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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Blacksad: Under The Skin Review – Dog Days

It is to damn with faint praise to admit my favourite part of Blacksad: Under the Skin happens within the pause menu. Specifically, the menu option called “Progress.” Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.

It’s my favourite part of the game not just because it is a meaningful nod towards Blacksad’s origin as a comic book series–created two decades ago in Spain, written in French, and set in a version of 1950s America where all people are depicted as humanoid animals. It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz.

Like its source material, the game leans very heavily, if superficially, into the stock imagery of noir fiction. You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men. There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.

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In the midst of all this is John Blacksad, the implausibly-named feline private investigator who, when the game opens, finds himself working a tawdry case to expose a cheating husband. This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not–the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.

Later, you have the opportunity to tell the wife the truth of the affair or to keep your promise to the husband, and a box will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, Telltale-style, to inform you whether you’ve lied or accepted a bribe or betrayed a promise depending on the precise sequence of events. Blacksad begins the game as a heartbroken man (his lover was recently killed) and a struggling gumshoe (the bills are piling up in his tiny ramshackle office), but from this starting point you’re given a good deal of freedom to shape his future.

The new case gets underway via a set of mechanics that are staples of the adventure genre, but lack some of the refinements of recent years. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.

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Hotspots only appear when Blacksad moves near them, and they often disappear if he walks too far past them or slightly turns away from them. As a result, navigating a location and revealing all its interactable items can prove a finicky, frustrating process. Time is never of the essence in these scenes, so you’re never punished for being too slow. But you’re never assisted either; Blacksad walks very slowly, and there’s no run modifier or option to quickly exit a screen you’ve already walked across a dozen times. In the mid-game, there’s even a room you must explore in darkness, with only the unreliable light of a Zippo to guide you towards the vital, erratically appearing hotspots. It’s infuriating.

Very little of Blacksad is skippable. You can’t speed up dialogue during conversations. Mashing all the buttons during cutscenes does nothing. When Blacksad looks at a photo on the wall, for example, the camera zooms in on it and then ponderously pans across to a second photo next to it, Blacksad’s inner monologue noting something about the situation. You can’t skip the sequence even if you’ve accidentally triggered the hotspot a second time. I’m a patient player, but Blacksad forces you to move at its pedestrian pace, and it strained even my generous limits.

The investigation fares better when the interrogations commence. The conversation wheel comes in two varieties: The first are a sort of standard, “just the facts, ma’am” set of questions that let Blacksad get a feel for what the other person knows, and the second option provides an opportunity for you to express what Blacksad himself is thinking. The latter set is often how you get to shape Blacksad’s character and, crucially, you only have a few seconds to make the choice.

Conversations can feel quite tense, especially as they go back and forth between timed and non-timed sets of responses. You’re always on your toes, never quite sure when you’re going to be called upon to make a split-second decision about what exactly is going on in Blacksad’s head. It’s effective because, from Under the Skin’s opening scene, you’re aware that the game will remember what you said and remind you of your previous decisions when you say something down the line that’s consistent or inconsistent with them.

Two other, somewhat more novel mechanics come to the fore during your investigation. The first plays upon the heightened senses of a cat. At certain prescribed moments you can activate Blacksad’s cat sense and view the world in black-and-white slow motion from a first-person perspective. The idea here is that you’re able to hear, smell, and see things that someone other than a cat wouldn’t pick up on. In practice, all you’re doing is swinging the camera around until you’ve highlighted what you need to find. The slow-motion effect in these sections lends a degree of drama that the scenes might otherwise not possess, but it doesn’t enhance the feeling you’re doing any sort of extraordinary detective work.

