan sword, Chaoseater, to tussle with enemies at close-range–he’s a big, hulking bruiser that enjoys a good knock. Strife, on the other hand, has a pair of trusty pistols and excels when quickly moving about the battlefield. Like his wit, his movements are sharp and precise, and he’s very well-suited to players who enjoy pummeling bosses in between choreographed sequences of fancy footwork. Being able to switch between the two on the fly allows for a massive amount of diversity in combat.

Although the genesis of Genesis is the relationship between its joint protagonists, these differences in combat style are what make it shine as a Darksiders game. It may seem as if this is budget Darksiders–an isometric camera angle and a short but sweet story. It’s the opposite. You emphatically feel like a member of the Four Horsemen. As you learn new abilities–called Enhancements in Genesis–you gradually gain access to combos so devastating that it makes sense for the masters of Hell to fear you. War can channel lightning into his sword and unleash it upon his enemies, whereas Strife can shoot legitimate lava bullets from his pistols–he’s half-gunslinger, half-volcano.

You have two different variables to pay attention to while you’re in the thick of it: Health and Wrath. The former is a straightforward vitality meter, whereas the latter is tied to special abilities. For every Wrath bar you fill, you can use one of these powers–maybe you’ll do a flaming somersault or create a clone of yourself to serve as a decoy while you leg it back to safety.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8

However, the real fun starts when you fill your Wrath meter right up to the brim and then some. After achieving this, you gain access to your Chaos mode, which causes you to temporarily become a colossus. War lights himself and his sword on fire, while Strife gets a gun that seems to shoot space dust. If you’re clever, you can deprive a boss of half their health with a single Chaos transformation. It’s an excellent mechanic because it’s difficult to obtain and necessitates a lot of risk–you can’t spend your Wrath bars on standard abilities if you’re saving up to go Plus Ultra, Darksiders style. However, when you pull it off, you become a force of nature wreaking havoc on the hordes of hell and reminding their infernal lords that the Nephilim are not to be trifled with. It’s almost as if they seem to forget that one of you was literally named after war itself.

You improve your Health, Wrath, and general attack power by investing in what’s more of a skill map than a skill tree. Because it’s refreshingly easy to navigate this skill map, you can experiment with a variety of combat styles without having to pump hours into trying different permutations. Although each character only has a single, distinct build, the wide range of enhancements and abilities available to you begets combat that never truly becomes boring or laborious, which is a massive testament to why the game actually works. One minute you’re using your sword to rip up the ground and shoot a shock wave at your opponent, the next you’re putting on a red Iron Man-esque gauntlet and smashing hordes into bits from above. The more fights you pick, the more the game opens up for you in terms of varied belligerence.

However, the isometric camera angle is not well-suited to the game’s platforming sections whatsoever, which means that any puzzle that requires mobility to solve is a nightmare, especially on mouse and keyboard. At times, movement seems entirely arbitrary, as moving right in one section might have the same directional effect as moving up in another, even when tied to the exact same angle and situation. Most of Genesis’ puzzles are intuitive, especially in co-op where the gear system really gets to shine–War and Strife each have access to three tools, which are used for problem-solving. However, once traversal comes into the question, puzzles become chores, and the momentum of an otherwise excellent game slows to a disheartening standstill.

No Caption Provided

There are also quite a few bugs in Genesis, but they’re relatively minor and can be easily rectified. I got stuck in rocks on at least five occasions, but because the game auto-saves so regularly, a soft reboot fixed these pretty quickly. However, a more serious bug can occur in co-op. The host is fine, but the person playing in their friend’s server can automatically switch to first-person mode, which isn’t even supposed to be an option as far as I know. Being forced to wander around a world designed for third-person in first-person is far less than ideal. This issue can be fixed by summoning your horse and immediately dismounting it, but you can’t summon a horse in dungeons or tight spaces, and even though these bugs may be co-op specific, they break the game. A shame, really, because co-op is where puzzles become complex endeavors that necessitate proper teamwork, and where boss fights encourage synergized button-mashing instead of 100 slightly-concentrated mouse-clicks a minute–not that rapid clicks are a bad thing in a good hack-and-slash. It’s just more satisfying to strategize and quickly dispatch enemies with a partner.

