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21st October 2017
Golf Story Review

Golf Story Review

Golf Story is zany, unexpectedly funny, and mechanically sound. Those descriptors aren't overly exciting on their own, but then again, the same could be said of what constitutes contemporary RPGs; you fetch things, hit other things, and generally do the bidding of others while your heroism goes ignored. Golf Story is essentially an RPG based on mundane, real-world concerns dialed up to the nth degree, and it's that relatability that makes it much more charming than it sounds on paper.

It's a not-so-sneaky homage to titles like Mario Golf considering its central conceit: absolutely everything can be solved with a combination of golf clubs, golf balls, and dogged persistence. That's where the player-character enters--a man who's lost half his life to a soul-sucking wife and the general indifference of others--and the fun begins. This is your typical redemption story, but instead of saving the world, you're trying to simply restore order to your otherwise bleak existence in memory of your father. It's a small-scale situation, but the the stakes feel enormous.

There's no way this could go wrong, right?
There's no way this could go wrong, right?

It's immediately clear that while golf is (quite literally) the name of the game, it's not the be-all and end-all of this affair. Just like any RPG, you'll encounter towns of people who need your help, which usually gets old pretty fast. However, Sidebar Games has managed to keep the pall of boredom away by injecting some local humour into the proceedings. For those lucky enough to be putting their feet up in Australia or New Zealand as they read this, good on ya. The jokes, sly nudges, and the meat pies that are prevalent throughout Golf Story are definitely charming signifiers that people Down Under will be familiar with. While you don't necessarily need to have watched Kangaroo Jack to get a laugh out of "mate" being used as an insult, those comedic touches will mean that little bit more to those already familiar with the vernacular.

Every quest-giver is, in some timeline or other, a verifiable idiot. It feels just like helping out the usual flood of gormless peasants, but there's a lot more to it than bringing hungry villagers some cheese. Ever wanted to be a single mother's hero by hitting her son in the face with a golf ball? You're in luck. Ever wanted to command an entire legion of turtles who exist solely to help you get a hole-in-one? What about raising an army of the dead to defeat a grand wizard? Golf Story takes the traditional plausibility rulebook and throws it entirely out the window, and it's better for doing so. Golf is unlikely to be considered a high-adrenaline sport by the general public, but throwing in quests that are equal parts mid-life crisis and downright diabolical certainly gets you more mileage out of your drive.

Speaking of driving, there's a lot of it. Most golf games make you play through courses of increasing difficulty as part of your journey to being the very best, and this is no exception. You'll spend a lot of time on the golf course, doing some combination of driving, chipping, putting, and internally screaming. It'd be a lie to say that there weren't some holes that had the potential to try the very limits of human patience, but luckily, those were generally spaced out well enough to not be a deterrent. Swings work on a three-click system: pick your club, pick your power, and pick your precision level. It's a no brainer as to what the best way to play is: toggle your precision indicator until it shows the distance pay-off that you're looking for, and make sure that you hit it.

There are other factors to consider too like wind speed, slope, and roaming wildlife who will take any opportunity to get their grubby little hands on your balls. Hitting an elusive albatross (three shots under par, not the giant bird) is really only possible if you manage all the above factors successfully, but you won't be punished for muddling your way through the nine-hole courses and enjoying the scenery if that's your cup of tea. Putting seems to be an exercise in futility, since it's difficult to decipher the slope of the green, but nothing's stopping you from swapping clubs and chipping your ball straight into the hole once it's on there, so go hard or go home. If you feel like the story isn't to your liking, then Quick Play mode allows you to subject yourself to round after round of golf on your favourite course, cutting out the middleman. You can change the default conditions of various courses to make things more challenging, and the best part of it is, you can do all of this with a mate for some local friendly competition.

However, there's a lot of other things to do in Golf Story, and once you master the basics of hitting a ball, you'll be free to focus on the other things that make it so charming. The game has an arsenal of gaming and pop culture references that it relies on, and recognising each is rewarding in its own way. Without giving too much away, the fact that you're tasked with solving a supernatural murder mystery in one breath and launched into a Pacman-esque gathering quest the next would keep most on their toes. It's a credit that the pacing doesn't suffer from the inclusion of these in-jokes, often taking the form of mini-games, and if you ever get sick of playing golf, you always have these side quests and bad puns to fall back on.

There are some glitches and bugs that make their presence known every now and again, but encountering something of the game-breaking variety is rare. You may find yourself interacting with new areas and being stuck in a background music loop as the player character becomes unresponsive, or more interestingly, you could find yourself in the dark space between one room and the next, unable to leave until you path through the same doorway multiple times. However, Golf Story's little issues don't make it a write-off.

It can take a little while for the narrative to ramp up in Golf Story and for you to feel like you've really cultivated the skills of a champion, but based on the sheer scope of what the game delivers, there's likely something for everyone to enjoy whether their shtick is mini-golfing or terrorising delinquents with frisbees. It has successfully captured the trappings of yesteryear's RPGs, and the witticisms and idiosyncrasies of the characters you encounter are a great palate cleanser between rounds. Switch has had a swathe of indies hit its eShop recently, but if you're looking for something that'll give you satisfaction in terms of an interesting story and a rewarding mechanic, then Golf Story is certainly par for the course.

20th October 2017
Not A Tragedy Yet

Not A Tragedy Yet

Life is Strange: Before the Storm brings players back to the town of Arcadia Bay, though it isn’t exactly as they remember it. Set three years before the original Life is Strange, the first episode of this prequel series successfully leveraged players’ familiarity with the characters and their future circumstances, but also established interesting new conflicts. The second episode, Brave New World, follows up on those narrative threads, but its biggest strength is how it continues to help us understand and empathize with Chloe as her world gets even more complicated.