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What does a much better job of that is the second uncommon feature. Blacksad adds vital clues and important questions to a sort of mental map of the case. You can combine two or more of these to verify a particular detail, rule something out, or suggest a new path to probe. The game will prompt you when you’ve collected enough clues to make a deduction so you’re not constantly opening the menu up and trying things out. In addition, the clues as written do a good job of providing just enough of a hint to nudge you in the direction of which ones to combine, without blatantly giving the game away. Though it’s possible to brute force the correct combinations since there are never more than ten clues to consider at any moment, you’ll be doing a disservice not only to a clever system but to yourself. Putting two pieces of information together, that you suspect clears up an important part of the case, and seeing Blacksad smile and give you a hearty thumbs up to indicate that you did so correctly… man, it’s a marvellously simple and effective way of making the player feel smart.

Effective is a pretty good way of describing Blacksad as a detective game. As a noir detective game, however, it struggles. No matter that this is a world full of cats, dogs, wolves, lizards, rhinos, and horses going about their lives as people, Blacksad’s New York is well-trodden material. The main story does manage to twist and turn in unexpected ways, and the payoff, at least in terms of the central whodunnit mystery, is satisfying. Less successful are the attempts at building a larger world beyond the immediate case. There are gestures towards the racism and sexism in this society–and by implication, modern America–but they’re just that, a gesture. There’s no follow-up or investigation of these issues; they’re just set dressing.

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It also lacks a coherent noir style. Blacksad himself offers up a decent take on the noir lead, with his voiceover commentary laced with weary cynicism and flashes of tender empathy. There’s the expected sultry sax soundtrack which, coupled with numerous long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke wafting into the air, ensures everything feels like it’s been smothered in a sticky heat haze. But everything else looks drab and dull and boringly conventional. There’s very little of the high contrast lighting and off-kilter camera angles that defined noir cinema. For a genre synonymous with style, it’s disappointing to see something so lacking in it.

Blacksad: Under the Skin works, it’s a solid detective game that serves up a case worth cracking, a charismatic lead whose character you can shape in meaningful ways, and an investigation method that successfully wraps you in a brown trenchcoat. But when it doesn’t work you’ll find yourself bogged down in the tedium of traipsing around another uninspired location, searching for that final wayward hotspot, and the atmosphere is sucked out of the room.

Source: GameSpot.com

Planet Zoo Review – Spreadsheet Safari

Planet Zoo is a beautifully detailed and mechanically rich management sim that sometimes stumbles under the weight of its own systems. The diverse lineup of exquisitely rendered animals is utterly delightful, and the tools you’re given to build your dream zoo with are mostly intuitive, though there are exceptions. Though hampered by slow progression and a frequently cumbersome UI, it’s chock-full of all the detailed options you want from a good management sim and offers both a rewarding and educational experience.

Building a successful zoo is all about making sure everyone and everything in it is happy, working, and well-looked after. Animals need to be kept in the right climate and conditions to keep their welfare in check, which is no mean feat in itself. Career mode is the best place to start out, offering a helpfully structured and much-needed tutorial across its first few scenarios that show you the ropes of how to make your zoo tick along. If you manage to complete all the given objectives you’re free to move on to the next scenario or continue on running the zoo as you please with the training wheels now off. There are also modes that allow you to start from a blank slate, as well as a sandbox mode that eschews the game’s economy entirely.

The Zoopedia–the in-game encyclopedia full of useful animal facts and stats–gives you all the basic information you need to know before setting up an enclosure, but the process really starts once you move your animals in and can properly gauge how they’re feeling about their surroundings. You’re encouraged to really consider the finest of details. Is the enclosure laid out with the right plants from the right continent? Is there enough shelter from bad weather? Is the herd made up of the right ratio of males to females? But while it’s easy enough to spot these problems, finding the right answers can be a pain as you’re forced to trawl through different sub-screens that are hidden within a myriad of menus and icons. While there are warning notifications for these issues, you have to hunt down the right menu yourself just to make the fix.