Despite these issues, Darksiders: Genesis is a very worthy prequel to an established series. The combat is excellently engaging, the writing is genuinely funny without having to try too hard, and the art is consistently captivating. It’s a shame about the dodgy camera angle–this is a game that doesn’t really benefit from an isometric perspective for the most part, despite the hack-and-slash aspects being easy to control in top-down view. But at the end of the day, Darksiders: Genesis has a clear identity. It’s not the most experimental game in the world, but it takes a variety of tried-and-tested systems and executes them with bravado and grace.

Source: GameSpot.com

Shovel Knight: King Of Cards Review – Royal Refinement

King of Cards, the third (and final) Shovel Knight expansion, feels almost like a full-blown sequel. Starring the memorable King Knight, it harkens back to the gameplay of the original Shovel Knight adventure in both structure and execution. It’s filled to the brim with varied and challenging levels, each more refined and focused than before by building on the many established strengths of this enduring franchise.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards acts as a prequel to the events of the original game in the same way that Specter of Torment did, following King Knight prior to his induction in the Order of No Quarter. It’s a humorously written tale that gives more insight into the petulant and egotistical (but consistently entertaining) self-proclaimed King as you battle across the land to claim your namesake through a frivolous Joustus tournament. This is a new card game sweeping the kingdom, controlled by three of its best players in each of the regions you’ll visit and claim for yourself.

King Knight’s adventure falls squarely into standard Shovel Knight fare, with King of Cards feeling the most similar in structure to the original adventure out of the three expansions and the closest to a sequel in its scope. There’s the same Super Mario Bros. 3-styled overworld map that you can work through in various ways. You can choose the shortest path to the region’s boss battle or enjoy exploring by using alternative exits in levels to create paths to secret stages filled with valuable loot or new weapons and abilities. Side boss battle and optional treasure challenges pop up on the map to tempt you into treading off the beaten path, rewarding your detours with unsurprisingly stratifying platforming puzzles or nail-biting bouts that the series has become known for.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Stages adopt familiar themes from the series, from the neon-soaked labs of Plague Knight to the gold-laden walls of King Knight’s future abode. Revisiting these areas is initially welcoming–a trip back to a familiar world–and does make some of the newer stages stand out more, given that you’re not seeing them for potentially the fourth time like with the returning ones. King of Cards often feels like a celebration of Shovel Knight and its world, but it can at times feel overindulgent in its return to boss fights and stages you may have experienced multiple times already. While stages are altered enough to feel different beyond their visual makeup to account for King Knight’s new moves, boss fights can feel much easier given that their attack patterns and abilities haven’t really changed since their first appearance in the original Shovel Knight.

King Knight’s own move set does make combat and platforming feel fresh, though, while also feeling faithful to the original flow of Shovel Knight. His standard attack is a horizontal dash and bash, flinging you into the air on contact with an enemy or a wall. When launched into the air, King Knight pirouettes into a dangerous spin, letting you hop between enemies while damaging them until you hit the ground again. It’s reminiscent of Shovel Knight’s vertical attack without the added benefit of choosing when you can enact it. Instead you have to carefully connect multiple dashes with reactive movements in the air that keep the chain going for the best effect, studying enemies’ various attack patterns to pick the right moment to engage and the best window to get out. It gives combat a much quicker pace than any other previous protagonist, and retains the satisfaction of it despite the recycled enemies.

This puts a different spin on platforming, with each stage being suitably designed to challenge your understanding of King Knight’s unique movement. While Specter Knight was able to wall jump and glide through lanterns, King Knight feels more restrained. Most walls can be dashed into to initiate a higher jump, but levels will routinely shake things up with elements that both restrict and change the way you perform this simple action. Slippery, ice-slicked platforms add a dangerous momentum to each of your landings, for example, while walls overgrown with vines prevent you from jumping against them from certain angles. Learning when you can chain together dashes and jumps and using the opportune positioning of enemies to bounce between long stretches of dangerous falls feels great. The designs of each stage make you feel like you’re constantly on the brink of failure, but are forgiving enough to make each attempt feel fair. It’s incredibly rewarding to push past each of King of Cards’ challenging platforming gauntlets, and the varied level design makes consistent use of your limited movement in inventive ways.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

King of Cards features many, many stages for you to tackle, and scratches the same sort of itch previous entries in the series have. But it also features an entirely new avenue of play in Joustus. Central to King Knight’s quest is a card game that has captivated the land, filling taverns in each of the game’s unique areas with challenging opponents. In Joustus, you use a deck of 16 cards to strategically move cards you’ve placed on a board onto green gems. Once the board is full and a player can no longer make a move, the player with the most cards on the gems on the board wins. Unlike card games such as Hearthstone or Gwent, Jousts feels more akin to strategic games like Go. It’s less about individual card abilities and more about using specific cards to push around ones on the board, where thinking three steps ahead of your opponent and anticipating how they might affect the board is paramount to victory.

