Category Archives: Game Reviews

SolSeraph Review – Play God

SolSeraph is overtly inspired by the Super NES cult classic ActRaiser. If there was any shred of doubt of its roots given its mixture of action-platforming and sim-style management, that was removed when it opened with a slow spinning first-person view barrelling towards the earth–an homage to ActRaiser’s Mode-7 showpiece so specific that it virtually winks at the audience. Curiously, though, it’s some of SolSeraph’s departures from ActRaiser that let it stand on its own, for better and for worse.

SolSeraph puts you in the divine boots of Helios, the Knight of Dawn, as he helps build civilization and fight against a set of Younger Gods who each manifest as the embodiment of a natural disaster. There is a hodge-podge of religious iconography at play, and Helios looks especially angelic, but this isn’t tied to any specific faith. Instead, SolSeraph invents its own mythology, borrowing bits and pieces from world religions.

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Each of the five territories consists of two distinct game types. To begin, you fight through monsters to unlock a new civilization. Each one is housed on its own environment type which presents its own set of hazards. An island nation is prone to constant flooding, for example, while the snowy northern tribe has trouble tending farms and needs to rely on livestock instead. You guide the people to manage their population and resources, like food and lumber, while also building defensive structures to fend off attacks from monsters. Then you can build a temple near one of the monster lairs, take part in another action-platforming or arena battle to clear it, and continue until you unlock the final portion that houses the Younger God boss.

This all may sound very familiar to ActRaiser fans, but the focus on defending against waves of monster attacks is actually a wild departure. SolSeraph’s approach is more akin to a tower defense game, as the waves of monsters all march on a set path toward a centralized base marked by a campfire. Defeating waves of monsters takes a variety of defensive structures, even earning its own part in the radial menu, along with the godly powers to summon lightning or dispatch a guardian. In short, it takes the formerly minor threat of monster attacks and makes it much more active and central to the experience.

On one hand, this change makes the sim portions feel that much more dynamic. Protecting your people from brutal waves of monster attacks can be much more frenetic than the relaxed, casual sensation of watching your society grow and occasionally guiding your people in the right direction. On the other hand, this approach comes at the expense of what made ActRaiser such an interesting examination of faith.

In ActRaiser, society grew on its own as you mildly steered them, and your tools were limited. You could summon an earthquake to destroy houses and encourage stronger building, but you couldn’t meticulously place each individual building on a grid. In some ways, ActRaiser functioned as a reflection on the limitations of divinity. Interactions were indirect, and the stories that played out were sometimes tragic. The people assumed it must be the will of a higher power, but in reality, you were powerless to stop some events that they had set in motion by their own free will. It’s a powerful idea that, in SolSeraph, is undermined by having such direct control over everything your civilization does.

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The spirit is still there, to a point. The people pray to Helios without ever hearing an answer, so the idea is still present that they’re operating on faith and hoping some dispassionate deity will end their struggles. But this is present only in short story sequences, and it’s discordant with the mechanics of the game itself. There is no sensation that the culture is flourishing on its own. You aren’t gently guiding as much as dictating, which feels oddly out-of-step with the idea that the people have unproven faith in a higher power.

Functionally, the sim segments are relatively simplistic but often unintuitive. Monster waves come infrequently enough that it’s often easy to build up a massive arsenal of defenses before the first attack ever comes. There’s no real penalty for failure, and in fact getting a game over screen just starts the monster clock over again from zero while keeping all of your recent building changes. At the same time, it isn’t always clear where the monsters will be coming from or in what numbers. Building temples to clear monster lairs relies on meeting a threshold of “Souls,” which are gathered from defeated monsters. This can be counterintuitive in a game about a god gathering worshippers, who could also logically be counted as souls and more sensibly connect to building a worship temple. Instead, the population only matters inasmuch as it gives you bodies to assign to defensive structures and farms. There is no counter for your total number of assigned versus idle villagers, which means you may reassign them at a critical moment by accident.

The game’s other half, the action-platforming segments, can be unforgiving. The controls are rigid and monsters come from all sides, which often makes it difficult to turn quickly to take on different threats. Life comes at a premium, with very sparse health regen and a magic spell that only recharges one measly health point at a time. Checkpoints are often nowhere to be found, which is especially frustrating when you accidentally wander into an optional area with a tougher battle that grants some small permanent reward like extra Weather Magic for the sim portion.

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Much more problematic in the action sequences is the interplay between the foreground and background. Helios does his battle strictly on one plane, but enemies often approach from the foreground or background. You can see them approaching, but until they reach your plane, slashing with your sword won’t touch them. The transition between untouchable and vulnerable isn’t clearly signaled, so oftentimes your best bet is to slash wildly at an approaching enemy until it takes damage–but since some of them fly diagonally towards you, this isn’t foolproof. The interplay between these areas can present a good challenge when it’s just background characters firing projectiles that you’ll need to dodge, but the tendency for enemies to cross from one plane to another just creates more frustration than it’s worth.

The Younger Gods boss characters are the exception to this rule and where the combat shines. The old-school challenge isn’t hampered by the gimmick present in normal enemy encounters. Better yet, the collection of boss designs are largely a creative mixture of different cultural traditions from around the world, and each one’s power set and attack patterns connect with the natural disasters they have represented for your people. Defeating them grants you a new power, but it’s nearly as satisfying to have defeated the personification of floods, drought, or wildfires, after watching your culture struggle with them.

SolSeraph could have hemmed slightly closer to the conventions of its clear inspiration, and it may have been better for it. The changes to the sim aspect create gameplay depth at the expense of tonal depth, and the action segments can be annoyingly clunky, especially with the unnecessary addition of enemies that are untouchable until an unclear point in time. The willingness to riff on one of the most beloved classics of an entire console era shows a remarkable amount of audacity, and it actually halfway works. It’s the half that doesn’t that makes SolSeraph such a qualified recommendation.

Source: GameSpot.com

198X Review

198X taps into our love for the games of the ’80s, giving you a handful of short gaming vignettes wrapped around a simple story about the pain of growing up. The games themselves look more like ’90s SNES games than ’80s arcade titles (albeit very handsome SNES games), but 198X’s neon aesthetic (and, of course, its name) is clearly trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia for this period. Unfortunately, despite a few nice homages, it’s not a particularly transportive experience.

198X features five faux-’80s arcade games to play through, and they’re short enough that the whole thing, story sequences included, wraps in less than two hours. They’re not quite minigames–they’re framed as tiny slices of full games that exist within the narrative’s world, the first few levels of five larger experiences. These games, which are chained together sequentially by beautiful pixel-art cutscenes set to a synth soundtrack, make up the entirety of 198X’s gameplay. The plot centers on the “Kid” (he’s never named beyond this), who lives in a suburb outside of a major city. He watches the highway at night and thinks about getting out of town. He seems generally unhappy with his life, until he discovers an arcade hidden away in an old abandoned factory and discovers a sense of purpose and place amidst the machines and patrons there.

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198X suffers from some of the same problems that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One suffered from. If that book’s insistence that being a geek is inherently good irritated you, then 198X’s vague reverence for arcades and youth will likely have a similar effect. There’s something very immature about the game’s portrayal of the Kid and the way he talks about his idealistic childhood, while giving limited insight into why things are so hard on him now. “You get to high school and everyone’s brainwashed,” he says at one point, which is about as deep as the game gets in its exploration of the difficulty of one’s teenage years. You’re not given enough insight into the Kid to really get a sense of why this arcade is so important to him, beyond a few vague references to his father not being around anymore.

