MEMBER PROFILE FOR Variation-XBA

Total Reviews: 468
Average Overall Score Given: 7.32821 / 10
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Reviews
Bus Simulator

There are niche games, and then there are super niche games. One such super niche title is the newly released on console Bus Simulator. I never used to think that anyone would want to play odd games like Farm Simulator, but after reviewing a few, I learned to see the appeal. Bus Simulator is no different, as there’s a crowd and audience for everything, even being a city bus driver.

Bus Simulator is true to its name. Not only are you a bus driver, but part city planner as well, as you’ll be creating the routes, managing staff, efficiency and more. You’ll have access to a handful of different licensed buses from Mercedes, MAN, IVECO and Setra. I can only assume that these are the go-to for names in the bus world, but they appear to be and are said to be authentic. Not only can you simulate your bus career, but you can bring along friends online to join your company and play with them as well.

Your bus career begins in Seaside Valley, a city sorely needing someone to spearhead the transportation infrastructure development. Seaside Valley has many different and unique districts, from residential, commercial and industrial, just like any large city. Your opening tutorial will show you how to create a small route with just a few stops then drive it, but eventually you’ll need to create many varying routes, hiring drivers, purchasing buses and more, adding some long term goals to strive towards, rather than simply driving a bus itself.

As you perform good routes and bring passengers to their destinations, you’ll earn money along the way. This is how you’ll afford to purchase new buses and hire more staff to drive the routes you’ve created, which in turn earns you more money. You’ll also earn a star rating based on the route you’ve driven and how well you drove. You’ll lose rating if you drive recklessly, hit potholes, speed bumps, speed, crash, etc. Drive well, stay the speed limit, arrive on time and use your turn signals and you’ll earn more. Drive better, earn better.

While you can freely drive any routes you create, there is some mission structure given to guide you along the way on how to connect areas and try new things like night driving and return routes as you aim to make your city more connected. There are a ton of other options if you want to boost the difficulty and effort required, like giving passengers change if they need to purchase a ticket, picking up garbage customers leave behind' a more realistic and challenging mode and across the nearly 6 square miles of roads.


You may think that driving is a bus is simply getting from point A to B, but there’s a lot more than goes into it, especially if you want to keep passengers happy by being prompt and drive properly. Sometimes you’ll have to face against freak weather, speed traps, terrible drivers, traffic, construction zones, fare evaders and more.

If you’ve played any of the Farm Simulator games, you’ll feel right at home knowing that your buses have an obscene amount of knobs, levers and buttons, all of which have a specific purpose that you’ll need to utilize. The initial tutorial will teach you the basics, but there’s a handy radial menu to quickly access certain toggles like lights, wheelchair ramp, E-brake and more. If you choose to play with cashier mode on, this is where you’ll need to see what type of fair they want to purchase, then give them the appropriate amount of change. I found this to be WAY too time consuming and tedious, but the option is there for those that want the realism or challenge.

What did surprise me was that you’re actually able to customize your buses with different graphics, colors and vinyls. Not only can you color your bus to nearly anything you like, but you can put different patterns and graphics on it as well. No, you’re not going to have any crazy layering like we’ve come to expect from a Forza obviously, but the fact that it’s there is a really cool touch and was unexpected. If this supported mods, it would have been awesome to have actual ads on the sides of your fleet.

Why drive alone though? Invite your friends to ride alongside you in real time; another feature I didn’t really expect. Up to four players can play together, though I found the most fun when one of my friends came with my on my route and simply pestered passengers to see their ticket. If he found a fare jumper, they actually get fined and we earn more money. Thankfully there wasn’t a happiness meter attached to the riders though, as I'm sure we would have had a harassment suit filed against us.

Visually, Bus Simulator is pretty terrible to look at in general. Yes, the internal bus view is recreated from its real life counterpart and looks decent, but basically everything else is incredibly dated. Buses themselves look plain and uninspired, but the models and animations for the passengers are exceptionally terrible. The same goes for the voice acting overall, though thankfully the bus sounds themselves are somewhat decent, as I've come to know the hydraulics lowering sound all too well. While some parts aren’t as realistic as can be, as passengers are friendly, cars let you merge and there’s no weirdos on the bus, everything else is as authentic as can be in relation to the actual driving itself.

Bus Simulator aims to be just that, the defacto simulation experience for not only driving a bus, but all of the other work that goes into running a transportation company for a large city. Yes, many will find the gameplay quite repetitive and dull, but there’s a certain calmness to it that I enjoyed and found relaxing. Yes, it’s a seriously niche game that will cater to a very specific audience, but if you’re in that demographic, there’s no better options out there, even if it’s not very pretty to look at.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 GreedFall

From the first time I saw a Greedfall trailer I knew I was going to be hooked. What’s not to like? It’s got a very Witcher 3/Dragon Age vibe but set in a colonial backdrop, reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed III. If this hasn’t already peaked your interest, then you’ll be happy to know that I enjoyed the vast majority of my time with Greedfall, even after about 30 hours worth. French studio, Spiders, last known for Technomancer, have finally brought a release that not only stands up alongside others in the genre, but stands out as well. Yes, it’s flawed, but I couldn’t put it down until the credits (eventually) rolled and came away incredibly impressed by its beauty, mechanics and depth of lore.

There’s a horrible disease spreading called the Malichor, seemingly unstoppable and killing nearly everyone it infects. With no known cure, De Sardet and their cousin set out for a mysterious and relatively unknown island, Teer Fradee, in search for said cure. Having a noble background, you’ll start an investigation into the Malichor, what’s causing it, and more importantly, how to stop it. Doing so will not be a simple task though, as you’ll need to navigate not only dangerous lands with wild beasts and enemies, but have to handle the political sides of a civil war between settlers and natives.

With a 17th century European backdrop, the world is completely believable, looks the part and is surprisingly gorgeous to take in its vistas. The towns and cities are bustling and look aged, and the woodlands have some great backdrops full of foliage and pathways that house secrets. Your dear cousin is taking the new role of Governor on Teer Fradee, so naturally you’ll be given special access to areas and leading the expedition to find a cure. As the Ambassador, you’ll have no navigate very delicate situations when it comes to politics and warring tribes, as well as beasts trying to eat you.

I don’t want to give much more away about the narrative, but I will say that it’s wonderfully written and keeps you hooked until near the very end. My only real complaint is that it feels very padded near the last act or so, as I was forced to help many people to progress, but to help them I needed to prove my worth by helping other people, and so on. When I thought I was at the end initially, I still had a few more hours to go before the credits rolled. Some may see that as great value, but it definitely felt like it overstayed its welcome just a little too long. That being said, the writing was fantastic, the story compelling and the voice acting top notch.

If I had to choose a single game to best compare Greedfall to, it would be most likely Dragon Age. You’re on foot exploring a vast island with magical properties. You’ll upgrade your weapons and armor, have companions of your choosing at your side and be hooked on a deeply lore rich narrative for at least a few dozen hours. You’ll first begin by choosing your male or female character then customizing their appearance; choose wisely, as you’ll be seeing this face for a very long time with hours of cutscenes and dialogue.

From there, you’ll choose a starting ‘class’ per-se, setting you on a guided pathway of skills and abilities, but you’re by no means locked into that specific playstyle, as you’ll be able to earn many skill points and abilities to completely customize your character to play however you wish. I chose the typical melee warrior build, but by the end of my journey I was able to heal my party, set traps, explode bombs and use the highest tier guns as well. Your initial choices are just a starting point, but you are able to reset all of your points and abilities should you wish later on. There are a ton of different skills and abilities, allowing for very unique gameplay and custom builds, so it’s a matter of experimenting and finding what works best for you.

As your adventure progresses, you’ll meet new companions that will aid you in your journey for their own reasons. You’ll be able to take two alongside you at all times, and they are also categorized into specific classes. Since I was a melee archetype, I chose to have the healer and the ranged damage dealer alongside me, but there are other choices as well that can mesh quite well together. When you outgrow your gear and find better pieces, you’re also able to give them to your companions, like a hand-me-down to a younger sibling. Any weapons or armor that isn’t going to be used can either be sold or deconstructed for materials, which in turn will be used to improve your gear, but more on that shortly.

As you explore towns and countryside, you’ll unlock camps and villages which can in turn be used as fast travel points. While Greedfall is made up of a bunch of areas, you’re able to freely fast travel to any point you’ve been to at any camp or zone boundary. This will save you an immense amount of time, as Teer Fradee is deceptively large. Sometimes it can be a little tricky to find a correct path when having to search for something or someone up or downstairs, but you’ll need to refer to the map quite often as there’s no glowing breadcrumb trail, just an icon on your HUD pointing you in the correct general direction.

Having to navigate a political landscape was an aspect I didn’t expect to be as deep as it was. There’s so much lore and history with all of the races and factions, making navigating certain talks and deals quite tricky at times. In general, the settlers and natives are always blaming each other and fighting, so it’s going to take a lot of patience and proof that you can be trusted enough to help them with whatever they want. If you’re dealing with someone that absolutely despises the natives, but have one alongside you as your companion, it’s going to be a much trickier situation to talk your way out of. Since I dumped my skill points into Charisma, there was a ton of conversations that I was able to talk my way out of, or influence them how I wanted, to get the outcome I wanted, though brute force is an option as well.

Saying that there is a healthy amount of quests is an understatement. Not even including the main quest storyline, there’s so much side quest content that could easily keep you busy for many hours. While it may not be on par with the likes of a Witcher 3 in terms of content and depth, it’s still a staggering amount to take in if you’re a completionist. Even better, quests can sometimes be completed in different ways, depending on your skills and choices.

For example, when confronted with a looming battle, do you go head first into war, or sneak around finding dirt on your opponent and blackmail them to stand down? Maybe to gain someone’s trust you’ll need to prove that you hurt another faction. Do you do that or lie, hoping there are no repercussions? Because I had max lock picking skill, I was able to bypass a lot of extra searching guards and rooms for keys, saving a lot of time. There are many situations where you’ll need to decide between stealth, diplomacy or combat, and there’s no wrong choice, just yours. Keep in mind that many of these choices do ultimately matter, as you do have a rating of how the factions like you, which will affect outcomes and options further in your adventure.

Combat feels great and responsive, and with a vast skill tree, you can customize to any playstyle you wish. Able to wield two weapons, I opted for a quick one handed sword and a secondary two hander that cuts down shields and armor. Eventually I was able to pepper in gunfire, magic and traps as well, with my companions keeping my health topped off and damaging from afar. If the real-time combat becomes too overwhelming, there’s also a tactical pause that allows you to figure out your next move and queue up an ability. While I opted to hotkey these to my D-pad, there were certainly times where the tactical pause came in handy against the bigger bosses.

Combat and quests is how you’ll earn experience and level up, allowing you to put more points into the skill tree and unlock new perks and abilities. If you decide to spend points into crafting, you’ll be able to upgrade your gear that has open slots. This allows you to further customize your gear and add a multitude of stats to your gear, but it also physically changes its visual look as well. When I added a rare purple handle to my sword, it had a different look for that specific spot. The same goes for armor, as adding plate additions actually made the armor look slightly different. The crafting may not be the deepest system out there, but it sure was fun and enjoyable to upgrade my gear beyond its basic stats when I started getting high end purple and gold tier gear.

I have to be completely honest; I don’t know what I was going to expect from Greedfall before starting it, as it’s from a smaller studio that’s never done anything this vast before aside from Technomancer. Playing on an Xbox One X, I can safely say that Greedfall looks absolutely stunning at times. The world is created beautifully, be it a city or woodland, lighting is great and monster design top notch as well. Yes, there were bugs and glitches like framerate drops and screen tearing here and there, but nothing that really drops you from the immersion for too long. Main characters look great and have a ton of detail, though secondary NPC’s seem to either simply stand around or wander aimlessly.

The soundtrack is just as good, as it fits the atmosphere and backdrop of the dark and gloomy world of Teer Fradee. As you near enemies or have to be careful, the music changes to indicate danger, swords clang and magic sounds powerful. The voice over work across the board was more than impressive and completely believable, so kudos to Spiders for stepping up, as poor voice acting in a 30+ hour game would have been utterly disappointing.

Having spent nearly 30 hours in Greedfall, I’m glad to have experienced it. The narrative is deep, rich of lore, complex and has many twists and turns; it’s just a shame it feels a little too long by the end with some superficial padding of forced side quests. If you’re a fan of Dragon Age or Witcher 3 and have been craving a new RPG to sink some hours into with some depth, Greedfall should be at the top of your list. It’s a shame that it released in the busiest holiday window and will be overlooked by all the other AAA games out there, but those who manage find it amongst the crowd and give it a chance should be more than pleasantly surprised.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 WRC 8 FIA World Rally Championship

There used to be a time where I would play nearly every rally game I could find, especially when they hit their stride with the Colin McRae games back in the early 2000’s, which eventually morphed into the Dirt series we know today. Around the same time, the WRC series emerged as well, though for whatever reason I never dived head first into them. It’s been a long time since a dedicated rally game has caught my attention, though to be fair, with the Forza Horizon series basically encompassing all different race styles, which may be what has kept my rally hunger at bay all these years.

Today is a new day though, and after sinking a good dozen or so hours into WRC 8 FIA World Rally Championship, based on the current 2019 WRC Season, I may have become addicted all over again to the absolutely insane racing that takes an unfathomable amount of skill, braveness and just a hint of crazy. Have you ever watched an actual WRC rally race? You need to have steel balls if you were going to try and attempt that, though the same could be said for the spectators that watch along the sidelines, inches from a speeding car on the verge of chaos.

It’s been a little bit of a layoff since the previous WRC 7, as it was welcomed with lukewarm reviews overall. It seems though that with the time off, Bigben and Kylotonn have improved on nearly every facet and mechanic, making WRC 8 a truly authentic experience that fans should appreciate. Not only is it the official simulation of the World Rally Championship, you’re going to have access to actual WRC drivers and co-drivers, WRC vehicles, WRC 2, Junior WRC, legendary cars, but you’ll do so over the course of 14 rallies, equaling easily over 100 stages, varying in challenge, difficulty, weather and more.

While there are a handful of modes to play and try out, Career Mode is where I spent at least 90% of my time with WRC 8. While the bulk of your gameplay will obviously be racing in the stages and championships, there’s a whole new element to the Career mode this time around, as you’ll actually partake in being a part of the whole team like a manager. That’s right, a racing team is a lot more than its driver and mechanics. You’ll have to hire and pay staff for R&D, repairing damage to your vehicle between stages, finance managers, meteorologists, engineers and more. This whole ‘team sim’ aspect actually took me by surprise, but I did enjoy it, as you had a balance to budget and do more than simply jumping from race to race.

You’ll have a calendar where you can see the upcoming events of the series you’ll take part in. Between these large events you can choose how to fill your days, such as resting if you simply want to get to the event sooner, or maybe try out a legendary race, race in some extreme weather or even test out a new manufacturer’s vehicle. There are even rare events that you might be able to partake in, so there’s always something interesting to do other than the main rallies.

Another aspect that surprised me was that there’s a fully-fledged skill tree as well. As you earn XP for racing, you’ll be able to spend skills in a vast skill tree, of which there are four main categories. I decided to focus on earning more money, job roles and such for my team, but there are a bunch of different ‘builds’ you could work towards. It added a little more personalization to the campaign, setting it apart from others which I liked.

It seems the extra time in development has helped improve almost every facet of WRC 8, from its improved and more robust campaign mode, much more impressive graphics, a new physic engine, and my favorite, the dynamic weather system. Make no mistake, WRC 8 is much more on the simulation side as opposed to arcade, though there are a bunch of difficulty options and assists you can toggle if you’re new to the series. Be prepared to crash a lot in the beginning though, as I would nearly go off the track at every corner early on, but once you start to get a feel for it, the experience completely changes for the better.

Of course, for the hardcore fans and the ones that want a super realistic experience, you can tweak nearly every setting in your vehicle to perform however you wish, even the damage can be turned to realistic where you’ll need to watch your tire wear as well. As I said, it does take quite a bit of getting used to, but once you overcome that steep learning curve and can start tackling corners that are barely wider than your vehicle itself, it becomes quite thrilling, just like watching the actual sport.

I have to say though, while dynamic weather is nothing new in games, they are more than a mere nuisance in WRC 8. Usually in most racing games when it starts to rain, sure your tires will slide a bit more and you’ll get rain on your screen to simulate the real thing, but weather in WRC severely affects your racing and handling, which I don’t think I’ve experienced to this level before. For example, in one race it started to rain; no biggy, I just slowed down a little more than normal for the upcoming corners. Then, it started to really downpour, substantially more.

As I hit puddles in dips that formed, it would actually alter how my car handled through them. Have only one wheel going into a puddle? Your car is going to pull that direction, just like in real life. You may even hydroplane if you don’t straighten out before going through as well. Snow takes this to a whole other level and this means that your races can always be unpredictable.

You’ll not only have daytime races, but night as well, which adds an additional level of challenge. Sure, you have your co-pilot barking out upcoming turns and directions, but having that limited visibility, coupled with the dynamic weather, and you’re going to have to put your big boy/girl pants on to place well. You’ll also want to make note of the track type before a race, as you’ll want to equip the most appropriate tires to match what type of race you’re partaking in.

Fans of the sport will be happy to know that not only are actual teams and rallies included, but stages are replicated from their real world counterparts as well, so keen eyed super fans should be able to recognize some of the stages. While I’m not a super fan by any means, the variety of stages was quite staggering, as each had its own feel and look. Racing down incredibly narrow dirt paths is quite different from drifting along cliff edges or a tarmac race. There’s plenty of variety to keep you challenged and entertained.

While multiplayer is included, I was unable to find a single game to play with others online with a Quick Match. I tried hosting a lobby as well numerous times, but no one ever joined, so I’m unable to speak to the quality of the online multiplayer unfortunately. I’m hoping that doesn’t mean that the community isn’t large, but luckily there are weekly challenges that you can partake in to challenge yourself on the leaderboards against others. They are calling this is WRC eSports, and can see it being a weekly event to return to in the long run if you like competition.

Visually, WRC 8 can be incredibly impressive. Lighting looks fantastic with sunrays peeking through the treetops, dirt will form on all sides of your car as you progress through stages and the rain effects look absolutely realistic on the windshield, especially when it starts to downpour heavily. The vehicles themselves though look simply average. I never once had any performance issues and the framerate was incredibly smooth throughout. I’m not sure if it was 60 FPS, but it sure felt like it on my Xbox One X. As for the audio, engines roar, you can hear the pops of gears being shifted and the backfire of the exhaust.

I actually have very few complaints overall aside from crashing which seems very buggy and ‘floaty’. When you hit a rock or spin out, it’s like the physics sometimes follow a different set of rules compared to racing. Sometimes I’ll stop dead in my tracks, other times I’ll spin out wildly, and finally, I’ve launched myself nearly into space on occasion. The crashes sound great, but feel inconsistent and not weighted.

My only other major flaw I noted was the lack of vehicle selection. Yes, you’re getting actual drivers and cars from manufactures, and there’s multiple types of cars from WRC, WRC2, Junior WRC and Legendary vehicles, but it seems like there’s not all that much variety. Again, I’m no WRC expert but I wish I had more selection choices, as I get it, the Lancia’s are legendary.

Kudos to Kylotonn though, as they’ve gone above and beyond adding support for a wide array of steering wheels and peripherals. While I didn’t have a wheel and pedal combo to test it on, I did watch others play who did, and it seemed like an even more authentic experience, especially for the wheels that have force feedback.

While I’ve been out of the loop for many years on rally games overall, WRC 8 has sucked me back into the fray, eagerly awaiting to see what improvements the inevitable sequel will bring. WRC 8 improved on nearly every aspect and should be considered if you’re looking for an actual FIA World Rally Championship simulator; it’s even quite fun to boot.

Overall Score: 8.1 / 10 Remnant: From the Ashes

I’ve always enjoyed playing Soulsbourne-like games, even if I’m not particularly skilled at them. While the challenge is usually high and the difficult great, the reward for finally passing an area you’ve been stuck on for hours is quite satisfying. Gunfire Games, the studio that brought us the latest Darksiders game, is finally taking their crack at the Dark Souls formula. While I wasn’t sure what to expect, and the first few hours frustrated the hell out of me, once things clicked, Remnant: From the Ashes completely went from a frustrating experience to an incredibly exciting one.

There’s a dozen Souls impersonators out there already, so I was curious if Remnant would be any different. While it does borrow quite heavily from Dark Souls mechanically, the most drastic change is that Remnant is played with guns instead of swords and shields. Not only does this change the gameplay dramatically, they seemed to have nailed that ‘special sauce’ that made fans fall in love with the Souls games in the first place.

An ancient evil has invaded the world from another dimension and much of humanity has been destroyed. You are on the last remaining remnants of mankind, so you’ll set out on a path for revenge and to stop the enemy so mankind can rebuild. Doing so will be much more difficult than it seems, and you’ll even need to utilize portals and travel to other realms to stop The Root, alongside two other friends should you wish.

While Remnant does borrow quite heavily from Dark Souls, the way it handles its campaign is quite different. Each time you play through the campaign, you’ll navigate the major story sections, but every stop between point A, B, C and D are randomized. This means that not only are the areas you go through are different every time you play, but that also means the mini dungeons and even bosses will vary each playthrough.

This means that the replay factor is through the roof, and there are a ton of secrets and goodies that will take a lot of farming to find. For example, there’s a very rare dungeon that after a dozen or so hours of resetting the world and running though, me and a friend finally got it to spawn. This dungeon houses a unique boss that when defeated, drops one of the rarest gear sets in the game, one that I proudly sport when playing.

This was only possible because of hours of farming and resetting the campaign. But this is also encouraged, as you can farm gear and items this way as well. Even leveling up isn’t done in your traditional sense, as with Remnant, instead of a “level”, you’re ranked with how many Trait points you’ve spent instead, but more on that shortly. What I do enjoy about Remnant’s mechanics compared to Souls is that your progress is always saved and carried over. Died? No problem, no need to get back to your corpse, you’ll simply restart at the last crystal you rested at. Didn’t get a randomized boss or dungeon you wanted? Reset your campaign and continue with your character just the way they are.

That being said, this was after literal HOURS of frustration of not understanding many of the Remnant’s mechanics. Nothing is really explained outside of the beginning tutorial, and that’s more focused on the gunplay rather than how the world works systematically. If I had to rate Remnant on its introduction alone, it would get a hard “F” grade, as I was almost ready to give up on it. Then by chance me and a friend joined a random game with someone that knew Remnant inside and out and took it upon himself to not only teach us the mechanics of how the worlds worked and how to upgrade gear properly, but helped us with a run through of the campaign.

This was the tipping point of going from a game that I nearly uninstalled, to wanting to play alongside a friend nearly every night to farm better gear and challenge ourselves in Hard or Nightmare mode. I fear that some people won’t be as fortunate as I was though, as the game itself won’t teach you very much, simply throwing you in and letting you figure it out for yourself.

As you begin your adventure, you’ll create your character to look how you wish, but the character creator isn’t very robust, and honestly, once you start getting new gear, it won’t really matter anyways. Just be prepared to die a lot in the beginning, but stick with it and learn how the world works, and you’ll come across one of the most rewarding experiences once you start to level up.

You wield two weapons; a main and a secondary, both of which use different ammunition. Killed enemies can drop ammo, as can finding it by breaking items and boxes in the world (generally anything made out of wood), and you’ll always need to be on the lookout, as you’ll be fighting off hundreds of enemies. Played in third person, depending on the class you chose, you’ll begin with a simple pistol and a sidearm like a rifle or shotgun. While the classes don’t make too much of a difference initially, you’re able to make any sort of build you want later on, so they are more starting points for certain playstyles rather than hard locked choices.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, you’re able to also play alongside two friends with drop in/out gameplay. While there is some scaling that takes place with multiple players in a game, Remnant is a much better experience overall with a friend or two in a party. Things never really become stale either with every area being randomized each time, alongside with bosses and loot.

If you’re a Soulsborne fan, you’ll feel right at home, as many mechanics have not only been ‘borrowed’, but straight up copied. Estus Flasks are replaced with Draognhearts, which you can eventually upgrade to have more down the road if you defeat a certain boss fight and find a specific item. Need to refill your health and ammo? Sit at a floating red crystal, which is a replacement for the bonfires, and yes, this also resets the regular enemies as well. Even boss fights are sealed off with that grey fog in the doorway to indicate that you’re in for a battle next. There are even more mechanics ripped right from the source material, but if it’s not broke why fix it?

Earn enough experience and you’ll gain a trait point. These can be spent in a variety of different ways for a multitude of stat increases. Need more health, feel free to dump them into your vigor. Want more stamina or elemental resistance? Feel free to do so. Each stat caps out at 20 trait points, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a cap to how many trait points you can earn, so you’ll eventually be able to fully max out and have spare trait points after dozens of hours. While I’m currently sitting at about 170 Trait level, I’ve played with people that are well over 700 or so.

This not only allows for some character customization, but even some of the traits themselves are hidden. For example, there is forced friendly fire in Remnant when playing co-op, and I kept getting hit from my friend because I would constantly step in front of him. After he downed me ten times, I earned a new trait that allowed me to put trait points into that allows me to take less damage from friendly fire. Now that this trait is maxed at 20, I take maybe 1 or 2 damage from his shots. There’s a ton of hidden traits like this that will require some research or luck to find.

In the newest patch an Adventure Mode has also been introduced. Here you’re able to re-roll individual worlds. For example, you begin out on Earth for the first world, but maybe you want to re-roll the Rhom or Yaesha worlds to try and farm for a specific boss or gear. Now, instead of having you play through the whole campaign, you can simply reset these individual worlds and try your luck. Again, all items you collect, and any progress you make with your character are all saved and carried over regardless how you play.

I won’t lie, in the beginning I was quite frustrated and died, a LOT. There’s a wide variety of enemies, each of which need a different strategy to defeat efficiently. In the beginning, you’re going to learn the hard way how to do this, resulting in many deaths, much like Dark Souls. Also like Souls, you’ll have a stamina meter which is needed to run and dodge. You’ll become best friends with your dodge button as well, as this is how you’ll avoid most damage from enemies and bosses, but required precision timing in harder battles. Watch your gear and weight though, as the heavier you are, the most stamina dodging will take.

There are also a handful of items that will become quite useful during battles, such as a Bloodwort, which is akin to a health regeneration potion, items that can cure disease and other negative effects and even ammo boxes that can be used in a pinch. Once you learn Remnant mechanically, you won’t need to rely on these items often until you start to challenge yourself in Hard and Nightmare mode, which is a massive bump in difficulty, but as are the rewards.

Loot isn’t given in the form of weapons and gear for the most part either, but instead, parts and items that are then craftable into new gear. For example, the first time you kill most bosses, you’ll earn a unique item which can then be used to craft a new specific item back in the hub world. These are generally the most powerful items, and if you get a rare boss, usually amazing gear accompanies if defeated as well. You’ll need scrap (currency) and items like Iron, to create items though, of which you’ll find throughout your adventure.

Not only are these needed to craft items, but you can also increase your favorites in levels to higher tiers as well. For example, regular items can be boosted to +5 with regular iron and scrap, but to go higher you’ll need the next tier of iron and more scrap, so you need to collect any shiny items you see along your adventure, as the costs stack up quickly.

There are also Mods that can be earned and crafted, adding a whole new dimension to the gameplay and can be quite a game changer. For example, we defeated a rare boss and I got its item that allowed me to create a new mod that is quite exceptional. When I use my weapon that it’s attached to enough and fill its meter, you can then unleash your mod power. Mine is a swarm that infects any enemies nearby, dealing massive damage. This alone was a game changer and allowed me to tackle harder enemies with ease.

Gear sets will also have bonuses if you wear 1, 2 or 3 pieces of a set. My set for example allows me to heal a large amount of damage to my co-op friends when I use one of my Dragonhearts to heal myself, because I’m wearing the 3 pieces together. There’s a ton of different gear sets as well that you’ll earn from bosses, and each caters to a different playstyle. My friend for example has a set that allows for a chance to not use ammo upon firing, and since he’s coupled that with a single shot high damage weapon, it’s a deadly combination when you pair certain gear together.

Remnant is quite impressive visually the further you make it through the worlds. While the starter area and Earth won’t really ‘wow’ you, the worlds you explore later on are impressive, not only in their scale, but how detailed it can be. One desert and barren world has a solar eclipse in the background that I’ve actually been using for my wallpaper, and the ancient ruins underground feels like it’s straight out of Battlestar or some other sci-fi adventure. There’s a lot of variety, color pallet and bosses will always be terrifying upon first glance.

Remnant: From the Ashes dumps you into its world without any sort of hand holding or explanations. While some will enjoy this, I found it incredibly frustrating in the beginning, not sure how the world worked mechanically, or even that areas were randomized. If I didn’t have a bit of luck and be aided by a high level player that spent hours teaching us how Remnant actually worked, I don’t think I would have stuck with it in the long run, which is a shame, as I think some will have the same initial experience I did. Do some homework, watch a bunch of YouTube tutorial videos with tips and tricks, as it will make Remnant a massively better experience once you figure out how it all works together.

If you take the time to learn its mechanics and grind for some gear, once it ‘clicks’, Remnant changes from a simple Souls-like game to a completely unique experience that I could hardly put down. It’s a shame that it released in the busy window that it did alongside some massive AAA games, as I’m sure it’ll get overlooked, but if you’re a Souldborne fan and want an entertaining co-op adventure with some friends, Remnant: From the Ashes should seriously be looked at. While I was almost ready to give up at one point, it’s a fantastic game once you learn its intricacies.

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Gears 5

It feels like it’s been far too long since I’ve enjoyed a Gears of War game. Matter of fact, Gears 4 released back in 2016, so it’s been longer than I expected. To say that I’m a gears fan is a bit of an understatement, as I own an obscene amount of merch, including two full size lancers, so the wait for Gears 5 has been a long one. But the day has finally come and the wait is over, and now that Gears 5 is here, there’s a more than enough content to keep even the most hardcore fans busy for quite some time.

CAMPAIGN:

I’ve enjoyed every Gears campaign to date, but Gears 5 is easily my favorite so far for numerous reasons. While Gears 4 focused on a narrative revolving around JD, Marcus Fenix’s son, essentially passing the torch to a new generation of COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments), as Marcus, Cole and Baird are much older now, yet can still fight. Gears 5’s narrative starts with you playing as JD, but eventually shifts to Kait Diaz, which had a pretty substantial plot twist at the end of Gears 4.

Kait has a unique connection to the enemy, and Gears 5 will explore what that is and how dangerous that can be, not only to her, the COG and everyone else, but Sera itself. As you uncover her origins, alongside Delmont (Del for short) and Jack, the trusty robot we’ve had alongside us in previous games. Campaign is now playable with three players, with one taking the role of the unique Jack. You can play online or splitscreen co-op alongside your friends, and it’s a complete emotional rollercoaster from beginning to finish. I really don’t want to spoil any of the main plot points, but it’s easily my favorite Gears campaign, and I believe, also the longest if you factor in the open world segments free exploration

GAMEPLAY:

Are you one of the new players to the Gears series, or simply haven’t played in a long time and are quite rusty? This is where Boot Camp comes in. Acting as a tutorial for the basic mechanics, you’ll learn the ins and outs of the signature Gears core gameplay. Not only will you learn how to fire your weapons and use the active reloading, but how to duck behind cover, utilize advanced techniques and more. Sure, a Gears vet will know all of this already, but it’s a great addition for those new to the series.

Gears 5 also supports crossplay with PC and Xbox players, so finding a team for a campaign run or a Horde match shouldn’t ever be a problem. While the core gameplay is mostly unchanged, veterans will be pleased to know that there are some new additions and tweaks that should be welcomed. One I really appreciate is the fact that some weapons can have more than one execution animation, or that there’s open world segments in the campaign.

Even better, there’s an Ally system in place to encourage you to play with others on your friends list. Yes, every mode can be played solo, but each is enhanced when playing as a team together. The more you play with specific friends, the more honor you’ll earn for doing so. As this raises in ranks, you’ll earn more XP when playing together, so there’s now a true incentive to play together, more so than just not being lonely.



ACCESSIBILITY:

Gears 5 seems to have gone more than just an extra step with accessibility, and for good reason. Given that Gears 5 is part of Game Pass, this may very well be the first foray into the series for many people, so many options and additions have been included to cater towards all types of players. You have Adaptive Controller support, controller remapping, subtitles with a ton of options including font sizes, narrated menus and UI and even a friendlier Beginner option for aiming, for those not well versed in shooters.

While aim assist is nothing new to console gaming, as it slightly helps you aim at enemies to line up shots on a controller easier, this new option ‘snap to aim’ is geared towards very new players, acting as an extreme aim assist. With this option toggled, you can simply aim down the sights at an enemy, and it will generally lock onto it for you until you stop aiming. This allows for 'automatic' headshots, and during boss fights, even locking onto their normally hard to hit weak glowing spots. While some may think of this as ‘cheating’, not everyone is very versed in shooters, and if this optional inclusion means that more people can enjoy the franchise I love as well, then I see that as total win-win.

JACK:

Jack, who’s been a part of the squad in previous gears games, finally gets his time to shine in the spotlight. Previously, he simply would open doors and do mundane tasks, but now in Gears 5, he’s a fully playable character and has quite a few abilities that changes the typical Gears gameplay. Jack can now utilize a number of new abilities, which you’ll learn as you progress through the campaign and complete sidequests. Can’t get passed a fire patch on the ground? Have Jack boost your shield so you can briefly run through it unharmed. Can’t sneak by some turrets without being seen? Jack can turn your squad invisible for a short time. Becoming overrun and need some help in battle? Jack can hack enemies and turn them against the Swarm for a short time as well. These are just some of Jack’s abilities and he’s a great help in battle by being able to stun enemies and revive downed squadmates.

Not only does Jack make gameplay feel much more tactical in Gears 5, as a well-timed ability can change the outcome of a tough battle, he actually feels like a real part of the team and has a lot of interaction with the main characters throughout the narrative. Truth be told, he turned out to be my favorite character in all of Gears 5 by the time the credits rolled. Sorry Kait, you’re a close second.

SKIFF:

Another drastic change for Gears 5 is the inclusion of the Skiff. While Gears has always have vehicular sections, they’ve always been on rails and was simply a way to change the gameplay for a short period. Now, with the Skiff, you can freely explore some open world sections of the world. Generally in Gears, you’re give a very linear line of travel from point A to B, but now with these chapters where you get to control the Skiff, you can freely explore and even do side missions should you chose.

The Skiff is basically a sled that utilizes the wind to propel, like a kite board, but on land. In these sections, you can freely explore however you wish. I was totally expecting there to be some sort of combat element to it as well, but thankfully there wasn’t. This meant that I knew I could relax and simply speed around to my heart’s content across vast desert or ice tundra’s, depending on the chapter. While it’s simply a fancy way to navigate around a vast area, it feels slick, fast and I’m hoping it’s a trend that stays come the inevitable sequel.


VERSUS:

Versus, the online player versus player matches return, obviously. Of course, your ranked matches that people flock to returns, but as expected, is filled with nearly everyone using a Gnasher shotgun and wall bouncing so much it looks like a pinball machine. Fans will surely enjoy it, which is fine, but thankfully, for those less hardcore, there’s a versus mode for you here as well, aptly titled Arcade Versus.

In Arcade, things are changed up, which makes for an interesting take on your typical matches you’d come to expect. As you take out enemies, you’ll earn skulls, which in turn can then be used to spend on new weapons. What’s more interesting is that just like Horde and Escape modes, each character is unique in their loadout, so it actually matters who you choose, as they each only have access to specific weapons. While it’s an interesting twist, there’s some strategy to it as well in relation to spending your skulls. Do you save more and wait for a better weapon, or spend less and more frequently on lesser weapons? This less hardcore-like version of Versus is a welcome change for those of us that aren’t aspiring pros or enjoy using the Gnasher.

HORDE:

Horde mode makes a return in a big way, but with some drastic changes as well. Every character has their own special ability, like an ultimate that charges over time, and is meant to fill a specific role and play style, locking them into a role essentially. For the uninitiated, Horde mode because quite popular when it was introduced, having you trying to survive 50 waves of enemies, with each 10th having a boss of sorts to best as well. It’s a simple premise, but fans took to it, and it’s been a Gears staple ever since.

Surviving progressively difficult waves sounds easy on paper, but execution is much more challenging. Luckily bots are able to fill empty spots finally, but you’re going to need some serious communication and teamwork if you want to tackle the harder difficulties. Each character isn’t simply a re-skin of one another, as they each play uniquely to their loadout, perks, abilities and ultimate. Engineers are the defense builders, scouts can zip around quickly, tanks take the brunt of the damage and others are your ones for taking out the enemy. One feature I absolutely detest though is that you can’t have two players playing the same character in a match.

I myself only play Jack, as I love his support playstyle and unique abilities like being able to hack and take over an enemy with my ultimate. If I join a match and someone else is Jack, I’m forced to play someone else, which makes me simply leave the game entirely. If you’ve played Overwatch before, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but when characters make progression, I’d rather focus on the one I like and want to play, rather than being forced to play a class or character I don’t enjoy.

As you down enemies, they’ll drop energy that can be picked up. This energy has a multitude of uses, such as building fortifications, healing others, repairing or even purchasing perks for yourself between waves. Do you hoard all the energy for yourself to boost your own gameplay, or deposit what you’ve gathered into the team base for all to share?

While Horde mode is generally a defensive game type, there are new Power Taps that allow for a little more aggression and risk taking. These are extra points on the map, which if captured, will generate more energy at set intervals. Enemies will try and destroy these as well, so do you use them as bait, or spend more energy and build defenses nearby as well? This will depend on your team cohesion and strategy.

What I enjoyed most about Horde though is the progression your characters make after it ends as you earn XP. Each character has certain perks or abilities that are equipped with cards. As you begin at level one, you can only equip one card, so you much choose wisely. As you gain levels, you’ll unlock new cards and the ability to equip more at once. You randomly gain new cards after matches, and if you get duplicates, you can actually level up the cards themselves, making them more powerful and effective. Horde has changes, for both good and bad, but overall it feels a bit more accessible, even for newcomers, yet has the long term progression for those that decide to stick with it.


ESCAPE:

Escape mode is something completely new for the Gears franchise, and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. In essence, it’s almost like an opposite to Horde, as a group of three players are tasked with escaping from a hive. The catch is that there’s a time limit, as you set a bomb and must get out before it explodes. Like Horde, each character has their own abilities, ultimate and loadout, but don’t expect any of your favorite Gears cameos here, as it’s generally the lesser known characters on the D-list.

While the premise is simple: Get to the extraction alive and close the door behind you before the bomb goes off, it can be anything but depending on the players you have with you. Having a teammate rush ahead, or lag behind, can be a death sentence for success. Even worse, you may have someone that doesn’t share the weapon pickups or ammo. I highly suggest playing this solely with friends.

What is very cool though is the ability to create your own Escape Mode map. With a simple to use map editor, you can create custom maps for your friends, or even upload and share them online for everyone to try out. There’s some interesting ones out there already, and I’m curious to see how creative people become with this in the future. There’s even a weekly featured map to challenge yourself with and earn rankings for should you enjoy the mode.

VISUAL/AUDIO:

I’m going to go out on a limb and straight up announce that Gears 5 is easily the most visually impressive title on consoles to date. Playing in 4K, 60 FPS and HDR lighting (on an Xbox One X) is nothing short of stunning. The facial animations in the cutscenes during close-ups looks damn near realistic from the main characters, character models are extremely detailed and the vistas and environments vary and all have their own tonality. Gears has previously been known for its very dark, drab and grown color palette overall.

Gears 5 completely gets rid of that stigma and infuses a gamut of colors based on where you are in its world. You may be exploring a lush green forest, a tundra filled with white and blue hues or a desert filled with a deep red sand. The color infusion is what the series sorely needed and it’s never looked better.

Audio is just as impressive. The voice work from the whole cast is completely flawless and more than believable. Not only do the facial animations enhance their performances, it’s actually got some humor included that made me chuckle more than once. While the weapons don’t sound as impactful as they once did in previous games, that simply may be just my memory playing tricks on me. When the wind hits the Skiff’s sails, they unfurl and you can hear the poof of them as they fill with a gust of air. Small audio details like this breathe more life into the experience and enhance the world of Gears even further.

While some may not welcome the changes and tweaks, I’ve completely fallen in love with Gears all over again because of them. The Microtransactions are vastly improved over Gears of War 4 with the removal of random loot boxes, but the prices are still insanely expensive and disheartening. I’m not paying $5-10 for a blood spray of country flag, but obviously others will. For any negative I could think of, I can easily list two or more positives that I absolutely fell in love with. For example, Jack being playable completely changed the strategicness of the core gameplay, as does the Skiff opening up the open world gameplay and offering sidequests.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had Gears on the brain, and now that Gears 5 has been extremely addictive and taking a large chunk of my time lately, I’m glad to say that not only is Gears back, but better than ever with a slew of additions, changes and improvements. Kudos to The Coalition for taking the risks they did. I’m no longer worried that one of my most beloved franchises are in safe hands going forward.



Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Control

Remedy has always been one of my favorite developers. While The Matrix may have ‘invented’ bullet time, Max Payne was really the pioneer of showcasing it on the gaming front. From there, and a Max Payne sequel, we were given Alan Wake, an extraordinary narrative that still has fans begging for a sequel to this day. Later, Remedy tried something completely different with Quantum Break, a mix of action gameplay with live action TV show elements. While I was a fan, it got mixed reviews. Now, in 2019, Remedy’s newest release is finally here, titled Control. Having built upon their previous releases, Control feels like the pinnacle of their efforts, and it shows.

Narrative has always been Remedy’s strong suit, even if it can get a little crazy at times with its supernatural elements; Control is no different. The Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) is a government agency, much like our real world FBI, but they focus on paranormal events and phenomena. You are Jesse Faden, searching for answers at the FBC, only to be greeted by the Janitor. Even finding the FBC headquarters isn’t possible by normal means, so it’s clear that Jesse has some sort of deep connection to what’s taking place.

Jesse’s mainly looking for her lost brother Dylan, but she’s being guided by someone, or something, that she can converse with in her head. There’s also a major threat from an invading enemy known as The Hiss within the FBC walls, known as the Oldest House. The Hiss can corrupt nearly everyone it comes into contact with, as the vast majority of FBC workers have been possessed and turned into hostiles with super abilities.

Jesse is special though, and regaining control is a job that she’s thrust into as the new Director of the FBC. I’d love to go into more narrative detail, but the story, lore and how it plays out really is Control’s greatest strength, and I won’t want to spoil much else. It’s also at times absolutely crazy, so trying to explain it in simple terms would also take a dozen more paragraphs.

Played in third person, much like their other games, you’ll feel at home if you’ve played Quantum Break previously, as you’ll also have access to supernatural abilities as you progress. You’re able to freely search the Oldest House, but certain pathways will not allow access until you find specific keycards, granting you access. So while it’s somewhat an open adventure, you’re confined to a linear progression that’s narrative based, though there are a few branching paths with more than enough collectibles to seek.

Normally I’m not one to hunt and find out collectibles, but there’s an absolute truck load of them within the FBC walls. You’ll find memo’s, posters, notes, recordings and more, each of which expands the lore of Control’s world, almost to a point of being overwhelming. While I don’t want to spoil anything, there are ties to other Remedy games like Alan Wake, and more than a simple Easter Egg as well. Find enough of the collectibles and you might figure out how Control’s world is actually related to the one in Alan Wake. This alone excited me enough to seek out more of the hidden items.

Because the FBC deals in the supernatural and paranormal, the building itself is also very deceiving. From the outside it looks like a standard building you’d see in any downtown core, but once you start exploring within, you’ll realize that the innards are much larger than its walls. Walls will shape shift, move, extend and more as you progress, adding some very cool sequences along the way. Speaking of, one of the absolute best sequences actually occurred during my playthrough near the final chapter of Control. I won’t spoil what happens, or how, but make sure you make it through the Ashtray Maze at some point. Enough said.

Much like any government building, there are signs everywhere that show arrows of how to get to certain areas, rooms, sectors and more. This is how you’ll generally navigate your way from objective to objective. While there is a map you can pull up with a press of the D-Pad, it was completely unreliable for me throughout my whole time with Jesse. For some reason, the map would constantly fail to load properly, only showing me the icon of where I am and the labels of certain areas, but the actual map layout wouldn’t load. Since there is no breadcrumb trail leading to you where you need to go, you need to rely on this map heavily at times, but when it fails to load most of the time, it became quite frustrating, leaving me lost at times.

The somewhat saving grace of this frustration was the inclusion of waypoints, cleverly referred to as control points. The main areas and hubs of the Oldest House need to be cleansed of all Hiss infecting it, and once done, Jesse can revert the area into a safe zone, also allowing it to be used as a fast travel point, helping with exploration as you’ll need to backtrack many times to reach newly unlocked areas as you gain more clearance levels as the Director.

Jesse is chosen as the new Director, proven by wielding the Service Weapon. This paranormal gun may seem like an ordinary pistol at first, but there’s much more to it that you’ll uncover during your adventure. The first few firefights will feel like any other third person shooter, but eventually Jesse will come across Objects of Power, granting her new abilities like flying, telekinesis and more. Once you start to blend in abilities with the shooting mechanics, Control really starts to feel like its own experience, one that I enjoyed more as it progressed.

Your Service Weapon starts out as a basic pistol, but will eventually be able to be morphed and changed into having other properties, like a charge up shot or rapid fire akin to a SMG. Interestingly, Jesse can equip two forms of the gun at once, able to freely swap between their forms, but they share the same ammo source, one that refills automatically when not being used or shortly after its clip being emptied. This took me a while to get used to, as pressing ‘X’ switches your gun’s form, not reloading like practically every other game, as that’s done automatically. Eventually you’ll become accustomed to it, but it’s certainly not the norm. Also not what I expected was that your health doesn’t replenish automatically, so you’ll need to pick up glowing sprites from defeated Hiss to refill your health; something that can be quite dangerous during a massive battle.

Because of this shared ammo resource, you’ll also need to rely on your abilities to take out Hiss as well. I heavily relied on my telekinesis throw ability, allowing you to pick up nearly any object, or even debris, launching it at great velocity at enemies. Your abilities also share a resource as well, so you can’t freely dash everywhere or launch items without needing a rest period, so you’ll need to balance their usage.

Enemies vary as well, so some will be nearly immune to bullets, yet can be killed easily with a thrown object, others will fly around, making it nearly impossible to hit with objects, so gunfire is your better option. While there’s not a vast variety of enemies, knowing how to defeat them individually and how to prioritize targets is how Jesse will survive large battles. Once you see these orb-like Hiss, you’ll need to make those priority number one, as they can heal enemies, but they move incredibly fast so it’s a cat and mouse game of being mobile and interchanging weapon fire and abilities. This becomes quite chaotic later on, especially in the last few battles, but it’s also what makes Control shine and feel unique.

There’s also an upgrade system in place for Jesse to improve her Service Weapon and abilities. You’ll be able to craft a handful of different forms for the weapon, and even be able to upgrade them much later on, adding more mod slots. Defeated Hiss will drop random mods now and then, which can either be for your weapons, some for specific forms, or for Jesse herself as a personal mod, like more health, energy, quicker dashing, etc. You’ll gather numerous types of resources from enemies and hidden secrets, eventually unlocking all the way up to tier 5 mods which cost an extreme amount to craft, but add some huge bonuses. These upgrades really open up Control to play how you want, as you can boost headshot damage, reload speed, less ammo when floating and a ton of other mods to suit your playstyle.

Visually, Control is impressive, but I had some major slowdown at times, some screen tearing, and honestly, just expected a little more. Facial animations from the main characters were impressive in cutscenes, but I wasn’t blown away. The environment was actually the most impressive, especially when walls start moving and shape shifting when you take over a control point. As for its audio, the voice acting is flawless due to Courtney Hope’s portrayal (whom you’ll recognize as Beth from Quantum Break), weapons and explosions explode with power and the soundtrack is very fitting for the setting, especially the sequence I alluded to above.

Control has that signature Remedy feel to it, from its unique combat to its completely out there narrative, something only Sam Lake could be a part of. Although the story is Control’s strongest asset, it will take a lot of concentration and thought to piece it all together, as I’ve still got many questions even after the credits have rolled. Luckily you can continue Jesse’s journey once completed, allowing you to finish up any sidequests and other activities as we wait on the upcoming DLC that will hopefully answer more questions. Welcome to the FBC Director.

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Wreckfest

One of my all-time favorite games was back on PS1 with Destruction Derby. Since then I’ve always loved watching derbies. I even wore out a VHS tape my grandma had that was some local derby event when I was kid. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a truly great derby game though, and while the FlatOut series somewhat filled that gap, nothing’s really grabbed my attention long term or impressed the way Wreckfest has done.

Developed by Bugbear, the people who actually made the first two FlatOut’s, Wreckfest has actually been on my Steam wishlist for quite some time, but I never got around to pulling the trigger. Things sometimes works out though, and now fans can enjoy Wreckfest on Xbox One. Luckily, it seems the wait has been worth it as well, as full on collision, wrecking and smashing is in full force without any slowdown. While you may think that Wreckfest is simply a racing game with crash physics, which it does have, you’ll need to become quite used to full-contact racing and breaking the rules if you want to emerge victorious.

While there’s no story contained within the campaign, which is fine, there’s plenty of content to dig through, even if you don’t plan on playing online with randoms and friends. Career mode is sectioned into different leagues and events, starting with the Regional Juniors. Each league has a dozen or so events that you can partake in, given you have the proper type of car, and you earn points for winning said events.

To graduate to the next level of completion and unlock more events, you’ll need to reach the point threshold in your current championship. For example, once you reach 2000/2000 points in Regional Juniors, you’ll unlock the next series and a whole new set of races and events. While it’s a basic structure, the events are quite varied and will have you racing and smashing in derbies and more. Certain events have car restrictions, like imports, FWD, etc, so you’ll eventually need to purchase new cars if you want to partake in all of the events and progress. As you win events you’ll earn XP and money, which can then be used towards new purchases and upgrades.

The tonality of Wreckfest makes it a completely different experience to say a Forza racing game. In Forza, if there’s a jerk driving backwards or smashing you into a corner, you generally get upset, because that’s not the way that type of racer is supposed to be played. In Wreckfest however, it’s not only encouraged, but it’s quite rare when someone isn’t trying to smash you into a wall or wreaking havoc with a bus in the middle of a figure eight intersection.

What I also really enjoyed about Wreckfest was its lack of rules. Yes you need to drive the right direction, but for example, there’s a track that’s shaped like a horseshoe with both ends having a looped turnaround to get you going back the same way you came. Most people tend to stick to the outside and loop back in on the inside, but Wreckfest doesn’t force this. If you’re like me and want to be a little more chaotic, you can take the loop on the inside and exit on the outer edge. Sure it’s risky with the chance of more head-on collisions, but there’s risk vs reward.

Many of the maps are a ton of fun as well. Some are figure eights, which after a few laps is complete insanity and destruction at the intersection, and others have a lot of overlap where head-ons occur. There’s even one track that has a loop, aptly titled Death Loop, and you can imagine the chaos that ensues with lots of ramps and jumps.

While there are no licensed cars, some are quite obvious as to what vehicle their real world counterpart are. Each vehicle takes some time to get used to, especially with cornering, as they are quite heavy and weighted, and that’s before you start to take damage from your opponents. These cars aren’t generally meant for drifting, so cornering will take some getting used to, but be prepared to crash a lot, especially with ramps, barriers and opponents that are using you to bounce off of.

While collisions and cars being smashed is nothing new in racers, none have taken it to the level that Wreckfest has. Not only will your vehicle become barely recognizable after a few good hits, but you can even lose parts, wheels, smash in your ends and more. Damage yourself too much and you’ll be completely wrecked and out of the race, though trying to limp across the finish line with a wheel missing is always hilarious to watch. Sure, it would be nice if everyone drove perfectly and didn’t try to hit one another, but don’t expect that here. I’m already at the point where I don’t get upset if I get smashed into a wall or wrecked in a race, it’s just part of the Wreckfest experience.

Cars are basically junkers once you purchase and unlock them. This is where the cash you’ve been earning by playing campaign, or online, comes into play. You’ll find everything from sedans, speedsters, muscle cars, wagons, busses, limos, harvesters, lawnmowers and even a couch. Yes, you read all of that right. Wreckfest adds a ton of variety, not only with the great track design, but unique vehicles as well. There’s nothing quite like trying to do a loop in a motorized couch or lawnmower.

Regular vehicles can be upgraded though, improving their performance. You can upgrade its engine, boosting its class level should you wish, various other parts and even cosmetic items like wheels, hoods, spoilers and more. Improving the car’s handling, speed and more is quite rewarding, especially once you can start to keep up with the competition, and adding cosmetic changes just adds a flair of welcomed personality.

If you want to race with a bigger emphasis on smashing and wrecking, then maybe you’ll want to outfit your vehicle with more armor. While this will greatly boost your strength, it’ll make you much heavier, so speed, acceleration and cornering will take a hit. My suggestion, create one vehicle specifically for destruction derbies with tons of armor, and a separate for racing events. You’re even able to tune your vehicles before races; nothing to the level of Forza obviously, but the option is there to make some tweaks to your differential and more.

You’re even able to change the paintjob of your car as well. Unfortunately there’s only a handful of liveries and choices, as there’s no painting or layers like we’ve come to expect from a Forza, but at least the colors of each section can be altered if you wish. I do wish there was a little more customization in this department, but at the same time, we all know what happens when people are given free rein to those types of tools.

If you want a break from Career, you can create a custom single player event, completely customizing it however you wish. Want to race busses on a figure eight? Go ahead. Want to have a limo only destruction derby? Feel free to do so. Want a ton of laps or realistic damage? It’s all up to you. My only complaint is that these custom matches are only playable in single player, so there’s no creating a wacky event for you and your friends to play together on.

Arguably, the star of Wreckfest is its destruction derbies. This is where all of the players are put into an arena, with the last car functioning the winner. You get points for smashing, spinning out and obviously, wrecking your opponents. If you think you can simply stay away and try to outlast everyone, think again, as there’s a timer where you need to make contact with another player every minute or so, to thwart people trying to simply run away while everyone else does the work. There’s also a Deathmatch derby mode where it’s a set timer of a few minutes, and the player with the most points at the end wins. Here you can respawn if your car is wrecked, so this takes a different strategy compared to Last Man Standing where you don’t get any second chances.