Facing academic consequences for their actions in the last episode, Chloe and her newfound friend Rachel start the episode in hot water, which spirals out to create new opportunities for them to deepen their bond. Though the general setup is the same regardless of what you do, I appreciate how developer Deck Nine creates moments of decision that balance short- and long-term repercussions. For instance, I took the blame for the day of school that Chloe and Rachel missed, which had an immediate impact on Chloe – but a big benefit for Rachel later. Of course, you also get the satisfaction of seeing characters reference things you did in the first episode. Whether you sabotaged a student’s homework or stole some money, expect those actions to have consequences.

This kind of payoff structure sounds standard for the genre, but like the first episode, your choices forge a powerful connection with Chloe, helping to build a bridge to the person you know she becomes. The story makes you feel like you are influencing the characters and their trajectories in meaningful ways between the major narrative convergences – something it implements better than most other episodic titles on the market. How does Chloe get along at home? Where does she draw the line between right and wrong? Almost like a page in a coloring book, the big picture is the same for everyone, but the individual shades and tones can create unique experiences. For example, is Chloe pursuing a romantic relationship with Rachel? The answer to that question doesn’t necessarily change what happens, but it dramatically impacts the context surrounding the events of this episode in ways I won’t spoil.

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As this tale unfolds, Deck Nine’s decision to remain grounded in reality rather than integrating supernatural elements proves to be a smart one. The everyday activities feel authentic, and even the climactic moments are relatively mundane; many of your choices culminate in how well the school’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest goes. The trade-off for this approach is a lack of high-stakes conflict, since you aren’t rooting out a serial killer or avoiding a reality-destroying storm. By its nature, Brave New World doesn’t end on a dramatic cliffhanger that leaves the fate of the town in question – but since I’m more invested in the characters than an external mystery, that worked for me.

My biggest complaint is a carryover from the previous episode; the speed with which Chloe and Rachel’s friendship solidifies is so fast that it sometimes feels forced, undercutting the believability of their developing bond. Brave New World also reuses some of the series’ old environments, like the dorms and junkyard. The recycled backdrops themselves don’t bother me as much as the gameplay parallels within them, like having your access to the dorm’s front door denied. Also, considering the universal criticism leveled at the junkyard bottle-hunt in the original Life is Strange, I was surprised and disappointed to find another fetch quest in the exact same location, sending Chloe off scrounging for items to repair and improve a broken-down truck.

After finishing the first episode of Before the Storm, I was impressed at how well it retains the essence of the original Life is Strange, despite being handled by a different developer. That feeling doesn’t change with this episode; it draws you in with interesting characters, then builds them through quiet moments and big decisions. Even knowing the eventual fate of Chloe and Rachel, I am eager to see how the next (final) episode of this arc explores their legacy in Arcadia Bay.

20th October 2017
A Compromising Vision

A Compromising Vision

Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital has slowly developed the series' online component through the years, but now it's focusing on online play. GT Sport goes beyond the predominantly single-player past of its numbered installments, but doesn't go so far as to carve out an entirely new identity. The game uneasily tries to straddle these two poles, but thankfully the excellence of the driving is a comforting totem amidst some of the confusing structural choices.

The titular online mode isn't just about racing against other real-life opponents (the online lobbies are suited for that kind of free-for-all), it funnels players into specific competitions. Daily races are preset by Polyphony and they open up at specific times through the hour. This focuses the community, but the fact that these "daily" races are only being changed weekly means I soon tired of putting down qualifying times and challenging for a podium finish on the same three tracks. The marquee FIA GT Nations Cup, Manufacturers Series, and Polyphony Digital Championship competitions are all similarly time-gated, creating further choke points, and the online-only save structure – no matter what mode you're in – is also a hurdle. It auto-saves at intervals, but progress can be lost if there's a blip in the interim.

I like GT Sport's solemn attempt at a sense of occasion and propriety – even the earnestness of the etiquette rating that rewards you for not running into people. I feel the satisfaction of racing the right way. This isn't conveyed through the reckless driving penalties, which can be levied unfathomably, but by the cars themselves. The racing demands an understanding of the limitations and strengths of the cars, from the lateral stiffness of a low-end car to trying to harness the horsepower and braking prowess of a better one. I smugly enjoyed taking a corner crisply and thereby passing a faster car in lesser hands. Overall, the fact that car collision is disabled when someone re-enters from off the track or spins out of control thankfully prevents all hell from breaking loose during online races. In another concession, even shots from behind don't automatically send you careening.

Cars, credits, and various rewards like decals and arcade mode track unlocks flow easily, and cars can be tuned and upgraded (through a simplified system, since you don't buy parts), allowing them to compete across different performance categories. Your garage is useful as you get a feel for which ones you like on which track, but this endearment is stunted by the limited single-player campaign mode.

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Putting aside the usual driving school lessons and the track tutorials in the Circuit Experience section, GT Sports' campaign mode largely consists of 64 mission challenges ranging from overtake tests to full-on races. The mode is admirable and nets you credits and various rewards, but it doesn't offer the cohesive journey of a normal career mode containing series of multi-race championships (which I acknowledge could also be done better in the other Gran Turismos). Instead, it's a series of disparate, smaller tasks often involving loaner cars. GT Sport is an online-focused title for sure, but a side effect of the campaign mode as it stands is that it lessens the emotional investment in your garage cars.