Of the five games you play through in 198X, only two really touch on the boy’s struggles in a meaningful way. Playing through the five games in order, then, doesn’t tell us a lot about more about the Kid’s private life, and there’s little real sense of why they are important to him beyond a general sentiment that games are powerful and important by default. Much of this narrative assumes your own investment in the power of an arcade, and the game doesn’t put much effort into selling you on why this particular arcade, and these particular games, mean so much to the Kid.

Your first foray into the arcade comes through Beating Heart, a Final Fight-style brawler with a simple two-button control scheme. It’s the most basic game included–you can punch, do a jump kick, or perform a spinning kick, and if you die while facing off against the handful of enemy types, you can immediately respawn without penalty. It’s a simple introduction, with a lovely period-appropriate midi soundtrack that does a great job of evoking the arcade classics it is paying homage to (in fact, this is true of every game in 198X). But it doesn’t offer anything interesting or unique in its mechanics, nor does it contribute much to the narrative of the Kid.

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Next is Out of the Void, a shooter clearly inspired by R-Type, which only runs for two levels. You fly from left to right, collecting ship upgrades and firing regular and charged shots to take down your enemies. It’s solid fun, if nothing spectacular, and things get quite hairy in the second level. It’s one of the more enjoyable games in 198X simply because it actually feels pretty close to a decent arcade space shooter. Alas, it’s over very quickly, and while it’s relatively enjoyable, it’s certainly not as inventive or intense as the best games in the genre–the final boss, for instance, is a pushover. A more challenging experience, or some unique mechanics, would have better represented the games from this period that we have actual nostalgia for.

After this comes The Runaway, an OutRun-style driving game that lacks the arcade classic’s sense of speed and whimsy. The lack of gear changes and sharp corners makes this one a bit of a snooze, although it’s also the game in the collection that achieves the most resonance with the narrative–at a certain point, elements of the world you’ve seen in the cutscenes blend into the game. It’s a neat trick, but it’s in service of a plot that isn’t particularly gripping..

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Shadowplay, a “ninja” game, is the standout of 198X. It’s the longest game in the collection (although you’ll still likely finish it in about 20 minutes). You play as a fast-running ninja across a series of automatically-scrolling screens. You can move left and right, jump, slide, and slash your sword at enemies ahead of you. It’s got the feel of an involved auto-runner, and timing your jumps and slashes to avoid enemy attacks and traps is engaging, with ever-changing level designs and interesting challenges that hit the right balance of difficulty where the game is challenging without being frustrating.

The platforms, spikes and pits you encounter make you read your environment and think about how you time your movements as you run through each level slashing at your enemies. You can collect power-ups to give your sword a greater reach, and there are more levels here (and more gameplay variety) than in the other games. There’s even a great boss fight at the end where you have to dodge between multiple platforms as a demon shoots tendrils at you, and reaching the end feels satisfying in a way the other games don’t. As much as 198X feels like a gimmick, Shadowplay stands out as an experience that feels like it could work as a full title. It feels disconnected from the overarching narrative, but it’s the most enjoyable part of the 198X.

The final game, Kill Screen, is a simple first-person RPG. It’s aiming to be weird and creepy rather than particularly challenging, and on that level, it works fairly well. It’s meant to represent the mental state of the protagonist, who has, up until that point, spent every cutscene moping. It works as a mood piece, and there’s some cool weird imagery in there, but the gameplay, which involves hunting for dragons in a maze full of random encounters, is very simple. There’s a neat Paper Mario-inspired mechanic where you can time button presses on attacks to do more damage, and the weird enemy designs are inventive, but it’s fairly one-note in both its gameplay model and its commentary on the Kid’s state of mind.

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198X ends with a “To Be Continued.” This feels appropriate because the game, which is not being explicitly billed as episodic on its Steam page, feels not just short, but incomplete. As neat as the concept is, 198X doesn’t do enough to sell you on the connection between the metanarrative of the Kid and the arcade games he is playing–or spend enough time investing you in why any of this matters. There’s promise in some of these short genre riffs, but the game doesn’t give you many reasons to care about the Kid and his desire to get out of the suburbs.

198X is a great idea with middling execution. While its games offer some brief enjoyment, there’s not enough here for the game to feel like a proper ode to ’80s arcades, nor does the Kid’s plight, and his longing to escape his current life, totally connect. There’s definitely a spark of something here–and Shadowplay, in particular, is a lot of fun–but 198X feels more like a proof of concept than a final product.

Source: GameSpot.com

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review

Whereas previous Final Fantasy XIV expansions grappled with broad-brush concepts in corruption, religion, and imperialism, the path you tread in Shadowbringers is a distinctly personal affair. The central conceit is the battle between good and evil, and between the dual concepts of Light and Dark, but at its core is a story about a protagonist who’s been left adrift and has to come to terms with their identity alongside long-time companions against the backdrop of a dying world. This harkens back to the sort of character treatment that the non-MMO Final Fantasy games have prided themselves on for decades, but even with the familiar subject matter, the journey here feels distinctly forward-looking. The question for a lot of fans was whether the longevity of the game post-Stormblood would last. When you roll the credits on Shadowbringers, it’ll be hard to envision a world where the answer to that is anything other than a resounding “yes”.

Shadowbringers hinges on a revelation. The quests between Stormblood and the new content do a great job of laying down a narrative foundation rife with inter-faction politics, intrigue, and shadowy figures pulling strings with hidden consequences. As the new expansion opens, however, that particular nest of vipers is upended by way of a forced jaunt through time and space. What starts as a quest to save your friends takes a life-altering turn; you’re thrown into the heart of a conflict between Light and Dark that strikes at the core of the hero mythos that the game has built around your character since A Realm Reborn.

As the Warrior of Light, you’re tossed rather unceremoniously into the realm of Norvrandt: a world ravaged by the very element that you’ve chivalrously championed all your life. Like any erstwhile hero facing the unknown, your job initially is to search for some clarity and a way to save your friends back home from eternal slumber. It soon becomes very clear that your impressive deeds in Eorzea mean next to nothing here. No one knows of your previous accomplishments, there’s a distinct distrust from the locals, and your usual non-verbal charm gets you nowhere.

The kicker is that any mention of the Light will make you public enemy number one; it’s rampaging through the land and leaving death and destruction in its wake. You’re unmoored and as good as stranded in an unfamiliar world where your values and beliefs could get you killed. Starting a new MMORPG expansion can often feel like slipping into a pair of worn shoes that have stood the test of time; there’s a certain sense of security afforded to you because of your established Chosen One status. With the story’s rocky start, Shadowbringers takes a decidedly discomforting approach by doing the narrative equivalent of taking those shoes off your feet and getting someone to beat you with them. The solution it offers in its opening minutes is simple: Set aside everything you know and become the Warrior of Darkness.

