Did you know there’s gonna be a new MediEvil game? Sony’s been showing it off at events, like the most recent State of Play livestream, but details have been a little scarce. A new limited time demo that came out today offers a sneak peek into the upcoming exclusive action-comedy game. The brief preview shows some of the game’s silly world and characters, but ultimately, it feels a little generic, at least so far.
The original MediEvil released in 1998 for the Sony PlayStation. It tells the story of Sir Daniel Fortesque, a skeleton knight brought back to life in order to fight an evil sorcerer named Zarok. Even though legends paint Daniel as a gallant hero, he’s a bit of a doofus, having died immediately to an arrow in the head during a battle against Zarok. Accidentally revived by one of Zarok’s necromancy spells a century later, he gambols off to defeat the sorcerer. It’s a silly set-up, and Daniel’s grinning antics making for a fun affair. You can yank off your arm to smack zombies in the face and solve rudimentary puzzles. It’s a bit more linear than the action and explorations games that would come after—Spyro, Jak and Daxter—but it’s cut from a similar cloth. The PlayStation 4 version is a remake, and a demo called the Short Lived Demo is currently on the PlayStation Store until October 7th.
Playing the demo earlier today, I found myself sucked into MediEvil’s zany world but underwhelmed by the actual playing. The demo contains the first level of the game, which provides an early sense of the pacing and action. In playing it, I found swords and throw daggers, traipsed about a graveyard picking up collectibles, and opened plenty of locked doors. MedIEvil is a straightforward game, almost entirely linear, except for some occasional branching pathways that soon lead back to the main area again. It feels like an arcade game, a step up from Ghosts and Goblins or Fester’s Quest. In that light, MediEvil as a fun blast from the past. In 2019, it’s got stiffer competition.
The demo lives up to the “short-lived” name, coming and going in about twenty minutes’ time without leaving much of an impression. MediEvil is silly in that way that older games were, with grainy cutscenes and broad voice acting. It’s also stiff and awkward to my modern eyes. I kept asking, “Why are we doing this, and why now?” The demo isn’t deep enough to answer that, although the original wasn’t that deep, either. Cartoony graphics and a classic feel brought a warm tingle of nostalgia, but MediEvil wasn’t all that exciting to play.
It’s neat to see an old classic back from the dead, but MediEvil feels a bit perfunctory. We’ve seen strong remakes in recent years such as Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap or the recent remake of Link’s Awakening that have their own unique flair and build upon the source material. That’s not the case here, at least based on this demo. While it might please fans who loved the original, MediEvil’s demo doesn’t suggest that the game is prepared to meet the challenge of reaching a new, broader audience. Hopefully, the full game will breathe a little more life into this idea.
I emerged from my three-hour The Last of Us Part II demo session tense and anxious, a coiled fire hose of pent-up adrenaline. I’d just piloted a now-19-year-old Ellie through peril after peril, amassing a grisly body count along the way. Few of those kills were clean. Many were desperate knife flurries, death by a thousand sinew-snapping stabs and cuts. Human enemies mourned their fallen comrades, bellowing their names at me with bestial fury while charging to the same pointy end. And yet, after I finished the demo, I walked into a nearby bathroom, stared into a mirror, and asked myself “Did it work? Do I care?”
Developer Naughty Dog wants The Last of Us Part II to be a lot of things. Where the first game was about the overriding, sometimes destructive power of love, Part II is about hate. Last time, we played as Joel—a more nuanced bearded man than your typical action game star, but an archetype nonetheless. This time, players will control Ellie, a young queer woman trying to find life in Last of Us’ zombie-infested world. It’s a story about being a teenage girl and becoming an adult, navigating a strained relationship with your father figure, and falling in love. But ultimately, as director Neil Druckmann said at a preview event in Los Angeles earlier this week, The Last of Us Part II is a revenge story. “How far would you go?” he asked ominously during a presentation before the hands-on session.
The demo’s first section took place early in the game, with Ellie and new character Dina—who shared the most natural-looking kiss in video game history during a 2018 E3 trailer—riding on horseback through a snowy landscape, doing patrol duty for their Jackson, Wyoming settlement. For the first 15 minutes or so, the two chatted (and bantered) back and forth about plans, people they knew, and relationships while checking in at a station and scavenging some abandoned houses. The tone was light and flirty. At one point, Dina asked Ellie what she was planning to do that night, clearly angling for something. Ellie said she was thinking about watching a movie with Joel, which drew a surprised reaction from Dina. “Oh,” Dina said. “Are you two… cool?” Joel did, after all, basically sacrifice humanity’s future to save Ellie at the end of the first The Last of Us—though it’s unclear whether Ellie knows that or not. The tension quickly dissipated, however, when Dina asked what kinds of movies Ellie and Joel liked to watch. Joel is big into cheesy martial arts flicks, it turns out. But even this conversation was tinged with melancholy, as Ellie pondered if, somewhere out there among all the desolation, there were people still making movies.
Ellie and Dina came across a hollowed-out mess of a moose corpse that had doubtless been peeled to the bone by zombie-like creatures, called Infected. From there, the level transitioned into a pretty traditional Infected-centric level that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the firstgame. As Ellie, I had to stealth through a series of increasingly Infected-overrun offices and warehouses en route to an abandoned supermarket. This section served largely as a tutorial, reinforcing the first game’s conventional wisdom that while you can open fire on Infected and pray that you emerge from the ensuing fray with all the meat still attached to your clavicles, it’s a better idea not to. Instead, I crouched down and used the “listen” ability, which makes a return from the first game, to “hear” (read: see an outline of) where enemies were. Then I had Ellie creep up on fast, relatively weak Runner Infected and blind but much more powerful Clicker Infected and quietly and methodically carve their necks open. Dina, when she could do so without alerting other Infected, followed suit.
The Last of Us Part II is a sound design tour de force. Clickers screeched, wailed, and of course, clicked with characteristic inhumanity, lacing even sure shot stealth kills with dread right up until the moment I finally did the deed. But it’s not like successfully ending the walking embodiments of “What if athlete’s foot, but too much” felt much better. Any time I shoved my shiv into Infected, metal scraped against wet flesh and bone while the Infected flailed and wailed, their death gurgles so piercing that it was as though they were screaming in my ear. I was never sure if other Infected had heard, and thi kind of tension is baked into every element of the sound design. Even breaking the glass on a vending machine to grab a candy bar led to a shattering sound that nearly made me jump out of my seat, even whenI was certain there were no surviving Injected to hear the sound and come running.
The section also introduced me to the game’s expanded crafting and customization systems. This time around, you can find supplements—pills, basically—and spend them on ability upgrades spread across three trees. Abilities included increased listen mode movement speed, increased throw distance, increased health kit usage speed, and, toward the top of the stealth-focused tree, craftable silencers that could be applied to guns and improved. Part II also contains an expanded crafting system that lets you create various attachments and improvements for guns. Like in the first game, you collect scrap to purchase these upgrades. As someone who prefers to strike from a distance, I saved up until I could snap a scope on my hunting rifle to give me more distance from my Infected targets. The scope, of course, was no insurance against Infected near me hearing the sound, but it gave me a small, if false, sense of safety. While there’s nothing like headshotting one Infected from two hundred feet away, I am resolutely not a fan of being eaten by the three other nearby Infected that react to gunshot sounds like Pavlov’s dog does to bells
With their supermarket cleanup complete, Ellie and Dina decided they were done with patrolling for the day and wanted to head back to the settlement. Unfortunately, a blinding snowstorm picked up, and the two got separated. Just when it seemed like all hope was lost, Dina emerged and led Ellie into what appeared to be an abandoned daycare. Before long, the two discovered that it was once the secret hideaway of their now-deceased friend Eugene, who’d had the good fortune to die of old age—a rarity in The Last of Us’ world. As I explored and read through notes and other belongings Eugene had left behind, Ellie and Dina learned more and more about a man they only thought they’d known.
Halley Gross, Part II’s head writer alongside Druckmann, said the goal of the game’s worldbuilding is to enrich characters and, in some cases, fully explore characters the player never actually meets. “You never meet this man, but by the end of this level, you’ve learned he’s got a grow house, he likes to smoke some weed, he used to be a Firefly [the series’ militia], was involved in some terrorism, left his family, and left his kid to go pursue this mission he thought was bigger and greater than the individual,” said Gross.