Wreckfest is visually impressive when considering the amount of damage level and wreckage that takes place on the track, even more so when you realize wrecked cars don’t despawn either and stay on the tracks as an obstacle. While it won’t wow you by simply looking at it, it’s the smaller details that impress more if you take the time to notice. Audio on the other hand is atrocious. While the vehicle and crashing sounds are impactful and sound like they hurt when hit, the in game soundtrack is on a whole other level of terrible, to the point of having to completely mute it and play my own tunes.

I could gush all day about what I love about Wreckfest and that it’s the most multiplayer fun I’ve had in quite some time with a bunch of friends, but there’s also a laundry list of issues that I have as well. While I’m glad it supports 16 players, it’s a shame it’s not the full 24 that the PC version has. While there’s absolutely no slowdown, even when all 16 players are smashing into one another, the loading time before each race is almost to the level of being a joke, even on an Xbox One X. When you’re playing a 3 lap race then having to load a new track between each time, you load for almost as much time as you play. Factor in the minute or two of lobby time between races too and you’ll need to find something to fill your downtime with. The menu system is quite buggy, not always allowing you to change your car for some reason, or explaining why you can’t pick a bus on certain tracks.

There’s seemingly also some crazy slingshot mechanics when racing the AI. You could be in first by a long shot, but the AI will make a comeback out of nowhere, even when your car class is much higher than theirs. While I primarily stick to online play now with friends, this was quite frustrating when I would lose campaign races due to this. And just to reiterate, the soundtrack is absolutely horrible, so make sure to mute it as soon as possible in the options.

If I was to score Wreckfest solely on its fun factor, it would easily get a 12/10, but there are issues here and there that do hinder its enjoyment at times, especially the excessive loading. Even though there’s the odd technical and design issue here and there, I’m still getting on every night after convincing a handful of friends to pick it up, as we race and smash until the middle of the night.

Wreckfest is the epitome of white knuckle driving, as you’ll clench when you can see an oncoming hit about to happen, or laugh uncontrollably once you completely destroy someone and send them flying off the track. Wreckfest is chaotic and frantic fun at its core, and even though it has its issues, it’s a complete blast to play and enjoy.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Ancestors Legacy

What usually kills a decent RTS when it comes over to consoles is its control scheme. With a mouse and keyboard you have full control of what you want to do quickly. Mapping that to a controller is no easy feat, as proven by the numerous RTS games that have released on console, but very few have done it successfully. This is usually the first aspect of a console RTS that I experiment with and judge, as it will completely make or break the game. Luckily, I can attest that Ancestors Legacy is one of the few that have seemed to have manageable controls; not perfect, but much better than others out there.

While I’m no RTS aficionado, as I’m generally not very skilled in them, I do enjoy them regardless. Top down strategy games usually require a lot of skill, as you need to multitask and manage nodes, build your base, command units and fight off the enemy; Ancestors Legacy is no different. If I had to directly compare it to another RTS, I’d say it’s mechanically similar to Company of Heroes, yet has a Middle Ages setting; a good pairing if you ask me.

Set between the 8th and 13th century, Ancestors Legacy surprised me most with its quite lengthy campaign. You begin by controlling the first of four nations, the Vikings. After you complete the first few missions, which act as the tutorial, you’ll be able to then freely choose between the Viking, German, Slav or Anglo-Saxon factions, each of which have two stories and characters each. Each person’s campaign is broken into five lengthy missions, totaling forty missions to sink your teeth into. Factor in multiple difficulties as well and you have quite a bit of value contained within.

According to developers Destructive Creations, many of the single player campaign missions are based on historical events as well, which is even more impressive. As you progress, missions become longer and more involved. I initially just expected each faction to simply be a pallet or skin swap, but they are quite different, each of which’s campaign was interesting and kept my attention throughout.

Being a strategy game, there is of course base building and resource management, along with combat, but something about the Middle Ages setting really interested me. Once I grasped my head around the resource management and capturing nodes, I finally got into a good groove where I was able to execute my orders to my squads exactly how I intended, or retreating when I knew the battle was lost, sparing a few lives.

While combat may not be as large scale as some other titles, it’s manageable, and you’re able to freely zoom far out to see the whole battlefield, or up close and personal with individual units. I do recommend that you stay zoomed out though, as the visuals are passable as a whole, but zooming in does show the lesser quality animations and models when in close range.

Like many other RTS’, you’ll be tasked with capturing enemy nodes, halting their resources and giving them to you. There are other mechanics in play though, such as being able to utilize tactical advantages, like flanking from cover in a tall field, knowing what units are strong and weak against others and destroying and pillaging anything in your path.

While the overall mission variety is generally the same throughout, having you start from nothing and eventually building an army, surviving an onslaught, recouping and overrunning the enemy, the story between missions make it all mean something, tying it all together in a way that matters. Have enough resources and you can amass quite an army, ploughing through nearly anything in your path, but there’s specifically a retreat command purposely given to you, as you’ll need to rely on it when you become overrun. There’s no shame in running away to live and fight another day.

Each faction has a handful of different units that can be created and utilized in different ways. With the Vikings for example, you can make scouts and send them out on horseback at incredible speeds, spotting enemies and figure out your next plan of attack. Do you build an army that has mostly soldiers, or have shield bearers that can endure the most damage on the front lines. Once I had access to creating archers, combat became much more interesting and tactical. Be warned though, as friendly fire from archers can, and will, hit and kill your own members, something that happened quite often.

As your units are victorious in battle, they’ll level up and become stronger. While you could simply build more units and send them into the meat grinder, having units able to level makes you want to take care of them more. Doing so is easy, as in between battles you can heal your surviving units by having them rest and camp. I would trick a solo enemy unit into my trap, defeat them, rest up and continue on my path. And yes, there are actual traps you can build as well, great if you want to play with even more strategy and purpose, though I didn’t rely on them very much overall.

While there is base building, it’s quite basic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps the gameplay more focused on the combat and strategy elements. You’ll need resources to build and create units though, such as wood, ore and food. Take over an enemy encampment and capture it for yourself and you’ll be collecting all of its resources for your own army. Each building and unit takes a specific amount of resources, so you’ll always want to capture any nodes you possibly can.

Your enemies will not let that slide though and try and retake them, so do you set a group of units to defeat these nodes, or spend a lot of resources and build an archer tower that can help defend itself. There’s a fine balance that you’ll need to figure out, and once it all ‘clicked’ for me, it worked wonderfully.

The only real oddity I found with the base building aspect was that you’re unable to freely place the buildings where you want. Building a tent will set it in a specific spot, as will a barracks, blacksmith, archery range and others. While it’s not a deal breaker, some might find this small detail a little disappointing.

While the overall visuals are serviceable and fitting of the medieval setting, zooming in close to units really doesn’t hold up well and starts to show its flaws. That said, the soundtrack is fantastic and sets the atmosphere well, even if the voice acting in the campaign is quite dreadful at times.

With four separate factions, each with two campaigns, there’s a ton of content here to keep you busy for quite some time, and that’s not even factoring in the multiplayer skirmishes as well. It may not be the most robust RTS out there, but it’s a great console RTS that vets and newcomers alike should enjoy. Plus, who doesn’t like Vikings?

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Truck Racing Championship

Some sports I understand, others I just don’t get the appeal. That’s not to say that others don’t find them interesting, such as NASCAR, but sometimes it doesn’t just grab your attention. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Truck Racing Championship (called FIA European Truck Racing Championship elsewhere for some reason) initially, as it’s racing, but with massive 5-ton trucks, instead of the NASCAR, Formula 1 or MotoGP that we’re accustomed to spectating.

To say that racing huge heavy trucks changes the racing dynamic is an understatement, as it’s not simply the same thing as regular racing but slower (though it is obviously), but there’s more nuances you need to manage, such as the heat and wear of your brakes, as stopping a massive truck at high speeds is much more taxing on the vehicle than a regular car.

I knew that trucks were raced before, but it’s not really got a huge following here, as far as I know, so I’ve never watched an actual race. After spending hours with Truck Racing Championship, the FIA ETRC (European Truck Racing Championship) league is something I’m now aware of, and have even watched a handful of the races on YouTube. It’s unreal to see these racers perform how they do in these vehicles, and ETRC has some really interesting rules that makes it stand out, like being speed limited to 160 km/h for safety precautions.

More on the simulation side of racing, Truck Racing Championship is trying to emulate the actual ETRC sport, and if you’re a follower, you’ll be happy to know that this is an officially licensed game, developed by N-RACING, and includes actual circuits, drivers, teams and liveries. Even if you know nothing about the sport itself, you’ll get to race on infamous tracks like Laguna Seca, Fuji Speedway and Nurburgring, among others.

The bulk of your gameplay will come within its Career Mode. Here you have two options, from ETRC racing or a World Series Tour. ETRC is what the sport is actually modeled after, so I decided to spend the bulk of my time there, as the other career actually isn’t based on real events and has you racing a different type of truck that is noticeably faster. Both careers can be played separately, as they have their own progress, but mimic one another structurally.

You begin as a freelance driver, looking at the contract options and what teams need a driver for their team for said weekend race; a two day event. In the beginning you’ll change teams on short term deals, but eventually work towards a long term, which unlocks the ability to modify and upgrade your vehicle, though it takes a while to get to that point given how long races take.

This is because every ETRC event is more than just the race itself. It begins with a Practice run, Qualifying, Super-Pole and then the four races (2 races on each day). That’s a lot of racing for one track, though thankfully you can skip all of the pre-races should you choose to. Luckily you can also set the number of laps, as a full race is about a dozen and will take a serious time commitment per event if you decide to keep it that way. I chose short, which makes races 2-3 laps, depending on the length, and was a little more bearable. Factor in that these trucks are quite slow compared to your regular sports races, and you’ll see where fatigue can start to set in quite quickly.

There are dozens of trucks from actual manufactures, and each of the two types handle quite differently. The ETRC trucks, resembling a classic Optimus Prime look with a square boxed cab, whereas the others are more of your standard semi-trucks you’d see driving on the actual roads with the front nose. ETRC trucks are much slower and handle nothing like your typical race car. These are 5 ton beasts, and as such, will take some time to get up to full speed, and even more skill needed to brake properly for turns.

Visually, everything looks authentic, though not impressive when compared to the latest Forza for example. Not to say that it looks terrible, as I was quite impressed by the water and reflections on the tracks, but it’s nowhere near a Forza in terms of visual fidelity. While I normally always play in a far out 3rd person view in racing sims, the cockpit view was quite interesting here, as you sit much higher in a truck and it gives a much different perspective, able to see upcoming turns and opponents easier.

Before you can get racing though, you’ll need to obtain your license. If you’re having dreadful flashbacks of having to do the same thing in Driver on PS1 back in the day, it’s about the same. You’ll go through a handful of tutorials that teach you the basics, not only of turning and maneuvering these big rigs, but more importantly, how to brake in them properly. It’s a pain at first being forced to do these, but it does teach you invaluable tips that will make your racing career much more successful in the long run.

Braking is what arguably sets Truck Racing Championship apart from other race sims. These are 5 ton trucks. Have you ever heard a semi slam on its brakes to avoid hitting something ahead of it? It’s not a pleasant sound, and these trucks are doing it at up to 160 km/h and in hairpin turns. Much like how professional drivers want their tires to be a certain temperature for ideal grip and turning, the same goes for brakes with ETRC drivers.

If your brakes overheat, they will eventually give out, and if they are too cold it’ll take longer for you to stop, so there’s an ideal temperature that you’ll want them at to be the most effective. Because of this, trucks are actually equipped with water reservoirs, used to cool down the brakes after a heavy stop by dumping water on them. You actually have to do this with a press of the ‘B’ button, and while it’s doubtful you’ll run out of your water in the tank, it does need to be monitored via the HUD.

Remember, these trucks aren’t built like super cars, and as such, don’t corner like them either. You will need to acclimate to the controls, as you can’t really drift in these vehicles like you normally would in other games. When you brake, your wheels lock up, so you need to plan ahead of turns and slow down purposely well beforehand if you want to keep the best momentum possible.

AI opponents seem hit or miss for how they decide to drive. Sometimes they concede to my position and won’t try to hit me or rub, other times it’s as if they don’t know that I’m there and use me as a wall to bounce off of. What did surprise me though is that the AI will make human-like mistakes, such as a spinout, drifting off into the gravel now and then.

That’s not to say that you’ll have an easy time winning, as it seems they have much better speeds and handling than you do, even if racing near perfectly, making those first few turns ever so important to get out in front early. Also, there’s sadly no rewind feature, so if you make a huge mistake, you either live with it and finish, or restart the event from the beginning.

There is multiplayer support, splitscreen and online, though as this was written well before the official launch, I was unable to test the online functionality as no one joined my lobbies any time I made one. What I did get to test was how to mute and disable the terrible narrator that does nothing to really help you at all. Now and then you’ll get advice like “try and overtake” or “work for a better position”, even when it contextually makes no sense as to what’s currently happening in the race. Factor in that there’s no musical audio during races either and you can see what it became a nuisance to only hear engines, squealing brakes and a brain dead narrator.

Truck Racing Championship may not be the most polished or impressive race sim out there, but it’s meant for a specific audience, one that I believe will appreciate the authenticity to the ETRC sport and trucks themselves. It’s a different racing experience than I’m used to, but it definitely piqued my interest in the actual sport, something I had never heard of or paid any attention to until playing Truck Racing Championship, even if the game itself wasn’t terribly robust.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Damsel

While I don’t normally gravitate to challenging 2D platformers, Damsel piqued my interest with its colorful comic book inspired visuals and frantic paced gameplay. Be prepared to dash, shoot, hack, disarm, rescue and kill thousands of vampires throughout your adventure. In the beginning I was quite enjoying my time with Damsel, trying to simply survive and progress, but about half way through, repetitiveness reared its ugly head.

The campaign is broken into three main chapters, each of which are made up of 25 bite sized levels. As you complete a mission, the next is available to challenge yourself, meaning you need to beat them progressively in order to continue on and unlock new missions and chapters. For the narrative, it’s presented in an actual comic book form, which is why the accompanying visuals tend to match and work so well.

You play as Damsel, a secret agent which is the only one that can stand up against the evil forces of the Red Mist, an organization comprised of vampires, set out to take over the world. She has a team that helps her along the way, narratively anyways, as she uncovers Red Mist’s secrets. Between levels you’ll get to watch a few panels of comic book styled storyboard, progressing the story as you go. Does that story relate to your current objectives? Not usually, but at least there’s a decent amount of narrative within.

Damsel has lightning quick reflexes with her dash ability, has killer melee abilities if close range to a vampire, all topped off with a powerful shotgun that can blast any enemy in your way. Your goal is to cause distress, and Damsel has the abilities to do so, it’s only a matter if you can keep up as well. Each mission is bite sized, lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 or 3 minutes, depending on your skill and practice.

Not only will you have to deal with dozens of vampires, but also traps, bombs, lasers and more. Levels are meticulously designed to be played out in a certain way, if you’re trying to aim for a highscore or speedrun that is. If you’re aiming to work on your score or time, you’ll need to play many times to experiment and see what works best to maximize your efficiency.

Each mission has a specific objective, ranging from defeating all the vampires, hacking computer terminals, disarming bombs, saving hostages or destroying coffins. You need to do so quickly though if you want a high score or a good time and grade. There are other traps and different types of vampires will challenge you in unique ways. You can’t simply spam your shots, as you’ll lose the mission if you accidentally kill a hostage, something you’ll do countless times by accident, prompting a restart.

While there is an easier Chillout Mode, where you don’t need to worry about dying and can simply enjoy it for fun, Damsel is crafted around speedruns and leaderboards. While you have a main objective, there are also skulls strewn about the levels, strategically placed, allowing you to amass much higher points. If you're a true glutton for punishment, the most extreme difficulty forces you to keep your skull combo constantly going if you want to progress.

You’re going to have to utilize all of your skills and abilities if you want any chance at succeeding, from your double jumps, dashes, melee, wall jumps and precision aiming. Most of your kills will come from your shotgun blasts, as you can aim in the main vertical and horizontal axis, yet no diagonal. Each vampire will have its health above its head, displayed as a number of hearts. A shotgun blast or melee will do one heart worth of damage, so sometimes you’ll need to figure out how many shots you’ll want to purposely shoot, as one extra might kill the hostage they are guarding, again, causing a restart.

While there are a handful of enemies you’ll encounter, I was hoping that the second and third chapters would add something new, either from enemy variety or bosses... something. Sadly, what you experience in the first dozen or so levels will be what you do for the remaining as well. While no new mechanics or enemies are introduced, the difficulty does spike quite sharply about halfway through by various means. When you get close to a bomb for example, you’ll need to perform a quick QTE to disarm it, but if an enemy shoots you, you get knocked back and have to restart the process. Given that there’s a short timer, you’ll die many times from these explosions due to a random enemy projectile or getting too close to start the timer when you didn't mean to.

This is where repetition and practice comes into play, as levels are designed in a specific way, so it’s only a matter of memorization of enemy placement and pathways if you want to be successful. That being said, because each mission is short in nature, Damsel definitely contains that “one more try” urge, as I would constantly get frustrated from having to restart numerous times, usually due to accidentally killing a hostage, but yet went back for another several tries. The small levels also means you can quickly jump on and play for a few minutes if you don’t have a lot of time to sink in at once.

For those that are a glutton for punishment, or really want to challenge themselves, there’s also an Arcade Mode. Here is where you’ll be tasked with trying to complete the campaign mode, but are only given a set amount of lives per stage. While there’s nothing new added here except difficulty, this is where the best of the best will climb the leaderboards for bragging rights.

Visually, Damsel is beautiful with its colorful and lighthearted comic book style. While the comic book narrative between missions is welcomed, animations of all of your moves is fluid, and stylish to boot. As for the audio, the soundtrack is decent and never really grated on me, even when retrying a level more than a dozen times. The only glaring miss is that the comic book panels aren’t narrated, which would have added some depth to the boring characters, though maybe they purposely wanted to keep the silent comic book aesthetic.

Damsel is absolutely designed for those that either speedrun or want to climb global leaderboards for bragging rights. For the more casual, it might be a little much with its challenging and frantic gameplay, though that’s where the easier difficultly option comes into play. In short bursts, Damsel can be a lot of fun, but play too much in one session and you might start to feel frustrated with the need for perfection and repetitiveness.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Redeemer - Enhanced Edition

Before the Mortal Kombat’s of the world were ushering a bloody good time, we had to settle for bloodless beat-em-ups, like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. Gaming has come a long way though, and a blood-filled romp is commonplace these days. The latest in the genre is Redeemer: Enhanced Edition, complete with buckets of blood and full to the brim with violence.

You are Vasily, a Kratos look-a-like that used to be a security officer for a shady weapons company. His job had him get his hands quite dirty, including murder, and he wanted no part of that life anymore. He managed to escape and leave, fleeing to a remote monastery and living a violence free life for two decades. Living amongst the monks he found peace, but one day he returns to nearly the whole village murdered once the corporation found out where he was hiding all this time. Now it’s time for redemption, and do to do, he’s going to have to get bloody.

Previously being released on PC, the new improved Enhanced Edition is now available for console players as well. If you managed to play the original Redeemer, then you’ll be happy to know that a few improved have been made, granting the Enhanced Edition title. New content, level’s difficulties have been balanced, abilities are now divided into two sections (Monk and Soldier) and the biggest addition that’s been requested, a 2 player co-op mode for when you have a friend over.

If you’re like me and never experienced Redeemer in the first place, it’s a top down brawler, complete with gunplay that has you fighting your way through levels, leaving a huge blood trail in your wake from anyone that tries to get in your way. You’ll be using your fists, kicks, melee weapons, guns and even environmental objects to kill everyone in your path. If it sounds violent, it is.

There are 15 levels or so, each lasting maybe 20 to 30 minutes, give or take, depending on your skill and difficulty chosen. Levels are very linear, so you’ll essentially be going from point A to point B, but there are a few short hidden paths that lead to some surprises, though there’s not much of an exploring element here, just simply killing everything in your path to the exit. If that’s not your bag, there’s also an Arena Mode where you can take on waves of enemies if you want a change of pace.

The majority of your combat will be with your fists and feet, making combos based on button combinations. If you manage to sneak up behind a normal enemy, you’ll be able to instantly execute them with a single button, essentially getting a free kill. This works quite well and will help thin the numbers before a large battle.

You’ll find a variety of weapons laying around, from torches, knives, axes, crowbars, staffs, hammers and a bunch of other nasty arms that will cause death. Every melee weapon has a durability meter though, usually only lasting a few hits, so make them count. The same goes for firearms, as there’s only limited ammo in each gun, and you can’t simply collect ammunition on the ground, you need to pick up the other guns and swap them out.

As you begin, you’ll face basic soldiers that pose no threat, and obviously as you progress through the levels, the difficulty will increase as you go, adding new enemies that need to be dealt with in very specific ways. For example, the difficulty randomly spikes about halfway through the story, quite sharply out of nowhere, where you’re pitted against a bunch of new monsters. One has spikes and will hurt you if you try and punch and kick them without a weapon, another spits acid and needs to be avoided at all costs, and another that’s a hulking beast and can hurt you real quick if you’re not careful. On their own they aren’t too challenging, but combined, and multiples of each becomes a bit much and chaotic.

Eventually, because of the sheer number of enemies you’ll be facing off against at a time, fatigue sets in with the same repetition of attacking, spamming parry, attack, parry, attack, parry and a few dodges here and there. That being said, I never died because of poor controls, only because I became overwhelmed with the harder foes at once. Stringing together combos, attacks, dodges and parries comes easy, and with that, Vasily’s baddass-ery goes up a notch.

Surprisingly, there’s also a progression system of sorts, relating to your abilities. As you use your attacks more, you’ll become more proficient with them, eventually able to upgrade them and picking perks. For example, eventually you can add another hit to your punch or kick combos, have your punches cause lightning damage or your kicks fire. Melee skills are separated from weaponry, and they level up the same way with perks being able to be chosen at certain levels. Oddly enough, there are also hidden scrolls strewn throughout the levels, and collecting these gives you new skill points as well.

While I didn’t have anyone to play co-op with, it seems most people that played the original were constantly asking for co-op to be added, so now it is to much rejoice. The second player is one of your Monk brothers, though I’m unable to confirm if the second player increases difficulty or enemies in a playthrough. Sadly it’s only couch co-op, as I would have probably dabbled in an online co-op if it was included.

While not often, there was a handful of times where framerate would dip down, one time well into single digits. The fact that I’m using an Xbox One X is what surprised me most about the extreme slowdown. That being said, the loading between stages is quite quick though, so it’s almost a tradeoff.

Redeemer: Enhanced Edition scratches an itch, albeit a seriously violent one. There’s so much blood and violence that it’s almost comical at points, though I don’t see many parents agreeing with me. Certain kills will have the camera zoom in to Vasily performing the execution, which is quite pleasing when it’s a special environmental kill. Graphically, it’s suitable for the tone, though you’ll see hundreds of the same few types of enemies and the same corridors repeated. The audio is slightly better, with the voice acting being half decent and attacks sounding like there’s some real ‘oomph’ to every hit.

Redeemer: Enhanced Edition was a fun distraction for a few hours, but it’s very repetitive, and once you’ve completed it, there’s no real reason to go back and do so again unless you really want to challenge yourself with the harder difficulties. At $38.99, it has priced itself out of the market, especially if you have a capable PC and can get it for much less than half of that elsewhere. If you’re seriously needing a fix of an ultra violent brawler, it’s a decent playthrough, but there’s no real lasting appeal afterwards.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Streets of Rogue

While I generally don’t gravitate towards rogue-lite’s, as I prefer a grand story and character progression, sometimes there are games in the genre that command my attention and I quite enjoy. Streets of Rogue is one of those titles. I initially made two mistakes when first starting Streets of Rogue though. One, I thought it was going to be a different take on Streets of Rage, a side scrolling brawler. This it is not. Second, simply from its visuals, I thought it was also going to be some variation of the Prison Architect games, but I was wrong again.

Instead, I got a twin-stick rogue-lite that is fully packed with humor and allows for a multitude of different play styles, promoting experimentation. One part The Binding of Isaac, another part Deus Ex, there’s near infinite replayability that is quite entertaining, and one action can set off other unintended reactions within the city.

While it doesn’t play a heavy role in the gameplay, there is a main narrative that revolves around trying to usurp the tyrannical mayor. He’s outlawed many things, including chicken nuggets (the prized currency of the people), and you, the Resistance, is trying to end him. After the tutorial though there’s essentially no story elements aside from a few quips here and there between characters. It’s an absolutely silly premise, but it fits, as the dialogue is cleverly written and full of laughs throughout.

Played in a top down view, the core gameplay is much like a twin-stick shooter, but depending on the class you choose, you may not even have access to guns. Levels take place in a city, starting with the Slums, Industrial Zone, The Park, Downtown and Uptown, working your way up to the nicer parts of town to confront the mayor.

The city is full of citizens, all going about their own business. Police patrol areas, gangs own territory, merchants have stores to purchase from, cannibals will gnaw on anyone that passes by and zombies will do their best to infect others. Wait, what? This is just a small example of the different types of NPC’s that inhabit the city and need to be interacted with in different ways. If you start shooting people, police will come after you. If you steal from people, you won’t be liked either. Streets of Rogue allows for a multitude of ways to handle any situation, which is part of its free form charm.

Each level has a main mission for you to complete, with a handful of side quests that are optional as well. You can complete these missions in any way you see fit as well. Need to destroy generators? You could simply shoot and destroy them, but why not set a trap, or hire a gang to do it? To do this, you’ll come across a variety of different equipment to use in any way, like banana peels, detonators, traps and a ton of other items that are fun to experiment with. While I originally only wanted to play with the Soldier class, shooting everything and everyone, once I started to try other characters and experiment, it was very entertaining to see what works and what doesn’t.

The final area of each level will also have some sort of disaster that occurs. Maybe a zombie outbreak happens, or bombs randomly fall from the sky, or an ooze slowly spreads throughout the level, or even a bounty is on your head, having everyone be hostile towards you. These add another layer of not only difficulty, but uncertainty. Maybe you were trying to play a pacifist run, but when everyone is attacking you, sometimes your plans go out the window.

As you complete missions and level up, you’ll earn those previous chicken nuggets. These allow you to purchase new mods and items for subsequent runs. This is a rogue-lite remember, so you will be dying a lot and having to start over, but there is some overall progression which makes it more entertaining each time. There are even modifiers you can toggle for specific types of runs. Want infinite ammo? Turn it on. Want to make things more challenging and items cost more? Go for it. It’s up to you how you want to play each run.

Furthermore, the class system is where Streets of Rogue really shines. I initially started out with a basic solider, but eventually tried a multitude of other classes like a doctor, zombie, gorilla, comedian, thief and more. Each one also plays completely different from the rest, as they all have their own abilities and play style. As a doctor, you don’t use guns, so you’ll have to rely on your tranquilizer gun and chloroform for takedowns from behind. Maybe your comedian can talk a guard out of his keys, or being a zombie to infect as many others as you possibly can.

Each class has their own main quest per stage as well, which plays into their own playstyle. I was quite surprised with the variety of gameplay, as each class can be quite drastically different from the others. Playing as a hacker is nothing like playing as a super gorilla, and you can’t expect them to play anything like a standard soldier.

Can’t decide on what character you want to play? Why not make your own? Yup, you can completely customize essentially every aspect of your character, from its looks, stats, perks and abilities. You have a set amount of points to use, and the better abilities and perks obviously use more points, but there are dozens of options available, making creating your perfect character simplistic. Certain abilities or perks may make things even harder, like people hating you, so it’ll give you more points to use to balance out the difficulty increase. There are a TON of options here, and I spent an hour just reading all of the hilarious descriptions.

Want to cause chaos and mayhem alongside some friends? No problem! Streets of Rogue supports up to four players locally or online. I could see this being extremely entertaining, as each player’s class would dictate a different way to solve quests. I did host a few games, but never had anyone join, and while there’s a player base and a server browser, it’s a little unintuitive to simply jump in and play with others.

The old school pixel art is endearing, perfectly suiting it for the humor and gameplay presented. Surprisingly, classes did look unique and distinct, which goes a long way to show how much heart went into the pixeled visuals. The audio is just as serviceable, as there are a few catchy tunes, but each level simply has its music repeated every play, so it does become stale after a while, especially the first few levels that you’ll be replaying many times.

Streets of Rogue took me by surprise. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but came away with a rewarding experience that promoted experimentation. While some classes shoehorn you into a specific play style, being able to create your own opens up nearly unlimited possibilities and new experiences, all while laughing throughout. If you’re looking for a rogue-lite that allows you to tackle gameplay in a variety of ways, allowing you to be creative and a variety of multiple endings, then Streets of Rogue should be your next play.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 They Are Billions

I initially wasn’t quite sure what to make of They Are Billions. It’s described as a Steampunk strategy RTS, which is technically true, but it also has a flavor of Tower Defense in certain ways. You’re tasked with simply surviving an eventual horde of zombies, but to do so you’ll need to build your colony so that everyone inside its walls are safe, as a single mistake can infect and destroy everything.

They Are Billions lives up to its name, as when the Horde does eventually charge, provided you can survive until then, the screen will literally be filled with thousands of zombies. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, you’ll excel if you’re a fan of RTS games, as you’ll need to manage resources and base build, but when it comes to RTS titles on console, very few games have gotten down the mouse and keyboard transition to controller right. I wish I could say They Are Billions was on this list of controller friendly gameplay, but unfortunately I’m unable to currently.

Narrative wise, there’s absolutely nothing here aside from simply surviving and defending your home base. There’s no campaign to speak of at all. That being said, there is a full-fledged campaign with the PC version, but on console, it’s completely absent. While it’s most likely of a when, and not if, as to when campaign will get added to the Xbox One version, at the time of this writing, there is only a single Survival Mode to play, so keep that in mind when deciding to purchase.

Instead of a typical RTS top down view, They Are Billions is played in an isometric 2.5D perspective. You’re able to zoom in very close, seeing individual units and zombies, but also zoom out to see just how many zombies are approaching your camp walls at once. The Steampunk aesthetic fits the dark and gloomy setting, as does the artistic style with its cartoonish style of character design.

Every game you begin in Survival mode is built as a randomly generated world. Your base is placed randomly within the map, sometimes in a great position near a bunch of water and nodes to harvest from, other times, well, you’ll be struggling a lot more when the random placement doesn’t work for you.

Truth be told, I’m generally quite terrible at RTS games; always have been. A feature that is specifically made for me is the ability to ‘real time pause’. This means the game is still running, but events and actions are paused. I can use this feature to figure out what I want to build and where, setting up the plots, without having to constantly worry about zombie swarms until I’m ready. With how difficult the controls are, which I’ve delve into shortly, this feature made the gameplay somewhat more bearable until I got the hang of it over hours of trial and error.

You’ll need resources to do nearly anything though, from wood, iron, stone, food and more. To gather you’ll need to have specific buildings in place that are in range of nodes and not blocking others. To build these structures though, you’ll also need resources, so it’s a cycle of resource management. You can also eventually upgrade buildings, so you’ll need to keep an eye on many things at once, even your energy costs.

It’s a lot to take in, and the main problem is that there’s absolutely no tutorial of any sorts. So when I started my first Survival game, I became quickly overrun by a swarm, unable to figure out what happened or how to prevent it. It took me a good handful of hours to really dig in and want to learn what does what, and I’m not sure everyone will have the same patience to do so. A basic tutorial of how to build, navigate the clumsy controller setup, how to successfully build defenses and more, would have gone a long way to have me enjoying They Are Billions from my first game instead of hours of frustration from the beginning.

Until you start to grasp the many intricacies of how to properly build a base and survive, you’re going to fail a lot. What’s worse, a single stray zombie that bypasses your defenses can completely destroy your whole base and cause a game over. As soon as a zombie infects one of your buildings, it will quickly spread to the rest, making them unusable until fixed, though at that point, the damage has been done. Your workers and population will also turn, making it impossible to contain once the infection spreads, so you need to make sure you defenses are impenetrable.

You can send your protectors to explore the map for more resources, or defend your base, it’s up to you. These attackers will be your best defense against the zombie horde, which is impressive given that up to 20,000 units each have their own AI at any given time; and no, I didn’t accidentally add a few 0’s there. When you see the horde for the first time, it’s an actual horde and quite impressive, though good luck surviving it.

Survival mode has you trying to last a certain amount of days, with numerous difficulty options and map types once unlocked. There’s also a Challenge mode that gets rotated weekly. Here, everyone will play the same exact map, vying for a high score on the leaderboards. It’s an interesting way to promote competition in a single player survival mode.

Where it starts to fall apart, almost instantly, is from its control scheme. Initially a PC title, They Are Billions was clearly designed for mouse and keyboard gameplay. The remapping onto a controller simply doesn’t work intuitively, and even after hours of gameplay, I was still making mistakes with button presses, accidentally deleting buildings because I forgot to deselect it with a different button, and never was able to accurately select individual units or setup hotkeys.

While very few RTS games on console have nailed the controller scheme, it is possible, but They Are Billions is probably one of the worst and most cumbersome I’ve experienced yet. That doesn’t mean the game itself is terrible, but when you can’t control it properly and do what you want on the fly without having to really think, or simply guess, it doesn’t work fluidly and effects the fun factor. That being said, They Are Billions does support Mouse and Keyboard play on Xbox One, which is a great gesture, but it feels as though it’s absolutely necessary if you want any chance at being successful. You won’t be able to sit on the coach and relax with a match or two of Survival if you’re planning on just using a controller sad to say.

On top of controller issues, there’s also times where you’ll have some massive slowdown. I can only assume it’s from when a lot of action is happening on screen, or in the background, but it happened more than a handful of times to be noteworthy. The biggest offence though is the complete lack of any campaign. Sure, if Survival Mode is your thing, you’ll be content with randomly generated maps, but for those that want more, it’s not going to hold your attention for too long, even less if you don’t have a spare keyboard and mouse to play properly with.

It feels great when you survive a swarm that is stopped at your walls, but when you lose a game because of one stray zombie that manages to infiltrate your walls, it’s quite frustrating, as it’s as if you need to play absolutely perfectly to succeed. With a proper tutorial to teach you how to play, and a campaign, I would have enjoyed They Are Billions immensely more, but in its current state on Xbox One, it simply feels empty and a work in progress.

If you have a mouse and keyboard to play with, then They Are Billions can be an entertaining time once you’ve learned its mechanics and strategies; if you’re going to play with just a controller though, I’d recommend at least waiting until an update with a campaign is added to make the value more worthwhile having to deal with the frustration.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Illusion of L'Phalcia

It seems like every month, KEMCO releases another one of their RPG’s from their PC/Mobile catalogue on Xbox One. With no shortage of titles to port over, the newest, Illusion of L’Phalcia is what console players are now able to enjoy if they’re looking for another run of the mill RPG. While there are no shortage of KEMCO titles to choose from, Illusion of L’Phalcia does pack a lot of content, even if it does run on a little longer than expected and is quite a grind in its endgame.

Created by Sage Elpis hundreds of years ago, The Sword of Amal contains within it the mystical power to grant wishes, provided it has a magic source of sorts. Seeing how powerful it was and weary that it could be used or evil, the sword was hidden away with the only clues to find it being a map torn into six different pieces. Protagonist Ryser, along with his talking cougar friend, aptly named Cougar, are Seekers; treasure hunters of sorts.

Ryser seeks to be rich with gold, and Cougar, well, he’s a foodie and would use his wish to eat a buffet of the world’s finest foods. They are in search for the map pieces to find the Sword of Amal to fulfill their shortsighted wishes, but like any RPG trope, will find friends along the way that join them to help, or for their own reasons. You’ll come across Tiana, a girl being chased by soliders, her guard Ferio and Caldina, a mysterious warrior, all of which are searching for the Sword of Amal for their own reasons.

While the story is one that we’ve seen a hundred times before, the character interactions is quite entertaining, especially the first half when Ryser and Tiana are constantly at each other’s throats for minor reasons. Sure, it gets old after a while, but as the story progresses, there will be twists, albeit obvious ones, but it at least keeps you engaged until the credits roll.

Much like practically every other KEMCO RPG, Illusion of L’Phalcia is a homage to the classic 8bit RPG’s that we grew up with. This means the majority of the gameplay is your top down sprites with limited animations, though combat within this one is done in a 3D aesthetic. Also like nearly every other KEMCO title, you’ll learn about the main story, talk to townspeople, head to your next destination, beat a boss, move onto the next town for more information and repeat until the final confrontation.

There are a few extras thrown in, like a handful of sidequests that you can choose to do, but these generally simply having you going through a previous dungeon and bringing back a specific item or two. As you explore the world map, you’ll also come across optional area bosses that are much more challenging than regular monsters and will give you special rewards if defeated.

Combat is your typical run of the mill turn based RPG style, choosing whether to attack, use a skill, magic or item. Attacking doesn’t cost anything, but magic and skills will utilize your MP, so they can’t be relied on as heavily. If you simply want to auto battle with attacks, pressing ‘Y’ will allow you to do so, essentially fast forwarding the dull combat.

As you fight in battles and use abilities, you’ll also charge your special meter, allowing you to pull off a triple team attack when used. This will randomly choose a skill from each of your three chosen teammates and use them, free of charge from MP. It’s handy to have in a pinch, but I wish I could queue up which abilities were used instead of it being randomly chosen. Where the real diversity comes in is with L’Phalcia’s interesting rune and magic system.

As you progress, you’ll find and earn Gems throughout your journey. These runes are how you equip your characters with specific types of magic (black for damaging and white for protective). What makes this unique is that each character has their own grid of a different size and shape. This grid is where you need to fit in runes, somewhat like moving around items in your Diablo inventory, making them fit within the grid constraints. As you gain levels, you’ll earn grid expansions, and as you earn higher level runes, they’ll become bigger or odd in shape.

A standard white magic rune is as simple 2x2 square, where a black rune is more like a “Z” shape. The high end runes are much bigger and more oddly shaped, so it’s difficult to slot in everything you want, requiring some strategic choices of who’s going to utilize which runes. There are other types of runes as well, like counter attack, physical damage bonuses and more, but the trick is to somehow make them fit within each character’s grid. Even though you can rotate pieces, it’s very tricky to figure out what the best rune combo for everyone is given these grid restraints.

Defeating those area bosses on the world map will earn you some special points, which can be used for high end items and gear, so it makes them worthwhile challenging yourself to. Given that the base game is $18.99 CAD, I was surprised to see that there was optional DLC also offered as well, though I shouldn’t have been given this isn’t the first KEMCO title to offer DLC like these.

Instead of story, quest or character additions, DLC for L’Phalcia is offered in the form of shortcuts. For $6.49 CAD, you can have a XP x3 bonus, full restores after battle and even disable random encounters. Sure, these are completely optional, though at the endgame, you’re going to be very tempted once you start to grind to max level to take on the biggest bosses. Luckily the game doesn’t pester you to do so, but when the base game is priced as it is, it would have been nice to have these as built in options.

While I find the classic 8-bit visuals endearing and nostalgic, obviously they aren’t anything pretty to look at. The hand drawn characters during dialogue are done well, though the 3D battle animations are quite stiff and basic, especially some of the skill attacks and enemy designs. Your 12-20 hour journey will have a handful of repeated audio tracks that become quite repetitive, especially when you’re grinding in seemingly never ending dungeons. Seemingly, narrative important scenes are fully voiced, though only in Japanese and no option for English. Transitioning from voice to text back and forth is jarring and the bland writing doesn’t help much either.

Even with my complaints, I was sucked into the predictable story all the way to its credits, and is a decent way to spend a weekend if you’re looking for a serviceable classic RPG experience, even if it won’t be a memorable journey that you’ll think of afterwards and has a massive difficulty spike near the end.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Omensight

I’ve always been drawn to strong storytelling, especially when it incorporates some type of time travel element to it. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for the classic movie Groundhog Day, and when games use this narrative device, I’m automatically intrigued. Omensight uses this Groundhog Day element, where you’re stuck reliving the same day over and over while trying to figure out a way to save the end of the world.

You play as the silent but deadly Harbinger, a mysterious warrior that only appears in times of a cataclysmic crisis. The lands of Urralia are torn apart at the end of the day when a deadly and evil god appears, Voden, seemingly unable to be stopped. But this is where you come in as the Harbinger, as you’re the only one that can prevent this catastrophic event from occurring, again.

Doing so is impossible though on your own, and you’ll need to recruit help, but convincing others is going to be difficult, as Urralia is under a civil war with the numerous factions. Urralia’s Priestess has been murdered, seemingly at the heart of the reason for Voden’s awakening, so it’ll be up to you to solve this mystery as well, as it may play a key role in being successful.

Again, that won’t be easy, as each race’s faction and cities are at war with one another. The nations of Pygaria and Rodentia are at war, so helping one side will make the other resistant to aid you going forward. This is where your choices come into play. Do you help one person to learn more information on the other and see how their side of events played out, or choose the other for a different perspective. Oh, and even though there’s a Game of Thrones element where each nation is vying for power, every character is actually an animal. It sounds silly and out of place, but it works, reminding me almost like a Secret of Nimh setting.

This is where the brilliant storytelling comes into play, as at the end of each day the world ends, but you as the Harbinger will travel back to the start of the day with your newfound knowledge, allowing you to either make different decisions, or even use that information to confront others on their actions. I don’t want to go into any details about the overall narrative, as that’s easily Omensight’s strongest asset, and spoiling it would be an injustice.

Seeing different perspectives of certain events is really interesting, and even better when you confront characters about what they know or have done. You’re also able to use your Omensight ability, projecting your visions into their mind, allowing them to see what you’ve witnessed as well. The story becomes more and more interesting as you progress and solve smaller mysteries, eventually leading up to the murder of the Priestess and Voden’s awakening.

While the narrative is what will keep you interested, each day is chosen by who you want to accompany alongside. Each level will have you progressing through a linear level, though there are hidden areas that can be unlocked once you have specific knowledge of how to open them that correspond with colored locks.

The camera takes a little getting used to, as it’s a locked and fixed camera based on the area and action that’s happening on screen, though it tends to work well the majority of the time. If you do happen to get put behind an object, it will actually turn see-through so that you won’t be blind as to what’s happening. There are a few platforming sections, which, with the fixed camera can be a bit of a pain, but I only died a couple times due to this.

While there aren’t that many levels, you’ll be playing through them numerous times, due to the storytelling mechanic of reliving the same day every time. Every ‘new’ day you relive though, you’ll have new knowledge, so maybe your companion will open a new path, or a slightly different event will occur during your next day playthrough.

As you explore each stage, you’ll fight hordes of enemies blocking your path. Depending on whom you choose in each day, they’ll fight alongside you, and the AI is actually half decent as well. Each companion will do their own part to help fight, but you’re able to use Right Trigger to utilize their special ability when needed.

Combat is very smooth and fluid, reminding me much of a Batman Arkham style where you need to attack, dodge and heavy smash. As you defeat enemies you’ll earn XP which can then be used to level up in your hub area between levels/days, unlocking new abilities for you to use in combat with each level gained. You’ll also earn shards, which is like a currency, allowing you to purchase upgrades for your abilities, health upgrades and more.

This is when combat becomes quite fun, as you’ll eventually have access to new abilities that are much more powerful, but can only be used once you’ve stored enough orbs from performing combos in combat, making you focus on executing a constant barrage and dodges. As you progress further, your choices will effect whom you fight and when. If you side with one faction, maybe the Rodentian’s (rat race) will fight against you, or vice versa when siding with the Pygarians (birds). This is how replaying the same levels stays fresh, as new events and actions occur based on what information you have and if you decide to share it or not.

While I enjoyed the combat, it does become quite frantic in the last leg or two, with numerous types of enemies that all need to be dealt with in a specific way. Shielded enemies needs a heavy attack to allow you to open them up to hits, flying enemies can constantly spit goo at you if you don’t take care of them in the air, and massive sharks can destroy your health quickly if you don’t dodge in time.

Once you learn enough information, major reveals will come to light, like who killed the Priestess, who’s plotting against whom and other revelations. Using your Omensight is how you’ll get the truth out of people, as it will show them true events of what has happened, either making them confess or rally with or against you. It’s a great storytelling mechanic that kept me intrigued all the way until the end.

The cel-shaded visuals are oddly fitting for the character design, though maybe that’s just because of the animal aesthetics, but it all blends together fittingly. The voice acting is absolutely top notch, as is the soundtrack that accompanies it. Truth be told, Omensight has a perfect balance of storytelling, combat, platforming and ongoing character development. While Omensight doesn’t last a long while, it was a fantastic journey throughout, one that will be remembered for quite some time due to its unique and superb storytelling.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Verlet Swing

I generally tend to gravitate towards the weird and abstract. Why, I’m not sure, but I did so once again as soon as I saw the trailer for Verlet Swing. Weird and abstract is definitely how I would best describe Verlet Swing. It’s premise is basic as it comes; swing from point A to point B to beat the level. Much like Spider-man, you’ll have a hookshot of sorts to do so, but simply getting to point B won’t be easy, not in the slightest.

While there’s no narrative or story at all within Verlet Swing, it’s as if you were having a very weird dream, complete with floating pizza slices, dolphins in the air and any other weird stuff you can conjure in your mind. Your goal for each stage, of which there are 100, is to make it to the end, denoted by a glowing orb. The first handful of levels will be easy, swinging from anchor point to anchor point to the end, but by about half way through the game, you better have some self-control so you don’t toss your controller through the window.

Maneuvering from point to point to reach the end takes a lot of time and practice. Sure, pro speed runners are able to do levels in a matter of mere seconds, but there’s been times where I’ve been stuck on a single stage for at least a half hour at a time. Nearly anything you see can be latched onto and swung from, though there will be a lot of curve balls thrown your way as you progress further. Eventually you’ll have many items and objects that can’t be tethered to, so you’ll need to swing around, up or under them, using momentum to propel yourself.

Playing the previous Spider-man games, you feel fantastic when you’re swinging at high speeds, maneuvering exactly how you want. Sadly, you don’t always get the same feeling with Verlet Swing, usually due to falling or dying, as touching the ground or any object instantly kills you, prompting for a restart. You’ll need to fling yourself through tight spaces, around corners and with absolute precision. Problem is, it’s very difficult to do so. I’m not sure if it’s a controller limitation, as I could see it being a little easier with a mouse to do, as I would constantly latch onto the wrong object, or one way in the distance instead of the one I intended right in front of me.

When I described Verlet Swing as weird and abstract, I meant it. You’ll start by swinging across levels with plain columns, pillars and geometry, but eventually you’ll have Easter Island Moai statue heads that break apart as you get close, allowing you to swing from the smaller debris fragments. Soon you’ll swing from pizza slice propellers, flying bubbles, giant dolphins and many other weird imagery that I can’t even begin to describe. It truly is something you need to see and experience for yourself to wrap your head around, as simple words don't do it justice.

Progress is gated by completing the stage you’re currently on to unlock the next. This means that once, not if, you hit a brick wall of difficulty, you won’t be able to progress any further. I’m somewhat near the end, but I’ve thrown in the towel after a massive amount of frustration. I wish you were able to bypass levels and possibly come back, or maybe have the teapots you earn per level (essentially stars) dictate what levels you can attempt. Either way, the difficulty ramps up real quick, and while I’m generally patient, I eventually gave up due to frustration.

That being said, not all levels are needed to be completed in a single way. While you do need to make it to the orb at the end to finish the levels, how you get there is completely up to you. One of the earlier levels has you navigating these narrow corridors, which was near impossible, but once I figured out a spot to fling myself up and over the wall, the 15 second level only took me 3 seconds or so. While not all will be laid out like so, I’ve definitely completed some levels in an unintended way.

While you are scored per level via the teapots, this indicates that you’re able to replay levels if you really want to challenge yourself with climbing leaderboards and besting your own times. Trust me though, eventually you’ll just be happy that you can complete a level, regardless of the time it took to do so. For those that really want a challenge though, there is Mixer integration, so when you stream it to your audience, they can mess with your game, throwing you even more curveballs and difficult situations.

Right Trigger is how you swing from the object your cursor is currently pointed at, provided it’s an object you can anchor to. You use the Sticks to move and look around, needing to adjust your movement slightly in the air to take tight corners. While you’ll never feel as smooth as Spider-man swinging along rooftops, when you do hit a good flow, purposely, it does feel great. On the flip side, dying for a half hour straight to the same object or corner will make you want to uninstall it just as quickly.

Verlet Swing’s appeal is going to be based on how much patience you have, if you really enjoy challenging yourself or crave climbing leaderboards. You’re going to need to persevere through a lot of frustration if you want to even get close to completing all 100 levels, but my hats off to you if you’re able to do so; at least the soundtrack is upbeat and doesn’t wear out its welcome. Sure it’s got some really out there visuals and is the definition of abstract, but patience is a virtue, and absolutely required to get through Verlet Swing.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Riverbond

Are you a fan of Voxel based games such as Minecraft? What about a good dungeon crawler like a Diablo? What if you could have both in one game? That’s what Riverbond, developed by indie studio Cococucumber, is aiming to be. Casual gameplay by design, Riverbond is, oddly enough, a relaxing experience for a dungeon brawler. Meant to be played in short bursts, and generally aimed at a younger audience, there’s some fun to be had if you’re just wanting to kill a good half hour or so at a time, or really enjoy trying to compete cooperatively alongside some friends on the couch.

Set in a beautiful voxel cubed world, you’ll take on an adventure across multiple realms alongside your friends, smashing everything in sight and defeating all enemies along the way. Since the world is voxel based, meaning made of tiny cubes, like Minecraft, everything you kill or destroy explodes into smaller blocks.

While completely playable single player, Riverbond is much more entertaining when you have up to 3 other friends alongside you playing on the same screen. With support of up to 4 players, and drop-in drop-out gameplay co-op, your kids should have no problems swiftly picking it up for a quick round of gaming. Meant for casual play, gameplay is very simplistic and the difficulty is beyond forgiving, so there shouldn’t be much frustration had from anyone that isn’t as skilled as the other siblings or friends playing.

Pick your favorite skin for your character and start hacking away. While skins have no inherent traits, and are simply for looks, there will be some interesting, and funny, skins you’ll acquire as you find them hidden in chests along your adventure. Search hard enough and you’ll even unlock special skins that are crossovers from other games, such as Bastion, Enter the Gungeon, Shovel Knight and Guacamelee! Or, if something more basic is your style, you can be a sword swinging donut, bacon, pig, or multitude of others that will surely make you chuckle.

There are eight worlds that need to be cleared by defeating their respective bosses. Each world is made up of a handful of individual stages, usually 5 or 6, and last roughly a half hour or so each. Each level also gives you a specific objective before unlocking the gate to allow you to progress. These are usually very basic and has you defeating all enemies, finding keys, destroying objects, finding hidden things or other silly goals.

Clear all of the stages and you’ll finally take on that world’s boss, which if you simply circle strafe while shooting your projectile weapon, you’ll eventually whittle them down to nothing, even with their respawning adds. These bosses may not be the most challenging encounters, but again, they aren’t really meant to be, as Riverbond is a more casual experience, meant for a younger audience.

Interestingly, you’re able to play any of the eight worlds in any order you like, and apparently they are all tied together in some way, but the narrative is so paper thin that I couldn’t even remember much of it by the time I got to writing this after finishing it. Again, this is alright, as the younger audience will simply want to hack and slash until they move on to something else.

What surprised me the most was how death really isn’t a hindrance at all. I fully expected that when I died, I would have to restart that level all over again from the beginning, but you don’t. Instead, you simply respawn at the beginning of the level you’re on, or checkpoint if you’ve unlocked one, and continue searching for your objectives. All of the enemies you killed are still dead and they don’t even reappear. For the younger players, or less skilled, this is a great feature.

Riverbond’s main hook comes from its wide variety of weapons and skins you find along the way. You begin with a simple sword and gun, allowing for melee or ranged combat, but you’ll find a ton of more weapons along the way in chests. I can’t tell if weapons you find are fixed or random, but it seems the quality of weapons you get can vastly fluctuate. For example, your starter sword may do 15 damage per swing, but the new one you just found can either be much better, or even worse, damage wise.

Sadly, there’s no way to tell how good a weapon is either until you swing, or shoot, away on a few enemies and look at the numbers. I wish there was some way to see the stats of a weapon before picking it up, as you can only hold, but rotate, a certain amount of weapons at a time. There are a variety of weapons though, so you’re bound to find one that suits your playstyle. Some may like the slower swinging, but higher damage, clubs, whereas I chose to stick with the low damage but ultra-quick dual weapons.

Even better, weapons are just as silly as the character skins. Sure, you’ll find some standard swords and machine guns, but you’ll also find bear claws, samurai swords and a few other hilarious ones that you’ll want to try out. Ammo is unlimited, though you’ll need to take time to reload when your clip is empty, and ranged weapons greatly vary just like their melee counterparts. With over 50 weapons to find and play with, my only complaint is that I wish I could see their stats before replacing them in my inventory.

Riverbond’s world is beautiful, even in its simplistic form. Smashing almost everything I see is fun, as is defeating the massive bosses at the end of each world. Audio is just as fitting and never seemed to grate on me during my playthrough of each world either. Unlocking new skins is fun and I found myself rotating new skins each level just to keep things fresh, even if they have no inherent abilities or differences aside from their looks.

If you have kids in the house, or friends that come over often, Riverbond can be a fun way to spend a few hours. While there’s little reason to continue playing after completing all the worlds, aside from trying to get a better high score, there’s potential within, even if it is basic at its core, as I know I would have stuck with it for a few more playthroughs if it had online co-op. Even still, if you have Gamepass, it’s free, so you might as well get to swinging that voxel sword.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Outer Wilds

I’ve always gravitated towards games that have a strong narrative. Some games utilize lengthy and dramatic cutscenes to tell its story, others immerse you in a living world, but in the case of Outer Wilds, it focuses on exploration mechanics for you to search and find out more about its lore. Outer Wilds is an interesting concept that took me a while to wrap my head around, but once I did, I kept wanting to go back after every 22 minutes, but more on that shortly.