In practice, this is more difficult than it sounds. Norvrandt is home to all manner of dangers, and the most insidious aren’t the ones that come at you with sharp teeth and sharper claws. There’s a seething undercurrent of wrongness that permeates everything, as beautiful as the lush forests and the wide, open fields of this realm may be. These sentiments are felt throughout the design of Shadowbringers’ new locations and dungeons: the debaucherous Eulmore where the rich are willfully ignorant to the suffering of others, the deceivingly dangerous riot of fae and fancy of Il Mheg, and the apocalyptic wastelands of times long destroyed by the Light, to name a few. Each new environment is twisted violently in some way, whether it’s the presence of monstrous enemies or the cruel ways that its inhabitants have chosen to eke out a living.

The main story quests ferry you from location to location at a decent clip, though ample time is devoted to you experiencing the horrors that the Light has wrought about the realm. Having to go back to what feels like the equivalent of Hero School affords you some breathing room; it’s clear that the expansion wasn’t going to live and die on the Warrior of Darkness’ shoulders alone, and a large part of the narrative is actually devoted to fleshing out popular supporting characters from Final Fantasy XIV canon. You’re not the only one who’s had to make some difficult adjustments, and Shadowbringers doesn’t shy away from tough questions about sacrifice, honor, and duty (or their tougher answers).

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The dungeons and trials are an excellent way for Shadowbringers to hammer those points home, and to deal with important narrative beats. It’s a credit to the game’s development team that the dungeons are much more than just a means to keep you occupied or to give you enough experience to move on to the next big thing in the world. They function like little pockets of insight into the decayed state of Norvrandt, complete with harrowing bosses and crumbling ruins. These dungeons see you racing through castles fighting seraphim and diving into fae realms making desperate pacts to secure your future. And it all plays out to a distinctly operatic soundtrack that leans heavily into dramatic strings and modern vocal frills, creating a perfect atmosphere to underscore the urgency of your character’s mission. Every new encounter of this fashion drives the Warrior of Darkness closer to their goal of restoring balance to the world, whether it’s driving a sword through the heart of a friend now-twisted by Light or unearthing the origins and primal motivations for this conflict. Dungeons have always been a part of the main story’s requirements in Final Fantasy XIV, but here they feel just as crucial to your enjoyment and understanding of the tale as the new quests do.

Quests place you directly in the shoes of these supporting characters, and playing as them is both a welcome change of pace and a chance for newer players to deepen their understanding of the game’s lore. That being said, not all quests are made equal, and there are some confusing mechanical decisions that may frustrate. For example, the end of the expansion requires a player to have completed a max-level quest before picking up a lower-level one to progress to the grand finale. In other cases, optional quests that share a common thread can sometimes be spread out across different locations on a map and aren’t signposted any differently from unrelated ones. This can make you feel like you need to slog through every mundane errand in the hopes of finding a diamond. Luckily, these instances are few and far between; just like its predecessor, Shadowbringers brings to life a number of humanizing stories through its side quests and manages to make you care about the day-to-day lives of new characters who initially have nothing but scorn for what you stand for.

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It’s not solely about capitalizing on known factors, though. The expansion introduces plenty of unfamiliar delights to sink your teeth into–the Trust system is perhaps the most important addition for accessibility that Final Fantasy XIV has seen since its rebirth. It allows players to take a fully-formed party of NPCs from the main story quests into dungeons with them, eliminating the need to wait 20 minutes in the queue if you were trying to go through matchmaking. This is the perfect solution for players who don’t want to play with strangers and ensures that no one is gated from progressing in the story just because they may have to wait an inordinate amount of time to find the necessary party. These NPCs are drawn from a pool of the familiar faces of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn and from some noteworthy new acquaintances, so using them in the Trust system is a pleasant nod to the value that the Shadowbringers narrative places on friendship and sticking together in the face of adversity.

On the matter of the new classes and races aside, servers are currently teeming with Viera and Hrothgar avatars ready to take on the world. While the new race models look as spectacular in motion as one would expect, the Gunbreaker and Dancer classes are still a relative unknown that players are puzzling out at this early stage in Shadowbringers’ life cycle. Gunbreaker packs a hell of a punch as a high-damage job, suited for an off-tank role that trades in axes and greatswords for something a little less traditional. Dancer’s primary focus other than looking absolutely enchanting in combat is to provide buffs for party members, and it appears to be trying to fill the utility ranged DPS role previously occupied by Bards who have now had their party-wide buffs removed.

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Gunbreaker currently feels a little too much like it was originally meant to be a DPS class. It does a ridiculous amount of damage, managing to hold its own against the likes of Black Mage and Samurai. This seems a little antithetical to the tanking philosophy imbued within the other role options, where the thematic focus on survivability and protection is much clearer. Healers in particular will have to get used to managing cooldowns around Superbolide, one of the key Gunbreaker abilities that reduces their HP to 1 whilst preventing further fatal damage. Playing as a gun-wielding tank is novel but hard to master as it takes a higher-risk approach to putting your life on the line for your party members and also requires those partied with you to be familiar with your new tricks.

Dancer, for all of its beauty, currently lacks some fire in the damage department. You have to manage two class-specific stances–Technical Step and Standard Step–each with its own set of moves to master. You also have access to Closed Position, which lets you choose a dance partner to benefit from your buffs and your skills. Pulling off a perfect performance will buff the Dancer’s DPS overall, and the key to doing damage is through graceful move combinations that ultimately let you unleash AOE attacks upon unsuspecting foes. The strength of Dancer shines through in prolonged encounters where their deadly chakram slice and dice at enemies, giving them the chance to use skills from both stances for a significant payoff. That being said, setting up these balletic massacres takes time; without enough breathing room to perform a routine, the Dancer can feel a little more frumpy than flamenco, especially in the majority of the game’s legacy content where breathing on something is as good as a killing blow.

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Both classes have a distinct identity, though the streamlining of the other jobs has muddied the waters a little in respect of the existing classes enjoying the same individualism. You used to have to pick up quests specifically for your chosen job to learn new skills. Now, Shadowbringers has replaced these with role quests for DPS, tanks, and healers, and these exist mostly to provide experience and to further the overall narrative than to improve any existing affinity with your character’s chosen profession. While some job questlines were more involved than others (Stormblood introduced a particularly heartfelt Samurai one), to do away with them entirely seems like a waste. Role actions also have been further simplified, with changes to tanking and healing in particular removing some bloat but also making them more homogenous. While this makes it easier for newcomers to plug and play, it feels like it’s come at the cost of the unique class identities which past expansions have been so careful to cultivate.

Some of its changes to the player experience are still causing a little discomfort during this teething phase, but Shadowbringers makes a strong case for itself as the game’s most engaging expansion. It’s not just the sheer scale and strength of the narrative weaving in years of old lore without cheapening the experience for new players, or the immaculately designed boss fights replete with spectacular music and thematic touches. It’s also the implementation of the Trust system and the chance to truly feel the impact of the Warrior of Light’s decisions over the past expansions through exploring the stories of your companions. For a story that starts with a laser focus on your character’s motivations and misgivings, it tells a tale that ends up being the biggest and the best that Final Fantasy XIV has ever told. Equal parts redemption, vengeance, cruelty, and sassy Elezen, Shadowbringers promises a hell of a lot when you take your first steps into Norvrandt and delivers a truly spectacular finish even if it stumbles a little along the way.