The level ended with Ellie and Dina discovering Eugene’s secret underground weed den, left to fall into disrepair after his passing. It was a surprising moment, sprinkled with levity. I came across a gas mask (crucial for avoiding infection) with a bong attached. “God,” quipped Dina, “Eugene was so smart.”
After rummaging around, Ellie and Dina settled on a couch and—with nothing better to do while waiting for the storm to pass—lit up. Dina then worked up the courage to ask Ellie a question. “So, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate our kiss last night?” she asked. While asking this question, Dina bit her lip and moved her eyes furtively. It was far and away some of the most detailed digital acting I’ve seen. When Ellie mumbled out a non-response, Dina continued: “I’d give it a six. A solid six.”
“You’re infuriating,” said Ellie.
“Have you met you?” replied Dina.
Then they made out, of course. The first portion of the demo closed on this moment, a heartwarming end to a series of harrowing scares. The whole scene left a smile on my face. It was a rare moment of authentic warmth in a big-budget action game. It was easy to imagine from there how this relationship, with its believable tender moments, might play out. The two would banter, bicker, fight, and make up. It’d become a running (though playful) joke between their friends. They’d explore together. Watch movies together. Ellie would eventually find the courage to play music—original music, even—for Dina. Maybe they’d stay together. Maybe they’d break up and go their separate ways. Young love is fickle like that.
But The Last of Us Part II is a revenge story. It is about hate, not young love.
Naughty Dog will not say if Dina dies at this point, though the studio has heavily implied it multiple times by depicting intimate scenes between Ellie and Dina followed immediately by a solo Ellie performing shockingly realistic acts of violence against humans from opposing factions. In the game’s first trailer, she said she’d “Kill every last one of them,” and in subsequent trailers as well as the demo I played, she seems to be making good on her promise. She is taking revenge for something. Do other humans kill Dina? Or is this Naughty Dog setting up an almost too-obvious bait and switch? For now, it’s impossible to say.
What I do know is that the second half of the demo found Ellie all alone. It took place later in the game. Ellie was in the overgrown, eternally-overcast ruins of Seattle, Washington, surrounded by derelict salons, tattoo parlors, and coffee shops. She was looking for Tommy, a returning character from the first The Last of Us, who was seemingly in conflict with a local faction, the xenophobic Washington Liberation Front.
Seattle, perhaps even more so than the Wyoming location in the first portion of the demo, was dense with detail. Stores were littered with notes and other items. I could explore at my leisure, though I was always ultimately be funneled down a set, linear path. It wasn’t long before I ran into members of the WLF, who were not at all happy to see me. Fortunately, I had new stealth options on my side. The area was overrun with tall grass, in which I could go prone and crawl around. This rendered me almost invisible, allowing me to set up some gnarly, knife-y ambushes. But I could never just chill and take in the scenery. Most of the WLF members had dogs, and these dogs could track my scent. Usefully, going into listen mode allowed me to see that scent, so I could at least know what I was dealing with.
I struggled to acclimate to this system, dying often. Initially, I tried to play this section like I would any other stealth game, figuring out patrols and then closing in for the kill. As I moved in, however, a dog would sniff me out or start barking. This would alert or attract enemies, and I’d charge them in a panic, plunging my knife into any available body part. It was chaos. Each slash produced rivulets of blood and stringy hunks of flesh. Dogs barked. Both Ellie and my opponents grunted and yelped in anguish and exertion. I’d win one of these desperate melees, drop into the grass, and apply a health kit. Ellie would groan, as though bringing herself back from the brink took a little more out of her each time. It was not pretty.
When another enemy discovered a body I’d left behind, they’d shout in alarm and, more pointedly, grief. Usually, they’d say the person’s name. They all have names. In one of the most surprising moments of the demo, I quietly dispatched somebody while their dog was distracted. Upon noticing, the dog proceeded to nudge their person’s arm, then pull on it, and then mournfully whimper. Later, I half-jokingly asked Gross what Naughty Dog has against dogs, given that I’d just killed a bunch of them and given even more traumatic separation anxiety. She replied that the goal throughout all of this violence and strife is to humanize the people Ellie is facing off against. It’s part of an effort to explore real-world issues like tribalism.
“I think when you have any sort of close-knit tribe, you have this danger of becoming tribal. This idea of the other,” said Gross. “So we have these enemies where, you see one of the dogs clawing for its owner, or one of the fallen soldiers calls out his name. So much of what we’re trying to do is create empathy for the other. We make this enemy, and then how do we make you feel for them? So much of this game is about developing an understanding of where other people are coming from… We want to put you in a situation where you have to make hard choices. You didn’t have to kill any of them. None of them are mandatory to get through that level. So it’s a question of ‘How much is it worth’ to kill them?”
I probably would’ve been better off if I hadn’t killed any of them—at least, from a resource management perspective. But these people and animals were obstacles on my path toward standard video game goals, and before long, I was treating them like any other video game enemies. I killed some and spared others. When I killed enemies and nobody noticed, it felt good. Great, even. The level had a fantastic sense of forward motion to it, with Ellie scrambling through houses and leaping out half-rotten window frames, all as part of a larger downhill slope toward Tommy’s location. Enemies were everywhere, and their dogs would find me if I stayed in one spot for too long. I had to be stealthy, but I also had to move. I felt tense and alarmed when I got spotted, though not out of any feeling for my enemies. Rather, I was in danger and didn’t want to have to open the menu and choose the “reload checkpoint” option again if I screwed up so badly that the run was unsalvageable.
I won a bow and arrow from a thrilling close-range fight against a special Infected. The bow is a silent, long-range, exceedingly deadly weapon. I laid in the grass and picked my shots. Nobody could touch me. Heck, most of them couldn’t even find me. I don’t remember any of their names.
I began to wonder if enemies shouting names and dogs mourning their owners was less a humanizing element and more a tool of only briefly effective emotional manipulation. In response to this, Gross said that there’ll be more nuance to depictions of enemy characters in the final game.
“What we’re trying to do is create a holistic approach to empathy,” she said. “So “there’s the NPCs that you meet very briefly, but even in that moment we’re naming them. We’re also occasionally giving them human conversations. As you traverse by, you’ll overhear their conversations about things back home, their fuller lives. But also we have these enemies that Ellie is hunting, and as with all characters in the Last of Us universe, we’re trying to make everybody as multifaceted as possible and everybody as diverse as possible so that we can try and create challenges for empathy and then reach out toward them.”
The demo ended with Ellie dropping down into another portion of the level, only for some mysterious pair of meaty dad arms to pull her aside. At first, she struggled. Then she turned around and asked “What are you doing here?” It was Joel. “I couldn’t let you do this on your own,” he replied. That was it. Demo over.
That was when I stood up, walked over to the nearby bathroom, and took stock of everything I’d experienced. I was still full of adrenaline from all the close shaves, melee throwdowns, and dog murders. The Last of Us Part II is shaping up to be a very exciting stealth-action game. Its mechanical additions to the first game’s formula are smart; the studio isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather to further emphasize what made the original stand out and give players a little more wiggle room in terms of choice.
But those brief moments of Ellie and Dina awkwardly fumbling through the early goings of a relationship were what stuck with me more than the usual Video Game Emotions of tension, anxiety, anger, relief, exhilaration, and “Oh no, I killed a dog.” I wanted to see more of that story, more of love finding a way to survive and even thrive in a dying world. But this is a story about revenge, and so, I found it hard not to hearken back to Heather Alexandra’s 2018 piece about how queer characters in video games rarely get to be happy and how their backstories often center around tragically deceased partners. The Last of Us, it should be noted, has already done this on a couple occasions, with multiple characters. This includes Ellie in the first game’s prequel Left Behind DLC.
Again, I do not know if Dina will die. Maybe she’ll instead betray Ellie and everybody else at the Wyoming settlement. Or maybe Ellie will go on a revenge quest for reasons entirely unrelated to Dina. But it seems clear that Ellie ends up very unhappy. Gross said that there’s a very deliberate purpose to putting Ellie into this kind of narrative. She believes that Part II is not just another post-apocalyptic story about characters being sad, another member of a very crowded club. It’s a story that she hopes will reflect on the real world in unique ways and give people something positive to hang onto during times of strife, xenophobia, and hate.