Vendors and beaten opponents will reward you with cards to build your deck, with their unique abilities adding to the complexity of the matches that follow. Initially, cards are inscribed with arrows that indicate directions that can push others on the board, but it doesn’t take long for them to include effects that let you destroy other cards, alter their player allegiance, or push them much further than the standard single square. It takes some time to adjust to the rhythm that Joustus demands, especially when thinking about how your cards on the board can be moved around into inescapable areas. But it’s a challenging side activity that acts as a rewarding respite from the demanding platforming, balancing the overall pacing of King of Cards.

Standard progression isn’t gated by Joustus if you choose not to engage with the card game at all, despite the rewards attached to them. Vendors even offer cheats that turn each Joustus game into a trivial affair, letting you reap the rewards without needing to engage with deck construction and card collection if you’re just here for standard Shovel Knight fare. It’s easy enough to ignore the cheats if you want to feel the rush of a strategically demanding game of Joustus, but not obscure enough to miss if you’re just looking for an easy way out.

Whether you’re challenging foes at a table in a tavern or bashing them into oblivion with your scepter, King of Cards is like comfort food if you already have a taste for Shovel Knight. It doesn’t stray from its established formula and often sticks closer to the format of the first game in the series rather than the more experimental expansions that came after it. And while its well-balanced platforming and demanding combat are a treat, its use of existing boss fights and enemies with little to no change in their mechanics saps some of the surprise out of these exciting encounters. It’s been a persistent issue in each of Shovel Knight’s expansions, but the King of Cards’ attention to level design and deeply engrossing gameplay do help mask it better than before. If this is meant to be a farewell to Shovel Knight’s first adventure, it goes off with all the spectacle and confetti it deserves.

Source: GameSpot.com

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 5 Review – Beyond Good Or Evil

It’s been some time since the explosive events of Haven Point, and even longer since Sean and Daniel Diaz’s journey first began in Seattle, but the end of Life Is Strange 2 has finally arrived, and with it a satisfying conclusion to the tumultuous and emotional story we’ve witnessed thus far. Episode 5 abandons the goofy villains and cliches of Episode 4 and reconnects us with what makes Life is Strange 2 work best: nuanced characters, deep relationships, and a narrative that is unafraid to show the ugly side of present-day America while still spending plenty of time unearthing the beauty that lies beneath.

No matter what kind of relationship you’ve built between Sean and Daniel so far, the game kicks off with the two camping out under the stars in Arizona, during which Sean says to Daniel, “I love you no matter what happens, okay?” This scene illustrates a significant strength of the series which has carried through from Episode 1–while you can guide Sean’s choices and morality and the impact that has on his little brother, no choice you make will change the love they have for each other. Even a low-morality Sean with a penchant for stealing who swears like a sailor will still love Daniel and protect him at all costs. The stellar performances delivered by each of the brothers continue to make their connection believable and their sibling affection palpably relatable.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Sean’s spot-on characterization makes him a fantastic conduit to understanding the beauty in the characters you meet, the pain in the vile circumstances he so often finds himself in, and the overwhelming adoration he has for his brother. You love Daniel because Sean does, do your best to trust your estranged mother because Sean does, and feel palpable terror in the face of the worst of America because Sean does. His sense of self remains intrinsic to any version of his character and that is vital to your ability to empathize with him. As for the impact you can have, Daniel’s personality can shift depending on how you’ve treated him and the choices you’ve made in previous episodes. He will have increased or decreased morality, and that trait will drastically change how he acts in the dramatic final moments of the series. As a result, your ending to the story will likely feel earned and satisfyingly in line with the events in your journey.