If I was forced to make a direct comparison, I would best equate Outer Wilds to something that resembles a No Man’s Sky, though nowhere near in size and scope. That’s not a bad thing though, as Outer Wilds has some very interesting roguelike elements that keeps gameplay quite interesting throughout your space adventure. Normally I like to be guided and told what to do and when, but Outer Wilds is exactly the opposite, allowing your curiosity dictate where you want to go and what to do.

You’re the newest recruit for a small space program, the Outer Wilds Ventures. Your goal is to find answers and explore the known solar system with your trusty spaceship and suit. This solar system is nothing like our own though, with many moons, orbiting planets nearby and even more mysteries as to why your alien race is stuck here in the first place.

There was another race here before you though, as there are remnants littered throughout the galaxy, pieces of which you’ll find during your vast exploration. The main catch though? You’re stuck in a time loop where the solar system is engulfed by the Sun turning into a Supernova. When you die though, you simply wake up once again at your camp fire alongside a friend; something you’ve done countless times before.

Sure, once I realized there was a Groundhog Day element to the narrative and gameplay, I was intrigued, but it’s a very clever way to add roguelike elements to the gameplay. Even though the universe is destroyed every 22 minutes and your game restarts, you keep any progress you’ve made with found clues and researched lore. For example, your first task is to find the launch codes for your ship so you can take into orbit, and even though you’ll die in 22 minutes, or sooner if you have a mishap, once you’ve found those codes, you’ll already start your next time loop with that knowledge. So while it’s a roguelike with guaranteed deaths, you do constantly progress as well.

Every time you die, be it the Supernova, running out of oxygen, crashing your ship or numerous other means, you’ll always awake moments later back at your campfire. Why is this happening, what happens if you can stop the time loop? Can you even do such a thing? These are the questions that are asked and for you to solve on your own through exploration in the solar system.

You’re going to need to venture into unknown space to find answers. Where do you begin? Do you equip tools and check your map? Do you aim for the nearest planet? What’s that dark planet in the distance that looks like it’s frozen in time after exploding? Why is there ancient text strewn around nearly everywhere? Your curiosity will get the best of you, and you’re not guided in any way or another, so free to choose what you want to explore.

There’s a surprising amount of detail within Outer Wilds’ worlds, as each planet looks and feels distinct, every cave and mystery is unique and some of the landscapes you’ll come across are simply magnificent to take in and enjoy.

Getting around the galaxy though will take some practice, as you’ll need to deal with navigating all of the axis’ in your ship and suit. You’re going to crash a lot in the beginning, but eventually it'll become second nature. You can also use the autopilot to get within range of a planet before setting down to explore. There’s a steep learning curve, not only in the controls, but how to progress, and more importantly, why. Just as you discover new areas, you’ll plunge down a rabbit hole that will only open up more questions and be presented with puzzles that will almost certainly take a good walkthrough to solve. However, solving the puzzles and deciphering ancient text that reveals more about the lore is very rewarding. Yes, you’re going to die in 22 minutes, again, but all of your discoveries carries over into the next time loop.

22 minutes might not sound like long, but when you’re exploring the galaxy, I actually ended up dying most of the time well before the Supernova event occurred. Sure, a few of those were accidentally ejecting myself into space and running out of oxygen, or crash landing onto a planet at breakneck speeds, but every time you awaken at the campfire once again, it only takes a few moments to get back into space and your next destination. While you’ll only make minor overall progress in small steps, once things start to come together and uncover the past, it’s quite rewarding.

I really enjoyed that there were no enemies or combat elements within. That doesn’t meant there aren’t specific dangers that need to be avoided, but I really appreciated the exploration focus rather than adding a survival element. Your ship's on-board computer will keep track of all the progress you’ve made, laying out the ‘quests’, so to speak, in an easily visual way that makes sense and allows you to figure out what you want to do next or set markers.

Puzzles will play a large part of your exploration, as certain orbs can be moved along paths, much like switches, or finding a room where touching a crystal changes the orientation or gravity. There’s many more secrets to uncover within, many of which I could list off as immensely cool moments, but that would be spoiling grand events that truly need to be witnessed and experienced.

Visually, Outer Wilds may look basic at first glance, but once you start to take in the universe as a whole, explore within the layers of planets and appreciate the more unique moments, ‘impressive’ is only the start of how to describe how everything looks. Arguably even better is its soundtrack, with movingly beautiful instrumentals that fit a great space exploration perfectly. Witnessing your first Supernova death with the orchestral soundtrack is simply a beautiful experience.

While some may be turned off by the lack of focus and direction, Outer Wilds excels because it doesn’t do either of these, allowing you to explore the galaxy at your own pace in any way you want. Curiosity will constantly pique your interest, pulling you to new places every new time loop, with tons of secrets and mysteries to uncover for those that want a specific goal. Oh, and it’s on Game Pass currently, so there’s absolutely no reason to not suit up for 22 minutes and explore wherever you desire.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 A Plague Tale: Innocence

What if I told you that a relatively small studio that created Fuel for Xbox 360 about a decade ago would go on to craft one of my favorite narrative driven storylines I’ve played in recent years? That’s exactly what Asobo Studio has done with their most recent release, A Plague Tale: Innocence. Truth be told, A Plague Tale wasn’t even on my radar before release, yet fate dealt me it to review, and I’m extremely grateful that it did, as it’s easily gone to be one of my favorite titles in recent memory, easily up there with the likes of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

Set in 1349 France, A Plague Tale tells a narrative driven saga about the de Rune family, specifically a young 15 year old girl named Amicia and her 5 year old brother Hugo, born into a wealthy family. Hugo though has essentially been isolated from everyone since birth, even from his own sister Amicia, so they don’t have much of a relationship, if at all.

The heartwarming, and wrenching, story begins when the Inquisition invades your village, destroying everything in their path and killing anyone in the way to find Hugo for some unknown reason. Not only is the Inquisition a deadly force, destroying everything in their path, there’s a plague ravaging the lands, carried by thousands of filthy rats that infest every area where there’s no fire or light, seemingly their weakness.

One moment Amicia and Hugo are innocent children living a life of luxury, the next, they are fleeing to escape the Inquisition together after seeing everyone they know slaughtered. Siblings are now forced together as Amicia tries to take Hugo to safety, away from the Inquisition that is unrelenting and constantly on your heels. The 1300’s were dark times, and having a plague to deal with on top of the situation they are thrust in makes for an absolutely intriguing narrative that I wish wouldn’t end. From the opening moments you start to care about these characters, and by the end, I was fully invested in their struggle and did what I could to have them and their friends survive.

While the narrative and character development are the main focus, the core gameplay is a mix of stealth and action with some puzzle elements thrown in. While the adventure itself is linear, eventually you’ll be able to solve puzzles in a number of different ways. With a playtime of roughly a dozen or so hours, it was just the right length and never felt like overstayed its welcome.

You control Amicia for the majority of the adventure, and instead of a standard sword and shield combat mechanic, she instead is only armed with a sling to fling rocks at enemies and her alchemy knowledge. While being only able to sling rocks at armed guards may seem like weak design, it adds a strong degree of tension. Sure, a direct headshot will instantly kill guards, but eventually they’ll wear helmets and have shields, making you figure out other solutions to defeating them.

The first half of the game is very stealth focused, as you don’t have a lot of tools at your disposal aside from slinging rocks, but eventually Amicia will be able to craft special alchemy concoctions, like igniters, poisons and other tricks to use against the Inquisition. The Inquisition isn’t the only enemy you’ll need to worry about though, as if you allow the hordes of rats to touch you, it’s game over. But the rats are afraid of light, so staying within the light is paramount above all else.

New crafted items are almost like abilities, as dealing with the rats are essentially the puzzle elements in A Plague Tale. There’s a guard blocking a doorway, so do you use your sling and try fighting against him directly, use an extinguishing potion to douse the torch they are carrying, causing the rats to eat him, or simply try and sneak your way past? Eventually you’ll be able to solve these puzzles in a handful of different ways, just like above. Without spoiling anything, the final hour or two of the game added a new mechanic that changed things up and I absolutely loved.

While none of the puzzles were overly complex, some do take some trial and error to figure out. What I really enjoyed was that it’s almost as if you’re solving micro puzzles one after another throughout your journey, and when I felt stuck, I would simply check my abilities and what would be the best way to progress. Sometimes grabbing a torch that burns quickly to reach the next fire pit is all it takes, other times you may need to light a brazier and push it along a cart to keep the rats at bay.

Amicia will collect items during her journey, such objects like sulphur, oil, cloth, rope, etc. These are used to craft items when you find workbenches to upgrade your sling and other abilities. You’ll need to be very thorough if you want to upgrade though, as these materials are also how you craft your needed alchemy items as well, so it’s a balance of creating the items you need to survive in combat, but also saving enough to upgrade your sling, ammo pouch, etc.

Graphically, A Plague Tale took me by complete surprise. Not that smaller studios can’t craft beautifully stunning visuals, but usually cutscenes and scenery are only this impressive in top tier AAA titles. To say that A Plague Tale looks stunning is an understatement. Amica’s journey will take her from village to forests, ruins, castles and other dark settings, all of which look amazing. While Amicia’s face may look a little dead and lifeless during gameplay, the cutscenes are absolutely top tier. I don’t know what technical wizardry the developers used to have hundreds of rats constantly on screen at any given moment, but never once did I experience slowdown or framerate drops.

The same goes for the audio, as the soundtrack is brooding and fitting the dark tale of the era, and the voice acting is some of the best I’ve experienced in recent memory. Kudos to Charlotte McBurney (Amicia), as the performance was completely believable, and more impressive, was her first voice acting role as well. Logan Hannan (Hugo) also performed flawlessly, and combined, made the siblings a pair of characters I truly cared about by the time the credits rolled. Even the supporting characters you meet along the way were amazing and made the journey much more engaging and believable.

Asobo Studios needs to be applauded for creating something so stunning and fantastic in every way. It’s not easy to make you care about characters in a short dozen or so hours, and the fact that A Plague Tale will be etched into my memory is no small feat. I don’t like to loosely throw around the term “Masterpiece”, but this is absolutely one of my favorite games that I enjoyed whole heartedly in recent memory. Needless to say, this is one plague you won’t want to avoid.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

As a kid growing up in the 80’s, I got to experience a golden age of gaming. Not only did I have a Nintendo at home, but I would plunk fistfuls of quarters into my local arcade, something I wish still existed. While I played endless amounts of home console games, I can tell that by this SNK 40th Anniversary Collection that I’ve missed out on the far superior arcade versions of games I knew growing up.

Last year was the pinnacle 40th anniversary of the legendary studio SNK, hence this anniversary collection (even if it is a year late). Not only are there a ton of classics included here, but even more impressive is how much work went into making the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection something truly special with all of its extras and bonuses.

A compilation of SNK titles from console and arcades ranging from 1979 to 1990, there’s going to be something for nearly everyone here, even though they aren’t all winners. Compilations aren’t a new thing, nor are remakes, but it truly is all of the extra work that’s gone into this collection that makes it worth the price of entry if you’re a true retro fan, even if the price is quite steep at a hefty $51.99 CAD.

With nearly 30 titles to play, here’s the list of included games:

Alpha Mission (1985), Athena 1986), Beast Busters (1989), Bermuda Triangle (1987), Chopper I (1988), Crystalis (1990), Fantasy (1981), Guerilla War (1987), Ikari Warriors I, II and III (1986 and on), Victory Road, Iron Tank (1988), Munch Mobile (1983), Ozma Wars (1979), Paddle Mania (1988), P.O.W. (1988), Prehistoric Isle (1989), Psycho Soldier (1987), SAR: Search and Rescue (1989), Sasuke vs. Commander (1980), Street Smart (1989), Time Soldiers (1987), TNK III (1985), Vanguard (1981), and World Wars (1987).

One title to make special mention of though is Baseball Stars (1989) and is an Xbox One exclusive. What makes many of these titles special is that you can play either the console or arcade versions of each (most are supported and included) and see the true difference of how much superior the arcade versions were compared to the home versions.

One of the coolest additions to each game is the options you’re given to alter how you want to play. Many games will let you edit starting lives, amount of points needed to earn a free life, how many continues, etc. There are even modern day quality of life improvements, like a rewind button we’ve come accustomed to in our racing games, so when you die to a random projectile, feel free to rewind and try again. You can add old school TV filters, toggle the border artwork, create and load save states and more. Obviously updated graphics to support modern resolutions and controllers have been added, as expected. What I would have given to have these options as a kid growing up with many of these games.

The coolest feature though, for every single title, is the ability to watch the game. I don’t mean the intro loop of a specific part in a level, I mean a complete playthrough of the game. I can’t tell if it’s from a pro speed runner, or AI, because every run is essentially perfect. This means that even though you’re never going to be able to beat a specific game, you can still watch it from beginning to finish. Sure, you could YouTube a walkthrough or speedrun, but there’s something awesome about doing it in-game then trying it yourself. You’re able to fast forward and rewind, if you simply need some help or want to see how a pro does it, but this inclusion really surprised me and I hope more games utilize something like this fantastic feature.

While Arcade is where you’ll play all the games, nerds like myself will truly enjoy the Museum section of this collection. Here you’ll see a history of SNK, much of which I didn’t know, artwork, never before seen promotional materials, manuals and fully fledged soundtracks. Yes, not just the title theme, but full soundtracks. There’s a ton of material to enjoy, and I really appreciate the time and effort that went into adding aspects like this that I find truly fascinating.

While I enjoyed mostly the side and vertical shooters in the collection, there were a few standouts that were entertaining to relive once again. That said, there’s also a few stinkers included that I played once or twice and will most likely never go back to. Sure, everyone will have a different preference, but this means that there’s something for nearly everyone if you’re into the retro genre. I couldn’t believe how vastly superior arcade versions were compared to the console ones I grew up with, something I would have never known without this collection. Nostalgia can be a funny thing, making you remember things far better than they actually were, as was the case with a title or two here for myself, but that didn’t hinder the fun I was having.

More entertaining than the slew of games themselves is the bonus and extras that were included. I really hope that other retro collections take note going forward, as SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is the new baseline of effort needed to truly grab someone’s attention, though hopefully they won’t price is as exorbitantly high as this one.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Fission Superstar X

Do you enjoy space shooters? What about roguelites with random generation of enemies? Do you thrive on a very difficult challenge with permadeath for when you screw up? If you answered yes to these questions, then Fission Superstar X is THE game for you, developed by indie creators Turbo Pelvis 3000.

Sometimes when a story is so absurd and over the top, it makes it better than when it’s trying to be super serious and comes up short. Such is the case with Fission Superstar X, a tale about a jaded Doctor Leopold that hails from Planet X. This mad scientist has created a massive Planet destroying bomb, lovingly nicknamed Celine, and the main target is Earth. Earth is very far away from Planet X though, and you’ll need to make stops along the way, including Pluto (it’s still a Planet damnit!).

Generally lifeforms don’t take kindly to being blown up, so everyone will attempt to stop you and shoot down your ship along your way across the solar system. It’s a silly story, but it’s fitting, as the gameplay is what you’ll come for more so than any narrative.

As for its core gameplay, Fission Superstar X plays out like a standard side scrolling space shooter, though like any good roguelike, when you die it’s permanent and you begin all the way at the start. Combat is interesting though, as you begin with a standard turret near the top of your ship, with options to purchase and add one on each side of your ship as you progress. What makes the shooting interesting though is that you can only physically shoot at angles that your turrets can see. This means that you’ve only got about a 45 degree angle of coverage on each turret side, which makes sense, but adds a lot of challenge.

Once you have a turret on the top, bottom, front and back, shooting down enemies will become much easier, but until then, you’re defenseless on sides with no turret, making the first few levels a challenge. This is due to the randomness of enemy placement. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll appear from off screen in an ideal spot, within your turrets range of sight, but other times, you won’t be so lucky and will have to attempt to maneuver your ship so you are able to shoot them down.

This means you need to constantly be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, but also figure out how to avoid enemy turrets and weaponry as well. The AI seems smart enough to know where its weapons are placed and will make it challenging to get out from their weapon's ideal positioning. For example, maybe an enemy has a chainsaw on the bottom of their ship, which does massive damage, so the AI will generally know to try and stay above you so that it can attempt to kill you. One on one isn’t too bad, but when you get a few levels deep and have multiple enemies at once, you can get shot down in a matter of seconds if you’re not careful and take them out swiftly. This isn’t even factoring the special levels that also have debris, like floating space cows or cars, which needs to be avoided as well.

This is where your shield comes into play. This shield will allow you to block incoming projectiles, push away enemies and even tractor beam in cash and pickups from blown up enemies. So why not just always have the shield going then? Well, your ship also has an energy meter, tied to not only your shield use, but your turret firing as well, so it’s a delicate balance of offensive and defensive you need to find.

The ship you begin with will be very basic and as you progress from planet to planet, but should you decide to blow it up after defeating its boss instead of making it all the way to Earth, you’ll unlock new ships, but keep in mind this will end your run just like a regular death would. While I liked the idea, sadly the newer ships seemed to be just cosmetic changes and had no added statistical benefits (though there was an achievement).

That’s right, you’re going to have to survive many levels to get to each of the Planet’s bosses, of which are incredibly challenging. To put it into perspective, after about an hour or two of trying over and over and finally making it to Pluto and defeating the first boss, I got a rare achievement that only about 5% of players had unlocked. That’s how challenging Fission Superstar X is. Get used to the first two planets though, as getting further than that is truly an accomplishment in of itself.

Levels last anywhere from one to three minutes, and once you survive, you’re given the option of what you want to do next. Do you repair your ship, heal your crew or boost their shields? Also, you’ll pick from a list of random vendors that sell weapons, shipyards and crew recruitment. In the beginning you’ll want to recruit ASAP so that you can fill all four turrets and defend yourself on all sides, but this costs money, as does upgrading your weapons. You don’t get many of the super cool weapons until much later in the game, but again, good luck making it that far without a dozen hours of practice and the RNG gods on your side.

So many times I was shy just a bit of money for the crew member or weapon upgrade I wanted, so be sure to spend wisely. This doesn’t factor in that if an enemy or boss completely destroys one of your turrets, it’s gone until you buy another crew member. Interestingly, when you pick what you want to do after a completed level, it will also show the length of the level (one to three minutes) and how many jumps ahead it’ll put you closer to the Planet and its boss (again, one to three). Usually the shorter the jump the shorter the stage length, but it seems completely random. I tended to go with the largest jumps and shortest times so increase my odds of survivability, but again, the RNG gods can be in your favor or completely against you.

There’s a lot of strategic balance you need to take into account. At the beginning you’re given a few DNA points to create your pilot and improve their skill, aim or armor every time you start anew, and when you recruit new crew, do you spend more on someone that has more armor or aim, or save some money for upgrades and hope you can last another level or two until the new vendor option appears? Again, randomness plays a huge part, so you may get lucky, but don’t always count on it.

When you do finally upgrade your ships weaponry, have a great crew and are taking out enemies almost instantly, Fission Superstar X is a ton of fun. Conversely, the opposite is true as well, as a bad run will make you question if you should give it another go. It would have helped if many of the mechanics were explained much more clearly, such as DNA points and how to get more, or how many jumps it takes to get to the boss, but you’ll figure it out in time with dozens and dozens of deaths and start overs.

The artistic design of Fission Superstar X is wonderful. Enemies are unique and varied, seeing them explode is even more wonderful, as are crew members, ship design and even the backgrounds in space as you zoom from stage to stage. In motion is all seems to work and flow together nicely, coupled with a fitting chiptune soundtrack that has me bobbing my head every time I visit a vendor or recruitment area.

There’s a lot of depth and strategy to Fission Superstar X, it’s just a shame that the difficulty is so astronomically high that most won’t get to experience most of it before giving up, as it will take some dedication to make any real progress. Even with constant death and restarts, I enjoyed my time carrying out Doctor Leopold’s orders, well attempting to, as I’m still working on trying to blow up Earth.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 World of Warships: Legends

Wargaming.net, best known for World of Tanks (WoT), is no stranger to military combat games. Obviously World of Tanks is what put them on the map and gathered quite a following, but that wasn’t everyone’s bag, myself included. I’ve played World of Tanks a bit before, but could never sink a lot of time, or money, into it and get myself hooked. This seems to have changed though with their most recent console release, World of Warships: Legends.

If you’ve played World of Tanks before, you’ll know what to expect from a Wargaming title, yet there’s more here than a simple boat reskin. Just like their other games, World of Warships is a free to play title, meaning there’s no cost of entry to play, so there’s no harm in checking out if it’s something you’ll enjoy. Take to the seas with dozens of warships, historical commanders and a ship load of torpedoes. Let’s see if they’ve blown this one out of the water.

Like WoT, there’s no real traditional campaign. Instead, you get bite sized skirmishes, with matches usually lasting 5 to 15 minutes depending on a variety of factors. Each level has its own unique layout, as some have much more open water, whereas others are littered with dozens of small islands that need to be navigated, or used strategically for cover. To win is simple; either capture all the enemy territories or defeat all of the enemy ships, as there are no respawns. The majority of the time you’ll be fighting to the last ship standing, but capturing is a completely strategic and viable option if the opportunity arises.

You may have noticed that the original World of Warships released on PC just short of 4 years ago, so what makes Legends so different? Simply put, it’s not just straight PC port, as there are quite a few differences, the main being that Legends was built from the ground up and tuned specifically for console users.

Best of all, the controls translate very well to the controller, as there’s no crazy or overly complicated button commands to remember or that needed to be ‘dumbed down’. Controls are quite simple, with a button to increase or decrease speed, aim, fire and switch firing modes. Navigating your ship is intuitive, it simply takes some getting used to remembering to start to steer very early, as giant Battleships turn as quickly as a house on a good day. This simplicity meant that I was able to concentrate on the gameplay and think strategically rather than fighting against or trying to remember specific controls in the heat of battle as a swarm of torpedoes heads my way.

Developers have managed to find that sweet spot of arcade versus simulator. I found WoT a little too hardcore for me once you started climbing the tiered ranks, but I haven’t had that same feeling here with Legends yet. If you want to jump in for a quick match or two and only have a half hour to play, that’s possible, or if you want to binge for an 8+ hour session, there’s nothing stopping you either.

You’re given daily and weekly missions to work towards for extra rewards, on top of other campaigns and missions for special loot boxes and XP bonuses. Yes, this is a free to play game, so there needs to be a way for them to make money, and while there are certain pay to win aspects, they didn’t feel as completely overpowered as they did in WoT, but more on that shortly.

As you begin you’ll have three factions to choose from: USA, Japan and the UK. You’re not tied to a specific choice, so feel free to try them all, as each have their own line of ship progression, strengths and weaknesses. It’s said there will be more nations coming in the future as well, so there’s always something to look forward to.

You’ll begin with a Cruiser, a medium strength ship that has decent shielding, firepower and speed. As you progress you’ll gain access to Destroyers and Battleships as well. Each has their own specific type of playstyle that they’re best suited for, so make sure to give each of them a fair shot and see what you enjoy the most. Myself, I’m a Cruiser all the way.

Destroyers are your most quick and agile, as they can be sent out for recon and also pack some nasty firepower with their torpedo barrages, but have very little health. Battleships are on the other end of the spectrum, as they have a massive amount of health and shielding and can fire all of their cannons quickly, but if you aren’t accurate, you’ll be a sitting duck as you wait for the slow reloads and even slower maneuvering abilities. Cruisers are a happy medium of in between, which is why I tend to gravitate towards them. I can hold my own in a firefight, but also maneuver in and out quickly enough if needed. It’s all a preference, and each plays completely different.

If you’ve played the PC version you’ll notice that the popular Aircraft Carriers are absent, but developers has said that it’s more of a when than an if, of when they’ll be coming to Legends. They want to do the game right and make sure it’s balanced before bringing it over to console, which I can appreciate.

Legends progression feels much more streamlined than in World of Tanks, maybe because there’s only 7 tiers of ships and 3 types, but it wasn’t nearly as confusing either. You begin at tier I, obviously, and are the weakest and slowest of the bunch. These act as like a tutorial of sorts, as you learn how to properly maneuver and play strategically. Win a few matches and you’ll earn XP, allowing you to gain a Tier II ship, where you get your first Destroyer. Again, win a handful of matches and level up to Tier III and you’ll gain your first Battleship. From here on you can focus on whatever ship line you want to, or all of them should you desire, all the way up to the top Tier VII monsters of the seas. It will take some time and dedication to reach Tier VII without putting any money into the game, but it is possible, and fun to do so.

Not only will you unlock new ships, but you’ll be able to purchase new parts and blueprints for your ships to improve their stats as well. As you level even further, you’ll also be able to unlock commanders, each of which is historically accurate and adds a whole other level of complexity and strategy to your loadout. Each commander has their own specializations, such as firepower, torpedoes, maneuverability, etc, and as they level up with their own XP pool, you can upgrade them and unlock new perk slots as well. There’s a lot of depth to it and you’ll need to choose wisely which commanders you want in which ships to suit your playstyle. It’s not overly complicated and every option feels purposeful, not simply thrown in just because.

This is where the free to play aspects come in. Like their previous games, you’re able to spend real money for certain perks, bonuses and even ships should you desire. While this isn’t needed in any way, it sure does make life much easier and the grind less arduous. You can purchase individual Premium Ships, which can only be bought with real money (a Dubloon currency within the game), and these are obviously much better stat wise than others in the same Tier. While this seems overpowered, it didn’t feel as unbalanced as it did in World of Tanks, where Premium users generally dominated without fail.

You can purchase other bonuses, XP boosts, coins, commanders and more, and while some will cry “pay to win”, it feels much more complicated than that. Sure, having a top tier ship will be nice and help, but you’ll still need to know how to properly use them and strategize. Just because you dropped over $100 for the Ultimate edition with a half dozen Premium ships doesn’t mean you’re going to go into matches like Superman and destroy everyone and everything. The bought bonuses are obviously nice, but they aren’t required.

Matches are 9 versus 9 and can be played single player versus AI or online with friends against the world. Form a division with your friends, a party/group, and easily go from battle to battle with one another. Much like WoT, when you’re dead, you’re able to leave the match as it continues and start another with a different ship, as you’ll be given the rewards when the initial match finishes, so there’s no downtime needed if you don’t want there to be.

Most impressive was Legends’ visuals. While the water effects may not be on a Seas of Thieves level of realistic, the water effects are done quite well, as you can see waves coming from your ship as you engage your engines. While the default is zoomed out so you can see much more all around you, if you do zoom in, you’ll notice there’s a massive amount finer detail to the ships themselves, as you can see each cable line, turrets rotating, smoke stacks and a ton of other small details that is quite impressive. With HDR lighting, the levels themselves are quite impressive as well, and 4K support is on the way as well.

If you have a great sound system, crank up the bass and sub and smile every time you fire a barrage from your Battleship, or clench those cheeks as you narrowly miss an oncoming torpedo as your warning systems are going crazy. Turrets have that metal grinding and squeak to them as they rotate, and when you hit landfall, you know you messed up from the audio alone. While I did end up playing my own music over top eventually, the smaller audio details are quite impressive when you take the time to notice them.

I honestly figured that World of Warships: Legends would essentially just be a reskin of World of Tanks (but on water obviously), but came away quite surprised. I gave up on Tanks eventually due to the grind and complexity, yet don’t feel that at all here. Even though I’m still working towards the Tier VII’s I want to have, I’m able to hold my own now that I’ve put a good amount of hours into it and have developed a few good strategies with a buddy that also plays.

I came away quite impressed with the amount of fun I was having with the dozens of historical ships and finally being able to lead my shots many kilometers away from my enemies. Suited for the hardcore or casual, World of Warships: Legends has no barrier of entry aside from having to wait for it to download. It’s free to play so there’s no harm in giving it a shot, and you don’t feel as forced to sink money into it as you do with World of Tanks.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 World War Z

There are very few things that are certain in life. One of these things though, with about 99.9% certainty, is that movie videogames are going to be terrible. There is that 0.1% chance though that just because it has a movie license tied to its name, that maybe it’ll actually be a decent game as well, and not just a quick money grab. Sure, the odds aren’t great, but there is the odd exception to the rule, and I’m excited to report that World War Z belongs to that 0.1% category.

Based on the 2013 movie with the same name, World War Z is a four player cooperative adventure that will have you fighting for your lives against hundreds of zombies. And I know what you’re thinking: Yet another zombie game? I know, I thought that fad died out too (see what I did there?) but fans have been begging Valve for a new Left 4 Dead, and since they’re unable to produce it, developers Saber Interactive have taken their own spin on the gameplay formula. Sure, it’s got a movie license tied to it, and it’s changed from first person to third, yet somehow, it works great.

Based on the movie universe, you don’t recreate the movie, nor get to see or play as Brad Pitt, but instead, play through four separate mini campaigns. Just like in the film, humanity is on the verge of being wiped out from the undead, so you need to do whatever required to survive. While I enjoyed the smaller bite sized campaigns compared to one lengthy one, there was no overarching storyline to piece it all together, though if there was, I somehow completely missed it.

While I would normally hold this against a game, it simply works here because you’re coming to kill swarms of zombies; nothing more, nothing less. Each of the four campaigns have their own secluded stories, broken into 3 smaller chapters (though Episode 4 only had 2 chapters). You’ll venture across different areas of the world, from Moscow to New York, Jerusalem and Tokyo. Each campaign has its own unique characters to choose from, though they make no difference gameplay wise. Complete the campaign with a character and you’ll unlock a small clip of their backstory.

Each episode has its own special moments and challenges, though generally the gameplay won’t change from beginning to end. Get to a waypoint, fight some zombies, get to next checkpoint, hunker down as a swarm attacks you, get to next checkpoint and survive the final swarm of hundreds of zombies that rush you. Even though that’s the majority of the game design, the swarm sections never got tiresome as it was always a challenge, especially on the harder difficulties.

Most impressive hands down is the technology used to render hundreds of zombies all rushing at once. If you’re familiar with the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zombies in World War Z are unlike others, as they can run and rush at very fast speeds. They gather so quickly that they actually pile on top of one another, able to create an undead ladder of sorts to scale buildings, walls and defenses, and it’s no different here.

I don’t know what programming sorcery was used to create these swarms, but even after surviving dozens of them, I’m still impressed every time I witness that horde rushing towards us. Sure, the dead ones eventually fade away, but it’s done subtly and you don’t really notice it, or have time to when being rushed. Even more impressive is that I never once had any technical issues or slowdown when hundreds of them were on the screen at once.

Not all zombies are your standard braindead lurkers though. Just like Left 4 Dead, there are the odd few ‘special’ zombies that are much more menacing and dangerous. There are Brutes that wear armor and take a lot more firepower to take down, ones that are wearing hazmat suits that emit poison clouds when killed, Screamers that attract even more zombies and others. While these aren’t as challenging as a standard “boss” in other games, they force you to stick together as a team and take them out, because if you’re singled out and pounced on by these, there’s nothing you can do to escape on your own.

The main highlight of the gameplay though is the defense sections, where you’re given a minute or two to find supplies and setup a defense perimeter. You can find barbed wire, machine gun turrets, auto turrets and more heavy weaponry that will help turn the tides. On the Easy difficulties these aren’t much of a problem, but once you start choosing the harder ones, and realize friendly fire is a real thing, it becomes much more problematic to survive in. The harder the difficulty, the more currency you’ll earn once completed which can be used to purchase new weaponry and skills.

There are six classes to choose from, each with their own roles, abilities and starter weapons. These range from Medic, Hellraiser, Slasher, Exterminator, Fixer and Gunslinger. Each have their own unique abilities and specialties, though I tended to stick with Medic and heal my teammates when needed. Each class begins with a specific starter weapon, though you’re able to swap it out for any other you see during a match should you prefer.

Weapons level up the more you use them, and as a Medic, I start out with a SMG, so I decided to stick with them and level up that line of weaponry. As you max out a weapon’s XP, you’ll have to purchase the next tier of that gun, for a total of five tiers. The higher the tier, the more powerful it obviously becomes with attachments and stat increases.

One thing that frustrated me though was how you stop earning XP in a weapon once it’s maxed. Even though I maxed my tier 3 SMG out, I didn’t have enough currency to purchase my tier 4 yet, as I spent it on skill upgrades instead. Essentially you always want to be working on progressing different weapons, as you choose what version of a SMG, Rifle, etc are in your matches with your loadouts, based on what you’ve leveled up and purchased.

Skills unlock at each level as well, allowing you to purchase any you see fit. Some are minor increases and bonuses, whereas others are class defining, so it’s up to you, but spend wisely, as coins don’t come easily or quickly early on. One thing I wish was taught to me though was that you’re only able to equip one skill per vertical row of the skill tree, something I didn’t know, so I was purchasing every skill as they unlocked but was unaware about this restriction. Also, I found out very quickly that having to repeat missions and grinding was a real thing if you want to purchase weapons AND skills.

If cooperative survival isn’t really your thing, there is a competitive section as well with a handful of modes to partake in. In these Player vs Player vs Zombie modes (PvPvZ), you’re given different predefined classes to choose from, but like the campaign, will level them up the more you play. While the modes are unique takes on your standard King of the Hill, Deathmatch, Domination and more, the PvPvZ angle add some flair for those wanting to play competitively.

While the core experience is the cooperative campaigns, you do hit a wall of grinding that must be completed, as to play on the harder difficulties and survive, you’re going to need quite a bit of upgraded firepower and skills to do so. Even more importantly, you need a team that works together. Luckily I had a friend to play with, and when coordinating attacks and defenses it made a world of difference, as going in with a group of randoms on the harder difficulties is a death sentence, from my experience anyway.

While it’s unfortunate you don’t get to play as Brad Pitt, or have much of an overarching narrative tying all the mini campaigns together, World War Z scratches that Left 4 Dead itch that I’ve been craving for a few years now. While it does eventually turn into a grind, facing off against swarms of hundreds of rushing zombies, it never ceases to impress with its technical prowess and core fun of shooting a mass of zombies.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Xenon Racer

Before Forza Horizon took the crown of arcade racers, you had classic titles such as Need For Speed, Burnout, Split/Second and Ridge Racer where you could drift your way to victory. Xenon Racer is the latest to enter the arcade racer genre, with a super futuristic design and a trailer that got me super excited to check it out.

If you were to simply watch the trailer, you’d come away being impressed by its super stylish visuals, smooth as butter framerate, breakneck speeds and exciting drifting based racing. Thing is, trailers can be deceiving, and while the core gameplay does have a Ridge Racer-esque gameplay to it based around drifting and boosting, the trailer is ten times more exciting than actually playing the game itself.

It’s the year of 2030, and flying vehicles are finally a reality. Obviously everyone will transition to airborne vehicles, but before that becomes the new standard, a special racing championship has been organized for wheel based ground vehicles, open to all of the top vehicle manufacturers. These cars are extremely technological and run on electricity and Xenon Gas, which results in super speeds as you race across multiple continents and cities, from Boston, Tokyo, Dubai, Canada and more.

Racing itself controls similar to most others in the genre, with Right Trigger being gas, Left Trigger for braking, Left Stick to steer and ‘A’ for your handbrake. Simple on paper, but actually controlling your vehicle and making it do what you want to do are much easier said than done. Given that Xenon Racer is arcade based, you’ll speed very fast and need to drift around corners to fill your boost meter.

To win races, you’re going to need to go as fast as you possibly can, obviously, but to do so, you’ll need to utilize your boosting as much as you can as well. To fill boost you need to drift or collect powerups littered throughout the track, but keeping your car controlled properly during your drifts is a whole other story.

Tapping the brake or hand brake will start your drift, but there seems to be some sort of lag before the drift actually starts, regardless of which vehicle you’re currently using. Even after a handful of hours of struggling through races, I still can’t consistently drift without hitting walls on a constant basis, even with upgraded parts, and this is only the beginning of a handful of problems.

The difficulty is absolutely insane, even from the get go. The first tournament in the career requires you to place at minimum 5th out of 8th, which doesn’t seem too bad, until you constantly place last your first few tries. Once you somehow manage to pass the first leg, the next few races will require you to come in first place; not top three, FIRST. Again, this is MUCH easier said than done.

You’re able to upgrade your cars with parts you earn from winning, but you need to win to get parts, and to get parts you need to win. See the dilemma? The difficulty ramps up steeply in about 3 races and I can foresee many becoming quite frustrated with it very early on, not giving it a full chance, but I wouldn’t blame them at all after wanting to give up myself. When it feels impossible to win, why would you keep trying?

When you do start to earn parts and upgrades, they can slightly change the performance of your car, though I didn’t find any massive changes to the gameplay even with these installed. With better handling you won’t grind the corners AS much, but you’ll sacrifice speed to do so, so it’s a balance you need to figure out. Each race only allows certain types of cars to participate as well, so sometimes you’re forced to play with a terrible car that you have no upgraded parts for instead of the one you’ve become accustomed to and is improved.

As you drift, your boost meter will fill. Completely fill one of three sections and you’ll be able to boost for a short period of time based on your car’s specs and upgrades. Even while at full speeds, you’ll need to drift the corners, but is obviously much more difficult to do so, especially on hairpin turns. When you inevitably crash and grinding the turns, your damage meter will drop down from 100%. If you manage to completely wreck your car and hit 0% for your meter, the car will reset and you’ll lose a few seconds, which basically dooms your chances at winning. You don’t lose any racing performance that correlates with your damage percentage, so it’s only there to force you into driving almost perfectly, which is near impossible when the hardest rival isn’t your opponents, but the controls.

Then comes the biggest offender of all; absolutely abysmal performance. Now, I know trailers are going to over emphasize how great a game is, showing off its best parts, but actual gameplay looks nothing like what was shown. Graphics are nowhere near as pretty or shiny, and it’s anything but smooth. Playing on an Xbox One X, you can choose between Performance and Quality, though choosing Quality makes the game essentially unplayable.

Performance mode makes the game run somewhat smooth, though there are still some serious hiccups at times, dipping quite a bit in framerate. Quality mode though is a complete disaster and shouldn’t even be included. Even when toggling on the prettier visuals, you can barely notice a difference aside from some slightly better HDR lighting and shadows. What suffers though is the performance, to near single digit frames per second. Once you start crashing against walls, causing sparks, or going through a tunnel, kiss those FPS goodbye. It slows down to the point of essentially being unplayable, and I can’t even imagine how the performance is on standard Xbox One’s.

While the career mode will be where you spend the bulk of your time racing, there are other mode options like Time Attack, Elimination races and Online, well, in theory. In the whole time I’ve been reviewing Xenon Racer, I’ve checked online every day for a lobby or match to test out how the game plays with other people to face against. Not a SINGLE time was I able to find a match or lobby. I created a lobby and left it open, yet not a single person joined either. Consider the online DOA unless you happen to sucker other friends to play with.

I really don’t enjoy focusing on negatives, but when there are so few positives to note, it makes it quite difficult. What I did enjoy the most was how the futuristic cars slightly transformed when hitting certain speeds, like spoilers folding out or the wheelbase extending, but that’s one of the very few notes I have in the ‘pro’ column. I was absolutely taken back when I checked that the price was $59.99 CAD on the marketplace. Even at less than half of the asking price would make me feel guilty if I recommended it.

Sure, if futuristic racing is your absolute happiness and joy, then obviously you’ll probably enjoy the aesthetics alone, but for everyone else, there’s more frustration than fun. Xenon Racer is trying to be Ridge Racer though looks like it’s two generations too late and is topped off with terrible drifting controls and unbalanced difficulty from the get go.

Overall Score: 4.5 / 10 Shadowgate

If I knew how many times I was going to make my mom rent my Shadowgate for NES back when it released, I would have done the math and shown her that simply buying it outright would have been far cheaper in the long run. I can’t even imagine how much she spent on renting me that game every weekend, as I tried every time to solve puzzles and make my way out of that castle. Eventually Nintendo Power, or one of the other gaming magazines at the time, published a walkthrough, well before the internet days, and I was finally able to beat it. The hours I sunk into Shadowgate are probably easily in the hundreds, as the soundtrack and gameplay have been etched into my brain, and still to this day is one of my favorite games ever, bringing back a flood of childhood memories.

Naturally, when Shadowgate was remade a few years back, I was intrigued, but for some reason never really pulled the trigger and played it, even though I knew I would enjoy the nostalgia trip. Here we are in 2019, and the Shadowgate remake is finally on Xbox One, and I’ve finally gotten that trip down memory lane that I’ve been yearning for.

A cult classic, Shadowgate was quite popular at the time, showcasing new gameplay mechanics in a first person point and click world. While the genre had many come before it, Shadowgate was different, not just in its death mechanics, but tonality, puzzles and absolutely amazing soundtrack. More than just a simple remaster, this version of Shadowgate has been completely remade from the ground up by some of the original developers, and more than a simple paint job; new gameplay elements and puzzles have been included as well. I wasn’t completely sure if the genre would hold up to today’s standards though, and tried to look past the nostalgia with my rose tinted glasses.

You play as The Seed of Prophecy, a descendant from a long line of heroes who must save the world. To do so though, you’ll need to traverse and solve dozens of puzzles in Castle Shadowgate, where an evil Warlock resides, trying to bring hell upon the world. Told in a storyboard style, cutscenes will occur at various points throughout your journey with a narrator to add drama and depth. The original Shadowgate simply threw you into the game and didn’t do much for narrative, so it’s great seeing more focus on that this time.

Delving into the options before I began my adventure into Shadowgate’s depths, I was surprised with some of the choices given. Should you desire to have maximum nostalgia, you’re able to toggle on classic graphics, audio, text boxes and more, or go with the newly improved versions, it’s up to you. My first playthrough I wanted to experience all that was new, audio and all, which was great, but on my second, I went full retro and couldn’t stop smiling at the amazing soundtrack throughout. This satisfies new players and old alike and I have to give kudos for doing so in a fantastic way without feeling simply tacked on.

Difficulties have also been added, allowing a much easier experience for new comers, or extremely difficult for those that want a challenge. The easier difficulties make puzzles much less complex and will actually prevent you from dying in many ways, such as not even having to worry about keeping your torch lit, but more on that shortly. On the harder difficulties, the puzzles become much more intricate, involved and obtuse to solve. There’s even an Ironman Mode that disables saving and needs to be completed in a single sitting.

The UI has been drastically overhauled as well, as the classic version would appear gaudy and too old school. Instead, you have a wheel-based menu system that you’re able to toggle whenever needed, only getting in the way when you enable it. Played in first person, you move your cursor around on 2D hand painted backgrounds, able to interact however you wish. If you want to look at something for more information or detail, you have to select the "Look” command and then click on the object. The same goes for “Use” and other commands available. To open doors for example, you’ll have to “Use” them, then go through it with another click.

Sure, these days it would be terrible game design, but this harkens back to a time three decades ago when games like this were revolutionary. The same core gameplay hasn’t really changed, it’s just been remapped to the wheel-based menu and less prominent use of screen real-estate. It takes some getting used to, but after an hour of exploring Castle Shadowgate, I wasn’t fumbling with the menu system any longer, quickly accessing my hotkeys and whatever inventory or spell I needed at the time.

As you solve puzzles and progress from room to room, your map will automatically update, showing you how every room in the castle connects. While there’s no option to fast travel, be ready for a lot of backtracking throughout your adventure, sometimes having to go all the way back to the very first handful of scenes to solve puzzles later in the adventure. This does become annoying, as it takes a moment for every scene to load, and I constantly had to recheck my map for the correct path, though it’s part of that classic experience.

Part of Shadowgate’s original charm was how many different ways you could die. Pull the wrong lever? Dead. Went down a random ladder? Dead. Didn’t pick up the shield before a dragon breathed fire? Dead. Your torch fizzled out? Dead. You get the idea. Keep in mind, this was back in a time where not many games ever did something like this, especially on NES at the time. This new Shadowgate is no different on the harder difficulties, and you’ll want to make very good use of the quick saves and loads. And yes, the torch mechanic returns, so you better make sure to always keep that flame going.

A puzzle game at heart, Shadowgate didn’t simply settle for pretty new painted scenery but keep all the same puzzles. Quite the opposite in fact. A handful of the puzzles have a familiar feeling, but aren’t solved in nearly the same way as the original. It’s a great fan service to original fans, but allows for a new experience. I’d actually guess that the vast majority of the puzzles are new.

Many of the puzzles are actually quite challenging and had me trying every combination and spell I could think of. A handful of times I became actually completely stumped, having to resort to a walkthrough online, which I’m not ashamed to admit, as I would have never figured them out on my own. Some solutions are very obtuse, though maybe I just missed something along the way, nevertheless, I never became overly frustrated, I just wish there was a little more guidance when needed.

The cutscenes are backdrops that are hand painted with beauty, and I even recognized many of the scenes when compared to the original 8-Bit versions. It brought a smile to my face a few times, recognizing what exact room I was in from the classic, though much more modern and prettier. The real star of Shadowgate though is its soundtrack. Sure, I’m bias and much prefer the original Hiroyuki Masuno chiptune versions, but they did a fantastic job at also modernizing the audio, making it still recognizable at the same time much like the graphics. Sure the voice acting isn’t top notch, but the soundtrack is absolutely worth the price of admission if you want a trip down memory lane.

I didn’t realize how much I really loved the original Shadowgate until I started up this remake and heard the iconic opening music. If you were like me and grew up on the original Shadowgate, you owe it to yourself to pick this version up to experience the difference three decades can make. If you’re new to the title or genre, it’s still a great investment that will challenge your puzzle solving skills, even if it can be a little obtuse at times.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Windscape

I enjoy when developers create something that clearly had a strong influence from other games, as you get to experience a different take with their own spin and creativity. Windscape is one such game, as it’s abundantly clear that it had some massive influence from legendary titles such as The Legend of Zelda and Skyrim. I’ve come to fall in love with some indie games in recent years, as they are generally a completely different experience than your typical AAA titles with multi-million dollar budgets. You can tell that many games like Windcape were crafted with love, even if the end product isn’t near as exciting or fun as maybe it was originally intended.

You play as a young kid who lives a humble life with your parents. Once you begin your journey and set foot outside to do some simple errands for your parents, you’re made aware of the unique world of Windscape almost instantly, as there are many floating islands in the sky. But all is not well, and these islands are starting to crumble and fall, so you set off on a journey that will no doubt put you in the role of world savior. It’s a very thin overlying story that gives you a main purpose, but there’s nothing very interesting throughout, as most quests are small jumps from area to area to guide you on the right path.

Played in first person, the first game I instantly wanted to compare it to is Skyrim, as it feels much like the same type of adventure where you fight monsters, explore, gather materials and craft. Sure, it’s very low poly models and world obviously don’t compare, but as an experience, it really felt like a 'My-First-Skyrim' playset of sorts. If you’re going to emulate and draw inspiration from a game, it might as well be one of the most beloved.

As you explore the world, you’ll venture across vast fields, deserts, castles, forests, graveyards, dungeons and much more. Handfuls of enemies inhabit these areas, and you’ll be faced with numerous sword fights, puzzles and bosses along the way. Towns will be filled with NPC’s that can be talked to (in a Sims-like gibberish with captions), merchants and of course, quest givers. Many of the opening quests are simple in structure, having you do mindless fetch quests that are actually quite far in distance. Couple in the fact that you walk at an incredibly slow pace and have to hold a button to run, it becomes tiresome when I see a quest marker in the far distance.

As you pass specific totem poles, your progress with automatically save and your health replenished. These obviously come in handy when low on life, but are spread quite far out from one another, usually one in each of the main areas you need to venture in, dungeons included.

After picking up an axe and pickaxe, you’ll be set to start gathering materials. You can cut down nearly any tree you see for wood, mine metal nodes for ore, gather plants and more. All the materials you collect can eventually be used to create items in a surprisingly vast crafting system. Enemies will drop materials too, so it pays to defeat them since there’s no real leveling up system in place.

While I was cutting down every tree in sight in the beginning, I eventually became too bored waiting for the small timer to count down as I did so. Earn enough gold and you can simply buy the majority of the materials you’d need from vendors. I crafted the first few of the best items I could in the beginning but never really felt that much stronger. Going from a wooden club to a handmade sword, I assumed would make me much more powerful, but certain enemies still had to be hacked away at for much too long.

Each crafting station will display the recipes you can create items for and the ingredients required to do so. Armor and weapons will have a few different stats to take into account, like the damage, or resistance, to cut, smash, etc. I think the game wants you to see what enemies are weak to, indicated on their health bars, and use the best weapon for maximum damage, but that’s too much of a chore to do in the thick of battle, even using hotkeys.

Combat is as basic as it gets. Right Trigger to attack, hold it for a more powerful smack, and Left Trigger to block. AI is about as braindead as it comes, as the majority of every enemy, and even most bosses, can simply be defeated by circle strafing as you swing away wildly. You do have a health meter that needs to be watched, and this is where crafting potions and food comes into play to restore yourself, but you shouldn’t need to rely on it too heavily due to the non-existent AI.

If you were to simply look at screenshots of Windscape, you most likely wouldn’t be impressed with the low-poly graphics, but there’s a certain way its cel-shaded filter reminds me of Zelda in a way. Sure it’s not traditionally pretty to behold, and the world can be quite bland and barren at times, but it has a certain charm to it. The same goes for the audio, as it won’t do much to impress you with its basic attack sounds, pings from deflections and overly loud creaks of opening a chest, but the soundtrack is quite good and fitting for the world that you’re currently adventuring in.

Windscape was an odd experience for me. While I enjoyed the Skyrim-like feel to many of the mechanics, it simply felt like a poor man’s Skyrim for the whole adventure. There’s nothing inherently wrong or poor with Windscape at all, it simply didn’t do anything to impress me and I never really got that sense of vast accomplishment, even when completing a dungeon and defeating its boss. Windscape is completely average, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s tough to keep your attention in the long term.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Operencia: The Stolen Sun

When I think of Zen Studios, I still regard them primarily as a pinball game developer, where they made their mark. But times change and they are branching out, creating new experiences that don’t solely involve flippers and balls. Operencia: The Stolen Sun is a departure from the typical Zen Studios affair, nothing quite what I expected, but I walked away impressed with what they’ve created.

Operenica, a first person dungeon crawler, is like a throwback to a simpler time in gaming. It’s been awhile since I’ve played an entertaining dungeon crawler quite like this, and it instantly made me miss the days when this genre was more common. Set in a fantasy world with some ties to Central European Mythology, the RPG experience within took me by surprise and for an adventure that lasted much longer than I was expecting.

The world of Operenica has been left in darkness after the vanishing of the Sun King, Napkiraly, and it’s your quest to find and restore the light to the world. Fail, and the world will succumb to darkness, so off you set on your journey, meeting a band of characters along the way that will join you. As your quest progresses, you’ll venture though many fearsome forests, castles and dungeons. Each party member you recruit along the way has their own reasons for wanting to join your fellowship, and these relationships can be quite amusing as you explore the very atmospheric world, filled with danger puzzles and loot.

You begin by choosing your character, their look (though only a few presets to choose from) and their class: a Swordsman, Archer or Mage. Each will have their strengths and weaknesses and you can alter a few stats, but that’s about it. Further customization will come from skill unlocks and stat increases as you level up, slowly moulding your character into the type that you want to play. While the beginnings are simplistic, choosing what skills to unlock and when is where some of your strategy will come into play as your adventure becomes more difficult. Take note though, as you’re unable to change your look or class once you begin, so choose wisely.

The beginning dungeon is a tutorial of sorts, slowly feeding you tips of how to traverse, interact with objects and of course, battle and level up. The difficulty curve does ramp up eventually, especially when you challenge your first few bosses, but it’s generally fair once you figure out all of the mechanics and best how to use them to your advantage, like knowing when to rest at a campfire and replenish all your health and mana; strategically of course.

The first mechanic that you’re going to notice, and struggle with, is your traversal. While Operenica is played in first person, the layout of levels are done in a tile based system, like a top-down D&D map. You’re able to freely look and rotate your camera, but you can only move in the four main directions if an open tile is free beside you. This takes quite a bit of getting used to, as I kept finding myself unable to move as I was trying to cut corners, since you don’t see tile lines of the ground, just on the map. Though once I trained myself to move along the grid, it become less of an issue as hours went on. It’s an odd combination of movement and design, but you simply become accustomed to it.

You’re able to also choose your difficulty for specific features, such as limiting saves, a permadeath option and more, rather than your traditional and simplistic Easy, Medium and Hard. This allows you to craft an experience for exactly how you want to play. As you progress, you’ll be quite surprised with how much length there is to Operenica. I’m not sure why I expect a short affair, but it was anything but with over a dozen massive levels, filled with plenty of monsters to battle and even more puzzles to solve.

While some of the puzzles are your typical finding a key for a specific door, they become much more intricate in the later levels, some of which had me stumped for quite some time before having to consult online for a hint of what to do or where to go. There are even a handful of secrets in each level, giving completionists even more value if that’s your thing.

You’ll battle dozens of different types of enemies, also something that surprised me, as each area had their own varieties of monsters to slay. Once engaged in combat by running into the enemy while traversing, you’re taken to a turn based battle where range plays a big part of your strategy. There are three lanes: close, medium and far, and different types of attacks are strong against certain ranges. Melee for example will do the most damage if the enemy is in those closest of the three lanes, whereas archers excel when they are further away. Mages are powerful in any lane, but this is where spell types and resistances come into play.

Each character will have their own types of abilities and traits that play a large part of battle strategy. Each attack has its own strengths and requires a mana-like resource to use. Every enemy will be strong or weak against certain abilities, so if you try and use a poison based skill on a poison resistant, or immune, enemy, you’re wasting valuable attack turns. It’s all about finding weaknesses and exploiting them to your advantage, but learning to do so will take a handful of hours. It wasn’t until my third dungeon when I had a really good grasp on specific strategies that allowed me to taunt, block damage, heal and emerge victorious without breaking a sweat.

As you kill enemies you’ll earn XP, loot and gold. Earn enough XP and you’ll level up, allowing you to choose new skills, perks and increasing your stats however you wish. There’s a decent amount of depth to the skill tree lines, each with their own focus and purpose, though make sure to diversify, because if you specialize in fire only skills and run into a dungeon with many fire enemies, you’re going to be in trouble without other skills to rely on. Loot is also plentiful as well, not only from enemies, but chests and solving puzzles. While you won’t feel massively powerful with each new upgrade, it does add up, boosting your stats to make you more powerful as your adventure progresses.