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Conservation credits play a big role in advancing your zoo’s rating with visitors. These credits are an in-game currency you earn for doing various tasks, from logging into your online game and completing community challenges to releasing animals into the wild. They’re used to adopt new animals from the animal trade centre, which helps you expand your zoo as well as encourage breeding. This nets you a spike in visitors–baby animals are cute as heck–and, more importantly, an animal with stronger genes, making it more valuable to trade for cash or release for credits. But while conservation credits are easy enough to earn when using the offline economy, online is a different story, with credits being doled out sparingly at best, especially in the early game. This causes some problems in the game’s online Franchise mode, where the animal trade centre is populated with creatures exclusively from other online players, and almost all of them can only be bought with credits. This slows the pace early on, forcing you into a cycle of breeding and releasing animals until you can finally start populating the zoo with the ones you actually want.

As for the humans in your zoo, visitors need to be both entertained and educated through having a wide variety of animals to see and learn about, and your workers need to have all the right facilities so they can keep things from descending into chaos. Your staff will mostly wander autonomously, though you can create helpful work zones to assign them to watch over. Animals can get upset if their enclosure is always dirty or if their food isn’t being refilled, and while you can set how often some worker types visit an enclosure, work zones let you keep the right people near enough of the right places.

When starting to flesh out the facilities of your zoo, you begin with a small selection of shops and staff quarters, unlocking more by assigning your staff to research them. The more you research, the better and broader variety of buildings you have. Building isn’t perfect–paths will often fail to connect up, and it took some time to wrap my head around the concept of building storefront facades and then placing the store inside them, rather than plonking the store down and having it just work. But it’s ultimately for the better as it creates flexibility for user-created designs.

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You’re offered a full gamut of individual building parts that you can use to create your own blueprints, which can be shared via the Steam Workshop. Most of the basic pieces–walls of varying shapes, roof tiles, doors and window frames–will snap together on a relative grid, letting you put your designs together like building blocks. Although some of the manipulation controls aren’t immediately intuitive, with a little time, creating your own style of buildings gets simple enough that you can focus more on refining your creative ideas for that new toilet block or burger stand, rather than working out why your walls won’t connect up.

The animals themselves are the absolute stars of Planet Zoo. They’re all gorgeously rendered and look wonderfully detailed up close, their fur waving back and forth as they graze and prance about. Some of their animations can be a tad janky, but for the most part, watching your animals wander and interact is the biggest joy to be found in Planet Zoo. Whether you’re watching a lion cub nervously sidle up to water before turning to squeak at a nearby adult, a herd of springboks pouncing about together, or a lonely adult orangutan sitting on a rock in the tropical rain, I never failed to be moved by how they looked as they went about their business, feeling a real connection with and responsibility towards them.

Despite a slow burn in online mode and a bloated user interface that gets in the way of fully enjoying the finer management aspects of Planet Zoo, there’s still more than enough here to get something out of your time with it. It’s got its janky moments, but the animals are all rendered sublimely, the management sim mechanics are smart, and the sensible building controls will encourage and help you to build the best park you can for the animals in your care.

Source: GameSpot.com

Sparklite Review – Shine A Light

The premise for Sparklite sees a world where constant earthquakes shake up environments and the only true refuge is in the sky. Everytime you drop to the world below it’s both familiar and different; the environments are made up of different tiles, and like a game of Catan, they’re shuffled anew on every trip. It’s your job to learn and navigate this ever-changing land while upgrading your abilities so you can take down Mining Titans bent on further destroying the world. It starts off as an exciting adventure full of challenge and variety, but that’s not something that lasts forever.

Sparklite is a 2D roguelite whose bright and vivid pixel art environments feature prominently. The main world is shrouded when you first enter it and is divided into squares which take up the whole screen, much like a classic Legend of Zelda game. Moving through and uncovering the layout of the area provides a sense of discovery, especially in the early runs, and each square presents a scenario which will become familiar over time–the layout and enemies for map squares will stay the same, but you won’t know which variant you’ll get until you arrive. Each scenario feels like a crafted experience, each featuring its own unique little challenge or puzzle, but they still have random elements that keeps things fresh–hidden elements can be found breaking boulders or digging up treasure.

