Since its 2013 release, the 90 Killer Queen arcade cabinets scattered across the states have become one of those underground sensations in urban gaming circles and among in-the-know indie connoisseurs. The 10-player competitive game has amassed a cult following, and is often breathlessly described as “perfect” to anyone who asks, “What’s Killer Queen?” If you aren’t among the lucky few, you may be forgiven for not knowing.
Novelty grants rare objects an aura of specialness or quality. But on October 11, a new, enhanced version of Killer Queen, called Killer Queen Black,will be released for Switch and and on Steam, and it will cease to be so very special. Will its reputation stand the test of ubiquity? I’m not so sure.
Killer Queen Black is one of those delightfully retro-looking games with a fierce competitive bent. It’s cute, mean, and strategically dense. It’s now an 8-player game instead of 10, with each team of four consisting of three “workers” and one “queen.” Each map consists of several platforms, a hive with many holes, berries that fit into those holes, a slow-moving snail, and transformation portals that grant workers specialized abilities like speed or a sword. A team wins in one of three ways: killing the enemy queen three times, stuffing their own hive full of berries, or riding the snail across the map into their goal. While Killer Queen Black loses a player on each side, it adds new maps, abilities and weapons.
It’s easy to pick up and, over time, reveals level after level of depth and nuance. Your learn to spawn-camp enemies to prevent them from gathering too many berries, or to bait out a queen’s attacks while an enemy drags the snail through your team’s goalposts. And if you’re playing as a queen, you need to be constantly thinking about:
whether to dive down and kill the opposing worker riding the snail,
how aggressive you want to be in pursuing the enemy queen,
the safety of your workers,
if you’re going to lose the game for your team by getting killed,
Accordingly, a high-level esports scene formed around the arcade game exploiting galaxy-brain strategies with lightning reflexes.
The beauty of Killer Queen is that every single piece of information is illustrated on-screen. You can see exactly what attack capabilities each warrior-worker has. You can see how many berries the enemy team has collected. You can see how far the snail has progressed toward your goal and how many lives your queen has left. A lot of the time, when your team loses, it’s because you weren’t looking at the right thing at the right time and communicating that threat out loud to teammates. This weaves collaboration into the game as a mechanic in its own right.
This is why playing alone is a little eerie. Cast against the game’s traditional context—10 drunk people screaming at each other and mashing buttons—queueing up for a game of Killer Queen Black online by yourself feels a little strange. You can coordinate with teammates (voice chat is enabled by default, and certain emotes like “snail” and “gates” help you along), but throughout the pre-release review period when few other humans were online, it was difficult to test the authentic experience of solo online play when most of my teammates were bots.
With that said, there’s very little anybody could do to muck up Killer Queen’s transcendentally satisfying gameplay loops. It’s always going to be fun to dive down from the top of the map and onto an enemy queen; it’s always going to make you feel very, very happy to sneak the snail through your goalposts after a long, back-and-forth game. And anyway, it’s nice not to hear anyone guffawing after I lose my third queen life to an enemy morningstar.
The Switch is all about local multiplayer experiences, so I knew I had to try to replicate the Killer Queen arcade vibe at home. (Kotaku did not play the game’s PC version.) I invited over nine friends and grabbed some sparkling seltzer. That way, I could really assess the game the way I fell in love with: with eight people, all yelling at each other in a room.
To play the game locally with two full, four-person teams, you will need two Switches, each with its own copy of Killer Queen Black. I borrowed my colleague’s console and asked my friends to bring their Joy-Cons and Pro Controllers. Over the course of two hours, these controllers would connect and disconnect seemingly at random. Once the controllers were finally connected to the Switch, we needed to re-register each controller with the game by hitting the plus or minus buttons. After we corralled the two full teams onto two Switch consoles, the local multiplayer lobby didn’t appear on the second console until we put the two consoles within about two feet of each other.
After the immense frustration of troubleshooting this, with the help of a half dozen game design students and alumni familiar with Killer Queen, I poured a couple shots of Mezcal and we decided to play two separate games. Whether going up against AI-controlled bots or a team of players online, it was still a blast aside from some controller lag.
I reached out to Killer Queen Black’s developer today to understand what happened here, after playing in the office using a different console and experiencing similar technical issues. Saying that Killer Queen Black is “specifically designed to play online and it’s best when played in that environment,” a representative of the studio designing Killer Queen’s Switch iteration said that local wireless is mostly intended for tournaments, while online play is “the main game mode.” (When it came to the controllers connecting and disconnecting and the difficulty of finding the game lobby, the representative suggested that my home might have a “high noise environment.”)
It’s passé to say that the original version of a beloved game is superior to the newer, more accessible one. It’s ungenerous to elide over real explanations for technical issues and, instead, just complain. Killer Queen Black’s release is a celebration of this cherished, impeccably-designed game finally escaping the confines of physical arcade cabinets and entering fans’ homes. And yet, and yet.
Assuming you’re okay with dealing with the frustrations of local multiplayer—or just plan to play online and don’t care about any of this—Killer Queen Black is a brilliant ballet of a team-based online competitive game. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you won’t be disappointed.
It was raining a hell of a storm outside, windows rattlin’ so hard I thought my teeth were gonna’ shake out. I was halfway through a whisky, thoughts spinnin’, when my office door creaked open. It was her. The dame. The trouble. “Luke,” she said huskily, “I need your help.”
Oh. Sorry about that. I was feeling very noir for a minute there, but then, that’s what happens when you play Detective: City of Angels, one of the most thematically powerful board games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. You sit down and open the box as a 21st-century gamer, and before you know it you’re wearing a trench coat, flicking open a rusted old zippo and wondering how you were gonna explain this one down the station, the third stiff this week and damn it I’m sorry there I go again.
Detective is for 1-5 players and can be played in a number of different ways, so this review is going to be spread a bit thin covering them all. The one thing they have in common, at least, is that they all involve at least one person playing as a detective, trudging around 1930s Los Angeles roughing up thugs, flipping joints searching for clues and, most importantly, interviewing/interrogating suspects.
The heart of the game, no matter how you play it, is that there are crimes that need solving, and the only way to solve them is to piece together what happened (or what you think happened) by uncovering evidence and talking with people. Detective is built on a complex choose-your-own-adventure style database of questions and answers, where every case has a certain number of suspects and a certain number of pieces of evidence, ranging from murder weapons to notes to people of interest.