“What I want to be feeling is resilience,” she said. “We do live in a difficult time, and Ellie lives in an incredibly difficult time, an incredibly hostile world. I want to feel inspired. I want to feel inspired by a character that is going to get knocked down and is going to pick herself back up, because that’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to feel when I go out the door every day to engage with how hard things can be right now.”
I asked her if she feels like the game is deliberately political in that respect. She replied that it depends on your definition of the word. “We are 100 percent trying to engage with the world around us,” she said. “Our games are super diverse, and that’s because we want to reflect the world we see around us. Our games are about strong people dealing with hard times. So many of our characters are about like ‘Is it OK to be strong and to be vulnerable? Is it OK to make mistakes and pick yourself back up?’ So if that’s defined as political, then fuck yeah we’re political.”
Ultimately, Gross’ goal is to do right by Ellie’s character and write somebody that she and others can relate to through good times and bad.
“I love seeing more women protagonists,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice when those female protagonists are impervious, when they’re too strong. I can’t relate to them. What Ellie did [in the first The Last of Us] is show me this vulnerable, scrappy girl who’s having an incredibly hard life, but who’s incredibly great—who picks herself back up and is willing to go the extra mile for people that she loves. To me, that’s the humanity of her. That’s what makes her so relatable. And that is something I really wanted to honor.”
Sony’s Nintendo Direct-style State Of Play livestream series returned today, with a deep look at The Last of Us II as well as short updates about other games coming to PlayStation, including Civilization 6. Here’s a rundown of the news.
The Last Of Us Part II will be released on February 21, 2020.
A demo of the upcoming remake of the PlayStation 1 game MediEvil is available today. You can get a special item in the full game by playing the demo. Full game’s out next month.
A limited-edition Death Stranding PS4 Pro bundle is coming on November 8 with a cool dripping-handprint design.
Enhance Games and Tha Ltd. are making an intriguing-looking game called Humanity, coming 2020.
Wattam, the next game from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, will be released in December.
Arise: A Simple Story, a charming cartoon action adventure game, is “coming soon” to PlayStation 4.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is available now for PlayStation VR. A PSVR sizzle reel showed clips of upcoming games. Espire 1, Stardust Odyssey, After The Fall, and Space Channel 5 Kinda Funky News Flash.
Civilization 6 is coming to PS4 on November 22.
October’s PlayStation Plus lineup will include MLB The Show 19 and The Last of Us Remastered.
Correction 5:05 p.m. ET: The original version of this story read “Civilization 4;” this has been corrected. Kotaku regrets the error.
In The Surge 2’s worst moments, when too many enemies clutter too small hallways, it is a slog. But in other moments, everything falls into place, and it suddenly becomes one of the most addictive games I’ve played all year. The Surge 2 has absurd highs and damning lows, creating an inconsistent experience that I nonetheless can’t put down.
I played The Surge when it came out in 2017 and walked away disappointed. The bones of the game were strong, but shaky level design and clunky bosses made it difficult to enjoy. I wanted to enjoy the fun of its dismemberment-focused combat system, and its irreverent undercurrent of anti-capitalist sentiment had promise as well, but The Surge’s best parts were often outweighed by incredibly frustrating design.
That same duality has carried over to The Surge 2. That said, it is a marked improvement over the first game. Combat is faster, weapons are more varied, and a semi-open world design that evokes a more intricate world than its predecessor. The Surge 2 is a damn fine game on paper, and when everything works, it’s a great one to play. Unfortunately, half the time it breaks apart due to glitches or level designs that are too clever by half.
If you’re rusty on your Surge lore, that won’t matter. All you really need to know heading into this game is that the first game focused on a strange nanotechnological outbreak at a corporate facility run by schmoozy Silicon Valley types. By the end, the nano-plague had gained sentience and fired off a rocket into the atmosphere to spread itself around the world. The Surge 2 starts with you playing as a passenger on an airplane flight that crashes when rocket explodes. You wake up in Jericho City, ground zero of a new outbreak that has plunged the populace into anarchy. You slap on a mechanical exoskeleton and set out to escape the city, dealing with tough bosses and warring factions all the while.
The Surge 2 soars thanks to its combat, a tense affair in which you can target individual limbs on enemies to weaken them. Smash up an individual limb for long enough and you can perform a finishing move that kills the enemy and chops off the limb. (You can also bash them until their health is depleted.) This targeting system can be used on specific weak points—for instance, an enemy without a protective helmet—but what you really want to do with it is target the enemy’s armor. Whenever you slice off an armor piece, you unlock the schematic for it. Dicing your foes into pieces means that you’ll gain the ability to craft all sorts of armors. You can also collect their weapons. This introduces an interesting risk versus reward element to combat. Do I go for the weak point and get the easy kill, or do I methodically target the armor I want?
Like its predecessor, The Surge 2 is packed with enemies who hit like a truck. Even the lightest blows can easily melt your health bar. It’s possible to regain charge for a health-recovery injectable by landing hits on enemies, which provides a little Bloodborne-esque incentive to keep attacking. Every moment in combat is risky, but it is always exciting. The addition of a parry system brings complexity, even though it’s never quite as satisfying as it should be. The animation lacks weight and the timing window is lazy thing. When it connects, it’s a coin flip if the enemy is staggered or somehow easily recovers to smack you in the face. Still, The Surge 2’s combat is largely fantastic and some of the best melee fighting I’ve played.
Combat feels best in one-on-one scenarios, but The Surge 2 likes to populate its winding levels with numerous enemies. Fighting multiple opponents strains the combat systems to the breaking point. This is a game made for locking on to enemies, be it to target limbs or to carefully parry attacks. Turn the corner into an alleyway with three speedy enemies and an asshole with a machine gun, and that’ll undermine everything. Games like Dark Souls reward players for fighting without the tunnel vision of locking on, but The Surge 2 is built around that. As a result, some fights devolve into fracasses that are comedic when they’re not frustrating.
This is compounded by another major flaw: claustrophobic levels. While there are more open areas to fight in The Surge 2 than in the first game, there are still plenty of places with too many enemies and too little space to fight them effectively. The Surge2’s level design is overenthusiastic, packing areas with enemies in a seeming attempt to increase difficulty. It’s a disappointment to have to slog through areas like this, and one that takes away from how damn good everything else is.
In the best cases, The Surge 2’s world design is incredibly clever. Areas tend to have one medical station that players can use to upgrade their stats and gear. As you explore, you find numerous loops and shortcuts back to this location until there are multiple paths that spread out from the center like a starfish’s arms. Finding these shortcuts is gratifying, creating comfortable “aha!” moments and using the world’s limited size wisely. The Surge was more linear, with more checkpoints and a sense of forward momentum. The Surge 2 has more of a Metroid sensibility in that finding new upgrades unlocks more and more portions of an area. Each of this game’s levels are separated by a main hub where you can explore and even complete side quests for additional rewards. The Surge 2’s hub, Jericho City, is pretty generic in appearance. It’s just some run-down city and I’ve seen that in plenty of games. Still, there’s enough variety and well-designed backtracking in the layout of the game’s map that it’s never a chore to traverse. That might involve opening secret passages into the sewers, or using your drone’s electrical ability to open short-circuited doors that lead to decadent neon-lit clubs. There’s plenty to explore.
Lost in The Surge 2’s shift to Jericho City is The Surge’s acerbic outlook towards capitalism and consumption. The first game was focused on lampooning corporations and crafting a gameplay loop that tied into its themes. Your protagonist, the generic bro Warren, joins the CREO company on the promise that their mechanical rigs will allow him to walk again. That initial tantalizing promise plunges him into a fight where he literally has to carve up fellow workers, take their goods, and continue in a bloody and senseless tragedy brought about by a detached board of directors. The Surge 2 occasionally finds time to explore these ideas through its various factions, but mostly it just feels like a generic sci-fi nanotech romp. It’s a much more superficial game in terms of its overarching themes, even if it is an overall better experience to play.
There are still other problems. The Surge 2 is not the prettiest game to look at. I’m playing on the PlayStation 4 Pro, and I’ve seen a ton of aliasing and textures that refuse to load. That’s not the end of the world, but there are also glitches that get in the way as well. These glitches can be as small as mismatched dismemberment animations to enemies getting stuck in walls. The Surge 2 is undeniably ambitious, and down to the very tech, it seems a little out of its league.