You’re going to amass a bunch of loot in the first few levels, but as you gain new party members, you’ll be able to outfit them however you wish. While you’re only able to take four into battle with you at any given point, luckily the unused party members will continue to level up as you do. Each character has a distinct personality and when you make it to certain cutscenes, or rest at a campfire, you’ll hear some banter between members that brings a bit of humor to the experience.

Speaking of campfires, these become very important later on. Not only is this where you save your game, but if you use a piece of wood that you’ve collected during your travels, you’re able to start a fire with it and completely replenish everyone’s health and mana. While you shouldn’t ever become terribly low on wood, as you can find them randomly, loot from battles and by smashing barrels, it’s imperative to know when the best time to use them is. Eventually you’ll also unlock a crafting component, allowing you to create new items and potions that will be a massive help, especially against numerous enemies and bosses.

Graphically speaking, the world is quite dark, purposely, as you’re exploring dungeons and forest, and you know, the whole missing Sun thing, but it works. While nothing terribly impressive, regardless of which level you’re in, the world feels alive, or barren, sucking you into the experience, as if you we replaying Dungeons and Dragons in first person. Cutscenes are beautifully done with 2D cutouts and portraits for characters. As for the audio, the background soundtrack is very fitting for whatever mood and setting you’re in, though some of the voice acting is very hit or miss, depending on the character.

Operencia: The Stolen Sun took me by surprise and I’m going to have to start thinking of Zen Studios as more than just a great Pinball developer. It packs a decent story, memorable characters, robust combat strategy and challenge, a huge world and plenty of playtime. Currently in Xbox Game Pass, you’re able to try it out right now if you’re a subscriber, but even if not, I wouldn’t feel any guilt recommending Operencia even at its full $38.99 CAD price tag if any of the above sounded appealing to you. While it won’t be for everyone and has its quirks, it’s a specific game meant for old school dungeon dwelling fans like myself that miss the genre.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Truberbrook

Some of my favoring gaming memories from my childhood stem from point and click adventure titles like Maniac Mansion, Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, among many others. Two years ago, Thimbleweed Park released, and I absolutely fell in love with it, as it hearkened back to a time when gaming was different. I truly miss the genre, as it’s not as popular anymore these days and very few games release in this style, so when one does, I jump on the opportunity as fast as I possibly can.

I’m not exactly sure why the genre died out, but I surely do miss it. For whatever reason, I always make a bunch of new memories every time I play a new point and click adventure, and the newest game to enter the genre, Truberbrook, is no different.

While point and click adventure titles aren’t common anymore, nearly almost every single one I’ve played permeates that it was designed and created with a ton of heart and love. You can tell that a countless hours of blood, sweat and tears went into crafting the experience, and Truberbrook is the same, though possibly even more so once you learn that the world was literally crafted by hand.

Inspired by X-Files and Twin Peaks, Truberbrook tells a sci-fi mystery tale set in a small German village, Truberbrook, in the 1960’s. You play as Hans Tannhauser, a physicist who won a lottery for a free vacation to the remote village of Truberbrook, yet he doesn’t remember entering any lottery or contest; thus begins your adventure and mystery to solve. Hans was suffering from writer’s block, so he fully intends to use his time in this minuscule remote village to relax and reset, though like any good adventure, it won’t be that simple by any means.

Hans is staying in a quaint hostel where he’ll meet Gretchen, an anthropologist doing some research in the same rural village. What are the chances that two outsiders are in an unknown town at the exact same time? He later awakens to someone stealing his work, yet mysteriously disappears when he tries to stop them. This is where your quest to save the world begins, complete with a ton of unique and memorable characters, filled with a ton of humor.

Unless you’re my age, or have an affinity for classic titles, there’s a good chance that you possibly haven’t played a point and click adventure title in recent years, which is no fault of your own, as the genre simply doesn’t really exist these days when gaming is dominated by Battle Royals, Shooters and AAA titles. You control Hans within each scene, moving him around free, looking for items to inspect and interact with, along with other characters to converse with to obtains clues of what to do next.

You’ll also have a cursor that you can freely move around, and if you hover over an interactive object, a radial wheel will appear in the corner, showing you your current options. If you have items that can be used on it, or that Hans thinks should, it will also give you that option as well. I hope you have patience though, as Hans walks infuriatingly slow, and while you can hold down the Right Trigger to walk slightly faster, it’s not even at a power-walk pace. Given that you’re going to be doing a massive amount of backtracking and walking through scenes many times, it can become frustrating, though you simply need to deal with it.

The big hook about games in this genre is that you’re constantly solving puzzles in a myriad of different ways. You’ll need to find item A to give to person B, whom will give you item C, which is then used on object D. Sometimes you’ll need to combine items in odd ways to craft a new object which then has to be used, and these are usually the most abstract puzzles that reduces you to attempting to use every item with every other item.

Why such abstract puzzles are a big part of the genre I’m not sure, but Truberbrook doesn’t fall into this same trap. Instead, there’s no manual item combining thankfully, and if you need to use three different items on a specific object, it’ll automatically show you that they are being used together. While purists might find this a little too simplistic, I enjoyed not wasting hours randomly trying to combine items. Also thankfully, there are no red herring items within Truberbrook. These are items placed in other point and click adventures that have on real use, simply put in to make you think they are important. While some of the puzzles were a little challenging, it was more due to me not seeing an item I could have picked up and clicked on due to it blending into the background, but that’s on me given that you’re able to press a button and see all of the interactive objects in a scene, highlighted with a small 'X' mark, almost like a hint system. I’m not ashamed to admit I needed to check a walkthrough once or twice, but none of the solutions were unreasonable, it was simply me not thinking straight.

I truly did enjoy my time in Truberbook, but there were a few issues I ran into that couldn’t be ignored. Firstly, there’s no manual save option, and there’s no real indication when your last auto save happened either. One night I had to end early to head to bed, got to a new chapter and figured it saved once I did. I was wrong, as I reloaded my game and lost an hour of progress. When I replayed a certain sequence, the person I was talking to wouldn’t progress to the dialogue that I knew I needed because I’ve already done it previously. This required me to restart the game all over again from the beginning, which brought up my second frustration; you are unable to skip any cutscenes.

I understand that the developers want you to experience their game in full, as time and effort went into the cutscenes, but when I’m replaying the game for a second or third time, sometimes I’d rather not sit through it again. To add onto the lack of manual save frustrations, there’s also no chapter select, so if you’re achievement hunting and want to replay a certain section, you’re going to have to restart all over from the beginning. Lastly, on the majority of the scenes you explore, you simply can’t walk from one to the next. Instead, you need to click on the door or side of the screen and interact with it. A deal breaker by no means, but just an odd design decision that adds unneeded effort.

I also had a major game crash at the very end of my game during the credits, denying me my completion achievement, which was quite disappointing, as you can guess how far back my last auto save was. There are technical issues as described above, but even so, I truly enjoyed my time within Truberbrooks gorgeous world. Sure I could nitpick about the odd spelling mistake or punctuation with the subtitles, or that the cursor isn’t very friendly when there are two items beside one another and you’re trying to select a specific one, but these didn’t detract from the overall experience.

Interestingly, there’s even a ‘Kid Friendly’ mode in the options that has absolutely no explanation as to what it does or changes in the game. As it turns out, it makes some minor changes to Truberbrook, such as making it so none of the characters smoke, or that a scene where you find a “Personal Massage Device” to trade for another item, are altered. It would have been great to know what this option did beforehand, but it’s great to see an option at least for those parents then don’t want specific situations shown who game in front of their children.

What makes Truberook stand out amongst the competition is undoubtedly its unique and impressive visual style. You see, every backdrop in the scenes Hans explores is actually hand crafted miniacture sets that were then 3D scanned and digitally put into the game. Creating actual miniature models for every scene makes it even more impressive, especially when you see the fantastic opening credits. This makes for a very unique artistic style, and it works beautifully. There’s so much detail put into each scene, and when you remember that it’s an actual miniature, it’s even more extraordinary.

Audio is almost just as impressive as well. Every character is fully voiced in your choice of English or Deutsch and the acting itself is well done for the most part. Side and minor characters’ performances aren’t as impressive or captivating as Hans and other main characters, but that’s to be expected. The only anomaly I found was that sometimes the spoken dialogue and subtitles didn’t always perfectly match up, or that dialogue was cut short, which I assume is from translation timing. The soundtrack is fantastic as well and very fitting for the type of mysterious adventure. The opening cutscene song was very memorable and this is one of the games I’m going to attempt to find an OST to purchase.

If I had to simply think of one word to describe Truberbrook, it would be charming. It’s clear that it was crafted as a labor of love, and the impressiveness with its visual style is beyond remarkable. Games like Truberbrook bring back a flood of memories to my favorite point and click adventures from my childhood, and I can easily add this to my list of my favorites in the genre. While it’s not perfect, it’s remarkable, memorable and pleasure to experience.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Crimson Keep

Over the past few years I’ve come to really enjoy most indie games I’ve come across. They offer a unique experience you sometimes don’t get with regular AAA games, and are often made with love, as it’s usually a passion project. I’m always open for new experiences and keeping an open mind with smaller titles, as they will obviously be nowhere near as polished as bigger titles, but sometimes it’s difficult to do so. This is one of those games that I had a hard time staying positive with throughout, for many reasons.

As a game journalist, I’ve had my fair share of great and terrible games. Sure, it’s great when you are surprised by a title that you would have never expected to be fantastic, but the other end of the spectrum is that you’ll be surprised with the completely opposite as well. I’m not one to completely be negative towards a title without giving a good basis as to why, but I really struggled to find many positives while playing Crimson Keep. Knowing that this was only made by a couple of people too makes it difficult to be so critical towards, but I’ve also got to be honest.

Crimson Keep has you descending into a procedurally generated dungeon, filled with traps, monsters, permadeath and frustration. You need to find a way to escape and destroy every beast that stands in your way. Normally I’d delve more into the narrative and story, but that’s really about it, and it won’t matter since you’ll be dying many times due to poor mechanics.

Core gameplay revolves around dungeon delving in first person, meleeing or casting magic at your enemies until you ultimately die and have to restart all over. I have no problem with rogue-like titles, as there’s usually some type of progression you’re always working towards or that carries over, but not here. In Crimson Keep, when you die, you start completely over with no progression of any sorts.

Randomly generated dungeons, enemies and loot sounds like a great idea, but execution is a large part of the enjoyment as well, something Crimson Keep completely missed the mark on for numerous reasons. Even delving into the options, you’ll notice that “Mouse Sensitivity” wasn’t even changed from its PC port to reflect the console version, not that I would hold that against it, but it was a sign of things to come.

Played in first person, you’ll be able to attack, defend, cast abilities and dash. Your first choice every time you die and restart will be to choose from a melee user, a wizard or unarmed. Melee starts you off with a hatchet, wizard a spell casting twig and the unarmed, well, nothing but your weak fists. Next you’re literally dropped into a cave with a small tutorial section to teach you the basics.

Drop into the pit ahead and you’ll start your adventure, the first of many, within winding and randomized caves, caverns and pathways, filled with an assortment of enemies. Here you’ll blindly guess where to go, as you’re not given a map of any sorts and simply need to wander until you find the next pit to drop down further into the dungeon, denoting “progress”.

There’s an assortment of enemies you’ll face, from skeletons, headless monsters, imps, rock creatures, ogres, floating skulls and more, none of which are really unique in their attack patterns or require any real strategy to defeat. While the enemies are at least somewhat varied, the levels themselves are bland and barren of anything interesting aside from the odd wooden barrel and lava pit.

While mechanically Crimson Keep is very simple, it’s executed quite poorly. Combat is very slow, AI is nonexistent and you’ll be happy if the game even registers the hits you think you should have landed. Sure there’s a bit of a learning curve to overcome these issues, but it’s not intentional and causes a lot of frustration due to many unfair and untimely deaths. Given that permadeath is a thing, you’re going to be punished for a lot of unfairness.

If you’re lucky enough to find some apples, bread or potions along your adventure, you’ll be able to heal up, but the amount you’re healed is so miniscule that it’s almost worthless to do so. While the levels themselves are randomly generated every time you play, so are the enemies and loot. This means you’ll either have a decent run with some good upgrades, loot and food to heal up, or get multiples of the same weapon or armor that does you absolutely no good at all. Start praying to the RNG gods now.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll find armor, necklaces, rings and better weapons along your journey, but it’s completely random. You may find a ton of swords when you’re a magic user, doing you no good, or wands when you’re a melee character. Even if you do by some miracle gain a bunch of upgrades, you won’t feel any more powerful. Even one run when I managed to have over 200 health, I still died quite quickly when I became swarmed and ran out of ‘ammo’ for my wand.

Yes, as a mage, your little twig that shoots magic will run out of ‘ammo’. Now I’m not sure if this is a bug, but if you drop your empty wand on the ground, pick it up and reequip it, it’s magically full of ammo once again. Keep in mind that doing so and playing with your inventory doesn’t pause the game either, so if you’re fighting more than 3 enemies at once, you’re in for a bad time and most likely a death.

As you kill monsters you’ll earn XP, and as you level you’ll get to pick one of a couple of perks and abilities that will help you along the way. While a few of these abilities are somewhat decent, they need to be recharged, and perks don’t really seem to make much of a difference. So while there are some light RPG mechanics, again, once you die, you’re going to have to start all over from the beginning, as nothing carries over from one playthrough to the next.

I really don’t enjoy being negative towards a game, especially a smaller indie title, but there’s no possible way in good conscience I can recommend Crimson Keep in any sort of fashion, especially at the exorbitant $25.99 CAD pricepoint. There are so many glaring issues mechanically that it was a constant frustration to play, devoid of any real enjoyment and doesn’t seem to be self-aware enough to realize it.

Overall Score: 2.5 / 10 Bonds of the Skies

If there’s one company that has no shortage of JRPG’s, it’s KEMCO. They’ve been putting out quite a few lately on Xbox One, seemingly every month, and this month’s release is Bonds of the Skies, developed by Hit-Point. While their back catalogue may have already released long ago on PC or Mobile, they’ve made some changes for the console releases for obvious reasons. While many are your typical JRPG’s affair with predictable storylines and traditional gameplay, there’s always room for titles like that in my gaming queue, as I love the genre, even if they aren’t all hits.

Eil is a young boy, coming of age, about to take part in his town’s ceremony. Of course, this is precisely when the town is attacked by the God of fire, Rednaught, and also when he happens to stumble upon the air God, Nogard. Gods have become less relevant in the world, as people have stopped praying and believing in their existence for the most part, which means no one can see them any longer.

Eil though can see Nogard, and forms a pact with him to seek the world for the other Grimoas (Gods) in an effort to stop Rednaught’s path of destruction. Nogard is an adorable being and knows the whereabouts of his fellow Grimoas, so they set off on their journey. Along the way they will meet other companions and band together to stop Rednaught. There’s a little more depth to it as you progress, which I enjoyed, but that’s the main narrative and reasoning for your journey.

If you’ve managed to play many KEMCO titles previously, you’ll know exactly what to expect for the most part, given that they are very traditional JRPG’s mechanically. Just like many before it, you’ll be wandering from town to town, figuring out who needs help with what, exploring dungeons and beating bosses before moving onto the next town to repeat the steps once again as you get closer and closer to its conclusion.

As you travel from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, you’ll fight hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies along the way. This is due to the incredibly high random encounters with enemies that happens every few steps. So as you’re traversing a new dungeon and lost along the way, prepare to fight many battles. The plus side to this is that leveling is generally easy and you won’t really need to grind much until the very end where the difficulty spikes.

Instead of the traditional view of seeing your party on the side of the screen versus your enemies, you instead fight turn based in a first person view, so you’re unable to see your party. What makes combat unique in Bonds of the Skies is that there’s a position system in place that determines how well you can hit an enemy or not. For example, If Eil is located in the middle position of your party and the enemy is in front of you, you’ll do the most damage to them. If the party member on the left is attacking an enemy on the far right, they will do less, so you need to factor in some strategy when determining who is attacking and when. There are abilities that can be utilized to prevent enemies from moving, or forcing them to move and such, but I never needed to rely on that since I was generally always overleveled due to the overly frequent battles.

Dungeons were laid out very well and had a decent length to them. Every so often, and just before boss fights, you’ll come across a green crystal that will freely replenish your HP and SP (mana), which makes for great grinding spots if you want to earn some more XP for your team. These dungeons usually have a decent amount of diverging paths, and if you ever get stuck or need to escape and want to start over, you’re always able to freely leave the area you’re in and be placed at the beginning once again, something I used often, as I hate backtracking. My only real complaint is that it was quite difficult to see the proper path sometimes, as it was a small opening or blended into the other background tiles.

Once you get a few hours in you’ll also start to face nasty enemies that don’t necessarily hurt you much, but will place debuffs on you that make you essentially worthless. The worst offender for this is any enemy that casts Pancho upon you, turning you into this little cute creature that has no offense or defense for the most part, forcing you to cure it every single time. This is done with items and not hard to do, but becomes quite an annoyance when you have to use multiples after every single battle.

Combat aside from that above is your typical turn based affair, though you have a meter that fills in combat, allowing you and your Grimoa to unleash a sync attack and utilize incredibly powerful skills. Speaking of skills, you’re able to customize your party with whatever skill and perks you wish as they become unlocked. You’ll eventually unlock a massive amount of skills, each tied to your character and Grimoas by the time you’re max level. Some will slot in abilities whereas I found I liked perks like more HP or damage. You can only slot in a set amount of skills and power base, so you’ll need to choose wisely.

As a JRPG, Bonds of the Skies is perfectly serviceable, but really doesn’t do anything new or exciting for the most part, not that that’s a bad thing, but it won’t leave a lasting impression like some of the greats. Staying to the tried-and-true JRPG format works here but it also feels like dozens of other classic JRPG’s you’ve played numerous times before. It won’t wow you by any means, but it’s completely serviceable and a decent distraction for a handful of hours if you’re craving a new classic JRPG to explore.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

FromSoftware is best known for their catalogue of incredibly challenging and difficult games, namely Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series. They’ve actually become synonymous with challenging gameplay and has resulted in a ton of knock-offs, all trying to capture that special Souls-borne magic that FromSoftware has perfected over the years, but no one else has quite succeed with the same quality or cult following.

While most assumed that another entry into the Dark Souls series would be what was next for FromSoftware, many were excited once Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was unveiled. It is their newest game, not part of their most popular franchises and it's published by Activision. Sekiro has FromSoftware written all over its game mechanics and gameplay style, including their signature brutal difficulty that will challenge you from the first enemy to its final boss, should you make it that far.

More than just a Shinobi skin on top of a Dark Souls, Sekiro takes place in the 1500’s within Japan, even allowing you the option to have a Japanese voice over. Sekiro, also known as the “one-armed wolf”, is bound to protect his young Lord. After an invasion from a rival clan and kidnapping his Lord, Sekiro faces off against a brutal foe, losing one of his arms in the process. Awakening in a mysterious and unknown land, Sekiro must not only save his lord, but extract his revenge. He will stop at nothing to save his Lord and regain honor; even death won’t stop him.

With Hidetaka Miyazaki directing, who also headed the Souls-borne titles, there was much anticipation for Sekiro. And while the gameplay may look drastically different from what we’ve come to expect, it all feels familiar, both mechanically and within its core design. Just like previous titles of theirs, Sekiro is a third person action game that focuses on combat.

First warning, and one that you must know, you’re going to die, A LOT, and while that frustrated me greatly in the Souls series, it felt much more balanced with Sekiro. FromSoftware are masters at balance. Yes, you’re going to die more times than you can count, but it’s generally due to your lack of skill, not cheap or unfair deaths for the most part. You’ll need to adapt, though most importantly, you'll need to learn from your mistakes.

While I do wish it wasn’t so difficult at times, it wouldn’t be the same experience if it was easier. You’re taught the basics early on, with the difficulty curve never spiking too crazy until you hit your first boss. Even then, it’s teaching you how to read combat cues from your enemies, and by about my twelfth attempt on the first boss, I was finally able to take him down.

Much like their previous games, the world of Sekiro is absolutely beautiful and interconnected in ways you’ll only uncover as you defeat bosses, opening up side paths and hidden areas. The biggest design change though has to be how much verticality the world has now, which suits the Japanese setting quite well. You’re not simply restricted to being on foot, as you’re able to use your prosthetic arm as a grappling hook of sorts, but more on that shortly.

Most impressive is how varied and challenging the bosses and minibosses of Sekiro are. The first miniboss is essentially just a tutorial for some of the mechanics, teaching you how to execute and fill the posture bar. You see, combat isn’t done in the traditional sense when it comes to the bosses of Sekiro, as you don’t simply whittle down a health bar slice by slice. Sekiro, and the game's enemies, have a posture bar that needs to be filled before they can be executed. While simple grunts won’t give you much hassle, it’s the bosses that use this mechanic instead of a standard health bar, as they have a certain amount of health bubbles, which indicates how many executions it takes to finally defeat them. To pull of an execution you’ll need to completely fill their posture bar by attacking, deflecting and parrying. Once full, they are open up to an execution move, and once all their health bubbles are empty, they’ll finally be dead (for the most part, but I’ll let you figure out what that means).

Bosses are very unique and varied, each teaching you something new along the way. My only issue with them is that they completely gate progress at some point. Yeah, obviously you can’t run straight to the final boss, but people that have problems with the difficulty will eventually become stuck and possibly give up. You’re going to need a lot of persistence and determination if you’re going to see the credits roll.

Combat is incredibly fluid, visceral and bloody. Executions are just that, and Sekiro has no problem thrusting his katana through his enemies, impaling them in brutal fashion. You’re going to see a lot of blood, be it theirs or yours. Combat is substantially more close quarters based than what I was used to from the Souls games. Here you’re generally going to want to be up close and personal rather than gaining a lot of distance.

If you simply mash the buttons, your enemy will deflect and parry your attacks and simply kill you. Combat is all about being tactful with your attacks and defense, knowing when you should be aggressive and when to wait for a deflect, raising their posture bar. When you get into the flow of combat and perform well, it’s a beautiful sight to behold. You need to constantly be watching the enemies’ movements, looking for an opening so you can attack, learning their patterns. Even grunt enemies can kill you in swarms, so pick and choose your battles carefully.

This is where stealth comes in; you are a Shinobi after all. While stealth isn’t what Sekiro’s gameplay revolves around, it does play a large part of it should you want to play it that way. Sneak up behind an enemy and you’ll be able to execute them right away without any combat required, providing no one else witnessed it. You are able to hide in tall grass and bushes to make your approach. Personally, I always opted for the stealth approach if it was viable, and if I became overwhelmed, I quickly ran or grapple hooked my way out of there to safety.

There’s even a way to distract and lure enemies, somewhat, and will play a large part of your strategy if you end up playing the way I did, always looking for those ‘free’ kills. If you’re able to sneak up on the bosses, you can even begin that fight by executing one of their life bubbles away instantly, so stealth is worthwhile to become proficient with.

I found defense was ultimately more important than offence, even more so when it came to boss fights. Being able to deflect, parry and dodge is going to win you more fights than any other strategy. More importantly, doing so is how you quickly fill up the enemy posture bar, so it becomes imperative, as you’re unable to execute until that is full.

Once you start earning upgrades for your prosthetic arm, that’s when gameplay opens up a lot more and it becomes much more interesting. When you start your adventure, your arm is only able to help you traverse, though eventually you’ll earn upgrades that will aid you in combat. The upgrades you gain are generally meant for very specific circumstances.

For example, once you get the ability to use your axe, it’s meant to destroy enemies with wooden shields so you can actually start attacking them. It’s how you use these abilities that will make a world of difference. Also, you need to have a certain item to use certain abilities. Although these are scattered throughout the world, it’s how they’ve balanced simply relying on using the most powerful abilities over and over to make things too easy. It’s an interesting way to balance the gameplay, yet it works beautifully and seems quite purposeful.

What surprised me was that you don’t actually upgrade your weapon or armor at all, so you simply need to rely on your combat skills and hope you become better. Sure, you could grind enemies for experience (kind of like souls) and then spend that on new abilities, giving you more options, but that will take quite some time to do. What didn’t surprise me though was the essential copy of bonfires, where you can choose to rest and refill your items, though at the expense of resetting all the enemies, save for bosses.

When you die, you will lose a large portion of your XP and money. Not only that, die repeatedly and you’ll succumb to what is called dragon rot. While you don’t directly get harmed by this consequence, the collateral damage affects the NPC’s of the world. You might not be able to interact with certain ones or maybe they won’t help you, if your Dragon rot is too high. Yes, there are ways to cure it, but it’s something to always be aware of.

When you fall in battle (when, not if), you’ll be given the option to resurrect, essentially putting you right back into the battle that killed you. This is very handy when it comes to boss fights where you know you could kill them if you could just get another attack or two in. Die again and you’ll be forced to restart at your last shrine checkpoint (bonfire). Use the resurrection and you won’t have access to it again until you kill a handful of more enemies, so there are pro’s and con’s to deciding when to give it one more try.

The artistic design and Japanese aesthetic of Sekiro’s world is absolutely stunning. For reference I played the game on the Xbox One X. More than once I caught myself simply standing on top of a building, taking in the beauty of the world. Even more impressive is knowing that the whole world is interconnected and open once you unlock all of the gateways. Audio is just as top notch, as the voice acting is fantastic and believable (I played in English, though I’m sure Japanese is just as well) and the audio score fits the mood and setting perfectly.

Going in to this review I wasn’t sure if Sekiro was going to be simply a ninja re-skin of Dark Souls, but there’s more than enough that’s different, and improved, that it stands on its own within the genre, even if it’s from the same developers. Like every other FromSoftware title, the difficulty is either going to be what drives you to become better, or make you shy away. I believe that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is going to be on many Game of the Year lists for 2019, and for good reason.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Queen's Quest 2: Stories of Forgotten Past

Artifex Mundi has no shortage of Hidden Object Games (HOG’s) in their ever expanding catalogue of titles. Over the past while, they’ve been bringing these relaxing puzzle games to Xbox One, and I’ve been hooked ever since the first I've played. There’s something relaxing about just sitting on the couch and not stressing about being shot or coming in first place, which is probably why I enjoy these titles so much, even if many of their titles are very similar.

Originally released almost two years ago, Queens Quest 2: Stories of Forgotten Past has finally made its way to Xbox One for fans like myself to enjoy. While I keep up on Artifex Mundi releases, I wondered if somehow the first in the series passed me by without me noticing, but alas, it hasn’t yet come out for my console of choice for some reason. Nevertheless, you don’t need to have played the first to make sense of the second, as it seems it’s only a sequel in name, not so much in its narrative. Plus, with this genre, you’re generally playing for the puzzles and gameplay and not so much its story.

There has been some evil killings in the land as of late, and the only solution the King can seem to come up with is to hire you, an alchemist, to investigate and solve the mystery. Being the alchemist you are, you have knowledge of potion crafting that allows you to shapeshift into animals and provide other feats of supernatural origins. Of course, this main key plot point is only the beginning, and twists will come as you meet Robin Hood, Little Red Riding Hood and even Hansel and Gretel. While the narrative wasn’t anything exciting, it was the gameplay that kept me interested until the end.

If you’re like me and have played numerous Artifex Mundi titles already, nothing really has changed and you’ll know exactly what to expect. For those new to the genre or their catalogue of HOG’s, you’ve got to solve numerous puzzles, find hidden objects and craft potions that will allow you to progress further when there’s a barrier in your way. You’re going to be collecting numerous, and seemingly random, items along the way, but every item has a purpose in some small way, allowing you to solve the next obstruction.

The last few titles have introduced an alchemy portion of gameplay, and it’s just as prevalent here in Queen’s Quest 2. Being an alchemist, obviously that’s where your bread and butter is at, as you’ll need to craft specific potions with the instructions placed in front of you. How you get these new recipes isn’t ever really explained, but I just went with it and didn’t question too much. These potions once crafted will allow you to shapeshift, essentially bringing you to the next area or act of the story. None of these elixirs are difficult to make, as you have instructions right in front of you, and you won’t even be prompted to do so until you’re at a specific point and have all of the required items.

I really enjoyed these parts only because it means I was going to usually get to talk to some animals. Yup, you’re going to be able to converse with a hamster and a snail, which funny enough, I liked much more than any of the humans. How this is explained, again, I don’t really question and just went along with it.

Most of the gameplay will come from searching for random items across many scenes which will allow you to eventually solve a puzzle once you have the required parts. Most of the hidden object puzzles will give you a list of items to find, but what I’ve noticed that has changed in this title specifically is that the hidden objects are actually hidden behind other items. This means that scowering the scene for the items on your list won’t do any good, instead, you’ll need to move and combine items to find your desired ones. This results in a lot more button spamming rather than a sharp and keen eye. Not all of the HOG’s are like this, but it felt as if there was much more than I was used to in previous titles.

There are other traditional puzzles as well, but there aren’t nearly as many as I’m used to. Some will have you matching tiles, fixing a windowed artwork and a couple of other types, none of which were terribly difficult, though there always is the hint option available to you should you become stuck at any point, allowing you to completely skip a puzzle if you become too frustrated and want to progress.

Visually the background drawings are beautiful and vibrant, full of color, fitting the fantasy setting, and the soundtrack is calming and appropriate for this type of adventure. The voice over work used to be Artifex Mundi’s Achilles heel, and while it’s not great, it was decent, much better than previous titles where it was atrocious.

While the gameplay will only last you 2-3 hours, depending on your puzzle prowess and knowledge of Artifex Mundi titles, including the short bonus epilogue, once again I did enjoy my time with it, even if it’s a lot more of the same that I’ve become accustomed to. It seems there’s been two more Queen’s Quest titles released, so here’s to hoping that we’ll get to experience those sequels shortly as well, as I had a calming time with this one, even if it wasn’t their best offering.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 MX vs ATV All Out - Anniversary Edition

While I’ve never actually rode a motorbike or ATV, I’ve played quite a few games covering the sport. So while I’m no expert in real life, I’m quite versed in the videogame counterparts. I completely missed THQ Nordic’s release of MX vs ATV All Out last year for whatever reason, though luckily with its year anniversary upon us, they’ve released the aptly titled MX vs ATV All Out Anniversary Edition that includes some of its most popular DLC for some added value.

Developers Rainbow Studios have crafted a racing experience that lives up to its name, allowing you to race with a handful of MX motorbikes, ATV’s and even UTV’s. While I think most will gravitate towards the MX bikes, I found I quite enjoyed the ATV and UTV’s much more when I was able to use them in races and events.

So what if you’ve played MX vs ATV All Out that released last year already? Well, then this version really isn’t for you, for the most part. This Anniversary Edition is essentially the base game along with a handful of the popular DLC that was released for it as well. I choose my words carefully there, as you may notice I didn’t say “all” of the DLC, and that’s because it doesn’t include it all, just a few of the main popular packs, but more on that shortly. As a newcomer to the series, or simply this version, there’s more than enough content here to keep you busy for quite some time, but for a returning player, it’s more of the same you’ve already experienced before.

So the main DLC packs that are included with this Anniversary Edition are: Ricky Carmichael Farm – GOAT, Slash’s Snake Pit and Hometown MX Nationals. This may not look like a lot of DLC, but some of this tracks are quite lengthy, and my favorite compared to the base game, so there’s a decent amount of bonus content within.

Ricky Carmichael Farm – GOAT includes a handful of races to compete in: 2 Opencross, 1 National, 2 Supercross, 1 Waypoint (my favorite mode) and a handful of new sections in Freeride. Slash’s Snake Pit includes 3 absolutely massive Supercross tracks alongside a FMX area where you’ll be able to pull of some crazy stunts. Lastly, Hometown MX Nationals includes authentic Nationals tracks and 2 Freeride places to have fun about in.

Again, while the DLC list may not seem large, some of these tracks take quite some time to complete, and add a ton of replayability on top of the base game itself. What took me by surprise though was that only select DLC was included, and not all of the available options. This means that even though you’re given extra content to play and compete in, you’ll go down the Series list or Bikes to buy and notice that you’re going to have to purchase them separately. While a few bucks here and there might not be a big deal to some, if certain DLC wasn’t good enough to be included in this Anniversary Edition, then why is it being charged for? An all-encompassing Complete Edition would have been in a better move in my opinion.

As you begin your MX or ATV career, you’ll be placed into an open area, essentially your home hub. Here you’ll drive to points of interest that will include Tutorials of the basics and race styles. I really enjoyed this hub-like area, as it allowed me to freely roam around and have fun and test out my rides, but could also easily jump into a Series race or other events through the menu system whenever I desired.

Racing is as you would expect, with you controlling your vehicle with the Left Stick, leaning with the Right, and Gas and Brake with the triggers. Where the challenge comes in is in learning when, and how much, to lean into a corner and rut, allowing you to take the sharpest turn possible while keeping up your speed. You’re able to play with your clutch for quick speed bursts, perform whips and preload your jumps, and learning to do so purposely will take quite a bit of practice.

The menu will have numerous modes and events for you to compete in, from Series, Single Events, Online and more. Series is essentially your career mode where you’ll take on a set number of events, earning points to go up the rankings, trying to edge out the competition to be in a first place standing by the end. With the included DLC from Anniversary Edition, there’s a decent amount of racing to be had here, especially when each Series is 5 or more races each. Win races and championships and you’ll earn money which can then be used to purchase new vehicles and upgrade parts. You’ll also be able to choose your difficulty which will determine just how braindead the AI racers are, and believe me, on the lowest settings I’m surprised they can even stay balanced on their bikes.

You’ll have a ton of variety for race types and tracks, but my favorite is the Waypoint races. Here you simply need to get to the specific checkpoint before moving onto the next, but there’s no pathway you need to strictly follow. I tended to go in a straight line, jumping over raceways at odd angles and hurdling through trees. It’s all about finding the quickest way from point A to point B.

Stunts are possible by holding down the appropriate bumper and moving the sticks in different ways, allowing for some insane aerobatics when you get enough air to perform them. While the stunts are easy to perform, the flashiest looking ones are obviously the coolest, but require much more airtime to pull it off. The smaller tricks, like sitting sideways on your seat can be performed simply by holding the button down, and you won’t even crash, but simply have the animation quickly reset. It’s a bit jarring and awkward, and I’m not sure why it doesn’t make you crash, as holding onto the larger stunts will have you crash if you land before letting go.

Buried within the menus is where you’ll be able to upgrade and even perfectly tune your vehicles to your desires. As expected, you’ll be able to upgrade your engines, tires, seats, chassis, clutch, handlebars and more for each of your bikes and ATV’s. Very cool is that you’re able to upgrade to original performance parts, though all of this is going to cost you the coin you win from races and series. Start saving too, as some upgrades can be quite expensive, and if you’re looking to upgrade all of your vehicles for different events, it adds up quite quickly.

Most impressive is how the tracks deform to the slew of racers riding over the same areas, causing ruts to form in specific areas. These ruts are like mini ditches, showing the line that racers have ridden on previous laps. These ruts will also allow you to dig your tires in and take sharper and deeper turns, and you’ll need to essentially stick to these lines if you want the smoothest path during each event. Hit a rut the wrong way, or land awkwardly off a jump and you’ll crash off your bike to some hilarious ragdoll physics. The collision detection isn’t very realistic either, as I’ve crashed off some weird angles and yet bounced off other riders and objects completely. Even ‘grinding’ against another rider doesn’t seem to really do much to force you to lose your balance, so there’s no reason not to do so if needed.

Also available is an online mode for up to 16 players to race against one another. Take into account that the original release was a year ago and you’ll come to realize that there’s really not many people playing this online much anymore. While I was able to find a random lobby here and there, it took quite some time sitting and waiting for it to fill, so if you don’t have a handful of friends to play alongside, I wouldn’t bank on a robust online community to compete against, given my luck trying to play with others.

While the graphics won’t wow you, MX vs ATV All Out Anniversary Edition is an Xbox One X enhanced title, so it can look quite pretty at times. Given that most of the areas are quite barren, nothing really impressed me either at the same time. There were even multiple times where I had severe slowdown, to the point of single digit framerates, somehow always when I was crossing into my final lap and the white flag was shown on screen for a few seconds. Audio was similar, as there’s some licensed music that plays in the background, but the majority of what you’ll experience is the hisses and whines of the bike engines as you take turns and launch off ramps.

For someone that wants to experience the chaos of MX bikes racing alongside ATV’s, and even UTV’s, MX vs ATV All Out Anniversary Edition will scratch that itch. It’s a shame that not all of the DLC is included in this version, but the ones that are will add a decent chunk of gameplay to keep you busy for a few extra hours. While nowhere near a perfect experience, it can be fun in short doses and allows an accessibility for newcomers to the series and genre to enjoy while having a decent amount of depth and replayability for veterans.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Treasure Stack

Anyone in my age bracket most likely grew up playing some form of Tetris, Columns, Puzzle Fighter or Dr. Mario, and if you were like me, couldn’t get enough of the tried-and-true gameplay. While each of these titles are slightly different from one another, they all share the same core mechanics of utilizing falling blocks to match or create lines to clear components for a higher score. These games were incredibly easy to understand and pickup, but required an exorbitant amount of practice and strategy if you wanted to truly master them.

Enter Treasure Stack, developed by PIXELAKES, they’ve created something very similar to the titles above, but have their own spin on the core gameplay that does make it stand out amongst the crowd, for better or worse. As you begin, you’ll get to choose from Solo, Local or Online play, though I highly suggest practicing in a handful of Solo matches to get the hang of Treasure Stack’s unique gameplay. Yes, there’s a brief tutorial, but it didn’t do a great job of explaining every detail or strategy, so it will simply take a ton of practice to become proficient.

Somewhat like a mashup of Tetris and Dr. Mario, blocks of two will fall from the top of the screen, usually in the form of a colored treasure chest or key, as you control your character navigating the bottom of the screen, able to grapple and pull down the falling duo stacks and place them where you wish.

This is where the basic gameplay comes in. You’re able to use your hook to pull down the falling ‘bricks’ and place them where you want, even moving them afterwards whenever you wish. Sounds easy but it becomes anything but very quickly. Time is sped up and eventually you’ll have multiple chests and key blocks falling as you’re still scrambling to place the last set that came down. Match a similar colored chest with the corresponding colored key and the blocks will vanish. So it’s a matter of placing your chests and keys in ideal spots where you can setup combos and long chains. Again, doing so seems easy at first, but good luck once the skull blocks start to fall.

As time goes on, a meter fills on the side of the screen, and once full, a layer of skull blocks will drop across your playfield. These blocks can only be destroyed when a neighboring chest and key are combined beside them, so there’s a lot of strategy you’ll need to think of, as these demon blocks are inescapable for the most part. These junk blocks can really ruin your setup quiye quickly, so you’ll need to have a plan of how to deal with them, on top of your regular strategy of clearing chests. Like any block based title, once the screen fills to the top, it’s game over.

Luckily, there are also randomly placed item blocks that will also come down. These won’t activate automatically, like matching keys and chests, but instead, need to be picked up by your hero and activated to be used. These blocks come in the form of Bomb, Sword and Anvil. Anvil will clear the line vertically you place it on, the Sword horizontally, and lastly the Bomb will explode everything near it within a few squares. These items are very powerful and will save you on numerous occasions, but they don’t drop frequently, so use them wisely.

As you complete matches, you’ll earn gold. This gold is like your experience bar, and once full, you’ll unlock a new skin or grapple item for your character. Every item is simply cosmetic, so there’s no real reason to grind unless you want to see every character skin and item for the fun of it, or to showoff online.

Solo play is where I spent most of my time, as I seemingly had no chance against any of my online opponents each time I attempted. Should you be lucky enough to have friends come over often, the Local play is a fun time for up to four friends. Where you’ll want to test your real Treasure Stack-ing abilities though is Online. Here you’re able to play in a Head to Head, or more interestingly, a Season mode. Here you’ll play multiple matches and work towards earning unique rewards. Cross platform is enabled, so you should have no problem finding matches during the day, but when I played late at night, I was unable to find many, if any, matches at all, though your experience may vary.

Treasure Stack has a really unique idea, with your character physically being able to grapple and move stacks, but the controls simply feel awkward. If a stack is too high to jump onto, you can pick it up completely, then place it down and you’ll appear on top of it, but doing so in the thick of it with numerous skull bricks ruining the playfield becomes hectic at best. Even after a handful of hours into it, I still make a ton of simple control mistakes and have to mentally focus on what I want to do and how. I did enjoy the cute retro pixel graphics, and the soundtrack was decent, though not very memorable.

I appreciate that there’s a new take on a seemingly ancient genre, I just wish it blended together more smoothly and the controls weren’t so awkward. The difficulty curve is extremely sharp and will take hours to feel natural. While constant unlocks are something to work towards, they are simply cosmetic and there’s little left for any gameplay depth or longevity.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Trials Rising

If I had to guess, I’d probably wager that I’ve sunk at least a few hundred hours into the original Trials on Xbox 360. I absolutely fell in love with it and its challenging physics based gameplay. I became quite good at the time, mastering the hardest tracks, but as the sequels eventually came one after another, I simply lost my interest. For me, it seemed like the Trials series was simply trying to cater to the super hardcore, making extreme tracks that even frustrated myself, with many I couldn’t bring myself to complete.

It seems developers RedLynx have gone back to the drawing board to figure out what made Trials so much fun initially, and have essentially gone back to their roots with Trials Rising. While it may not have the same sparkle it did back in the day, I’m excited again to be sinking dozens of hours into Trials once again.

For those uninitiated, Trials is a dirt bike game where you need to simply make it to the finish line, but doing so is anything but. Physics are your biggest obstacle, as you’ll need to know when to lean back and forth, feather the gas, and how to react to the world around you. Controls are simplistic, as you lean with the Left Stick and use the triggers for Gas and Brake, but knowing how to balance and use the tricks to vault over objects and land properly is what separates the great players.

While there’s no real story campaign for the most part, your Trials career will take you across many tracks from all around the globe. From Hollywood movie sets, to Europe, to Cambodia and everywhere in between, you’ll see a ton of backdrops, each with their own unique style and feel. What Trials Rising does near perfect is ease newcomers into the game, gradually progressing in slightly more challenging levels as you go. In previous games, the difficulty would spike drastically early on, scaring away new fans, but Rising does it just right.

Now there are also classes you can take, teaching you the basics, and eventually much more complex and challenging skills you’ll need to master if you want to take on the most extreme courses. What’s done right about these lessons is that you’re not simply forced to reach the end, granting an A+, as you can tap out anytime you wish if you simply think you won’t be able to make it any further, giving you an appropriate grade based on how far you reached. You’re always welcome to go back and try again, seeing if you can earn those coveted A+ marks once you gain the skills necessary, something I’m still working on for a few of the challenging classes.

Trials is all about momentum. Sometimes you want to floor it and leap high as you can, other times, you’ll want little air as possible, to get more speed on a downhill slope or to land perfectly. Knowing when, and how, is what makes great Trials players, from numerous level repeats and practice. Track design in Rising is absolutely stellar and much more exciting this time around. Not only is there more ‘fluff’ with background action and explosions, but certain aspects of levels are designed so uniquely that they are a joy to play. For example, in the movie set stage, the background actually changes to a scene from the movie as you ride through it, or a level where logs slide down as you land on them, so you need to prepare your landing just perfectly and not go full throttle. Never once did a level feel unfair. If I had to restart, it’s because of my own mistake.

On the world map is where you’ll chose what race you want to participate in, and if a friend beats your time, there will be a notification to let you know so you can earn back those bragging rights. Finishing levels will earn you Bronze, Silver or Gold medals, and luckily, progress isn’t gated on how many you’ve earned. Instead, you’ll eventually get to challenge yourself against the best of a league, and should you win all the heats, you’ll be able to move onto the next, usually upping the difficulty.

Sponsors will also pop up now and then, showing interest in your riding skills and give you objectives to perform during levels. Complete these objectives, like don’t fault more than 6 times or finish under a specific time, and you’ll be granted bonuses. Also, you’ll eventually be challenged to some one on one races against rivals, and if you’re able to beat them in all 3 races, you’ll earn a very special loot crate. Yes, Trials now has loot crates, but more on that shortly.

One of my favorite aspects from the first few Trials was its Skill Games. Here were a handful of minigames to simply have fun in and set records. The amount of time I put into the original long distance game is somewhat embarrassing, but I had a ton of enjoyment doing so. Over the years, the Skill Games never had that same special wow factor to me. Sure, they were fun, but nothing ever really felt special like those originals. The same goes here for Rising as well. They are included and unique, like Basketball where you need to grab a ball after launching off your bike, then slam dunking into the net, but none of them had me going back for more.

The garage is where you’ll be spending a bit of your time, as this is where you can customize your rider and bike once you start opening your loot crates. Yes, every time you level up, you’ll earn a loot crate to open, each of which houses a random assortment of stickers, rider gear, bike parts, stickers, stickers or more stickers. Yes, the majority of what you earn will be stickers, which is quite a letdown. And to make things worse, you can get duplicate items as well.

Given that you can also spend real money on crates for Acorns, a separate currency, you could just buy the cosmetic items if you want, but the prices are quite disappointing and way too high priced for my liking. You’ll earn coins as you win races as well, and this can also purchase some gear for your rider and bike, but the coolest items are usually only purchasable with Acorns, so you can see where I started to get a bad taste in my mouth.

You’ll earn jackets, shirts, pants, helmets, gloves, shoes and more for your rider, able to customize just how you wish. And for your whips; tires, rims, body kits, headlights and more are at your disposal as well. You can even spend your hard earned gold on poses and emotes for the lobbies before and after races, but again, the coolest ones aren’t purchasable with simply gold, only Acorns. Even if the top tier items were purchasable with gold, you don’t earn them quickly enough and will struggle to get your bank roll up if you want to purchase many.

There’s an online multiplayer component, but I found it by accident while navigating the menus. I had a lot of fun challenging myself to others online, and should add some longevity for Rising. Oddly enough, the Private Multiplayer is greyed out and is still simply “coming soon”. Why this launched without this included, I’m not sure, but an ETA at least would have put some fears to rest. There’s local co-op should that be your thing when friends are over, and you can customize your races to your heart’s desire, but where the real hilarity comes in is with the new Tandem Bike.

The newly added Tandem Bike is for two players to play simultaneously, both controlling a single ride. Given that everything is shared, from the acceleration, braking and steering, you better be in sync with your partner or it’s not going to end well. While I’ve yet to have someone over yet that is on the same wavelength as my own Trials skills, this could be an absolutely hilarious party game in itself, though prepare many swear words at your friends beforehand, as some will most certainly come out when they can’t pull their own weight.

Trials Rising looks absolutely gorgeous. The series has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and while the visuals themselves aren’t anything spectacular, what does look amazing is the overall aesthetic and level design. Again, the level design here is simply flawless, and there’s and endless amount of small details I’ve noticed that most will pass by, as they are simply trying to reach the end. The audio goes hand in hand with a suitable soundtrack that sets the tone without becoming overbearing or annoying.

Trials really is the “one more time” formula, and Rising makes it even harder to put the controller down. Rising is simply a refined experience of the Trials formula, and I’m excited to see how newbie friendly it’s become, yet holds a ton of opportunities for veterans that want to challenge themselves. RedLynx has found a great balance of accessibility versus catering to the hardcore.

While new players will surely hit a wall of difficulty at some point, it’s never unfair and simply requires you to learn the appropriate skills to overcome the hurdles. I’m so excited that Trials is back to where it once was and I wish I could count the times I’ve said “only one more try” repeatedly, I just wish the loot boxes and microtransactions didn’t feel so tacked on.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

Sometimes I simply need a break from my go-to shooters and competitive multiplayer games. Usually I unwind with something less stressful, like a racing game or puzzler, but recently, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles has been capturing my attention for this specific need. While there’s objectives and goals to meet, they are in no way forced upon you, and you’re free to openly explore and do as you wish in Yonder, something I found truly relaxing, helping de-stress at the end of a long day.

Set in the world of Gemea, you are aboard a ship before it wrecks on a mysterious coast. You awaken, but can’t seem to remember anything about the place you were travelling to. A mysterious entity sets you upon a journey and it’s up to you to free the island from an enigmatic Murk that blocks access to certain areas and houses many secrets within.

There’s an overall narrative, nothing too serious or involving, but the real journey of Yonder is exploring at your own pace and doing whatever it is you want to do at any given point of time. You’ll need to seek out adorable creatures known as Sprites to rid the land of the mysterious Murk, but there’s plenty more for you to also do to fill your time and adventure.

Where Yonder shines is in its sense of exploration and freedom of gameplay. Never are you forced to play a certain way or progress if you don’t desire to, but eventually you will need to find Sprites if you want to clear the Murk and explore blocked off areas and uncover more secrets. Even so, you’re able to fill your time with exploration, crafting, cooking, fishing, farming, trading and a handful of quests whenever you see fit to do so.

Your general progress will be gated behind these Murk gates, a black magical substance that requires little creatures, known as Sprites, to clear the way for you. You only have one Sprite at the beginning of your adventure, and will need many more if you want to uncover all of the islands secrets and areas. Every Murk blockade requires a specific amount of Sprites on hand to clear, and while the first few will be easy to find, gathering them all will take some time and set you on quite a journey. Sprites like to hide, so finding them isn’t always so easy. Sure, they have a glow around where they are hidden, but the island you’re on is quite large, and you’ll have to explore every inch if you want to find them all.

Early on, the majority of my time was simply gathering any wood, rocks and flowers I saw lying on the ground. Eventually you’re given all the tools you’ll need to gather more, like a pick axe, hammer, scythe, axe and fishing rod, and again, it’s completely up to you how you want to play. Maybe you want to go on a wood gathering binge, cutting down all the trees you see to harvest some wood for your Guild and crafting.

Obviously, you’re going to want to replant trees so that you can cut more down later after they grow, so you’ll need to use your scythe on bushels of grass to gather some seeds, which can be planted where you cut those trees down. It feels very much like a cycle of life, as I would cut down regular trees, but plant more exotic ones, allowing me to trade them for a higher yield and for better items at traders. The same goes for stone, as you can use your hammer to smash boulders into to smaller collectible portions. Every material has a use, and by a few hours into Yonder, you’re going to want all you can get your hands on if you want to explore all that it has to offer.

Crafting eventually plays a huge part in the gameplay, as the mechanics in place are very simple and easy to understand. Want to create a pen for your animals for your farm? The crafting menu will tell you exactly what materials you’ll need to do so. Join a Guild, like the Carpenters for example, and you’ll have access to special recipes and craftable items, even more so after you’ve become a master in said guilds. And there’s numerous guilds from all different professions to join, so there’s plenty to delve into should you want to take the time to explore and learn it all.

Eventually you’ll be given a plot of land for your very own farm, something I wasn’t sure if I was going to sink a lot of time into, which was until I noticed an hour easily slipped by. Your plot of land is fully customizable, and while you’re given a few basic items to start out with, this is where the crafting system comes into play should you want to further customize it more. You aren’t simply given animals to populate your farm though, so you’ll need to find wild ones, feed them their favorite food, and then they’ll follow you back as you guide them back to your farm.

After you’ve got an animal or two, that’s where the farming becomes quite enjoyable. Your farm is rated on its cleanliness and care of animals, so you’ll want to check in every so often to make sure you’re cleaning up their poop. Yes, they poop all over the place. You could even setup gardens if you wish, for flowers and trees, and you’ll even earn materials for any animals you have, like milk, so it pays to spend time doing so. You’ll even be able to eventually hire farm hands to take care of your day to day duties for you, allowing you more time to explore or do whatever else you wish.

Or maybe you want to become a cook and spend time fishing? While the fishing minigame is simplistic, as you only need to move the thumbstick in the direction of the moving arrow to reel it in, it’s soothing and relaxing to try and catch a new type of fish, or a rare large catch in a new pond. You can use these fish to trade and barter, cook with, or feed to your farm hands to hire them, so there’s lots you can do with your catches.

NPC’s will be scattered throughout Gemea as well, but instead of simply selling all your unwanted items for money, instead there’s a bartering system in place. If you want an item from a vendor, you’ll need to trade something of equal value to obtain it. It’s simple, but it works, so this is where your hours of gathering, fishing and farming come into play. Maybe you don’t have the materials to craft a specific component, so you’d rather trade for it instead; this is completely possible and could save you some time if you have spare materials for trade. It’s an interesting system and is very easy to understand.

All of Yonder’s mechanics are actually quite easy to pick up and understand. There’s some menu management when it comes to crafting and equipping new cosmetic clothes, but nothing terribly difficult to figure out. And for those looking for even more to do, there’s tons of quests to be had, some of which are very simple and quick, whereas others are a little more vague and will take some exploration to solve. There are rewards of course, and even hidden collectables to find throughout Gemea, like cats; a simple way that makes me want to explore more of the island.

Yonder is very pretty to look at from an aesthetic perspective. The world is very bright and colorful, animals and Sprites are absolutely adorable and practically any area you see in the background can be explored, given you can clear the Murk blocking its path. More than once I saw an interesting object on a faraway hill and went to explore, sidetracking me for a good hour. While the character models are quite basic, it has a certain charm. Audio is just as suitable, as the calming soundtrack sets the mood and tone for your adventure, never becoming too serious or unnerving.

I’m actually glad there’s no combat involved. While it would add more gameplay, Yonder is suited for the experience that it is; a freeform adventure to calmly explore and do as you wish. There’s no shortage of discovery and adventure to be had, all at your own pace and prerogative.

While Xbox will never have Animal Crossing come to the console, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is essentially as close as you’re going to get, and arguably, a more robust experience. Sure, Yonder could use a little more depth in some areas, I appreciate the freedom to do and focus on whatever I want without any pressure or objectives I don’t want to complete if I don’t desire to. If you’re looking for a title to relax and unwind with that’s simple to understand and play, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles should be looked at.

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Salt and Sanctuary

To say that the Dark Souls series has made an impact on the gaming industry would be an understatement. They’ve not only made a series that fans clamor for, but have since been synonymous with “difficult” games due to its challenge. Obviously when a new game or genre comes along, many copies also follow suit, and there’s been no shortage of Souls-like games in recent years. While most of these knock offs are simply trying to be a ‘me too’, developers Ska Studios, best known for their The Dishwasher titles, has decided to put some new twists on the traditional Souls-like gameplay mechanics, making for a unique experience that’s not simply trying to emulate its inspirational material.