Finally, the entire game suffers from too few tracks and no dynamic weather to go along with them (currently rain is only in a later mission challenge). No matter the mode, you churn through the likes of Brands Hatch and Suzuka more times than desirable, and I don't know why Polyphony elected to use multiple ovals/near-ovals when they bring little to the table and there are other, more attractive real-world tracks out there.

Regardless of its foibles, let this installment be the start of a real commitment by Polyphony Digital to online racing – one that is folded into the main series' career mode and which is not just a temporary dabble like the track creator of GT 5 or the dynamic time/weather and race clubs of GT 6. GT Sport has enough qualities that it should be the start of something better and not just a detour for the franchise.

20th October 2017
Elex Review

Elex Review

As a big, open-world RPG, Elex shows great ambition. The world of Magalan is a fractured yet beautiful place, having spent the last 150 years recovering from the devastating impact of a comet. It’s not your typical post-apocalyptic world, showing the signs of rejuvenation that makes exploring its heavily scarred, mountainous surface an enticing and occasionally captivating proposition. But despite this, a disjointed story, unresponsive controls, and frustrating combat mechanics consistently suck the life out of Elex, making its 30-hour campaign too arduous to recommend.

You play as Jax, a widely feared former Commander within the Alb faction, the game’s main antagonists. Albs are known for their addiction to Elex, an element that has permeated through the planet since the impact of the comet, which makes them both immensely strong and emotionally void; the perfect soldiers. Driven by their dedication to their leader, The Hybrid, and his directive to gain control of all the Elex in the world, they begin an aggressive reclamation of the planet, waging war on the other factions and building giant Converters to rip the Elex from the ground.

The Alb Directive demands the punishment of death for failing a mission, and when Jax is deemed to have failed, he is put down, albeit unsuccessfully, by another Alb commander who leaves him for dead. Having woken up some time later--a fact that is poorly communicated through the course of the intro--with his armor stolen and the residual Elex gone from his body, Jax begins his search for a new place in the world. The Alb’s savagery is a gripping premise of its own accord, but it never really lives up to the potential of its setup.

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Where Jax goes from here is entirely up to you, though you are given a little direction by way of Duras, a Berserker warrior who leads you to Goliet, the main Berserker settlement. Peaceful settlements dot Magalan, as do raider camps, mutants and other assorted creatures who have been transformed into ghastly beasts by the Elex that has ravaged the land.

You can learn unique abilities from each faction, like casting magic or suggestive mind control through dialogue, once you’ve proven your worth. The Berserkers retreat to nature, transmuting Elex into Mana for magic and using it to revitalise the scorched planet, while the religiously bound and technologically advanced Clerics utilise Elex-powered technology built upon remnants of the old-world. The lawless Outlaws live off the scrap of the desert, while all three factions live under the threat of the Albs' aggression. Appeasing their needs is no easy feat, though, largely due to the balance of difficulty in the game’s opening chapters.

Starting on the 2nd hardest of the four difficulty levels, it didn’t take me long to wind it back to normal, and then to easy. But regardless of difficulty level I felt hopelessly underpowered, even against enemies that appear early on, so much so that the only way I felt I could make significant progress was to run from as many encounters as I could. However, avoiding combat doesn’t help in the missions where you’re forced to fight.

Feeling under levelled in an RPG isn’t the problem here, rather it's that there's no real way around it. Any time I would find a newer, stronger weapon, I’d try to equip it only to be denied by my lack of certain skills. There are five main attributes you can pour your skill points into, and most weapons require you be at a minimum level with at least two of those attributes.

Upgrading weapons feels equally trivial, as doing so also affects their stat requirements and can put them well beyond your character’s capabilities, rendering it a pointless pursuit. This becomes less of a problem in the late game, but it wasn’t until around 20 hours into Elex that I felt marginally comfortable jumping into a standard, open-world encounter.

Even then, there are still some real issues with the game’s controls and combat that present themselves early; something Elex never truly recovers from. Melee combat feels cumbersome, with Jax’s quickest attack requiring a hefty wind up before the swing. The auto-targeting function doesn’t differentiate between friend or foe, and when combined with poor hit detection and slow animations, it causes all manner of problems when fighting next to groups of friendlies. Ranged combat is a little better, but similarly suffers from some problems with hit detection.

Most frustrating is when you successfully hit an enemy with either a melee or ranged attack and it does no damage whatsoever, at least until you’ve hit it three or four times. Initially I thought this had something to do with my stamina meter being drained, but that just stops you from attacking in the first place. I never did work out the precise reason why this happens, but it’s stunningly frustrating as it makes nearly every engagement feel horribly unbalanced, overshadowing Elex's better qualities.

While character models and faces leave something to be desired, much of the environmental art is incredible. Separated into distinct regions, Magalan is gorgeous. From the green, flora draped lands of Edan and the canyon laced deserts of Tavar, to the volcanic region of Ignadon, the layout of its heavily cracked and damaged surface feels superbly hand-crafted. The details can lead to occasional frame rate drops, especially with lots of characters onscreen, but it’s hard to deny Elex’s wonderful art design. The addition of a jetpack to help you traverse mountainous regions, despite feeling a little clumsy, is also a nice touch.

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Some of the inter-factional rivalries are interesting on the surface, with politics between clan leaders and in-fighting providing a bit of fun through dialogue and faction missions, but the overarching narrative rarely proves to go anywhere significant. Some of these missions touch on thought-provoking themes, like the idea that, despite being of the same faction, one person’s morality doesn’t always equate to another’s. Despite the interaction of different factions being a running theme through many of the game’s quests, Elex doesn’t have much more to say on the topic.