As I wrote these impressions, though, I came to a realization. I really like The Surge 2. It was like realizing that you have a crush on someone you previously couldn’t stand. There’s so much to dislike here, from swarming enemies and boring boss fights to glitches galore. And yet, I’m hooked. The Surge 2 might not be a polished gem, but unlike its predecessor, the good outweighs the flaws. It might frustrate from time to time, but that’s fine. When it lands its punches, they’re knockouts.
Take a bag of potato chips—any brand, anywhere—and you more or less know what you’re going to get. Crispy, greasy salt and oil delivered via thin layers of starch, they make a mess of crumbs and grease, and they’re terribly delicious, extremely difficult to stop eating once you’ve caved into the first, and likely to cause a carbohydrate crash and a sense of regret. Potato chips are great and awful and we all know what we’re getting into when we open a bag.
So how would you review one? Do you tell people chips are awful for their health and break down why? Do you get into the ethical practices of various potato chip companies, perhaps? Or do you go all-in on the other end of the spectrum, singing the praises of the perfect snack food, one that isn’t as impressive as other snack foods but also isn’t trying to be gourmet cuisine? I mean, sure, gourmet chips exist, but we all know it’s the snack of the people.
Borderlands 3, Gearbox Software’s return to their most popular franchise, is a bag of potato chips. It’s the series that popularized the loot shooter genre, marrying first-person gunplay with Diablo-style loot and skill trees. You collect gun after gun with the same mindless, dopamine-pumping pleasure of popping chip after chip in your mouth. It is awful and wonderful and also white noise, an experience so commonplace and reptilian that you wouldn’t call it the best gaming experience you’ve ever had, but you’d be down for it if someone put it out in a bowl.
Much like a bowl of chips, it also leaves a hell of a mess when the party’s finally over.
The story in Borderlands 3 is the same as it’s always been in Borderlands. Once again, you’re a vault hunter, a mercenary/fortune seeker who shoots their way across the bandit-ridden wastelands of the planet Pandora. The hope is that, in all this shooting, you will find your way to a Vault, an ancient repository of rumored riches. (And, usually, there’s a big nasty being in that Vault, watching over it all.) This time around, you’re answering a call from Lilith, one of the hunters from the first Borderlands who has since become commander of the Crimson Raiders militia that fights to protect civilians from bandit hordes and corporate overreach (corporations have armies in Borderlands). Also, of course, they want to loot those sweet, sweet vaults. They’re the good guys, kind of.
Nipping at your heels are the game’s antagonists, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, twin siblings who have united all the bandits of Pandora under their cult of personality. They’ve also figured out that there are other Vaults on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Your mission: Get to those vaults before they do.
As the Vault Hunter hero of this game, you get to choose between four characters, each with their own impressively elaborate skill trees filled with different kinds of abilities to level up. There’s Zane, the Operative who controls the battlefield with drones, clones, and barriers. Moze, the Gunner, can summon a giant mech to pilot and outfit that mech with different cool weapons and upgrades. Amara, the Siren, can deal elemental damage by conjuring magical arms. And FL4K, the robot Beastmaster, has tamed a number of wild creatures who fight alongside them. It’s a lot to dig into, and like the first several potato chips in the bowl, it’s absolutely delicious at first.
Too Many Guns, But In A Fun Way
Unlike the tactical realism of a Ghost Recon, or Destiny’s system of arcane perks that only serve to make their sci-fi creations better at shooting, Borderlands’ guns are toys. They’re garish in shape and color, digital creations that exist to solve digital problems. It’s the best.
Borderlands’ approach both side-steps and doubles down on the gun fetishism that comes part and parcel in video games about shooting by making it all one big crass joke: wouldn’t it be cool to have an arsenal of impressive and interchangeable dicks that could also file your taxes?
Finding a good Borderlands gun feels like cheating, like you found an endgame weapon 20 hours too early. My first legendary sniper rifle was an absolute beast of a weapon that fired three incendiary projectiles at once but only consumed one bullet at a time. I got it at the end of the game’s first act, and it remained a staple of my firefights right up through the credits.
This is the high that Borderlands offers, and it feels great, but like any high, it cannot last. The experience of playing Borderlands often devolves into a hunt for the next fix, and the longer it takes to get that fix, the more time you have to resent the game for not giving it to you. When you’ve tasted the high of an unexpectedly power-packed weapon, trying out more of the “normal” guns makes you feel kind of like a scrub, you know?
Granted, “normal” in Borderlands 3 is still pretty wild. When you have guns that turn into homing grenades, or crawling drone turrets, or bouncing balls that yelp “ow” every time they ricochet off a surface, you’d have to work very hard to have a boring firefight.
The game is built to encourage an endless search for the perfect loadout. What if I’m missing out on the coolest gun I’ve ever seen in a video game? I won’t know until I find it, so I have to keep playing. But am I actually enjoying this? Or just chasing the high? It’s hard to say.
Tucked away into the corners of Borderlands 3, I do find a lot to like. Its generous approach to sidequests, for example, rewards players with items but also with bespoke little stories. There are whole regions of several maps that you’ll only ever go to if you’re pursuing a sidequest. They’re like optional dungeons, there for those who want to do them, each offering something new to see along with a chance for more loot.
Borderlands3’s soundtrack, which rarely makes itself known, has the benefit of offering occasional moments of delight when you stop to notice it. Like Borderlands itself, it can occasionally blast up into garish and annoying territory, but more often than not, it’s a hidden gem, there for the finding. After I got clobbered by a giant sphere drone and tried to re-evaluate my loadout, I happened to notice a throwback club groove that sounds a lot like the chorus to Kiesza’s “Hideaway,” with a touch of the sax-and-dance vibe at the end of Japanese Breakfast’s “Machinist.” Over on the swamp-world of Eden-6, I paused to take in a bit of ambient music that sounds like a Kate Bush synth cover.
These are little grace notes that show some personality in areas where other huge games might phone it in. There are some musical ideas I’d love to groove to there, but the game quickly moves on to other ones, like the (admittedly pretty good) running joke about a fictional modern jazz act.
The Borderlands Tone
Borderlands 3 is marketed as a comedy, but I’m not sure that’s what it truly wants to be. It’s irreverent, sure. There’s a very South Park-esque “everyone sucks” vibe to the game’s comedic beats. It’s just that the target of every joke is too lazy or too late. There’s a scene making fun of hipster baristas, a character who’s supposed to be a version of The Room writer/director/weirdo Tommy Wiseau, and an achievement list with titles like “On Fleek.”
Even less flattering are the game’s many comedic asides that make light of casual misogyny even as they exhibit an awareness of it. There’s the man who purposefully misstates “bitch” instead of “witch” when referring to a villain who’s an actual swamp witch. Another character, after saying something that could be interpreted as sexual harassment, notes that he “definitely attended that meeting.”
It remains baffling and infuriating that the game continues to treat dwarfism as fodder for slapstick comedy, even though it has ditched an offensive term for little people that previous games used, replacing it with the made-up term “tinks.” Or that, despite this being an issue raised about a character in Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 has a white character appropriating African American Vernacular English. Or that this game prominently features Chris Hardwick reprising his Tales From The Borderlands role of Vaughn despite public allegations of emotional abuse (not all of the other returning characters have their original voice actors back).
While this is the garish shade with which Borderlands 3 colors itself, the game’s overarching narrative is more interested in telling a sincere story that feels like a last hurrah for the cast of characters that has slowly developed over the past four Borderlands games. (And yes, Tales From The Borderlands is part of this farewell tour.) Borderlands3 is casually and quietly inclusive, making it clear that a number of its heroes and villains are queer or nonbinary while also not calling too much attention to it. It’s a story in which the heroes are mostly women—women who lead and sacrifice and disagree and win. There are jokes, but the story delivers its stakes with a straight face, and bets that players will be delighted at which characters will turn, and who they will miss.
The bummer is that, much like its comedy, the drama of Borderlands 3 doesn’t really have a target it’s willing to show teeth to. “Corporations” in the abstract sense have always been the overarching villain in Borderlands games, but they’ve also been a target that Borderlands has always stood up to with the weakest of knees. It is hard, after all, to make clean hits at massive companies for trampling people underfoot in an amoral quest for profit when the heart of your game is wholly dedicated to selfish plunder.