Salt and Sanctuary begins with you on a ship that gets attacked in the ocean. As you kill the invaders and make your way to the deck, you’re greeted with a massive sea creature that will most likely demolish you in a few seconds (though it is possible to defeat it). Regardless of the outcome, the ship crashes and becomes a wreck on a nearby shore that you awake on much later. As you get your wits about you, you’ll meet an older gentleman that gives you a mysterious item and to let you know that you must find the princess that was aboard the ship as well.

Yes, it’s an overused trope, but it sets the framework of the much larger objective, but doing so won’t be easy. You’ll have hours of exploring and fighting ahead of you, coupled with hundreds of deaths as you learn the intricacies of the mechanics. You’ll be exploring through swamps, dungeons, forests, crumbled cities, underground tunnels and much more throughout your journey. I have to admit, for a smaller indie game, I didn’t expect as much depth and length, but was proven wrong after looking up how much further I had to go after a dozen or so bosses.

To say that Salt and Sanctuary is simply a Souls-like would be doing it an injustice. Yes, many mechanics and design decisions carry over and are similar, but it’s also part Metroidvania and more of a platformer, given its 2D sidescrolling gameplay. You begin by choosing your character, class and other details before being thrust into the world with little to no hand holding at all. And just like the Souls games, which I’m terrible at, I was initially quite awful at this as well. I’m not one for super challenging games generally, but Salt and Sanctuary, just like Souls, is never truly unfair, you just have to take your time and learn what you did wrong, and adjust, learning from your mistakes.

Traversing the huge world on a 2D plane is simple at first, but eventually you’ll reach areas that have vanishing platforms, platforms that can only be stepped on with a special light equipped, and even have sections where you’ll walk on the ceilings for a short period of time. I didn’t expect the world to be nearly as expansive as it was, as it took me by surprise just how big the world really ending up being.

Combat plays the other large part of Salt and Sanctuary’s gameplay. Simplistic to figure out and execute, eventually enemies become much more challenging and deadly, with bosses able to essentially one-shot you if you’re not careful. Luckily, you’ll have access to well over 600 items, weapons, armor sets, spells and more to truly customize your character(s) just how you wish. Being that I’m not as skillful in these games, I initially opted for a safer heavy armor and shield bearing Paladin to try and mitigate some of the incoming damage. While this worked for the most part, I found it was much more efficient to become better at combat and simply roll and dodge out of the way of attacks instead. The same goes for weaponry, as a large 2-handed broadsword did an incredible amount of damage compared to my single handed maces and swords. I’ve dabbled with the magic and spells slightly, but it’s simply not my play style, though I could see it being very overpowered if spec’d properly.

You’ll earn souls, er, salt, and gold for killing enemies, which is used to level up and upgrade your equipment. I completely understand that games like these are very hands-off with the lack of any real tutorial or easing into the gameplay, but I have to say, I did become frustrated early on when I kept dying and losing all my acquired Salt from silly mistakes. Yes, those mistakes were mine, I just wish more of the mechanics were explained more clearly from the early beginnings. For example, Salt and Sanctuary’s version of bonfires are the Sanctuaries, but it’s not explained outright what using one does. Yes, you’ll eventually figure it out, but it took some time to learn how to setup vendors like a Blacksmith or how to fast travel to other Sanctuaries I've previously been to.

Again, just like Souls, you’ll have a stamina meter that is tied to your attacking, blocking, dodging and magic use. Spam attacks and you’ll be left vulnerable, dodge and roll repeatedly and you won’t be able to attack or block for a short period. Even the lesser grunt enemies can take you out if you’re not careful, so learn to manage your stamina at all times.

You’re able to setup two different weapon loadouts, so I began with my sword and shield for when I need to block, then can freely swap to my 2-hander for damage dealing when the opportunity arises. It will take quite some time for you to learn the controls of doing so, blocking and using items, but once it clicks and you don’t have to think about it anymore, it becomes more natural.

Even though there’s a lot of Metroidvania influence within, there’s actually no map to speak of. Even after a dozen hours of gameplay, I still hate this absent feature. I get that it’s supposed to be challenging, but having to do a ton of backtracking and then getting lost simply negates any fun I was having, especially when I die and have to figure out where my body was to recover my salt. Just as you think the world is large, you’ll acquire brands, which allows you to access new areas via special abilities, such as wall jumping, or traversing upside down in a specific area. You’ll be revisiting areas you’ve already been to once you gain these abilities if you’re looking for all of the world’s secrets and bosses. Sure, once you defeat bosses, usually there’s a shortcut of sorts to easily get to another area quickly, but again, you’ll have to have a photographic memory to make use of it.

There are also times where you’ll get to pick a Creed, essentially a faction, granting special bonuses, though be careful, as if you claim a Sanctuary for your own under a rival Creed, locals will not take kindly to this, so there’s always a risk and consequence for your actions. Again, I wish these were explained in more detail, as I found I had to simply experiment with each and figure out not only what each did, but their specific bonuses as well.

Also included are some RPG elements where you can not only upgrade your gear, but a massive skill tree that’s actually quite intimidating to look at and figure out the path you want to ascend in. Seriously, the skill tree is absolutely massive and trying to take it all in took quite some time. This allows you to truly customize your character almost exactly however you wish, it’s just a very daunting visual to take in and understand without any context. Upgrade and level up enough, and you’ll eventually become incredibly powerful, so there’s a balance of challenge and payoff depending on how much work you put into it.

Also, just like souls, you’re able to leave messages in bottles for others to find and read. You could leave helpful hints, or set a trap by luring you into a false sense of security. It’s not game changing by any means, but a great nod to the source material.

Again, I don’t try and hide the fact that I’m terrible at games like this, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve still yet to see the credits roll. I’ve put in hours and hours into it, but I’ve hit a brick wall where I’m close to throwing the controller out the window. I know if I stick with it and take my time, I’d overcome the struggle, as this isn’t the first time I've become stuck, but doing multiple corpse runs only to lose more and more Salt really grates on you after a while. Sure, some will find Salt and Sanctuary much easier, as they may be Souls veterans, or have a build that works like magic for them, but I struggled almost the whole way.

The visuals are very basic, as everything appears hand drawn, though the aesthetic is very dark and brown, which makes sense given the narrative backdrop and setting of a dark and dingy world inhabited by monsters. Audio is very basic, with the groans of monsters and attack animations, though I do wish there was more of a robust soundtrack, as it seems it was the same few tracks repeated over and over.

I completely appreciate and understand what Salt and Sanctuary is accomplishing and trying to be. While some will be turned off by its difficulty, the elation that comes when you finally become better skilled and progress is unlike any other. Salt and Sanctuary isn’t simply a 2D Souls-like, as it has its own creative merits and is its own experience, something that needs to be applauded.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Anthem

Since Anthem was first shown back at one of the E3’s, there’s been a feverish excitement and following for its release, and for good reason; it simply looked awesome. You control a mech (javelin) much like Iron Man, and it had remnants of Destiny and Division loot based co-op gameplay. Oh, and BioWare is behind it, so naturally fans became quite excited quickly. It was easy to get aboard the hype train once it was shown, and now Anthem is finally here, so has it been everything we’ve been waiting for? Well, kind of.

Given BioWare’s pedigree in storytelling and narrative based games, I was expecting big things from Anthem’s narrative. You’re one of the few remaining Freelancers left standing after the battle within The Heart of Rage. This was a legendary battle where almost all but a handful of Freelancers fell in battle after things go south quickly. The world doesn’t really see Freelancers the same way they once did since that day, and even though two years have passed since the resounding defeat, you’re still trying to do the right thing and prove Freelancers are still great as they once were.

Sentinels are essentially the army and police in Anthem’s world, yet Freelancers are the ones that will need to take out contracts and repair their reputation amongst the public. Your main hub, Fort Tarsis, is a small city where a large portion of your gameplay will take place. Here is where you’ll talk to merchants, make friends, accept contracts and more. In typical BioWare fashion, you’ll have dialogue choices to make during conversations, though none of these decisions feel like there’s any weight to them for the most part, simply picking one of two responses as the opportunity presents itself.

The Dominion is the other faction, the ones that are trying to harness the power of the Anthem of Creation for themselves, destroying anyone who gets in their way. Essentially the ‘bad guys’, they will be your main enemy throughout the storyline, led by a very ruthless and powerful foe that you’ll learn more of as you progress. You’ll meet more characters as your journey extends, some of which are very unique and memorable, while others are annoyances and simply serve to give you more missions, albeit with a lengthy talk beforehand. While the few main characters you’ll forge relationships with, the rest of the characters simply feel empty shells.

Get used to slowly traversing in Fort Tarsis, as you’ll be here often after every mission and lengthy loading screen. Even on an Xbox One X, with Anthem installed on an external drive, the load times are absolutely atrocious at times, and frequent. You’ll have not only the main story missions, but a plethora of side missions and contracts to complete as well, and I suggest as doing as many as you can before you eventually hit the wall of progression halting.

At one point in the story, you’ll be in search of specific Tombs, but won’t have access until you fulfil a certain amount of side objectives, like killing a certain amount of specific enemies, finding hidden engrams, melee kills and more dull objectives that force you to play a specific way for no real reason at all other than to gate your progression. Luckily I didn’t need to do much ‘back tracking’ to fulfil these, but I’ve heard of players who have had to spend time simply doing these poorly thought out tasks to progress.

Anthem is simply the greatest Iron Man simulator you’ll play. Your Javelin suit can instantly turn on its jets to allow you to fly, for a short period, and you have an arsenal of weaponry at your disposal. Something to keep in mind though is that Anthem requires a persistent online connection, as well as Xbox Live Gold. While this won’t matter to most, you’re always going to be at the mercy of the servers and any updates that are pushed through.

While fully possible to play alone for most of Anthem’s experiences, it truly is meant to be played as a team of four, ideally friends with constant communication, as anything less is simply frustrating and nowhere as rewarding. You begin your journey by choosing which of the four Javelin’s you wish to pilot, but will eventually have access to all and be able to switch between missions whenever you choose. Each Javelin is very distinct, not only in its visuals, but more importantly, its playstyle.

Myself, I fell in love with the Colossus, a Hulkbuster-like brute of a Javelin that utilizes a literal shield and can take the most damage of the four, essentially the tank class. Ranger, the most rounded of the bunch is adaptable to any situation is great at massive single target damage. Interceptor is the smallest, but more agile and melee based Javelin. Lastly, and arguably the most popular, is the Storm, an elemental based attacker that can deal some massive damage, even on their own, while also having the ability to hover.

It takes some time to find the Javelin to suit your playstyle, but once you do and figure out its nuanced playstyle, it becomes much more rewarding. Once I learned how to effectively use my Colossus’ shield to not only mitigate incoming fire, but to cover and distract enemies, the team based gameplay opened up so much more. While there’s no “perfect” group composition, as I’ve completed missions with 4 Colossus, but had a much better time when the party was more rounded with different classes.

Every class has its own specialty equipment, as well as an Ultimate that can be used once the meter is filled. My Colossus for example can launch rockets that do massive damage to anything it hits, or in the vicinity. There are also specific weapons meant for certain Javelins, like my Autocannon for my Colossus for example, but you can generally equip any of the weapons you wish to suit your play style.

Unless you’re a Storm class, you’ll do the majority of your fighting on the ground. This is because your jet thrusters can only be used for a short time before needing to be cooled down. The world of Anthem is incredibly vertical, so there will be many times where you’ll need to fly from the ground up to the top of a large waterfall. Being able to fly for only a short distance before needing to rest your jets a moment so they don’t overheat, is a little of a downer, as some of the best gameplay comes from these Iron Man-like moments of flying through a narrow tunnel or open archway. While you can temporarily cool off your jets by flying through some mist of a waterfall, or rapidly descending, having more flight time would have made for a much more exciting experience, instead of the on/off gameplay. That being said, the handling of the suits is near perfect, as I can thread the needle when needed and land whenever I want quickly.

While most classes will rely on their guns for the majority of their damage, again, every class plays quite differently, and I actually rarely use my weapons now, as I prefer to use my abilities and melee ground pounds to deal the majority of my damage as a Colossus. Enemies aren’t much of a threat on Easy, Normal or Hard difficulties, but once you start to challenge yourself on the Grandmaster 1, 2 and 3 difficulties, you’ll quickly learn that even the smallest enemies can be massive bullet sponges, a problem I absolutely detested in the original Division.

Making enemies soak up massive amounts of damage doesn’t make you feel powerful; quite the opposite. When I’m using a 200+ round autocannon and it takes a full clip to kill a single grunt enemy, that’s simply not that fun. Yes, you’re meant to use all of the tools available to you, like your equipment, abilities and most importantly, combos, but it becomes tiresome, even more so when you fight the Titan bosses that require even more damage to be taken out.

Also, you’re going to be fighting the same handful of enemies over and over throughout your Anthem career. This doesn’t ever really change, nor does the formula of reaching point A, kill X amount of enemy waves and progress to the next point to start the cycle all over again. Sure, sometimes things vary slightly, like having to defend a certain point as a meter fills, or find a handful of collectibles to move onto the next stage, but it’s all generally the same formula from start to finish.

While the gunplay itself is a bit underwhelming, due to enemies being bullet sponges, the real thrill comes from learning how the combo system works. Every Javelin’s abilities are either pure damage, a Primer or Detonator. While the pure damage abilities will show you big numbers, being able to setup and pull off combos is where the massive damage will come from. To start, you need one of your Primer abilities. My Colossus for example, I have a wall of fire, that when enemies pass through, take slight fire damage, but become primed for a combo. When primed, you’ll see an icon above their heads, or they'll completely frozen if ice is used, and if you use a detonation ability, like my melee ground pound for example, you’ll combo other enemies in the area for a huge amount of destruction. Having a team that can effectively setup and perform combos are an absolute must in the harder Grandmaster difficulties, as a Turret for example can easily lay waste to your squad if not taken care of quickly and efficiently.

Once you complete the campaign and reach level 30, this is where Anthem starts to open up more, it’s just a shame you need to slog through he rest before then to really start to experience the chaotic and rewarding nature of Grandmaster difficulties. The higher the difficulty, the more rewards can be gained, so it’s a balance of skill and challenge, based on how effective your squad is. While you can play with random’s for any mission or Stronghold (dungeons with bosses at the end), it’s a completely different, and far better, game with 3 other friends in party chat.

I was quite excited once I got to experience my first Stronghold, as its Anthem’s version of dungeons. The same formula applies though, as you get to point A, kill baddies, repeat until you reach and vanquish the boss. I was hoping for some very cool and interesting boss mechanics, and while some do have a few tricks you need to utilize, they are just even more massive bullet sponges for the most part and none are very memorable, except for that turret boss of the second Stronghold; Eff that guy.

You begin weak, and as you defeat enemies and find loot, your power level will increase, much like Destiny’s light system. Common loot begins white, eventually you’ll find greens, blues, purples, masterwork and legendaries. The better loot seems to be tied to player level and progression, as I joined a Grandmaster mission early in my career through a friend, but was only getting rewards based on my own level. As you increase your Javelin’s power, enemies become easier to defeat and you become stronger, thus the hamster wheel of searching for loot begins.

While I’m all for diving head first into a shLOOTer, the progression needs to keep up, especially in a game like Anthem where you’ll be running the same exact missions and Strongholds over and over again. If I need to spend an hour doing a Stronghold, I better get a reward out of it. And this is where BioWare has currently dropped the ball. Yes, you’ll get upgrades, but it’s completely randomized, and I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve gotten the SAME drop, resulting in me simply deconstructing it for materials to craft later on. Even once I started getting top tier gear, I noticed minor improvements in my power and abilities, but was never 'wow’d' by the increases. There’s a long and arduous grind for the gear, and you simply need to hope that luck is on your side when it finally does drop, or else you’ll be running those missions all over again in hopes for what you actually want.

Most impressive is Anthem’s visuals. Not simply its fidelity playing on my Xbox One X, but the aesthetic throughout. Anthem is a very vertical game, and flying through the world in Freeroam is a delight to see all of the backdrop and scenery that you pass by. Javelin’s are incredibly detailed if you take the time to look up close, and while the world itself isn’t nearly as large as I expected, it’s beautiful from end to end with flora, waterfalls and nature surrounding every corner.

Audio is a mixed bag, for a few reasons. Voice acting is top notch, and the sound effects are fantastic, especially when you kick in your thrusters for your jets and take off, but I’ve had nothing but issues with audio since day one. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve had my audio completely drop for no apparent reason, forcing me to restart to get it back; Party chat worked the whole time, so it was simply the game audio that would drop. This has happened more than a dozen times, even up to three times one night when I was doing some Grandmaster Stronghold runs with some friends. To say that it’s frustrating is putting it mildly, and that’s not even factoring the hard system crashes that has happened to me as well.

Anthem has some grand ideas, and what it’s great at is a lot of fun, but there’s so many odd design decisions that baffle me. It’s almost as if they didn’t learn from all of the mistakes Destiny had at its launch. Even as of now, the proposed fix for loot still isn’t working as intended (white and green loot dropping for a level 30 is a waste of time). I get that an online persistent game is going to have its issues, and this is BioWare’s first foray into this specific genre, but I feel like nearly half my time played is walking slowly around Fort Tarsis, delving into menus or waiting on a ridiculously long loading screen.

I have no doubt that down the road, Anthem is going to be fantastic, special even, but the road there is long and bumpy. Polish and changes for the better will come with time, no doubt, but there’s a laundry list of frustrations that let me down. That being said, I’m still getting on every night to play with my squad, running on that proverbial never ending treadmill for new and better loot, so it’s got to be doing something right, I just hope more variety gets added soon.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 RIOT: Civil Unrest

Riots look like one thing on TV, yet are a completely different world when you’re in the thick of it. I’m actually able to speak from experience here, as I was once stuck in the middle of a riot, granted, not a political based one as this game, RIOT – Civil Unrest, portraits. Simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was stuck in a crowd of thousands of people when things starting turning for worse. I wanted to go one way, but the crowd was running the other, and I knew if I fell over, I would have most likely been trampled to death. Then the tear gas from police came. That stuff hurts; believe me. I made it out eventually, but experienced firsthand how quickly chaos can spread with the right conditions, something I hope to never experience again.

Yet here I am, playing it in game form. I can handle that though, and even some of my first initial impressions brought back some of those feelings of chaos. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for someone to be there willingly at a political protest when things turn south. RIOT will let you experience that in a handful of different scenarios. It’s an absolutely unique and interesting game idea, as I guess I would categorize it as a ‘simulator’ of sorts, but there really is nothing else quite like it.

The idea came from RIOT – Civil Unrest’s creator, as he himself also experienced firsthand chaos at the NoTAV demonstrations in Italy. Never heard of that world event before? Don’t worry, I’ve not either, nor any of the other scenarios contained within aside from maybe a headline here and there, but RIOT gives you some simple background information on each setting, purposely trying to be as unbiased as possible. In fact, as you begin, you’re greeted with a message about how RIOT is built from a small group of people and actually suggest you do research yourselves elsewhere to learn more about the conflicts. This is a great way to not cater to the protester's, or police, side of the conflicts, and allows you to see where you stand yourself without outside influence.

What makes RIOT really interesting is that you get to play out these handfuls of conflicts, but can choose from either side, protestors or police. While there’s no real right vs wrong here, both sides have their own reasons, abilities and playstyles that need to be taken into consideration. You’ll witness events from around the world, in Italy, Spain, Greece and Egypt, as well as a handful of others as you progress.

I don’t really want to delve into each of the ‘stories’ backdrop, as they were the most interesting to uncover for myself, especially with the online research I did afterwards on my own, as I found the subject matter quite interesting to learn about. As many conflicts, they start out with good intentions and peaceful protests, but usually the perfect storm occurs and things take a turn for the worse, even to violence. Each of the main campaign houses 4 separate scenarios where you choose which side to experience. For protesters, you’ll need to hold your ground, or occupy a space, though how you do so, peacefully or with violence, is completely up to you. The same goes for playing as the Police, as you need to usually disperse a mob or deny access to an area, but things can turn ugly real quick when protesters start chucking rocks and Molotov’s.

As for the gameplay, it’s a completely mixed bag of confusion and awkwardness on a controller. At the top left, you’ll have your abilities that can be utilized, based on which side your chose, if they are in offensive or defensive stances and other variables. Executing the abilities starts a cooldown period of each until they can be used again, but sometimes certain abilities won’t enable, and I’m unable to figure out why. Or for example, I had my protesters sit in a spot, only to realize I was controlling the wrong group, and I couldn’t get them to stand back up so I could move them again where I wanted.

You can also switch between your numerous groups, able to place certain ones in key locations or using them for specific objectives, like pushing back police, destroying barriers or calling in backup via social media. The same goes for the police side, as you’ll need to control each group of police separately, from the riot squad with shields, tear gas launchers, water cannons and more. Given the utter chaos that happens on screen, it’s very difficult to tell what’s exactly happening at a given moment, but that’s true for the real life counterpart as well I guess.

I preferred the rioters, trying to protest peacefully without bringing out the rocks and Molotov’s, but when police start pushing you back, something’s got to give at some point. There’s a meter at the top that shows just how peaceful, provoking or violent each side is, but most of the time, my outcomes were almost always violent. Part of this is because there’s no tutorial at all of how to play the game, so I was initially just mashing buttons and trying to see what would happen, but of course, that meant using my more offensive tactics.

I tried a few scenarios with only peaceful abilities equipped, like megaphones, cameras, and social media, but seemed to have much more success when I was using rocks, bottle rockets, homemade smoke bombs, firecrackers and more. As you can imagine, once a few rockets and Molotov’s get thrown, the chaos starts to ensue and the mob mentality sets in. From here on violence will quickly begin, so you better have a plan.

On the police side, I found these same scenarios much harder, also due to a lack of any tutorial or explanation of mechanics. Do you put all your force together and push back as one, destroying barriers, or you to turn on the water cannon to disperse the crowd, inciting rage? While I found the tear gas worked quite well, and you can aim to a specific spot in the crowd should you desire, I rarely won any of the police scenarios, and I’m not sure why. When I had to clear an area of protesters, there’s always a few lingering somewhere, and once you move your units to arrest or attack them, others come in where you just were, so it always felt like a losing battle. Just like rioters, I tended to play the police much more violent than I initially wanted to, as I was unable to get any results I wanted the peaceful way.

While you have most of the campaigns behind the Story Mode, there’s also an Online and Versus mode. Online isn’t what you think, as it plays out each mission in a row, granting you bonuses or negatives for the following riots, based on how you perform or which side you pick. Almost like an endless or challenge mode, there’s a lot of content to tackle here, but I found it quite challenging. If you’ve got a friend over, you’re able to able to play against one another, but it would have been a bonus to have online play enabled instead.

As for its visuals, the aesthetic is done in a retro pixel style, which by all means shouldn’t work with how much chaos is happening on screen, yet somehow does. While there’s not much detail to each person, you’re able to clearly make out every character, and for the cops, can determine which ones have your riot shields, etc. I really enjoyed the visual aesthetic and think it is RIOT’s strongest feature, aside from showcasing the conflicts themselves. As for the audio, the sound effects are very powerful, with tear gas launching sounding terrifying (maybe because of my past experience), but the majority of all you’ll hear is the shouting and murmur of the crowd more than anything, which overpowers everything else.

RIOT – Civil Unrest sets out to show a side of riots you may not think of, and does so perfectly fine in an unbiased way based on real life protests. Riots are chaotic and unpredictable, and it’s no different here. It’s a shame that the controls aren’t very controller friendly, nor any subtle learning curve, as I probably would have enjoyed my time with it more if I knew what I was doing, how it was going to affect the outcome or even what the repercussions will be. But maybe that’s what RIOT does right, simply throwing you into the fray and letting the chaos ensue, though it almost always ended in a bloodbath for myself.

Overall Score: 6.1 / 10 Away: Journey to the Unexpected

While I’ve never really been a fan of much anime, I’ve always appreciated the unique and distinct artistic style that they utilize, compared to the westernized cartoons I grew up on myself that are a stark contrast. When I think of Japanese anime, I think of bright vibrant colors and fluid animation. It seems that the developers behind Away: Journey to the Unexpected also love their anime as well, as a two man team has crafted an experience that looks like it’s actually based on an anime. I actually had to do some searching, as I did assume it was based on an anime that I’ve simply never heard of, but it’s their own creation, and something that could easily pass off as a TV show tie-in.

Away is an absolutely gorgeous and vibrant adventure that has its own unique flair and artistic style, something I don’t think I’ve really seen anything similar that I can think of. You play as a child who isn’t out to save the world, isn’t a hero, nor has any combat skills. All you’re armed with is a stick, literally. With the power of friendship, you’ll go on a colorful adventure, whacking bugs and enemies out of your way.

Technically a FPS (First Person Stick?), Away utilizes some rogue-lite elements as well, meaning that when, not if, you die, you’ll be right back at the beginning, though with some specific progress saved, like money and unlocks. While you navigate the gorgeous 3D world, every character and enemy you encounter is a 2D cutout that rotates based on your viewpoint, somewhat like Paper Mario. It’s a really interesting aesthetic that somehow blends and works well artistically, arguably Away’s greatest feature.

Your world has been invaded by monsters, so you’re going to do what you can with your trusty stick (I know, it’s hard to take serious) to thwart all that you come by. As you explore, you may come across NPC’s that will have a story to tell, and if you’ve found a companion cube, you’ll actually be able to recruit them to your team to join you on your journey. You’ll come across a mechanic, a talking tree, a robot, sorcerer and other oddball characters that have interesting personalities. Sometimes you’ll also need to answer their questions properly though for them to join you, something I’m not sure is ever really explained and took me numerous times to guess right.

Combat in Away is literally you hitting every enemy with your stick, when you’re playing the main protagonist. You only have this one melee attack available (well, technically you can charge up your attack, but it’s difficult to time), and even after hours with Away, I still struggled to get the hang of the proper timing. Even though enemies have nonexistent AI and simple run straight towards you, you’ll only be able to hit them when they get close enough when your reticule turns red, which is a very fine line of you getting hit back. I can’t even count the times I got hit when I shouldn’t have, or mistimed my attacks.

While visually Away is stunning, the combat and gameplay hinder it more than I expected. Combat feels dull and frustrating, and even though you can eventually unlock a shield block, fighting projectile enemies until that point is frustrating to say the least. Where you need to strategize is the friends that you recruit. You’re only able to play one character at a time, and can freely swap between, but you’ll want to use your companions first and foremost for numerous reasons. The main being that it’s only a Game Over when your main character loses all his health, if your companion does, you just lose access to them for the rest of that playthrough, so you need to think of them more as extra health or shield for your main character.

Also, some of the friends are vastly overpowered, especially the sorcerer that can throw fireballs from afar, negating the whole combat issue mentioned above, or the bat that can freely drop hearts for you to pick up. The tradeoff though is that your companions can only be used for a limited time, as they have an energy bar that depletes when attacking, so you can’t use them indefinitely. It’s an interesting mechanic, not very well fleshed out, but you use it to your advantage as best as you can to avoid any restarts.

Not only is enemy AI nonexistent, but the later enemies simply have higher health bars that require more stick whacks to defeat. The first enemies you encounter will only take one or two swings to defeat, but near the end, knights can have up to 10 health. The AI is so brain-dead that they get pushed back a little for every hit, then come straight at me again, so you can actually just stand in one place as they come at you over and over.

As you progress in your adventure, you’ll need to go into three mini dungeons to pull levers to unlock the boss dungeon. Beat the boss and you’ll gain access to new worlds and lands, where more friends can be found. While the boss fights aren’t very interesting, the dungeons themselves seem slightly randomized, though I did venture through a few of the same ones a few times. While I won’t spoil the ending, it should only take you a handful of hours to earn enough unlocks to take on the final boss, which was one of the biggest jokes and let downs that I can remember.

The visual aesthetic of Away: Journey to the Unexpected sold me right away, as it’s absolutely gorgeous with its blend of 2D and 3D and bright colorful environments and characters. Below the surface though, the rest of the experience is as bland and uninspired as you can imagine a boy fighting with a stick would be. It’s tough to recommend when it’s only redeeming quality is how pretty it looks, like a gorgeous date you picked up that happens to have a terrible personality and annoys you.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Bombfest

I guarantee that if I mention video games and bombs, the overwhelming majority of you probably instinctively think of the Bomberman series, and for good reason. Indie developers, Sudden Event Studios, are looking to change that status quo though, as they’ve created a bomb focused party game for four players to enjoy, but use completely different mechanics and gameplay from what you’d expect from a bomb-filled party game. Yes, there’s still tons of explosions, and it’s inspired by a myriad of other titles, but it’s completely different from what you'd probably expect, nor is it grid based gameplay. Simple concept and execution make for an entertaining party game for when you have company over.

Gameplay is as simple as it comes; four players are placed on a small playfield, and the last one standing is the winner. BOMBFEST changes things up though, and your characters are actually simple block-like figures, fighting it out in, or on, everyday objects, like the kitchen sink, a jenga-like board table, a toy train track, a rubber ducky and other interesting backdrops. Obviously, your weapons of choice will be the varying line of bombs at your disposal, and knocking back your opponents off the board is how you win.

Not good at games? No problem, you really only need to know how to pick up and toss your bombs while moving away from any explosions. It’s as simple as it comes, yet it works to be easily accessible for all. For example, my 6 year old daughter was able to join in and play alongside me after a single match of practice, even if she wasn't able to completely follow along with what's happening on screen at all times.

What if you don’t have 3 friends that are awaiting your beck and call to come over for every new party game you get though? Worry not, as even if you don’t have any friends (not like THAT) available for some couch co-op, as it’s rare for me to have a lot of company over these days, AI can step in and challenge you to some quick matches should you desire. Sure, the AI won’t be as fun as your real life counterparts, as there’s nothing quite like swearing or throwing something at your friends when they win/cheat, but at least you’re able to actually play by yourself if you want.

Matches are very quick, and as you unlock more modes and bombs, the chaos only becomes greater the more you enable at a time. You’re able to completely customize your matches however you wish, from the types of bombs in play, the amount they are generated, the arenas and other bonuses I’ll leave for a surprise for you to figure out and unlock. I became quite fond of the 1 round with instant nuke death bombs raining from the sky, but some may opt for a 10 match d20 BOMBFEST instead, it’s completely up to you.

Matches only last anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or so. Physics are a real thing, as you can use bombs to topple over building blocks, or use the toy train going around the track to block you from being blasted off the playfield. Chaos really sets in once you start some crazy chain reactions with bombs on the floor coupled with what’s being tossed in every direction. You’re able to choose from a handful of different characters, and will unlock more as you play.

With almost a dozen bombs to unlock and toss, there’s some really interesting combinations that can be quite deadly with some quick thinking strategy. Obviously you begin with your standard bombs that blow up after a few seconds, but eventually you’ll have many other types, like mines, d20’s that explode with a random effect based on how it lands, nukes, ice bombs and more. I enjoy playing with all bombs unlocked, as it can give almost anyone a chance at winning if they get lucky with the better more powerful ones.

What I enjoyed the most was BOMBFEST’s unlocking structure. I would have initially guessed that you would have to win a certain amount of matches to unlock new arenas, characters and bombs, but instead, you simply need to play a lot of matches. In the beginning, you’ll earn unlocks every match or two, eventually taking 5 or 6 to get to the next unlock. The costume unlocks are always fun, as you can customize your character however you wish, and I have to give bonus points for adding a Bob Ross inspired beard and afro; it’s like they knew what I wanted, and they delivered. You’re always progressing to something new, so something is always in reach with just a few matches, adding to the replayability.

Yes, BOMBFEST is very simplistic in design, mechanically and graphically, but it has a certain charm to it, and most importantly, it’s accessible to anyone to simply have fun in short bursts. Online multiplayer is lacking, but to be expected for a small indie title, so make sure to call some friends over for some hilarity. Bomberman could learn a few things from BOMBFEST, so get those bombs ready and your curse words prepped, as both will be flying towards your friends.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Alvastia Chronicles

It seems KEMCO has been having some success with porting their previously released PC and mobile RPG’s over to Xbox One, as it seems nearly every month or two a new title is released for console fans. For classic RPG fans, this is a great thing, as there’s always an influx of new titles to play and enjoy, though sometimes the quality can sometimes be hit or miss. With their newest release, Alvastia Chronicles, my interested was piqued, as I grew up with classic RPG’s, so I truly appreciate the retro inspired pixel graphics and traditional gameplay. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Alvastia Chronicles initially though to be honest, but I’m glad I sat down and gave it a chance, as I enjoyed it all the way until the credits rolled, fulfilling that retro niche that needs a scratch now and then.

The world of Alvastia is under the protection of 4 magical crystals, that is, until once day on of the crystals is shattered, unleashing demons into the world and terrorizing citizens. These crystals also act as a barrier to hold back the evil Archfiend Valhyt from coming to the world to destroy it. While the Archfiend himself may be held back from returning to Alvastia, his right-hand guards are not, and they begin to destroy and kill whatever, and whomever, they see in their path.

A casualty of this carnage happened to be the parents of Alan and Elmia, a pair of siblings that vow to set out for revenge. Ten years pass, and now that the brother and sister are teenagers, they’re ready to set on their journey to challenge the Archfiend and restore balance, but there’s no way they’ll be able to do so alone, so they require help, and lots of it.

While Alan and Elmia survived the attack a decade ago, both haven’t been the same since. Alan hasn’t been able to speak since that day, and Elmia does ever want to leave Alan’s side, for fear of something terrible happening. To say that they are inseparable is putting it lightly. Not only are they out to avenge their parents deaths, but they’re going to also have to stop the other crystals from becoming destroyed, as it will unleash the Archfiend unto the world.

Along the way, Alan and Elmia will come across others that want to help along the way, joining your party and boasting your ranks. Your main additions will be the beautiful Raine, an ogre warrior, and Gil, the pleasure-seeker that will do anything to impress the ladies. There’s a decent amount of interaction between the characters, allowing for each personality to become fully developed. Even though Alan can’t speak, he uses a notepad to write down his thoughts and questions. Gil is constantly hitting on any female he sees, or even hears a mention of, and easily became my favorite by the end of the journey. There’s some humor throughout and I quite enjoyed the storyline, even if it does utilize the cliché ‘crystals that protect the world’ trope.

While you’ll forge bonds with your main companions, one of the main hooks about Alvastia Chronicles is that you can recruit up to 100 other companions. That’s right, triple digits of characters. Doing so won’t be so easy though, as some will have strict conditions before deciding to join your party, whereas others will simply join because you talked to them, or they like your hair, or the sky is blue. Each character has their own interesting abilities and stats, so you’ll want to recruit as many as you possibly can to create the perfect teams to suit your playstyle.

These 100 characters though don’t get any storyline spotlight or any real interaction aside from the quips when trying to recruit them. They instead are added to one of your main three teams, of which Alan, Raine and Gil are the leaders of. Each leader can take 3 others into battle, along with Elmia providing backup, totaling 13 characters in play at all times. Do you want to create 3 melee heavy parties, or balance one out with magic and healing? It’s completely up to you, and the more companions you have to choose from, the more of a perfect combination you can form.

Every time you recruit a new companion, you’ll also be given a handful of Hope Stones. These are essentially a special currency that can be used to unlock new bonds and permanently increase a companion's stats quite dramatically. Given that there’s up to 100 companions, there’s no way you’ll be able to minx/max everyone, so you need to be strategic with whom you want to not only use, but permanently increase their stats.

Finding a team that works is easy, but finding the perfect team is what will take some time, testing and practice with. The most powerful companions will require you to complete other objectives, but they are well worth the effort if you want to sink some post credit time into Alvastia. Certain bonds can also be unlocked as you progress as well, allowing for parties to essentially have a very specific buff or bonus applied at all times. Some are basic like extra damage, but others are more unique and specialized, allowing for some very powerful combinations if created properly, and something that will need to be utilized for post-game challenges.

Visually, you may assume that Alvastia plays like your traditional turn based Final Fantasy, but instead, there’s a bar that the top of the screen that indicates when everyone’s, including enemies, turn takes place, based on varying stats and speed. What I really enjoyed was seeing my full team of 13 characters on the screen at once fighting against the enemies; it really make it feel much more epic than simply 3 or four characters standing alone.

Combat is your general fair once it’s your turn, and even though each of your three leaders each has a team of three companions, if you choose to attack, that whole team will attack as its turn. Subsequently, if you choose to use an ability or magic instead, you only get to use one per team on your turn, choosing form your leader or companions. It’s a simple and basic mechanic, but very effective and simple to understand.

While Elmia is unable to participate in combat herself, she’s able to unleash a Burst Attack once her gauge is full, allowing you to queue up a list of special attacks with no real cost associated. These can easily turn the tide of battle, mass healing or dealing damage in quick succession. There’s a lot of strategy to be had, and while you can toggle an auto battle if you wish, certain bosses will destroy you if you don’t pay attention to what types of damage they are currently reflecting; something I found out the hard way.

Another really cool feature is the ability to upgrade your weapons. While you’ll find and be able to purchase better weapons in new towns and from monsters, the real improvements come from upgrades themselves. Whatever weapon you want to upgrade, you can “feed” it lesser (or better if you wish) weapons to give it additional damage and bonuses. It’s very simple to do, and once I had an endgame weapon and upgraded it massively, I was having no problems dealing massive damage, even to bosses.

I really enjoyed the retro inspired visuals, as it looks like it was taken straight out of the 8-bit era. The same goes for its audio, as the chiptunes and music was a wonderful companion to go along with the aesthetic. I had the credits rolling in just under 7 hours, but I could easily go back for another 20+ if I wanted to participate in battle arenas and find all 100 elusive companions.

While some may simply think of Alvastia Chronicles as a low budget retro RPG, but for under $20 CAD, you could do a lot worse; the characters have enough depth and personality that I was chuckling at many points throughout my journey, wanting to see its conclusion. KEMCO did a great job here, giving classic RPG fans a great value with just enough depth to be an interesting adventure.

Overall Score: 8.1 / 10 Kingdom Hearts III

To say that the Kingdom Hearts series has a fiercely loyal and patient fan base is putting it lightly. With just over a dozen games in the series, fans have been waiting a long time to finally get some closure since the series began back in 2002. Announced back in 2005, Kingdom Hearts III has been one of the most anticipated sequels, and only short glimpses of it were shown before its release.

If you have not been following the series over the past 17 years or so, its premise revolves around your typical light versus dark, good versus evil and friendship, but what made the series so special in the beginning was its blend of Square Enix games, like Final Fantasy, mashed up alongside Disney franchises. Collaborations aren’t uncommon, but this was one of the first major titles done with this much quality and creativity with such a massive brand behind it.

Not only has Kingdom Hearts III been a long time coming, and teased, the wait is finally over, and it almost feels surreal to finally be playing something fans, like myself, have been waiting well over a decade for. Given that this installment is on current generation consoles, the graphical prowess that it harnesses now is unlike anything seen in the series previously, and it’s apparent once you start to experience some of the flashy mechanics like attractions, but more on that shortly.

Sora, fighting alongside Donald and Goofy, are on a journey to save their friends, revolving around a friendship theme, which is very fitting for a Disney based title. Sora will need to overcome the darkness with light and the power he holds within his heart. You are tasked with stopping Master Xehanort, and the Heartless swarms, that are trying to bring darkness upon the world.

If you’ve played previous installments of the long running series, you’ll encounter many familiar faces such as Organization XIII, Riku, Aqua, Roxas, King Mickey, as well as dozens and dozens more. Sora must learn the “power of waking” to save his friends, so he will set across many different worlds in search of not only what that is, but how to obtain it. The Heartless of course will be around every corner trying to thwart their plans, so you’ll be forced to fight, almost constantly.

Normally I would delve feet first into the plot to give you an idea of what you can expect, without spoilers of course, but the storytelling in the Kingdom Hearts series has become so convoluted and confusing that I would struggle to explain it well and coherently. Before even playing Kingdom Hearts III, I had to watch a recap video of what’s happened to this point to try and explain it all, and even though there is a section in the main menu that does give you the basic back story of everything that’s happened to this point, it doesn’t do a great job of detailing it in simple terms for newcomers to the series.

While I’ve been a fan from the beginning, I’ve missed the odd game or two in the series, and I still was confused from the onset, so I can only imagine someone new to the series trying and figure out what’s going on, why Sora has multiple “hearts”, which version Xehanort is from which timeline, what a Keyblade is, and more. I would actually categorize Kingdom Hearts storytelling and narrative structure just as confusing, if not more, than the Metal Gear series. It’s A LOT to take in and it is terribly confusing, an aspect I think that really holds it back in certain ways. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my time with it, as things eventually came together by the time the credits rolled, but that was with me paying fierce attention and making notes as I went along, something I don’t see many others doing when they're simply trying to enjoy the experience.

Sora and company will travel to numerous Disney and Pixar worlds in search of answers. You’ll travel to the worlds of Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Frozen, Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6, Pirates of the Caribbean and more. I don’t want to give away all of Kingdom Hearts III’s secrets, but the one massive draw that I truly loved about the series initially was the inclusion of Square Enix’s worlds and characters from their Final Fantasy series. For some reason they are completely lacking in this long awaited sequel. There is a quick blurb about that universe in a cutscene early on, but that is it. I’m not sure why this focus has changed so dramatically, but the whole experience is purely a Disney focused one. The quality and overall narrative is there in droves, but I don’t understand why the lack of this other portion of world and characters has been completely ignored this time around, which let me down.

As you explore each world, you battle numerous types of Heartless and Nameless enemies. Combat has evolved since the last outing with Sora, feeling much more fluid, exponentially flashier and beautiful. Now, Sora is able to equip up to three different Keyblades as he unlocks them from completing each Disney reel, and he is able to swap on the fly mid-combat. Each Keyblade (essentially your sword) has its own attributes, stats and abilities, so you can create a combination to suit your playstyle. I preferred the melee heavy attacks, so I went with the more physical based Keyblades, though a more magic based approach can be used should you wish.

As you land hits and combinations, you’ll unlock abilities that can be used in combat for a brief while. For example, when I fill and unleash my combo meter with my Monsters Inc Keyblade, it transforms my weapon into dual yo-yo’s with spikes around the rim, allowing me to do more area based attacks at once. Other Keyblades each have their own transformations and unique abilities, so make sure to test with each one, as having the ability to shoot enemies from a distance can come in quite handy, allowing you to combat any situation.

Combat feels very smooth and fluid for the most part. At times the camera will become confused with certain angles and walls if you use the lock-on feature for enemies. That being said, for the most part you’ll eventually have no problem juggling enemies in the air, dashing from one foe to another taking down swarms of Heartless at once. This is where your skills come into play. As you level, you’ll earn more skill points, allowing you to equip more abilities at once. Each ability has a different cost, so you’ll need to decide which one you want to equip to suit your playstyle.

I equipped every air ability, allowing me to dash and air combo with ease, and eventually I was able to free-fly and increase my speed. However, you may prefer to boost your Fire, Ice, Water, or other magical abilities if you prefer to play with magic based attacks instead. Goofy, Donald, and your quest partner from the corresponding world you’re in, will also need their own abilities equipped, so you can have your main magic user, Donald, use a boost to his curative magic, or boost to his damaging magic instead, it’s up to you.

Magic has an interesting mechanic too, and doesn’t rely on the overused mana based system found in so many RPG games. Sora has a set amount of magic in a bar, and you can cast as much as you want until it’s empty. Once it’s empty it will slowly refill over time, allowing you to cast again once it’s full. It’s great to either save as a backup for emergency heals, or shoot Heartless from afar with lock-on magic attacks like Fire, Blizzard and more.

Attractions are hands down the most visually appealing combat moves you can perform throughout your time in Kingdom Hearts III. Here you’ll essentially ride a Disney themed attraction you’d see right out of Disneyland Park, and it is used as a super move of sorts. Teacups, Bumper Car Blasters, Water Ride, Train Roller-coaster and more are just a few of the attractions you’ll use along your journey. These are an absolute spectacle to witness, as it’s super bright and colorful, much like a lit up ride at a night. The fact that you ride these interactive attractions alongside your closest friends makes it hard not to smile at every time you perform them.

There is also gear you can equip, but it’s quite basic, and it is essentially just your armor and accessories. There’s no multiple slots for arms, legs and other pieces, though you can eventually wear multiples as you progress in your adventure. What I found really interesting was that gear generally only has slight improvements as you earn, and find, upgrades. Sure, you become more powerful as you upgrade, but it was never a substantial difference that I could tell, as that was more based on my Keyblade of choice and its abilities.

As you progress, find chests and defeat enemies, you’ll acquire pieces needed for synthesizing, which is essentially a crafting mechanic. Defeat hordes of Heartless, bosses, and find secrets chests to net yourself the required components, allowing you to not only craft new and unique powerful items, but also allow you to improve your Keyblades by upgrading their damage. Returning to the series is the Gummi Ship, a small spacecraft that you’ll pilot in space to get from one Disney world to the next. Here you can explore space, blast meteors and even take on swarms of Heartless in minigame sidescrolling-like battles. As you unlock and earn new parts for your ship, you’ll be able to upgrade and design your own Gummi Ship to your liking. You’re not forced to really focus on this aspect of gameplay, but I found myself spending hours in my Gummi Ship, adding more turrets and finding crazy designs people have made online. I went for a purely offensive design, but again, you can design and spec it however you wish.

There’s a lot going on with Kingdom Hearts III, not just mechanically, but narratively as well. It’s difficult to take it all in at once if you haven't been following the series closely up to this point, that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible for you and other new comers. Even if you’re unable to make any sense of the vastly convoluted plot, you’re still able to enjoy the combat and seeing Sora and friends get included into the Disney worlds.

The only noticeable oddity I found in nearly every world is that many of the iconic voice actors aren’t used and reprising their roles. For example, Woody and Buzz aren’t voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, but instead people that sound similar, or doing an impression of their performances (to be fair, Woody is voiced by his brother, but it’s still not quite the same). I get there’s a budget, or maybe the actors didn’t want to take part in the game, but when a character has such an iconic voice, it’s impossible to not notice when it simply sounds off, not bad by any means, just different. There are others that did reprise their roles though, and they sound just as great as they did in the movies themselves, so it’s a mixed bag. The soundtrack though is exactly what you’d expect for each respective world, with the iconic music faded into the background as you play.

So, has the decade long wait for this anticipated sequel lived up to all the hype? It’s hard to say. I did enjoy my 30 hours with it by the time the credits rolled, and can easily go back for another 50+ hours for bonus stuff should I desire in the future. It’s such an odd feeling to finally have some closure and finality to the series I’ve been enjoying for almost two decades, but it’s finally time to say goodbye to this chapter of Kingdom Hearts and await to see what comes next, hopefully with a much shorter wait this time around and a much more concise way of storytelling.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Walking Vegetables: Radical Edition, The

Twin-Stick shooters are one of my favorite genres, stemmed from my absolute love of Geometry Wars back on Xbox 360. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with many since, each with their own merits and unique take, though, The Walking Vegetables: Radical Edition may be one of the more unique ones I’ve experienced yet. As you could guess from the title, you’ll be fighting against undead/zombie vegetables. I can hear the sound of your eyes rolling, but stick with me, as it really surprised me as well.

The planet is under attack from vegetables that alien invaders have mutated to be alive, and you’re the only one, and baddest dude, that can save the world. It’s an absolute asinine plot, but it absolutely works here with the retro styled graphics coupled with an 80’s aesthetic. I’ll be honest, I know I should know better to judge a game by its looks and screenshots, as I wasn’t expecting much initially, but I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was here; I became completely hooked with The Walking Vegetables: Radical Edition grind, even if it was a tiresome one at times.

You move your character with the Left Stick and aim with the Right. As usual, Right Trigger is your shooting action and that’s the general controls aside from using your Right Bumper for melee. You begin with a simple unlimited ammo pistol that requires no reloading, but eventually you’ll come across Uzi’s, Sniper’s, Shotgun’s, Alien weaponry and a bunch of other goodies for your arsenal. You’ll also come across other melee weapons and gadgets that can be tossed or used to alter some abilities.

Thing is, every time you play, every level and stage is completely procedurally generated, so games never really become stale since the levels, enemies, weapon drops, buildings and more continually change each time, that is, until you hit the long arduous grind for the perk unlocks. Even bosses at the end of each stage is seemingly random which one you’ll have to fight against, which is a great change of pace now and then.

A campaign is broken into 3 stages, each of which houses a boss at the end. Each stage needs to be explored a certain amount before a small, and quite annoying, alien will taunt you and try to kill you. Destroy him and he hidden boss door will appear, allowing you to challenge them. Defeat bosses and you’ll earn Radrocks, a currency that carries over from playthrough to playthrough, as you’re going to die many many times.

That’s right, it’s also a rougelike, meaning that your progress, aside from any Radrocks you collected from boss kills, doesn’t carry over every time you die. Yup, you start right back at the beginning after every death. Normally the lack of progression just kills my interest, but the developers included a smart system of progression, even if it is quite a grind and minimal in steps.

For example, when you die ten times, you’ll unlock a perk that allows you to equip an extra heart. You only have a few perk slots though, so you’ll need to grind for the numerous and different perks to suit your playstyle. If you plan on getting them all, you’re in for a very lengthy grind of many hours, not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s much lengthier than I expected. If you’re simply looking to “beat” the campaign, there’s even an achievement for doing so in under 20 minutes, so the true value comes with the replayability and progression towards the unlocks.

As you take out the evil vegetables and fruits, you’ll earn gold per kill. Destroying objects like tires and trashcans will net you keys if you’re lucky as well. These keys can be used to open chests or doors. Chests will have ammo and gold, as every weapon aside from your default needs to have its corresponding ammunition type to be used, and is a great way to fill up your bank roll. Be lucky enough to find the shop, the building with the “$” sign at the door, and have a spare key, and you'll be able to spend your hard earned gold on a bunch of items like new weapons, health refills, more keys and very special unlocks with your hard earned Radrocks should you wish.

While the lack of online support for co-op is severely lacking and quite a disappointment, it’s understandable given this is a small indie game from a handful of guys. Couch co-op is included should you have the partner to play alongside, and is a great experience to have backup in your journey to rid the world of these rotten vegetables in your CORNquest. Hopefully online co-op is something that can be added in later on to add some longevity.

A fantastic 80’s aesthetic, combined with a great retrosynth makes for a radical experience that I just love soaking in. I’m ashamed to admit that I almost dismissed this game initially from first glance, but I’m very glad I got to experience it. While the grind is quite an arduous undertaking, it also means that there’s quite a lengthy amount of gameplay to be had. The Walking Vegetables: Radical Edition really is one in a melon and salad as a rock.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Aftercharge

While I’m not huge into competitive shooters these days, I do still dabble in a few games of Overwatch now and then when a buddy or two are online. I’ve always gravitated towards the team-based game modes like Team Deathmatch, as opposed to a Free-For-All style of gameplay. I’m always game to try the newest offerings for team based games, even more so if it’s online and competitive, so I was quite intrigued when Aftercharge released.

Touted as a 3 vs 3 competitive asymmetrical first person shooter, Aftercharge is full of interesting, and even unique, ideas that makes for an experience that really is unlike many others. At its simplest form, a team of invisible robots must destroy energy extractors on a battlefield as the defending robots must do what they can to stop them. It’s an interesting premise, and works as an idea, but has a little ways to go before being a fully-fledged experience that crowds will flock to.

Dusk 11 is a far and distant planet that the Aftercharge corps saught after for its abundance in energy beneath the surface. A line of worker robots, called Workonics, were built to do the work and given stealth technology to avoid any corporate espionage. When construction was complete, Aftercharge left the planet behind to be automated, including their now useless Workonics robots. Like any great story, some seismic activity occurred, releasing some sort of energy, reanimating all of the Workonics that were left behind, and they only have one goal to enact: destroying all of the energy extractors. Now they’ve sent in a team of Enforcers to stop the Workonics from destroying their assets.

Honestly, I was a little surprised that there was a decent backstory for what and why you’re doing what you do in Aftercharge, but it’s a welcome backdrop to put in some perspective into your objectives. With four maps currently available, you’ll be tasked with either attempting to destroy or protect these precious energy extractors alongside your other two teammates. Doing so won’t be as simple as it sounds though, as Enforcers need to be near the extractors themselves to refill their energy based weapons, and Workonics need to smash the extractors ten times before it will be destroyed.

Factor in that the robots are invisible all the time save for punching or when in range of an Enforcer, and you’ll quickly learn that your team is going to need to be quite tactical in their approach, regardless of which side you’re on. Each map has multiple extractors, so it’s generally not difficult to get a couple of Extractors destroyed, but once you’re down to one or two, that’s where the gameplay becomes quite chaotic and exciting.

Each faction has five different characters to choose from, each with their own unique abilities and playstyles. If you’re a Workonic, you’ll always be focusing on stealth based gameplay, wanting to be able to dart in and out of the enemies’ range to not be seen, whereas Enforcers have weaponry and gadgets to do what they can to stop the pesky shrouded robots when they are in range to be uncovered.

Both sides have two completely different ways of playing and winning each match. Workonics need to destroy all of the extractors to win, but the Enforcers will have lots of abilities to notice, capture, trap and destroy them whenever possible. Enforcers will win if they can down all 3 of the attackers simultaneously, as robots can revive each other an unlimited amount of times, so there’s a lot of strategy that comes into play with every attack and defense.

Obviously, certain elements have been borrowed from other games, but as an overall experience, it feels truly unique. The fact that Enforcers need to constantly stand near extractors to refill their ammo means they can’t chase attackers for too long, or else they’ll be left useless without any ammo. The invisible mechanic is really interesting and can be quite fun, setting up a perfect attack, but you’re only able to punch and knock back Enforcers, unable to disable them really, so it’s a cat and mouse style of gameplay.

Do you have one Workonic play the speedy type to whack an extractor, making him visible for a short period, to distract and attack another extractor, or have your whole team rush in for a quick objective destroy and risk losing the match? You’re going to not only need reflexes, but more importantly, communication. Because of this, you will absolutely need a group of friends if you want to become a serious competitor, as playing with random’s seemed to always end in a complete disaster for myself. Luckily, Aftercharge features cross-play between PC and Xbox One players (and soon to be Nintendo Switch when launched), so ideally you should have no shortage of players to compete with, though my experience was quite the opposite, but more on that shortly.

I really enjoyed the fact that the robots were able to infinitely revive teammates that were down, as you can somewhat carry a teammate that may not be as skilled. Interestingly, you’re also able to essentially freely use your abilities as much as you wish; another mechanic that breaks the norm and takes some getting used to. These ideas make it feel fresh and interesting, even if it’s not perfectly balanced yet.

