Get the low down with our game reviews and in-depth game analysis on all the new releases for your platform of choice. PS4 reviews, Xbox One reviews, PC reviews, Wii U reviews and iOS reviews in one place!

27th June 2017
The Ravages Of War

The Ravages Of War

Valkyria Revolution is not the game Valkyria Chronicles fans have been waiting for. It may share some similar themes and terminology with previous titles in the series, but this spin-off veers into distinctly different territory – usually with bad results. Though I love Valkyria Chronicles, I’m not disappointed with Valkyria Revolution because it strays from its predecessors; I’m disappointed because it’s a bland action/RPG that makes serious mistakes with its storytelling and gameplay.

Set in a fantasy facsimile of Europe during the industrial revolution, the plot follows an elite military squad through a war that pits the small-but-noble Jutland against the sinister Ruzi empire. But behind the scenes, five friends in positions of power are fueling the conflict and putting lives at risk solely to get revenge. Are they traitors, even if the war ultimately makes life better for the people of Jutland? Valkyria Revolution wants you to ponder that question, but the narrative is so clumsy and predictable that it can’t bear any thematic weight.

The characters are the biggest problem. The quiet-but-competent hero, the idealistic princess, the hard-drinking veteran – this store-brand squad is composed of generic personalities that fail to pull players into the tale. A story about revenge and the cost of war won’t resonate with players if they don’t connect to the people involved, and the bland cast of Valkyria Revolution fails to forge that connection. They have obvious epiphanies, undergo predictable changes, and are usually far more surprised than you are when the plot twists.

Another way the characters overstay their welcome is though the extended amount of time you spend watching them instead of controlling them. I love narrative-focused games, but having a lot of story to tell isn’t the same as doing it well, and that distinction is where Valkyria Revolution stumbles. It strings long cutscenes together (with a wealth of loading screens between them), but the animations and interactions are so mechanical and dull that it feels like you’re watching animatronic characters from bad angles. You can skip cutscenes, but at that point you’re opting out of the story completely – which leaves only the combat system to entice you to keep playing, and it’s not much of an incentive.

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On the battlefield, Valkyria Revolution is a passable soldier, but isn’t winning any medals. You and your squad fight through various maps in real time, completing objectives like capturing bases and eliminating enemy captains. Combat is melee-focused, so you’re swinging magically charged swords and axes while dramatically outnumbered by the Ruzi forces. Battles have more in common with the Dynasty Warriors games than any Valkyria title, but that isn’t necessarily bad – it offers the basic kind of fun that comes from mowing down legions of bad guys.

On the other hand, the missions feel shallow and don’t leave much room for strategy. You have some tactical abilities (like magic and ranged weapons), but the core combat is too simple, and doesn’t change enough as you progress. I had less fun the further I got, because enemies soak up more damage (especially bosses), but don’t give you rewarding opportunities to flex your abilities. You’re throttled by a recharging action bar that limits your actions, and while that isn't enough to make battles truly challenging, it consistently puts the brakes on any momentum you may have built up.

Though its main gameplay and narrative pillars are crumbling, some parts of Valkyria Revolution are worthy of appreciation. I like how your squad members split off into groups and hang out; it’s a clever way to establish their lives and interests off the battlefield, even if I didn’t find the conversations that interesting. I also love the overall atmosphere – the grand alternate vision for 19th century Europe is conveyed well through the art direction and an excellent soundtrack from composer Yasunori Mitsuda. Unfortunately, the unique setting and mood are shackled to the rest of Valkyria Revolution, which makes them feel wasted.

If you dig deep, you can find charming parts of Valkyria Revolution – the thrill of taking down a group of foes with a well-placed grenade, or the rousing music and majestic scenery combining for a memorable moment. But these bright spots are far too rare in an experience that deals primarily in drudgery, from repetitive missions to overlong expository scenes. Even if you find and appreciate the good parts, the prize is too small for the price you pay on the battlefield.

22nd June 2017
Cities: Skylines - Mass Transit Review

Cities: Skylines – Mass Transit Review

Public transportation has never been my favorite part of city-building simulations. I’ve always treated it as something of a necessary evil--a hassle best dealt with by quickly laying down extra roads, bus lines, or whatever other available gimmick so that I could keep constructing the new subdivisions and industries necessary to keep my citizens healthy and happy.

Mass Transit--the latest addition to the growing Cities: Skylines family from developer Colossal Order--doesn't quite change my mind on all of this, as I'm also a real-world mayor who focuses on the big picture. However, it comes awfully close thanks to an effective collection of people-moving options, ranging from ferries to monorails to blimps. What's included here smooths out some kinks in the original game's transit systems, allowing you to build more efficiently running cities--albeit at the cost of some added micromanagement that moves the game well out of the virtual mayor's office.