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This structure, along with the visual flair and the rousing score full of synths and horns, help to evoke the adventurous feelings of classic JRPGs. The pixel art is exciting and bright, and the enemy and world designs have a stoutness that is reminiscent of a very particular style of top-down console adventure game. But despite being a throwback game, Sparklite’s movement and combat feel modern–they’re responsive and smooth. There are two different strengths of melee attack, and as the game progresses, different ranged weapons also become available to you. Ranged weapons rely on a form of energy generated by attacking enemies with your melee hits, and this creates a satisfying flow. There’s no standing back and trying to pick off enemies from a distance; instead, the game forces you to focus on the melee moves, which means you’re always in the thick of things. It’s an exciting challenge to be constantly on your toes, never able to totally avoid danger, and learning enemy patterns to stay alive.

This is made especially engaging because of all the different enemy types. Every time you enter a new environment you’ll discover new creatures who have different attack patterns, defences, and behaviors to learn–some will even let you by peacefully. There’s a real sense of danger when going to an unknown place, which later evolves into a sense of mastery once you’ve gotten a handle on the enemies there.

This goes doubly so for Sparklite’s intense bosses, as each of the five Mining Titans bring a slew of unique moves to the table. Every time I encountered a new boss I’d die, baffled at how to proceed. One boss in particular presented only one weak spot on its front, but that’s also where it would readily produce pincers. It could shoot missiles and laser beams, as well as cause sinkholes with a stabbing scorpion tail. I found myself mastering the pattern for one series of attacks only to quickly get taken down by the other. Overcoming these fights requires you to learn how each enemy attack works in tandem, on top of finding a safe opening to attack. Learning a little bit more after each death is a great sensation, and Sparklite definitely offers a real sense of accomplishment when you finally come out of the other side of what was once a difficult fight with barely any damage.

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However, there are some occasions where combat just feels unfair. Little things, like enemies being able to hit you when they’re not even on the same screen as you, or being perpetually frozen by two enemies shooting staggered ice balls, can be incredibly annoying. I felt this especially hard during the final boss battle, where a bombardment of enemies would all jump on me in a staggered pattern, keeping me in an indefinite loop of knockdowns. There are ways to try to avoid all of these situations, but if you’re unlucky enough to get caught by them, they’re nigh impossible to get out of, especially if you’re already low on health.

Consumable items also play a large role in combat. You can find and collect an array of bombs, buffs, and healing items every time you drop down to the planet’s surface. They offer new strategies to defeat tough enemies or increase your survivability. However, you don’t keep any of them when you die. This creates the risk-reward dynamic seen in most roguelites–is it worth stockpiling items for an upcoming boss, or better to use them now and increase your chances of survival?

The downside to items in Sparklite is that most of them take a while to activate, and while you can get permanent buffs that help with this, using them during tough combat encounters is often more of a liability, which makes certain items feel useless. In some boss battles, I found bombs could be quite effective, for example, but in others, finding the downtime to set them off is often just too risky. Even taking the time to heal can be a tough and dangerous choice, so learning when to do so becomes crucial. Weapon items that I wanted to use and make me feel powerful often felt like they got me killed, and with such limited opportunities to use items, I ended up using them very sparingly and with trepidation.

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Items are also completely random, so it’s easy to find yourself stocked with a bunch of things you may not even need. One item’s sole job is to illuminate dark areas, and there are only so many times you’ll ever want to use it. On the other hand, health is few and far between so repeatedly getting one item over the other can be very frustrating.

Randomness can also negatively affect your experience with other systems, like permanent upgrades. Permanent items are kept upon death, which means that death doesn’t usually feel too punishing, and instead feels like an opportunity to go back to the Sky Refuge and rework your loadout. You equip upgrades by slotting them into a grid–some will be larger than others, and you have to prioritise what you think you’ll need. It’s a neat little system, and experimenting with it is a rewarding exercise because you can see a tangible difference reflected in your character. However, this is the only way to level up your character, and though the game will let you buy some upgrades (like health buffs) as a guaranteed item, others are up for you to stumble across randomly, which can affect your trajectory of progress. This is a characteristic of the genre, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating at times.. It wasn’t until I was facing one of the final bosses that I finally found a second damage upgrade, for example, something I desperately needed and explored the map several times in search of.