The specific antagonists of Borderlands 3, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, also feel like missed opportunities. By making them shock-jock streamers who have amassed a cult following among the bandits of Pandora, Borderlands 3 gestures at the kind of unchecked influence YouTubers and livestreamers can have in our current media landscape, and how viral fame can also destroy those who it elevates. The bones of something compelling are there, but Borderlands 3 lacks any of the conviction necessary to deliver on it. Its themes are as poorly developed as its sense of humor.
It’s Still The Best At What It Does
Despite the proliferation of games like Borderlands in the burgeoning loot shooter genre, there still isn’t a big-budget game that does exactly what it does. It’s a massive offline Diablo-style first-person shooting game that can be joined at any point with friends, either online or on the couch. All of its serious competition—be it Destiny 2 or Warframe or The Division 2—come with a pretty big deviation, namely a required internet connection.
While the broad strokes remain the same, Borderlands 3 is a better Borderlands game than we’ve ever seen, notably in the way that it opens up the endgame. There’s the prerequisite new game plus that lets you keep your loot and skills to take on the story again, just harder and with better loot.
There’s also the new Mayhem mode, which allows you to go back into the world after the end of the campaign and clean up any side quests you have left, with stronger enemies and random modifiers that will buff certain weapons or enemy health, or debuff your stats. Maybe energy weapon damage is boosted while regular weapon damage is dialed back. Maybe your guns do more damage while your action skills do less. There are three tiers of Mayhem, each offering better loot in exchange for steeper modifiers. It’s a terrific feature that makes going back and cleaning up leftover side quests—which, as mentioned, are substantial—feel so much more rewarding.
Unfortunately, on a technical level, Borderlands 3 is surprisingly bad at one of its core features: inventory management. I’m not merely referring to the interface, although it is a bit too cluttered and throws so many numbers at you that your eyes will glaze over after several hours of comparing loot. The bigger issue is performance. On Xbox One X, the inventory screen stutters almost without fail. Sometimes there’s a barely perceptible lag, and other times it takes a full three to five seconds for your guns to load in.
This may sound like a minor quibble, but it’s a problem that’s magnified when you play in split-screen. The rest of co-op play works well enough, although the same technical issues that you may encounter in solo play, like lighting that doesn’t properly adjust when you go from indoor to outdoor environments, will persist. The real issue is the whole game grinds to a stop whenever one player opens up their inventory screen.
I don’t mean the game pauses when one player pauses. (The game only pauses in co-op when both players pause, which is a very nice feature.) I mean the frame rate drops to the damn floor and no one can move for a couple seconds once someone opens their inventory. Given how much of the game is devoted to inventory management, it’s enough to make you want to tap out after a single co-op mission.
I don’t know how vital couch co-op is to the Borderlands community as a whole, but it is one of the reasons why I’ve always kept a Borderlands game within reach. It’s one of the last holdouts in the big-budget shooter space that has held on to split-screen co-op in a world where it’s largely gone extinct (Gears 5 is another.). To me, it’s part of the reason I even bother with Borderlands.
So, How About Those Chips?
When a video game franchise has been around long enough, it establishes an identity in the public consciousness. That identity can become a defense against criticism. What did I expect, for a Borderlands game to not be Borderlands, with all the good and bad that comes with that?
Borderlands 3 has what its predecessors had: the corny humor that doesn’t always land, an unremarkable story, and an endless loop of replacing your loadout with a slightly improved loadout. It’s a relatively static experience in a franchise that hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last ten years. It is what Borderlands has always been, and everyone knows what that entails.
There’s room for it in your life, just like there’s room for a bag of potato chips in your pantry. They’re great for parties, or carb emergencies. They’re also unfulfilling, and don’t contribute much to your health. We call it junk food for a reason.
Like junk food, Borderlands 3 is an exercise in cheap hedonism. It’s not meant to take the place of a meal, but it still warrants criticism for being what it is, what it’s always been: a compulsively playable shooter with some good ideas and also some frustratingly retrograde attitudes. There’s enough good here to understand why you’d keep it around, but also enough troubling aspects that you could justify cutting it from your life entirely. But, even then, if you came across it at a house party, you’d probably take a bite.
This week, the charming role-playing game Ni no Kuni will come to three new platforms. On two of those platforms it’ll be all fancy and remastered, and on the third it’ll be portable. Here’s everything you need to know about this new release.
What’s a “Ni no Kuni”?
Good question. Ni no Kuni is a gorgeous JRPG made by developer Level-5 in conjunction with the iconic anime house Studio Ghibli. It came to North America in 2013 for PlayStation 3, and I loved it to death. The story is cute, the production values are top-notch, and the game is full of charming flourishes that make it all flow very nicely, although the combat can feel a little tedious at times.
And there’s a remaster out this week?
Yep, Ni no Kuni Remastered Edition comes out Friday for PS4 and PC. This remastered version doesn’t add anything new to the game but does promise enhanced graphics—1080p and 60 frames per second on a normal PS4, with options for 4K/30fps or 1440p/60fps on PS4 Pro. It also includes all the DLC from the PS3 version.
How does it run?
Not bad. I’ve played about 30 minutes of the PS4 version (on a normal PS4) and it seems to run at 60fps as promised, although there’s some stuttering when you rotate the camera while on the world map. It’s also a little jarring when the game switches to anime cutscenes that play at 30fps.
Cool! Can’t wait to play it on Switch.
Cool! But hold on. The Switch version is actually not the remastered one. It’s just a port of the PS3 version of Ni no Kuni, at 720p resolution and 30 frames per second. (It also includes all the DLC.)
Oh. Well, how does it run on Switch?
Kotaku editor Natalie Degraffinried has played for an hour and says she’s run into no problems so far.
What’s up with the sequel? Didn’t that also come out recently?
Yep! Ni no Kuni II came to PC and PS4 in 2018. I liked it a lot. It’s got better combat than the first game, although it’s wayyyy too easy. No word on a Switch version just yet.
Usually, video game romances are about hot and heavy beginnings or fiery ends. Even visual novels often focus on the new and novel, rather than relationships that are doing their best to withstand the test of time. Haven, set to release next year,is different. It’s a game about a long-term relationship—ups, downs, squabbles, awkward moments, and all.
It’s a change of pace for French studio The Game Bakers, which previously made tough-as-nails boss battler Furi. Speaking to Kotaku at PAX West last week, executive producer Audrey Leprince jokingly described Haven as an exceedingly French game, given that it revolves around “talking, drinking wine, and kissing.” Its story centers around Yu and Kay, a couple that has escaped from their home world for mysterious reasons and arrived on a seemingly human-free planet. There, they explore, scavenge, study the local wildlife, cook, chill, and just generally try to live their lives. It’s about as far from Furi’s furious boss rushes as you can get.
“We did Furi, and it was the complete opposite experience,” said Leprince. “It was intense, challenging, and skill based. We didn’t want to do a Furi 2 because you can only surprise players once. If we did another, it would be good, but less memorable. We also wanted to a love story for a very long time, so we decided to work on this love story about a relationship—a couple that is already together. It’s not dramatic, it’s not the beginning, it’s not the end, it’s not vengeance, or any of those classic things. It’s just a couple who are happy together. We wanted to give players a moment of peace and relaxation between Furi and Persona 5 or some other game that is very long and demanding.”
Of course, extreme isolation will do a number on even the most attached-at-the-hip couple’s tolerance for each others’ quirks, and Haven intends to explore that, as well. In the demo I played, Yu and Kay started out on their ship, the Nest, where an initially steamy moment was interrupted by a sudden power outage, which quickly led the couple into an argument about who was supposed to charge up the ship.
Where many romance-focused games would continue to explore this conflict through text, Haven’s characters opted to go outside and perform the most intimate act that two people could possibly do together: gameplay. I controlled both characters as they hovered across the landscape, collecting an energy source called Flow by sailing through shimmering jet streams of the stuff. Movement felt a little floaty, but soaring, tumbling, and freewheeling through a not-quite-endless diamond sky felt good. It was exhilarating, but also chill, like bounding through new locations in Journey.