Source: GameSpot.com

Sea Of Solitude Review – Adrift

Loneliness exists on a broad spectrum that isn’t always synonymous with simply being alone. It’s a state of mind, an overwhelming feeling of isolation that can still affect a person even if they’re surrounded by loved ones and friends. Sea of Solitude understands this all too well. Its opening cutscene begins with a poignant musing: “I have family. I have friends… And yet here I am, feeling lonely. Again.” Sea of Solitude is a game about loneliness that’s very personal for the 12-strong team at German developer Jo-Mei Games, and it shows. It tackles the subject matter with a deft touch, exploring the myriad ways these feelings of isolation, sadness, and anger can impact people’s lives in a refreshingly authentic way, using the backdrop of a puzzle-platformer to tell its story.

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You play as Kay, a young woman who inhabits a world where lonely people are transformed into monsters. Kay is a monster herself, so she’s desperately trying to find out why this happened and how can she can return to her human form. The rest of the narrative spirals out from this core concept, forcing Kay to confront her past and her relationships with the people around her. Loneliness affects different people in different ways; a lonely child who’s struggling to make friends at school has different needs than someone going through a breakup or someone who’s just moved to another country where they don’t know anyone, for example. Sea of Solitude shines an introspective light on the various ways loneliness can affect people, doing so through Kay’s interactions with other characters and the monsters that reside in this world, whether they’re antagonistic or seeking help.

The voice acting in these moments is uneven amongst the small cast of characters, however, the consistent writing is a strong point throughout. Conversations feel very raw and are oftentimes uncomfortable, yet Sea of Solitude manages to sprinkle in moments of levity to offset the otherwise bleak subject matter. The ending lacks closure in a very realistic and human way, but the story’s profound throughline of self-discovery and healing naturally reaches an empowering conclusion.

The story’s profound throughline of self-discovery and healing naturally reaches an empowering conclusion

Each aspect of Sea of Solitude has some kind of underlying meaning, and these are frequently conveyed through the use of both literal and figurative metaphors. The sea is one of the more blatant allegories at its disposal, as the entirety of the game takes place upon the undulating waves of a flooded city. Being alone on a small boat is inherently isolating; you just have to imagine the terrifying feeling of being marooned or adrift at sea, far away from civilization in an unpredictable environment that can deviate from being calm to violent at the drop of a hat. Kay uses this small vessel to traverse the flooded streets of the Berlin-inspired city, utilizing some basic platforming to get around when on dry land. Her interactions with the various monsters that populate the city are the catalyst for everything that follows. There’s a familiarity to each monster’s design, with the vast majority of them being reminiscent of specific animals, albeit in a fantastical way. Each one shares a mutual feature in the form of jet black fur and unsettling red eyes, but they’re often human at their core, transformed into monsters due to their disparate struggles with loneliness and anguish.

You spend much of the game coaxing the human side out of these ghoulish beasts by confronting Kay’s own past and dispelling the corruption that’s seeped into the city. Corrupted areas are bleak and coated in muted shades of grey and black, with the night sky lashed by swirling winds and torrential rain. Removing the corruption in an area by finding and inhaling it into Kay’s backpack introduces light to the world, revealing the incandescent vitality of the sun and turning the sea as blue as the sky. The stark contrast between night and day accentuates the daytime’s beauty, while the painterly art style–not to mention the nautical theme–can’t help but bring to mind the vivid aesthetic of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. It’s in these moments that the “Solitude” of the game’s title is captured, presenting the positive side of being alone.

Dispersing the corruption is a task fraught with danger, however, and not just for Kay’s mental well-being. Some of the monsters are aggressive and will attack on sight. Death isn’t really an obstacle, as you’re immediately placed back right where you left off, but Sea of Solitude does manage to wring moments of tension out of these interactions. The problem is that, despite a brief three-hour playtime, it introduces new mechanics every few chapters and then drags them out until they’re nothing short of monotonous. There are numerous occasions where you have to lure spectral children into light by running close enough to aggro them, for lack of a better term, before dashing away. It’s all relatively straightforward, which isn’t a bad thing on its own, but the act of playing Sea of Solitude is never particularly engaging and mostly consists of dull mechanics that far outstay their welcome.

The story, and the way it confronts a universal but often misunderstood part of life, is Sea of Solitude’s biggest draw. The gameplay is passable at best and tedious at its worst, but this is still a journey worth experiencing because of the way Jo-Mei Games has managed to weave a heartbreaking tale out of genuine characters and believable grief. Kay wants to know why she turned into a monster, and this is the driving force behind the whole game. What could have triggered it and why are these monsters so intrinsically linked? Despite some missteps along the way, Sea of Solitude is difficult to put down until you can answer those questions for yourself.

Source: GameSpot.com

Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night Nintendo Switch Review – Less Lively

On PS4 and PC, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a lovely homage to classic Castlevania with a collection of smart quality-of-life improvements and impeccable craftsmanship. Koji Igarashi has been hailed as a visionary who helped define the “Metroidvania” genre, and his return to it is worth celebrating. Unfortunately, the Nintendo Switch version of Bloodstained suffers from significant technical problems, and it’s difficult to recommend over other platforms.

Symphony of the Night may be the most famous of Igarashi’s works, but the series of micro-sized follow-ups he produced on the Game Boy Advance showed portability was a boon to its newfound RPG-like mechanics. Games like Harmony of Dissonance squeezed much of what was wonderful about those games into a form factor that allowed picking up and playing wherever you might go. Bloodstained appeared primed to offer this again for a modern age, with one contiguous experience between the console and portable forms. However, the Nintendo Switch version of Bloodstained struggles to deliver an experience on par with other platforms.

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Switch ports often get visual downgrades compared to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions, but Bloodstained fares especially poorly in the transition to Switch. The backgrounds are muddy and the character models lack crisp edges and flourishes on their accessories. Textures like clothing often appear flat. The style of the game on more powerful platforms–which is often a visual treat with lots of subtle detail on the environments and enemy designs–doesn’t lend itself to being compromised in this way.

Performance issues are even more difficult to overlook. A combination of uneven frame rate and high input latency makes it feel sluggish and unresponsive. After experiencing the game as intended, it can feel like the hero, Miriam, is struggling to move through molasses, as if the air itself is thick. This diminishes the normally fast-paced action and makes dangerous enemies even more difficult than they should be. Bloodstained is finely-tuned to feel challenging without veering into frustration, and the unresponsiveness on Switch compromises this careful balance. Long load times only add to the annoyance, breaking the flow of action further.

Those compromises distract from what is otherwise an expertly modernized Metroidvania. Quality-of-life changes like loadouts slots and weapon-specific techniques make combat feel more versatile. Shards collected from monsters both supply a different kind of loot to collect and imbue you with a variety of powers that let you customize the game to your playstyle. Crafting weapons, enhancing shards, and cooking all give you multiple avenues to power up and suit your equipment to the challenges you face. It’s a very satisfying progression from the feeling of total helplessness that envelops you, regardless of platform.

Best of all, the castle design itself unfolds beautifully throughout the experience. The layout of the environments inspires curiosity and a sense of adventure as you slowly unlock more tools to access additional areas. The mystery of the castle itself and the puzzle that brings about the true end-game merges the game’s lore and mechanics wonderfully. And the monster design and dialogue show a playful sensibility that contrasts with the dark and dour tone of the story. [Read our PS4 and PC review for our full thoughts.]