I also encountered a few frustrating bugs in the Switch version of the game which interrupted my progress; crashing during loading screens made me sacrifice more than one of my more lucrative runs. Even aside from bugs, sometimes loading screens seemed ridiculously long as I got into the later areas–areas which also felt like they weren’t anywhere near as diverse in design as earlier ones. Even the random dungeons, which you can find by breaking objects on all the maps, repeat far too often and by the end I could tell which one I’d dropped into immediately. Skipping these dungeons means fewer items and less currency, which in turn means a lower chance of survival or an inability to afford bigger upgrades. Their necessity means it eventually becomes a chore to do the same thing over and over again for random, often disappointing rewards.

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This repetition in design seems especially odd when you consider that other puzzle aspects of the game are often introduced once and barely used again. For example, each time you discover a new ranged weapon, you’ll have a comprehensive tutorial on how to use it so you understand what puzzles it’ll work for. Several of these items went almost completely unused after I’d acquired them because I never came across an opportunity for them.

Sparklite has a great amount of challenge and diversity–until it doesn’t. When things are going well in the early game, progress always feels real and attainable, so it’s enjoyable to go exploring the world for whatever you’ll find next. The game’s upgrades are satisfying to implement (so long as you can find them) and there’s a real sense of growth and achievement. But when Sparklite gets you with an unfair death or technical issue that sets you back, and later causes you to do the same thing over and over again, it’s hard to endure. In the moments where I didn’t encounter these kinds of setbacks, I felt consumed by the desire to find more upgrades, learn how to defeat that boss, and unlock a new area. Sparklite’s loop can be rewarding, but not when it’s extended beyond its means.

Source: GameSpot.com

Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle And The Millionaire’s Conspiracy Review – Merry Old England

So much of the appeal of the original Professor Layton games on Nintendo DS comes from the sheer warmth. It’s a mahogany-toned warm blanket of a series of detective games. The puzzles might be non-sequitur brain-busters, but when it’s all over, you’re welcomed back into the game’s world with all the comfort of a cup of tea. Come now, chin up, don’t worry about how annoying that last one was, here’s another bad pun to soothe what ails you.

Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy walks the series back to that original warmth of its humble roots in the visual mystery novel genre. It’s a game that revels in its relative simplicity the way the series hasn’t in some time. Dig in deep enough, though, and you’ll find a game that conceals more than a couple of devious surprises under its sunny exterior.

The latest entry in the Layton’s Mystery Journey series once again takes place in a sort of Studio Ghibli-fied version of turn-of-the-century London. The hero detective this time around is the good professor’s cheery, aloof, and persistently hungry daughter, Katrielle. She’s joined by Ernest Grieves, a straight-laced and faithful assistant if there ever was one, and a basset hound who Kat names, in the game’s single laziest pun, Sherl O.C. Kholmes. As it turns out, Sherl is actually suffering from Detective Pikachu Syndrome: He’s able to talk to a select few humans, but he also has amnesia so he has no idea how exactly he got into this mess. Unfortunately, poor Sherl has to stick it out for a while longer, since the intro is the last time the game addresses his whole predicament in any meaningful way.

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The game’s lack of an all-encompassing narrative is par for the course, however, and for most of the play time, it’s not necessarily to its detriment. The usual Layton series storytelling returns: It’s a visual novel at its core, with long stretches of dialogue with various characters broken up by point-and-click puzzles. As opposed to the earlier games’ overarching mysteries, however, Katrielle’s first outing is actually an episodic affair, where each case is its own self-contained little tale of low-stakes peril, ranging from the minute hand going missing from Big Ben to a wealthy madam’s missing cat, disconnected from any larger character development for the main protagonists until the literal final hour. What the game lacks in straightforward character arcs that build over the entire playtime, it makes up for in building an enormous and eclectic cast of oddballs and weirdos with hilariously punny names and peculiar quirks. Katrielle’s relationship with each character may only last for a single case, but each case is structured in such a way that the broad strokes–the frequent clapbacks, one-off zingers, friendly jabs at everyone’s expense–are allowed to make an impression. As far as the narrative is concerned, each new character is made to be memorable, not practical. And the episodic format makes it easy to enjoy the game in short bursts. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, you can meet someone new, push the story forward, or finish a crucial puzzle.