The main story quests aren’t quite as interesting, and are riddled with bugs in their presentation. Jax’s back story is slowly pieced together through memories presented as cutscenes during moments of exposition, though the transitions between these are jarring at best, with some cutscenes occasionally not playing at all. Numerous times did I come out of a cutscene only to find the world tearing itself apart and my character falling through the floor, either crashing the game or requiring a full restart and forcing me to replay the same section over again in the hopes that it wouldn’t fall apart.

Elex's world is no doubt enticing, but the good moments are heavily dispersed among some rough technical problems and odd designs that only serve to frustrate. The game offers an incredibly designed world and the basis of a compelling RPG that disappointingly fails to live up to its potential in almost every way. For a game that relies heavily on its combat for progression, it feels overwhelmingly geared against you, and with the added technical issues and lack of a compelling story to tell, Elex takes the wind out of its own sails at nearly every turn.

19th October 2017
WWE 2K18 Review

WWE 2K18 Review

Spectacle and showmanship are as vital to professional wrestling as its storylines and in-ring action. Fans will fondly remember a Superstar's distinctive mannerisms, or the pageantry of a glorious entrance, just as much as a five-star match. WWE 2K18 takes this aspect to heart with a substantial leap in visual fidelity--further complementing developers Yuke's and Visual Concepts' adherence to wrestling authenticity. However, the game's cosmetic advancements fail to cover up stagnant gameplay mired in technical issues.

WWE's superlative lighting, character models, and motion captured animations bring each star of the squared circle to life with startling accuracy. And while there are some disparities between the poor saps at the bottom of the card and those at the very top, the gap isn't as significant as it has been in previous years, with entrances remaining a dazzling highlight. Small details, like stretch marks and surgery scars, also contribute to WWE 2K18's graphical showcase. Muscles are defined and flex when a Superstar heaves an opponent over their shoulders, veins bulge under the strain of submissions, and even Finn Balor's demon paint gradually peels off over the course of a match. As a visual representation of the product we see on TV each week, it's definitely impressive, and this devotion to realism extends to the gameplay, too. This is nothing new, of course, and if you haven't enjoyed the series' methodical pacing and restrictive over-reliance on counters in the past, WWE 2K18 is unlikely to change your mind. This is essentially the same game as it was last year, with a few incremental additions edging the needle closer to the authenticity the series strives for.

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Hot tags have been modified to be a more natural, momentum-injecting part of tag team matches, and a new carry system gives you more options on offence, allowing you to forcefully haul your opponent around the arena and execute a variety of context-sensitive actions with ease. This is particularly enjoyable if you're playing as a giant like Braun Strowman, since you can hoist smaller opponents over your head and launch them directly out of the ring--which is certainly impactful in Battle Royales and the Royal Rumble. Speaking of which, eight-person matches are also new this year, adding an element of chaos to any over-the-top-rope shenanigans. The only downside is that so many Superstars duking it out at the same time has a negative impact on the game's frame rate, with the slowdown enough to disrupt your timing on counters.

This isn't WWE 2K18's only technical issue either. While the AI is passable at best and dim-witted at worst, there are also myriad glitches spread throughout its various match types and game modes. From Superstars getting trapped inside inanimate objects and being teleported around the arena; referees not counting pins in eight-person tag matches; the Royal Rumble completely breaking due to Superstars failing to appear when their number is called; or the way the Elimination Chamber acts as a proverbial cooking pot for a concoction of ludicrous glitches, WWE 2K18 is a messy experience. Sure, a number of these mishaps are funny, but there are others that actively ruin the experience on a larger scale, whether it's the game crashing every single time there's a promo in Universe mode, or the way MyCareer struggles to keep track of your allies and rivals, even forcing you to wrestle yourself in championship title matches. This series has always suffered from its fair share of glitches, but they're especially egregious and plentiful this year.

Meanwhile, MyCareer still tasks you with creating a character and climbing the ranks of the WWE, however, there's still no option to create anything but a male wrestler, which is disheartening. Some light RPG elements do at least attempt to spruce up the action in-between matches, and you're now free to explore the backstage areas, chatting to your fellow Superstars and picking up side quests that will further your alignment as either a face or heel, unlocking specific perks for each. The aforementioned glitches create problems here, however, as you might be asked to cut a promo on Enzo Amore, only to call out Cesaro instead, and then be told backstage that Dean Ambrose knew your plan. It's a mess, and a struggle to keep track of. These backstage segments are overly lethargic due to the regularity and length of their loading times, which mean you'll often spend more time watching the game than playing it.

This series has always suffered from its fair share of glitches, but they're especially egregious and plentiful this year.

Beyond these issues, the writing in MyCareer remains its biggest problem. Even if you excuse the juvenile insults and complete lack of voice acting, there's nothing here that carries any weight or interest. The writing lacks character and individuality, so it doesn't matter who you speak to backstage. Bray Wyatt might be an occultist hillbilly with an anomalous promo style, but he'll still speak with the same verbiage as Seth Rollins, who will in turn sound just like John Cena. And this carries over into the promos, too. These work much the same as they did last year, tasking you with picking from a number of dialogue options, and then trying to maintain a cohesive tone throughout to achieve a high score. The dialogue options aren't quite as vague as they were before, so it's easier to craft a coherent promo, but the terrible writing and silent pantomiming rob these moments of any impact. Last year, the promo system felt like a flawed first draft with room to grow, but there's been very little progression one year later.

MyCareer's online counterpart, Road to Glory, fares much better than its single-player brethren. By following the real-life WWE calendar, it allows you to take your created character online to compete against others in daily match types in order to earn enough stars to qualify for pay-per-view events. This adds some purpose and impetus to online brawls, and the netcode this year is surprisingly good, with smooth matches and no noticeable input delay, even when you bump it up to a fatal-fourway.

