Video games are quite fond of the work of M.C. Escher—you’ll see his influence in the mundane labyrinths of Control, the disorienting symmetry of the stealth game Echo, or in the clever puzzles of games like Monument Valley and echochrome. You can now add Manifold Garden to that list. And, like those other games, it’s pretty damn great.
Out today on Apple Arcade and the Epic Games Store, ManifoldGarden is a minimalist puzzle game played from a first-person perspective. You begin in a plain room, and after a spare tutorial teaches you the basics of movement, you’re set loose to wander through a mind-bending maze of stairs, corridors, and strange rooms full of machines made almost entirely of right angles.
Manifold Garden’s most disorienting trick is that you can flip gravity by hitting a button whenever you’re facing a flat surface. That surface is your floor now. It doesn’t take as long as you might think to wrap your head around, largely thanks to some clever design—while the rooms and corridors of Manifold Garden have a muted color palette approaching monochrome, they actually have a color assigned to them that you can’t see from afar but fades in as you get closer. So an off-white wall will move towards violet as you get closer and become full-on purple once you trigger your gravity flip and have its surface beneath you. It does a lot to keep you from losing your damn mind.
Like a lot of clever puzzle games, Manifold Garden teaches you how it world works through play. It’ll present you with colored cubes for opening doors, and then in a later room show you a keyhole that you need to flip gravity to get to. But once you do that, you learn another rule: You can only pick up cubes when standing on a surface that matches their color.
Manifold Garden’s simple, aesthetically pleasing design makes it soothing to play through, even if it is often dizzying. Its world is infinite; you are surrounded by countless copies of the structure you are navigating, suspended in an endless void. If you leap off the edge of a platform, you will fall forever, continually passing the ledge you jumped from until momentum carries you back to where you started. It’s a trip, man.
I like to think Escher was a game designer born too soon, fascinated with the strict rules of mathematics and how they can be followed into a maze of the nonsensical. That’s what games are, sometimes—bewildering towers erected from rigid code, somehow folding together to form a thing that seems to defy simple logic.
You should play Manifold Garden, but perhaps not on a smartphone. You can’t get a good look at infinity on a screen that small.
Much of the horror in the works of H.P. Lovecraft comes from the fear of the unknown. Sea Salt, released today on PC, PlayStation 4, and Switch, flips that script by putting the player in control of a monstrous horde that terrifies seaside communities full of humans who, rather than being afraid, are ready to defend themselves. It’s a tough game, but controlling a marauding horde rather than a single person makes for a unique horror experience.
Sea Salt begins with a simple premise: Dagon, an ocean-dwelling deity that first appeared in Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, demands a list of specific human sacrifices from his most faithful human servant, a self-styled bishop of Dagon worship. But when it comes time for the bishop himself to take the plunge, he refuses, forcing Dagon to send multitudes of minions to raid the shoreline for sacrifices instead. The player does this by wielding Dagon’s influence through an on-screen cursor, directing monsters’ movement and giving them basic, one-button commands to attack and regroup.
Sea Salt starts by giving players one apostle—a sort of class or character archetype that begins each level with different monsters and attributes—and one creature, but your roster expands quickly as levels are cleared and challenges are completed. Although I spent most of my time with the starting apostle, I soon had a ton of different choices in how to build my horde. Each monster has its own stats and abilities, making them useful in different situations. The swarm, for instance, will generally form the basis of Dagon’s army due to the large numbers in which you receive them. Cultists are long-range specialists that can provide cover for the rest of the horde. Crabs are resistant to fire and shotgun blasts.
Just as horror has been used to drive many a doomed Lovecraft protagonist mad, so too does it play a role in Sea Salt. In addition to stats like health and speed, each creature is also rated on how well they horrify the humans they encounter, which in turn makes the enemies more vulnerable to attack as they run away screaming. Since the humans soon begin to arm themselves with pitchforks and Molotov cocktails, horrifying them is necessary. Building your horde with only speed or damage in mind is a recipe for disaster in later levels.
Sea Salt can get a little unwieldy as your horde grows. Players are only able to give the monsters general commands like attack or regroup. Without the ability to directly control them, I’ve had cultists decide to launch fireballs at inanimate objects rather than the shotgun-wielding humans right in front of them and swarms get caught on the corners of buildings as they struggle to navigate where I direct them. Early boss battles—which include a bomb-throwing admiral, an anchor-swinging longshoreman, and a group of torch-wielding villagers intent on protecting a local monastery—were a chore, as even when I figured out the basic patterns, it felt impossible to direct my monsters in such a way that they could escape unscathed. I also experienced lengthy periods of slowdown as my horde grew to massive proportions and on-screen elements like fire were introduced, although it’s possible this problem is unique to the Switch version.