Every time it’s a detective’s turn, they can ask one of the suspects about one of the pieces of evidence. Sometimes they’ll get an immediate and honest response, but many times they won’t, and it’s up to the detectives to work out whether a suspect is lying, and if so, whether it’s worth pressing them a little, which can get you the info you need
All of that is powered by an enormous volume of text that covers every possible question and every possible response. As detectives ask more questions and uncover more about the case, they scribble down everything on a big notepad (pictured), and as time draws to a close (each case has a limited number of turns), they’re supposed to think the case through, work out who’s guilty and then make an accusation.
All of which sounds pretty easy, but that’s most definitely not the (sorry) case. Even the easiest scenarios gave us trouble during this review, because you don’t solve cases mechanically in Detective, in that there’s a process you can complete after which the case is perfectly and automatically solved. You just have a bunch of people’s stories to go on and need to trust your gut.
It’s wonderful playing a game where your progress and enjoyment doesn’t come from its rules or systems, but for the platform it gives players to collaborate and solve complex puzzles. My best times weren’t on the board, they were over it as I and my fellow detectives leaned back in our chairs, the deadline for a case fast approaching, hammering out theories as to who killed the suspect and where, using which weapon, like we were up to our eyeballs in the world’s most saxophone-heavy game of Clue.
Detective has a few ways you can play, depending on how many people are involved and what type of game you want to try out. The main approach sees a number of players take control of one detective each, while another assumes the role of the “Chisel,” which isn’t a character so much as the city itself. The Chisel is like a 1930s Dungeon Master, responsible for selecting the answers to the detective’s questions (basically a choice between whether to read out the truth or a lie), and also just looking after general administrative work.
This mode is fine, but it also pits detectives against one another, which keeps things weirdly solitary. It’s also vulnerable to the whims of the Chisel, who could derail the entire game if they want to act like an asshole (indeed there’s a special section in the rulebook warning against this).
Another way is for two or more players to team up, with one person playing the Chisel and everyone else sharing a single detective. This is more fun, as it leads to more collaborative play, but it also triggers a more aggressive form of play from the Chisel, who is now motivated to beat the detectives, not just control the experience.
The highlight for me was the third and final way to play, Sleuth mode. Here there is no Chisel (their role is delegated to what’s basically an AI, the game’s case notebook), just a bunch of detectives roaming the map, working together to solve a crime. While this eliminates some of Detective’s “gamier” elements, I actually prefer the slimmed down experience because it gives the game’s interrogation system more room to breathe and gives players a chance to kick back, chat about their theories, and coordinate just where they’re heading and what they’re searching for.
I really felt like a detective sounding out my hunches, and it’s a thrill discovering new evidence and seeing how it impacted my suspicions. It’s rare that a game that puts you in a role actually has you feel like you’re doing that job, but Detective really succeeds on that front.
Adding to the immersion are the game’s case briefings. While each one is written in a book for players to read aloud, if you’d prefer—and you really should—the publishers of the game went and hired a professional voice actor to read them aloud in a gritty noir style. You can listen to them here, and they really help set the tone for each case as you’re getting started.
While my experiences reviewing board games over the last few years have opened my eyes to all kinds of new and different kinds of game, from rules-heavy Euros to the simple joys of worker placement, my favorites are still the ones where player interaction and emotions are more important than mastering a system.
That’s definitely the case with Detective. There are rules here, sure, but the fun (and satisfaction from a job well done) comes from cracking some very human puzzles, and the teamwork involved in getting you there.
When I started Concrete Genie, a new PlayStation 4 exclusive out now from Pixelopus, I was swept into its world. The game’s setting is lush and alive, its narrative heartwarming: A latchkey kid named Ash constantly revisits the ruins of Denska, the once-thriving port town he grew up in, to doodle. Denska has been abandoned and overtaken by Darkness, a mysterious force with the physical form of thorned purple vines, but Ash can’t stand to let the town go. He’s faced with the opportunity to take action, given a magical brush and a mission to restore the ghost town’s beauty. With a masterful sense of visual storytelling, the story is charming in its simplicity, full to bursting with warm, colorful memories and touching moments.
This piece was first published at midnight.
The gameplay never quite lives up to the loving design of the ramshackle town. After maybe 10 hours scouring for secrets and messing around in free play mode, I wasn’t pulling my hair out. I just got a little bored with it. That did make it painful when I reached the short-lived final act, a total upturning of its mechanics, and realized that the gameplay was actually getting good.
Ash progresses by moving through city streets and across rooftops with the aid of his Genies, creatures he’s drawn in his sketchbook. Each setting—a derelict lighthouse or a deserted hydroelectric plant, for example—features similar objectives. You must paint walls adorned by lightbulbs to illuminate them; find pages of your destroyed sketchbook, which can include new designs for the walls or the Genies themselves; and find spots to create new Genies. In the process, you can find newspaper clippings that provide extra context about the city of Denska, the environmental disaster that totaled it, and the tough-as-nails townsfolk who stuck it out for as long as they could before having to leave. Denska is still full of signs of life: leftover bottles and cars, neglected storefronts with stacks of CRT TVs, cheerful advertisements fading to a sullen gray. While finding one newspaper clipping, Ash remembers aloud the moment his family realized it was over: “when mom realized there was no place in town to buy milk.” It’s a simple story, expertly told.
The problem is, playing through the game gets boring. After your first encounter with the Genies, you’re able to graffiti up most of Denska’s walls using either motion controls or the right stick. At certain locations, you can create new Genies with a similar interface, starting with the body and adding designs like horns, ears and tails. While there’s not an incredible amount of variety across the several bodies you get, the creatures are a clear nod to Where the Wild Things Are and carry with them a real charm. The landscape options, anything from redwood trees and storm lilies to mushrooms and balloon plants, all look good, as do dynamic effects like the rain, which continues to fall whenever you pass by the wall. Butterflies and birds flutter outward from your brush, to your Genies’ great delight. But you get a total of 48 of these options to mess with, 12 each between four areas, and in a post-Little Big Planet world, it wasn’t enough to justify how much repetitive painting I had to do across wall after wall.
At the end of each area, you’re invited to paint a “masterpiece,” a larger mural, where your Genies will have suggestions about what to put up. Despite the monotony, doing this is fun and sometimes happens in cool places, like a section where you climb high above the city and can see the entire town. Along the way, you can also find billboards to spruce up where you need the correct design. Completing puzzles like this unlocks rewards like concept art, which, unsurprisingly, is stunning.