Mass Transit is centered on two areas, largely addressed in the three new scenarios and three new maps that present fresh challenges when it comes to efficiently moving your citizens from Point A to Point B. The most obvious facet of the expansion is what it adds to city character. You're free to embrace the quirks of each city's particular geography. You can practice something of a "sea and sky" philosophy for coastal and mountainous locales, for instance, using monorails and ferries to link neighborhoods and give your cities something of a Vancouver or Seattle vibe.

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Since Skylines is pretty familiar to its fanbase at this point, being able to mix things up like this and put a fresh face on everything adds more to gameplay than you might imagine. The new Ferry Empire scenario offers a fairly light challenge when it comes to moving folks around your watery city, but it's set it on a unique, beautiful landscape. Authentically, you have to work within the constraints of this terrain and embrace a municipal vision that's far from the relative cookie-cutter metropolises seen elsewhere in Skylines.

The other focus is city efficiency. Mass Transit provides tools that make for better-running cities. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of the new hub buildings. These structures form central locations for public transportation. They allow you to concentrate your efforts and properly plan out transit systems--a big improvement from the more seat-of-the-pants concept of the original game, where you're pressured to jury-rig and make it up on the fly. Here, hubs afford more opportunities to sketch out transit and approach development from a top-down perspective. You have more control as a result and become able to address transit as part of core city infrastructure, just like with electrical lines, water pipes, and sewers in the past.

One problem is the size of new additions, though. Retrofitting cities with hubs and other transit buildings can be a major chore, since they're generally pretty big. The "Fix the Traffic" scenario sums up how challenging this can be, as you can't seem to help leveling about half the city to get the snarled traffic situation smoothed out. Even laying down facilities that are a little easier to work with--train tracks, for instance--is both tough to design and to fit in without doing even more demolishing.

Structuring transit routes can be finicky, too. Simply establishing ferry pathways and routes can be frustrating and requires more trial-and-error than should be necessary for something seemingly so straightforward. So, it's best to start with a clean slate with this expansion, something also advisable to best enjoy the suite of new game options (new road guidelines, for example) released as a free Skylines update alongside this expansion.

All of this combines to make Mass Transit more about micromanagement. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're a control freak who wants to take a hands-on approach to everything in your city. But it does move Skylines further away from a simulation of what it's like to be the real mayor of a real city. With all of the extras added in the various expansion packs, the game now feels a little more like a municipal engineer or municipal planner simulation than anything that properly depicts what it's like to be the mayor overseeing everything.

Even with that caveat, Mass Transit adds more character and depth to what’s already the premier city-building simulation. It may be a bit disappointing that some of the original game's big-picture philosophy and mayoral authenticity has been sacrificed in the process, but it can be argued that these changes have also done an impressive job of filling out the public-transportation element of city design.

22nd June 2017
A Unique Starter Home

A Unique Starter Home

In Ever Oasis, you are a seedling. Not quite human, not quite animal, but capable of establishing and growing an oasis in the middle of a desert. The world surrounding your oasis home is under attack by an ambiguous evil called chaos that infects the nearby land and the creatures that inhabit it. Your job is to create a sanctuary that the scared people of the world can call home. You do this by alternating between growing and managing your oasis and the people who live in it, and venturing outside to combat the creatures infected by chaos. The game finds a smart balance of simulation and action RPG mechanics, but struggles somewhat in its attempts to craft a believable world that feels alive.

In some ways, you are the hands-on king of your oasis. You lend assistance where it is needed, help the stores stay in business, and collect a small tax for your hard work. To make your town grow and keep your residents happy, you venture out with two A.I. partners to find inventory for the shops, fight the monsters, and track down those without a home.

Many aspects of your character and town can be expanded and leveled up. You grow stronger and become a better fighter, the individual residents level up, the shops level up, and even the oasis itself levels up. Everything grows in Ever Oasis at a steady pace, and the rewards for hitting each level are worthwhile. I liked seeing my oasis and individual stores grow and change as I built up a small army of powerful residents to take with me into the wild.

In town, I mostly check in on stores and residents to see what is needed, but beyond the oasis is a fun action game with periodic puzzle solving. Merely pressing the attack button repeatedly leads to an early death; using your few combos well is important, and roll-dodging is crucial. I died often early on in my playthrough, and it made me appreciate the calculated combat. This is not a mindless action/RPG, and I enjoyed carefully identifying attack and dodge windows.

Puzzle solving in the assorted caves and dungeons of Ever Oasis mostly involves making sure you have the right partners with you. This has the potential to be frustrating, making a long trip only to learn you needed a different A.I. partner, but Ever Oasis is generous with fast travel, making it easy to swap out for a different partner without a lot of backtracking or loading. Only a few puzzles demand more than a simple partner change, but it made these locations feel like more than just enemy rooms and I appreciate the variety, even if it is ultimately simple.