Each faction has the five characters they can choose from, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and abilities. Each one is very strong and effective against another from the opposite team, but also is weak against another. Workonics abilities range from providing cover, escaping quickly, healing, distracting and more. Enforcers on the other hand have roles that are more suited for damage dealing, pursuing, shields and others. There’s a finer meta at play, and it will take some time to not only find the character that suits your playstyle and fits in your trio, but how to enact your strategies against the enemies based on their team composition as well.

As you play and level up, you’ll earn unlocks for randomized characters. These are simply skins, emotes and cosmetics but are quite bland and generally just a palette swap. There are much cooler skins and such you can purchase, but as you can guess, you’re going to have to open up your actual wallet if you want these.

Given that cross-play is enabled with PC and Xbox One currently, I expected there to be quite a pool of players to fill the multiplayer games. I was dead wrong. A buddy and I queued up for a match and sat for literally over 30 minutes without finding one. We tried again later and found one after about 20 minutes, but proceeded to lose 30 seconds into the match. You can see where our frustration started to set in and we didn’t want to sit around for 20 minutes at a time for a single match.

While I couldn’t research concurrent players on Xbox One, I was able to see how many were and are playing on PC, and it’s not a pretty sight. Unless there’s a massive sale, I don’t see it getting much better in the future either, and completely explained why the queue for every match was so long. While Aftercharge is included in Gamepass on Xbox One, I can’t see many opening their wallet for the overpriced cost of $25.99 CAD for a simplistic shooter as this with such a minute player base.

Sure you could play versus bots, but that’s only going to entertain you for so long. While you could work on leveling up, there’s really no reason to aside from getting pallet swap skin unlocks. There’s no other real unlockables or progress to work towards, nor is there any type of skill tree or anything of the sort.

One thing I did learn from the two online matches I got to play in an hour or queuing was that Enforcers are able to push your downed body, meaning they’re able to essentially place it somewhere that’s incredibly difficult to get a revive at, like a forted up extractor covered in mines and shields. Maybe this is a bug that’s being worked on, but I can see this becoming quite frustrating, and even game breaking, if used maliciously.

I’m not a game designer, nor do I claim to know any better, but when I research the current playing user base on PC, I’m no longer wondering why I can’t find a match when queued for over a half hour. While it does come with Gamepass, possibly a switch to free-to-play would benefit them where they could charge for awesome looking skins and aesthetics, as it may bring more concurrent players to the playerbase. It’s a very fresh idea with some really interesting mechanics, but it feels like they’ve priced themselves out of the market.

If you’re looking for a competitive game with some truly unique ideas and interesting mechanics, Aftercharge has you covered if you’re wanting something new, it’s just hard to recommended in its current state knowing that you’ll mostly likely sit queuing for a match longer than it actually takes to play one. With a deep discount and a much bigger install base, Aftercharge could really be something unique and interesting to play, but that’s a steep mountain that’ll need to be climbed before it gets there, which is a shame, as the game has a huge amount of potential.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 39 Days to Mars

I love my puzzle games. I’m not always the best at them, but every now and then I need a break from my typical RPG’s, Shooters, Racers and Action games. Sometimes I want to just chill on the couch and use my brain to figure out some solutions. Sure, sometimes this backfires and I get more frustrated due to getting stuck, not being able to figure out the solution, but it generally brings an overall calmness knowing I’m not playing something violent or competitive. I’d love to say that 39 Days to Mars, developed by small indie studio ‘It's Anecdotal’, was that calming relief I was searching for, but man, this may have been one of the more confusing and frustrating puzzle experiences I’ve had yet, and it’s not even their fault.

Let me explain. 39 Days to Mars is designed to be a co-operative adventure puzzle game, hell, even the icon for the box art says co-operative. Unfortunately, my wife isn’t very skilled at using a controller, so I generally don’t have someone to come over and do the whole couch co-op with me much these days (thank you online multiplayer). Simply put, 39 Days to Mars is absolutely designed to be played with two players on the couch. Now, the developers were smart and did include a way for people like myself that don’t usually have a partner to play with, to still play and enjoy the game.

Set in a steampunk aesthetic, you’re going to need to use all your brain power to figure out these unique and interesting puzzles, even more so if you’re playing solo like I did. I’m generally terrible at trying to focus and do two things at once, which would explain why I’m quite subpar with RTS’s, but wow, 39 Days to Mars almost made my head explode at times, forcing me to not only solve the puzzle, but move the sticks in opposite directions and use the separate triggers simultaneously. Can you rub your head and pat your belly at the same time? This game is the equivalent to that.

You play as Albert, a classy gentleman who wants to make his inaugural voyage to Mars, alongside his partner, Clarence. Each player will control one character, but will have to work in tandem in nearly every single task set forth in front of you. The steampunk background suits the story and narration, as these puzzles won’t be your typical ‘square peg, round role’ type of deal. Instead, you’re going to have to make a correct cup of tea, or make a scone that he wants to eat, exactly to his recipe desires. Not exactly the types of puzzles you’re most likely used to, but it works in this setting and context perfectly with the Victorian characters.

The hand drawn visuals are really interesting and adds to the overall tonality of the gameplay. Set in a 2D world, a side cutout of Albert’s ship, you’ll have numerous obstacles to face and solve before being able to progress. The hand drawn visuals really makes it feel as if the game has more heart and was designed with love, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security; the frustration is coming shortly, so prepare.

Even being played with two players, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easy time. Each player needs to work in tandem with one another for a common goal. One puzzle for example has you needing to pick up and bring back and item in a crane-like game. One player controls the horizontal movement of the claw and line, while the other is in charge of the vertical movements. Naturally, you’re going to have to have some excellent communication if you want to work together. As they say, “teamwork makes the dreamwork”, and without it, you’ll never make it to Mars.

So what if you’re like me and don’t have a partner to rely on for half of the problem solving and controls? Well, you’re going to have to burden all of the responsibility for everything on your own shoulders. That crane example I gave above? You’re going to have to control all of the movements yourself at the same time, requiring both halves of your brain in use simultaneously. For some that might not be a big deal, for me though, I more than struggled throughout the whole experience.

Again, it’s hard to hold that against the game itself, as it blatantly advertises itself as a co-operative adventure, but I can only imagine the shouting and yelling me and buddy would have if we had to get through this together. Maybe playing solo was a good thing, saving a friendship from a lot of screaming at once another because he can’t do his portion of the task.

If you don’t have a partner to play with, Clarence will instead be taken over by Albert’s cat. That’s right, you’ll have a cat for a partner. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier with an AI feline following you around, as you’ll still need to control all aspects of the gameplay. Most puzzles have you controlling each character’s hand, and playing solo like I did, one of those hands were a cute little paw; a small detail that I appreciated.

For the puzzles themselves, they are bite sized and meant for quick sessions, though that’s only if you’re actually able to solve what you’re supposed to do, not even including how to go about doing so. There’s no real tutorial for each puzzle, as you’re simply thrown in to each one without any explanation of even the controls, so it’s a lot of trial and error of simply figuring out what the controls are for each.

The puzzles themselves are quite clever, as maybe you’re solving a problem in the electrical room, having to solve a puzzle about the system’s wires, or maybe you’re having to connect multiple tubes and hoses to the proper pipes, of which there’s only one solution. It may sound easy, but keep in mind each stick is used as an individual hand. So if you want to rotate a piece or object for example, you’re going to have to hold it in one hand with the corresponding trigger, grab it with the other hand (stick) and hold the other trigger while you rotate it with the hand. So you need to think with both halves of your brain, and doing so much easier said than done, taking lots of practice and even more patience.

Something I found very interesting is that it seems that it’s slightly different every time you play, as a friend was also playing at the same time at his place, so when I got stuck and sent him a picture of my vessel for help, he replied his was different and showed me a picture, and it was. The same goes for the puzzles. For example, maybe the scone I need to make requires a slab of butter and a strawberry, but the next time I attempt it, it will ask for something completely different. I do like that it switches time to time, but that also means it’s going to be near impossible to follow a walkthrough should you break down and require one.

What I realized a dozen puzzles into the game was that a good portion of them weren’t necessarily brain teasers, though some are, but many were much more dexterity based, given that two people are supposed to simultaneously work together for the common goal. Even though it’s not hard to ‘solve’ the tea or scone puzzles for example, actually doing it is a whole other ballgame in itself.

At one point you’ll have puzzles that will make absolutely no sense at all, like a massive garden with flowers and leafs with a simple checklist at the bottom corner. What you’re supposed to do is go to the library in a different room, organize the papers so that the right chapters are together, which again, isn’t hard to figure out, but to execute is the real challenge, and memorize those pages. I actually had to organize the pages, take a picture of them with my phone, then go back to the garden puzzle with the picture open, as my memory isn’t the greatest. It’s tedious, and I wish there was a better solution than my ‘cheating’.

Even though the game can technically be completed in under an hour, as there are achievements for it, I’ve been stumped on specific puzzles for well over an hour at times. Sure I became frustrated, but I never really got to the point of wanting to throw the controller through the window. Many of the puzzles suffer from simply not telling the player what to do, or how, which I guess is the puzzle in itself. Certain puzzles are repeated as well, making different types of tea and scones for example, which becomes annoying and seemingly a way to add some fluff to the short playtime. Every now and then you’ll get to a puzzle to attempt, only to be told that Albert is hungry again, so it’s back to the kitchen to solve yet another scone puzzle for the hundredth time.

Many of these puzzles also require very precise controls and movements, but the sticks aren’t always as sensitive as it should be, either moving way too slow, or making objects fling because it’s too quick. Many times I’ve had my scone just about finished, only to have the tip of my knife catch on a corner or something and flip all around, tossing my hard work into the air.

If you’re a puzzle fan, 39 Days to Mars is a short but entertaining adventure, even if it’s flawed in certain aspects. The aesthetic is appealing, especially to steampunk fans, and many of the puzzles are entertaining, but the controls is really what holds it back at times.

It’s a shame there’s no online co-op, as a friend and I would be all over this if that was possible. While you are fully capable of playing solo, I don’t recommend it in any way if you don’t have a partner, as this journey to Mars really should be taken with a good friend that you have no problem swearing at when he screws up making a proper scone for the twentieth time.

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Tales of Vesperia Definitive Edition

Tales of Vesperia was one of my favorite JRPG’s from last generation. The long running Tales series surprised everyone when it was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive before being ported to PS3 about a year later with added content that Xbox owners never saw. Well, it’s the game's ten year anniversary and Bandai Namco has released Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition. I know what you’re thinking, yet another Definitive/HD/Remake edition that’s most likely a simple and lazy upscale with minimal bonus content, but you’d be wrong, as lots of content we never got to experience outside of Japan is finally available for fans.

Main protagonist, Yuri Lowell, is an ex-knight who is thrust into a seemingly easy journey to recover a stolen Blastia, essentially a crystal that provides a safe barrier around cities and towns from outlying monsters. Unaware who stole the Blastia, he pursues all his leads but ends up in jail when captured. Of course, when he breaks out he runs into a princess, and thus a small quest turns into a lengthy adventure that will take, at minimum, 40-50+ hours to complete.

Along the way you meet new comrades that will accompany you on your quest, each with their own personalities, battle style and reasons for joining your ragtag crew. To say the narrative is lengthy is quite an understatement, as the half dozen members of your party will each have their own back stories, quests to undertake and add hours of dialogue you’ll need to sit through. If you love cutscenes and story, you’re going to absolutely love Vesperia, as there’s absolutely no shortage of either.

Cutscenes are frequent and quite lengthy. There are even optional dialogues that you can trigger with the ‘Back’ button at certain points of the story that aren’t necessarily pivotal to the narrative, but more add some flair between each of the characters. These conversations are where you start to see the personalities of each character shine, be it Estelle’s naivety, Rita’s brashness and slaps, Yuri’s internal thoughts and more. I enjoy these sections, but they always seem to happen right after a lengthy cutscene, and it’s as if you get 20 minutes of gameplay for every hour of cutscene at times.

So, let’s quickly delve into what’s new, as returning players, like myself, who enjoyed it last generation are probably wondering if the added and improved content is justification for the fully priced game. First and foremost, the graphics and native resolution have been updated to full HD. To say this is a beautiful game is an understatement, and there’s no way you would be able to tell it’s a decade old simply from its visuals, which is quite impressive.

Even more seamless is the inclusion of all of the DLC, such as extra costumes, characters, locations and more that were previously only released in Japan. Also new is that the extra content was translated and voice actors recast, but that’s a separate issue I’ll delve into later. Fans now get to play as Patty and Flynn, each with their own unique personalities and combat skills, along with a handful of unique costumes to add a little more flair to your adventure. Better yet, all the bonus content has been seamlessly integrated into the main narrative, so instead of doing a lengthy sidequest to get Patty in your party that might be forgotten or missed, it’s simply a step in the main quest now, so you get to experience all of the content in the proper order it was meant to be.

Mechanics are eased into the gameplay, not overloading you all at once. In fact, even at the 30 hour mark you'll find new mechanics are introduced, allowing you to become accustomed to combat before dumping more on you. There’s a lot to take in, and it’s a great thing that they keep you on a pace where you’re able to do what do slowly, as it would simply be too much at once, especially when you start to learn how to create items through synthesizing and learning new skills.

Every weapon has its own abilities attached to it; while the weapon is equipped you will have access to those abilities, but use it enough and you’ll actually unlock the skill and can equip it to your loadout to use whenever you wish. So, a great strategy is to buy every item and weapon that has skills attached to it until you learn them before swapping them for another. Doing so will allow you to bank a huge amount of skills that you can swap whenever you wish, like more physical damage, defense, special abilities and a huge amount of unique characteristics and bonus to tweak your party just how you want. You only have a certain amount of SP (skill points) per level though, so the better abilities require more SP to equip, while the basic ones not as much.

Artes are your combat abilities that can be mapped to specific button combinations. You’re only able to equip a certain amount, but there’s a ton of different kinds to test out and practice with, finding what works best for your play style. While most will likely stick with playing as Yuri, as an offensive fighter, you’re free to control any of the characters in your roster if their play style suits you better.

You’ll eventually have four characters in your party that can be brought into every battle (and yes, non-participating members will still earn XP), able to freely swap and change them whenever you want. While I enjoyed having a rounded party of a tank, a healer and two attackers, you’re free to build your party however you wish, then augmenting them with certain skills and artes as well. You’re able to set up strategies for your AI controlled members, and for the most part, they do quite a decent job in their respective roles. You may have to tweak things a bit, as early on, my healer was gobbling down TP (mana) pots like they were going out of style.

Battles aren’t random, as you can see the enemies on the overworld map as you explore, and you can choose to engage in battle or not. Regular battles won’t have you breaking a sweat, but bosses, and optional side-bosses, will surely put your combat skills to the test, something that I really appreciated. Again, I simply stuck with playing as Yuri from beginning to finish, but feel free to experiment with each to find the one you like best.

Visually, this Definitive Edition is stunningly gorgeous. Sure, there’s a few graphical hiccups like some minor clipping and rough animations, but keeping in mind this is a decade old game with a new coat of paint, is still quite impressive. The world, and the characters found within, are wonderfully vibrant, bright and colorful and it’s simply a joy to look at.

Then there’s the audio. Now, the music and soundtrack is amazing, but there’s a major issue with the game's voice work. The voice acting itself is fine, even wonderful at times, and all of the original voice work from the original 360 version was left intact. Where the issue arises is that all of the new content has had some rework done to the voices, which normally wouldn’t be an issue, but the original voice actor wasn’t used, so there’s some scenes that sound vastly different and ‘off’ from what we’re used to. There’s a whole drama about it, one that I’ll leave out for you to google yourself, but the fact that two different voices are used for the same character is quite jarring and confusing at times.

Gameplay is fast and fluid, but the overall experience is bogged down with hours and hours of cutscenes and dialogue. While some will enjoy the heavy emphasis on narrative, as I usually do, it does get to be a bit much by the 30 hour mark. I don’t mind its anime-like visual approach, but I know it may turn some others off. Mechanically it’s great once you’re used to combat and every character is completely unique and memorable in their own way.

If you loved the original Tales of Vesperia on the Xbox 360 and want to experience it again, this is obviously a no-brainer, as you’re given new content on top of a shiny new coat of HD paint. It may be pricey for a ‘Definitive Edition’, but the added content does boost its value to make it worth experiencing. If you want a great JRPG that you may have missed last generation, then Tales of Vesperia should be high on your list if you’re looking for a new game to dump 50+ hours into, as long as you can handle a dialogue and cutscene heavy experience.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 8-Bit Hordes

I’m terrible at RTS games; always have been. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them, but I won’t be winning any tournaments anytime soon. It’s no secret that RTS games generally don’t work well on console, due to lack of mouse and keyboard precision, though there have been a few exceptions in the past (Halo Wars series). With the recently announced support for mouse and keyboard on Xbox One, maybe we’ll start to see a resurgence of the genre on console. Until then, developers are still trying to figure out the best way to map PC controls onto a controller, with some scattered minor success.

8-Bit Hordes is the latest entry into the genre for consoles, developed by Petroglyph, who house some Command & Conquer veterans, so they do know what they’re doing in the genre. I was hoping that their pedigree would once again prove that RTS games do belong on console, and while it’s completely serviceable as a RTS, it’s also quite bare boned and basic as well.

You begin your campaign by choosing which faction you want to play as, from either the typical ‘good’ or ‘evil’ sides. The Lightbringers are your heroes, while the DeathSworn are your evil orcs. Why these two factions are at war, or their history, will be nowhere to be found. There’s no story included in this ‘campaign’, just a laundry list of skirmish matches to complete. You’re given a cute 8-Bit RTS game with zero narrative and simplistic controls, for better or worse.

The beginning missions will teach you the basics of how to mine resources (gold) and create your units, with each subsequent mission adding difficulty and unlocking new units and buildings as you progress. You’ll need to slog through the campaign though to gain access to the top tier units, a task that will take some time depending on your RTS abilities. While there are difficulty options available, each campaign mission is essentially the same as the last, but with more challenge or unique objectives to complete. For those that want to get the most value, there is quite a lot of content to work towards completing, but don’t expect much variety in the core mission structure.

The first thing you’re going to notice is how fantastic the world of 8-Bit Hordes appears. The retro inspired voxel cubes make up everything in the world, from the environment, units, buildings and more. Your standard isometric view is utilized but don’t expect to be able to rotate or do much else with the camera aside from panning. The visual style works, and seeing little cubes fly in explosions is always a treat.

As a RTS, 8-Bit Hordes is simplistic as it comes, and while that’s needed for a console version to some degree, it’s almost too basic. You can easily select a group of troops you have, but if you want to target a single unit and give them a direction, it’s difficult and tedious to do. There’s also not that many different types of units. Sure, by the end you’ll have a handful, but it’s still very minimal if you’re used to more popular titles in the genre.

Sure, it ticks off all the checkmarks a RTS needs mechanically, such as base building and resource gathering, but even that is very limited. Your minecarts will find the nearest mine to gather from until it’s depleted, but the AI isn’t very bright, as it’ll simply go to the next nearest mine when depleted, even if it’s in enemy territory. Your resources is how you afford to create new buildings and units, and even though it’s simplistic in nature, there’s still a lot of micromanaging to be done.

Barracks are needed to create units, and farms are needed to feed those units and raise your population cap. When you’re choosing a unit, it will be grouped into one of the three buttons you press, allowing you to have a quick hotkey to one of three groups. Press that button twice and you’ll select the whole group of units in that squad. Again, if you want to do more minute movements, like pick half your units, or certain ones, you’re going to see where this is extremely limited. For example, I wanted to split one of my squads up to scout ahead and also guard my base, but there’s no way to select an area of units by dragging a cursor; it’s basically all or nothing. Sure, you could select each individual unit and then tell them where to go, but it’s horribly inefficient. It’s almost as if you’re encouraged to build large hordes (hence the name I suppose) and send them towards the enemy en masse, rather than smaller intricate strategies.

Building also suffers from too much simplicity, as you’re only able to create or upgrade one building at a time. This causes for a lot of wasted time, either waiting until it’s complete, or refocusing on your base to build the next one you want, as you can’t queue them like units. Also, you can only build within a very small radius of your buildings, so you’re confined to a small area unless you build a row of arrow towers or farms, allowing you to build within range of them. Again, since you’ll have to take your focus away from your hordes to do this every single time, it becomes quite a chore.

Even with its drawbacks, I was learning to deal with the shortcomings, but you’ll eventually hit a brick wall of difficulty in the campaign on top of everything else. Enemies become much harder and more aggressive as you progress, which is normally fine, but it really spikes out of nowhere, adding to more frustration on top of the mechanical ones. Eventually I was just queuing up a backlog of units to create as they would suicide into packs of enemies, slowly making progress. It didn’t at all feel tactical or strategic though, but it’s as though you don’t have the tools to do much else, as opposed to what other 'fuller' RTS games offer.

There is an option for multiplayer online, though don’t expect much of a community to be playing unless you already have friends also with the title, as I was unable to find anyone else to play with the whole week I was playing, though that was before the masses were playing it as well, so it's hard to judge. Skirmishes are a fun way to pass the time, but the campaign is really the meat of the whole experience. Interestingly, there's cross-title play between their other games' factions from 8-Bit Armies as well; Armies, Hordes and Invaders factions can all battle one another.

For all of its shortcomings, 8-Bit Hordes still serves as a capable console RTS, even if it’s almost too bare boned. While I like the simpler styles of RTS, the lack of tools given really don’t allow for much strategy aside from amassing large hordes and sending them hurling towards the enemies. I really enjoy the 8-Bit visual style, as it suits the gameplay and setting, it’s just a shame it’s leaps behind the competition when it comes to features and mechanics.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Legendary Eleven

I don’t play sports games. Well, that’s not totally true, I do love me some arcade style gameplay, like NBA Jam, Mutant Football League, and other not-so-true-to-real-life types of sports games. You’ll never see me play a full on FIFA game either, so I was a little apprehensive to try Legendary Eleven, even though I knew it wasn’t attempting to be a true simulation of the sport. I’m glad I dove in though, as I ended up enjoying the basicness and fun gameplay that’s simple to learn.

Touted as being inspired by classic football (referred to as soccer from here on, sorry) from the 70’s to 90’s, Legendary Eleven won’t have actual player names or anything, but it does have huge hair and very short shorts, from the golden age of soccer.

The bulk of gameplay will come from its Championship Mode and Legendary Matches. Championship Mode is very self-explanatory, where you pick which cup you want to win, from the Asia Cup, Africa Cup and all the way up to the World Cup should you want to put your skills to the test. Certain cups are lengthier than others and it plays out in a typical tournament bracket style.

Legendary Matches on the other hand are specific matches that played a huge part in soccer’s history, but you must win with specific conditions, like not letting in a goal, or winning by a certain amount of points. These are a bit more challenging with these added objectives, but should add some replayability for those wanting to get the most out of the $14.99 CAD price tag with about a dozen scenarios to play through.

With dozens of national teams to choose from, you’re sure to find your favorite, each with their own stats for offence, defense and more. Gameplay is as simple as it comes as well, with only need for a few buttons, unless you want to try some fancy passes and shots. ‘A’ allows you to pass and ‘B’ is to shoot, but you do have other options to pass-through, sprint, steal, slide and switch characters. It’s very simple to get the hang of, but the best part is that you’ll look stylish doing it, performing some super shots, complete with bicycle kick.

What is a super shot you ask? You have a meter that fills when you have ball possession, and once full, allows you to unleash a virtually unstoppable shot for a nearly guaranteed goal. It’s not 100% a sure thing, but I can count the times it was actually blocked. These are how you do the most stylish moves, and even after dozens of games, they still put a smile on my face. My only real complaint about this feature is that there’s no real counter to the opposing team performing one, aside from frantically trying to steal or dive before it goes off.

If you want a somewhat more realistic game, you have the option to turn off super shots should you desire, but the gameplay here is all about the arcade style. Winning matches in Championship will also grant you special stickers that can then be equipped before a match. These stickers gives your teams special bonuses to your offence, defense, stamina and more, so this is how you can improve your team to your liking, or help counter the opposing team’s strengths.

While there is an online multiplayer component, it appears it’s only by friend invites only, and not general matchmaking, so needless to say, I was unable to test this portion of gameplay unfortunately. Some will think that Legendary Eleven is far too basic, which is true, but it’s not trying to compete with FIFA or PES titles. Instead, this is meant for casual fans like myself that don’t care about ultra-realism and simply want to score some flashy goals with huge afro’d players.

Legendary Eleven is basic, and that’s what makes it work. Newcomers and casual soccer fans can simply jump in and enjoy themselves, and there’s just enough content to make the purchase worthwhile, more so if you have a friend to play online with.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Odium to the Core

Remember the Flappy Bird craze from 5 years ago? You know the one, where you play as a... ummmmmm... flappy bird thing, and had to tap to go upwards and let go to go down? Odium to the Core is essentially the same style of gameplay, complete with single button controls, but it is much more stylistic and challenging. Come to think of it, my first experience with this genre was way back on my old Nokia phone where you controlled a helicopter or paper airplane, I can't remember exactly, seeing how far you can reach before ultimately crashing into a wall. Sounds easy right? You’d be dead wrong.

Gameplay progresses from left to right automatically, but you need to press ‘A’ to go up, and let go to go down. Keeping yourself level and within the confined areas is where the challenge comes in, especially when gameplay ramps up and is in sync with the electronic soundtrack. While Flappy Bird and others play in a straight left to right direction, Odium to the Core feels more like the world is revolving around you instead. Sure, you’re technically still maneuvering from left to right, but you feel as if you’re going up or down when the world rotates around you. It’s tricky to explain, but adds a sense of chaos and challenge.

Synced with the electronic soundtrack that has a Chemical Brothers feel to it at times, your and your enemy's movements seem to line up with the beats. For example, when it’s a slow portion to a song, the gameplay actually slows down and zooms in, adding an odd sense of challenge, as momentum changing so quickly can be quite jarring when you’re ‘in the zone’ to the fast beat and you're suddenly being brought to a near halt for a moment. It works though, and enemies will also ‘attack’ during beats of the music. Not so much attack, but pop out and need to be avoided.

You play a black spiked red eyeball, which I assume is a/the Odium. As mentioned, press ‘A’ to go up and let go to go down. That’s it mechanically, but don’t let the simplistic controls lure you into a false sense of comfort. Make no mistake, Odium to the Core is incredibly challenging, to the point where I had to stop playing with my Elite controller, for fears I was going to throw it across the room out of frustration. Yes, you’re going to become very frustrated the further you progress, but that’s not due to unfairness, but more your skill and lack of focus. Sure, it will feel unfair at times, requiring pixel perfect precision, but the elation from finally passing that level you’ve been stuck on for a half hour is gratifying.

Throughout the levels are red orbs floating around, which act as not only scoring points, but also the optimal 'safe' path that you’ll want to follow. At times you’ll only have a split second to react and figure out if you’re supposed to be closer to the top or bottom, and these orbs will give you a general idea of the proper path you should follow. Saying what to do and actually doing it are completely different things, and even with a guide, you’re going to die hundreds of times. Matter of fact, I’ve unlocked numerous achievements for dying more times than I’m comfortable to admit.

Even if you master a level or two, there’s a good amount of replayability, as each level also houses some hidden secrets that can be found for those much better than myself. Oddly enough, there’s a scoring mechanic in place that rewards more you for pressing the ‘A’ button less. So if you’re able to master the long button press and floating up and down at a sharper angle, instead of numerous and short button presses like myself to keep my Odium level, then you’ll score much higher.

New enemies and attack patterns are slowly introduced, allowing you to familiarize yourself with new additions as you progress. Eventually levels become so challenging that you need to essentially be perfect as you can to reach each checkpoint. Speaking of which, levels have a few checkpoints within, but far too few. You’ll be replaying what seems like 60 second sections over and over again due to deaths. More often than not, I’d finally beat a very hard section, only to die to a simple narrow passageway, thus restarting at the checkpoint far back. I do wish there was a slightly easier mode that offered more checkpoints, as hearing the same 30 second section of a musical track can become grating on the ears.

For those that excel at these games though, there is a Nightmare mode that lacks checkpoints and makes your runs require absolutely perfection. There’s even an Endless mode for those that want to challenge themselves with a procedurally generated level that’s unique each time they play. After every few levels you’ll encounter a Boss level. While you don’t technically fight it in any traditional sense, you’ll have to navigate and avoid their attacks that change of the pace from the typical gameplay. These are quite challenging and I just wish these bosses had something a little more to them aside from avoiding their attacks and movements.

Like most, I fell into the Flappy Bird hype when it released. Odium to the Core may have the same gameplay mechanics and principals, but it’s much more stylish and a million times more challenging. I am not ashamed to admit that I eventually threw in the towel, unable to complete the last handful of levels. As I mentioned before, you’ll become frustrated, and during my time with the game, more than a few curse words came out of my mouth quite loudly, but I kept wanting to try and complete it. There’s a breaking point though, and I eventually hit that wall.

As I reflect on all the time I spent playing this game for this review, I can't say I didn’t enjoy my curse-filled time with Odium, on the contrary, its addictive feel roped me in, but those that get frustrated easily will want to look elsewhere. If there was a mode that offered more checkpoints I would have gladly stuck with it longer and possibly beaten all it, but as it stands, this was a little too Odium to the HARDcore for me.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Atari Flashback Classics - Volume 3

Nostalgia can make you remember something much better than it actually was. I found this out a few years ago rewatching a few of my childhood TV shows and replaying a few classic games I grew up with. Needless to say, it certainly wasn’t the experience like I remember. One of my first gaming memories is actually playing the original Pong at my grandma’s house, with the paddles, which is most likely how I become hooked on gaming in the first place. It wasn’t long after that she had an Atari 2600 and my gaming love grew from there.

I remember playing those classic games, plugging in the cartridge and flipping the TV to channel 3. I grew up with those games before the Nintendo boom started with the NES. For those wanting to replay those titles but not dig the classic machine out of the garage, along with an older TV with the proper connectors, Atari has you covered with their newest release: Atari Flashback Classics – Volume 3.

For the older crowd, or anyone wanting to see gaming in its infancy, Atari has included 50 games, yes, 50, in this bundle. Some are hits, some are misses, but you can experience many classics from the arcade, the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200. If you’re an old school Atari fan, you’ll no doubt enjoy this bundle, but for others, it’s going to be a hard sell.

First, let’s get the included games out of the way so you can peruse the list and see if your favorites are included or not, as I’m sure that will be the make or breaking point for some.

1. Adventure II (2600)
2. Air Raiders (2600)
3. Aquaventure (2600)
4. Armor Ambush (2600)
5. Asteroids (5200)
6. Astroblast (2600)
7. Atari Baseball (Arcade)
8. Atari Basketball (Arcade)
9. Atari Football (Arcade)
10. Atari Soccer (Arcade)
11. Avalanche (Arcade)
12. Canyon Bomber (Arcade)
13. Centipede (5200)
14. Countermeasure (5200)
15. Dark Cavern (2600)
16. Destroyer (Arcade)
17. Dominos (Arcade)
18. Final Legacy (5200)
19. Fire Truck/Smokey Joe (Arcade)
20. Frog Pond (2600)
21. Frogs and Flies (2600)
22. Holey Moley (2600)
23. International Soccer (2600)
24. Maze Invaders (Arcade)
25. Micro-gammon (5200)
26. Millipede (5200)
27. Miniature Golf (5200)
28. Missile Command (5200)
29. Monte Carlo (Arcade)
30. MotoRodeo (2600)
31. Pool Shark (Arcade)
32. Realsports Baseball (5200)
33. Realsports Basketball (5200)
34. Realsports Football (5200)
35. Realsports Tennis (5200)
36. Realsports Volleyball (5200)
37. Saboteur (2600)
38. Sea Battle (2600)
39. Sky Diver (Arcade)
40. Space Attack (2600)
41. Star Raiders (5200)
42. Star Strike (2600)
43. Super Breakout (5200)
44. Super Bug (Arcade)
45. Super Challenge Baseball (2600)
46. Super Challenge Football (2600)
47. Sword Fight (2600)
48. Wizard (2600)
49. Xari Arena (5200)
50. Yars’ Return (2600)

So did you see something on the list that brings back fond memories, or one that you vaguely remember playing years ago? While not all the games are hits, keep in mind this is the third compilation of Atari games. There were a few games I enjoyed from the list, but one has to wonder "Could it have done without multiple games of the same sports?" Absolutely, but there were a couple I enjoyed replaying, and trying for the first time.

Given that the genres are fairly varied, there should be something here for everyone. I thought I was going to put the most time into Super Breakout, but a friend and I played Dominos and Sword Fight the most, which was surprising. While the number of included games is impressive, honestly, there’s a few that I didn’t enjoy and most likely will never touch again. Obviously, everyone will have different tastes, but in the end there were only a handful of games from the list that would cause me to boot up the game to play again.

My biggest takeaway from this bundle was simply how far gaming has come. Many games look hideous, and control even worse. It makes you appreciate how great gaming is today, which wouldn’t have been possible without Atari and these games that paved the way nearly 40 years ago. I suspect that non Atari fans are going to become very frustrated with these games though, as they generally control quite terribly and it isn’t explained very well how to properly play.

Case in point, the Super Breakout paddle moves at mach speed, making it virtually impossible to play. I looked and looked but was unable to find a sensitivity option for the paddle anywhere. I guess I could have changed it in the Xbox accessory settings, but I don’t see anyone going through that much hassle and effort to do so every time. Some games are confusing with how to even start them. There’s a UI layout to the left of the screen for some games, which I guess is to mimic the hardware controls on the old Atari consoles themselves, but it’s confusing, doesn’t make sense and eventually becomes frustrating.

What Atari did do right though was add a few extras; not as many as I would have liked, but it’s appreciated. Firstly, you can view the original cabinets and manuals. I miss the days when games came with a full manual, and seeing the original Atari ones digitally is the next best thing. The biggest, and most surprising addition that I didn’t expect in any way, is online multiplayer.

That’s right, you can finally challenge your buddy across the country to some Super Breakout, Sword Fight, or other Atari classics to see who really the best is once and for all. With online multiplayer and leaderboards, I’ll forgive Atari for the lack of other extras and ‘fluff’ given they went this extra mile. You can simply host a match for a friend to join, though it would have been awesome to see a lobby of sorts where anyone could join, or tournament style setups. I’ll take what I can get though and be grateful.

Nothing has been remixed or altered, and these classics look and play just like they did from their original cartridge versions. Obviously the games are now in HD, but you can’t hide how terrible some of the games look from back in the day (Side note: the visual, audio and gameplay scores are obviously low, but aren’t being factored into the overall score, as it’s unfair to judge them in today’s standards). If you really want an authentic experience, you can toggle filters to make it look like it has that classic RF static. Needless to say, it will bring waves of nostalgia, good or bad, reliving these classics again.

If you take Atari Flashback Classics – Volume 3 for what it is at face value, a trip down memory lane of a time when gaming was in its' infancy, and you keep your expectations in check, you may enjoy this collection of games, especially if you're an Atari fan and/or played the Atari consoles so long ago. While I’d argue the $20 (CAD) price point is a little high, even factoring in that it’s 50 games, it’s a decent collection if you want to feel some nostalgia and see what gaming was like back in "the day".

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Nippon Marathon

I absolutely loved watching MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) on TV when it used to play. This show had contestants tackling a variety of events, though usually falling, slipping and getting hurt; think Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior for the newer generations. There’s always something funny about seeting people falling and failing, right? Don’t tell me I’m the only one.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A girl dressed as a Narwhal (NOT a unicorn), a man dressed as a lobster, an old man dressed as a school girl and a dog with a human body are all participating in a yearly marathon obstacle race... No? Me either, but that’s the general narative behind Nippon Marathon. If you find that weird, that’s just the beginning.

There’s always a handful of party games I’ll load up whenever I have company over, and to get into that rotation of titles, it takes something special to stand out amongst the crowded genre. Nippon Marathon certainly stands out, but there’s no way it’s going to get played when I have friends over, unless I want to show them something for a quick laugh.

I really don’t like to be negative in my reviews, and always look for what a game does well or unique, but there’s some games, like this, where that’s a struggle. Developers Onion Soup Interactive has released a party racing (on foot) game that absolutely is unique in its own right, but it’s extremely rough around the edges. You’ll be not only running down the streets of Japan, aiming for a first place finish and influence of fans, but you’ll be dodging flying fruit, dogs, vehicles, businessmen and a whole slew of other oddities that I can’t even begin to describe. San! Ni! Ichi! Hajime!!! It’s time to see what Nippon Marathon is all about.

Party games aren’t generally known for their narrative, as the general point is to have you and a few friends simply participating in whatever activities the game want to you. This is where Nippon Marathon is different, instead focusing on a very narrative heavy experience, which kills the multiplayer vibe if friends are over.

You begin by choosing one of four very oddly designed characters; Elizabeth Nishibori, a girl obsessed with saving marine life and dresses in a Narwhal (NOT a unicorn) onesie, Xen Bae, an old man that dresses in a school girl uniform, lobster suited J Darwin and finally, Snugaru, a dog with a man’s body. I can’t even make this up. Each have their own lengthy, and arguably unnecessary, plot, explaining their motives for wanting to participate in this year’s Nippon Marathon.

Handsome Hazuki is the longtime reining undefeated champion of the Nippon Marathon, someone that looks like Freddy Mercury’s half-brother, but as you progress through the ranks in each stage of the marathon, you’ll uncover secrets about it and its organizers plans. I won’t spoil it, but it’s nothing terribly exciting, and quite frankly, silly and completely over the top.

This is one of my biggest problems though, as the story is so thick and long winded, which normally isn’t a problem, but you’re unable to skip the lengthy cutscenes between races, forcing you to sit through each terribly written dialogue sequence. I eventually forced myself to finish the game with two of the characters, but simply couldn’t muster up the enjoyment to do it another time or two with the other characters. I get that it’s supposed to be light hearted and humorous, but it doesn’t come across that way for the most part at all, and would have enjoyed being able to skip these sections and focus on the races themselves.

Nippon Marathon is a footrace separated into different sections and rankings. As you win a leg, you move up the rankings and race against more challenging adversaries; in theory. I didn’t notice any difficulty increases along the way aside from having to deal with glitches and unfairness, which I’ll get to shortly. You’ll be racing the busy streets of Japan, the snowy mountain hilltops and even on top of a speeding bullet train. The general controls are simple to grasp, as you can jump, duck or dive, which you’ll need to do often.

The Nippon Marathon is all about craziness though, and you might be restarting a section of race, but be interrupted with an impromptu interview or a mini-game to partake in. Why? I have no idea, but just roll with it. The general hook about the gameplay is that it utilizes ragdoll physics, so when you get bit by a dog, run into a wall or trip, your body will flail around, you know, like a rag doll. It was funny in the first race or two, but then you start to see issues arise. You don’t instantly get back up sometimes, and I’ve even become stuck in a ‘falling’ loop until I was eliminated in that section of the race.

And this is where the scoring inconsistency comes into play as well. Obviously it’s a race and you want to finish in first place, but there’s some star gaining mechanics based on fan influence that’s never really explained. As you race, the screen scrolls, and if you lag behind in last, or fall into a pit, you’re knocked out until there’s only one racer left. Then the race restarts at the nearest checkpoint and repeats itself until you eventually reach the finish line. If you’re the sole survivor in these sections, you’ll earn a star. How this plays into your score, or if first place is more important, I still don’t know.

Much like Mario Kart, you’ll find blocks of items littered throughout the race, though only a handful of items are available. You can drop banana’s, toss a watermelon to the first place runner (even if it’s yourself), or if you’re really lucky, get a pineapple balloon that lifts you in the air, allowing you to effectively and easily skip a small section of race obstacles.

There will be random times where you’re about to start running again at a checkpoint, only to be interrupted with an interview request or a weird mini-game. Sometimes you’ll get a slot machine that will give everyone a random power-up, maybe you’ll be put into a rat-like maze, or the worst of them all, the interviews.

Here Wedy (yes, that’s how it’s spelt) will interview the contestants about some random topic, asking their thoughts and opinions. You’ll have to make a few selections of answers to create a sentence, but the problem is that you need to choose so quickly, that you’re basically unable to read the responses. Even worse, each response can only be used once across all racers, so either guess and be quick with a button press, or be left with whatever response is left over. Some responses will earn you more fan influence, others won’t. There’s no way to tell what fans will like or not, so I don’t see the point of this poorly designed mini-game and waste of time.

The biggest, and most consistent issue Nippon Marathon suffers from though, is its terrible camera. I could complain about the lack of instruction, or the poor performance when lots of things are happening on the screen at once, but the camera is its biggest offender. You’re partaking in a race, the camera will generally follow whomever is in first place, to eliminate those that lag behind. The problem though is that the camera can’t even always do this right.

Numerous times I would be in first, but the camera was unable to keep up, leaving me to either run ahead and guess what’s coming, resulting in an elimination, or slow down and let others catch up. Sometimes you’ll also run in a different direction completely after a turn, but it’s like the camera doesn’t know that until it’s too late. That being said, it seems that there’s been a recent patch on PC to fix some of my issues and complaints, but as of the time of this writing, us console players have yet to see these improvements, and must be judged so.

While you’re able to play just fine in single player, you can have drop in/out 4 players should you wish. Again, being that the story mode is way too narrative heavy for players to enjoy at length, this is where the separate mini-games come in. Would you find diving into a shopping cart and rolling down a bowling alley into some massive pins fun? Then this is for you. These extras are appreciated that they are there, but I honestly don’t see much longevity within, even if you get the hang of the awkward controls.

Now we move onto its visuals. I get that a small indie studio isn’t going to have the budget to create anything modern looking, but man, Nippon Marathon isn’t very pretty to look at in any way. Most characters and objects have very poor models, being very basic in style, but the animations are at times downright atrocious. I don’t know if this visual style was intended, but it looks like it come straight out of a PS1 era game at best. The audio isn’t much better either, as the few tracks that are present are repeated over and over. Worse yet, certain dialogue sections are accompanied with upbeat or serious tones, but changes instantly between when dialogue boxes change from character to character. It’s jarring and odd to say the least.

I’m all for wacky and silly over-the-top Japanese games and culture, and Nippon Marathon does have a few decent qualities about it, it’s just that the negatives vastly outweigh the few positives. What I will say though is that my six year old daughter had an absolute blast watching the craziness happen during races, laughing along the way, but couldn’t understand why she lost sometimes, and I wasn’t able to explain it either. I honestly would have scored this much lower if my daughter didn’t have a fun time playing it, and maybe that’s the intended audience, but then the forced weighty story makes no sense.

If this had online multiplayer, it would be a little more entertaining and exciting, but I can’t picture a time where I would load this up over the other party games I have whenever I have company over. Nippon Marathon is zany, wacky and simply odd, but it feels like a marathon trying to finish it at times. Unless you’re dying to race as a lobster-man, hold off until a really deep discounted sale before entering this marathon.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales

The Witcher series is one of my favorites of all time, and I’d even place Witcher 3 in my top 10 ever. I absolutely loved Witcher 3, and honestly, I’d have to guess that about half my time within that world was probably playing Gwent, its own card based battle game. Developers CD Projekt RED never anticipated Gwent to be so popular, to the point where it got its own spinoff game, solely based on the cards themselves, aptly titled Gwent. Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is the newest addition to the Gwent side of the series, but instead of focusing solely on the card battles, Thronebreaker now has included a handful of RPG elements alongside a strong narrative. Not only do you get an updated, and more streamlined, version of Gwent in Thronebreaker, you’ll also be exploring unseen lands in an isometric point of view along your journey.

When Thronebreaker was first announced, I simply assumed it was going to be a Gwent expansion, and not quite sure what to expect. What I came away with though after sinking a dozen hours into it was a worthy expansion into the Witcher series that just happens to be based on Gwent mechanics. I’m glad I got to experience Thronebreaker, as I had a great time following Queen Meve’s adventure and challenging myself to dozens of interesting Gwent puzzles. Yes, card based puzzles, but more on that shortly.

You are Meve, the Queen of Lyria and Rivia, facing a Nilfgaardian invasion. She’s not the type of leader to sit on her throne and sit back as her armies do the hard work. She’s the queen her subjects respect, as she is alongside them on the battlefield when needed. Her people respect her and love her, but treachery is afoot and she is dethroned. Set on a course for revenge and redemption, she will have to trust strangers and make countless difficult decisions along the way back to reclaim her throne.

Taking place within the timeline of the novels, and before the first game, Thronebreaker gives you a great insight into series’ lore, revolving around the second Northern War. For novel fans like myself, seeing places and characters we’ve not experienced in game format before is quite the treat. I won’t spoil much else, but super fans will get the most out of Thronebreaker, yet you won’t need any prior lore knowledge to enjoy it either, as it’s all framed very well for newcomers. With over 20 hours of gameplay and reason to replay, there’s tons of value within, especially if you want to work on seeing all of the endings.

As you begin, you’ll have to choose your difficulty level. The lowest option is simply if you want less challenging Gwent battles, but most interestingly, allows you to skip them entirely if you simply want to experience the adventure RPG portion of the game and focus on the wonderful narrative. Normal is a good balance of challenge and difficulty, but there’s even a higher difficulty should you wish to put your Gwent skills to the real test.

Given that Thronebreaker is based on Gwent, let’s delve into that portion quickly for those that have never experienced it previously. You and an opponent play against one another with a deck of cards, aiming to win a best 2-out-of-3 match. The core principals still exist here, but there are some drastic changes, some of which I like for the better. Now there are only two rows to each person’s playfield, down from three previously. Each player plays a single card at a time. Each varying in a value number which determines the current ‘score’. Do you cut your losses and save your cards for another match if you’re losing, or use more cards to try and pull off a win? This is where a lot of strategy comes into play.

The core gameplay is easy enough to understand, but it’s the special cards and abilities that really force you to think creatively and strategically. Some cards will allow you to use an attack or bonus, on top of your card placement on your turn, while others will banish or return cards. Even with this extra layer of options, it’s fairly easy to grasp the main concepts. If you didn’t really care for Gwent in Witcher 3, this won’t change your mind on the core card gameplay, but for those of us that did, it feels much more streamlined overall.

That being said, the majority of the Gwent gameplay outside of the story battles, isn’t actually your traditional Gwent, per-se. Instead, you’re tasked with numerous hand crafted battles, though I equate them more to puzzles. These are mostly optional and have you trying to solve a particular Gwent battle with a predefined deck of specific cards to use. These puzzles usually require a very specific plan of attack to succeed, or have very specific win conditions. Challenge fluctuates from incredibly easy to controller-throwing frustrating, though never unfair. Complete these puzzles and you’ll be rewarded with numerous goodies, from gold, wood, soldiers, cards and more.

The other half of Thronebreaker’s gameplay is set in an isometric adventure, having Meve traverse many lands along her way. You’ll need to search for resources (gold, wood, soldiers), take place in random battles, puzzles and make difficult decisions as a leader. The areas you’re put in initially don’t appear that large, but then I found out you could zoom and scroll, and it was much larger all of a sudden. You’ve given an objective you need to reach, but doing so won’t always be so easy. There will be lots of obstacles in the way, be it monsters, invaders or others asking for help.

Should you wish to spend your hard earn gold, you’re able to send scouts to uncover materials, making them easier to find along your journey by marking them on your map. While the majority of these areas are linear for the most part, there are some secrets hidden within should you take the time to explore. With a handful of chapters to complete, each map is large and beautifully crafted. My only complaint is that I wish there was a minimap on the main screen, as having to open the map menu up every so often to see which way to go was annoying after a while. Also, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what areas are traversable, or figuring out why you can’t walk around a specific object, or how to get to a collectible in sight.

Materials you gather are used for many things, such as choosing to build a bridge for a quicker path, or paying to save a prisoner’s life, but the majority of your gold, wood and soldiers will be going towards building your camp and crafting new Gwent cards. With enough materials, you’ll be able to upgrade your camp, accessible at any time, providing you more bonuses (like extra gold per Gwent battle won), or access to create higher tier cards. I found this part the most addictive, and by the end, I was able to save enough to fully upgrade my camp completely. To earn enough though, you’ll need to be diligent in your exploration along the maps.

Surprisingly, there are even special chests to collect, most hidden away with only a treasure map to go by for reference. Find these chests and complete special objectives, and you’ll gain special unique cards, banners and icons for Gwent (the standalone separate game). For Gwent fans, this is a no brainer, and will add more hours of gameplay to find them all. It’s a cool bonus to include rewards for their other game for fans.

Artistically, the world is absolutely beautiful to look at, even the disgusting swamp area that you can almost smell. Card animations are subtle but add a certain amount of flair, and cutscenes are done in a comic book style of sorts. I do wish the cutscenes were more traditionally animated, but the saving grace is the perfect voice acting all around. Every actor and actress did a wonderful performance, especially Meve, and should be commended.

Even though I put more than a dozen hours into Thronebreaker, and loved it along the way, it’s not without its issues. Foremost is the performance issues. Almost beginning to finish, it felt like an unoptimized mess at times. Menus can be laggy, the game freezes for moments at a time, especially when looking at the cards in your camp, lots of skipping and framerate issues, and I even had a hardlock and crash to Home once during my journey. Luckily with the type of gameplay involved, these aren't major issues or dealbreakers, but it was a constant all the way until the credits rolled.

That being said, performance issues aside, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales does a fantastic job at blending the beloved Gwent gameplay alongside from adventure RPG mechanics. Even though I really appreciated the lore that Thronebreaker delves into, casual fans may be let down knowing that Geralt isn’t the main focus, nor are other Witcher's really aside from a handful of brief moments.

CD Projekt RED is known for their quality and superb games, and this is no different with Thronebreaker, aside from performance issues. Even as a standalone separate experience from the core Witcher games, Thronebreaker is a great diversion if you’re looking for a deep and challenging card/RPG title, even giving you the option to skip the card portion completely if you wish, allowing for more people to enjoy it how they wish.

Overall Score: 9.1 / 10 Farming Simulator 19

Farming Simulator 17 was my first foray into the farming simulation genre. I was completely new to the series, wasn’t sure what to do, how to do it or the proper order to do so. After sinking hours into it, I came to appreciate the realism it tries to capture, as farming in real life is a grueling lifestyle and career, and doing so in a game can be just as challenging sometimes. Sometimes a simulation is just that though, as not all careers make for an entertaining game when the grunt work itself is very monotonous and tedious. At the same time though, there’s something calming and relaxing about plowing, sowing and growing your fields, then selling them for a profit to purchase bigger and better equipment.

Enter Farming Simulator 19, the newest sequel with an onslaught of improvements and upgrades over the previous release, making farming one step closer to its reality counterpart. GIANTS Software is undoubtedly the king in this specific genre, as their Farming Simulator titles are the gold standard when it comes to true simulation gameplay. There are other farming sims on the market, but they are nowhere near in-depth simulation wise, and now with the newest ’19 edition upon us, that lead is even a larger gap versus the competition.

Two large maps are available from the start (and one added since as a mod); one American and European, based on your preference, completely open to your farming preferences, be it wheat, oats, animals and much more. Now, if you’ve played the Farm Sim’s before, you’ll know exactly what to expect for the core gameplay, aside from the newest additions. At its core, it’s essentially the same game as years’ past, so while it won’t do much to entice new non-farming enthusiasts to jump in, fans will surely enjoy the slew of additions and improvements.

So let’s quickly delve into what’s new, as fans will most likely be the ones upgrading from previous year’s versions, as opposed to new players jumping in fresh. First and foremost, the graphics engine and audio has been improved greatly. Nothing ground breaking or ultra-realistic, but a big improvement from ’17 for sure. There’s much more minute detail, as you can actually see corn on the stalks, smaller details in the foliage and certain equipment seems to have much more detail to them, upping the immersion.

Speaking of new equipment, Farming Simulator 19 finally welcomes the John Deere line of agriculture equipment to the game; one of the most recognizable brands in the world. It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s been a notable feature missing for a long time, so it’s great to finally have it included.

Also new is a handful of new crops, like Oats, Cotton, having to lyme fields, taking care of weeds, horses that you can even train to ride, or chickens that you actually need to feed and care for. The latest patch though brought one of the most sizable, and needed, additions to the game in quite some time; Landscaping. Now you’re able to actually modify the ground to either flatten or raise certain areas. Not happy with the hill your crop is on, slowing down your machinery? Level it out! Want to create the perfect farm and pathways around your land? Design it however you like with a handful of different material options like gravel, sand and more. Of course there’s a large cost to doing so, but those that have successful farms can finally personalize and customize their farm to exactly how they want.

Just like in ’17, there is an included tutorial that shows you the basics of farming, something I strongly suggest you do, but just as I complained about in the previous release, it’s still not enough for new players to really grasp all of the mechanics, or why, to become a proper and efficient farmer without a lot of trial and error. There’s a button (well, more accurately, a combination of many buttons) for nearly everything, from turning on the equipment, lights, to maneuvering the arms and attachments. The tutorial gives you the bare minimum of how to utilize the basics, but stops there. I really wish there was not only a more in-depth tutorial that explored more of the mechanics, but how to also setup specific farms.

For example, I wanted to try out log farming, but had no idea how or what equipment I exactly needed. Luckily I have a friend that has literally sunk over a thousand hours into ’17, so he walked me through it, but there really needs to be an option somewhere in the game that at least gives you a checklist of how to start a specific farm with its proper equipment. The same went for my horse farm, as I was unable to figure it out on my own how to properly get started and had to ask for help. All of this information should be located in the game somewhere, but it’s not, which is going to turn new players away, as I know I would have gotten frustrated if I had no one to specifically ask for help.

Career mode gives you three choices from the get go, depending on how proficient, or challenging, you want your farming career to be. You can choose to begin with some money, land and equipment, or basically nothing at all. There’s also a slew of options to further customize your game, allowing you to not have crops wither, having to lyme your crops, game speed and more. From here you’re essentially left to your own to farm what you want, how you want. Learning how to do so properly, efficiently, and most important, profitably, will simply take a lot of hours of trial and error to figure out. Devote the time and learn the intricacies though and you’ll be making tons of cash in no time.