Sea Salt is unforgiving: While I can deal with a little bit of punishment, the more hectic battles often feel like a crapshoot, with victory decided more by luck than any sound strategy or tactics, especially when the game’s performance begins to stumble. That said, there’s something strangely satisfying about rampaging through the game’s levels with an army of fishmen and giant crabs. Just don’t expect to have a firm grasp on them as they do their dark lord’s bidding.
Little Town Hero, out October 16 for the Nintendo Switch, is a Game Freak role-playing game about a young boy who’s charged with fighting a bunch of viciously powerful monsters as adults stand idly by. No, not that one. Little Town Hero is totally its own thing: a deceptively simple RPG-card-game hybrid with light tactical elements that manages to be addicting.
My co-worker Joshua Rivera joked that my taste in games was “hardcore,” politely clowning me for gravitating toward games about “anime and math,” so it was no big surprise that Little Town Hero is my cup of tea. In it, your protagonist, Axe (or whatever you name him), fights off monsters suddenly invading the town using the power of a mysterious gemstone he found in the nearby mines. He’s guided by the irresponsible knight who was previously sent there to fight the monsters but hurt his back and now spends too much time in the tavern. The townsfolk must figure out the mystery of how these monsters are getting into the village in the first place. How does Axe fight these ferocious beasts? With the power of ideas.
Little Town Hero’s battle system revolves around ideas charmingly called “Izzits” which function like cards do in card-battle games. You can hold up to five at a time, while others remain in your Headspace to be summoned to the front of mind when space opens up. You have a set amount of “Power” each turn that you can use to turn Izzits into “Dazzits,” or usable moves. There are three types of Dazzits: Blue Dazzits, which have an immediate effect on yourself, your opponent, or both, Yellow Dazzits, which can be used again and again until they break, and Red Dazzits, which can be used once per turn or until they break and can be used to inflict damage directly on your enemy when the opportunity arises. Most involve attacking or defending with your pickaxe-shield weapon, but some involve picking up rocks or throwing a firecracker, for instance. Both you and your enemy have health represented as hearts, as well as “Guts,” a buffer that must generally be broken before you can inflict direct damage. It’s important to be careful about how you do this damage, because several enemies have powered-up states they go into when their guts are reduced to zero. After direct heart damage, guts are restored.
The core of the gameplay is simple, but there are a lot of ways to use the finite tools at your disposal, meaning that there’s a lot of predicting and planning and customizing you can do when it comes to your actual playstyle. You always see your opponent’s available Dazzits and the particular one they’re using each turn, which guides your strategy. I’m using a high-risk high-reward playstyle, taking opportunities to gamble by sacrificing health in order to make big plays on my opponents. The combination of Red, Blue, and Yellow Dazzits allows a static set of moves to be mixed and matched in a variety of different ways, especially once you start powering them up and unlocking new effects. The key to winning the game is breaking your opponent’s Dazzits to score a direct hit. Taking direct damage yourself automatically restores all your used-up ideas, which keeps the matches from becoming too one-sided at any given time. The game is easy enough for anyone to pick up but has a lot to offer a fledgling min-maxer.
Between turns, you move around on a party-game-style map. On this map are other townsfolk, who can give you bonuses. Axe’s buddy Nelz, for example, reduces the cost of turning one random Izzit into a Dazzit to zero. His rival Matock can do direct damage to the opponent’s body, regardless of its Dazzits. There are a variety of townsfolk ready to jump in and support this small child battling monsters, and you can find more via sidequests and story progression. Some of them offer inspiration for new ideas mid-battle. There are also environmental effects called “Gimicks” you can tap into if you have the right Dazzit. For example, I’ve taken on a very aggressive play style, so I enjoy strategically using the Barrel which does direct damage to both your and your opponent’s Dazzits and body, strategically sacrificing some of my guts to go ahead and deal heart damage to an energy. There are lots of these options to explore and thus lots of strategies to mess with during the battles, which can easily take 15 or 20 minutes a pop, if you’re like me and enjoy mathing out every possibility.
You may be wondering what you do between battles. You can take on sidequests to get to know townsfolk and gain rewards like Eureka Points, which you can then use to upgrade your Dazzits or increase your Guts on an upgrade grid. This adds a nice, if light, layer of customization to the game. You also fight Matock… a lot. And just like other Game Freak rivals, he is both relentless and unperturbed in his endless quest to get his bell rung by the protagonist, over, and over, and over, and over again. One chapter of the early game had me fight him three times, pretty much consecutively. I didn’t mind so much, since the battles changed slightly each time, but, man. The sidequests and between-battle moments are charming and provide some color for the town and townsfolk you fight so hard to protect. It’s banal but makes complete and total sense within the game’s themes of small-town fellowship, and it’s wholly inoffensive when punctuated by the solid battles you get to think through.