It's fun seeing everybody else's created Superstars, but customisation in MyCareer is disappointingly limited by the inclusion of loot boxes. There are no microtransactions in WWE 2K18, so 2K isn't trying to urge you to part with more cash. But, honestly, that just makes this approach all the more baffling. The vast majority of customisation options, from hairstyles and T-shirts, to wrestling tights and even the vast repertoire of moves, are locked behind these loot boxes. You earn virtual currency throughout the game, and Road to Glory also has weekly loot boxes to unlock, but you're still at the whim of a randomised draw. If you want a specific beard or a finishing move, you're just going to have to hope luck falls on your side.

Fortunately, the creation suite outside of MyCareer is as exhaustive as ever, with everything unlocked from the get-go. You can tinker with every single facet of a Superstar's design and create new title belts, custom matches, and arenas, and download other users' creations to, say, fill out the NXT roster with the likes of Adam Cole, Drew Galloway, and Kairi Sane.

WWE 2K18's in-ring combat is fundamentally flawed, and will be as divisive as it often is. Yet there's no denying the inherent joy derived from performing your favorite Superstar's signature moves. Whether it's cracking your opponent over the head with AJ Styles' Phenomenal Forearm, or pounding the life out of Asuka's latest victim, there are moments of pure pro wrestling enjoyment to be found here. It's just compounded by too many frustrating issues, disruptive glitches, and a dearth of engaging single-player modes. This series has remained stagnant for far too long, and WWE 2K18 doesn't change things.

18th October 2017
Fire Emblem Warriors Review

Fire Emblem Warriors Review

Fire Emblem Warriors brings heroes from the revered Fire Emblem strategy series and drops them onto the chaotic battlefields developer Omega Force's Warriors games are known for. These knights, paladins, and mages are a natural fit for medieval clashes against swarms of hapless enemies, but their influence on the Warriors formula is otherwise fleeting. However fun it can be in short spurts, Fire Emblem Warriors feels like plenty of other Warriors games before it: a simple joy plagued by repetitive and shallow encounters.

Like more recent Fire Emblem games, you're introduced to a new pair of protagonists--Lianna and Rowan. Sibling heirs to the Aytolis Kingdom, their land comes under threat with the appearance of an evil dragon and thousands of otherworldly fiends who've slipped through a rift in space and time. In a similar fashion, characters from various Fire Emblem timelines (The Blazing Blade, Shadow Dragon, Awakening, Fates, and Echoes) come to Lianna and Rowan's rescue. It's a thin narrative that leads to plenty of awkward exchanges and cliche events. And though this may be par for the course for the Warriors series, Fire Emblem games are typically heralded for their captivating stories and deep characters, so it's hard not to be a little disappointed to see very little of that transition over to this experimental outing.

If you’re at all familiar with the Warriors games, then you already know what to expect as Fire Emblem Warriors follows the formula very closely: Playing as one of the many available heroes, you venture onto the battlefield and slay hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies during a single mission through hard-hitting yet simple-to-execute combo attacks.

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Attacks and combos are input via a two-button system for light and heavy attacks, and you have access to a flashy special ability once your damage meter is full. The weapon triangle system pulled from Fire Emblem dictates how effective one character is against another depending on their default weapon, but weighing the advantages of individual face-offs slows the rapid and enjoyable pace of combat. Likewise, the pair up system, where you do your best to create a bond between two characters, doesn't make this game significantly different from other Warriors spin-offs.

Apart from feeling somewhat shallow, Fire Emblem Warriors plays smoothly, and it’s enjoyable to watch favorites like Chrom, Marth, and Lyndis break free from their turn-based ways to slay massive swarms of low-level enemies in real time. Sadly, not every beloved Fire Emblem character made the cut, with notable protagonists like Alm, Eliwood, Ike, and Roy missing in action.

Given the potential impact Fire Emblem's demanding nature could have had on the Warriors series' straightforward hack-and-slash engagements, the diminished classic mode is another source of disappointment.

In keeping with Fire Emblem tradition, you have the option between “casual” and “classic” game modes, though the rules work differently, eschewing classic permadeath for something a little less punishing. During a casual playthrough, fallen allies are easily revived at certain checkpoints; however, they can also be revived on the classic difficulty provided you have enough gold and other relevant items. In other words, no character is ever truly dead. It's also rare that you ever need to worry in the first place, as you’re free to switch between any one of the up to four characters you can take on a mission, allowing you to quickly control and heal allies that may be on the verge of death. Given the potential impact Fire Emblem's demanding nature could have had on the Warriors series' straightforward hack-and-slash engagements, the diminished classic mode is another source of disappointment.

The same can be said for your AI partners, who are nearly incapable of autonomy, even when given a direct purpose such as attacking or defending a chosen person or location. They rarely take the most efficient route following your order, and often end up simply standing in place once they reach their destination. With such unreliable partners, you're ultimately left to do everything yourself as missions unfold.

And because Fire Emblem Warriors is a Warriors game, there are hundreds of enemies on-screen at once. The frame rate takes a notable hit from time to time, almost chugging as the game attempts to render both the enemies you've defeated and their replacements spawning into battle. The same issue occurs when characters are introduced during missions in short, voiced cutscenes, causing the game to throttle down to stop-motion like speeds. These performance issues don’t hinder your ability to succeed, but they are obtrusive enough to be annoying.