A lot of small quality-of-life mechanics help the game avoid frustration throughout. Once you have more stores than would be reasonably fun to individually manage, an upgrade lets you restock all your stores with a few button presses. Even collecting your taxes is an active experience, as you perform a special attack on the stores ready to pay up. The game also dabbles in farming, letting you plant seeds to grow plants in your town, but you can task a resident to take care of it for you if you want. Touches like this keep the game moving at a steady pace, allowing you to focus on the rewards instead of the work.

The one thing that holds Ever Oasis back is its lack of identity both in terms of its characters and mechanics. Despite the steady flow of visually distinct seedlings coming to live in your town, I didn’t get a sense of any of their personalities. With the exception of a few, everyone feels the same. The bland visual direction doesn’t help; character designs sometimes look like bundles of clothing just mashed together.

I like the variety of activities, as I was never doing the same thing for too long, but it made the game feel more like a checklist (an enjoyable one, admittedly) than a real place I was eager to visit and explore. It constantly hops around giving you different short-terms goals, but not giving you a chance to admire your progress.

Ever Oasis marks the first fully original title from developer Grezzo in some time, and it is exciting to see what the studio is capable of when given the opportunity to create something totally new. The final product is a unique RPG experience that doesn’t have a lot of character, but is able to deliver a consistently compelling adventure. I never got the sense that the world was alive, but I enjoyed exploring, fighting monsters, watching my town grow, and making sure my residents were happy.

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22nd June 2017
Star Trek: Bridge Crew Review

Star Trek: Bridge Crew Review

For better and worse, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is exactly what's advertised--it's a virtual-reality simulation of operating a Federation starship. For the first few moments, the sheer thrill of taking the Captain's chair in VR, looking around you to see crew members all working away at their stations, and issuing your first commands is all wonderful and novel. But the second you start yearning for new life, new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before, you find a game nowhere near that ambitious.

Set in the J.J. Abrams Trek universe, Bridge Crew's single-player campaign centers around the U.S.S. Aegis--which, after a brief training mission, sets forth on its task to help the Vulcans find a new home. This mission takes the Aegis into a Klingon-controlled territory, the Trench, and into the heart of a potentially ugly interstellar incident. You can fill one of four roles aboard the ship: the Captain issues orders to every other department from the holographic menu built into the player’s chair, the Helm puts you in the driver's seat, Tactical handles shields and weaponry, and Engineering determines how much power gets shifted to the ship's vital systems.

The single-player campaign is brief, but it acts as an extended tutorial on the ins and outs of running a starship. From the Captain's chair, you receive orders from Starfleet and issue the commands that lead the Aegis ever forward. However, particularly in single-player, those commands aren't as simple as just telling your crew to move forward at quarter impulse or fire phasers. Instead, they’re a piece-by-piece process that must be followed and timed just right, with every crew member involved performing their duties with precision. In single-player, even something as simple as warping involves opening a menu, setting the correct course, telling engineering to power up the warp drive, having the helm align the ship towards the target location, and finally issuing the order to perform the warp. The process becomes second nature over time, especially with a proper VR controller like the Playstation Move to navigate the menu-heavy UI.

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You also have the ability to temporarily switch to another position to take manual control over the ship's various functions and levers in single-player, but it's a lot to manage and not nearly the simple power trip you might expect. A.I.-controlled crew members have a nasty habit of being complete knuckleheads who don't know how to properly and strategically fly around obstacles when pursuing a target.

Bridge Crew is somewhat more immersive in multiplayer, where you can speak directly to your crew and coordinate actions by voice, but you need to meet certain requirements for it to go smoothly: four trustworthy crew members, all of whom know their roles inside and out, and who can pull it together long enough to take the game even marginally seriously enough to get through the trickier missions. The situation is helped by the fact that, thankfully, the game supports Cross-Play between PSVR, Rift, and Vive users, meaning there’s typically no shortage of players to fill all four roles. However, since voice chat goes through all sorts of different protocols via the uPlay service, consistent communication remains a problem. Even then, that's assuming you're not stuck with someone who won't stop quoting Galaxy Quest instead of remembering to keep your ship in low-detection mode in Klingon territory.

It didn’t happen often in my time with Bridge Crew, but sometimes the stars did, in fact, align with the right kind of crew: cheerful without being overly silly, strong in their roles, intuitive enough to question an order without the bridge descending into chaos, and being just plain fun, amiable companions. And once that miracle is accomplished, you're left to contend with Bridge Crew as a game. And that game is, ultimately, a fairly milquetoast space shooter.

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The big issue really comes down to the fact that experiencing the minutiae of running a Starfleet ship is such a thin, pedantic aspect of what makes Star Trek a fascinating universe to play around in. It's always been strong character work and far-reaching sci-fi ideas and allegory that have elevated the dry space-navy material. There isn't nearly enough of the former here. The single-player campaign has a story, one that's even a decent jumping-off point from the Abrams films (albeit one that's deeply reminiscent of Mass Effect: Andromeda), but you aren’t making the truly hard decisions that define the best Starfleet captains, nor are you able to interact with your crew or even the ship outside of the bridge room in any meaningful way.