Like the little town Axe works so hard to protect, Little Town Hero is straightforward and earnest. Comical moments between characters and a Toby Fox-made soundtrack keep the boring parts manageable, and the battle system’s mix of a simple core with a variety of ways to execute makes the game work. You have a finite level of actions you can take and a clear layout of your enemy’s attack options. It’s the type of game that makes you feel clever for doing exactly what it’s designed to allow, and that’s always a great time.
Felix the Reaper is a puzzle game described by developer Kong Orange as a “romantic comedy about the life of Death.” That’s a pretty apt description, but here’s my crack: Final Destination meets Crypt of the Necrodancer (minus the rhythm element). The game, coming to consoles and PC October 17, bursts with wit and care in its puzzling, presentation, and even its tongue-in-cheek loading screens. Felix the Reaper’s story and simple showmanship elevate a decent puzzle game to something worth picking up.
Felix is a newbie reaper with the Ministry of Death tasked with creating contrived, deadly accidents using objects and creatures around the map. The gameplay takes place on grids that Felix can dance across. Felix must complete his tasks without getting burned by the light of the sun, using the shadows cast by static elements like trees and movable items like rocks to shield him. Felix also has the ability to use a sundial, which shifts the source of the light 90 degrees to change the way the shadows are cast. Elements like switches add to the complexity of the puzzles. The gameplay requires the player to think in perpendiculars and to creatively using objects around the field to manipulate space.
The puzzles are clever, and there are optional objectives like clearing levels in a certain number of moves to spice things up, but the real heart of Felix the Reaper is its presentation. Felix is a dancing fiend; in his idle animations, he bops around gleefully while listening to headphones. As you move around the maps, he’ll cartwheel and jump and click his heels and do the twist. It is absolutely adorable, and it’s complemented well by the variety of music you can cycle through in each level.
The story is written with the warm, dark slice-of-life comedy of a Grim Fandango. Felix is utterly smitten with Betty the Maiden, who works at the Ministry of Life. This is communicated via charming illustrations of an earnest, infatuated Felix thinking of the voluptuous Betty with his face flushed like a 1930s cartoon character. He may be working at the Ministry of Death only for the chance to bump into her, which his supervisor warns him against. Felix’s comically earnest demeanor in the face of all the dark and occasionally adult themes in the game is deeply endearing.
There’s a lot of story color in gameplay as well. In addition to menu-screen background information about the history of topics like religion and the Grim Reaper, there are intro scenes at the beginning of each level. In them, mute characters wackily go about their lives in a mixture of slapstick and worldbuilding. The tutorial has you kill your first victim, only for your helpful supervisor to receive an error message that you’ve killed the wrong person, which he brushes under the rug with the level of flustered embarrassment someone might experience committing a faux pas at a fancy dinner party.
The silliness continues into the idea of death itself. There’s one early level in which you must rig a barrel to roll down a ramp, smash into a house, and knock a hanging deer head onto an unsuspecting person below. He tries to get the head off in panic, attracting the attention of a nearby hunter. You can imagine what happens next.
Felix the Reaper brims with humorous representations of the macabre as a complex choreography of elements far beyond our control. Paired with the sweet romance of a simple reaper dancing through the afterlife while pining over his bombshell would-be sweetheart, the game uses its tone masterfully. As a puzzle game, it’s pretty good, and as a love story, it’s a little messed up, but that’s the appeal.
Warsaw, released on Steam last week by Polish developers Pixelated Milk, is a difficult, turn-based dungeon-crawler set in the eponymous capital city at the tail end of World War II. My first few hours with it were spent vacillating between admiration for its unique setting and frustration with its combat and squad-building mechanics. The irritants only compounded after being constantly reminded of Darkest Dungeon, a better game from which Warsaw draws much of its inspiration.
I sat down with Warsaw intent to separate it from its clear and obvious riffing on the Darkest Dungeon formula as much as possible. Sure, I was navigating an ill-equipped group of pseudo-soldiers drawn with stark, black outlines through even starker circumstances, but I was doing so in the embattled streets of an eastern European capital rather than dank prisons and bubbling swamps full of macabre, otherworldly foes. Warsaw forces the player to battle just as much with the environment as with enemy combatants, but the grounded narrative made it feel that much more intense at first blush. That said, it wasn’t always possible to ignore the game’s influences.
By 1944, Poland had been devastated. Invasions by both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union had marred both city and countryside with the scourge of warfare, and what was left of Polish leadership operated out of Great Britain, a government-in-exile with little real power of which to speak. Still, there remained a dedicated resistance force on Polish soil, and Warsaw opens with these underground armies ready to strike back as German and Soviet forces themselves come to blows. The future of Poland rests in the player’s hands.
I was dropped into the city of Warsaw and immediately put in control of a small squad of resistance fighters that included a medic, a rifleman, and a swarthy black marketeer armed with a machine gun. I would find out later, through a dedicated codex full of background information, that none of my soldiers had any formal training. These were normal folk, pushed to action by desperation. They were fighting because fighting was the only option they had left.