Each of the three Genie types has its own powers, which can do things like set parts of the environment on fire for you to pass through. Puzzles largely consist of clearing Darkness so that your Genies can get through and magic away environmental obstacles. Sometimes, you have to paint a design the Genie requests in order to get them to help you, but that doesn’t add much and ultimately feels like a chore. Seeing some of the Genies’ interactions with your landscape paint is cute, but when the puzzles are already tedious, having to draw, I don’t know, some grass before your Genie will cooperate gets old.
Concrete Genie rarely requires any real problem solving. This is one issue I can just barely excuse because it seems to have been made for a younger audience. Puzzles are straightforward, and the Genie you need to progress is always the next one you find, precluding any real puzzling beyond exploring and finding new areas. But undermining this is the fact that the gameplay often feels undercooked. Even as an adult, I found myself occasionally confused about how to progress. The game aggressively offers hints, which felt like a bandaid on moments of loose design. The puzzles generally featured only one way to progress, and the way forward, no matter whether that was using a water valve or flipping a switch, was generally to interact with the one interactive thing and then call your Genies. That was occasionally marred by the fact that it wasn’t always clear, for example, when a Genie would be blocked by Darkness given the nonlinear way they move through walls. Ultimately, it felt like there was this rich, beautiful world and too little to do in it.
You sometimes have to avoid bullies as you progress. Learning more about the kids who torment Ash with Senseless Kids’ Movie Thuggery is interesting, but the “stealth” really just requires you to jump on any nearby rooftop and you can’t be caught. Like the rest of the game, it works well narratively but fails to be fun.
I felt this frustration most when I got closer to the end, where the gameplay…actually got cool. After a certain point, the mechanics entirely switch and you’re in pursuit and combat situations, with abilities like “Paint Skating,” which allows you to glide around the town more quickly, and you get fireballs to shoot enemies with. Without giving too much away, you have to fight and then tame beasts using a number of offensive magical powers you get. You even get a dodge roll to use, which was far better than trudging around the streets of Denska like a regular, non-magical pedestrian. The action section is far more fun than sneaking around Ash’s bullies and painting by number. The story continues to pick up here as well as Ash confronts his tormentors in a deeply affecting, earnest final act. Unfortunately, this part of the game is short-lived after the slog it takes to get there, but the decision to end on this note was a smart one. If only Concrete Geni had gotten there sooner or stayed there longer.
The story of Concrete Genie is well-told and relatable, a classic bullies-turned-friends story of empathy and growth with some real storytelling flair, including striking illustrations and a masterful, coherent use of a variety of art styles. The account of environmental disaster and a fishing town struggling to survive is rooted and told well from Ash’s young perspective. Pixelopus has a clear understanding of what makes a story work, even a story done as many times as this one: bullying, empathy, reconciliation. The fact that the game is gorgeous goes a long way, too. With the amount of love and care poured into the storytelling, I wanted more from the gameplay. If the first part of Concrete Genie were more tightly done, it could have easily been one of my favorite games of the year. But like the fishing town of Denska itself, it faded before I could really appreciate it.
I can’t remember the last time both of these games so underwhelmed.
In recent years both have had their individual highs and lows. FIFA’s last pre-Frostbite seasons were rough, and PES has long been walking a knife’s edge between eccentric brilliance and outright embarrassment.
This is not a normal Kotaku review
Sports game reviews are usually pretty boring, so for a few years now I’ve decided against giving each of these titles a spotlight of their own, instead pitting them in a caged fight to the death. Only insane people are going to get both of these games, so most football fans probably just want to know which of the two is the one to pick up. Most years it’s FIFA. Some years it’s not.
Every time one stumbled, though, the other was there to carry the day, whether it was PES’ Fox Engine revolution or FIFA’s surprisingly excellent single-player story mode, “the Journey.” I’d always be able to point to one of these two games, combatants in the last genuine competition in the sports game market, and say this one is definitely the one to get.
This year, instead of a confident thrusting of my finger, I can only half-heartedly wave my hand. PES is stuck in the same rut it’s been in for years now, capable on the pitch but increasingly a shambles off of it, while FIFA has somehow, in a genre defined by its obsession with incremental upgrades, managed to go backwards.
Here’s how this year’s head-to-head review is going to work. I’m going to give you what I like most about both games and what I don’t like. I’ll give a reluctant endorsement to one of them, and then we’re going to go our separate ways and reconvene same time next year to see what’s up.
THE GOOD STUFF
CAREER MODE – This is less of a big 2019 update and more of just the slow accumulation of features over the last few seasons, but FIFA’s career mode—especially as a manager—is now so fully featured that it’s like a Football Manager Lite, down to keeping players happy and getting into the nitty gritty of international scouting. The new contract negotiation system, which plays out with agents in a tense cinematic office/restaurant environment, is fantastic.
MISKICKS – While for the most part FIFA has tried to get more realistic over the past decade (it was originally a decidedly arcade experience), one area where it always lagged behind PES was the way you could string together pinpoint passes regardless of the direction the person receiving the ball was facing in relation to where he was kicking it.
In FIFA 20 there are now very strict rules regarding this, so if you try and just spam quick throughballs into the centre of midfield with your back to the opposition’s half, your players won’t perform leg-snapping miracles, they’ll just completely miskick it. Combined with the physicality and 1v1 “strafing” of the setup touch, it really helps to slow down FIFA’s pace, and really helps with allowing for calculated build-up play in an opponent’s final third, a ploy previous FIFA games just weren’t interested in accommodating.
ULTIMATE TEAM – Every year Ultimate Team inches closer, NBA 2K-style, to becoming the central focus of the FIFA experience, and every year that bums me out a little more. This mode is essentially gambling, it’s bad news for kids, and it has no place in a retail video game that’s already asking for you a big up-front investment.
THE GOOD STUFF
“THE PITCH IS OURS” – Every year PES’ gameplay, with its methodical player animation and 1:1 ball physics, gets a little closer to playing like the real thing. This year it got a little closer still. I never, ever score the same goal twice in PES, and its midfield battles are far more tactical than FIFA’s breakneck race to the penalty box.
MENUS – This seems like a minor thing to heap praise on, but for the longest time PES’ front end has been a nightmare to plod through. This year it’s much nicer, which for a game you might be spending hundreds of hours with, makes a big difference!
THE BAD STUFF
SLOPPY – PES 2020 is just so rough around the edges. It launched without correct team rosters, data updates take forever, in-game replays are doubled in length due to constant splashing of the game’s logo…everywhere you look, there’s just stuff there (or not there) that feels unfinished.
COMMENTARY – I think Peter Drury is the worst commentator working in football today, so his mere presence in the game isn’t helping here, but even were I a fan I’d still be criticizing PES for this. Its commentary is repetitive, slow and bizarrely unspecific, and after a few games got so tiring I just played games without it.