Even Trek’s infamous no-win Kobayashi Maru scenario--playable here as part of the game's introductory chapter--ends up as little more than a mindless shootout while attempting to transport the doomed vessel’s crew. The remainder of the campaign never really rises above that, content to be a game of traveling between systems, scanning areas and artifacts, transporting life forms, and fending off Klingon Birds of Prey from time to time. It's a game that crucially needs more interesting challenges that can't be solved with phasers.

It's still somewhat thrilling to inhabit the captain's chair on the bridge of a starship--at the bare minimum, Star Trek: Bridge Crew accomplishes that mission. When the game is at its best, the spirit of cooperation between various asymmetrical elements is encouraging--even special. In every other regard, however, Bridge Crew is forgettable the second you pull out of VR.


21st June 2017
Get Even Review

Get Even Review

What if you could re-live your memories and the memories of others to see the world through their eyes? How would that make you feel about your own life decisions? Get Even, from Polish indie studio The Farm 51, tackles those questions and more. Get Even's best element is no doubt its story. With plenty of twists and misdirection, this psychological thriller contains an emphatic and thought-provoking ending. But its gameplay, which consists of puzzle-solving and shooting, does nothing of note other than distract you along the way.

Get Even starts in dramatic, bewildering fashion. Playing as Cole Black, a former soldier with a long criminal record and cloudy motivations, you start in what looks like a creepy psychiatric hospital. You're armed only with a silenced pistol and a smartphone. You are told nothing about why you’re there or where you are, but you quickly discover that your objective is to save a young girl with a bomb strapped to her chest. After taking down the men who captured her, you try to defuse the bomb, but it goes off. Casualties are presumed. Fade to black. You then wake up with a virtual reality device strapped to your head.

Black cannot make sense of what's happened to him or why. (You might also note that he sounds just like Sean Bean, but he isn't). The story gets even more distressing from there, as you try to piece together what happened as a mysterious scientist, Red, guides you through the asylum over monitors and speakers as part of your “treatment." You eventually discover that the asylum is not all it seems, and Red’s motivations only become more murky.

The first half of Get Even is spent under the guidance of Red, who is later revealed to be a character named Ramsey. You revisit Black's memories, piecing together clues and attempting to unravel the story behind the mysterious victim. You find evidence as you explore these virtual memories, which ultimately ends up on a board scattershot with photos and newspaper clippings. You may not discover everything there is to see during your first recollection of each memory, but you're free to return at any time to find what you might have overlooked and add a new piece to the puzzle.

Your vehicle to the virtual world--the Pandora headset--is Red's life work. It allows you to be a fly on the wall in Black's memories, where you can look but you can't touch. Finding the answers you seek is complicated by memories that are maliciously corrupted. Apparently someone or something is trying to conceal the truth to make it difficult to understand what is real and what merely appears to be.

For a while, trust in your own judgement feels out of reach. It's an intriguing way to tell a story, though it can be a lot to wrap your head around as the new and complex possibilities are introduced. But it all comes together in the end for you (and Black) in a very satisfying and unexpected way.

The action in the early stages of the game revolves around puzzle-solving and a limited amount of shooting, mostly with a weapon called a CornerGun. Black steals this item from a business rival of Ramsey's, and like its name suggests, its barrel can turn 90 degrees, allowing you to shoot around corners. This is one of the more unique aspects of Get Even’s shooting. It takes some getting used to, as firing around corners can be disorienting at first. It ’s a logistical challenge to learn where you need to stand or crouch to effectively fire around a corner, and it is very satisfying when you get the hang of it. Once you do, you can sneakily creep around, taking down enemies in secret.

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When shooting the CornerGun, you must land a headshot and make sure other enemies aren't closeby or else they will be alerted to your presence and come after you in an organized way. It's a bit unforgiving, especially on the Traumatizing difficulty (of note: Traumatizing and Gentle are the only two difficulty levels.) But it's a good challenge and very satisfying when you get it right. Enemies inside Pandora vaporize when you kill them, and the action pauses for a moment as they disintegrate into shards. This is a cool-looking effect the first time, but it eventually wears out its welcome as the ensuing pause slows down the action with frustrating frequency.

Another item at Black's disposal is his smartphone. It does basic things like display text messages and play voice calls, but is also equipped with a scanner that you can use on key items to learn more about them, while a heat vision camera alerts you to nearby enemies. A Vision tab on the smartphone illuminates certain key elements based on the context of a particular scene. All of this is critical info when problem solving.

Though it's an unremarkable looking game, Get Even is backed by a wonderful soundtrack from Olivier Deriviere that heightens tension and accentuates action with pulsing, pounding electronic sounds and string instruments.