All of Bloodstained’s excellent qualities make the Nintendo Switch version even more disappointing. Though 505 Games has acknowledged its technical shortcomings and committed to issuing updates, at launch it is simply too compromised for its own good. If you have no choice but to play on Nintendo Switch, it may still be worth overlooking the weak spots and taking in the experience. If you have other options, though, play on a different platform. The portability of the Nintendo Switch could have made it the absolute best version for a retro-inspired game like Bloodstained. Instead, it’s the worst.

Source: GameSpot.com

They Are Billions Review

Part tower defense, part city builder, They Are Billions is a real-time strategy game whose flow swings between cautious turtling as you hunker down to fend off the zombie hordes and well-considered dashes to expand your territory and exploit vital new resources. Introduced into Steam Early Access last year with a survival mode that challenged you to endure a certain number of days on a randomly-generated map, the game now features a hand-crafted campaign mode as part of its Version 1.0 release. The result is a hybrid RTS that shines when it plays to its strengths even if several of its new additions feel like unnecessary distractions.

When you first start a new map and see your isolated base surrounded by zombies, the game’s title will feel accurate, if an understandable exaggeration. Stray zombies take refuge in the fog of war, milling around in small groups until you alert them and occasionally shambling towards your settlement. There aren’t really billions, but it looks like there could be. Fifteen days later, the klaxon blares to signal the arrival of the horde and soon, as a seemingly relentless river of undead lay siege to your defenses, you start to suspect billions may well be an understatement.

No Caption Provided
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The survival mode and the majority of maps in the campaign offer a similar experience. First, you establish a perimeter with patrol routes to pick off encroaching zombies, scout the immediate area to identify chokepoints and nearby resource deposits, build structures around your base to grow the economy, and secure it all with enough troops and fortifications to fend off the first wave of attack. Survive that, and the second step is an expeditious land-grab to claim whole swathes of fertile new ground, clearing away the errant undead and managing your production to generate all the resources required to populate and work your expanded colony.

The ebb and flow at play here is lovely. The arrival of each new wave of zombies is clearly signposted, so you always know precisely how many days you have to prepare for the attack. How you use that time is where the interesting strategic choices arise. Weighing up whether it’s wise to expand northward towards the iron that will let you build soldiers or eastward, where there’s a large forest that provides natural cover and wood required to repair fencing and guard towers; such choices arrive with every wave and your prospects for surviving the next one hinge on the decisions you make.

It’s incredibly tense, too. Outside of the horde attacks, a single zombie that manages to elude your patrols and wander into your settlement can mean game over. If just one manages to attack a dwelling, everyone inside will become infected and proceed to join the assault, multiplying the danger to unmanageable levels in an instant. Death is swift. I lost entire colonies thanks to my failure to spot a gap in my defensive setup. Next thing I know, death is spreading across the camp and weeks of desperate survival count for nothing.

No Caption Provided

Survival mode is based around permadeath, as you’d expect. But the campaign, too, incorporates various degrees of permadeath and iron-man elements in an effort to force you to accept the consequences of your choices. If you get overrun and fail a campaign mission, for example, you have to restart that mission from the beginning rather than reload a save from mid-mission before it all started to go wrong. There’s even a penalty applied to the mission reward for each time you fail. Somewhat ironically, an option to back up your campaign save has been added since its 1.0 launch, and the developer has indicated it may continue to adjust its approach in this area in future updates, which makes these decisions feel unconfident.

The campaign falters with the inclusion of survival elements, which don’t mesh well with the flow of exploration. The campaign maps are hand-crafted–they’re the same every time you play them. They are, essentially, puzzles in which the solution is discovered through increasingly efficient resource management. Most of the maps here deliver satisfying challenges, and the permadeath aspect punishes you for experimentation within these maps. When you know you messed up between 60 and 65 days, having to restart from day zero can be tough to swallow.

The campaign fares better as a more gentle introduction to They Are Billions. The tech tree locks away many of the game’s structures, units, and bonuses behind research points accumulated by completing missions. This means the early missions let new players learn the ropes by only having to worry about a handful of buildings and a couple of units, rather than potentially overwhelming them with too many concepts to understand at once. As a new player myself, I also appreciated the adjustable difficulty settings which let you advance more slowly through the research tree while at the same time serving up missions that let you progress with the lesser tech at your disposal. Then, once I was comfortable, I was able to bump up the difficulty to match my improved skills.

Adding variety to the campaign are a couple of non-traditional mission types. There are Hero missions in which you control just one unit infiltrating a small base and Swarm Attack missions that are pretty barebones tower defense skirmishes. The elimination of much of the base-building and economic management–or indeed all of it in the case of the Hero missions–exposes the remaining combat as shallow. Worse, stripping out the core mechanics simply misses the whole point. As a result, neither of these mission types are particularly enjoyable, and quickly become irritations you have to wade through to get to the proper missions. Adding variety for variety’s sake, in this case, only serves to diminish rather than enhance.

At its best, though, in both the original survival mode, across the bulk of the campaign and in the one-off challenge of the week maps, They Are Billions remains a tight and compelling strategy game. The knowledge that you’re always just one misstep away from disaster creates a gripping, tense atmosphere that’s unusual for the genre. And the cycle from defense to offense and back again as you progress from one wave to the next offers both well-paced urgency and the ability to set clear short-term goals. It’s a smartly designed game at its core, despite the distractions. Just like a lone zombie can bring about your demise, sometimes one strong idea is enough.

Source: GameSpot.com

They Are Billions Review – Everyone’s Invited

Part tower defense, part city builder, They Are Billions is a real-time strategy game whose flow swings between cautious turtling as you hunker down to fend off the zombie hordes and well-considered dashes to expand your territory and exploit vital new resources. Introduced into Steam Early Access last year with a survival mode that challenged you to endure a certain number of days on a randomly-generated map, the game now features a hand-crafted campaign mode as part of its Version 1.0 release. The result is a hybrid RTS that shines when it plays to its strengths even if several of its new additions feel like unnecessary distractions.

When you first start a new map and see your isolated base surrounded by zombies, the game’s title will feel accurate, if an understandable exaggeration. Stray zombies take refuge in the fog of war, milling around in small groups until you alert them and occasionally shambling towards your settlement. There aren’t really billions, but it looks like there could be. Fifteen days later, the klaxon blares to signal the arrival of the horde and soon, as a seemingly relentless river of undead lay siege to your defenses, you start to suspect billions may well be an understatement.

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 survival mode and the majority of maps in the campaign offer a similar experience. First, you establish a perimeter with patrol routes to pick off encroaching zombies, scout the immediate area to identify chokepoints and nearby resource deposits, build structures around your base to grow the economy, and secure it all with enough troops and fortifications to fend off the first wave of attack. Survive that, and the second step is an expeditious land-grab to claim whole swathes of fertile new ground, clearing away the errant undead and managing your production to generate all the resources required to populate and work your expanded colony.

The ebb and flow at play here is lovely. The arrival of each new wave of zombies is clearly signposted, so you always know precisely how many days you have to prepare for the attack. How you use that time is where the interesting strategic choices arise. Weighing up whether it’s wise to expand northward towards the iron that will let you build soldiers or eastward, where there’s a large forest that provides natural cover and wood required to repair fencing and guard towers; such choices arrive with every wave and your prospects for surviving the next one hinge on the decisions you make.