Well, you can try to finish a crucial puzzle at the very least, but not all of them are pushovers. In lieu of any legitimate detective work, most of what you’ll be doing to help take a bite out of English crime is solving a vast series of one-off puzzles of various sorts for whoever asks. Some are just basic spatial problems, such as having a vat that holds five gallons of liquid and another that holds three, and trying to figure out how to get four gallons. Others are quirky little mini-games more akin to what you may find in WarioWare, just with a tricky twist like having a limit on how many moves you can make to finish the game. Some, however, are just flat out riddles, and these tend to be the ones that may leave you white-knuckle frustrated.

The game fires its first warning shot early on, with a riddle about the minimum number of times you need to touch a clock to get it to display properly. It’s a problem that’s very easy to overthink, not because the solution is simple, but because the description of the problem begs additional questions that the game does not answer.

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Thankfully, for the vast majority of puzzles, sheer persistence is enough to power through and guess correctly. There are also tokens you can find scattered around every environment that allow you to unlock hints. However, even in cases where the hint walks you right up to the solution, the answer and its explanation can defy common sense in a truly underwhelming way that leaves you less with an “aha!” feeling of brilliance and more of an “oh, come on” feeling of disappointment.

That flaw is even more mind-boggling considering just how well localized and executed the game is otherwise. Each character is charming in their own right, rife with British affectations and deep-cut historical references–the Mayor’s name is a play on London’s original name from centuries ago. And when the game slips into its all-too-short and oddly placed stretches of voice acting or fully animated cutscenes, it’s chock-full of naturalistic and pleasant performances across the board, from Katrielle’s gentle lilt to Sherl’s stiff-upper-lip aristocratic grumble. No small effort has gone into truly realizing this world, causing the lack of clarity when it really matters to sting all the more.

But, perhaps more than any other game in the series, there’s plenty here allowing you to step back from the source of your aggravation and recharge. Exploring each environment turns up special coins that allow you to unlock new outfits for Kat and new furniture for her office. As you progress, you also unlock mini-games that are completely disconnected from the main quest–you can help a local chef cook a perfect meal for the residents of Kat’s neighborhood, you can run a maze where you have only a limited number of moves, or, you can play any of the dozens of additional puzzles that aren’t connected to progress in any of the actual cases. On mobile, this content was parsed out, piecemeal, over time after release. On the Switch, the game is overwhelmingly generous with content within an hour of starting, and most of it is just as charming and endlessly replayable as the rest of the game.

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If there’s any one thing truly getting in the way of your joy, it’s the Switch itself. The Professor Layton games were staples of the Nintendo DS, taking full advantage of the added screen real estate so whatever you did on one screen didn’t block what was happening on the other. The Switch, however, has limitations the DS didn’t. Playing in docked mode means using the Joy-Cons to move your cursor around like a mouse, which is nice, but also a bit too fast and twitchy for many of the puzzles. In handheld, you have the option of using the analog sticks to move your cursor, which has the same problem with even less precision. You can also use the Switch’s touchscreen, but your fingers are too often in the way of the rest of the screen. This is a game that simply begs for a stylus.

In Katrielle Layton’s London, it’s a season of golden leaves, stiff breezes, and sun that provides light but less warmth. It’s the perfect atmosphere for a game that provides such quaint joys for hours on end, cackling at its next pun, zippy one-liner, or absurd new scenario while putting creaky parts of the brain to good use. Sometimes the breeze is a bit too cold, or there’s rain, or, oh, you know, the solution to a logic problem you’ve been staring at for 45 minutes might be “air” and you hate everything for a few minutes, but it doesn’t last, and the next pleasant moment is never too far away.