During this sequence, I was also able to collect various plants for dishes Yu and Kay would cook once back aboard the Nest. This ended up being a source of minor conflict for the two. Kay wanted more variety in a diet that, up to that point, had consisted largely of the same fruit. The two bickered over this issue, but it ultimately turned into loving banter. Haven’s goal, said Leprince, is to depict the tension that lies at the heart of a relationship between two very different people.
“We tried to have two personalities that are quite different,” she said. “Yu’s the hothead, quick to annoyance and action. Kay’s more careful, always has a plan. They have this tension, but they still work together.”
In the demo I played, the little touches went a long way. At one point, Yu and Kay discussed bigger concerns, like what might happen if their idyllic planetary paradise was shattered by unnamed forces that could be pursuing them. The conversation got heated. Kay said they needed to prepare for the worst. I was then given a dialogue choice for Yu in which I could have her say that if outer space anime bogeymen busted down their door, she’d either kill them or kill herself. I picked the “kill them” option, which surprised Kay, who had seemingly not witnessed this side of his partner before. This whole conversation, I should add, took place not in some sci-fi corridor or out in the pastel-hued plains, but with Yu and Kay laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep. The scene felt different than it would in another game—more vulnerable and intimate, but also more surprising, given the fever pitch it eventually escalated to. In the end, Yu told Kay not to be afraid of her, and the two snuggled up and fell asleep.
This, said Leprince, is Haven in a nutshell. “How many times have you seen two characters in a video game in a bed under a sheet talking to each other?” she said. “Or hugging? Or kissing? This is how we’re going to present it. There’s going to be a lot of those moments where you know they are together… It’s an adult, open, mature relationship. And they don’t only talk about those concerns; they talk about all the other little things in everyday life.”
Haven is more than just a story game with exploration and cooking, though. It’s also got a JRPG-style combat system. Many of the planet’s monsters are friendly, but some are not. In battle, you control each character with one side of your controller. Combat looks turn-based but occurs in real time, with the player holding down buttons to fill corresponding meters that will allow them to execute attack and defense abilities. This gives battles a rhythmic feeling that’s further accentuated by team-up attacks, which are required if you want to put a dent in bigger, more powerful baddies. It feels satisfying to break the individual rhythms you’ve established for Yu and Kay by using one of these team-ups; you could opt to hold down, say, the right arrow on one side of the controller and the square button on the other to unleash a big blast attack. And again, it underscores the central dynamic of the game: two unlike characters turning their differences into a synergy.
This, said Leprince, is why she and the rest of the team decided to make Haven an exploration-driven RPG and not a more straightforward narrative game.
“We really experimented at the beginning,” she said. “We tried more of a visual novel, more of a Firewatch-like genre, and then we went all the way in the other direction toward action and drifting and gliding. It didn’t work. So we ended up going with this formula where, because you play with them together at the same time, because you fight with them at the same time, because you see them talk together, it becomes a game about intimacy. It’s not just a story of two characters you could see in a movie or read in a book. You are going to make decisions that will impact their relationship and what will happen to them.”
This also means the player’s imagination can do a lot of heavy lifting, which Leprince believes can be more effective than literal depictions of physical intimacy, difficult as these moments can be to pull off using mannequin-like video game characters. “That helps us avoid the uncanny valley or people’s arms going through whatever,” she said. “The scenes are simple and suggestive. You can see a bit of what you want in them.”
Same goes for sex, which you will not see while playing, but which will be implied because these characters are adults, and sex is a natural part of many (though not all) romantic relationships.
“We could either be too cheesy or too much a narrative game, or we could go into adult-rated territory,” Leprince said. “We don’t want to be in the middle of that. We just want it to feel natural. You don’t have to see a sex scene to know they just made love. We want you to just piece it together, imagine it, and feel at ease with it.”
Though Haven’s larger plot hints at some fairly serious beats to come, Leprince repeatedly emphasized the ideas of ease and relaxation. The game also has co-operative multiplayer. Whenever they want, a second player can pick up a controller and play as one half of the couple, at which point both players have to communicate about dialogue choices and collaborate in battle. Ultimately, though, the goal is for players’ respective skill levels to be a non-factor in collaborative play. “There should be no stress about skill,” Leprince said. “We don’t you to have to worry about your combat and upgrades. We want you to just enjoy your life.”
This theme in the game’s design and narrative is inspired by the development team’s own experiences. Regardless of how people choose to play Haven, Leprince and company hope that players will see a bit of themselves in the characters and recognize that relationships don’t have to be a series of seismic turnovers or revelatory meet-cutes. Sometimes, just existing together is more than enough.
“The creative director and myself, we are a bit older—40 plus,” Leprince said. “We have been in long-term relationships for a long time. We really wanted to show that it’s possible to be happy in everyday life with the same person for a long time. You don’t have to just be breaking up and dating again and breaking up.”
Celeste is a perfect a platformer as has ever been made. Its mixture of charming visuals, fantastic music, and challenging levels added up to one of 2018’s best games. That seemed to be the end of it; the story was over, the mountain was climbed. But a final epilogue chapter, added this week, brings a whole new level of challenge. This ninth chapter, Farewell, pushes Celeste to unparalleled heights and might just be one of the smartest things I’ve played all year.
In Celeste, players controlled Madeline on a journey to climb the titular mountain. Along the way, she contends with a shadowy version of herself and learns to become a stronger individual. In addition to eight chapters, there were “B-side” and “C-side” level remixes that brought heaps of challenge for players eager to test their skills. Farewell follows a similar mold, taking the hardest parts of the main game and iterating upon them to create some of the finest and most rewarding levels yet. They are, perhaps, some of the best designed levels of any game. Farewell doesn’t pull punches and has been meticulously crafted by developers who know their mechanics in the most intimate detail. Casual players will likely struggle, as these levels offer trials worthy of the game’s most skilled players. But Farewell is a perfect capstone to a game about which, when I reviewed it, I could not list anything I disliked.
In events following the main story of the game, Madeline returns to Mt. Celeste to visit the grave of Granny, the mysterious old woman who simultaneously guided her and teased her throughout the main game. Celeste’s main story was about accepting who we are, finding peace in the struggle of life. Farewell is about finding a similar comfort in the face of death, learning to press through unexpected darkness until you can climb up and up into the light.
There’s not much story here, but what exists is evocative and builds nicely upon what came before. Madeline, like anyone who has faced a difficult personal challenge, stumbles once more. It doesn’t feel out of step with the main game. She has grown, but life isn’t simple; there are always more difficulties and more tests. Growth comes through endurance, progress sometimes won inch by inch. And Farewell is one hell of an endurance test.
Farewell comes out swinging and hardly ever slows down. Even the earliest rooms require intense dexterity and deduction. You need to find the path through a room and its obstacles, and also manage to pull off the actual traversal. Celeste has always been split between a puzzle game and a platformer in this regard; Farewell drives this home with rooms that seem to have one solution but have another hidden in plain sight.
Instead of bouncing off springs where they are, you might need to let platforms fall down to hit those springs from new angles. It might seem like those puffer fish—devious additions that explode if you dash from certain angles—are only useful if you bounce on their heads, but maybe their explosions can blast you over a spike-laden trap. Farewell plays with expectations, constantly reinventing itself with new mechanics and new ways to engage with the world.
That this difficulty doesn’t come at the expense of playfulness is Farewell’s greatest strength. While it expects players to complete difficult levels and master advanced techniques, every moment brims with lightness and charm. The setting, a dreamworld in the sky, makes bold use of bright colors and abstract design to craft a space as inviting as it is challenging. Composer Lena Raine continues to deliver fantastic music that ranges from string-laden ballroom dances to upbeat, driving piano tunes. You might die again and again, but frustration wanes quickly when you’re immersed in such charming spaces.
Farewell is good. It is almost too good. Returning to Celeste is a joy that’s made all the better thanks to challenging levels and a lush world. It is sad to finally part with Celeste, since designer Matt Thorson says there are no immediate plans for a sequel. But its final levels are a wonderful sendoff, both for the game itself and as a final thank-you to fans.
2018’s Monster Hunter: World was a successful update to the long-running beast-slaying series. Fully functioning ecosystems and updated combat crafted an experience where each battle was a unique challenge even after hundreds of hours. World’s latest expansion, Iceborne, is massive. Building up a solid framework, it brings dozens of new monsters and ups the difficulty for a deeply rewarding adventure.