AI – Here’s the real deal-breaker with PES though: Throughout my review, the AI would continually just break down, especially when it came to player movement off the ball. Sometimes my striker would start to make a run behind the defense then just stop and wander off, while my defenders would see an opposition striker heading at them and turn their backs. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened more than enough for it to make a difference on the scoresheet in several key games, which was absolutely unforgivable.
Both games underwhelmed this year because neither failed to progress significantly from where they were in 2018. FIFA 20 in particular feels like a lesser offering than FIFA 19, because“the Journey”was such an accomplished and enjoyable addition to the game; its absence this year is sorely felt, especially when Volta’s own story is so poor by comparison.
We’re here for a recommendation, though, not commiseration, and so despite its shortcomings I think FIFA is once again the better overall offering. Volta might be a misfire, but the way I can try and take defenders on 1v1 is now more fun than it’s basically ever been in a football game, regardless of the publisher, and the state career mode is in threatens to pull me away from Football Manager (of which I’m admittedly a pretty casual player) entirely.
PES, meanwhile, tried a little harder than usual this year, spending more on licenses (not having Juventus in FIFA is weird) and changing the name of the series itself. As befitting a game mired in quicksand, though, the more it struggled, the more it found itself stuck.
The overwhelming impression I got playing both games this year is that they’re just tired. Both series are in need of a fresh shot of adrenaline (and a fresh coat of paint), and they were never going to get it in 2019, in the twilight of the sixth console generation. We can only hope that this year’s stagnation is just a result of something bigger and better coming along next year.
Note 1: I played a retail copy of PES on PC, and had a prerelease copy of FIFA on PS4.
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.
The way Untitled Goose Game’s goose moves, I think, is what makes it so endearing. Its self-assured waddle. The way it leans its feathered neck forward, with an almost innocent inquisitiveness, before turning on some poor guy’s sprinklers and drenching him. How it flaps and flutters after its plans have been thwarted by a human, only to immediately compose itself and clap back with a look that says, “Actually, I’m the one who should be feeling offended after you took back the priceless vase I stole from you and was planning to shatter into a million pieces.” The goose is a piece of shit. I love the goose.
Untitled Goose Game became a phenomenon long before its release today for PC and Switch. A 2017 pre-alpha trailer, which depicted a goose messing with a groundskeeper whose blood pressure will probably never recover, tapped into something essential and primal: Geese are assholes. They’re equal parts haughty and inscrutably mean. They while away their days performing mundane acts of domestic terrorism—blocking paths, honking angrily at anyone who dares approach them, and just generally displaying a smug, unearned confidence. The power fantasy underlying Untitled Goose Game is a tantalizing if dark glimpse into the most remote recesses of the psyche. What, the game asks, if the bullied (humanity) became the bully (a lone goose)?
The result is a chill mashup of sandbox-y stealth and puzzling. You, the goose, are turned loose in a series of small town environments, including the aforementioned groundskeeper’s garden, a storefront, a tavern, and some neighbors’ backyard. Each environment seamlessly flows together, but you’ve got to complete most (though not all) objectives on a list before you can move on to the next. Objectives, you will not be shocked to learn, center around ruining people’s days.
In the sparsely populated garden, this might involve stealing the groundskeeper’s veggies or timing a honk just right so that he accidentally hammers his own thumb while trying to put up a “no geese” sign. In the more crowded tavern area, you might need to be a little stealthier, sneaking in by hopping inside a delivery person’s box and crawling around in the space beneath a patio to avoid the bouncer who doesn’t want you anywhere near the establishment’s patrons. Then, and only then, can you carry out your master plan of dropping a bucket on his head.
There’s always some amount of distraction involved. You’re a goose, after all; you’re not a subtle creature. So you honk until somebody comes over to investigate and then dart out and steal something from where they were sitting. Or you unplug somebody’s radio so that they have to dedicate their time and attention to plugging it back in. Or you steal somebody’s slippers and repeatedly drop them in a pond so they have to slowly, painstakingly retrieve them. There’s a cat-and-mouse element to these human-and-goose battles of wit and will, but at the same time, it’s not like people are going to murder you. If you mess up, they’ll just take back their stuff or push you off the premises with a broom. You can resume what you were doing quickly, so why not experiment? Or, better yet, why not seek immediate vengeance by stealing something out of somebody’s hand or chasing them into a phone booth or honking until goose cries haunt even their fondest memories?
There’s a dedicated honk button. You can honk whenever you want. It’s useful for accomplishing objectives when you need to lure somebody away from whatever otherwise idyllic task they’re trying to perform, but before long, I found myself using it to role-play. There’s this wonderful intimacy to Untitled Goose Game; if you get close enough to a person, the goose’s gaze becomes trained on them. If they notice, they stare back. Every time I pulled off some maniacal goose prank—moving somebody’s prized rose, knocking down a portion of their neighbor’s fence, getting the second person to chop the first person’s rose in half—I’d get the person to stare at me, wait a beat, and then emit a single, faux-quizzical HONK, as though unable to comprehend why they were staring at me. “You expect me to feel guilty?” it was as though I was saying (in honks). “I’m a dang goose.” Then I’d waddle away like I hadn’t definitely just spent 20 minutes meticulously orchestrating the demise of that person’s good day.
Moments like these are what make Untitled Goose Game great. The environments are nice. The objectives are generally creative and enjoyable. But the real magic of the game lies in brief, endlessly funny interactions. There’s an insidious joy in drawing out increasingly infuriated reactions from the small town’s people—all of whom are, in their own way, kinda douchey. They had it coming, I think. Or maybe I’ve come to so thoroughly inhabit the goose’s headspace that now that I have an implicit bias. I appreciate that the game’s humorous sensibility rarely tips over the ledge into outright absurdity, preferring instead to take an understated route where the punchline is almost always “Wow, that goose is kind of a dick.” You, the player—the artist of avian assholery—paint within those lines.
This low-key, easygoing vibe also makes it easier to overlook the game’s shortcomings. I wouldn’t necessarily call them flaws, but there are things that I suspect some people won’t like and that frustrated me on a few occasions. Sometimes controlling the goose is a little awkward, which I suspect is intentional. There’s an almost willful sense of momentum to the goose’s movements, like it won’t allow even the player to fully tame its wild, dickheaded impulses. Taken in conjunction with a fixed camera perspective, it caused me to run into people I was trying to avoid a handful of times. The AI is generally decent, but characters act like they have eyes on the sides—if not the backs—of their heads from time to time, which caused them to spot me when they shouldn’t have on a few occasions. While most objectives are pretty straightforward, a few either didn’t make intuitive sense until I’d racked my brain for longer than I enjoyed or pushed the AI to its limits.