Get Even's puzzles are rarely challenging or unique, and some can be frustrating when you have to look at the environment through your cell phone; bumping into objects while staring at the phone's screen is a common annoyance. But there are a few puzzles that provide new and interesting challenges. One of the more memorable instances comes in the second half of the game, where you essentially play out a game of Clue. Using evidence like newspaper cutouts and police reports scattered in a room, you must correctly name a murder weapon, a perpetrator, and the bullet's entry wound on the victim. It's not the most difficult task, but it's exciting to play the role of an investigator and it feels satisfying when you finally solve the mystery.

Eventually, you assume control of Ramsey, and this is where the story and gameplay get even more interesting. Ramsey performs an "audit" of Black's memories to try to learn more about the events leading up the the girl in the warehouse. He wants to...get even with the people responsible.

When you're playing as Ramsey, you have even more abilities than Black, one of which is a scanner that shows you where all nearby enemies are. Ramsey isn't armed by default, but he can "assimilate" into the enemies, taking over their bodies and picking up their weapons in the process. You can sprint, but you can move even faster by warping, and when performed in rapid succession, warps allow you to get the jump on enemies in superhuman fashion.

As you play through these memories, you will feel a sense of deja vu, as you're revisiting some of the places you played through as Black, but the story is experience in a new, unique perspective way. It is sort of like The Lion King 1.5, where you see the events of The Lion King from the perspective of Timon and Pumbaa. You tap into "engrams" scattered throughout the memories to see who Black spoke with, what they talked about, and how it contributes to the girl with the bomb. The mystery of the story is key to the intrigue of Get Even, and unraveling it yourself is the best part.

Though it's an unremarkable looking game, Get Even is backed by a wonderful soundtrack from Olivier Deriviere that heightens tension and accentuates action with pulsing, pounding electronic sounds and string instruments. If you are in a memory that begins to break down, strange things can happen. In one situation, I was shooting my way through enemies and a pop song played over the action because I was going in guns-blazing instead of the quiet and controlled manner that Ramsey advised, leading to the memory breaking down and glitching. The performances of the voice actors is also notable, as lines are delivered with believable conviction and emotion, especially in the case of Ramsey.

Get Even tells a devastating story that ends with a striking M. Night Shyamalan-like twist. Interestingly, it's the most crucial part of the entire story, and you see none of it. The visuals are left entirely to the imagination, which is unexpected and impactful. It is these kinds of powerful moments that emphasize Get Even's key strength--delivering a twisting narrative that is fascinating enough to make up for its lackluster gameplay elements.

21st June 2017
Nex Machina Review

Nex Machina Review

Nex Machina is a modern revamp of Robotron 2084 in all but name, and developer Housemarque even managed to collaborate with Robotron's creator, Eugene Jarvis, to bring the high-quality homage to life. Conceptually, the two games are nearly identical, and every aspect of Nex Machina is appropriately chock-full of nostalgia; the gorgeously trippy graphics feel simultaneously modern and retro, and the synth-wave soundtrack complements the sci-fi action perfectly. In the same vein as Pac-Man Championship Edition, Nex Machina is one of the best modernizations of a classic arcade game that you can find.

The plot is brief and to the point: you're a lone hero trying to save what remains of humanity during a robot apocalypse. The twin-stick shooting action that defines your fight is tight and responsive, and every world is relentlessly challenging. Individual levels are relatively small, fast-paced, and frequently packed with secrets to discover amidst the chaotic hero-on-robot action. And death comes instantly, whether you get hit by a lone bullet or simply bump into a nearby enemy.

Nex Machina's pronounced difficulty is by design, hearkening back to the challenge of its arcade source material. Beyond advancing through stages, skillful play is rewarded with item upgrades, bonus points, and a strong sense of satisfaction from overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Nex Machina is consistently challenging, but it's also thoroughly gratifying as every power-up gives you newfound confidence in the heat of battle.

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Your primary objective in each level is to destroy a number of enemy waves before rocketing off to the next set piece. There are, however, numerous secondary objectives to consider along the way. As with Robotron, there are a handful of humans haplessly wandering around each stage. Rescuing them (just by touching them) requires precise timing as you must not only protect your own hide, but also defeat enemies who're whittling away the wandering humans' health. Saving humans is considered optional, but it's a relentlessly tempting (and risky) distraction that you'll chase time and time again, even when you should know better.

Boss battles at the end of every level are the biggest test, throwing out dense curtains of bullets that demand exacting movements to avoid. All are challenging, and each is drastically different--from a mechanical ape that sits at the top of the screen and throws flaming debris at you, to a giant Terminator-like Skull and a hivemind boss that attacks from the safety of a protective field. Adding to the challenge, boss fights follow a series of dense enemy waves; if you lose all of your lives and end up using a continue, you have to start the process all over again.

Nex Machina is difficult, intensely satisfying, and packed with enough secrets and lofty secondary objectives to keep you enraptured for hours.