This piece was first published on September 4, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release.
Iceborne is set after World’s lengthy main campaign. The Hunter’s Guild and Research Commission, having traveled across the seas to the New World and bested unimaginable foes, encounter a new mystery. Massive flocks of flying creatures are fleeing for parts unknown, led by a legendary ice-encrusted elder dragon called Velkhana. Following these creatures and their mysterious leader leads to the discovery of a frosted island teeming with undocumented wildlife. All the while new monsters start to prowl familiar forests, and mysterious subspecies of old beasts emerge from the shadows. It’s up to the player, as a skilled monster slayer, to venture out into the wilds and face off against these new and deadly marvels.
The expansion can only be accessed after completing the main game’s story. Because of this, there is a rise in difficulty that results in some of the best fights in the entire series. These fights, which take place on a new “Master Rank” tier of encounters, reimagine fan-favorite monsters alongside entirely new fights. As in the rest of the series, the deadly trek through beast after beast is ambitious in scope and occasionally frustrating to play.
The first thing Iceborne did was test me. Its first creature, the strange Beotodus, is a sort of slithering wyvern that slides through thick snow the way a shark might prowl the ocean. I poured over 300 hours into Monster Hunter: World, and I immediately saw what Iceborne was doing. Beotodus shares a body shape and animations with the mud-slinging Jyuratodus. This meant that Beotodus moved like something I knew, it also could form a protective icy coating on its body—something a Jyuratodus or a different creature called a Barroth can do with sufficient quantities of mud. It was a crash course, a cleverly designed battle meant to reacquaint me with the ebb and flow of Monster Hunter combat while it’s increased ferocity acted as a warning that things would not be so straightforward this time.
That is, of course, the point. Iceborne is not built for comfortable, casual play. It is specifically designed to push players to their limits. Again and again it pulls out more ferocious monsters, creatures who move faster than anything previously seen and whose strikes can cause debilitating status conditions. Mistakes are costly: Monsters hit harder, your old armor will not save you here, and the environments themselves are harsher. While it is possible to speed through the early assignments, there is bound to be a moment along the way where a new foe puts up a hard roadblock in the way. When this happens, you are faced with a choice: Give up or bash your fist against that wall until you finally burst through in glorious victory.
The first time that happened was when Iceborne’s Master Rank quests really clicked for me. I was assigned to slay or capture a Tigrex, a sort of mixture between a tiger, dragon and velociraptor. The first time I fought it, I could not believe how fast it moved. A single leap, even from the furthest distance, could close the gap and knock me on my ass. This was immediately followed up with claw swipes and tails whips that were less the action of a dangerous creature and more akin to a force of nature like a lightning strike or tidal wave. It was gorgeous and terrifying all at once. The Tigrex had a habit of charging around the battlefield for what felt like an eternity at a time, rushing in harried rampages that kicked up stone and from which no amount of running or dodging could save me. I quickly failed.
Thus began a grind to slay previous monsters for higher-quality armor. When I returned, I faced the Tigrex with confidence, rushing in close and matching its aggression. I unleashed furious flurries with my dual blades that lashed at its legs and webbed arms. I dodged the madcap dashes that previously sealed my doom until the beast, thwarted by its zeal, tumbled over and offered me an opening. I slashed again and again and I broke its face first. As it reared a claw, my blade smashed into it and shattered bones off. The Tigrex fled deep into some caverns where a pack of girros—small lizards whose bites have the capacity to induce paralysis—swarmed the Tigrex. While it was paralyzed, I attacked again and broke more and more fragments from its body until it regained control and fled to its nest, where I captured it with tranquilizing bombs.
Creating these moments is Monster Hunter’s greatest strength and, paradoxically, its largest weakness. Iceborne’s fights are not simple 10-minute sojourns; they are 30 to 40 minutes of intense adaptation. Failure—which comes after being knocked out by a monster three times—is devastating. That failure sometimes comes because you lack proper equipment and supplies. This means circling back to battle old foes multiple times until you kill or capture them enough to gather the materials required for new armor. In other cases, it might mean expeditions to gather honey for creating better potions or bugs for the tranquilizing bombs that make it possible to capture monsters. It can bring pacing to an absolute halt. Of the 17 to 18 hours of Iceborne I’ve played so far, plenty was devoted to grinding monsters until I had everything I needed to best whatever new foe awaited me. It was exhausting. Still, it always felt good to achieve victory.
To help with this, Iceborne offers a variety of new gadgets and ways to fight. Chief among these is the Clutch Claw, a short-range grappling device that tethers you to a monster and immediately grips you onto whatever body part you snag. Used properly, it is possible to leap to flying enemies’ wings and slice them until they’re little more than tatters. If armed with ammunition for your slinger, you can latch to an enemy’s head and fire directly at it, sending it staggering into walls and writhing in pain. With certain weapons, you can add a claw swipe to the end of a combo. This launches you into an uppercut-like attack that, with the right weapon, is perfect for breaking appendages. These moves pair nicely with a host of additional attacks added to each weapon—for example, longswords get a samurai-esque iaijustu skill; gunlances can plant explosive mines on enemies. The clutch claw increases the pace of combat considerably, making it easier to get close to monsters, use these new attacks, and deal some goddamn damage. It ensures some equity between Iceborne’s ferocious monsters and hapless hunters. It works like a charm and breathes new life into World’s combat.
Iceborne’s new weapons, encounters, and environments produce fights unlike anything I’ve ever played. There’s an undeniable rush that comes when you manage to truly assert yourself over a monster. I once faced a Brachydios whose hide excreted an ooze that would explode after a short time. It barreled around the battlefield bashing bomb-like mines of slime into the ground. Yet as I attacked its strange, boxer-glove-like hands and shattered their scale plating, its threat waned until it was little more than another indignant beast, easily captured and claimed for research.
Iceborne’s increased focus on narrative and wide variety of jaw-droppingly animated monsters impresses upon the player how majestic and truly breathtaking the natural world can be. Its snow is lovingly crafted, depressing around the player as they trudge along. Each new monster offers fresh surprises that are awesome to behold. The characters continually proselytize about the glory of the New World and the twinkling beauty of the new region, the snowy Hoarfrost Reach.
In all of this, there is an undeniable tension. Each Monster Hunter is, at its core, a game of conquest and consumption. It is about asserting the worth and power of man over the natural world. It is about trudging into nominally exotic “new worlds” where you break monsters down until they are whimpering, pathetic shadows of themselves, weak enough to be killed and carved into bits or captured for the benefit of a burgeoning frontier society. And because of this, Iceborne’s platitudes about natural splendor feel hollow. Yes, the world is gorgeous, and it is a miracle that we were ever born to behold it. Now if you don’t don’t mind, I need to slay at least three more Glavenus so that I can finish my armor set.
This tension is not enough to rob Iceborne or any Monster Hunter game of its excitement. I would not have spent hundreds of hours of my life enraptured by its battles if there were not a fantastic game here. But as Iceborne ramps up the production value and takes time to show characters basking in its truly gorgeous world, it’s worth noting just how freakin’ strange it feels when characters start claiming the New World as their home. This isn’t just an expedition anymore; it’s explicitly colonization. It is expansion, onward into new lands that are, by some vague right, the domain of man. But a Monster Hunter that explores this tension would not be Monster Hunter, so Iceborne’s wide-eyed nature-loving ultimately feels half-baked.
Still, Iceborne is a remarkable celebration. In bringing back a slew of fan-favorite creatures (including two of my favorites: Glavenus and Nargacuga) it’s clear that this expansion is as much a nod to series veterans as it is a chance for fresh-faced hunters to cut their teeth and become truly elite hunters. For some fans, World felt extremely limited and lacking in variety. Iceborne seems laser focused on addressing these complaints. There’s still some repetitiveness, and some additions are uninspired, simply adding new elements to old creatures: a lightning-spewing Anjanath here, a sleep-inducing Paolumu there. But every now and then, there’s a true surprise. Holy shit! Did that Coral Pukei-Pukei just suck water into its tail and fire it like an industrial-strength water jet? Why yes, it did.