Lastly, Untitled Goose Game is pretty short. I finished it in about two and a half hours, at which point I unlocked some bonus challenges, many of which I completed in another hour. Again, though, Untitled Goose Game is a sandbox in which objectives sometimes feel more like suggestions. I still want to get back in there and just mess with people more—see what happens when I get certain characters to chase me into certain areas, or if others will react to particular items. Then there’s the simple pleasure of seeing how much widespread chaos you can cause with a few well-timed honks.
Even with those things in mind, I don’t see Untitled Goose Game being as replayable as close genre relatives like (bear with me on this one) the Hitman series of stealth sandbox games. But I also don’t think it needs to be. It does not bill itself as some vast, unceasing experience, a behemoth that overstays its welcome. Rather, it’s like taking a nice walk through a sleepy town on a sunny afternoon. Except, of course, for the fact that all the characters in the game are the ones taking that walk, and you’re there to honk at them until they change their minds and decide to never go outside again.
The best feeling you can possibly feel while playing a video game is the act of swinging a sword in Zelda. I came to this conclusion recently, while playing the new remake of Link’s Awakening and trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes me love Zelda games so much. The answer, I think, is the way Link swings his sword.
Is there anything more delightful, more palpably satisfying? The developers at Nintendo have always understood that a video game is only as good as its verbs—its actions—and they’ve always endeavored to make those actions induce as much joy as possible. Over the course of this playthrough of Link’s Awakening, I swung that sword thousands of times, and it never failed to bring me a jolt of happiness as it connected. Look at the way the blade cuts through the air, leaving an arc that almost looks like lightning. Watch how that poor Moblin staggers and flashes a satisfying shade of red. You can’t hear it in a gif, but it sounds delicious, too—an empty whiff when you miss, but a satisfying crunch when you hit. If you told me I could only perform one video game action for the rest of my life, Link’s sword swinging would at least be in the top three. Link’s jumping—not common in Zelda games, but brilliant in Link’s Awakening—might be up there, too.
You know what? Everything you can do in this game feels pretty damn good.
This remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, out for Switch on Friday, is a near 1:1 recreation of the 1993 Game Boy game. At the time of its original release, Link’s Awakening was just the fourth game in the Zelda series, a line of games in which you, as a floppy-capped, pointy-eared boy named Link, solve puzzles, fight monsters, and save princesses. Link’s Awakening was a strange game but a wonderful one, and people still rank it among the best entries in a series full of excellent games. Its music, dungeon design, and light but melancholy story have always made it stand out.
Many people coming to this remake will know of it already and want to know how it’s different. Its structure has not changed, but its aesthetics and the conveniences it affords players have.
For the remake, the developers at Grezzo and Nintendo have re-designed every screen in the world, replacing the old sprites with beautiful painted 3D tableaus that make it feel like you’re looking down on a toy set. The old MIDI soundtrack has transformed into a flowing orchestra, full of woodwinds and choruses. The characters and puzzles remain untouched, but they look very different.
There are a few other key differences between the original and this remake. First and foremost, you no longer have to waste time juggling items. Every Zelda game gives you a stable of go-to gadgets for fighting monsters and solving puzzles, so it’s helpful when you can access as many as possible at once. The Game Boy version of Link’s Awakening was limited by the system’s two action buttons, A and B, and you had to go into the menu and assign an item to one of those buttons every time you wanted to use it. This included the sword, shield, and even the Power Bracelet, an item that let you pick up rocks, bottles, and other heavy objects. If you wanted to, say, lift a rock and throw it at an enemy, you’d need to open your inventory, select the Power Bracelet, swap it in with one of your equipped items, and then press that button next to the rock. It wasn’t hard to get used to this system, but it was tedious.
Fortunately, the Switch has a lot more buttons than the Game Boy, and the designers of the Link’s Awakening remake have taken advantage. Your sword and shield now have dedicated buttons, as do the Pegasus Boots, an item you’ll get early in the game that lets Link dash at super-speed. You no longer have to equip the Power Bracelet to pick up rocks. You just have to own it. These changes might sound minor, but they make a huge difference, and this version of Link’s Awakening feels like it belongs in 2019.
The other big difference is the addition of a side feature—Chamber Dungeons—which is boring and tedious. It’s an optional mode in which you can take rooms from dungeons you’ve already beaten and rearrange them using layouts provided by the Zelda stalwart Dampé the gravedigger. Unless you enjoy playing through the same rooms over and over again, it’s just a big waste of time. (Read more about Chamber Dungeons here.)
There are a handful of smaller tweaks, too. You can save and then re-load the game from anywhere. You can catch fairies in bottles. The fast travel warp points are more frequent and easier to use. Unlike the Game Boy version, Link’s Awakening on Switch has a few notable framerate issues. While walking around the overworld—which, rather than a grid of single-screen rooms, is now a continuous map—I ran into some choppiness. (I played the game entirely in handheld mode.)
What hasn’t changed is everything that made Link’s Awakening work so well in 1993, all of which holds up today: the locations, the puzzles, and most importantly, the moment-to-moment satisfaction of smacking slimes in the face with a boomerang.
Some quick history. Back in 1987, The Legend of Zelda blew people away with its promise of what an open-world video game could look like. It encouraged exploration and instilled a feeling of adventure unlike anything we’d seen on the NES before, but it was very shallow, like a blueprint for what Zelda could look like in the future. Its sequel, the black sheep Zelda II: Adventure of Link, experimented with sidescrolling action to mixed results. It wasn’t until 1991 that the Zelda formula first emerged with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the game that established conventions that would be used for many years to come.
Like the original Zelda, Link to the Past dropped you into an open world with little but your wits and the sword in your hand, but unlike the first game’s flat layouts and simple topography, Link to the Past was dense. Different areas of the world had different themes, almost personalities, like the swampy Misery Mire and the chilly Kakariko Village. Rather than ask you to walk through a series of indistinguishable flat maps as the NES game did, Link to the Past was full of elaborate mazes and tangled designs. The world bulged with secrets, and around every corner you’d find a hidden chest or cracked wall to blow up. Your options would be limited to a few areas at first, and over time, as you acquired more items—the Power Gloves, the flippers, the hookshot—you’d be able to access more and more of the world. Backtracking to old areas would reward you with cool stuff, like item upgrades and pieces of heart.