While the tutorial missions were designed to offer only a slight challenge compared to the rest of the game, I quickly felt weighed down by the realities these characters faced. Every missed shot on a Nazi soldier, eyes hidden and faces permanently grimaced, opened the possibility for a violent response on one of my untrained recruits.
The battles in Warsaw take place on a grid separated down the middle, with one side for the player’s group of soldiers and the other occupied by the enemy. Unlike Darkest Dungeon, where the player’s party is organized in a single-file line, Warsaw adds another row to create a two-by-four grid which, again, is mirrored on the opposite side of the battlefield. The game then uses this grid to restrict skill usage to specific spaces on the battlefield, and many can only hit specific areas on the corresponding enemy grid.
Encounters are turn-based, alternating between the opposing factions, with actions ticking away at an overall tally determined by how many soldiers have been fielded. Individual fighters can perform multiple actions, like moving and attacking, but they’re restricted by a stamina system that reduces performance as more actions are taken. It might be tempting to ask your rifleman to take numerous shots at a dangerous target on the opposite side, but his accuracy is going to suffer, and he’ll eventually start taking more damage from incoming attacks.
Another clear departure from Darkest Dungeon is the introduction of cover mechanics. Random barricades will sometimes be placed on either side of the battlefield, allowing soldiers to take cover and find a little bit of protection in the chaos. Damaging enemies often revolves around bypassing some of the shielding offered by barrels and stacks of wooden crates, but near the end of battles it can become a huge nuisance as you try to finish off a single enemy hiding behind an obstacle. These inanimate objects also have HP of their own, so if lady luck decides to ignore you, it’s easy to find oneself having to chip away at a sheet of aluminum siding before gaining a clear shot at the Nazi behind it.
Outside of fights, you navigate the war-torn streets of Warsaw from an overhead view, the sounds of explosives in the distance and bullets zipping from building to building. While I was given a very vague idea of objectives in the immediate area, I was mostly flying blind through the first few missions, and more than a few times I was ambushed by German and Soviet patrols before I even realized what was happening. As such, it became crucial to slowly inch from alleyway to alleyway in search of necessary supplies and enemy placements.
The map also includes a variety of non-combat events. One time, I stumbled upon a group of Jewish children who had somehow avoided being rounded up by the Nazis. Their leader, not much older than 13 or 14, had just shot a man, and was now aiming her pistol at my party, obviously distrustful of anyone digging through the remains of her broken neighborhood. It was then that I was given several ways to engage with these children, revolving around stats like Charm and Academics. Seeing as how I still had the black-market merchant with me, wise in the ways of bargaining, I tasked him with speaking warmly to the kids in the hopes they would allow us to go by without any violence. The game told me he had an 80 percent chance of success. He failed, and got plugged in the guts for his efforts, the children escaping into the rubble as the rest of my squad tended to his wounds.
Surviving in Warsaw is often predicated upon what you do between excursions into the devastated city. The home base provides a chance to heal wounded soldiers, gather necessary supplies, and recruit more fighters. The most competent fighters have so far been locked away behind the random events that can occur upon returning to the base, while those that can be conscripted en masse offer only a few randomized skills and cannot be leveled up. My early hours were often spent juggling between my named soldiers and the weaker counterparts I had spent precious supplies to recruit.
Add to that the fact that any healing you manage to whip up on the battlefield is meaningless upon returning to base—soldier health returns to the lowest point it reached during the previous mission—and putting together a viable mission team can be a constant headache. Darkest Dungeon at least provided players with a constant stream of new warriors with which to build parties, but in Warsaw, you begin to depend on the few skilled soldiers in your army while simultaneously being told by the mechanics that everyone is expendable. It’s a bleak system that, at times, is so overwhelmingly oppressive that I have to wonder if this was an intentional statement on the status of the Polish resistance at the time rather than an unfortunate misstep on the developer’s part.
Warsaw has all the building blocks of a great game, but these are borrowed wholesale from a more polished one. When it diverges from the blueprints first authored by Darkest Dungeon, it suffers. It’s not that I wish Warsaw was more like Darkest Dungeon, but its attempts to set itself apart from the game it so obviously remixes result in a tedious, confusing, and ultimately frustrating experience that takes away from its exceptional setting and world-building. Underneath the layers of homage and allusion, Warsaw has something special. It’s just going to take a little more work to draw it out.
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is a lot to take in. In one fell swoop, the expansion resets player progression, institutes a new seasonal model for live events, and adds a wealth of new content. It’s going to take some time to get a grasp of the scope of things. Online, ever-changing games like this are less like cars and more like big old boats, or what I imagine boats to be like—too big to notice tiny changes in until you become deeply familiar with the bones of the thing. Massive shifts appear, to the naked eye, to not be happening at all.