The inclusion of Sean and Daniel’s mother is explored in more depth and with greater nuance than in Episode 4, where her appearance was overshadowed by the tonally inconsistent plot. The layers of her character and preference for isolation are cleverly mirrored by the first major location you explore in Episode 5, called Away, a community of people who have shunned society in favour of a self-sufficient life in the desert. The strength of Life is Strange 2’s writing buoys up its new characters in the final episode, most of whom feel complex and well rounded. You meet a middle-aged gay couple whose familes’ homophobia has driven them to a quieter life outside the city, a familiar face from Life is Strange 1 who gets the chance to exhibit the growth they appeared capable of in the previous series, and Diego and Carla, a Mexican man and his pregnant wife trying to build a better life by immigrating to America.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

The latter example in particular is a testament to another of Life is Strange 2’s greatest strengths: its willingness to ask complicated questions, amplify marginalized voices, and attempt to explore the complicated sociopolitical climate of present-day America. This difficult undertaking isn’t always executed flawlessly, and some of the more extreme representations of xenophobic Americans can come off a little on-the-nose. But the larger themes of politics, racism, and differing perspectives as a result of ethnicity and privilege are effective due to the nuance and believability behind Episode 5’s characters. Because of this, it’s the quieter moments that deliver the themes most effectively, such as when the Diaz brothers arrive at the Mexican border and Daniel asks if there is also a towering border wall between America and Canada. Or when a particularly tense moment in the game is broken up by Sean meeting Carla and Diego, who engage with Sean entirely in Spanish and explain why they’re so desperate to flee Mexico to provide a better life for their child.

However, some interactions in Episode 5 remain a little too hard to swallow. An entire encampment of social outcasts deciding they aren’t phased by a 10-year-old with superpowers is unlikely, and sometimes otherwise intelligent characters seem to have inconsistent lapses in judgment or logic. That said, ignoring the social impact of Daniel’s powers lets the plot to move forward without belabouring well-trodden ground, which returns the focus to the characters whose stories often paint a relatable picture of people’s attempt to do right by others as they do right by themselves.

The impact of Episode 5’s interactivity also falls flat in some places. Despite some heart-pounding events late in the game, the use of Daniel’s powers doesn’t amount to much as a mechanic. While awe-inspiring to behold in a cutscene, there is little weight behind actually using them. You mostly point at very clearly highlighted interactables and watching Daniel unleash his power on them. Save for a section with some variable choices late in the game, this is almost always too simplistic, as was the case in previous episodes, making the act of using Daniel’s powers feel less exciting than it should, even in the emotionally-charged final moments.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

The multiple endings to the series are significantly different and largely reflected how I had interacted with Daniel in both of my playthroughs. Both endings I reached were truly satisfying in their own way, and in the case of my main playthrough, heart-wrenchingly sad. There are no easy answers which feels appropriate, but there is positivity to be found in each possible conclusion. Coming to the realization that there is unlikely to be a purely happy ending for the Diaz brothers is disheartening, but it works to solidify the thematic undercurrents of Life is Strange 2’s story–the troubled state of the current sociopolitical climate, identity, brotherhood, and what it means to be American.

Saying goodbye to the Diaz brothers is as difficult as it was to leave Chloe and Max in the original Life Is Strange, which is a testament to the extraordinary strength of the game’s character building. Though the story of the Diaz brothers arrives at some kind of ending, the larger implications of the story and its politically-charged themes raise more questions than they can possibly hope to answer, though to even ask them feels like an admirable feat. As the game itself states within the blog of a gone-but-not-forgotten ally from Episode 1, “It’s not a happy ending, but maybe it can be a hopeful one.”

Source: GameSpot.com

Audica Review – Electronic Gun Music

Before it made games that just dropped the pretense altogether and used plastic instruments, Harmonix was already the master at turning your average, run-of-the-mill controller into an instrument of musical chaos in Frequency and Amplitude. That same ethos is the engine driving Audica, which seeks to do the same for VR motion controllers. It’s a game with a killer idea, but the execution is just short of the mark.

At its core, Audica is a VR shooting gallery that makes music. In a world where stylishly slicing boxes with lightsabers is the current gold standard for rhythm games, stylishly making music with blasters was pretty much the logical–even welcome–next step on paper. Your instruments are two neon laser tag guns. Colored targets fly toward you to line up with a circle on a specific beat in a song, and your job is to shoot that target on the beat with the correct colored gun for the maximum amount of points. The game does throw curveballs at you–some targets require you to hold your gun sideways, for example. But, by and large, Audica’s premise is simple: make music with laser pistols. Despite this simplicity, though, making beats with bullets feels great in Audica.