Link’s Awakening started off as an experiment to remake the Link to the Past on the Game Boy, according to an interview with the game’s original developers. Soon it had evolved into something much weirder. Taking influences from sources ranging from Mario to Twin Peaks, the developers filled their world with quirky characters and a variety of locations: magically enhanced forests, cactus-infested deserts, mazes full of bushes and deadly holes.
The game starts off at some indeterminate point in Link’s life. Our hero is sailing through a nasty storm when suddenly everything goes dark. He winds up on a beach, where he’s rescued and taken to safety by a girl named Marin who has a beautiful voice and a magnetic appeal to cute animals, like a chibi Disney princess. Turns out that Link is on a mysterious island called Koholint that’s full of strange people, talking animals, and a whole lot of references to Nintendo’s Super Mario series. A talking owl sends Link on a mission to go wake up the Wind Fish, a godlike creature who lives in a giant egg in the center of the island. Soon he’s off on a journey to go find eight instruments in eight dungeons across the world.
Like Link to the Past’s Hyrule, the world of Link’s Awakening is dense and full of mysteries. It starts off feeling constrained, limiting you to a handful of areas thanks to obstacles like heavy rocks and bottomless pits. The more you play, the more you’ll break down those barriers. By the time you’ve hit your stride and explored enough of the map to see how it all fits together, you may appreciate its intricacy, as if you’ve just cracked open a mechanical watch and learned what makes it tick. In the Game Boy version, the world map was broken up into 256 screens, most of which had their own gimmicks or secrets. The Switch version links them together in one large world map. Both styles are appealing, but the latter is easier to get around, and it’s a delight to see how it all weaves together.
Link’s Awakening’s eight dungeons each follow a traditional pattern, blending puzzles with navigational challenges and obstacles that you’ll need that dungeon’s item to overcome. One puzzle might task you with killing three enemies in the right order; another might involve maneuvering a floating block until it fills every gap in the floor. None of these challenges or puzzles are particularly complicated. Usually they’re just subversive enough to stymie the first solution you think of, but the second will work. Still, completing them is usually satisfying, and the themes grow more interesting as you go. The seventh, Eagle’s Tower, has one of the more memorable gimmicks of any Zelda dungeon to date. The optional ninth Color Dungeon, added for the Game Boy Color version of the game in 1998 and retained for this Switch remake, is actually the weakest of them all, which may come as a disappointment to anyone who played the original and was hoping for something brand new.
And there is nothing brand new to the main adventure here. Link’s Awakening is a beautiful recreation of a legendary game, but it doesn’t have much to offer to players who already know the ins and outs of Koholint Island. For newcomers, or people who played Link’s Awakening two decades ago and can’t remember exactly how to finish the trading quest or track down that damn singing frog, this is a worthy remake and a must-play Zelda game.
You may recall that two years ago, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an all-time great that revitalized the iconic series. The company’s latest Zelda game is so radically different that they basically feel like different genres, but when taken together, they help explain what makes The Legend of Zelda so special. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the vastness of a polished, beautiful open world full of strange places to explore; on the other, there’s the density of an island packed with secrets. If the two games have one thing in common, and offer one reason to keep playing Zelda all these years later, it’s this: They both make it feel pretty damn incredible to swing a sword.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a shining example of using a game’s design to say something meaningful while also making it look cool as hell. The game controls simply with the analog stick and a single button. What makes it stand out is its music, its look, and its mood.
Check out the video to see (and hear) the game in action.
Sayonara Wild Hearts tells the story of a young woman who experiences devastating heartbreak and, in the wake of that, discovers a much larger framework to the universe that she must navigate in order to restore its balance.
You control her as she runs, flies, or drives through a series of levels. Each part of the game is set to different song that matches the mood of a particular encounter.
You are on rails the entire time, reacting to the world around you as it zooms past you, avoiding obstacles, aiming for collectable hearts to rack up points, and pressing a button in time to jump to a new platform or attack an enemy.
These levels never require you to do more than move the analog stick in a direction and press a button at the right time. Each level is fun the first time and shines even more after repeated play, encouraging you to squeeze every bit of pulp out of a personal high score.
The variety of ways that Sayonara Wild Hearts experiments with its two basic inputs is straight up magic. One minute the game is an on-rails runner that has you narrowly avoiding obstacles, the next, it’s Rez, throwing enemies and projectiles at you that you need to highlight with a cursor and shoot.
Sayonara Wild Hearts keeps you guessing. That constant shakeup teaches you how to play and how to navigate new obstacles, but more importantly, it allows you to experience something that is equal parts fun and meaningful. Each level of the game is a beautiful and almost hypnotizing parable about fighting internal demons and overcoming mental hurdles.
My favorite level, and one of the more challenging ones, is called “Parallel Universes.” First, it has you attempting to remember the placement of certain obstacles along the way in tune to the music. Throughout that, the level switches back and forth between two different versions of the world.
As you speed through its highway on your motorcycle, changing lanes to collect hearts and narrowly avoiding obstacles in the road, the level shifts back and forth from one reality to another. It’s up to you to commit the placement of different obstacles in each world to memory so you can swerve to avoid them.
As I played, I trained my eyes hard on the middle distance, trying to concentrate on where I was headed. I kept failing. That is, until I noticed a pattern.
I wasn’t listening to the music, so I had missed the simple repeatable pattern that the game was trying to teach me. I had instead been trying to react to the obstacles as I saw them. I needed to stop thinking and feel it instead.
The moment I let go and actually listened to the rhythm, my instincts took over. I felt the movement the way I used to when reading sheet music. Once I learned the sequence and installed it in my muscles, I could add some finesse to the performance.
Most games want you to focus on their systems and find efficient ways to master them. Sayonara Wild Hearts’ systems tell you to learn them, and to borrow a phrase from Obi-Wan, “let go your conscious self and act on instinct.”
In one of the other standout levels, titled “Forest Ghost,” your character starts off by swerving to collect hearts while in pursuit of a runaway deer. After jumping on that deer, it’s up to both you and the deer to work in harmony, zig zagging through the world as you press a button to jump onto different platforms. The game’s music in this section provides the perfect accompaniment for this hypnotizing hand-eye coordination, reminding you to listen and feel.
The first time around, I played the game with my Switch docked, because it certainly benefits from cranking up the volume. If you’re playing in handheld, use a solid pair of headphones to help you focus on the rhythm even as you play on the smaller screen.