You can point to dense waves of enemies and monstrous bosses as the reasons Nex Machina is so hard, but more than their numbers or size, it's the range of tactics they employ that ultimately stress you out. Some enemies mindlessly plow toward you, others will make beelines to humans, and there are burrowing turrets that send out waves of exploding balls, among a variety of other robotic dangers. You typically face myriad enemy types at once, from all directions, creating a juggling act that would be impossible to contend with if not for your special abilities.

Dashing is central to surviving in Nex Machina's harsh world, as it was in Housemarque's previous games, Resogun and Super Stardust. Once activated, you're invulnerable for the duration of the lunge, and your timing has to be perfect given the small margin for error in most levels. Misjudge the duration of your dash through a crowd by a nanosecond, and you'll lose a life. Since there is a brief recharge period between dashes, you can't abuse it. This is alleviated somewhat if you spot and grab a triple-dash power-up, but these are few and far between and don't completely diminish the risk of an untimely sprint in the wrong direction.

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Secondary weapons, however, are more prevalent and can make or break you depending on the scenario. Your options include powerful lasers, rockets, floating bombs, and a sword for deadly close-up attacks. These also require a brief pause to recharge, reinforcing the idea that your ability to manage cooldown meters is a critical skill--and another layer to track during frantic onslaughts.

You can, in theory, play through Nex Machina in under an hour, but it's eminently replayable thanks to the number of secrets waiting to be found, and the skills you need to hone in order to survive and climb to the top of the leaderboards. You do have the option of bringing a friend along, but Nex Machina's multiplayer is woefully limited to local engagements. The lack of online play is a notable disappointment given how useful a partner can be on the game's harder difficulties.

Limited multiplayer options aside, Nex Machina is a game that confidently meets expectations. It's difficult, intensely satisfying, and packed with enough secrets and lofty secondary objectives to keep you enraptured for hours. It's a classic game at heart, but with refined challenges and exacting mechanics, it feels right at home in the modern era.

10th June 2017
Impact Winter Review

Impact Winter Review

Trudging through a desolate, snow-covered landscape for ten minutes, scavenging a couple of gas cans, and hiking another ten minutes back to the fire you need to fuel sounds like a chore. This series of actions is what characterizes the experience of Impact Winter, a slow-paced survival game. But monotonous as it may seem, you'll be driven to keep performing these actions because of the tense scenario that contextualizes them. Instead of challenging you to persist indefinitely, Impact Winter asks you to endure for a set amount of time with the looming promise of rescue--an end to your struggles--and pushes you to stretch your already thin resources just that little bit further.

You play as Jacob, who leads a group of four other calamity survivors. They're holed up in a church when a little robot called Ako-light springs to life, broadcasting a mysterious transmission that states a rescue operation is occurring in 30 days. Jacob's task is to leave the safety of the church with Ako-light at his side and traverse the post-apocalyptic tundra, scavenging for supplies in order to keep the group alive until that time.

Sometimes, this is all you'll see for a while.
Sometimes, this is all you'll see for a while.

Each survivor, including Jacob, has a number of meters that must be maintained at a safe level in order to avoid their deaths or departures from the group. These include overall health, energy, hunger, thirst, temperature, and morale. Keeping the church bonfire fueled and making sure each survivor is fed and happy are as important as exploring the world and completing quest lines, which fast-track the looming rescue operation by taking chunks off the timer. The constant juggling of all these priorities keeps you anxiously engaged, your thoughts constantly being occupied with short-term planning as you trek through the snow.

Each individual back at camp has a different crafting specialty that Jacob can take advantage of to help ease the burden of his tasks. For example, Wendy can effortlessly cook a number of filling meals given the right ingredients, while Maggie is exceptionally handy at mechanical repairs and upgrades. These characters also provide a series of personal quests, the completion of which help decrease the rescue timer and expand that character's range of crafting recipes. These quests are narratively thin, but they are the primary motivators for you to explore the world and push the boundaries of how far you are willing to risk traveling from relative safety. And it's the exploration of this bleak, snowy wasteland of a world which is Impact Winter's strength.

The overworld feels desolate, but once in awhile, you'll encounter a hint of what once was. A half-buried gas station or the scene of a disastrous airline crash help create a gloomy world, in addition to being useful landmarks for navigation. You'll encounter the roofs of what were once tall buildings that lead to dank underground caverns of former shopping malls and airports. These dungeon-like areas are convincingly devastated, with a mess of receptacles to scavenge from. The ominous soundtrack that accompanies your long journeys hit the correct notes to instantly evoke the tension of classic thriller films like The Thing. It's an ominously intriguing world to explore, provided you're adequately prepared to survive the journey out there and back.

Impact Winter runs on a constantly ticking clock, and traversing the icy overworld, referred to as "The Void," takes up an enormous amount of that time. With no means of fast-travel, each journey you take topside requires some forethought and planning to avoid completely wasting the day while your group's well-being declines. Limited time and resources mean that it's also difficult to follow all character quests to completion, so the best course of action needs to be decided on well in advance.