With over 300 pieces of equipment and attachments to utilize, you’re going to have a ton of options at your disposal depending on the type of farming you wish to partake in. You’ll have access to tons of name brands like John Deere, Fendt, New Holland, Krone and a ton of others I’ve never heard of, but appear to be authentic. While I’ve never sat in or used any farming equipment, I can only assume that their authenticity is top notch, else the name brands wouldn’t allow them in the game most likely. Each brand has its own feel, mechanics, sounds and more, so you’re sure to find some favorites (though I always gravitate to the cheaper ones).

Once you have a handful of equipment, you’ll be able to instantly swap from one to another instantly with a press of a button, which I found incredibly useful for getting around the map quickly when needed. You’re even able to ride and control the train that travels around and throughout the map, utilizing it to transport goods should you wish.

Where the farming starts to become interesting, and much more enjoyable, is when you can gather a few friends together and working cooperatively on the same farm. Now a group of friends can get together online, have their own bank rolls and farms, or work collectively on one person’s farm together. If I was destined to play alone, I would have given up long ago from the monotony, but farming with a buddy, getting orders of what to do and where, was much more enjoyable, working alongside one another in tandem.

While mods aren’t new for the Farm Sim series, they are included here as well. Be that ’19 is brand new, there isn’t many mods released yet aside from some new equipment and pieces that add a bit more flair to the gameplay. What’s missing is a mod to allow for infinite money (even if it disables achievements), Seasons, and a bunch of other quality of life mods. My biggest pet peeve is that when you join a friend’s multiplayer farm and they have mods enabled, it won’t let you join without those mods installed, which I understand, but it doesn’t give you an option to directly download which are missing, or offer a 'download all' option.

Even though a slew of improvements and additions have been included in ’19, it’s still very inaccessible for new players. That’s not to say that Farming Simulator 19 is ‘bad’; far from it, but it’s lacking some hand holding and focus in the beginning for new players and the not-so hardcore sim genre fans. I initially scoffed at the idea that farming could be fun, but there’s a certain calmness and Zen that accompanies the gameplay, once you’ve figured out the controls and mechanics after many hours through trial and error.

Even though Farming Simulator 19 isn’t very newbie friendly, it’s unmatched in its core appeal for being the most thorough simulation on the market, even if the learning curve is extremely steep. It’s hard to recommend for newcomers that only want to play casually, but for previous fans of the series and genre, there’s no better currently available.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Project Highrise: Architect's Edition

I’ve always been drawn towards Sim games; be it based on theme parks, hotels, towers, ants and of course, cities. I’d actually be curious to know how many hours I’ve sunk into Sim City as a kid, as this was the first game that made me realize how much OCD I have when it comes to symmetry and creation. I needed roads to be an exact length apart, perfect square blocks, and god forbid if a natural disaster occurred and wiped out all my hard work.

While Sim City is generally the king of the genre, Sim Tower was another that I used to play on my PC way back in the day (I’m showing my age). Instead of a massive and complex city, you were instead tasked with creating a massive and profitable building tower instead; same concept, different execution. While simply glancing at Project Highrise: Architect’s Edition, you may assume that it’s a simple copy of Sim Tower, but you’d be wrong. Sure, same premise, but there’s incredibly deep and challenging mechanics buried within that I didn't expect.

Do you want to construct a massive skyscraper that would make building in Dubai jealous? How about a massive apartment building, a casino, mall or even a hotel? The choice is yours, but it won’t be a quick or easy path. Not only do you have to contend with simply creating the infrastructure like water, gas, electricity, HVAC, phone lines and more, but you’ve also got to do so on a strict budget, slowly growing your building to become more and more famous and popular to entice more people to frequent.

While building a city is grander in scale, don’t let the thought of only having to design and plan for a single building will be easy, because it isn’t. The layers of complexity luckily are unveiled in small chunks, starting with a handful of tutorials to learn the basics, and luckily, the largest and grand creations you can include are locked behind a progression system, forcing you to grow your highrise naturally and at a slow pace. Sure, you could jump into the unlimited money mode (which disables achievements), but I found the most enjoyment came from being able to grow and budget accordingly myself, complete with restrictions.

Previously released on PC, the console Architect’s Edition includes the original game plus all of the DLC that was released post launch. The DLC’s are as follows: Las Vegas, Tokyo Towers, Miami Malls, London Life and Brilliant Berlin. Each of the packs are obviously themed after their real world counterparts, adding their own backdrops, items, shops, styles and more. It’s a lot of added content, so there’s plenty for you to delve into and start to figure out how you want to build.

Inspiration no doubt derives from Sim Tower, but there’s a ton of depth within Project Highrise, almost overwhelmingly so. Not only do you have to build your skyscraper and fill it with tenants, each tenant will have different wants and needs that can alter how you build the rest of your monstrosity. For example, if you rent to a lot of businesses and law firms, they may require a water bottle service, fax room, couriers or more. Certain people may not even move into the large upscale apartments until you have a wide variety of food and restaurants available as well. There’s always some sort of prerequisite for nearly every action, and it’s the planning ahead of time that will save you in the long run.

Luckily you’re able to control time here. Pause time whenever you wish if you want to get some things built, or simply want to step back and plan out how you want to proceed, or even fast forward time in double speed, hurrying along the building process or rent collection. If people are starting to get upset and move out, you’re best to pause time, figure it out, and fix it, before resuming, or else you risk losing even more tenants and visitors.

If you wish to simply jump in and play, you’re able to do so, choosing the backdrop and a few other options. There’s no real direction here, simply letting you build and design however you like in a sandbox. For those that want a little more direction, Scenarios are where you’ll want to start out. Here you’re tasked with very specific objectives, such as reaching a certain population or popularity before unlocking the next scenario. Others will be much more specific and the needs to be met, each having its own unique challenges, budgets and more. With nearly 30 different challenges, there’s tons of content to try, though I do wish they weren’t progression locked, as I eventually hit a brick wall for difficulty (and my patience).

Luckily, not every option if available to you at the start for items, art, designs and more. This is because they are gated behind your progress relating to popularity and reputation. The better you do, the more options will open up to you, allowing you to thus bring in more crowds. Some of the end-game options become very complicated and advanced, especially if you’re going to go the casino, mall or hotel route with multi-level lobbies, escalators, parking garages and more.

It took me a few hours to figure out that you want to progress at a slow and steady pace. I kept trying to build as much as I can, as fast as I could, and I kept running into money issues. Expand at a steady pace, learn what your tenants want and how to do so efficiently and you’ll become a great mogul in no time. Sometimes cutting someone’s rent in half is the cheaper option, rather than having them move out and trying to find another tenant to take its place with different needs.

I for one need all of my floors perfectly organized; stairs in one area, elevators in another, certain floors of apartments, another for business, etc. What irked me was that there was no simple way to move or swap rooms that have already been built and moved into. You can shuffle them around if there’s empty room, but it’s a bit convoluted to do so, and my OCD was kicking in when I accidentally rented an apartment on my business floor.

Gameplay is slow and steady, very menu heavy and strategic. Some won’t like the monotony of the gameplay, or having to figure out why one floor suddenly wants a cable TV line installed, but if you can delve into the mechanics and menus and solve tenant issues, there’s some rewards to be had. Sure at times it feels a bit of a grind, but when you start hitting that stride with rent coming in, in the positive, you'll want to expand bigger and better.

I’ve always loved my Sim games, and I’m glad that I can add Project Highrise: Architect’s Edition to that list. The complexity within is quite astounding, as even after a handful of hours of tower building in, I’m still learning and figuring out how to be a successful landlord. While I don’t find it as addictive as some of the more classic Sim games, the enjoyment and replayability is here without a doubt. Even if you don’t want to get hardcore into the building strategy side of the menus, casual fans too can build some low rise apartments or malls should they desire.

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 World of Final Fantasy Maxima

I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan, complete with a merchandise collection that’s borderline embarrassing. Yet somehow, I skipped over playing World of Final Fantasy back in 2016 when it originally released, even though it’s still sitting in its wrapper on my shelf. I’m fine admitting when I make a mistake, and not playing World of Final Fantasy until now, with the release of World of Final Fantasy MAXIMA, was one of those big mistakes.

MAXIMA is essentially a Game of the Year version of the core game, complete with all the updates and DLC it received post launch, that, and the fact that it has finally come to Xbox One for fans to enjoy as well! While MAXIMA feels more like a spin-off Final Fantasy game, it fits right in with the series, complete with tons of references, cameos, and more that veterans will be sure to enjoy.

Even looking at the box art, you’re going to instantly notice that MAXIMA’s art direction is nothing really like any of the previous Final Fantasy titles. Instead, a more chibi-like style with anime influences are utilized, and while I don’t normally gravitate towards this style, it simply works here.

To add another layer of addictive gameplay, there’s also a Pokemon-like 'catch-em-all' system in place where you’re attempting to collect monsters you battle during your adventure, but more on that shortly. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of MAXIMA, with its art direction and over-the-top cuteness, but as I got further into the game, I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

Siblings Reynn and Lann, wake in their small town working at the local café, only to realize no one else is around. They are interrupted by a mysterious girl who seems to know a lot about them and their history, even though they can’t remember anything about themselves. Taking place in the world Grymoire, Reynn and Lann are placed upon a quest that becomes larger than they could imagine, revealing bits about their past that seem too unbelievable to be true. I won’t delve further into the story, as I found it quite interesting and engaging, especially as you progress, but the fact that Reynn and Lann can shrink or be full size on a whim (Lillikin and Jiant form) also plays a vital role in the core gameplay.

So, you’ve already played World of Final Fantasy and simply want to know what’s new and included with the MAXIMA edition? Well, the siblings can actually change INTO the fable Champions themselves with the Avatar Change system. New Legends will also make an appearance, and more than a quick cameo as well, so expect to see Noctis, Lightning and a few other notable names from the series’ past. Sure, there’s also a bunch of more quality of life improvements, like being able to carry more active mirages into your party, sharing experience, New Game+, Nightmare Difficulty and more, but the real addition is a Noctis minigame where you fish!

World of final Fantasy was actually a celebration of the series’ 30th anniversary, combining many mechanics and aspects from previous titles, but also with a drastic change to entice new fans to the series as well. Complete with a traditional Active Time Battle (ATB) fighting system, new is not only the ability to capture and collect monsters, of which many will say is a Pokemon ripoff, but you also get to stack said monsters on your head to create powerful combinations.

Yes, you’re going to stack cute and adorable monsters on top of your head. It’s silly, and in any other setting it would be ridiculous, but again, somehow it simply works and makes sense here. My daughter has watched me play a few Final Fantasy games in the past, especially when I put over 100 hours into XV, but when she sees me playing MAXIMA, she sits down beside me and totally gets into me trying to capture more mirages (monsters) for my team. The adorable and colorful art direction certainly helps gain the attention of a younger audience, and while it’s still a bit too much for her at age 6 mechanically, she’s enjoying coming along with me for the ride each time I play.

Don’t let its child-like visuals fool you though, as this I a fully-fledged Final Fantasy, complete with a deep and engaging plot, satisfying gameplay, excellent voice acting and surprisingly, a non-stop amount of humor that had me laughing throughout. Combat is probably one of the biggest changes and additions, as the stacking mechanic is a bit clumsy with its menus and does take some getting used to, but more on that shortly.

Like Pokemon games, monsters can be fought in battle and they can also be captured if the correct specifics are met. For example, to capture a Black Chocochick and create its Prismtunity (susceptible to capture), you’ll need to heal it. Others may need to be put to sleep, poisoned, damaged with specific magic, and numerous other conditions that must be met before you can attempt to capture it. Capturing mirages isn’t simply a gimmicky mechanic added in for no reason either, as there’s a narrative reason as to why you are trying to, and should, capture as many as you can.

Each Mirage is unique, with its abilities, size and evolution options. That’s right, you’re going to get to evolve your mirages, but unlike Pokemon, it’s not a choice that’s final, as you can freely change between their forms. Stacking mirages is very strategic though, as you can round out your abilities with all different magics and attacks, or specialize in one type and become very powerful using a specific type of attack. For example, if you stack multiple mirages that use Fire abilities, you’ll gain access to the –aga versions of the spells, allowing for attacks against multiple monsters at once.

Like a totem pole, your stack must consist of a Large (L), Medium (M) and Small (S) mirage, but Reynn and Lann have to be in each stack as well, either as their medium chibi-like Lillikin forms, or their large Jiant form. There are pros and cons to both types of setups, something that will take quite a bit of time to learn and figure out on your own through trial and error. While you could unstack your stack, each individual mirage is weak on its own, and stacking makes the stats of each one combine, including magic, health and more.

There are reasons, and specific times, you want to unstack, but for the most part you’re going to want to find the best stack(s) that work for you, as you’re much stronger as a trio. Keep in mind that when stacked, you are not only granted all of the bonuses together, but the weaknesses as well. So that fire based stack that can cause a ton of fire damage, it will also be very susceptible to water attacks, so there’s a balance you need to figure out.

Not only will you be hunting down elusive and rare mirages, but each can be leveled up and most can evolve into more powerful versions. Somewhat a watered down version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, the experience you earn can be spent on stat increases and new abilities for each individual mirage. You can even spend your skill points on special abilities on some, allowing you to ride them in the overworld or having them walk alongside you, notifying you on hidden items. What I enjoyed best was that you don’t need to level each form of a mirage, as it pertains to all of its unlocked forms, so you can simply swap between them when needed, as sometimes you’ll want its S, M, L or XL version based on the stack you’re trying to accomplish.

While the core game utilizes Champions as summons, where you are able to call in specific Final Fantasy legends to perform some powerful attacks, MAXIMA has included the ability to actually transform into a Champion with Champion Jewels. Equip these jewels on Reynn or Lann and they will visually transform into that specific Champion, while also gaining some of their iconic abilities. There is a balance here as well, given there are some good reasons, as well as some drawbacks, when using these powerful jewels, something that I’ll allow you to figure out on your own. Suffice to say though, seeing chibi-style versions of some of the most iconic Final Fantasy characters is a treat, even after a few dozen hours of playing.

A Final Fantasy game wouldn’t be complete without side quests, mini-games, and tons of distractions to sink hours into, and it is no different with MAXIMA. Once unlocked, the coliseum challenges you against specific enemies or stacks to test your battle abilities, or simply to try and capture any mirages you’ve missed along the way. Most interestingly though are the Intervention quests. Here you’ll learn about the history of specific characters you’ve met during your journey and you get to relive specific moments, intervening, by playing as them without them knowing, usually resulting in rare rewards that are well worth the effort. These side quests were a lot of fun and I highly suggest spending the time doing them.

I could go on further about some of the deeper mechanics, but part of the fun I had was simply learning how everything worked and then tweaking it to suit my playstyle. The stack mechanic seems silly and shallow at first, but creating that perfect stack is quite challenging, yet rewarding.

I was completely surprised with how funny MAXIMA was, from start to finish, something that I’m not used to when playing a Final Fantasy game, and this was only accomplished by the absolutely stellar and perfect voice acting contained within. As for its over-the-top cute and artistic style, I absolutely adored it, but it can be a bit much, as a friend that tried it out with me was actually turned off by it and its silliness. Look past the nauseatingly cute factor and you’ll be surprised with MAXIMA’s deep mechanics and storyline.

Even after dozens of hours, you'll still have a long way to go, and I found that I did get that ‘catch-em-all’ fever. Even though I’m not a Pokemon fan, I’ve really gravitated towards the mirage capturing, as each one has its own prerequisites that must be met, and not simply using an item. You can spend countless hours leveling every mirage and evolving them should you desire, adding a ton of more value and length.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I started playing MAXIMA, as it doesn’t appear, or play, like any traditional Final Fantasy I’ve experienced before, but that’s what’s so charming about it. It fits within the Final Fantasy universe while also carving out its own place amongst the greats. Its disgustingly cute art direction is something I really enjoyed, and there’s more than enough fan service contained within for series veterans as well. The game is accessible for new fans, yet deep enough for those who've play many Final Fantasy games too. World of Final Fantasy MAXIMA is a great entry into the series that should be experienced by all, as long as you can handle the obscene amount of cuteness contained within.

Overall Score: 9.1 / 10 Mutant Football League: Dynasty Edition

I’m not one for traditional sports games. Sure, I dabble in a few here and there, but for the most part I simply don’t enjoy or play them all that much, save for a very select few. One of these sports games that I’ve actually spent countless hours playing is actually an old Genesis title that I still own a copy of to this day, and that game is Mutant League Football.

Originally released in 1993, I’ve spent countless hours with this unique take on Football over the years, so when it was announced that it was going to finally receive a spiritual successor with Mutant Football League (MFL), I was more than excited. For the unaware, what makes MFL so unique is that it is not licensed by the NFL at all, and instead it is more of a parody, where your players are monsters, skeletons, ogres, robots, werewolves and more.

Simply re-skinning players as monsters is only the beginning, this is the MFL after all. Obviously you want to outscore your opponents, but what makes the MFL stand out among other Football titles is that you can also dismember, and even kill, your opponents. Not happy how things are playing out? Bribe the ref. Want to cause massive carnage, equip some chainsaws and slice through the opposing team. Carnage is what MFL is all about, and it’s a blast, even after more than two decades.

Mutant Football League actually released just over a year ago, but now the Dynasty Edition is upon us. While yes, this is essentially a Game of the Year edition, with all of the released DLC included, the new additions are actually quite plentiful, adding much more varied gameplay to the overall experience.

The biggest addition is the inclusion of the brand new Dynasty Mode (hence the title). This is essentially your season/career mode where you take a fledgling team of nobody’s and work towards making them MFL champions. You’ll play many games throughout the season, but you also get to be the GM and Coach of the team, making decisions on who to cut, trade and sign on, in hopes of creating that championship team.

It’s not so simple though, as just like real life teams, you’ll have salary caps, injuries, free agents and more. Do you invest a big chunk of your budget to sign on a legendary player in hopes he’ll bring glory to the team, or spread out your resources evenly? You’re also even able to edit your playbook to suit your preferred play style and cater to your strengths and weaknesses.

There’s also two main add-on DLC’s included with the Dynasty Edition. At first I thought it was simply two themed teams that were added, but there’s actually a little more to it than that. The first is the Demonic Legion Pack. This includes a new monster type, winged demons, that help them make higher leaps, perfectly suited for receivers. Two new teams are also added: The Full Metal Mayhem and Cracksumskull Juglars, both of which are awesome to play as with their insanely high skill rating, and both of which also come with their own home arena for some new scenery. Also included are two new Dirty Tricks, both of which are really interesting and unique, but more on what those are shortly.

The second included DLC is the Werewolf Rampage Pack. I’m sure you can guess what species these include. The Karcass City Creeps and New Gorleans Zombies are the two teams added, along with their own respective arenas as well. This DLC pack also adds two new Dirty Tricks as well. So, while these may seem like small DLC additions of simple teams, they do add some varied gameplay, scenery and strategy.

MFL is a 7-on-7 Football game with blood, gore, swearing, puns and awesomeness. While it’s a true spiritual successor to the original Genesis title, its over the top gameplay also resembles the classic NFL Blitz from back in the day. While you could play MFL as a traditional Football title, there are much better, and entertaining, ways to win games, namely, destroying and killing off enough of the enemy team so that they cannot compete.

Dirty Tricks are special plays where you can pull of unique, sometimes only usable once, actions that will decimate the other team. You can electrify yourself, use the ball as a bomb, equip weapons, rewind time and more. These plays are like crazy audibles, meant to mangle and kill the other team, and are a blast to use. You can even bribe the ref if you want a play to go your way and skirt the rules a bit. This is what makes MFL so unique and entertaining, and you can also attack players after the whistle is blown; just be careful though, as excessive attacking won’t always be tolerated.

Another aspect you’ll need to be very weary of is the arenas and playfield itself. Each arena is themed after its own team, but the playfield will be littered with mines, lava pits, monsters and many more deadly obstacles. This is another element you’ll have to factor into your strategies and each series of downs you make.

Hands down though, the best feature about MFL is that developers, Digital Dreams Entertainment, chose the absolute best commentator available, of all time: Tim Kitzrow. You may not know the name, but I guarantee you know his famous lines from NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, like “Boomshakalaka” and “He’s on fire!”. I simply wanted to play more games to hear his hilarious commentary and play by play announcements. There’s no better in the business and MFL is a better game for including him so prominently.

Humor is also a huge part of the MFL charm. Not only just the commentary, but the players will also have small quips and sayings after big plays, usually taunting the other team or grabbing in some off-color fashion that is absolutely hilarious. And if you’re an NFL fan, you’ll most likely appreciate the parody on specific team and player names as well, as there are some interesting takes on using monster themes for each NFL team that is parodied.

Mutant League Football is honestly one of my favorite classic childhood games, and seeing its spiritual successor on a current generation console is a real treat for fans like myself that don’t usually play traditional sports titles. It’s not going to be for everyone obviously, but for someone looking for a much less serious and self-aware approach to a Football, Mutant Football League: Dynasty Edition is a great diversion, full of blood, broken bones, violence and hilarity. Now, I’m hoping that the follow-up to their original Mutant League Hockey game is next on the list, as that’s what us Canadians really care about.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. Mutant Football League: Dynasty Edition is available at North American retail in addition to digital**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 WWE 2K19

It’s been quite some time since I’ve sat down and watched some WWE wrestling, so long in fact that SmackDown used to be on Thursday nights. I can’t remember when I stopped watching, or exactly why, as I used to be quite a dedicated fan, watching every week, every pay-per-view and even still to this day own a handful of shirts and merchandise. I know it’s been a long time though, as when I started up WWE 2K19, I wasn’t familiar with much of the roster. I know the legends, the guys that have been around for quite some time, but not many of the newer guys, NXT, or others. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy playing the games, as I used to own every yearly iteration back when I used to watch religiously.

So grabbing WWE 2K19 was going to be my first baby step back into the WWE universe, not just the games, but the programming as well. The last WWE games I actually played and owned was 2K15, as I’m a diehard Hulkamaniac, but have skipped the iterations following, until now. Skipping a few years and jumping into WWE 2K19, I knew there would be some drastic changes and improvements, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this varied, robust and impressive (at times).

So you’re a WWE fan no doubt, else why would you be reading this review, so I’ll first delve into what’s new with 2K19 over the previous years’ installment, though it’s a lot, and while I can’t cover every single detail, it should give you an idea about how much effort has gone into make this year’s edition the most robust yet, with more options and modes than I knew what to do with.

While MyCareer isn’t new by any means, it does have a lot of new features that really surprised me. The first thing I noticed was that this career mode is now fully voiced. Not just your wrestler that you design from the ground up, but even some WWE superstars lend their voices to the experience as well, making it much more interesting and believable. Sure, the story itself is your typical narrative about a new wrestler to the biz, starting out in the local indie scene and hoping to one day be a WWE Hall of Famer, but that’s fine, and I actually really enjoyed the slow progression.

What is new though is how you actually progress stat and skill wise. As you wrestle and win matches, you’ll earn MyPlayer Skill Points, which can then be used in a much more visual skill tree now. No more simple sliders to put a point into, as now there’s a three way branching tree for you to customize your wrestler just how you want. Broken into Attack, Body and Defense trees, putting skills into one will unlock new stats, abilities and skills the further you go up each. There are even ranks that you can reach once you put enough points into a tree, all the way from Rookie to Hall of Famer. Taking a page from Call of Duty, you’re also able to Prestige should you desire, allowing for even more options to be customized the further you progress for the truly hardcore. For someone that really enjoys creating and playing with their own wrestlers, there’s more than enough content here to keep you busy for quite some time (probably until 2K20).

Creating your wrestler has also been streamlined, as you can now choose one of five base fighting styles: Striker, Technician, Powerhouse, Giant, and Cruiser. Obviously, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s up to you how you want your base, then allowing you to further customize your looks, movesets and more. The only major downfall to this new mode is that there’s a lack of choosing to be a female wrestler. Not a deal breaker by any means, but I’m sure there’s an audience out there that would really enjoy seeing this implemented in future sequels.

Of course, a 2K game wouldn’t be complete without its loot packs, provided in different tiers of cards you can purchase with in game currency, or of course, real world cash, should you desire. Simply playing enough will earn you a decent amount of currency to purchase individual parts, clothing, moves, styles or a ton of other options, if there’s really that one thing you want, but it’s pricey and a long grind this way. Luckily, items you don’t like or want can be scrapped, refunding you a small amount of currency, though it’s completely random what you’re going to get in each type of pack.

Showcase makes a return, focusing on Daniel Bryan’s WWE career path. You begin with the story of his WWE introduction, through to his “YES!” era, all the way to his Championship gold. Between each match you’ll have pre-recorded video of him telling the story of what happened and why, and then you get to recreate those pivotal matches yourself. You’ll get to experience the highlights with actual footage, as well as in-game recreations of specific situations.

During these matches, you’re meant to recreate the match as it happened in real life. For example, you’ve always got an objective in the top left that you need to accomplish before moving onto the next. Sometimes this is simply damaging your opponent in the ring, sometimes it’s a little more specific, but complete enough of these and you’ll trigger cutscenes from some of his most iconic moments. My only complaint about this objective system tied to the matches is that they don’t trigger auto saves at all. So when you’re 20 minutes deep into a match and end up losing, you need to start from the beginning all over again unfortunately. I wasn’t watching much during his time in WWE (I knew about his YES! though), so I really enjoyed this mode, as I got to see his career path from start to present.

A completely new mode addition to 2K19 is Towers. This pits a specific superstar in a gauntlet-like style of matches back to back, challenging you to survive them all in one go. Here you’ll not only have to survive back to back matches, but also win with specific stipulations or match types. Each tower has a different theme to it and is uniquely challenging in its own right. It’s a fun little diversion and addition if you’re looking for a challenge, as the really difficult ones don’t even let you regenerate health between matches either.

While the onscreen wrestlers are still set to eight, it’s said that it’s much smoother this year, keeping a more constant framerate, which I would agree with. Not once did I notice any slowdown or framerate issues, though loading menus and changing character options takes forever still. Commentary has over 15,000 new lines, though there are still times where transitions feel a little awkward or don’t apply as well as they should, and when you’re wrestling in the indie circuit, you’re going to hear the same terrible lines over and over again.

Tons of new mode additions for 5-8 player matches have been added, and a Women’s Royal Rumble, but some of the biggest changes are with the Steel Cage and Hell in a Cell matches themselves. Now you’re able to fight each other on the Steel Cage while climbing and will have to perform a small minigame when trying to escape or open the door.

I never realized that the Cell in the games was actually a bit larger than their actual counterpart in real life, so this has been scaled down slightly to be much more realistic. I thought it felt a little more cramped when fighting outside the ring and within the confines of the Cell walls, and this would be why. Now, with enough damage from regular moves, you’ll be able to break through the Cell walls and even climb all four sides. Just like the cage, you’ll also now be able to fight while climbing the massive structure as well. There’s also more panels on the roof of the Cell that can be broken, sending superstars hurdling through, also able to be broken with enough damage from standard moves.

Also new is a few Money in the Bank changes, for the better. My favorite is the ability to now design and customize your own briefcase to match any wrestler you desire. You’re also able to determine when you want to cash in before, during or after a match, which can make for some exciting events to unfold.

While reversals are still a staple to shifting momentum your way, with precision timing needed, there’s now a Payback system in place to help further this. Taking a lot of damage and losing, unable to turn the tide of a match? Then this system is for you. The more damage you take, the quicker your Payback meter will fill, allowing you to utilize some unique abilities to get out of specific situations if you’re repeatedly on the losing side. You’re also able to choose these abilities from a handful to suit your wrestler or playstyle as well.

While there are even more new additions and changes, these were the most important that stood out to me while playing across dozens of matches and modes. With a roster boasting over 200, anyone that’s up to date with current WWE will surely find the majority of their favorites. For someone that’s been out of the loop for at least a good decade, it’s great that many staples and legends are included as well, and if they aren’t, it’s almost a guarantee that someone has made them and posted it online for you to download.

Visually, everything looks vastly improved overall from the last time I’ve played. Sure, it’s been a couple games since then, but it’s still impressive... most of the time. Certain superstars and intros looks absolutely identical and realistic to their real life counterparts, like HHH, whereas Ronda Rousey’s character looks really off. The majority of wrestlers look fantastic, as do the animations for the most part, but there’s still a little ‘jankyness’ to some of the animation transitions. I’ve also had the ropes do some very odd things when limbs get caught between them, wobbling like a soundwave.

While I found most of the controls simple enough to pick up and play, there’s a lot of thinking involved when you want to do something specific, like holding two buttons to drag someone onto a table, or figuring out how to drop a weapon before the referee notices. Strike and Grapple controls are vastly unchanged, but maybe because I’m not playing this every year like most, it was hard to acclimate to the controls and learn specific timings for reversals.

It may not be enough to make me tune into RAW and SmackDown every week once again, but I am enjoying my time in the squared circle after such a long hiatus. There’s no shortage of modes to enjoy and fans should be content with the additions and changes in 2K19. I’ll definitely be checking out 2K20 next year to see what more improvements have been made on top of these, as this is a great step in the right direction. For the non-fan, sure, it’s not going to convert them, but that doesn’t mean there’s still not a good time to be had baw gawd.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Spyro Reignited Trilogy

In 1998, Playstation had a platforming hit on their hands with the release of Spyro the Dragon, even if it wasn’t completely apparent at the time. It spawned numerous sequels and Spyro even became the mascot for the super popular Skylanders series that is currenly on hiatus. While I grew up with the series, I was never really big into them at the time. Luckily, Toys For Bob is bringing back the original games with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, for fans of old, and those who are new to the franchise.

Included in this trilogy is the original classic, Spyro the Dragon, as well as Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage and Spyro: Year of the Dragon, each of which was great in their own rights at the time, but now they have been remastered. I know I know, yet another remaster right? That seems to be what a ton of games are doing lately. Some are lazy ports with some minor improvements, while others, like Spyro Reignited Trilogy, are true remasters, almost to a fault. If you’re a Spyro buff, you’ll be happy to know that this trilogy is much more than a simple HD port, but rebuilt from the ground up, yet preserving the classic gameplay, mechanics and even design, to what made it so great in the first place.

In the original Spyro, the purple dragon we've come to know is the only one that can save his fellow dragons that have been turned into crystal statues by Gnasty Gnorc. Of course Spyro has his trusty friend, Sparx the Dragonfly, to aid him along the way. The original game in the series was the first time we got to experience the adorable Spyro, and was two decades ago. In the sequel, Ripto’s Rage, Spyro must help save the land of Avalar from the evil sorcerer. Lastly, in Year of the Dragon, Spyro is up against Rhynoc and an evil sorceress, challenged with saving all of the valuable Dragon Eggs. While narrative wasn’t its strongest suit, the gameplay is what really shined and made Spyro a household name during the time.

So let’s get to what you’re probably wondering the most: "What’s new?". Well, a lot actually. Nostalgia is a funny thing, as it can help you remember memories far different than they actually were. Looking back at old Spyro gameplay on the original PlayStation, it simply isn’t pretty to look at. Yes, at the time it was amazing, but my nostalgia sure did remember something quite different. No more hard edges, blocky characters and bland textures. The remaster is truly a remaster.

Obviously there’s little technical limitations these days with current consoles compared to two decades ago, so Toys For Bob was able to put the much deserved love into the project to make all the games included in this package look the way it was always meant to. Not only is the game in HD and plays super smoothly, but it appears every single character, even minor ones and background characters, and the environment they are in, has been completely redesigned, but yet it feels familiar. The art direction looks like a high quality animated cartoon you’d see on TV or Netflix these days; the production value is quite amazing honestly.

Every level has been remastered as well. Gone are the bland flat green color for grass, as there’s now foliage, grass blades, flowers, light rays and tons of small little details added to make it a much more believable and gripping world to enjoy. My only wish is that there was a way to switch to classic graphics on the fly, much like the Halo remaster, so that you could truly appreciate the work that’s gone into this impressive remaster. Seriously, watch some gameplay videos of the classic 1998 version and the Reignited Trilogy version and you will be blown away.

Now, to get this out of the way, there’s a little controversy at the moment if you purchase the retail disc version. The original Spyro game is on the disc, but 2 and 3 need an update for them to be playable, which is quite a big download. This to me isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s an obtrusive and odd decision that is sure to, and already has, displeased some fans.

Even more impressive than the visual upgrades is how Toys For Bob left the original gameplay, mechanics, placements and everything else virtually intact. If you are able to play the original games with your eyes closed from memorization, you could probably do the same here. Even Spyro’s signature dash, side roll and flame moves are intact, if not more stylish. So, to say this is a faithful recreation for the fans is a gross understatement. In today’s graphical standards, I was more than impressed. Gameplay was super fluid and looks absolutely stunning with bright and colorful visuals.

That being said, staying absolutely faithful to the original games is almost a fault in its own right though. Especially in the original Spyro, where you’re given nearly zero guidance as to what you’re supposed to do, how or why. There’s an option to turn on a handy minimap, which helps a great deal, but it’s set to off as a default oddly. I also suggest playing though the games in order, as you can see how much Insomniac improved on each title in terms of level design, mechanics and gameplay. Ripto’s Rage finally got rid of the terrible drowning in a tablespoon of water, allowing Spyro to actually swim. Year of the Dragon was even more impressive, as mini-games like Skateboarding and Hockey were introduced as side activities.

I played Spyro alongside my 6 year old daughter who loves to game as well. She has no problems playing games after a little time with them, as she can play 3D platformers like Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2 without any assistance from myself. She was really enjoying Spyro (and subsequently now wants all of the Spyro merchandise and toys she sees; thanks Activision and Toys For Bob!) but eventually hit a steep curve of difficulty. As we progressed through the games, she needed my help more and more for certain tricky sections. I’ll admit, the games start out very simple at first, but there were a few parts that even I had to attempt numerous times to pass. It’s hard to fault Toys For Bob for this, as they are simply keeping the original Spyro experiences the way they were designed, but some minor tweaking of the difficulty for the younger audience would have been welcomed.

Toying with people’s fond memories and nostalgia is a tricky situation to be in. Do you try and stay faithful to the source material but change it to your own style, only to have the masses hate it, ala Michael Bay’s Transformers, or do you stay absolutely true to the source, recreating a classic experience for a new audience, faults included? Toys For Bob has gone with the latter, recreating the classic Spyro experience I enjoyed in my day. No matter how you choose to remaster a title, people will always wish that something was changed or kept the same, and I feel Toys For Bob has found that sweet spot of not messing with something that isn’t broken, even if a few mechanics could have been improved slightly.

More than a simple coat of paint, the Spyro Reignited Trilogy brings back a wave of nostalgia, seemingly improving my fond memories of the classic purple dragon. Now a new generation, like my daughter, can enjoy Spyro, and Toys For Bob should be commended for creating this remaster with the proper love and care that Spyro deserved for original fans, and they have truly outdone themselves.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption

Since Dark Souls (I guess technically Demon’s Souls) came onto the scene, there’s been no shortage of others trying to replicate its success. For those uninitiated, the Dark Souls franchise that is a series of brutally difficult action adventure games that has amassed quite a following of players who really gravitate towards the challenging gameplay and unique combat mechanics. Like any successful title, there’s always other games that release afterwards that are inspired and have their own twist on a proven formula. The newest Souls-inspired title comes from a small indie developer with an appropriate studio name, Another Indie.

I know what you’re thinking, an indie’s take on one of the most brutal and popular genres will most likely not hold a flame to the source material. I’d be lying if that wasn’t my initial reaction as well, but Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption does just enough differently, changes a few main core mechanics, and makes some design choices where it actually is its own unique experience, and not simply a rip-off that touts “inspired by...”.

So, what makes Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption differentiate from its inspiration? You know how exciting the boss fights in Dark Souls are, challenging you over and over until you learn their mechanics? What if you’re not that great at the genre, like myself, and don’t always get to experience every uniquely crafted boss sequence because of the need for hours of leveling and exploring required to do before reaching them? Sacrifice for Redemption has streamlined this and is essentially a boss rush mode. That’s right, no vast world to explore and navigate. No need to level up and gain new abilities. Simply fight boss after boss, each with increased difficulty. It sounds a little shallow being explained, but it works for what it’s trying to accomplish, and in relation to the narrative.

You are Adam (maybe I’m a bit bias because of his name), guilty of some major sin, but you have also lost your memory, so you’re unsure of what you’ve done. You’re on a quest of redemption, to solve what you’ve sinned and restore your memory. There’s more to it than that, but given that the overall gameplay isn’t terribly long (not including deaths and restarts), I’ll leave it to you to find out the conclusion. Needless to say, once the credits roll, the overall narrative makes sense and I quite enjoyed it even though it’ll be viewed by some as a shallow boss rush battler.

In most games, the first option you’re usually given is to choose your character or customize them somehow; not here though. Oddly enough, your first decision will be if you want to utilize a freely rotating camera or a fixed angled camera. As a newbie to the game, I chose fixed, but some may want to use the free camera instead, out of habit. Given you’ll want to be locked onto the bosses nearly the majority of the time, I was fine with my choice.

You’ll face-off against eight distinctly unique bosses, with the first seven based on the deadly sins. After a brief tutorial about the controls, which feel natural, you’re set in a small hub area where you can pick and choose what boss to fight, in whatever order you wish, though with a twist. You see, before each boss fight, you’ll need to sacrifice something of yourself. At first it’s simply a chunk of health you lose access to, but as you progress, your damage and defense will suffer, you’ll have less items to use, or you'll even lose the ability to heal yourself. This means the game becomes more challenging as you progress, regardless of what boss order you decide to go with.

As I began, I hated that I was becoming weaker as I progressed, instead of stronger, but this is Sacrifice of Redemption's subtle way of telling you to get better as you progress. So, while the bosses don’t inherently become “harder”, the setbacks you are given make a huge difference, especially if it’s a boss that you’re having trouble with initially. Some are obviously more trickier than others, but like any game, once you’ve figured out their mechanics and patterns, it’s simply having the patience to strike when appropriate.

Consider this a warning: "Be ready to die a lot". I swear I must have tried a certain boss a hundred times before finally besting it, but the gratification of finally doing so is immense. In a way I really appreciated that the game forces you to become better with each new debuff you inherit, as it doesn’t go away after beating a boss. But on the other hand, I really enjoy becoming more powerful as I progress through a title at the same time. You’re also able to freely leave a battle and attempt another boss if you’re simply becoming too frustrated and need a change; something I did a handful of times.

Combat in Sacrifice for Redemption is quite challenging. You’re able to use a sword and shield combo or a large two handed sword, based on your preference. You can also use a handful of other items like spears, fire bombs, health potions and more. Just like Dark Souls, you have an endurance bar that dictates how much you can swing your weapon, run, or dodge roll before having to take a moment to rest and let the action bar replenish.

Now, I’m not good at the Souls games in any way; terribly bad you might say, but I do enjoy them still, even with constant frustration from repeatedly dying. Combat is fair, yet challenging. Not once did I die to something unfair, as it was a result of poor judgement or impatience on my part, or unknowing what to expect from the boss. Eventually I enjoyed being forced to become better, rather than being given a toolbox of new skills and abilities to rely on and learn.

Where Sacrifice of Redemption shines is its bosses, obviously. Each one is completely unique and distinct, matching their respective sin in an interesting way. Each boss has its own pattern for attacks and abilities, something you’ll need to learn by trial and error, but each feels like its own hand crafted experience. Simply knowing how to beat one will have no bearing on the next. I don’t want to spoil any of these experiences, but nearly every single one was memorable in its own way.

I don’t normally delve into achievements for a review, but I really enjoyed the ones this game, as there were a handful for each boss. Some were comedic, others were skill based, while others based on a lack of skill, like one you earn from dying from a first attack. For being an indie game, you never know what to expect visually, but I was actually quite impressed with how Sacrifice for Redemption looked and performed. It clearly has that Souls-like style to it, but coming from such a small studio, I was quite impressed, especially with the boss designs and animations.

Even with its very short length, Dark Souls vets will find some entertainment here with its unique bosses and increasingly difficult gameplay. If you’ve been shy to try the genre because of its difficulty, this may be a good first step into it, as you’re not weighed down by hours of gameplay and exploration, and simply get to experience the best portions back to back, even if that does make for a slightly shallow experience with little payoff.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Time Carnage

If I told you there was a game in which its main premise was shooting wave of zombies, dinosaurs, monsters and robots across time, and with tons of different types of weapons, would that sound exciting? Traveling through time and shooting dinosaurs with flamethrowers, snipers and rifles sounded fantastic on paper. That’s about where the fun will end though, as it sounds like a great idea, but the execution is anything but. I don’t like to start out reviews with a negative tone, but when there’s very little redeeming qualities, it’s difficult to look for the few positives with such a generic and bland shooter.

While there is technically a campaign, something you’ll want to play through first for unlocks, don’t expect any semblance of a narrative though. I’m sure there’s a reason to why, and how, you’re travelling through time to shoot waves of enemies, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. There’s some slight hints in the tooltips, but there’s no traditional “story” included in any way, shape or form.

Campaign is basic as it gets, going through 4 separate time periods, each consisting of 4 levels that each have you trying to survive 5 waves of enemies for said time period. The only real differences between the time periods is the enemies and beackdrop. Sure, fighting dinosaurs will place you in more jungle-like areas, and robots in a futuristic setting, but all in all, there’s not much difference between them aside from re-skins. Simply survive 5 waves, which should only takes you 5-8 minutes, do that 4 times to beat a time period, and do that 4 times to complete the campaign. I’ll let you do the math, but campaign mode isn’t really built for longevity.

So while Time Carnage is a survival wave shooter at its core, there’s a unique, and arguably terrible, reloading mechanic that makes it stand out amongst others. Also setting it apart from others is the pedestal that you’re encased in and unable to move from. Essentially you’re standing inside a very small bubble shield that enemies are unable to penetrate, yet are trying to whittle down the shield with every hit. This shield will absorb damage, but with ongoing waves of enemies, you’ll need to be quick to dispatch them before your shield is depleted, or else you lose. That’s about it in a nutshell. You’re unable to move really, aside from a foot in any direction within your pedestal area, so you’ll simply need to move your aimer and look in each direction. No strafing for you.

As you complete levels in campaign, you’ll unlock new weapons to use whenever you wish, eventually having access to over 20. Before each level you’ll get to choose 4 weapons to bring with you to help survive the waves of enemies. Problem is, that there’s no real reason to be strategic with your weapon choices for the most part. You’re allowed to pick the same weapon for all 4 slots (2 for each hand), so while I usually picked two really slow and powerful guns for one hand, and two rapid firing for the right, you can simply choose the most powerful weapon for all slots and rotate them in and out that way (more on that shortly).

I believe the intended design was to be strategic with your weapon choices, but when you’re not given any restrictions, why wouldn’t you simply choose the best you have at all times? Weapons have no real weight to them either, so even sniper rifles and bigger guns feel and sound like toys. Worse yet, you’ll have to deal with a cash register sound every time you make a headshot, not just a kill.

Time Carnage’s most unique mechanic lies is within its reload system. It’s touted as “Shoot, drop, switch, repeat!”, and it is just that. The reason you choose two weapons for each hand is that you’re unable to manually reload your guns. That’s right, you can’t manually reload your ammo. Instead, when you swap for your other weapon on the same hand, the unused one gets placed on your pedestal and starts to automatically reload slowly. So you need to dock your weapons to reload them, thus using your backup weapon instead as it does so. It’s an interesting idea, but I still can’t figure out the why. I get that I’m stuck in this small confined shield and unable to move, but that about sums up the combat.

Depending on which era you’re currently in, you’ll shoot hundreds of zombies, monsters, robots or even dinosaurs. Each level has its own unique location, but there’s nothing noteworthy or special about any of them for the most part. While I personally enjoyed the robot era simply for its neon light backdrops, you’ll find that enemies tend to blend into the background quite often, resulting in a lot of unnecessary damage taken because you're unable to see them before it's too late.

Each waves becomes progressively more difficult as you progress, each adding a new slightly more challenging enemy or simply more of them at once. By wave 5 you’ll see all of the types of enemies, from the standard grunts all the way to the massive T-Rex, Ogre, or Tank-like bot. The bigger enemies will obviously do more damage and absorb more, but they are usually slower, making them easier to deal with. The real frustration comes from the smallest enemies; the dogs, flies, bugs and spiders. These ******* are small, quick and incredibly difficult to shoot (mostly due to the controls) and cause me the most grief in every level. Even with the FOV set to max, you’re unable to see enemies coming from certain directions at times, so you’ll constantly get hit, unaware where from.

If you sat down and plowed through the campaign, looking for something else to do, there are two more modes for you to work towards; Arcade and Challenge. Arcade is simply creating a custom game however you like; choosing your enemies, weapons and setting. Nothing special, but you can select enemies from all the eras should you desire, and even perks that you’ve unlocked that can alter gameplay in unique ways.

Challenge mode is a little more interesting, as it gives you a specific criteria to try and complete. Maybe it’s shooting the annoying flying enemies with a bow and arrow, or trying to stay alive as long as you can with a rubber duck gun (don’t ask, though it was my favorite weapon). The challenge mode should keep your interest a little while longer, as it’s going to force you to play in a specific, and usually quite challenging, way that you normally wouldn’t.

Time Carnage was designed with VR in mind, and given that this isn’t the VR version, but instead the standard console edition, it’s simply not the same experience. Would VR save this game from its terrible controls and poor design? I doubt it, but it would be slightly improved. The reloading mechanics sounds like an interesting idea, but doesn’t translate very well. Sure, it’s functional, I guess, but again, I don’t understand why I can’t simply reload my weapons like normal.

Gameplay is very repetitive, and I’ll be surprised if it’s able to keep your attention for any length of time. The campaign is painful to get through, but luckily you only need to do so once for the unlocks before moving onto Challenge Mode instead. Even so, that won’t last you long unless you want to try and beat your high scores. I wanted to enjoy shooting waves of dinosaurs, but I wasn’t in any way with the weak gunplay, terrible controls and an onset of boredom. Great premise, but no real execution to a simple idea.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Assassin’s Creed has always had a good base formula: Fight the bad guys (Templars), assassinate their leader, and save the world by solving a much broader scope of mystery. That is essentially the magic mix for the Assassin's Creed titles in a nutshell. Of course there’s much more to it than that, with almost each game being set in its own era, but with a ‘real world’ counterpart to tie them all together in the same Assassin’s vs Templar.

The franchise as a whole has always done an exceptional job at portraying the era and setting that the specific game is placed in, from the Third Crusade in the original game to last years Egypt. The newest game, Assassin's Creed Odyssey is set in Greece during the Spartan era. While I’ve never been to Greece, especially hundreds of years ago, I imagine this is as near perfect a representation you could find anywhere else that conveys the land and time so accurately. You’re surrounded by gorgeous scenery, bustling cities, farms, mountains and more, all which I wish I could visit in real life. Spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe some of the gorgeous vistas you’ll see along your journey.

If you played last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins you’ll have a rough idea of the framework used for Odyssey. Origins was a big change for the series, allowing you to access a massive landscape and giving you the ability to freely explore it however you wish. There were also other drastic changes for the series. Well, Odyssey takes this template and expands upon it tenfold. If you thought Origins was a daunting task to get through, Odyssey puts it to shame, as now you also have the seas to sail in Greece.

Overwhelming is a word I keep coming back to when I’m describing Odyssey to friends and other people. There’s so much to do that it can be daunting at times, even figuring out where to begin, but yet the game allows you to play however you wish. For example, I was about 20 hours in before I even really started to push the main story quests onward, as I was so focused on trying to complete every quest I came along and uncover each question mark on the map as I passed by it.

I know every new big AAA game that releases always boasts about how large their world is and how there’s so much to do, but kudos to Ubisoft, as there’s an overwhelmingly abundance of things for you to complete in Odyssey, should you desire to. So romance those men and women that allow it, hunt animals for pelts, try to become the biggest and baddest mercenary of the lands, hunt cultists, become a threat on the seas, or do a million other things if you wish, it’s completely up to you how you want to play.

Set in the ancient Greece just after the infamous Spartan era led by Leonidas, you begin by choosing to play as Kassandra or Alexios, a choice that cannot be undone or changed along the way, so don’t expect it to be like Syndicate where you could freely switch between the two main characters in that game. You are a descendant of Leonidas, armed with the end of his legendary spear. This is important, as this replaces your typical hidden blade that previous assassins have used in the franchises other titles. Choosing either character isn’t simply just a visual change either, as some events will unfold differently or you will be given different options during your adventure.

Regardless of your character choice, you fill the role of a Misthios; essentially a mercenary. You are given the option to fight alongside or against the Spartans or Athenians, but your main goal is a narrative that involves family and a nefarious plot that must be stopped. I honestly don’t want to give much more away, as the main story is actually quite good, and spoilers would only dampen some of the reveals and excitement I had going through it blind my first time. Your journey will begin small in scope, but like any good Assassin’s Creed, will eventually unravel into a wondrous tale of intrigue, deceit, revenge and mystery.

Greece is a beautiful landscape, and it’s actually quite difficult to fathom how large the land is, as your training area is quite large, but as you zoom out to see the world, you will notice that it’s quite a small island in comparison to the surrounding lands. As you make your way to Athens and beyond you’ll start to get an idea for how populated and how much work went into making this virtual ancient Greece a living and breathing world, filled with numerous things to do.

Like Origins, areas and quests are level gated. While you’re welcome to try them at any level, I found that trying to combat enemies that are 2-3 levels higher than yourself is a death wish for the most part, and that’s not even including the mercenaries (more on that shortly). What I loved about Origins was going back to previous areas and slaughtering everything in my way like an unstoppable force once I gained a few levels. This isn’t really an option in Odyssey, as enemies and areas level up alongside you. While I’ve come to terms with this and have altered my gameplay around it, I really wish it was an option instead of a forced default.

Another early choice you’ll need to make is if you want to play on Guided or Exploration Mode, both of which drastically alter how you’ll experience Odyssey. Guided Mode is very traditional, where you’re given a quest and an icon appears on your map and HUD to indicate where you should be heading or where your target is, just like in previous games.

New however is Exploration Mode, seemingly how the developers suggest you should play. Here, you’ll be given a quest but won’t be given a direct marker of where you should go. Instead, you’ll need to find clues to figure out where your target or objective is. For example, if the person gives you a quest telling you that they last saw some bandits by a waterfall, you’ll need to speak around and ask people about bandits, or where a waterfall is. You’ll have a certain amount of clues needed before being given the direct marker, so it adds a lot more to the exploration of the world, making you pay attention more and interact with the game's environment and NPCs more deeply. While I prefer the Guided Mode, my buddy swears by Exploration and loves having to figure out where he needs to go next, so it’s a preference.

Combat feels somewhat similar to Origins, yet abilities have been changed, for the better, and it allows for many more types of playstyles. Combat isn’t necessarily harder, but you’ll need to dodge and parry more often rather than going in swinging wildly. Perform a perfect dodge or parry and time will slow, allowing you to get some heavy hits in on the enemies.

Skills and abilities are broken into three separate categories: Hunter, Warrior and Assassin lines. Each time you level up you’re able to spend an ability point on any skill from either of the trees, though some are story or level locked for progression. These separate skill trees allow you to build a Misthios to suit exactly how you want to play.

Hunter abilities focus on your bow skills, allowing you to do massive damage with headshots, shoot multiple arrows, or even concussive arrows to stun enemies. The Warrior line of skills is your brawler, allowing you to take and deal more damage, break shields and even perform the iconic Spartan Kick to enemies. I preferred to play like a traditional Assassin’s Creed game and went down the Assassin’s line mostly, though I supplemented abilities from across all three skill trees. I’m able to do massive damage from hidden areas, apply poison to my blade and even completely disappear if needed.

Your gear plays a large part into your skills too, as each weapon and piece of armor will have an amount of Hunter, Warrior or Assassin damage on it, along with other bonuses or even massively useful set pieces for the best gear. Much like the system from Origins, every item will have a required level and vary in quality from common, blue, purple or even gold quality. You’ll need to keep your gear updated as you level though, given that enemies scale with you, so make sure to visit a blacksmith and upgrade your best pieces to be in line with your current level. This of course takes many materials, things you’ll find along the way doing quests and hunting, like stone, pelts, wood and more. Once you get to about level 30 or so, the requirements for gear upgrades becomes massive, again, adding to the overwhelming feeling, knowing you may have to grind for a bit to gather the supplies.

Then comes the quests. This is where I became overwhelmed quite quickly. In the beginning you’re given a handful of simple and easy quests in progression, and once you’re released into the world, BOOM. You’re going to have so many quests that you won’t know where to start. I myself always try and go from closest to furthest, but you are given a bunch of quests that will also last you until the end of the game as well, giving something to always work towards. While you’re not forced to do any side quests if you don’t wish, keep in mind that areas are heavily level gated, so if you don’t, you’re going to be very underpowered as you progress through the story. There are daily quests, and other quests as well, that will reward you with a special currency that can be saved up and exchanged for some of the best legendary gear available.

Many games boast the choices you make change the world around you, and sure there are some that live up to that claim, but Odyssey does this very well, and naturally. For the first time in the series, you’re actually given dialogue choices. Sometimes these are superficial choices, but they are choices nonetheless. For example, me and my friend did the same quest but chose completely different options, and both choices played out drastically different. He stopped a plague from spreading whereas I did not, and it’s changed other things in the world because of it. It’s not always clear what impact your choices will have, but they can be radically different based on your decisions.

About a couple dozen hours into Odyssey, I started to notice a trend with many of the side quests. Many will simply be fetch quests, ‘go kill this guy’ or investigate an area, but they alter enough to avoid becoming stale, and given that I’m rewarded with money, gear and experience, I opt to always do them regardless. There are also numerous romance options, and while nowhere near as involved as say Mass Effect, you’re not limited to one person or pairing, so sleep around if you wish, virtually speaking, even if it is mostly meaningless (but that’s half the fun, right?).

Origins utilized Phylakes as badass bounty hunters that would hunt you down and try to kill you. While a cool idea, it always frustrated me as they were extremely challenging and relentless. This has been improved in Odyssey, replaced with Mercenaries. If you kill too many highly ranked people, or cause too much of a ruckus or murder, your wanted bounty level will rise, causing these randomly generated mercenary hunters to track you down. These are essentially mini-bosses that can be a great challenge and give you some fantastic gear if beaten.