The game’s soundtrack is half of the reason to play it. If you’re not into a mix of electronic gems and catchy dream pop songs, then it might just not hit for you.
Same goes for the rest of the game’s aesthetic. Everything down to the typeface selection in the menus, which flashes and dances to the beat, has been immaculately packaged to convey a specific love-it-or-hate-it vibe.
Some games invite you in and ask you to like them. Sayonara Wild Hearts is different. It’s unapologetically confident. Sayonara Wild Hearts wears shades while she blows bubblegum bubbles, not even looking in your direction.
It’s undeniably cool, and if it’s not your thing, then Sayonara Wild Hearts is like, whatever. It wants to take whoever does love it and ride off into the neon sunset with them.
NBA 2K20 is one of the best sports games I’ve played in a long time. It’s also a giant scam that is perpetually gross, and sometimes even terrifying, to be around.
This might sound weird considering this is a sports game, but 2K’s basketball titles are some of the hardest things I ever have to review for this site. What I perceive to be the “good” and the “bad” of each entry in the series aren’t things that can be easily separated. In 2K20 they’re intertwined, everything good about it undermined by—and indivisible from—everything bad.
Wait, is this a review of NBA 2K20?
Nope. As we always do, this is only a review of 2K20’s MyCareer mode, not the entire game. I think its scope, coupled with the focus 2K places on it in terms of creating and selling their game, make it interesting enough to warrant this focus.
For years 2K’s MyCareer storylines have been a disaster, saddled with ludicrous paths to the NBA and downright embarrassing attempts at “hello fellow kids” humour. That’s all been replaced in 2K20 with the earnest tale of a college kid who takes a principled stand against organisational hijinx, only to see his draft stock plummet.
An unexpectedly topical jab at the NCAA, this year’s MyCareer story has you play a handful of college games before embarking on a journey towards the NBA that includes invitational tournaments, the Draft Combine (complete with mini-games for stuff like vertical leap) and Summer League.
It’s a lightning-fast introduction, which you’ll blow through in only a few hours, but it’s also by far and away the most authentic career path the series has ever managed. Like FIFA’s The Journey, while this certainly has its hokey moments, it’s sincere with most of what it’s attempting, and slots in nicely alongside your actual NBA play as a result. It’s wild remembering that only two years ago players were cast as a DJ getting invited to practice with an NBA team, only this year to live the more realistic life of a high profile college recruit, agent discussions and all.
MyCareer’s story—particularly during its cutscene-heavy prologue—is a fulfilment of almost everything the mode has been trying to do for years now. Celebrity cameos (particularly Idris Elba’s performance as your coach) are tasteful and very well-done, the story skips along without lingering too long in any one place (last year’s G-League focus went for waaaaaaay too long) and by the time you’re an established NBA player you really feel like you’ve earned your place.
It’s absolutely no surprise to find, then, that all this progress is then swiftly undone, not just by the series’ usual microtransaction nonsense, but by 2K’s slavish hunger for Brands™ as well.
This year’s story mode was handled by SpringHill, LeBron James’ own production company (James is credited as Executive Producer), and the setup for MyCareer’s attack on the NCAA feels more like an ad for SpringHill (especially when you consider the personal beef) than a genuine attempt to explore the issue, especially since the company’s co-founder Maverick Carter is one of the more prominent characters in the story prologue.
This is most evident, and depressing, in the way your player’s conflict with the college establishment is portrayed. After a teammate is injured and has his scholarship cut, you take a stand against your coach and school, and as a result find yourself benched ahead of the most important game of the season.
It’s a brave thing to do, but the way the game handles it after the fact is typical of where the series finds itself in 2019. After meeting an agent, you’re quickly introduced to Carter, who views your actions through the lens of what kind of sponsorship deals you can attract, and which Brands™ want to share your story (including his own).
That’s it. That’s the extent of how NBA 2K20 views an act of personal sacrifice, one that barely scratches the surface of some of the more pressing issues affecting college sports and how it compensates the athletes that drive its profits.. As a marketing stunt. An opportunity to sign some contracts. Like they looked at Colin Kaepernick’s struggles with the NFL and all they got out of it was his Nike deal.
The series, which has long been pioneering ways for Brands™ to infiltrate every corner of your experience on the court, from Gatorade-infused timeouts to Nike and Adidas apparel contracts, has finally found a way to weave them into the story itself.
Every season I complain that 2K’s desire for microtransaction spending and advertiser encroachment has got worse, every year I hope the next edition of the game addresses at least some of that, and every year I’m left increasingly disappointed.
It doesn’t have to be like this! No other major sports game tries to pull this kind of shit. Even EA, the supposed wORsT coMpaNY iN VidEO gAmES, has the sense to keep its brand partnerships limited to realistic broadcast expectations, and to not charge players for singleplayer game mode content.
And yet year after year 2K, despite intense fan protest online, turn the dial up and try to squeeze everyone just a little bit more. Clearly there are millions of fans who either don’t care, or are at least willing to suffer through it all, and it’s for these players that 2K is happy to continue building their entire game around the central conceits of microtransactions and advertising.
But for me, someone who just wants to have a little story alongside a singleplayer sports experience—which I really enjoy when I’m on the court!— NBA 2K20 is a new low.
Daemon X Machina, out September 13 from Marvelous, is a game about gigantic customizable mechs. Here is another way to describe it: the worst filler episode of your favorite anime series. It is a mess of a game, with a story mode chock full of unintelligible cutscenes, repetitious anime tropes, and a core of mech gameplay that is highly customizable but starts to blend together due to repetitive gameplay and drawn out gunfights.
This piece was first published on September 11, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release.
The Switch exclusive is a third-person action game in which you pilot an Arsenal, a weaponized mech. You spend time customizing your mech’s appearance and loadout, and then you accept missions from an AI called Four on behalf of mercenary supergroup Orbital. The missions are largely repetitive: fight some AI, or protect a building by fighting some AI. As you continue to increase your rank, you might fight some AI and other mercenaries, or protect a transport vehicle by fighting some AI and other mercenaries. Those fights drag on just a little too long for how samey they are. While I enjoyed moments like finding an acid gun that cut right through my enemies’ health, or double fisting bazookas every now and again to be silly, most of the guns felt a little bit too weak and dull even as I completed missions and upgraded them.
The game occasionally shakes things up with a gigantic mech boss that dwarfs you in size, which adds some desperately needed variety and is the real core of the game’s fun. One encounter has you facing a huge spider-like mech that jumps around the battlefield and tries to crush you as you maneuver to aim for its weak underbelly. Another has you fighting a tanker aircraft with lasers that tries to ram you between charged shots. These encounters are far more fun than fighting other pilots, which at a certain point begins to feel like aimlessly firing bullets into an endless morass of enemy health. It doesn’t help that the game’s lock-on system feels a little bit too fast and loose, even after optimizing your build.