It’s incredibly tense, too. Outside of the horde attacks, a single zombie that manages to elude your patrols and wander into your settlement can mean game over. If just one manages to attack a dwelling, everyone inside will become infected and proceed to join the assault, multiplying the danger to unmanageable levels in an instant. Death is swift. I lost entire colonies thanks to my failure to spot a gap in my defensive setup. Next thing I know, death is spreading across the camp and weeks of desperate survival count for nothing.

No Caption Provided

Survival mode is based around permadeath, as you’d expect. But the campaign, too, incorporates various degrees of permadeath and iron-man elements in an effort to force you to accept the consequences of your choices. If you get overrun and fail a campaign mission, for example, you have to restart that mission from the beginning rather than reload a save from mid-mission before it all started to go wrong. There’s even a penalty applied to the mission reward for each time you fail. Somewhat ironically, an option to back up your campaign save has been added since its 1.0 launch, and the developer has indicated it may continue to adjust its approach in this area in future updates, which makes these decisions feel unconfident.

The campaign falters with the inclusion of survival elements, which don’t mesh well with the flow of exploration. The campaign maps are hand-crafted–they’re the same every time you play them. They are, essentially, puzzles in which the solution is discovered through increasingly efficient resource management. Most of the maps here deliver satisfying challenges, and the permadeath aspect punishes you for experimentation within these maps. When you know you messed up between 60 and 65 days, having to restart from day zero can be tough to swallow.

The campaign fares better as a more gentle introduction to They Are Billions. The tech tree locks away many of the game’s structures, units, and bonuses behind research points accumulated by completing missions. This means the early missions let new players learn the ropes by only having to worry about a handful of buildings and a couple of units, rather than potentially overwhelming them with too many concepts to understand at once. As a new player myself, I also appreciated the adjustable difficulty settings which let you advance more slowly through the research tree while at the same time serving up missions that let you progress with the lesser tech at your disposal. Then, once I was comfortable, I was able to bump up the difficulty to match my improved skills.

Adding variety to the campaign are a couple of non-traditional mission types. There are Hero missions in which you control just one unit infiltrating a small base and Swarm Attack missions that are pretty barebones tower defense skirmishes. The elimination of much of the base-building and economic management–or indeed all of it in the case of the Hero missions–exposes the remaining combat as shallow. Worse, stripping out the core mechanics simply misses the whole point. As a result, neither of these mission types are particularly enjoyable, and quickly become irritations you have to wade through to get to the proper missions. Adding variety for variety’s sake, in this case, only serves to diminish rather than enhance.

At its best, though, in both the original survival mode, across the bulk of the campaign and in the one-off challenge of the week maps, They Are Billions remains a tight and compelling strategy game. The knowledge that you’re always just one misstep away from disaster creates a gripping, tense atmosphere that’s unusual for the genre. And the cycle from defense to offense and back again as you progress from one wave to the next offers both well-paced urgency and the ability to set clear short-term goals. It’s a smartly designed game at its core, despite the distractions. Just like a lone zombie can bring about your demise, sometimes one strong idea is enough.

Source: GameSpot.com

F1 2019 Review – Checkered Flag

Unless you’re a Mercedes fan, you might feel that Formula 1 in 2019 is a bit stale with the team’s dominance of this year’s world championship. But Codemasters’ F1 2019 is anything but stagnant, presenting an exciting, if idealized, version of the world’s premier motorsport. It sticks mostly to the familiar cadence of previous titles with its massive career mode and loads of classic content. However, big additions like the FIA Formula 2 World Championship and scheduled online racing add even more to an already burgeoning title that’s filled to the brim with enjoyable things to do–all revolving around driving some of the fastest racing cars in the world.

Anyone familiar with the series will feel immediately at home with F1 2019. Functionally the menus are borrowed from previous years, so finding the mode you want to play is thankfully easy because there is just so much here. Solo play consists of the brilliant career mode, Grand Prix weekends for single races and time trials for leaderboard junkies, numerous championship scenarios–extra if you’ve got the Legends Edition–and the official F1 and F2 World Championships. And that’s before you dig into multiplayer, which adds player-made leagues and scheduled event racing. Amazingly, none of it feels like filler, with each mode offering something different and enjoyable overall. But like in previous years, it’s the career mode that gives you the fullest and most rewarding experience, venturing further into the realm of sports fantasy than it has in the past.

No Caption Provided
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In previous career modes, you’d simply select an F1 team to race for, set some contract goals, and go. But F1 2019’s career opens with more of a throwback to Codemasters’ Race Driver series, allowing you to start in the newly added Formula 2 Championship before making the step up to the big time. It’s not a full season but a series of scenarios where you clash against two fantasy rivals, Lukas Weber and Devon Butler. While this opens the career with a series of cutscenes developing the competition between the three of you, once you all enter Formula 1, those personal moments don’t come back; they’re replaced with the comparatively lifeless email transcripts of their media interviews. It would’ve been nice to have more of these characters around to add some more flavor.

Another big addition to the career mode is driver changes between teams. All the drivers on the grid can trade places, doing so automatically based on their prior performances. Early in my career, both McLaren drivers found themselves out of a job thanks to their poorly performing car, with Carlos Sainz booted partway through and replaced by Kimi Raikonnen, and Lando Norris making way at the end of the season for a then-jobless Pierre Gasly. It leads to some fascinating shifts in the power dynamics between current F1 teams, leading to some surprising results and a consistently intriguing run to the title. While it’s jarring to see drivers replaced, especially by fantasy drivers, it adds more to the game than it takes away.

You can choose to not have the fantasy drivers, but that means skipping the feeder series entirely, and the Formula 2 cars are way too much fun to do that. Smaller, less powerful, and easier to drive, the Formula 2 cars in F1 2019 are surprisingly enjoyable given their comparatively slower pace. Over-drive them and they’ll slip and slide, teaching you how to find the edge of grip. As such, they make for a perfect place for beginners to grasp how to race a light and nimble car without having to step straight into the might of an F1.

There’s a reason they only let the best drivers in the world behind the wheels of these carbon fiber beasts; modern F1 is about much more than just driving fast. You have to manage tires, hybrid deployment, fuel usage, race strategy, and the gaps between your competitors–there’s not a moment’s rest for the mind, if that’s how you want it to be. But the option for hugely robust assists makes it possible for both ardent fans and inexperienced players to get something out of a race. For sim fans, there are layers of strategy and car management while jostling for position, on top of driving these beautiful cars at unimaginable speeds. For everyone else, there’s the thrill of close racing against their favorite drivers because of AI that gives space when needed but also fights hard to pass you when given the opportunity to pounce.

No Caption Provided
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The AI in last year’s game was already racy, pushing for gaps and fighting back when it thought it had a chance. But F1 2019’s is a further refinement of this, reacting in ways that feel like you’re racing against other human players. They’ll go wheel-to-wheel and defend their position by driving you to the edge of the track, sometimes making mistakes and causing incidents, and sometimes pulling off incredible overtakes by getting into your slipstream and out-braking you into a corner. F1 drivers aren’t pushovers, and it’s great to have that reflected in the on-track action.