Fire Emblem Warriors doesn’t radically change the formula of the two-decade-old Warriors franchise, nor is it concerned with attempting to do so. At best, it's a decent vehicle for Fire Emblem's characters, a chance to flex their muscles in a new venue without the limitations of turn-based combat holding their abilities back. There are signs of potential left unrealized, and the thought of what a Warriors game with truly dramatic character relationships and permadeath could have been lingers. For now that remains out of reach as Fire Emblem Warriors is yet another collaboration where Omega Force's tendencies dominate the finished product.

16th October 2017
South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review

South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review

In South Park: The Fractured But Whole, the fantasy theme of its predecessor gives way to the equally popular subject of superheroes, parodying the current state of comic book-to-film oversaturation we see today. This shift is complemented by the change in the combat system, which proves cerebrally satisfying despite the juvenile sight of your main character using flatulence to overpower and outsmart everyone from ninjas to a red wine-enraged Randy Marsh. And when you add town exploration that awards practical character benefits, the resulting game is a delightfully fart-tinged journey that delivers satisfying gameplay and surprising absurdity in equal measure.

Like many South Park episodes, The Fractured But Whole's story kicks off with Eric Cartman cooking up a self-serving scheme: the search for a missing cat so he can use the reward money to fund a movie franchise for his troupe of superheroes. Yet, this is South Park after all, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that what develops goes way beyond a simple feline rescue. We're talking about police corruption with Lovecraftian twists and having to stomach debased attacks by pedophile bosses. As you once again play as the New Kid, you promptly join Cartman's team, Coon and Friends, engaging in a host of bizarre stories that play fast and loose with crude humor and sensitive topics alike.

This is South Park through and through, where outrageous and unpredictable plot developments contrast against the day-to-day goings on of seemingly normal suburbanites. There's also the typical smattering of references to recent real-life events, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Morgan Freeman running a taqueria. But the game follows the franchise blueprint of lampooning pop culture and society without in-depth commentary, typified by the non-combat difficulty slider where being black is supposedly the hardest setting, and being white is the easiest. It's an opportunity to present something meaningful left half-realized as a flyby gag.

Seemingly more care was put into the game's more benign comedic touches, starting with game title itself. 'The Fractured But Whole' isn't a mere excuse to hide 'butthole' in a game title; it's also a clever take on Captain America: Civil War, relevant since the game's story involves two rival superhero teams. The Fractured But Whole is a consistent chucklefest where genuine laugh out loud moments are spread thin, which is forgivable for a playthrough that can last over 20 hours. Thanks to fast travel, completing missions comes at a steady pace, which means you're only minutes away from a new scene that would warrant a chortle at the very least. That could be Mr. Mackey's disturbing inquisitiveness about your sexual preferences or the City Wok staff moonlighting as ninjas. And even in the more private settings of a stranger's bathroom, the minigame of dropping a deuce offers its own flavor of hilarity.

Your arduous rescue mission is filled with hostile encounters against everyone from sixth graders to the elderly. As a welcome change to the precision demands of the Stick of Truth's RPG-inspired mechanics, Fractured But Whole employs tactics-style combat, prioritizing strategy-driven thoughtfulness over adept reflexes. While those new to tactical RPGs won't have to worry about the intricacies of terrain effects or improving chemistry between squadmates, you're nonetheless rewarded for thinking a couple turns ahead. Moreover, the modestly sized combat grids give the initial false impression that only rudimentary battle planning is needed for success. In actuality, these sometimes cramped spaces force you to think carefully on how to efficiently navigate your characters around the field, ideally to capitalize on their powers.

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It's a superbly balanced combat system that values smart thinking while also offering the flexibility of personal preference when choosing your character's class and abilities. Whether you like supporting and buffing friends or want to be the most powerful tank possible, you can complement your strengths with the many superfriends you amass over time. While it's a stimulating challenge trying to make a great team, it's even harder to come up with a bad one. For every hero that has a potent attack that can knock back enemies, there's a buddy who can heal and buff. Another advantage is the accessibility of craftable health-restoring mexican food. This can turn the bulk of encounters into easy victories, though The Fractured But Whole offers its share of optional encounters above your fighting weight--as measured by your squad's Might level--not to mention a number of challenging boss fights.

Growing your team's Might is inextricably tied to every bit of forward progress you make, whether that's wrapping up a story goal or completing the myriad side quests assigned by familiar townsfolk. From building a follower count on social media via the Coonstagram app or collecting gay romantic manga for Mister Tucker, experience earned through those missions accumulate to increase your levels and unlock slots for Might-boosting artifacts.

As you head to any map-marked objective, the various unexplored homes and businesses along the way are well-peppered with practical crafting items and side-mission collectables. Thanks to a number of quality-of-life conveniences, exploring seldom feels like a chore. Accessible drawers are well-marked with yellow handles, backpacks you've sifted through remain open, and when you've completed various collection missions, you're rewarded by the quest giver immediately, saving you the trip to physically hand the goods. These benefits far outweigh The Fractured But Whole's slight annoyances such as not knowing what attacks in battle result in friendly fire and the tiny font of your app updates.

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Aside from exploration and battles, South Park is loaded with environmental puzzles that--while hardly brain teasing--can elicit more than a giggle depending on how a hurdle is overcome. The most challenging obstacles are surmounted by your legendary farting abilities and select friends you can call in for an immediate assist. By combining your flatulence with the flight ability of Human Kite (aka Kyle's superhero persona), you can reach higher, previously inaccessible areas. Toilet humor transcends to depravity when you fire Butters' rodent out of your butt, launching it to reach and sabotage open electrical panels. While The Stick of Truth had its share of gassy gags, this sequel doubles down on farting as an essential multipurpose game mechanic, powerful enough to bend space and time at your whim. Not only does it prove useful in solving puzzles, it's also invaluable in preventing enemies from using their turn in battle.