Right now, Destiny 2 has some bigger problems: After clogged servers kept players from logging in today, Bungie shut it all down for emergency maintenance. Once you manage to log on to Shadowkeep, there’s plenty new that you’ll notice immediately. A lot of it, you probably have been expecting, given Bungie’s slow-burn divulging of details over the last few months. But contemplating these changes from afar and having them in your hands are two very different experiences. Consider these off-the-cuff impressions—I’ve hardly scratched the surface of things and I have a lot of questions, but I’m certain that I’ll be playing a lot of Shadowkeep.
Remember when this game was hard?
For the most part, Destiny is a pretty easy game, even for a solo player. If you didn’t take on its top-tier challenges—raids, Nightfall strikes, the Reckoning—it was kind of laughably easy. You had your preferred loadout for rinsing through scrubs, and when the big boys came to say hello, you had an answer ready.
Now that power levels are reset? You’re a scrub. You are washed. At least, on Shadowkeep’s new remixed version of the Moon, you are. You will regularly stumble across areas patrolled by enemies that are roughly 100 power above you, which is the threshold where you flat-out can’t damage them. It’s a bucket of cold water to the face.
It’s also a way to gate progress, to keep you from delving too deep into the Moon or its mysteries too soon.
Hope you love mysteries.
In its return to the Moon, a locale players haven’t visited since the first Destiny, Shadowkeep repaints it with the layer of opaque mystery that became a trademark of some of the best Destiny destinations, like the Dreadnaught in The Taken King or The Dreaming City in Forsaken. Keep a sharp eye out and you’ll see little figurines that you can’t yet interact with,, bits of bone that unlock lore, or areas that are walled off by a forcefield.
You’ll also stumble on things you just plain don’t expect, like this ship corridor that looks straight out of an Alien film.
Exploring is always the best part of a new Destiny expansion.
I’m worried about the grind.
Shadowkeep is revamping the entire in-game economy, re-introducing formerly deprecated materials and making relatively useless currencies relevant again. It’s going to take some time for players to run up against any pain points in the new economic landscape as they loot and upgrade their way across the solar system, but I’m a little worried that things are looking a bit more grindy.
This will be hard to sort out for sure, as everyone will be leveling over the next few days, churning through whatever gear will raise their power level from 750 to the new soft cap of 900 . Part of the reason I feel this way is due to the new armor system. On paper, it is very cool, allowing you to swap out mods that help spec your armor for certain builds. But it also seems like it will get expensive in the long run.
Mods cost energy, and each piece of armor has an energy budget from 1 to 10. When you pick up a new piece of armor, it’s assigned a random energy value, which you can then upgrade using Glimmer and Legendary Shards. It’s not much—upgrading my boots from 2 energy to 3 costs 500 Glimmer and 1 Legendary Shard. But imagine doing that multiple times, for multiple pieces of armor. It’s a whole new, massive resource sink.
It might be offset by another new thing, though.
Seasonal rewards are extremely compelling.
This is probably not a surprise, since Destiny 2’s seasonal reward structure echoes Fortnite’s Battle Pass, and the Battle Pass is an incredibly effective way to monetize free games. If you’re not familiar with either, here’s the gist:
For the current 70-day “season” of Destiny 2, there are two rewards tracks: one for people who have a season pass, and one for those who do not. Everyone who plays Destiny 2 earns experience, which goes towards your Season Rank. Achieve a new Season Rank, and you’ll get rewards—everyone on the “free” track gets the reward, and season pass owners also get a fancy bonus reward.
The nice thing about it is that the seasonal rewards seem to include a lot of upgrade materials, which might offset the need to constantly farm what you need to keep your gear in tip-top shape. Season pass owners get lots more of this stuff, which might prove that the free tier offerings are negligible. Again, I’m worried about the grind.
At the very least, Destiny 2 does an excellent job of explaining what’s included in a season for those who have a pass and those who do not. There are no surprises.
Everything’s different now.
Shadowkeep’s changes and tweaks are pervasive, and this makes it hard to catalogue and evaluate them. Gun performance is different across the board, the difference between base and critical damage is different, the Crucible has been reworked, and there’s a new schedule of live events that might change how the rest of the game’s older destinations might play out.
I’m still too early in the story to really say much about it other than this: It is about as amusingly portentous as anything involving Eris Morn, the game’s most goth character. It also almost immediately sends you on one of Destiny’s favorite kinds of time-killing quests: “Go charge this artifact by doing busywork.”
Said busywork is more interesting than it previously was. Instead of boring patrol beacons that trigger repeatable vanilla missions, the Moon is full of these haunted blood-ghosts that ask you to kill their nightmare, which is pretty damn metal.
As you’ve probably put together by now: Moon’s haunted. I’m into it though, and can’t wait to dive into more. As soon as these servers come back online.
It’s weird seeing the Microsoft Studios logo appear on the screen as I load a game on a Nintendo console. It’s also odd to have see my Xbox Live avatar and Gamertag displayed on my Switch screen. Everything else about about playing Ori and the Blind Forest on the Switch is pretty much perfect.