Source: GameSpot.com

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review – A Good Feeling About This

Star Wars games often feel estranged from the franchise that spawned them. Video games have gotten very good at capturing the aesthetic of Star Wars–the cold metallic angles of Imperial architecture, the powerful hum of a lightsaber, the electric snap of a blaster bolt hitting home–but can struggle to get beneath the surface. It’s the rare Star Wars game that reaches beyond how Star Wars looks to explore what Star Wars is really about.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the latest game in the canon, is one of the better offerings specifically because it tries to look beyond the trappings of Star Wars. It’s not just another Jedi power fantasy, although wielding the Force with skill and resolve will certainly make you feel powerful. Like the best Star Wars games, it’s one that adds to the ideas of the films and other material, exploring new corners of the galaxy while focusing on the core themes of the franchise: knowing yourself, fighting your own darkness, and braving adversity with the help of friends.

Friendship has always been one of the main drives of Star Wars, especially in the original film trilogy, and it’s the core of what makes Jedi: Fallen Order work in both story and gameplay. The primary relationship of the game is between Cal Kestis, a Jedi padawan in hiding in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge that took place in Revenge of the Sith, and BD-1, a droid entrusted with a secret mission by the Jedi Master that previously owned it. Once Cal and BD-1 meet, they become inseparable, working together as partners to solve puzzles in forgotten ruins, navigate alien environments, and beat back the Empire.

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The pair work throughout the game to complete a scavenger hunt created by BD’s last companion, Master Cordova. Before he vanished, Cordova locked away a list of Force-sensitive children throughout the galaxy that could be used to resuscitate the destroyed Jedi Order and challenge the Empire. He left clues to how to retrieve that list hidden in BD, requiring Cal and the droid to travel to various worlds, following in Cordova’s footsteps to free up BD’s encrypted memories.

Functionally, BD is Cal’s constant companion as he rides around on the Jedi’s back, and Cal regularly talks with the droid as they explore Fallen Order’s planets. BD also serves several support functions in gameplay. Most importantly, BD provides Cal with “stims” that allow him to heal himself in the middle of Fallen Order’s often-oppressive combat. He can also function as a zipline, unlock doors, and hack certain droid enemies to turn the tides of battle. BD is just enough a part of any given fight or puzzle that you’re always aware of his presence and his help, but it’s Cal’s constant interactions with the little droid that really build out their relationship.

You definitely need BD’s help and the upgrades you find for him throughout your journey, because Fallen Order can be punishing. It lifts a number of gameplay ideas directly from the Soulsborne genre; enemies are often tough-as-nails and can deal big damage if you’re complacent, whether they’re Imperial stormtroopers taking potshots or two-foot rats leaping out of burrows to snap at Cal’s throat. Fighting isn’t just about wailing on everyone with your lightsaber, but rather relies heavily on blocking and carefully timed parries if you mean to stay alive against even the most run-of-the-mill foes. You and your enemies also have a stamina meter to manage, which dictates how many blows you can defend against before you stagger, and adds a strategic element to duels. To win a battle, you need to whittle down an enemy’s stamina while blocking, parrying, and dodging to manage your own. Since every blow you sustain can be devastating, combat becomes an exciting, cerebral exercise in pretty much every case. You’ll spend a lot of time not only honing your parrying skills, but also making quick battlefield decisions about how you can isolate dangerous enemies or use your Force powers to even up the odds.

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You can only heal from a limited number of stims or by resting at periodic meditation points, similar to Dark Souls‘ bonfires, and using them respawns all the enemies in the area, which makes being a smart combatant even more critical. Killing enemies and finding collectibles nets you experience, which accumulates into Skill Points you can spend on new abilities for Cal. But dying costs all the experience you earned since your last Skill Point unless you can find and damage the enemy who bested you.