The party lasts for far longer than I imagined. Time and time again, I found myself gearing up for what felt like the final battle. Surely, I would defeat the elder dragons and be a hero once again. Each time I thought I’d reached the end of my journey, Iceborne would pull the rug from under me and offer a whole new tier of monsters to fight. Well done, hunter, but we just heard there’s an acid-coated Glavenus and some kind of frost-armored Legiana out in the reaches. Go handle that and then maybe we’ll be ready to finish this. Iceborne’s scale can be frustrating—sometimes you just wanna fight the damn dragon—but it’s also genuinely impressive.
There is so much here, so many monsters to face, that even after almost 20 hours, I’ve still yet to encounter many of the creatures shown in Capcom’s reveals. With enough time devoted to grinding out armor sets and truly focusing on battles, my 17-18 hours could easily expand to 25 or 30 hours, to say nothing of the time higher-level fights, special events, and playing with friends will take. That’s daunting, but players fearful that Iceborne might be a simple sprint will be pleased to know that it’s actually an intense climb.
Iceborne is one of the most ambitious expansions I’ve played for any game, and it largely lives up to those ambitions. The snow-swept forests and glacial caves of the Hoarfrost Reach are breathtaking in their beauty, and Iceborne’s extensive catalogue provides plenty of challenge. Old-school fans will find a triumphant return to the difficulty they love while those who started with World will clash with some of the franchise’s best creatures. Iceborne picks up the pace without altering the core spirit of what made the series great. And while its narrative and truisms never reconcile with the core gameplay, the experience is consistently exciting. It can be a grindy slog at times, but that’s Monster Hunter. And more Monster Hunter is always welcome.
When I was first asked to preview Greedfall, an upcoming RPG by Spiders, I didn’t really know what to expect. Its vast world, packed with ruins and frontier towns, captured a sense of discovery but also evoked a strange apprehension in me. Greedfall brims with potential and clever ideas, yet even after playing it, I can’t tell if it will mark a powerful recreation of BioWare-esque storytelling or a half-measured romanticising of the all-too-violent Age of Exploration.
In Greedfall, you play as De Sardet, a citizen of the old continent. Overpopulation has allowed for the rapid spread of a plague known as the Malichor. You are sent as a diplomat to an island across the ocean called Teer Fradee, where a cure to the plague might be found. While searching, you act as a sort of diplomat to the island’s various trade factions and native peoples. The vibe rests distinctly in the 17th century with tricorn hats, armored soldiers, vibrant heraldry, and lonely outposts. Teer Fradee proves to be a mysterious place, magical even, with strange creatures that feel lifted from games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In fact, playing Greedfall for any stretch of time makes it clear the it’s angling to fill the gap created in the absence of games like The Witcher and Dragon Age. I learned as much when I recently sat down with Focus Home Interactive creative producer Tom Butler for a hands-on demonstration.
Greedfall proved immediately gorgeous to look at. Butler started the demo in a small swampland, where beams of light pierced through gnarly branches. Distant forest trees held sage-colored leaves dotted with faded hues. Teer Fradee felt real, as if I could tell what angle my foot would take stepping on a rock. As Butler gave a brief overview of the area, he mentioned that Spider’s CEO Jeanne Rousseau, the main writer on the game, found herself inspired by Baroque art and Flemish paintings. She also found inspiration in the historical accounts of various explorers and naturalists. Greedfall’s world design held a specific ethos: to evoke awe and wonder. What I saw, limited as it was, touched upon those feelings. It was a place I wanted to poke at and whose nooks and crannies held promise.
“We absolutely didn’t want to be strictly historical,” Rousseau said in a YouTube video about the world’s design. “Rather, it had to remain inspiration. We’re inviting players to dream, explore, and discover a totally new universe.”
The world is broken up into small subsections with quests to undertake and point of interest to locate, reminiscent of Dragon Age. As I started playing, I found myself in camp with various companion characters like the cavalier yet secretive sailor Vasco or the curious native Siora. Traveling with companions doesn’t just give advantages in combat but also affects how you might handle situations. For instance, Siora can act as a translator for interactions with Teer Fradee’s various peoples, opening up new dialogue options or helping to resolve situations. Each of these characters had sidequests of their own and stories to pursue. Butler warned me that ignoring them long enough in the main game might lead party members to leave the group out of frustration.
Camp also held a workbench where I could craft armor and weapons. Each item was customizable; I could decide what sort of half cape I wanted to drape over my armor or else adorn myself how I saw fit. For normal difficulty levels, this amount of customization seemed unnecessary, but I was assured that higher-level players would find it useful to min-max each armor piece for high stats. For my part, I mostly imagined how spiffy I could make my character look, wondering if I could maybe opt for something a little more Bloodborne and less conquistador.
I decided to pursue the main quest arc for the area I was in, working with members of the mercantile Bridge Alliance to find a lost foraging team and their lead botanist. Leaving camp, I was almost immediately thrust into combat against some wild boars. This was where Greedfall started to grab me. Players can choose from three initial disciplines at the start of the game: Warrior, Technical, and Magic. It was essentially the split between fighter, thief, and mage, though players can diverge from their initial path. For this demo, I was a mage. This meant tossing magical spells that ranged from simple “magic missiles” to huge spells that exploded energy around me. If I wanted to, I could also switch to my sword or even pull out a matchlock pistol.
Combat flowed well, and it quickly became intuitive to dash away from enemies and cast spells or else wait until my Fury meter filled so I could unleash a stronger attack. (You can watch above to see a clip of skill tree management and a fight against a dangerous monster.) It was similar to the lock-on swordfighting of The Witcher, but there was a welcome twist: At any given time, I could pause the action and play like a turn-based RPG. If things were hectic, a single button tap froze everything and filled my screen with a variety of attacks and spells to queue up. While it hardly felt necessary for my battle against the boars, I imagine it’s a valuable tool in boss fights.
My quest took me through ruined camps and a detective sequence where I followed a trail of blood. Finding a corpse led to discussion of the situation between my companions. My protagonist seemed dismayed that the man was killed.
“He was only a scholar, a sage, not a warrior on the battlefield,” they said.
Siora’s reply came quick: “Do you think my people see a difference when Bridge men steal our people from their beds? All the clans hide their children.”
A game about crossing the ocean to “explore” a new, magical world holds a lot of uncomfortable implications. This was at least some acknowledgement that Greedfall wasn’t going to completely ignore those, that characters would differ in their thoughts about what it meant to explore and what it meant when new groups of people interacted. Butler boiled the interaction down to a question:
“How do you explore that one person’s notion of expansion comes at the expense of other people?”
I mentioned that I was glad to see the moment but I was still apprehensive. How much would Greedfall acknowledge the destructive impacts of colonization? How much would it allow the player to navigate and negotiate a different path, even as it wore the trappings of the Age of Discovery?
Eventually, I came across two Teer Fradee natives in a clearing and approached them. I was greeted with welcome skepticism. Who the hell is this colonist and what do they want? Are they also here to cause trouble? For the purposes of the demo, I had a high charisma stat that led to fruitful discussion, but I also had the option to have Siora step in. I was told later that I could have also snuck close to eavesdrop on the conversation instead.
We discovered the lone survivor of the Bridge survey team, a feisty alchemist named Aphra. She introduced herself by dropping out of a tree and ambushing my party, a memorable introduction that made it clear she would be a companion character. Companions clashed. Siora and Aphra clearly did not see eye to eye when it came to the Bridge Alliance’s forays deeper into Teer Fradee. The mercenary Kurt noted that if Aphra lashed out at the party again, he would kill her himself. It made me wonder how these companions would play off each other throughout the game.
The rest of my time with Greedfall was spent exploring a few major towns and poking at the game’s character creator. It had a neat framing device—a portrait session that the main character is sitting through at the start of the game. This also gave me a chance to get a better sense of the various skills you could have, like Craftsmanship or Science. These could affect dialog but also give certain options in the game world. For instance, someone with a high science skill might craft bombs to create makeshift entrances to restricted areas like warehouses.
I walked away from Greedfall extremely curious. It could be just the sort of RPG that I’ve been craving. Companion characters, stats that affect dialog, a rich and interesting setting. There’s promise here, a chance to use a familiar video game frame to explore interesting ideas and characters, should the ideas be handled with care. Whatever happens, I won’t have to wait long to see the final result. Greedfall releases in September for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4.