Moon Studios’ gorgeous platforming adventure, originally released in 2015 for the Xbox One and PC, is a very significant game for our family. It’s one of the first games we all played together. My wife and I would pass the controller back and forth on the couch while our twin boys, then four or five, watched until we got to the hard parts and the cursing begun. They knew those instances, when their parents would cooperatively bash themselves against Ori and the Blind Forest’s most challenging sequences, could last for hours.
Those tougher moments are what define Ori for us. It has the look and feel of a casual indie game. Wandering through a lush, hand-drawn forest as moody symphonic music plays, the mysterious hero white and glowing, like the negative version of a Limbo silhouette. While the mood and atmosphere carry throughout the game, Ori is anything but a relaxed stroll through the woods.
The rabbit-like hero jumps, swims, and eventually teleports through the forest of Nibel on a quest to restore the elements and restore the great Spirit Tree, facing fresh challenges at every turn. One sequence will test the player’s ability to perform precision jumps. A massive blast of energy that fires at regular intervals tests the player’s timing and patience as they scoot between safe areas. There are moments of respite, periods where it’s more about exploring and finding hidden secrets than weaving through deadly danger.
And then there are moments like the Ginso Tree flood, one of the aforementioned hard parts. Ori and the Blind Forest is punctuated by these lengthy, grueling platforming sequences that put everything the player has learned to the test. In order to restore the element of water, Ori must unblock the water veins inside the massive Ginso Tree. Doing so, however, causes water to quickly fill the once lifeless trunk, giving Ori less than a minute to climb to its apex and escape.
I cannot tell you how many times my wife and I attempted this sequence while playing the Xbox version in 2015. I can tell you it took me over a dozen tries on the Switch version, even though I was already familiar with the event. Behold my triumph.
The video above is taken from the Switch version of the game, which runs at a constant 60 frames per second in both handheld and docked mode. I was playing in docked, using one Joy-Con. That’s not how I normally play, but it felt really good in Ori for some reason. It felt exactly the same as the Xbox One version, right down to the warm rush of relief and accomplishment I felt when I unlocked the achievement for completing the sequence.
Seeing “Achievement Unlocked” pop up on my Switch screen is weird. Not quite as weird as having my Xbox avatar portrait and Gamertag in the corner of the game’s main menu, but weird.
Though it does connect to my Microsoft account, Ori Switch achievements don’t show up on my feed, and I could not tell you if they affect my gamerscore. It feels very cosmetic, just Microsoft Studios making sure I don’t forget where the game came from, as if I could forget.
A lot has changed in the four and a half years since Ori and the Blind Forest launched for PC and Xbox One. My wife and I don’t play games on the television as much, since that’s where the kids play their games and watch their YouTube videos. Hopefully we’ll be able to wrestle back the TV in time for February’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps. In the meantime, she and I have our own Nintendo Switches—mine original, hers Lite—and we rarely pass them back and forth. We are, however, still playing Ori and the Blind Forest, thanks to this very good port and Microsoft’s strange, continuing dalliance with putting its exclusive games on Nintendo hardware.
After raising over €72,000 in crowdfunded donations last year, Crying Suns is set to arrive on Steam tomorrow, September 19. Its art style and core mechanics both draw obvious inspiration from similar, years-old releases, with a narrative that constantly makes promises of answers over the horizon. Despite a dizzying opening determined to beat players over the head with a Wikipedia page’s worth of information on its fictional universe, Crying Suns eventually reveals itself to be a fairly competent strategy game with a few roguelike elements and a compelling story.
Crying Suns opens with the protagonist, Ellys Idaho, waking from hibernated sleep. Idaho, an automaton named Kaliban explains, is an admiral of the Imperial Fleet, sworn to defend the territory of the Empire’s deified ruler, Emperor Oberon. After a catastrophic event led to the death of Idaho and his entire crew, he has been “resurrected” by way of cloning. His memories have carried over, and they’ll continue to be transferred through hundreds of thousands of clones that have been created for just this purpose.
Players are given the chance to pick the Kaliban’s brain about the people, places, and concepts it’s mentioned. Emperor Oberon, it’s explained, is credited with inventing highly intelligent robots known as OMNIs (of which Kaliban is just one type) as well as Neo-N, the advanced compound that fuels everything from ships to Folders, structures that allow ships to travel wormhole-like through the universe over massive distances. Admiral Idaho must travel to the heart of Imperial territory to unravel the mystery of what happened to his original fleet and, eventually, why OMNIs have completely shut down, leaving civilization in a state of chaos.
Got all that? I took notes, personally.