Your lasers feel appropriately futuristic; by default, they’re cool, reflective cannons with mirrored blades attached to the barrel that convey a sense of power. That feeling of power is all the more pronounced once you start firing away at targets and get in sync with the ebb and flow of a song’s note pattern. Every successful hit generates a slick, track-specific “thwap!” that punctuates every note.

Screenshots were provided by the publisher
Screenshots were provided by the publisher
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6

If, for whatever reason, the default sound on a track doesn’t work for you, you do get the option to customize the effect. That same level of customization carries over to the calibration options, with some extremely user-friendly settings to account for your sense of rhythm or lack thereof. That’s even more crucial in virtual reality, and Audica aces it, weaving the calibration tools in with the beat and targeting tutorials rather elegantly before you even start the game proper. Even with the calibration, the game is extremely forgiving when it comes to perfectly hitting a target dead center, though perfect aim does help achieve the best possible scores on a song. Still, just jumping into a track and firing at will is a blast because Audica is so approachable.

Audica’s big, pervasive caveat, however, is that you better like fast-paced, thumping EDM from the last five years, because there’s really nothing else in the game. Constricting the pool of music causes all of the tracks to bleed together after long sessions. The DLC helps, bringing some bigger star power and at least some element of chill to the soundtrack with songs like Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and Billie Eilish’s “bad guy,” but these are also some of the trickiest songs in the game, even at lower difficulties. More than anything, those tracks are a perfect showcase of how versatile the note charting and game design can be given a bigger musical palette to work from, and highlight just how much less of that creativity gets a spotlight in the main tracklist.

Also, even by rhythm game standards, Audica is too tricky for its own good. Far too often, notes are there to taunt, trip up, and challenge instead of letting you revel in the music being played. Audica’s challenges often come from deliberately destroying your groove, creating off moments that don’t feel like you’re supposed to get in sync with the music being created by your shots and swipes. It feels like trying to win a dance competition, and every few seconds, someone tosses an orange at your head.

In this case, that orange can take the form of frequent errant notes, targets outside your field of view, or modifiers that you can’t turn off, many of which ask the unnatural–a certain modifier that requires you move your arms an arbitrary amount during the song is probably the most egregious of them. On Advanced and Expert modes, you still get a wide berth to hit the targets anywhere, but it doesn’t matter if those targets appear off the beat and ask more of you than responding to the rhythm. When the game isn’t getting in its own way–and the note patterns are complex, but follow a certain rhythmic logic–it does feel empowering, like you’re in a breezy, futuristic version of Baby Driver. In particular, tracks like KD/A’s “Pop Stars” that flit back and forth between poppy melodies and impactful hip-hop line deliveries lend themselves extremely well to punctuating every note with a pull of the trigger. But this isn’t sustained across all of Audica’s tracks. Obstacles are far too arbitrary too often for that.

Mostly, though, you just can’t help but get the feeling of playing a grand experiment, and it’s a shame that Audica doesn’t land as well as Harmonix’s other rhythm games. There’s a lot that’s simply, innately cool about Audica’s concept, the very idea of using weapons to make music, but once you reach a certain level of proficiency, the enjoyment dries up faster than it should.

Source: GameSpot.com

Shenmue 3 Review – From A Forgotten Time

Shenmue III is an anomaly, a game that feels like it doesn’t really exist. It’s as though it was beamed here from a parallel universe where the Dreamcast was an ongoing success and early-aughts game design remained the norm decades later. The truth is much more banal, of course: It’s the result of a (sometimes rocky) crowdfunding campaign and the hopes and dreams of a fervent fanbase. Unfortunately, while it’s fascinating as a weird curiosity from a long-gone era of gaming, it’s simply not that fun to actually play.

Shenmue III picks up right where the last game left off–as though 18 years haven’t passed since players wrapped up Ryo Hazuki’s last adventure–resolving Shenmue II’s cliffhanger in a way that’s surprisingly unexciting after such a long stretch. Once that’s over with, Shenmue III’s story revolves around a small martial-arts village in the middle of China (and later, a larger harbor town), as he investigates various happenings, interacts with the populace, and engages in time-wasting activities like mini-games, gambling, scrounging for herbs, and levelling up his fighting skills. In other words, it’s Shenmue.