Are you going far enough to warrant bringing a portable campsite to restore your energy for the journey home? What kinds of tools do you need to accomplish the goal at your destination? Should you bring food and drink for yourself, or do you think you'll be able to procure some on location? Have you left enough room in your backpack to bring supplies back? Traverse frivolously, and you could find yourself in a situation where you're desperately trying to satiate Jacob's hunger to avoid health loss. Or perhaps using Ako-light's flashlight and scanner functions too often has caused it to temporarily run out of battery power, leaving you with no radar, meaning you have have to navigate home with just your memory of landmarks and a paper map from before the world was buried in meters of snow. The game constantly holds you in a state of mild anxiety, worrying and hoping that the path you've chosen will pay off.

Underground caverns can be impressively derelict.
Underground caverns can be impressively derelict.

Deciding what to pick up while scavenging is also a constant dilemma. Impact Winter adopts a grid-based inventory system where each item takes up a different amount of physical space, meaning there's a constant value assessment between, for example, grabbing a number of small food items versus a giant can of gasoline. With the sheer amount of items available in the world, it's hard to tell what's going to be useful or not in the beginning. With limited inventory space and unlimited pressure to provide for the group, it's foolish to pick up every shiny thing you find and constantly make long hikes back to base to drop everything off. Scavenging requires you to always have clear goals in mind.

However, despite Impact Winter's tonal strength and the genuine uneasiness its gameplay nurtures, the struggle to survive this harsh world is made even more difficult by a significant number of technical issues that quickly snowball, coating the already taxing experience in a layer of frustration that makes it hard to stick with for long periods of time.

There's always plenty to worry about, even as you sleep.There's always plenty to worry about, even as you sleep.
There's always plenty to worry about, even as you sleep.

Areas for contextual actions are ill-defined, meaning that precious time is often spent trying to move Jacob into the right place to perform actions like searching a specific container or climbing a ladder. Collision detection is spotty, so you'll struggle to get up a flight of stairs but also find yourself clipping through tables. Jacob will often refuse to respond to movement inputs until you pause and unpause the game.

Technical problems can also prove deadly. The game's passage of time, which continues while you're fiddling around in menus, is an interesting and thematically relevant feature, but it means wolves will continue to attack if you're unfortunate enough to get a series of large, in-game notifications while trying to escape them. You'll also likely experience dire situations where you're cornered by hostile animals and ready to fight, only to discover that the weapon lock-on system has ceased to function properly.

We experienced what felt like consistent input delay when using a controller. At the time of writing, the developers only recently released a patch that implements previously nonexistent mouse and keyboard controls, though there are notable usability annoyances such as being unable to click a scrollbar to go through your supplies, and some bothersome key placements with no option for custom mappings. Some impossible side-quest lines also had us scratching our heads, like being asked to specifically deliver ten 45 RPM vinyl records to an NPC, and discovering that we were not physically able to bring ten of these objects to the quest-giver, even with our inventory space maxed-out.

 The post-apocalyptic tundra buries former skyscrapers. The post-apocalyptic tundra buries former skyscrapers.
The post-apocalyptic tundra buries former skyscrapers.

There were also problems that veered close to game-breaking. In our time with Impact Winter, returning to The Void from an interior area meant we had to sit through long loading times--sometimes wondering if our game had crashed. These loading times were shortened dramatically in a patch, but we then encountered instances of freezing and large swaths of texture pop-ins when spawning into the world instead. Most of these issues are minor on their own, but together they quickly become intensely irritating. To their credit, the developers have been transparent with their plans for upcoming patches, and mapped out their priorities to address a number of these issues in the short- and long-term future.

Impact Winter deftly captures the tension of being put in a survival situation and makes every compromise you need to make a tough and near-irreversible decision. Surviving in The Void is a mentally taxing experience, and once you begin to internalize the world and the well-being of your group, juggling the countless priorities can be engrossing. Unfortunately, the numerous technical issues make this experience more arduous than necessary, and mar what is otherwise an impactful survival experience.

9th June 2017
Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days Review

Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days Review

Quentin Tarantino made a name for himself back in the early 1990s with the release of Reservoir Dogs, but the recently released Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days doesn't come close to reaching the same heights. It amounts to nothing more than a predictable twin-stick shooter that fails to live up to its own potential, let alone the film's, in any appreciable way.

There's no narrative to Bloody Days--no character development to create emotional resonance. The game at large isn't concerned with variety, either, sticking to the same rigid format from start to finish. You take control of reimagined versions of the film's six leads--Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, and Mr. White--and head out on 18 heists. Each mission starts the same: There's some banter between the two primary characters (you have the option of selecting a third), they walk to a marked position, guns are pulled, and bullets fly as you attempt to shoot your way to a bounty of cash. Aside from differing locations, such as a bank, laundromat, or warehouse, all 18 levels follow this very strict, predictable formula. It doesn't take long for Bloody Days to fall into repetition, which is made worse when you're forced to replay sections of levels and rewatch unskippable cutscenes.