Much like The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole can be appreciated as a standalone adventure, accessible to those who've fallen off the TV series over a decade ago. Fans who have kept up will appreciate the handful of recent call backs to the show plus at least one timely spoof that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone previous said they would not tackle. And if there's one aspect of the show that hasn't changed in its 20-plus years, it is the endearing qualities of the kids' reality-breaking imaginations. This is best exemplified in the classic pronouncement that the floor is lava, which is represented by initially impassible red building blocks strewn throughout the town.

Fractured But Whole succeeds as an interactive South Park mini-series, while effectively emulating the show's current style of adult-targeted entertainment and satirization of political correctness. In other words, it's consistently amusing and provocative without the edginess the series used to be known for. Both the game's combat and explorative strengths effectively bridge the many comical plot developments, which range from mildly amusing to downright hilarious. It's an accomplishment that this game will wholly entertain devoted fans while delivering a heap of jokes that won't fly over the heads of casual viewers.

16th October 2017
Bigger, Longer, And Improved

Bigger, Longer, And Improved

Since it began airing in 1997, South Park has challenged what a television show should be. It killed a recurring character every episode during its early years, and had a series retrospective clip show episode in the middle of its second season. Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone looked at the animated television medium and said, “We’re going to do something different.” For 2015’s The Stick of Truth, they took a similar approach, poking fun at video game tropes all while showing a clear appreciation for the medium. Parker and Stone continue with this idea in The Fractured but Whole, a sequel that parodies video games while telling a new story and making smart modifications to improve the overall experience.

The biggest change between Stick of Truth and Fractured but Whole (other than its development studio) is the combat. The Stick of Truth followed in Paper Mario’s footsteps, while the sequel has concocted its own system that finds a middle ground between turn-based combat and grid-based tactics. Attacks are still selected from a menu and can be augmented with a timed button press, but you move your team around on a small grid, and every action conforms to a specific pattern. For example, using attacks to push enemies to either side of a party member who can attack in two directions at once is always satisfying. The use of the grid makes individual encounters more thoughtful, and having full control of the kids as you set up each attack gives you a greater sense of agency over the fight. You’re not just standing still selecting from a menu – you’re moving around and lining things up. The end result is a more engaging combat system than Stick of Truth’s.

With the direct involvement of its creators, Fractured but Whole’s story is unsurprisingly a full-on South Park story in all the right ways. Nearly all of its plot devices revolve around farts, making it juvenile and disgusting. But moments of thought-provoking commentary surround South Park’s racist police force and the mayoral election. It even pulls off heartfelt moments in the midst of its cavalcade of offensive jokes, with a few quiet moments reflecting on the difficulty of being a new kid in a new town with troubled parents. Though playing the previous game is not a requirement, the story picks up nearly where Stick of Truth left off, with Cartman arbitrarily deciding it’s time to play super heroes instead of fantasy. From there, the town destroys itself around the children as they maintain their pretend world and rules.

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South Park the show, for better and worse, sometimes goes too far off the rails and collapses under its own absurdity. This story, however, wraps up in a satisfying way while still breaking off into the right amount of absurd. The humor plays with video game tropes in smart ways, like how the Okama Game Sphere console in your room is stuck updating throughout the course of the game. The writers also take plenty of time to make fun of celebrity culture and the current political atmosphere. I didn’t fall into any gigantic fits of laughter at big punchlines, but I was usually chuckling or smiling at something happening on screen.

Social media is also among Fractured but Whole’s parody targets, and it is implemented well into the story and gameplay with selfies and followers being a major form of leveling. Tracking down all the familiar characters of South Park and solving small puzzles or performing tasks to convince them to take a selfie with you became one of my favorite side quests, and it all pays off in the finale.

Crafting is another new addition, and while I enjoyed finding ingredients to concoct story-specific items, the economy of found objects is strangely balanced. I had way too much of nearly everything, but was always short a tortilla or bottle to make health-restoring items. The necessity of having to buy those two items made it feel like I was just going to an in-game store to buy the items pre-made. In that sense, crafting feels like an extra barrier to receiving items instead of a fun place to experiment with the overflowing inventory.

The Fractured but Whole is a welcome sequel, maintaining the standard of quality set by the previous game and, in a broader sense, all of Parker and Stone’s work. Every aspect is overloaded with both smart and immature jokes, the combat is an improvement, the game is bigger and longer, and the sneaky moments of sincerity make you recall the charm of childhood in surprising ways – just like the show.

13th October 2017
The Evil Within 2 Review

The Evil Within 2 Review

Innovating within the bounds of horror's familiar tropes and rules is a difficult task, but one that The Evil Within 2 handles with grace. Developer Tango Gameworks cleverly introduces old-school horror design within the confines of a semi-open world that ultimately makes for a refreshing trip into a world of nightmares.

Picking up several years after the first game, we find the former detective Sebastian Castellanos in dire straits, still wracked with guilt over the loss of his family and haunted by his last visit into a nightmare version of reality. When a shadowy organization gives him the chance to set things right with his past and rescue his daughter from the dangerous and unstable world of Union, he willingly re-enters the haunting realm despite his residual trauma.

Right from the beginning, there's a sense of deja vu as Sebastian wanders the eerie and unreal locations in Union. Despite being one of the few survivors from the first game, he oddly finds himself falling for the same tricks and set-ups that the world and its inhabitants lay out for him. While this could be chalked up to a simple retread, much of these instances make a point of illustrating some key differences from this game and the last.