In terms of setting, Shenmue III succeeds quite admirably in making the world pleasant to be in. There are some gorgeous vistas both in and outside of Bailu village, making the day-to-day strolls warm and inviting. The village itself is a charming setting, too; it’s filled with interesting landmarks that give it character, like a massive sunflower garden and a small collection of gambling facilities on the riverbed. Niaowu, the port city where the game’s latter half takes place, also feels like a real and engaging place, with the massive variety of shops you’d expect from a trading city on the water. The characters who live in these places also give them a nice flavor; NPCs all look distinct, have individual quirks and personalities, and are easy to recognize–which is nice when you have to find and talk to specific people in the absence of quest markers.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Shenmue III retains a lot of old favorite activities from previous titles–collecting capsule toys, gambling with games like Lucky Hit and turtle races, simple arcade mini-games like whack-a-mole, and the all-important Shenmue staple of forklifting–while also introducing a handful of new activities. You can wander around the countryside looking for herbs, selling and trading sets for money and valuable scrolls that teach Ryo new attacks, or you can kill a few hours fishing and hope your day’s catch will net you some money and a cool prize. If you need some fast cash, you can do manual labor and chop wood in a brief minigame. And if self-improvement is your goal, there’s always spots to train and raise your martial arts proficiency.

Exploring all of the side activities and enjoying the atmosphere of the locations in Shenmue III is fun, but it highlights one of the game’s biggest problems: How utterly boring and unengaging the main story is. Ryo is still a dull-as-dishwater character who we’re told is motivated by a sense of vengeance and justice, but his wooden dialogue and complete lack of a personality totally undermine any sense of urgency or intrigue this ongoing martial-arts drama might have. It doesn’t help that the main plot moves like molasses, often requiring repeated, tedious wandering and interaction to find the character or place you need to get a tiny sliver of information that moves the plot along ever-so-slightly and unnaturally gating you off from places.

For example, It takes hours to find a pair of thugs at the game’s beginning that you probably could have chased down in minutes if you were allowed to enter the area they’re in from the get-go. Usually games gate off areas in order to better pace out the narrative they’re trying to tell, but nothing interesting happens in the hours between the game’s beginning and the confrontation with the thugs. I found myself frequently opting to do everything except what I needed to do to advance the story, not because the mini-games were particularly amazing (though they are quite satisfying), but simply because the story itself was so unengaging that I preferred to spend my time doing practically anything else instead of moving it along.

No Caption Provided

It’s not just the pacing of Shenmue III that’s a holdover from the Dreamcast era, either. There’s all sorts of mechanics that, seen through a modern lens, are downright nonsensical and only serve to make the game less fun. For example, there’s the stamina system: Ryo has a stamina bar that continuously drains even if he does so much as stands around, falling significantly faster if you choose to do activities like training, working, or even just running to get to a place more quickly (since fast travel is limited). Ryo needs to eat constantly in order to refill it throughout the day, and woe be to you if you stumble into a fight with less-than-ideal stamina, since it doubles as your life bar. In a game where exploration is a focus, it’s a baffling mechanic that only frustrates.

Then there’s the dialogue, which is every bit as unnatural and awkward as it was in previous games. If for some reason you find yourself in a conversation you didn’t want to be in, you can’t just cancel or even button-mash out of it–you’re going to have to listen to someone babble on until Ryo clumsily apologizes for bothering them and escapes. Since you’re often in situations where you have to bother everyone you see to find a person with the info you need, you’re going to hear a lot of pointless blather. While there are some fun characters with cute personality quirks that are entertaining to engage with, a lot of the dialogue seems like banal filler meant to make conversation seem substantial when it really isn’t.

No Caption Provided

The worst element of Shenmue, however, continues to be the combat, which is every bit as clunky and unsatisfying as it was back in the Dreamcast days. You’re forced into an awkward angle where it’s hard to see everything around you (which is awful when you have more than one opponent), the button combinations needed to perform various skills don’t flow together well, and it simply feels laggy and unresponsive as a whole. You can “cheat” somewhat and simply do training exercises to level up your strength and stamina if you want to struggle a bit less with fighting, but it still doesn’t serve to make the combat itself any more fun.

Shenmue III has its moments. It delivers on the promise of creating interesting and engaging new environments for Ryo and friends to explore and play around in. Yet, I can’t help but think that the game’s dogged determination to retain the same “feel” of its Dreamcast ancestors at any cost hurts it immensely. The creative team seems determined to not move anything forward substantially when it comes to Shenmue–including the story, which ends on yet another unfinished cliffhanger. Shenmue III is certainly an interesting game thrown out of time, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always enjoyable to play.

Source: GameSpot.com