The cars themselves feel great to drive with both a racing wheel and a gamepad, with both feeling fast and responsive. When you’re in the cockpit, it’s captivating. The race engineer will talk to you during a race, keeping you informed of all sorts of important information. With a microphone you can ask them questions about pit stops or the condition of your tires, or simply tell them to shut it and they’ll keep updates to a minimum. It works flawlessly, offering lots of pertinent information at the end of a button press. The weather can roll in and soak a dry track, then dry out again, adding a further layer of drama to the mix. There’s a lot that can go on, especially during a longer race. A quick five-lap burst can be fun, but the longer races are where things like race strategy can really play out in satisfying ways.

For sim fans, there are layers of strategy and car management while jostling for position, on top of driving these beautiful cars at unimaginable speeds. For everyone else, there’s the thrill of close racing against their favorite drivers.

Leagues are a welcome inclusion, allowing you and a group of like-minded folk to take part in a multiplayer season of your own making. Community leagues have formed around the F1 games for years, but having it included directly in the game is a welcome nod to those who’ve been running these leagues externally. Scheduled events are also a nice new feature, letting you practice and qualify whenever you like, then running races around scheduled times to encourage competition. Also new is player customization that lets you tweak your car livery, racing suit, gloves, and helmet. Some designs are free while others can be unlocked using an in-game currency earned from racing online, though annoyingly, the most interesting options will cost you real money.

Where F1 2019 falls short of other racing titles is in its track accuracy. Graphically, courses are superb, with some lovely trackside details and fabulous new lighting that helps the night tracks look eerily realistic. But in terms of accuracy compared to the real-life tracks, they’re still missing a lot of the character in the road surface, like the small bumps and cracks you get from a laser-scanned track. The final chicanes at Spa and Montreal are wrongly profiled, and there’s a really nasty bump entering the front straight at Suzuka that’s definitely not there on the real circuit. Most players outside of a handful of hardcore sim racers would never notice this, but with titles like iRacing and GT Sport offering high-fidelity versions of many of these tracks, these inaccuracies begin to stand out more over time.

F1 2019 is yet another strong step forward for the now decade-long franchise, with a ton of refinements over last year’s game as well as some great new features to help elevate it to a new level. The Formula 2 cars are superb to handle, and the new additions to career mode, like driver swaps, add some much-needed drama and excitement that real Formula 1 has been missing for some time now. F1 2019 is a masterclass in how to make an engaging and alluring racer, and once again stands tall on top of the podium.

Source: GameSpot.com

F1 2019 Review – Pole Position

Unless you’re a Mercedes fan, you might feel that Formula 1 in 2019 is a bit stale with the team’s dominance of this year’s world championship. But Codemasters’ F1 2019 is anything but stagnant, presenting an exciting, if idealized, version of the world’s premier motorsport. It sticks mostly to the familiar cadence of previous titles with its massive career mode and loads of classic content. However, big additions like the FIA Formula 2 World Championship and scheduled online racing add even more to an already burgeoning title that’s filled to the brim with enjoyable things to do–all revolving around driving some of the fastest racing cars in the world.

Anyone familiar with the series will feel immediately at home with F1 2019. Functionally the menus are borrowed from previous years, so finding the mode you want to play is thankfully easy because there is just so much here. Solo play consists of the brilliant career mode, Grand Prix weekends for single races and time trials for leaderboard junkies, numerous championship scenarios–extra if you’ve got the Legends Edition–and the official F1 and F2 World Championships. And that’s before you dig into multiplayer, which adds player-made leagues and scheduled event racing. Amazingly, none of it feels like filler, with each mode offering something different and enjoyable overall. But like in previous years, it’s the career mode that gives you the fullest and most rewarding experience, venturing further into the realm of sports fantasy than it has in the past.

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

In previous career modes, you’d simply select an F1 team to race for, set some contract goals, and go. But F1 2019’s career opens with more of a throwback to Codemasters’ Race Driver series, allowing you to start in the newly added Formula 2 Championship before making the step up to the big time. It’s not a full season but a series of scenarios where you clash against two fantasy rivals, Lukas Weber and Devon Butler. While this opens the career with a series of cutscenes developing the competition between the three of you, once you all enter Formula 1, those personal moments don’t come back; they’re replaced with the comparatively lifeless email transcripts of their media interviews. It would’ve been nice to have more of these characters around to add some more flavor.

Another big addition to the career mode is driver changes between teams. All the drivers on the grid can trade places, doing so automatically based on their prior performances. Early in my career, both McLaren drivers found themselves out of a job thanks to their poorly performing car, with Carlos Sainz booted partway through and replaced by Kimi Raikonnen, and Lando Norris making way at the end of the season for a then-jobless Pierre Gasly. It leads to some fascinating shifts in the power dynamics between current F1 teams, leading to some surprising results and a consistently intriguing run to the title. While it’s jarring to see drivers replaced, especially by fantasy drivers, it adds more to the game than it takes away.

You can choose to not have the fantasy drivers, but that means skipping the feeder series entirely, and the Formula 2 cars are way too much fun to do that. Smaller, less powerful, and easier to drive, the Formula 2 cars in F1 2019 are surprisingly enjoyable given their comparatively slower pace. Over-drive them and they’ll slip and slide, teaching you how to find the edge of grip. As such, they make for a perfect place for beginners to grasp how to race a light and nimble car without having to step straight into the might of an F1.

There’s a reason they only let the best drivers in the world behind the wheels of these carbon fiber beasts; modern F1 is about much more than just driving fast. You have to manage tires, hybrid deployment, fuel usage, race strategy, and the gaps between your competitors–there’s not a moment’s rest for the mind, if that’s how you want it to be. But the option for hugely robust assists makes it possible for both ardent fans and inexperienced players to get something out of a race. For sim fans, there are layers of strategy and car management while jostling for position, on top of driving these beautiful cars at unimaginable speeds. For everyone else, there’s the thrill of close racing against their favorite drivers because of AI that gives space when needed but also fights hard to pass you when given the opportunity to pounce.

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 AI in last year’s game was already racy, pushing for gaps and fighting back when it thought it had a chance. But F1 2019’s is a further refinement of this, reacting in ways that feel like you’re racing against other human players. They’ll go wheel-to-wheel and defend their position by driving you to the edge of the track, sometimes making mistakes and causing incidents, and sometimes pulling off incredible overtakes by getting into your slipstream and out-braking you into a corner. F1 drivers aren’t pushovers, and it’s great to have that reflected in the on-track action.

The cars themselves feel great to drive with both a racing wheel and a gamepad, with both feeling fast and responsive. When you’re in the cockpit, it’s captivating. The race engineer will talk to you during a race, keeping you informed of all sorts of important information. With a microphone you can ask them questions about pit stops or the condition of your tires, or simply tell them to shut it and they’ll keep updates to a minimum. It works flawlessly, offering lots of pertinent information at the end of a button press. The weather can roll in and soak a dry track, then dry out again, adding a further layer of drama to the mix. There’s a lot that can go on, especially during a longer race. A quick five-lap burst can be fun, but the longer races are where things like race strategy can really play out in satisfying ways.

For sim fans, there are layers of strategy and car management while jostling for position, on top of driving these beautiful cars at unimaginable speeds. For everyone else, there’s the thrill of close racing against their favorite drivers.