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Just like the film, death will eventually come to the colorful criminals, but Bloody Days makes it too often of an occurrence in part due to frustrating controls. While keyboard-and-mouse controls offer greater accuracy than a controller, latency between keystrokes and character actions can cause baffling, unexpected deaths. The gamepad fares far worse: The button layout is awkward, with the shoot and sprint actions placed on the bumpers instead of the shoulders, which will trip you up on more than one occasion. While each method of play allows you to choose between preset control schemes, they don't save, meaning that if you select option B instead of option A and exit back to the game, you default back to option A. This illusion of choice is frustrating, especially considering the other gamepad layouts are more accessible than the default.

Bloody Days does offer an initially compelling mechanic: At the press of a button, you can rewind time and switch to one of your two partners in crime. The actions you performed before switching will occur in real time as you head back into battle, allowing you to set up thrilling shootouts and increase your combo count to earn more points at the end of the heist. While this is exhilarating at first, especially when you're blasting through waves of enemies with twice the firepower, there are times when enemies you encountered as the first character inexplicably change their path, essentially nullifying any amount of strategy you put into setting up your initial run.

Lamentably, enemy AI is shallow: It's all too easy to corner foes and either fill them with lead or bash their heads in with a melee weapon. Exploiting the enemy's predictability like this also overshadows the time-rewind mechanic, which ultimately proves to be more of a risky tool than a necessity. While it's necessary for the two primary characters you take into battle to reach a mission's end point, you can rely on just a single character to handle the dirty work. The one exception is when the game puts enemies offscreen who nonetheless send bullets flying your way. This creates a challenge, but it also elicits frustration, since you're left floundering to avoid getting hit while returning fire to targets you can't actually see.

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Bloody Days' aesthetic is enticing, with bright colors and generous amounts of blood--an otherwise gruesome picture that works to emphasize the comedic carnage on display. It's a shame, then, that the game's performance will kill you more often than the bullets will. During the later levels, Bloody Days chugs along and, in most situations, freezes for a few moments. This inconsistency will get you killed, get one of your partners killed, or occasionally allow you to kill every enemy in your way.

Aside from the Reservoir Dogs name in the title and the colorfully named characters, Bloody Days shares almost nothing in common with its namesake. With its rewind mechanic, you can see the potential for an exhilarating top-down, twin-stick shooter, but this never comes to pass. The game is easily exploitable and produces frustration far too often to become even the slightest bit interesting. Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days devolves to a banal experience that's all bark and no bite.

9th June 2017
Short But Bittersweet

Short But Bittersweet

Optical illusions have fascinated our logical human minds for millennia, but video games offer a rare opportunity to experience these impossible creations in new ways. One of the best explorations of optical illusions from the past several years was ustwogames’ mobile hit Monument Valley, which blended simple mechanics with mind-bending visuals to create an atmospheric delight. Like that first game, Monument Valley 2 is over far too quickly, but it’s also beautifully clever and tells a subtle and heartwarming story about the evolving relationship between a parent and her child.

If you missed the first game, the premise of Monument Valley 2 remains the same as the first. Each level is broken down into a series of single-screen puzzles that look like the lost works of M.C. Escher. I marveled at these impossibly constructed castles and their winding paths that looped together in complex knots. Each level is a stunning exhibit of artistic design. Monument Valley 2’s color palette is even more vibrant than the first game, and I often stopped playing to just admire the unique design of each level.

As you navigate Monument Valley 2’s illogical geography, you can manipulate its impossible architecture with a series of sliders and cranks that turn pieces of the environment to create new paths, allowing your characters to reach the other side of the level. On the whole, Monument Valley 2 features very little fluff. Each level has its own unique twist on these mechanics. For example, one level has your character moving through a level upside-down, while another lets you manipulate sunlight to grow plants that double as walkable platforms. Impressively, ustwogames never reuses the same idea. While these navigation challenges are often fairly easy, navigating to each exit remained compelling, thanks to the constant reveal of new mechanics.

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It’s a good thing that every minute of Monument Valley 2 feels fresh and exciting, because there aren’t many minutes to experience. You can work your way to the closing credits in a couple of hours, and there are no challenge modes or other unlockables that make it worth revisiting this surreal adventure.

While the first Monument Valley featured an obtuse narrative, Monument Valley 2 tells the story of a mother and her child as they embark on a journey of discovery. The story is mostly wordless, but the powerful themes of growth and change are much easier to understand this time around. I was genuinely moved by these characters’ mesmerizing adventure through a series of environments that challenge our own understanding of how the world works. Monument Valley 2 might be a short adventure, but it’s a fresh change of pace from the sprawling open-world giants that have dominated the rest of the year.