It’s hard not to draw direct comparisons to 2012’s FTL: Faster Than Light, but Crying Suns does add enough novel layers to prevent it being a flat-out clone. The game hands over control to a huge battleship, which players must equip with officers and squadrons of fighter pilots. The officers are crucial, as they each come with their own unique set of skills. One, for instance, might give your fighters a little extra oomph in battle, while another ensures your battleship remains in one piece with constant healing. Still, the core loop of travel, deal with encounter, fight, avoid an enemy pursuing you on the star map, repeat echoes many of the same systems introduced in FTL, just with a more inventive narrative tying everything together.
Crying Suns revolves around three separate resources: fuel, scrap, and commandos. Fuel is necessary for continued exploration, and scrap acts as a sort of currency now that the Empire has gone to shit. Commandos allow players to transition from spacefaring missions to those on the surface of the various planets they discover. While you don’t control these expeditions directly, which officer you send to lead the commandos determines the amount of scrap you can hope to find and how many commandos might be lost to terrestrial perils. At certain points in these missions, the squad can tactically retreat if the losses are too great at the expense of leaving behind either all the scrap you collected up to that point or the commandos who have been injured. These soldiers are mostly faceless grunts that act as a currency all their own, but when I realized one was named Ian, I tried my hardest to ensure they all got home safely.
Because this is a roguelike, however, danger lurks around every corner. Space battles, which play out on a hexagonal grid between the two opposing battleships, start out rather tame but quickly ramp up in difficulty. Several systems need to be monitored during these skirmishes, including the squadrons being deployed, on-board weaponry, and hull strength. Officers play an important role in these battles, and they can be switched around to different positions on the battleship depending on where they’re most needed, as can fleets of fighter pilots and armaments. Strategy is derived from what objectives are prioritized. Do you hold your squadrons back in defense, waiting for the enemy to approach your battleship before engaging, or do you meet them in the middle of the map before pushing on to attack the opponent’s flagship? Some of the difficulty also comes from the chaos of battle, wherein tiny ships can often become lost and hard to direct, but the ability to pause the action and get your bearings is helpful in this regard.
The time I’ve spent with Crying Suns has been engaging. I love digging into world-building lore, and the random encounters show promise in the ways they allow players to approach situations like pirate ambushes, civilian disputes, and territorial posturing. But even with its unique spin on FTL-like mechanics, I’m not sure there will be enough novelty to hold my attention. Like Ellys Idaho and his series of clones, tasked with carrying the mantle of their predecessors, Crying Suns is a too-familiar memory of past adventures.
Borderlands 3 is almost certainly the game that you think it is. Six hours in, a lot of my feelings remain the same as they were when I first played Borderlands 3 at an extended preview last month. In a lot of ways it’s a time capsule, in some ways embarrassingly retrograde in its sensibilities, and in other ways confident that its central draw of shooting and looting always was and will continue to be enough. Because of how little the franchise has changed, the best way to know if Borderlands 3 is for you is to boot up one of the previous games in the series and see how well it works for you today.
Time is not a friend to the Borderlands games, which have largely remained stagnant as so-called loot shooters have proliferated around it. The novelty of a game that fused the steady dopamine rush of Diablo-style loot and light role-player character building with some decent shooting has now become common. You can get a similar experience with better shooting in Destiny2, or with a weirder backstory in Warframe. It’s like the difference between being excited about Chipotle coming to your small town and choosing to go to Chipotle in a big city. If that’s what you like, go for it—but has anyone told you about your options?
A significant point in Borderlands 3’s favor is its size: I’m still very early in this very long game, and while it doesn’t seem interested in a major shift from what came before, there’s plenty of room for little surprises. I’m curious to see what’s lurking in the margins, to dive more deeply into side quests now that I’ve spent some time diving ahead in the main campaign.
So far, the story is serviceable—you begin the game working for Lilith, the Siren from the very first Borderlands, and are drawn into conflict with the Calypso Twins, a couple of livestreamers with loud personalities and a penchant for snuff. The Calypsos have united all of the bandits of Pandora, and they’ve got designs on finding Vaults—in Borderlands lore, they’re hidden lairs rumored to be full of unimaginable loot, but in reality often come with a nasty surprise—on planets across the galaxy. So it’s up to you to chase them, because they very clearly won’t use whatever they find in a Vault for any good.
There are some concerning technical issues—on a Friday afternoon stream, I played co-op with video producer Paul Tamayo on an Xbox One X, and the game almost ground to a halt, the frame rate protesting as a second player dropped in for a split-screen local game. After a few minutes, it worked out just fine—until one of us opened our menu to change out loot or look at the map. Then, once again, the game began to chug, and negotiating firefights became far more difficult than it needed to be.
I should note that like many games enhanced for Xbox One X, you can choose to emphasize visual fidelity or frame rate, and I had chosen the former. Regardless, seamless couch co-op is a huge part of Borderlands 3’s appeal, and it should work without issue. I’ll be trying it some more in the coming week to see how consistent a problem this is.