Leagues are a welcome inclusion, allowing you and a group of like-minded folk to take part in a multiplayer season of your own making. Community leagues have formed around the F1 games for years, but having it included directly in the game is a welcome nod to those who’ve been running these leagues externally. Scheduled events are also a nice new feature, letting you practice and qualify whenever you like, then running races around scheduled times to encourage competition. Also new is player customization that lets you tweak your car livery, racing suit, gloves, and helmet. Some designs are free while others can be unlocked using an in-game currency earned from racing online, though annoyingly, the most interesting options will cost you real money.

Where F1 2019 falls short of other racing titles is in its track accuracy. Graphically, courses are superb, with some lovely trackside details and fabulous new lighting that helps the night tracks look eerily realistic. But in terms of accuracy compared to the real-life tracks, they’re still missing a lot of the character in the road surface, like the small bumps and cracks you get from a laser-scanned track. The final chicanes at Spa and Montreal are wrongly profiled, and there’s a really nasty bump entering the front straight at Suzuka that’s definitely not there on the real circuit. Most players outside of a handful of hardcore sim racers would never notice this, but with titles like iRacing and GT Sport offering high-fidelity versions of many of these tracks, these inaccuracies begin to stand out more over time.

F1 2019 is yet another strong step forward for the now decade-long franchise, with a ton of refinements over last year’s game as well as some great new features to help elevate it to a new level. The Formula 2 cars are superb to handle, and the new additions to career mode, like driver swaps, add some much-needed drama and excitement that real Formula 1 has been missing for some time now. F1 2019 is a masterclass in how to make an engaging and alluring racer, and once again stands tall on top of the podium.

Source: GameSpot.com

Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night Review – Not Dead Yet

In the years since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night helped define the genre, “Metroidvania” has gone from a bold archetype to a bullet-point feature. Quite a few games have iterated and riffed on Metroidvanias. But Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi isn’t riffing on the genre with his latest project, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, so much as returning to convention. But despite being relatively safe, Bloodstained is more than just its creator; its impeccable craftsmanship in level design and combat, quality-of-life improvements, and unique flavor help it stand on its own in a crowded landscape.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels comfortable and familiar, even down to the color-coded map that reveals itself during the course of the game. Like its predecessors in the Castlevania series, your hero Miriam needs to strike even the most basic of enemies four or five times to defeat them, and the lack of agility at first can feel stiff and restrictive. This can actually seem discordant with memories of games like Symphony of the Night, but the familiarity will return as Miriam grows more powerful and the game becomes more recognizable along with her.

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This isn’t to say that Bloodstained has left the formula entirely untouched. A series of Techniques found in tomes around the castle teach weapon-specific move sets similar to a character-action or fighting game. With the increased emphasis on differentiated weaponry, the game introduces “Shortcut” loadout slots that allow you to quickly swap between different sets of equipment. It’s a small quality-of-life touch, but it’s smartly implemented.

The biggest addition comes from Shards, or pieces of the demons and other monsters that imbue you with extra powers. The Shard system combines the Spells, Relics, and Familiars from Symphony of the Night into one system that’s more robust and versatile. Shards come in five forms: Conjure, Manipulative, Directional, Passive, and Familiar. Conjure summons a weapon or creature, while Manipulative makes more lengthy changes to your current state. Passive offers buffs and other benefits, and Familiars accompany you, giving aid. Directional has the most variety by far, offering tons of projectile-like weapons that can be pointed anywhere using the right-stick. Unfortunately, Directional shards are also used for a few abilities that are crucial to navigation, forcing you to manually swap them when needed or take up a couple of Shortcut slots.

By the nature of its Shard system and other power-ups and abilities, Bloodstained isn’t often a terribly challenging game. Gaining a few more levels to take on a challenging new area or boss is quick and breezy, and the sheer variety of weapon types makes it easy to fit the game around your play style. Like many old-school games, seeing your way past the challenges requires patience in learning the enemy patterns, cheesing your way through with special abilities, or some combination of the two.

Other additions like crafting weapons and cooking meals for permanent buffs add a little more nuance to Bloodstained, and a nice variety of ways to improve your stats. In general, the powering up only goes in one direction. You aren’t often forced to make tough decisions about trade-offs, aside from a point or two from one stat or another in choosing equipment. This feels unusual by modern standards, but helps drive home the idea that the genre is about empowerment. Going from weak and overwhelmed to a capable and professional monster slayer makes for more satisfying progression.

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Occasionally, Bloodstained does show slight technical issues. It suffers from slowdown at points, especially given certain Shard abilities, and some areas are noticeably more plain than the lush gable rooftops of Arvantville or the gaudy brilliance of the Dian Cecht Cathedral. The interior of the castle on the whole is gorgeous, and the disparate environments show a keen eye for design with differentiation. The less ornate parts of it stand out, but only because the rest is so well put-together. [Editor’s note: The Nintendo Switch version fares worse, with a number of technical problems including reduced visual fidelity and an unstable frame rate that affects gameplay. Stay tuned for our separate Switch review.]

True to its lineage, Bloodstained is full of secrets to uncover and nooks to explore. The castle design unfolds beautifully over the course of several hours, instilling a constant sense of curiosity and exploration. The layout is subtle and inviting; points that are meant to be accessed sometime later are clear without feeling restricted or frustrating, and it rarely leaves you at a loss for what to do next. A pin feature lets you mark points of interest to return to later, too (though its unintuitive button mapping means it’s easy to place a flurry of them accidentally). Accessing the “true” ending is a clever puzzle within this platformer formula, which opens up even deeper layers of the castle that beg to be explored.

The castle design unfolds beautifully over the course of several hours, instilling a constant sense of curiosity and exploration.

Being a Castlevania game in all but name places some restrictions on how explicit the game can be with its references and callbacks. Some are more blatant than others, but Bloodstained consistently impresses with creative solutions to raise the specter of Castlevania while skirting just on the right side of originality. From weapon descriptions to a hidden 8-bit-styled stage to one of the super-tough optional bosses, Bloodstained pays homage to its legacy with too many Easter eggs to count. These fun winks are clear messages to long-time fans, but not so obvious that they should be distracting for newcomers.

That cheeky tone informs the entire game. While the story itself is bland and unremarkable, the style and trappings around it are anything but. This is gothic horror at its most silly, with demons occupying the castle corridors alongside giant puppy heads and homages to the indie hit Shovel Knight. Even some of the dialogue is clearly in on the joke. A quest giver in the main hub has a comical level of bloodlust over her revenge quests. An undead ferryman drops an unsubtle hint about how you could open a path for him if you only had a giant hand. A demon barber who opens up cosmetic options is conspicuously named Todd. Bloodstained is full of little touches like these, which let you know that despite its dour name and setting, the game is comfortable enough with itself to be absurd.

It’s that sense of comfort in its own skin that makes Bloodstained such a treat. This isn’t a bold modernization of the genre or a departure from its roots. It is exactly what it set out to be: a return to the style of a bygone era, with a few modern improvements. Its perception was always going to be affected by how well it invoked the feeling of a classic Castlevania game, but Bloodstained does that and better. With more flexible combat and level design that always beckons to check just one more room, Bloodstained shows that a modern Metroidvania can stand alongside its predecessors as an equal.

Source: GameSpot.com