The gameplay is fine, with flashes of fun, but isn’t good enough to outweigh Daemon X Machina’s storytelling problems. The game fills the checklist of anime cliches and is dense with forgettable terms and aggravating characters who say things such as: “I’m big bad Gargantua, twerp! I don’t need no details! Let me get to wreckin’ already!” Your created character is a Reclaimer, a very diplomatic way of describing a group of mercenaries who pilot mechs to essentially resolve territory disputes in a resource-rich area called Oval. Complicating this task is a war with rogue AI beings called Immortals, or at least, that’s what the game tells you.
In reality, after a certain point, Daemon X Machina shifts to a formula that is at once comically predictable and frustratingly oblique: You have a standard mission to destroy rogue AI machines. At some point, you and your mercenary allies are shocked—every time!— to find that another group of Orbital mercenaries has a mission that directly opposes yours. Again and again and again.
The game goes so far out of its way to tease its secret sci-fi plot that it never actually gets far enough into what’s actually happening to stay interesting. What are the Immortals really? What is each mercenary group’s aim? Which political consortium is doing what? Instead of getting a sufficient explanation for this, you spend rank after rank of the game getting an agonizing drip feed of troped-up anime quotes and characters who someone desperately tried to make mysterious but just come off corny and poorly written. “I know a thing,” they essentially say, “but I cannot tell you the thing yet. Just watch your back, Rookie.”
The game very badly wants to impart to you, the Rookie (and bafflingly the only pilot who continues unaffiliated for a substantial portion of the game), that each group has their own reasons to fight. And each pilot has their own reasons to fight. And that these pilots all understand that other pilots have their reasons to fight. There are sincerely dozens of cutscenes and chats and mid-mission dialogue options about reasons to fight. For some of them, it’s money, which in this game means several “they better pay more for this” jokes that quickly stop being funny. There are also several pilots who tell you, “Just don’t get in my way,” or some variation thereof.
Supplementing mid-battle chatter are between-mission messages from outside characters and groups, which are intended to worldbuild and provide background but are so poorly written they just come off silly. Each political consortium ends up sounding like an overwrought supervillain stroking a cat, making it difficult to distinguish them. “While this situation has been entrusted to Orbital, we believe it will be difficult for them to address it through the…proper means,” writes consortium Horizon, and I couldn’t help wondering why this message was even being sent to my character in the first place. Is this a mass email? Will I die in seven days if I don’t forward it? There’s a certain level at which the weird, stilted nature of communicating with Four and these consortiums seems intentional, but I just ended up frustrated with the game’s forced sense of mystique.
By the time you finally get the scent of some plot advancement at the end of your C-rank missions (you start at E), the game has tangled itself in confusing situations with characters you don’t have context to care about as they act on motivations and feelings that are hinted at but don’t actually seem to exist in any meaningful way. That confusion continues through to the end of the game, where the exposition dumping continues to ramp up. As the story unfolds, some compelling ideas about artificial intelligence and narrative twists actually emerge, but they’re both sparse and tardy. There could have been a genuinely interesting story here, had it been told with more care.
As a person who loves worldbuilding and lore, it’s hard for me to say that you should just skip the cutscenes and play the missions, but…you should probably just skip the cutscenes and play the missions. Since I’m a longtime player of Japanese RPGs, getting me to throw my hands up in the air and ask for fewer cutscenes is a feat.
The gameplay, unfortunately, is hurt by the same tendency toward excess that wrecks Daemon X Machina’s story. A lot of what I was able to do with my mech felt superfluous. There are different configurations you can use, like an offensive option or a speedier option, each with lowered defense, and you also have the ability to make a “Mirage,” a clone of yourself that draws enemies in and fights alongside you. These options can be helpful, particularly the Mirage, but they feel jammed into a game that already has a lot of stuff you can play with. There are also moments where you have to pilot equipment that’s not your own, including a gigantic Immortal that would be cool if it weren’t slow with limited tools. It sort of feels like a “this is the mech game you could be stuck with” moment, but it lasts for way too long.
Between fights, you can use equipment you’ve looted on missions to customize your Arsenal. You can also buy equipment or trade in parts to have new armor and weapons developed, as well as adding attachment to these parts, like increased ammo power or lowered memory usage. There are a lot of ways to customize both your Arsenal and the parts that make it up, but the gear you collect is unexciting and doesn’t feel worthwhile to min-max. On top of that, I found myself more than once wondering why I couldn’t just have certain abilities I could find or enhance.
For example, I could deal with the fact that I essentially had to be on top of enemies to aim at them at first, but having to use an equipment slot for a downward boost was irksome. The only other way to descend without it was to just slowly fall from the sky. I started to feel like a hoarder as a bunch of barely distinguishable parts piled up in my Arsenal’s arsenal, scarcely making enough of a difference for the mixing and matching to go as deep as all the in-game stats imply. I didn’t get excited about new decals or paint options, either, though at least there’s a hotdog decal. I’m never in life going to put that shit on my actual mech, but I’m tickled and happy that it exists.
You can also customize your pilot, or Outer, who can actually run around outside of a mech on the battlefield. It’s rarely fun to run around on foot, though you can eventually gain a skill to repair your mech. There are also some missions that require you to run around without your mech, like one where you have to stealthily steal an Arsenal and escape. They’re fine. They don’t feel totally broken and out of place, but they also aren’t a real highlight.
These issues are less pronounced in co-op, which has its own set of missions you can play with up to three other players. These missions consist of fighting versions of bosses you encounter in the main campaign, from gigantic mechs to other Arsenals. It was fun and challenging, and I could easily see multiplayer being the real draw of the game, though the limited number of missions could get old fast. I’m not sure the game is complex enough for strategy to figure much into the co-op gameplay, but it could be fun to team with friends to fire bullets and acid and lasers into a big ol’ mechanical monster.
I wanted to like Daemon X Machina, but as I played, I kept wondering how much more fun it might have been if the developers had zeroed in on some of the more enjoyable elements instead of providing so many customization options and wrapping everything in such a convoluted story. There are some genuine bright spots in the gameplay and even some enjoyably ridiculous characters, but there’s honestly just too much of…everything. It should be a good problem to have, but in a world that’s changing for good, Marvelous never truly figured out what they were fighting for.