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There's generally more of an adventurous feel compared to the original's isolated levels. With more side characters to interact with--opening up moments of dialogue that flesh out the story--and optional events scattered around the world, there's a level of freedom and variety in The Evil Within 2 that was largely absent from the first game. However, there are a few notable sections where backtracking is required, which slows the pacing and sense of progression to a crawl.

Despite this, exploration is consistently enjoyable, rewarding treks to the places tucked away, where you can find details about Union's history and meet other characters looking to survive the nightmare. With so many little details that add a lot to atmosphere, there's a clear respect for The Evil Within's world. The many nods to original game feel more impactful for it, giving a renewed appreciation for Sebastian's previous adventure.

Compared to its predecessor's singular levels in unique chapters, The Evil Within 2 possesses a more organic and interconnected set of places to explore--focusing on several large maps with multiple points of interest. While there's still plenty of mind-bending and perspective-skewing set pieces, such as a tentacle creature with a large camera for an eye, the explorable spaces are the real standout. In many ways, it's like traversing through a demented amusement park filled with hideous creations, forcing yourself to face past horrors. Adventuring to places not marked on the map often yields valuable resources, and also leads to some surprising encounters with obsessive ghosts and multiple unnerving, fourth-wall breaking events.

It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.
It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.

Over time, environments descend into chaos when Union inevitably grows unstable, turning a small town into a horrifying and unnerving shell of its former self. Streets vertically upend, and fire and blood exude from places they shouldn't. The visual design of The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While Sebastian felt more like a mere sketch of a hardened and weary protagonist in his first outing, he feels better realized and more grounded in this sequel, giving a certain gravitas to his struggle. Showing bewilderment and confusion throughout the first game, he's more confident and determined this time, even throwing in some fitting one-liners that poke fun at some of the dangers in the last game. The supporting cast of villains also feel more active in the ongoing events, and have a greater sense of place this time around--particularly with the eccentric serial killer artist who photographs his victims upon their deaths.

The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While there's occasional moments of cheese and humor throughout--such as the inclusion of a goofy shooting range and collectible toys related to other Bethesda games--the levity never feels out of place, which is an accomplishment considering the game's pervasive macabre atmosphere.

Putting a greater emphasis on the survival aspect of survival horror, The Evil Within 2 demands resource management and bravery in its relatively spacious world. While common enemies are fewer in number compared to the original game, they're far more threatening alone and can easily manhandle Sebastian. There's a thoughtful approach to engagement and progression this time around, which means you'll have to think twice about whether or not to engage a group of enemies. With that said, you have a sizable arsenal of weapons and gear--including the return of the Crossbow with six different ammo types--to take on the enemies as you see fit.

Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.
Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.

Throughout his journey, Sebastian carries a communication device, allowing him to keep track of main objectives, along with points of interest and intel on the fates of side characters in the area. How you go about dealing with these characters and exploring is up to you. Similarly, whether you avoid conflict with enemies or take out as many as possible along the way is down to your preferred playstyle. The Evil Within 2 accommodates those that prefer action as much as those that like to be stealthy. Combat is robust, thanks to improved weapon handling and character upgrading that allows you to focus on the specific areas of Sebastian's skillset to enhance stealth, combat, and athleticism.

Sebastian can return to the safe haven of his mind to upgrade weapons and skills, and review case files and intel on various characters. With the Green Gel collected from fallen enemies--and the new Red Gel that unlocks upper tier upgrades--the core upgrading system has been greatly improved. Going beyond simply increasing damage of melee strikes and stamina length, new special perks can be unlocked such as the ever-useful Bottle Break skill that uses bottles as self-defense items when grabbed by enemies. Along with the expanded weapon upgrade system, using only weapon parts, the systems of progression feel far more nuanced and open.

Sebastian will have to scavenge for supplies and other materials to make up for the lack of ammo boxes and health items. While this may seem like it can make things easy, efficient crafting can only be done at dedicated workbenches, whereas crafting in the field via the radial inventory menu should be done a last resort as it costs twice as many materials. This crafting element adds a bit of a survivalist feel to The Evil Within 2, where you're scrounging around corners to find materials, all while avoiding packs of enemies looking to pummel you.

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Though the game is challenging even on its standard difficulty level, it's not unfair, and there are options for multiple playstyles. The standard Survival difficulty mode is manageable, and you won't find yourself hitting a way due to lack of resources. However, the Nightmare mode raises the stakes, featuring slightly altered combat encounters, harder enemies, and fewer resources to find. If you're up for a challenge of a different kind, the unlockable Classic mode will disable auto-saves, upgrades, and limit you to a finite amount of saves. In addition to extra unlockables for completing the tougher difficulties, the experiences they offer is more in keeping with the true survival horror experience, where resources are hard to come by, and the enemies are deadlier than before.

There's a clear respect for the horror genre in The Evil Within 2, with a number of references to classic films and games. The game channels that style and tone into combat that feels brutal and raw, stealth that has an air of suspense, and unsettling confrontations with dangerous, otherworldly creatures. The Evil Within 2 doubles down on the core of what makes survival horror games great: the focus on disempowerment and obstacles, and the ensuing satisfaction that comes with surviving a harrowing assault.

Though there's some occasional technical hiccups that result in some particularly frustrating moments and weird pacing issues, this horror sequel elevates the tense and impactful survival horror experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting. What this cerebral horror game does isn't totally new, but it rarely feels routine, and offers plenty of surprises. Coming in at a lengthy and surprisingly packed 15-hour campaign, the sequel does an admirable job of ratcheting up the tension and scares when it needs to, while also giving you the freedom to explore and proceed how you want. It's a tough thing to balance, but The Evil Within 2 does it remarkably well, and in a way that leaves a strong and lasting impression after its touching conclusion.