It’s the biggest problem in a game with rough edges. Most are minor, like some mild texture pop-in or the occasional audio drop that makes your gun suddenly silent (which might irritate you more if you, like me, wish the shooting in Borderlands had more heft.) There was also one instance where a quest-giver completely disappeared mid-mission, barring me from continuing because they were supposed to open a door for me. Fortunately, Borderlands 3 is generous with its checkpoints, and re-starting my game fixed the problem, but I’m still a little wary.
Mostly, Borderlands 3 feels like a game that doesn’t have a whole lot to prove. It has piles of guns and a rude attitude and little people to shoot, because hey, isn’t that funny? In its first act, Borderlands 3 luxuriates in low expectations, resting in confidence that its core pleasure of sorting through endless piles of weird and improbable weaponry is enough to skate by. That and, if it works, the all-too-rare pleasure of having a solid shooter that you can play on the couch with someone else.
Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers launched in early access this morning, and as it is with every FFXIV expansion, players are of two minds. Half are flooding into the expansion’s new area, The First, eager to begin their journey as the Warrior of Darkness. I’m with the other half, a rolling horde of Gunblades and Dancers, rapidly levelling the expansion’s two new job roles before tackling the new lands.
After a couple of years as a Miqo’te (kitty person) Red Mage, my character, Clan Destine, is reborn once more. My first stop after launching Final Fantasy XIV this expansion morning was the city of Limsa Lominsa, the starting point for the quest to become a Dancer. Unable to handle the pressure and responsibility of tanking as a Gunblade, I opted to stick with my specialty—causing damage from afar. The Dancer is a job that mixes buffing party members with ranged combat using circular, Xena-esque throwing blades. Becoming a Dancer is as simple as watching a cutscene and saying yes to a revealing gold and maroon dress.
Along with two new jobs, Shadowbringers adds two new playable races to Final Fantasy XIV, the rabbit-like Viera and the powerful lion-like Hrothgar. Both races are gender-locked, meaning Viera can only be female and Hrothgar can only be male. This bothers me, but I spent the $10 in the Square Enix online store for a potion to change my race, and it would be a pity for it to go to waste.
Behold, my new bunny Dancer. Note the she isn’t wearing the hat she was before I changed her race. That’s because the two new races don’t have headgear modeled for them yet. Every other race in the game can wear whatever on their head, but it was too complicated to do all that for a pair of rabbit ears. That’s ridiculous. I mean, they could have at least made the hat for the new job fit, right? Bah.
Rather than starting over at level one, like some of the other classes, Dancer and Gunblades start at level 60. Unlocking a whole new job at such a high level is daunting. When playing a job from level one, players slowly unlock new abilities. New skills unlock gradually, giving players a much greater sense of how everything comes together than, say, dumping more than 20 fresh skills into a group of hotbars and letting them have at it.
From what I have figured out through playing a couple hours and running through a short tutorial battle, Dancer combat has two phases. First there’s the actual dancing. That starts by hitting the “Standard Step” skill. There are (initially) four additional dance skills that activate at random once the Standard Step is pressed. This mid-steps amplify the effects of the dance. The “Standard Finish” ability ends the dance, doing damage to the player’s enemies and a 60-second damage-increasing buff to the player and their chosen partner. A partner is a party member designated as the recipient of the Dancer’s buffs using a skill called “Closed Position.”
In between dances, which each have a 30-second cooldown, the Dancer uses combat skills to do damage from afar. There is a chain of combat skills for single opponents and one for groups of mobs. It seems pretty clear cut, but I might be missing some nuance. There are some utility skills I’ve not used yet, like a group shield and group buff, and there’s a nifty dash the Dancer can do to maneuver out of danger quickly. I need to get some more dungeon time in, but for now I’m cautiously pleased with my leaping lapin.
As I said, Dancers start at 60. The new story content for the expansion starts at level 70, leading players to the new level cap of 80. That means in order to enjoy the new content as one of the two new jobs, players have to grind 10 levels. The best way to do that looks like this.
Some of the fastest experience point gain in Final Fantasy XIV, outside of running random dungeons, is participating in FATEs (Full Active Time Events). These are special events that pop up across adventuring zones at regular intervals, requiring large groups of players to complete and rewarding large amounts of experience points. Players can form parties and travel from one FATE to the next.
In situations when a substantial fraction of the game’s player base finds themselves at level 60 needing to make to level 70 as fast as possible, the organized chaos is gorgeous. Enemies spawn in massive waves only to be rapidly wiped out in a hail of special effects. Pulling the camera back a bit reveals it’s not quite as hectic as it seems.
But where is the fun in that? Look how beautiful this mess gets.
That’s where I am as I embark on my Shadowbringers adventure. Or that’s where I was before I disconnected and tried to get back on and started getting lobby connection errors. I managed to make it halfway to level 62 in my rolling mob of Dancers and Gunblades. I’m sure it’ll still be there when I get back on.