Though the elements of Fallen Order are Souls-like–it’s probably most closely comparable to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in fact–on most difficulty settings, it’s far less brutal than From Software’s games. Fallen Order might be considered Soulsborne-lite, making use of the same elements but to a different effect. It’s tough, even occasionally frustrating, but not nearly so much as the games from which it draws its inspirations. That balance achieves something that feels essential to Fallen Order’s identity: It makes you a powerful Jedi Knight, without turning you into an unstoppable Force-wielding superhero. Ratcheting back on the Jedi powers (and forcing you to unlock them as you work through the story and deal with Cal’s past) helps Fallen Order’s take on the Star Wars universe feel grounded and believable–a place where people could actually live.

Your lack of overwhelming power also helps make the ever-looming Empire a frightening threat, even as individual soldiers comedically call out their own ineptitude in pretty much every battle. Cal spends the entire game hunted by the Inquisition, a subset of the Empire’s forces specifically tasked with exterminating Jedi. Because every fight is potentially deadly, running into the game’s specially trained Purge Troopers is always an event, and you’re forced not only test your lightsaber skills and timing, but to consider all the abilities at your disposal to make it out alive.

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The rest of the game often has to do with clambering around the environment and solving puzzles, not unlike Tomb Raider, God of War, or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Navigating the world is as much about using observation and problem-solving skills as your Force tools. Respawn’s Souls-inspired map design allows you to explore off the beaten path without ever really getting lost, and each planet is richly realized and fascinating to explore. The intricate pathways encourage you to wander off and visit each planet’s varied environments to see what you might uncover, and Fallen Order always make sure you’re rewarded with a bit of story, a cosmetic item, or even an optional miniboss fight.

When you’re between missions on planets, you’re spending time with Fallen Order’s two other major characters, Cere and Greez. They’re the pair who manage to save Cal in the early hours of the game when his Jedi nature is discovered by the Empire, and they put him on the quest to find the list of Force-sensitives before the Inquisitors can get their hands on it. Though the story is a little rough in the early going as Cal is thrown directly into the quest with little lead-up or explanation, Fallen Order’s story starts to excel around the halfway point as his relationships with BD, Cere, and Greez really start to develop. Once Fallen Order starts to invest in the interpersonal dynamics and deepening friendships of its cast, it really hits a stride–and its quest feels less like an elaborate series of tasks to fetch a MacGuffin, and more like an essential addition to the ongoing Star Wars saga.

It does take Fallen Order a while to get there, though. The first few planets are a bit on the dull side, rushing to get Cal on his quest through the galaxy without really establishing why you should really care. Until it starts to click later in the game as you unlock more Force powers, combat can be a hassle, especially at certain boss battles or chokepoints, when your last meditation point is some distance away and you have to navigate through the same chunks of the map over and over. And while parrying is an essential part of the game, at higher difficulties, the timing can feel finicky and unreliable.

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The game also loves to throw handfuls of enemies at you all at once, which can be overwhelming, and combat against lower-tier enemies is built to lock you into finisher animations in a lot of cases. Instead of making you feel like a cool, well-trained warrior, these usually just leave you open to some Imperial dork wandering up with an electrobaton and clocking you in the head. It’s only after you get enough Force powers to effectively control the crowds that these moments become more exciting than irritating. But throughout the game, there are always times when an enemy you couldn’t see because of the game’s tight targeting lock system gets in a cheap hit, forcing you to replay a fair stretch of its large, interweaving maps.

But especially as it wears on, Fallen Order becomes perhaps the strongest conception of what playing as a Jedi Knight ought to really be like. It’s true that Fallen Order borrows liberally from other action games, but those elements work together with Respawn’s combat and environment design, and a story that finds humanity in the Force and in its characters, to hone in on what makes the world of Star Wars worthy of revisiting again and again. Even with some rough edges, Fallen Order represents one of the most compelling game additions to the Star Wars franchise in years.

Source: GameSpot.com