As your bounty level rises (think wanted star levels from Grand Theft Auto), more and more menacing bounty hunters will start to track you down. What makes this mechanic so interesting though is that they can appear all over the world and at any moment. So, it doesn’t matter that you’re in the middle of a story quest, dispatching enemies, as they show up randomly, or even in pairs. You are able to pay off your bounty if you wish to be left alone, but that cost rises steadily, so it’s up to you how you want to deal with these baddies.

Eventually you’ll unlock a Cultist menu, showcasing special targets that relate to the main story and unlock some of the best gear and set pieces. You won’t simply know where all of these cultists are though, and will need to do some investigative work to uncover their identities before they can be marked on the map.

To add even more things to do in Odyssey, Conquests play a large part in ‘freeing’ a specific region or area. These are epic clashes with Spartans versus Athenians where you choose which side you wish to fight for. To unlock these battles you’ll need to lower the regions control by clearing out forts, burning supplies and killing specific targets before they are available. These battles have a heavy 'For Honor' vibe to it (another Ubisoft title for those who may not know), as you need to lower the enemies’ count in battle, facing off against numerous enemies and captains at once.

Lastly, a series favorite, ship battles, make a return. This is not only how you’ll traverse from island to island, but you are able to openly engage in naval warfare should you desire. While the core gameplay is mostly familiar, you are now able to not only upgrade your ship, but you can also recruit lieutenants to your crew (instead of assassinating them), which will help in ship battles. Your lieutenants are even able to be summoned on land (if you purchase that ability) to distract and fight for you for short period of time. There are naval quests for you to take on if that’s what you wish to focus on as well, so there’s a ton of options for you to play however you desire.

Odyssey still has the core Assassin’s Creed gameplay to it, and while I play it that style, you’re able to play in a completely different way should you desire. You can decide to play as a Hunter/Warrior hybrid if you want and it actually feels like playing a Witcher title at times. Yes, quests eventually become slightly repetitive, but they are completely optional and you can play them however and whenever you desire. While I almost constantly feel overwhelmed with how much there is to always do, it goes to show how much content has been included, only adding to the value and replayability.

During my first week of playing, I was hard crashing and freezing at least once or twice a day, which obviously became very frustrating. It seems this has been fixed with the latest patch, but it happened enough in the beginning to be noteworthy. There are a ton of smaller bugs riddled throughout, though nothing I’ve personally experienced that’s game breaking, though a friend of mine had one of his main quests glitch out on him pretty badly at one point.

Even with a few hiccups, Odyssey is one of the best Assassin’s Creed games to date. It allows you to play it nearly however you want, doesn’t intrude too often with the ‘real world’ segments (even though I quite enjoy that aspect), and it is simply a better product overall than previous entries. While Black Flag may still be my favorite in the series for its pirate setting, and Ezio as my favorite protagonist, Odyssey tops my list for overall experience with all of its additions and improvements. If you enjoyed Origins, Odyssey is a vastly improved version, and if you’ve fallen out of love with Assassin’s Creed over the years, this is the one to reel you back in with an overwhelming amount of stuff to do however you wish.

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Fishing Sim World

There really isn’t a wide breadth of options for dedicated fishing games on console if you’re really into the sport, which is a shame, as I tend to always gravitate towards fishing if it’s included in game, even as a simple side activity with little reward. Truth be told, I can count the times I’ve actually gone fishing in real life on a single hand, but even though I’m not an avid angler in real life, I do enjoy my virtual line and reel whenever possible.

Dovetail Games aims to remedy this isolated problem on console with their newest release, Fishing Sim World. Aiming at being a realistic fishing simulator, you’ll travel to many bodies of water and use dozens of pieces of equipment to start your angling career off on the right foot. So does Fishing Sim World tick all the right boxes to get you hooked? Let’s dive in.

From the opening, you’ll be able to create your character, male or female, and slightly alter how they look and what they wear. There’s really not a lot of options available, or that look great, but at least you’re able to somewhat customize a fisherman, or woman, to suit your preferences. I will say, the blandness of the visuals is apparent from the get-go, as the characters and animations themselves are far from impressive by any means.

Next up I would suggest heading to the tutorial area, as that’s going to be how you learn how to begin your fishing career off on the right foot. This was the first disappointment I had though, as instead of an in-depth tutorial that shows you and gets you to practice all the intricacies of the fishing life, you’re instead simply given a list of tutorial videos to watch and hopefully remember. There’s a handful of videos, going over each topic, from casting, reeling in, tackle box and equipment and more, but for a game that’s boasting about being a realistic simulator, some hands on practice would have been a far better option instead of this back seat approach.

You’re able to then choose where you’d like to fish from a handful of different areas and lakes, aiming to catch more than a dozen different types of fish along the way, and do to so, you’re going to need a multitude of different equipment types, from lures, bait and rods, depending on what you’re aiming to catch. Do you prefer to hit the lakes in Florida, New York, France, Germany, Austria or the UK? It’s completely up to you, and of course, each area houses different species of fish. To navigate these large lakes you’re going to need a vessel, and as it just happens, you have access to a boat, allowing you to search and scour for your favorite fishing spots with your on-board fish sonar and GPS.

Fishing won’t work without the right equipment, and included is a number of items for your tackle box from a number of officially licensed brands such as Bass Cat Boats, Delkim, Rat-L-Trap, Duckett Fishing, Korda and Mainline Baits. While I’m not an avid fisherman myself, I can only assume that the licensed gear is an accurate depiction of its real life counterparts and works similarly.

What I love the most about fishing is that you can simply do it at your own pace and relax. Sometimes I need to unwind from the everyday shooters and racers, and want something different to reset my gaming state. This is where Fishing Sim World excels, as you’re not forced to catch a certain amount or imposed with strict time limits (unless in a tournament), allowing me to freely fish at my own pace and speed however I wish.

So you’ve boated all around your chosen lake and found a spot that seems full of fish with some great natural beauty to it to relax to. Now this is where your patience will be tested. Fishing is tricky, as you’re simply left to chance, depending on the fish, how hungry they are, if they’ll bite and more. Sometimes you’ll find a spot where you’ll constantly get bites nonstop, whereas other areas I’ve had no luck with a single bite for over 15 minutes. This of course is partly due to the fisher’s skill of setting the line and reeling it in in a specific way in order to tantalize the fish into biting.

You’ve given two different options for casting and using your reel. A more realistic version labeled ‘Total Cast Control’ and a simpler easier option. The easy option simply has you aiming and then holding down the power button on your cast until you hit the percentage you want (100% being the maximum distance), whereas Total Cast Control is much more involved and will require a bit of practice to get used to. It takes a bit of a learning curve to get the hang of, but you can cast much more precisely and is more involved if you take the time to learn its intricacies.

Fish won’t simply bite just because you cast your lure into the water though. This is where your skill as a fisherman comes into play, as you need to make your lure maneuver in a specific way to entice the fish into thinking it’s real food. There are different types of lure movements you can use, depending on the specific lure and the type of fish you’re trying to attract. You can constantly reel in, stop and go or make twitch movements. Each have its own purpose and is indicated if you’re doing it properly by the color of its icon in the water (green for good and red for poor).

Your line is on the water and you’ve finally got a bite! Indicated by a large “!”, you’ll need to snag the hook into the fish’s mouth quickly if you want to keep it attached without it breaking free. This is called the strike, and the quality of your strike will depend on the movement and timing of your rod snap from when the bite happens. This takes a little getting used to, but it’s always exciting to see that lure dunk into the water as your rod bends.

As the fish fights you, you’ll need to fight back in moderation. Your fishing line is set for a specific weight limit and tension, so if you fight too hard against the fish, your line could snap. This is where the cat and mouse game begins of letting the fish tire itself out before you reel it in. If the fish is swimming away to the left, you’ll want to maneuver your rod to the right as you reel it in slowly, keeping an eye on the tension meter. When the fish takes a break, that’s when you want to reel in as fast as you can, before it fights back and tries to swim away some more. It’s always satisfying to reel in a huge catch that was a back and forth battle.

Progression is based on your earned Tackle Points, TP for short, and this is what you earn for catching each fish. Earn enough TP and you’ll be able to spend it on new gear, clothing and more equipment, based on your fishing preferences or style. It’s a basic as a progression system comes, but at least there’s a reason to continue catching other than for the love of the sport itself.

Should you have other avid fishing friends online, you’re able to play together in 4 player multiplayer and even begin a live tournament to see who the best fisherman is by comparing catches. Depending on the tournament you choose, you’re not simply ranked on who catches the biggest or heaviest fish, but sometimes the amount caught, combined length or combined weight. These add some variety to the gameplay and simply catching one huge monster trophy fish won’t always net you the win in every case.

While the world itself is very bland and uninspiring, it’s still somewhat calming, being in the middle of a lake by yourself, waiting for a bite. The sunlight and reflections on the water look decent, but for a game that absolutely revolves around being in and around the water, I was hoping for more in the visuals. Of course I wasn’t expecting it to hit the realistic water standards set in Sea of Thieves, and you can see a small bit of transparency in the water when the fish near the surface, but everything else simply looks average and bland at best.

There’s really no music included either, and while I get that as a design decision, as you’re supposed to be on the water alone, quiet and calm, when you don’t get a bite for over ten minutes, the downtime can become boring. Maybe that’s because I’m not an avid fisher in real life and simply ‘don’t get it’, but never the less, I still had fun when the fish were biting and I caught a new personal best bass.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Immortal: Unchained

Darks Souls, and games like it, have a huge following. I’m not great at these types of games, as the ‘tough as nails’ genre isn’t really for me, but I have forced myself to sit through the Souls games to try and become better and see what all the fuss is about. While I’ve yet to finish one to completion, the genre intrigues me, as the hardcore RPG will punish you harshly for your mistakes, but once you learn how to overcome those obstacles, you become much more proficient and start to enjoy it more.

Dark Souls, clearly the inspiration behind Toadman Interactive’s newest entry, Immortal: Unchained, is the leader and king of the genre, but Immortal is attempting to usurp the throne with some drastic, and questionable, changes to the proven formula. While yes, Immortal: Unchained is Dark Souls-like and is just as hardcore, it’s extremely challenging for different reasons.

The question is that if Immortal: Unchained has emulated what Souls does so well, but changes it up enough to be unique in its own right. Well, it certainly changes up the formula in a drastic way, as it’s primarily ranged base weaponry instead of melee, but it doesn’t seem to ‘click’ as well with some of its other design choices. At first I thought I was falling into the typical “git gud” trap where I simply wasn’t learning from my mistakes, but after my time with Immortal, I’m convinced “It’s not me, it’s you”.

You are labeled an ultimate weapon who’s been imprisoned for a millennia but is unleashed to stop a catastrophic event that’s about to unfold. Not only is the world in danger, but all of the universe, and it’s only you that is able to prevent that from happening. That would be the extremely scaled down synopsis of the main plot, but there is a lot more lore thrust at you that makes the overall narrative quite convoluted and confusing at times. A lot of information is thrown at you at once during cutscenes, and if you’re not paying attention, much of the intricacies will fly over your head, leaving you confused.

As you begin your journey, you’ll need to create your character, choosing their looks and then which class you want to play as. Classes range from Tracker, Vandal, Raider, Wanderer, Marksman and Mercenary, each with their own specific strengths and play styles. More or less, your class will determine what weapons you ‘should’ be using, as they will be more proficient with them, though you’re able to completely customize your stats as you level up, allowing you to utilize other weapons with their specific requirements.

If you want to use shotguns for example, you’ll probably want to pick the class that is more geared towards that play style, as Immortal tends to give you more loot items early on that are suited for your specific class. By the time you make it to the first boss fight, you’re going to know quite quickly if that class is suited for you or not. I had to reach the first boss three times before settling on a class that was more suited to how I wanted to play. As you gain levels, you’ll also earn the ability to equip aspects. Each class has one they begin with (most do anyways) and then you’ll be able to select more at specific levels, such as a weapon damage increase and other passive bonuses of your choosing. You can use these to enhance your playstyle or help a struggling aspect, it’s up to you.

To say that Dark Souls was an inspiration for Immortal: Unchained would be an understatement. Sure it changes things up with being primarily ranged weapon based with guns, but you’ve got your typical stamina bar for running and dodging, health syringes are your Estus Flasks and instead of Bonfires you have Obelisks. While I don’t knock them for essentially copying the same formula, the changes they did make are quite questionable once you start to getting a few hours into it.

Killing enemies and opening chests will earn you scrap (currency). This is the currency you’ll use to upgrade your character and weapons. Prepare to hoard it though, as each time you do so, the successive level up will cost slightly more and more each time. Being able to upgrade your weapons is a great feature, though it’s hard to do so with the requirements needed for each tier, so prepare for a grind. It wouldn’t be a hardcore experience without many cheap deaths. Just like Souls, when you die you’re going to leave all your gathered scrap on your corpse. Should you go back and retrieve it, great, but if you die again, it’s lost forever.

This is where obelisks come into play, as they are used as your save points, how to change your loadouts, refill your ammo and upgrade your character. Yes, when you run out of ammo, you’ll need to use an obelisk, which in turn resets all of the enemies, meaning you’ll need to use ammo again to defeat them. See where this design starts to falter? The same goes for wanting to change weapons. If you just picked up a sweet new gun or want to upgrade one you’re using, you’ll need to visit an obelisk, which aren’t generally placed conveniently along the path you need to go, and spent your scrap to upgrade skills and weapons. Same goes for leveling up, as you’ll need to use these points, respawning all the enemies, causing a lot of unneeded backtracking and killing.

This is where the main change to ranged combat comes into play. Yes you have a melee weapon, but it’s generally only used as a last resort when you run out of ammo and can’t find an obelisk to refill. This ranged based combat forces you to play Immortal drastically different from others in the genre. You can either manually aim at enemies, targeting head or limbs, or use the lock on for easier aiming. The problem is there’s pros and cons to both.

You see, sure using lock on is great and easy when it decides to lock onto the guy you actually want to fire at, but you’re unable to freely aim at head and limbs this way. Sometimes you’ll want to free fire, as shooting an arm can make the enemy drop their weapon, or blowing their leg off will stagger them for a short period. While that’s great and promotes strategic gunfire, your ammo is so limited that I chose to mostly use the lock on to avoid missing any shots so that I didn’t have to backtrack to an obelisk to refill my ammo. It doesn’t help that the manual aiming simply doesn’t feel right, as I wasted a lot of shots trying to aim properly, and reloading takes forever at the default rate before upgrades.

With combat being ranged based, you’d think that you’d be given some sort of shield or defensive mechanics to counter enemies’ attacks. Nope. You’re simply given a dodge that uses your stamina. When you’re being surrounded and have to avoid incoming fire from enemies, it can be chaotic at best to figure out where and when to dodge, especially since there’s no hit markers of which side you’re being shot from.

And don’t get me started on some of the enemies. I know games like this are supposed to be difficult, and in the beginning it’s manageable, but later on you start to face off against grunts that will rush at you and explode, and worse, teleporting enemies. These bastards break your lock on and can warp in nearly any direction and distance, so when you’re fighting multiples, along with other types of enemies, prepare for some great frustration. Sure, enemies have weak glowing spots on their backs that can use massive damage, but good luck actually getting behind them when being flanked from all sides from teleporting enemies.

What I did enjoy were the numerous boss fights. Sure, they utilized basic attack patterns with obvious tells for the most part, but their challenge level was just about spot on for the most part, that is until you get to the ones that spawn more enemies and other crazy attacks. Prepare to die on these fights though, as one wrong move and you’ll earn a cheap death. The first boss, for example, has a tell when he’s about to rush directly at you, prompting you to dodge out of the way. Fail to do so and you’ll be knocked down and stunned for a moment, where he’ll most likely follow-up with a ground pound, killing you in the process. Expect many cheap moves like this and simply try and circle around to their backs and shoot the weak spots.

Dark Souls was so popular, not simply because of its daunting challenge and difficulty, but its balanced and fair gameplay once you learned from your mistakes. That doesn’t really exist here as prominently with the major change to ranged combat. Sure it has the difficulty, but it’s lacking the soul and fun for the most part. This immortal should have stayed chained.

Overall Score: 4.5 / 10 Phantom Doctrine

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which I believe is true, but what happens when you’re trying to imitate one of the most beloved games in a genre, yet can’t quite capture the essence that makes it unique and special? That’s somewhat what we have here with CreativeForge Games’ newest title, Phantom Doctrine; a top down 3D turn based tactical game that has borrowed very heavily from games like XCOM. They’ve brought some great ideas, some of which I hope Firaxis takes note of and ‘borrows’ back, but it’s hard to compare to one of the best in the genre, even if it’s decent in its own right.

Instead of an alien assault and saving planet Earth, the narrative behind Phantom Doctrine is that it is set within the Cold War in the early 80's, with the CIA versus the KGB in a battle of information, spies and assaults at its height of tension. You never know who you can trust and you begin to question everything. An agent has been missing for a week and returns unexpectedly; do you interrogate him out of paranoia or take him at his word? You risk having your informant lay dormant in an enemy filled country; do you have them lay low and risk being caught, or try and find out more information about a conspiracy? These are just some questions you’ll need to ask yourself as you progress in the campaign.

You lead The Cabal, a secret organization that’s tasked with stopping a global conspiracy. Of course, you’ll need to do so in the shadows with covert ops, spies, interrogations, highly classified documents and more. But you’ll also need to be swift and decisive, as there’s a more sinister plot at stake that could mean doomsday if you don’t act quickly. The campaign is said to have 40+ hours of gameplay included, which sounds about right if you’re counting the multiple playthroughs if you want to see everything.

You see, you’re able to choose from the CIA or the KGB, altering gameplay somewhat, along with a second playthrough that will be needed to experience the fuller narrative with the campaign. Why some lore and other things are locked behind the extended playthrough, I’m not sure, but finding out I would need to play through it all again just to see everything was a letdown in someway. Sure, you’re given more of a reason to spend more time with the game, which is never a bad thing, but for someone like myself, who has limited gaming time, asking me to go through again just to see some new content was disappointing.

If you’ve never played a XCOM game or any XCOM-like titles before, it’s a turn based strategy game where you play on a grid-like system, moving your team as you try to defeat enemies in turns. Things become much more involved, but it’s all about strategy; how to place your team behind cover, disguise yourself, how to flank enemies, and in the case of Phantom Doctrine, how to be as stealthy as possible for as long as possible, as going hot and loud has some dire consequences.

Even though the XCOM influence is heavy at times, the whole 80’s espionage theme and stealth focus makes for a great change from the standard that has been set before it. While the bulk of your gameplay will undoubtedly be focused within stealth missions and firefights, there’s almost as much to do outside of these missions, which oddly enough, I found myself enjoying more than the traditional gameplay.

Regardless of choosing CIA or KGB, you’ll have a home base that you’ll do all of your investigative work, interrogation, brain washing, hiring new agents, forging money and more. You earn limited money over time, so you need to choose wisely what upgrades to spend towards, but you’ll also need to budget for hiring new agents, technology upgrades, extra slots for infirmary, DNA upgrades, forging documents and a whole lot more. This part will take a bit of time to get used to, as the tutorial for the base operations is not explained very well, barely at all even, which is what frustrated me greatly early on. Once I got the hang of how everything worked and was intertwined, it became much more strategic.

Your base is where you will have access to a world map. It is here where you’ll be able to fly your agents out to many counties and states, having them investigate leads, scout for headquarters when the enemy finds out your HQ location and more. Certain opportunities will arise where you’ll be able to send in agents to gather extra intel, or even thwart your opponent's plans entirely. Sometimes the extra intel will make a huge difference before going into an assault mission, as you’ll know where the computer to shut off the cameras and alarms is located beforehand.

This is where you need to balance your time and money for gathering your own intel and using counterintelligence as well. Agents will level up when completing missions, able to craft new items like weaponry, gadgets and earn new abilities. Something that doesn’t make sense to me though is why I need to spend so much money on weapons and such. You work for the top intelligence agency in the world but have to simply use a pistol because you don’t have enough funds for something else? Oh, and I found out the hard way that there IS a doomsday clock in play, much like XCOM, so don’t sit back and dawdle too much or else you’ll find the forced game over once the enemy carries out its own plot without much resistance.

Now, we get to my favorite gameplay mechanic about Phantom Doctrine; the Investigation Board. As you gain clues from your agents and informants, you’ll have to piece them together on a classic corkboard, tying string from the clues that match together until you have all the clues needed and make a logical connection about your target. Some clues appear as a classified document, where you need to click the button over certain words you may think are clues, until you find them all.

For example, you found a clue and one of the key words you found was “Tredwell”. Now with your other clues, you’ll need to see if that same keyword exists, and if so, tie a string between the two, as there’s a logical connection. You do this until all of the clues piece together and point you to your mystery target. It may be basic, but putting together these clues was the most enjoyment I had from the whole gameplay experience. The classic corkboard has a very retro vibe to it and it is something you’ve seen on TV a million times before. Bravo, and I hope other games implement something similar, as this was quite unique.

And now we come to combat within missions. Ideally you’ll never need to experience combat, as you want to be stealthy in the shadows, ducking in and out before you’re even noticed, but that’s not what’s going to happen a good portion of the time. When, not if, you get spotted by a guard, enemy, or even civilian when in a restricted zone, an alert appears and every enemy will know exactly where you are, with reinforcements coming non-stop. Yes, a game about stealth punishes you for being in combat so harshly that it becomes harder the longer the match plays out.

When you’re able to stay in stealth, avoiding guard’s paths and line of sight, it can be exhilarating, but more than once I found that these “hand crafted” missions had flaws in them. One mission, for example, had me needing to neutralize a target, but there was absolutely no way to get into his second floor room without being seen by a civilian or camera. Of course I had to go hot, and that’s where I learned about the endless waves of enemies that will come until you’re able to extract. Given that some missions force the combat as well, prepare for a lot of frustrations, for numerous reasons.

One of the biggest complaints I had about XCOM was its combat randomness. This is where you’re literally standing beside an enemy and miss a shot, or an enemy is shooting you from within a building as you’re behind cover and still picks you off. This is frustratingly present here as well. I can’t count the times that I had been on the square next to an enemy, only to graze or miss completely. Yes, there is an awareness stat that helps with this and avoidance, but it’s ridiculous in situations like this.

The AI is very challenging and is able to snipe you with a pistol from an unreal distance, even if objects and walls are in the way. One mission had me lose an agent because I was in cover on a staircase heading up to the extraction zone, yet the enemy below me, with zero line of sight, was able to headshot me without any issue. Overwatch is an option to guard your position while waiting for an enemy turn to play out, but with limited movement and action moves per turn, it’s going to take a lot of getting used to through trial and error to see what works and doesn’t. Also, pro tip, reloading your gun takes an action. Something I too found out the hard way; R.I.P. Agent Cortana. Luckily there is an auto save after every move, so you’re able to reload any save if you messed up badly with a wrong decision and want a re-do.

I simply found the assault portion of combat very unbalanced and incredibly challenging when you have an attack chopper shooting a mini-gun at you for every turn you’re in sight. The new Breach ability was a cool addition to the traditional gameplay, allowing for a more assault orientated run should you choose. Additionally, some missions also have side objectives you can complete for bonuses should you want to challenge yourself. There is a multiplayer option if you and a friend wants to challenge each other head on with some 1v1 , but even after a week of playing the game, and trying to find a match each time, I was unable to find a single game to join. I even hosted games, hoping someone would join, yet not a single person did. So don’t expect much of an online community to be playing this. From my experience, expect to bring your own friend if you really want to play online.

Phantom Doctrine has a lot of potential. While the combat didn’t really jive with me personally, the whole CIA cloak and dagger theme suits the gameplay and genre quite well. Oddly enough, I quite enjoyed the other aspects to the gameplay much more, particularly the base management and connecting clues together on an old school pinup board. Frustration will surely kick in at the beginning, as you’re barely taught any of the non-combat mechanics, but once you figure it out on your own, it can be quite strategic, even if it’ll be in the shadows when compared to certain other mega hits in the genre.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Shikhondo - Soul Eater

I don’t like to brag, but I’m quite skilled at playing shmup (shoot-em-up) bullet hell titles, such as Ikargua, Deathsmiles and Radiant Silvergun, and dozens of others. These are the games where you pilot some sort of ship or character, and the screen is practically filled with enemy bullets, requiring some intense concentration and dexterity to avoid them. There are dozens of bullet hell shmups out there, but very few have done something supremely refined or uniquely enough to stand amongst the greats in the genre.

Shikhondo – Soul Eater is a Korean bullet hell shmup that is surely unique in its own way, one that doesn’t have you piloting a space ship as most, but instead, you use one of two girls, set in an Asian mythology backdrop, something completely unique and it's unlike anything that I have before. Even though the game is short in length, there’s lots of difficulty levels to try your hand at and an online leaderboard to work towards bragging rights.

Like most shmups, the story in Shikhondo – Soul Eater is paper thin, revolving around a demon army, known as the Yokai, who have escaped from Limbo and are stealing souls across the world. You must defeat these enemies and free all of the souls. Not having a strong narrative is par for the course in this genre, which is passable, as you play these for the gameplay more than anything else, which is true here as well.

You begin by choosing one of two young women, each of which have their own attack types. The ‘Grim Reaper’ utilizes a spread shot as her default attack, but you can focus the shot to be more condensed and powerful. The other option, simply called ‘The Girl’, shoots straight forward, but has two orbs that not only use homing shots , but can be utilized in a way that they can float near enemies and shoot at them more directly as well. Each of two 'women' play differently and needs separate strategies. For my playstyle, I enjoyed using ‘The Girl’ much more simply for her orbs.

You dodge and shoot across five separate levels, each of which will fill the screen with countless bullets. Each level also ends in a boss fight that will challenge all of your skills. I must say, having played lots of shmups and bullet hells, Shikhondo utilizes one of the most unique bullet patterns I’ve seen in quite some time. Most bullet hells simply put tons of bullets on the screen going in a straight line, but here, there’s tons of patterns and rhythms you’ll need to contend with, and of course, they will overlap at times for added difficulty.

Boss fights are exciting and quite challenging. The bullet patterns that these screen filling bosses employ will take a large amount of memorization and skill to overcome, and each will take place in two separate waves. Defeat the first form of each boss and you’ll then need to contend with its second, and more powerful, form. Persevere and win and you’ll get to choose from an extra Soul Attack (bomb) or an extra life (butterly). Both of which are equally useful, so it’s up to you to choose which would suit your play style better.

For a shmup, the hit detection is quite forgiving (on easy mode), and what I really found interesting is that you can actually see your character’s hit box as indicated by a small glowing blue orb in the middle of her body. That is all you need to worry about, and focus on, in order to not touch any enemy projectiles. It takes some getting used to, but you’ll eventually get a feel for it over time, but don’t get cocky, as you’ll most likely breeze through the first half of the game, but he second portion will have you most likely relying on infinite continues.

Another unique mechanic that I really enjoyed once I got used to it was the Soul Gage system. You shoot by holding down the ‘A’ button, but using the Right Trigger allows you to use your characters unique ability, focused shot for Grim Reaper or sending your orbs to attack enemies with The Girl. Now, when you hold down Right Trigger, you move much slower, maybe half speed, and in a bullet hell, being able to maneuver quickly is paramount. This is where a lot of skill comes into play, as sometimes you want that fine minute movement, but there’s also another reason to do so.

When you’re using your ability and moving slow, bullets you get close to and graze will fill a meter, which is indicated with a circle around your chosen character. Once this circle is full, as a result of ‘near misses’of a bunch of bullets, you can use the Left Trigger to activate your Soul Collect mode. Here your firepower is increased substantially and you’ll do massive damage to enemies and bosses for a short while. So, it’s a risk versus reward mechanic of utilizing your ability to charge your meter to then unleash when needed. It’s very tricky to pull off in the heat of battle, but worth the risk once you have the skills to do so when required.

While Arcade Mode is the standard gameplay, there are a few others modes to try out as well, including Boss rush, Hardcore, Custom Game and even local co-op. There are a handful of difficulty modes that are selectable, from Easy to Extreme, with the harder options giving a higher multiplier bonus for score attack. Hardcore gives you a single life, so good luck trying to complete it without any continues. Boss Rush will have you going head to head against all five bosses back to back, a great way to practice and improve your skills if you’re looking to improve your global score as well as achievement hunting for beating the game without any continues. And of course, local co-op is also available if you have a skilled friend to play alongside you.

Visually, Shikhondo is beautiful, as it’s all seemingly hand drawn and has a very distinct Asian style to it. It’ll take some getting used to, as enemies blow up into souls and automatically get sucked into you when defeated, but you’ll learn to separate the chaos the more you play. Bullets seem frantic and impossible at first, but you’ll start to learn their unique patterns, and at times they can be quite beautiful to simply watch. My only complaint is that it’s near impossible to watch your hit box orb during mass chaos, and so much of avoiding projectiles has to rely more on a feel than direct visual avoidance.

As for the audio, there’s not much here aside from the typical ‘pew pew’ sounds and explosions. I for one quite enjoyed the soundtrack though, as it was filled with a light electronic undertone, unique for each level, but given there’s only five levels, you’ll eventually grow tired of the same songs if you repeatedly play to improve your scores. There’s not much longevity to Shikhondo – Soul Eater with its short five levels unless you want to work on harder difficulties, and you could easily see it all in a single sitting or weekend, but it was an entertaining experience, one that I’m glad to have experienced.

It’s a little pricey at $13.99 for its short length, but for those that want to get the most out of it, there are enough modes included along with an online leaderboard to constantly strive towards climbing. With a distinct art style and near beautiful bullet patterns, there’s a lot of challenge included here for true shmup bullet hell fans, like myself, and it is a game that shouldn’t be overlooked, even if it won’t make many top 10 lists for the genre.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Splash Blast Panic

I don’t have many friends over often, you know, with real life commitments and busy lives always getting in the way, but when I do, I have my go-to for multiplayer party games. Depending on the friends, it’ll either be a racing, fighting, board game or like many, a Smash Bros title or something similar. Splash Blast Panic aims to take what people loved about Smash Bros and make it their own with some small twists on the gameplay.

Aimed to be family and kid friendly, instead of throwing fists and fighting in a traditional sense, you instead use water pistols and jetpacks to defeat one another in battle. That’s right, you’ll be flying around the screen with an unlimited jetpack, shooting one another with blasts from water based weaponry, attempting to knock one another completely out of the screen. Like any good party game, you’re going to have fun doing so, but probably ruin some friendships along the way.

There’s no real arching narrative at all, I mean, sure, there’s some menacing figure that appears and you battle it the end of Arcade mode, but aside from that, Splash Blast Panic is simply a multiplayer affair for up to 4 friends simultaneously. Clearly influenced by Smash Bros, the overall goal is to push your enemies so far outside the edges of the screen to make them lose a life. While there’s no real life bar that you need to deplete first, you could win quite quickly with some great placed shots or take quite some time to knock them out.

You maneuver on your jetpack with the Left Stick, able to quickly fly around in any direction, though the controls are very floaty and you’ll constantly skirt the boundaries off screen, only to overcompensate and come shooting back the opposite direction. You’ll eventually become accustomed to the loose controls, though if you manage to get one of the specific power-ups, you’ll fly around with perfect precision control, something I wish as the norm.

Shooting your water based weapons is done with the Right Stick. Simply aim in the direction you want to shoot and you’ll start to fire. You’ll need to reload after a short while, automatically done by simply not shooting, and the opening burst of your weapon is how you get the greatest push against your opponents. So part of the strategy is to know when to not simply keep firing, thus shooting weaker, and when to reload and wait for the perfect aim to blast them further. It took me quite some time to learn this, but once I did I was performing much better with quicker knockouts. Of course, this is something veterans will worry about more, as my kid was content with just flying and shooting all over the place simply having fun.

To make things even more interesting, each individual level has its own environmental hazards you’ll need to watch out for as well. Some have swinging scales that tip when stood on, heavy wind gusts that can blow you off the screen, a giant slot machine that can spawn fireballs or platforms and more. It adds some variety to the levels and can make combat even more chaotic with so much going on.

While it’s meant to be played as a multiplayer title, even in team based matches or a free for all, there is some gameplay if you’re playing solo as well, including fighting against bots, something I didn’t really expect, as usually the multiplayer focus is forced in games like this. That being said, playing alone will not last long and be quite boring after a handful of times going through versus or arcade. Where Splash Blast Panic really shines is having friends over, cheering, yelling and swearing at each other the whole time, especially after a few adult beverages.

To add even more variety to the gameplay, random offensive and defensive power-ups will fall from the top of the screen every so often. Manage to pick it up in time and you’ll have an extra powerful weapon for a short duration or a defensive buff. There’s only a handful of different weapons to pick up, and some are much more powerful and useful than others, but picking the right one up at the most opportune time can shift the outcome in your favor quite quickly. The same goes for each character’s individual special that can be utilized once their meter is full, unleashing a devastating attack if you can learn how to use it properly. Again, I found some of these specials way more powerful than others, but it’s all about learning whom suits your playstyle best.

If you have a group of friends that come over often, then Splash Blast Panic will get its money’s worth easily if you’re a fan of Smash Bros-like gameplay. While the loose controls take some getting used to, and it’ll seem like pure chaos at first, there is some fun to be had with the right group of friends. Even though it’s geared towards a younger audience with its water based weaponry, and it won’t have much longevity for myself, my six year old has been asking to play it every so often, which is a great sign for that audience.

“Easy to learn, hard to master” may be cliché, but it fits Splash Blast Panic’s gameplay nicely. With a lot of practice, some 2v2 competitive matches would be a riot, though having friends and family simply join in and see what happens in a free for all match is just as exciting. Longevity and value will solely depend on how many friends and family you have to constantly play with. Gather some friends and get ready for some water splashing panic to ensue.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Train Sim World

I’ve ridden a train once in my life. I was a kid going to some summer camp thing, and while I don’t really remember much from the camp itself, I do remember the train ride there and back more vividly. I remember sitting in the window seat, staring out the glass, seeing the world go by with the clicky-clack of the train constantly vibrating the seats. I also had a few train sets as a kid, nothing extravagant, but it was always fun to setup and watch them circle around the track for hours. Yes, I’m showing my age, but that’s what kids did with toys back before the internet and videogames were commonplace.

Regardless if you’re a train enthusiast or simply appreciate trains for what they are, Train Sim World by Dovetail Games will allow you to be a train engineer, allowing you to experience what it would be like to operate a locomotive barreling down the tracks, having to pick up passengers and making stops. The “sim” in Train Sim World’s title is completely accurate as well, as you’ll be sitting in the engineer seat with dozens of levers, knobs, dials and more in front of you, just as you would in real life if you were so lucky.

Don’t let that deter you though, as you’re taught the basics of getting your train moving and stopping, though there’s a lot of in-depth gameplay here should you want to dive in even further. Luckily it’s accessible for people like me that don’t know the real differences between electric and diesel trains, yet deep enough for the enthusiasts that want to experience different trains and railway systems, looking for that niche to be filled on console finally.

While there’s no traditional campaign or story, you simply fill in the role of an engineer, playing scenario to scenario which simply consists of stopping at specific train stations, letting your commuters on and off your train before moving onto the next stop. Rinse and repeat. So while there’s no narrative, the main experience comes from being able to control these massive trains in a realistic setting. You have to adhere to certain pickup schedules though, as commuters have places to be, so get used to those train controls as you don’t want passengers to be late!

Not only will you be operating the train, but you’re able to freely walk around the train, stations or even sit in a passenger seat and enjoy the ride itself. Some trains don’t have all of its operating panels sitting right in front of you either, meaning you’ll need to walk back a cabin or so to sometimes flip a switch or two, adding to the authenticity. While I’ve never been in the engineer’s cabin of a train before, I can only assume that it’s extremely authentic, as there are panels and lights everywhere, a complex system for hauling a few hundred tons of machinery.

As far as I’m aware, I don’t believe there’s been a train sim on console like this before, not this in-depth and realistic, especially played in first person. You’ll be able to try your locomotive skills across three different countries with different types of trains. While they all generally control similarly for movement, they handle, sound and look very distinct in their own ways.

Each train type has its own tutorial that’s easy to follow along, with markers placed exactly on every button and lever that you’ll need to interact with. My only complaint is that once you go into the scenarios, you don’t get any more hints or tips pop up, so if you forget that you need to charge the battery for 5 seconds, or that the parking brake is engaged before moving, and can’t figure out why you aren’t accelerating, there’s no help to be had. The learning curve does take getting used to, and there’s dozens of buttons and switches you CAN press, though I’ve found no need other than using the basics to get moving.

There were numerous times I would accidentally press a button, engaging the emergency brakes, throttling into reverse or some other beginner mistake, causing my train to stop in its tracks, literally. I wasn’t able to figure out how to get the train moving again without a lot of trial and error. Depending on your locomotive, sometimes you need to reset the gears to neutral, or let things recharge before accelerating. Once you’ve run into this problem a handful of times and overcome it, you’ll know exactly how to deal with it; simply part of its tricky learning curve.

Certain routes will allow you to nearly drive seamlessly from point A to point B, though other tracks or stations are much more crowded, requiring much more monitoring on your speeds and stops. While stations may only be a few minutes apart, fully expect each scenario to take about an hour or so to play from start to finish, meaning this isn’t much of a quick play kind of game. This is also a simulator, so don’t expect any calming soundtrack or anything of the matter, as there’s actually no music at all, so make sure to load up Spotify for your own sanity if you’re going to play out some scenarios.

Included are three different countries you’ll get to experience, each with their own trains. Travel in the Amtrak ACS-64 from New York or the GP38-2 YN3, Britain’s crowded railways on the Class 66 DBS, Class 166 GWG or the Class 48 GWG, or rapid transit in Germany with its BR1442-6 Talent 2. Each train is wonderfully detailed and completely unique. Again, I can’t speak for the authenticity, but I would guess it’s extremely accurate from my guesses.

You’re able to choose certain weather effects you want to ride in and can even explore stations as you make your stops, something you’ll want to do if you’re an achievement hunter and want to find all of the hidden collectibles. While the trains are incredibly detailed (some trains even a small first class section), the rest of the world is grossly underpopulated, uninspired and bland. Stations should be bustling with passengers and commotion, but you’re able to count the people in the distance. The same goes for the outside world that you pass by, as you won’t notice any people walking, cars driving and planes in the sky to indicate that the world is actually alive in any way. Even passengers in the train are lifeless and don’t do anything other than sit there.

As for the audio, the narrating voice over for the tutorials is very pleasant, but I do wish there was more, as there’s simply no other audio in the game aside from the train’s sound that it makes from the engine and button presses. The diesel exhaust spewing locomotives sound gritty and heavy as they start up their speed, whereas the electric train hums are much quieter and doesn’t have as much noise pollution.

You’re able to choose from a variety of camera angles, inside and out, giving you a different view when you’re in a for a long 40 minute haul. I have had the camera ‘break’ on more than one occasion though, as I was using the outside angle to watch my train, but as it went into a tunnel it somehow detatched from its default spot and allowed me to maneuver anywhere inside or outside the train, forcing me to change the camera angle again to fix it. There’s also a few performance issues, as running down the cabin while your train is going full speed causes some major laggy framerate issues, depending on where you’re at.

If you’re not a train enthusiast and don’t know the difference between a ACS-64 and a Class 166 GWG, I highly suggest watching some videos or gameplay of Train Sim World before jumping both feet in. While I’m not a big train fan by any means, I can appreciate what Train Sim World is trying to accomplish here with its authenticity, as I wasn’t previously aware the impact a 0.5% grade in upward slope could do for a train’s momentum before playing.

Train Sim World fills a niche for a specific audience, and while that won’t be for everyone, myself included, for the people that’s always wanted to drive a BR1442-6 Talent 2, there’s no better options out there on console currently. Some may find it incredibly boring, as I did in the beginning, but there’s a lot to do and accomplish here if you can learn the intricacies of being a train engineer in this realistic depiction.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Defenders of Ekron - Definitive Edition

Whenever there’s a new shmup (shoot-em-up) released, I always jump on the opportunity to try them out, as it’s been one of my favorite genres since I can remember. Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition is the latest entry into the genre on Xbox One. We’ve all played a shmup before, so what makes this one so different? Well, it actually has some unique ideas that make it stand out, which took me by surprise. Of course you’ll be shooting in all 360 degrees, but you’ll also be exploring, analyzing enemies, solving puzzles, changing combat modes and more. While I applaud the innovation of adding elements like these into the genre, as it all works mechanically, I have to note that they don't blend cohesively well at all times, like mixing two drinks that shouldn’t be together.

You fill the role of Ekeas, an eager cadet who’s been training, as long as he can remember, to pilot one of the coveted Anakim mechs. These mechs have special abilities that allow them to absorb nearby energy and convert it into their own special abilities called Isvara. Something is wrong though, and Ekeas isn’t able to use his Isvara ability for some unknown reason, so he’s thrust into an experimental program instead as they try and figure out why.

Of course this revelation happens at the worst opportune time, as the fleet is attacked by the Renegades, a group of previous members focused on starting a civil war for their own reasons. While the story isn’t anything unique, and you’ll see the ‘twists’ coming a mile away, I appreciate that developer In Vitro Games has at least tried to focus on adding a comprehensive story to a shmup, even if it is a bit long winded and dialogue heavy at times, all across 10 individual missions.

At its core, Defenders of Ekron is a top down twin stick shooter. Most levels will follow the typical ‘shoot everything until it dies’ design, but there are some exploration and puzzle sections later on to change and freshen up the gameplay. Problem is, I’m not sure if these really fit or blend together well. I play shmups because I want to shoot and blast everything while trying to avoid a screen seemingly full of bullets. These sections really slow down the gameplay to a crawl, and while some will enjoy the change, I wasn’t as fond of these sections nearly as much.

You’ll not only have to shoot enemies, but analyze them, explore, use your shield tactically, as well as upgrade your mech whenever possible to keep going. Every boss is super-sized, usually filling the whole screen and having multiple segments to destroy, which I quite enjoyed, even if they weren’t terribly challenging. This Definitive Edition has included some improvements, mostly consisting of more balanced gameplay and an entertaining vertical 2D 8-bit version of the game, titled Invaders of Ekron. Also included is a Boss Rush mode, allowing you to tackle 13 bosses in a row should you desire.

Your mech has different modes that can be utilized depending on the situation. You’re able to traverse in much greater speed, but you will be unable to fire without transforming back, or scan enemies to get a readout about their weakness, but again, you won’t be able to shoot when utilizing this skill too. While they aren’t needed, they do add some depth to the gameplay, but since it’s unneeded for the most part, there’s generally no reason to do so unless forced.

Shooting is far more involved than your regular shmup. Sure, you could hold the Right Trigger down, but you have a meter that acts as an ammo/heat display, so you’ll eventually have to stop firing for a short while to recharge. This slows down the gunfire quite a bit, as you have to pick and choose your shots or recharge whenever able. More than just your regular bullets utilize this meter though, as your homing bombs do as well.

The Left Trigger allows you to lock onto enemies that your cursor is over, hurling a bomb from where you that is locked on, but this also uses your blaster meter. Problems arise when using these, as your cursor becomes independent from your movement and have to hover over each enemy to lock on (or analyze). Doing so in the heat of battle is near impossible and confusing, and it caused me to not even bother unless needed for a puzzle or specific enemy.

You also have access to a shield. In most shmups you have a bomb that can clear the whole screen and its bullets, but instead, here you have the ability to use a bubble shield whenever you like, protecting you from regular bullet damage. I thought this was amazing at first, as when you’re in a bad area where you WILL get hit, you can simply shield out of it and fly somewhere else. The only issue is that this uses your blaster meter as well, so if you’re low on ammo and try to bubble, you won’t be able to until you recharge. The shield will drain your meter quickly as well, so you can only use it sparingly.

There are tutorial-like missions that you can play, gradually teaching you the aspects of certain gameplay elements and how to overcome them. Some of these are straight up skill based, such as having to defeat enemies in certain ways, and others are much more interesting, like puzzles that require ricochet shots or shields to get by. They begin interesting and simple enough, but they eventually ramp up the difficulty to 11, especially if you want to earn gold medals, forcing you to be near perfect with your new abilities.

There is one mechanic I really do enjoy though, and I hope other games take note. Enemies will drop energy when destroyed, so you naturally will collect this. Fill your energy bar and you’ll earn a skill point. Fill the bar many times and you’ll have many skill points to upgrade your mech after a level should you wish. What’s really interesting though is the option to utilize that hard earned energy to restore your health if you desire.

Do you keep getting hit on a boss and don’t want to fail the level and restart? You can use a bar of energy to refill your health if you think that will help, though you’ll have less skill points to spend afterwards. It’s a risk versus reward done in a very clever way. At one point I had 6 skill points saved up, fought the boss and had to heal so much I walked away with only a single skill leveled up as the battle that had just occurred required many health regenerations. It’s clever and it works to help with those sections that are just a pain.

I absolutely love shmups, and while Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition is completely serviceable as one, it didn’t do much to excite me, even with some new interesting mechanics and a rarely found narrative focus in a schmup. I applaud the risk of trying something new, but the blending of different mechanics doesn’t always work as well as I would have hoped. While not terribly long, $12.99 is a little steep for what you get, but worth checking out on a sale if you’re in desperate need for a new twin stick shooter shmup.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Shenmue I & II

As I write this, I’m currently staring at my Dreamcast copy of Shenmue. You see, I’ve owned it for many years, along with my Dreamcast, yet I never really got around to playing it after all this time for some reason or another. I’ve seen lots of videos about it, I know its impact that it had on the game industry and of course I know about the infamous sailor’s meme’s. I’m finally checking Shenmue I & II off my 'shame-to-have-never-played' list after all these years.

For its time, Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed, and funny enough, for how revered it is by all the people that played it back in 1999, it never really sold all that well, which is probably why Shenmue III took nearly two decades to get off the ground and out of development hell. Do some research and you’ll see how the Shenmue development is an intriguing tale, and I can’t even imagine the fans that have been waiting since 2001 for some closure, waiting feverishly for Shenmue III.

I’ve heard so much about Shenmue over the years. How amazing and revolutionary its gameplay was, how broad in scope the adventure became, and all of the minute details that really made it unlike anything else at the time. Yu Suzuki is the main man behind the vision, having developed one of the most ambitious titles ever created at the time. There was a realistic time mechanic is place, stores had opening and closing times, every NPC could be talked to, arcade games could be played, there were collectable figures, drawers could be opened and items inspected and rotated. Sure, these days that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in 1999 this was absolutely mind blowing for Dreamcast owners.

Here we are, nearly two decades later, and a new generation will get to experience Shenmue is all of its glory, as well as allowing fans of the Dreamcast original a chance to relive their nostalgia. Shenmue tells a simple story about revenge. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a highschool student that witnesses his father’s murder by the hands of Lan Di. Lan Di steals a mysterious item called the Dragon Mirror for some unknown reason and Ryo vows to extract his revenge. The story is quite lengthy and interesting, so I don’t want to give much more away, but it’s the real reason to continue playing to see how it plays out. Sure, it’s a simple revenge story, but there’s more to it as you progress the narrative across both games.

What I didn’t expect was how slow the narrative plays out. The story is strong, but the game forces things to a crawl at certain instances, to the point where I’d estimate nearly half the game play time is ‘wasted’ with side stuff to do or waiting for a certain time of day. I love great narratives as well as characters that have depth and are interesting, and while Shenmue has this, the gameplay mechanics arbitrarily lengthen the gameplay to a crawl more than I expected. Case in point, there’s a section where you need to get a job for five days driving a forklift. I get that it’s slow by design, but there are times where it’s excruciating to get the willpower to get through another day.

Before walking simulators were a genre on its own, I think Shenmue could be categorized as one at certain points. It is more of a detective game more than anything else, and to find out the information you’re after, you’re going to have to walk around the town, asking people what they know, trying to find clues and piece together what to do next. Any NPC you encounter can be talked to, though the majority of the wandering ones are simply there to liven up the city and offer no real value or information.

Any relevant clues you come across get written down in Ryo’s journal, giving you hints such as where you have to go next or whom you should talk to. This way you don’t forget where or when you’re supposed to be next when you come back to playing. The biggest challenge you’re going to face though is simply controlling Ryo. Keep in mind that this game is from 1999 when control schemes weren’t as fleshed out as they are today. Remember in Resident Evil where up meant forward regardless of which way you were facing? That’s right, horrible tank-like controls are here and are absolutely terrible in every way, as I can’t even add up the amount of time I accidentally turned the wrong way or ran into a wall. Ryo can run forward with Right Trigger, but it will take some getting used to for taking corners.

So, you’ve played Shenmue nearly two decades ago and want to know what’s been improved for this collection re-release? Sadly, not all that much. The graphics have been slightly improved to HD quality, yet oddly enough cutscenes are still in 4:3 ratio. Japanese audio is included should you wish and the UI has been updated slightly. Aside from that, you’re going to have to deal with the ugly models, textures, and horrific voice acting. Consider Shenmue I & II simply a port with some very minor improvements, though being able to import your save data from the first game into the second and transfer over some items is welcome.

Sure, the 1080p upgrade is welcome, and I wasn’t hoping for a full remaster, but wow, the majority of the textures are outright ugly. Keep in mind that in 1999 this was revolutionary and absolutely mind blowing, but after all these years, it has not aged well at all. While loading is virtually nonexistent anymore, a welcome change, there’s a ton of bugs that I constantly struggled with. At least half a dozen times I somehow had my cutscenes messed up where it would use some far off default camera, making it too hard to see anything that’s going on, yet I was still able hear the dialogue. Another time I somehow had the camera stuck in first person view when controlling Ryo, which ended up with a game restart having to be implemented to fix.

In Shenmue, nearly everything is interactive. See a dresser, open its drawers and maybe find something pertaining to your quest. While in the beginning I was checking every interactive object I could find, there’s only a handful that are actually needed. When you do find an object, Ryo will hold in in his hand and you can rotate it around and inspect it. You’ll see how mechanic and stiff the animations are during this, but again, you have to remember that for its time there was nothing else like it. You’ll spend tons of time going to stores and checking items, just because. Seeing items close up is also where you’ll notice the low resolution textures, as even magazine covers and labels are completely illegible. Even main store names outside, the ones that are in English, will have you squinting to try and figure out what it’s supposed to say, hoping it’s the place you meant to go.

Time. This was my biggest frustration in the first Shenmue, more so than even the controls, visuals or voice acting. Particular events only take place at certain times of day. Stores have open and closing hours, like in real life, so much of your time is going to be waiting. If you need to meet someone at 6PM, you need to fill your day with activities to pass time, or simply wait it out. This causes such a slowdown of gameplay that it became incredibly frustrating, to the point where I didn’t want to sit and play for any prolonged length of time. Sure, there are tons of extra events you can do, mini-games and other things, but eventually these become tiresome as well. While Shenmue II fixed some of this, it’s absolutely painful to deal with in the original.

To pass time by, you’ll want to entertain yourself with mini-games and collectables. For those old enough to remember, there’s even an arcade to go visit and play a handful of games, including a few classic SEGA titles. These help distract you from the time sink for the first while, but after so many plays, it becomes somewhat boring quite quickly, so make sure to get some games of darts in, gambling or an arm wrestling match or two, simply to experience all of what Shenmue has to offer before it becomes mundane.

While not the first to use them, Shenmue is generally regarded as the game that really fathered the QTE’s (quick time events) in videogames in the current form that we’re used to. These are when you see a button or stick prompt on the screen during a cutscene, adding an element of interactivity that would normally be a linear watching experience. I personally enjoy QTE’s in games, whereas I know some loathe them and regard them as lazy development. They are not overly used here and make sense when they are added, so you need to pay attention during cutscenes just in case you get a prompt. Again, for 1999, this was an amazing feature, one that Yu Suzuki is generally regarded to as creating in its current form. Luckily if you fail, you’ll simply restart that cutscene again, hopefully having memorized the proper sequence to complete it.

Periodically Ryo will need to defend himself, as searching for the killer of his father will only get him deep into the underbelly of street gangs. Given that Yu Suzuki was part of SEGA’s AM2 development house, known for the fantastic Virtua Fighter series, naturally some of those mechanics were also introduced into Shenmue with its fighting sequences. When Ryo has to fight, you’ll be pulling off moves, much like in Virtua Fighter, with punches, kicks, throws and dodges. There’s many moves for you to learn as master (by practicing), and while it works in theory, some of the enemies are so cheap that you’ll sometimes have to resort to button spamming and praying you’re going to survive.

Simple attacks are done with a single button press, but you’ll learn more powerful and complex moves that require longer inputs, again, just like Virtua Fighter. Even if you master the moves, performing them while being attacked by 5 enemies is a whole other story. The input seems very laggy, so trying to utilize the more advanced moves never really worked out for me, especially during a 70 man battle in the first game and its boss fights.

Reviewing this Shenmue package was something I was very excited for. I’d finally get to experience one of the most iconic games from the Dreamcast era for myself, seeing what the big deal was. It was very difficult to review though, as I had to constantly keep in mind as if I was playing it in 1999 versus 2018. In 1999 I can see why it was such a big deal, as it introduced so many mechanics, a truly narrative driven and in-depth experience, something not really seen at the time. In today’s terms though, it would get ripped apart for those same reasons.

Playing Shenmue in 2018, I rarely enjoyed myself aside from the narrative. I was constantly frustrated with time management, terrible controls and absolutely atrocious voice acting. If I had played this in 1999, my nostalgia would have me grinning from ear to ear, so I understand the difference nearly two decades can make on a game.

Sadly Shenmue has not aged well, and given that Shenmue I & II is more or less simply a straight port, albeit with some minor improvements, it was almost torture at times to sit through. If I ever play a game again where I need to get a job as a forklift driver, it’ll be too soon. That being said, I can completely appreciate and respect it for what it is and the era that it released in. New players to the series, like myself, will find it hard to overlook its extremely rough edges, but original fans should fall right back in love with it. I hope that new players to the series can overcome its issues and experience and appreciate it for what it was back in 1999.

My score isn’t solely based on Shenmue’s experience from 1999, nor simply as a 2018 title, but instead, a mixture of both. It’s ugly to look at, the voice acting will make you cringe, it has a ton of issues and frustrations, but it’s a very unique experience, one that I’m glad to have finally enjoyed after all this time, even if it has not aged very well at all.

Shenmue has a very important part in videogame history, as a whole, for numerous reasons, which is why I wish it got some updated polish and improvements that it rightfully deserved. Given the series' turmoil history though, we should be happy we’ve at least gotten this port. If you want to experience a game unlike any other, and can keep an open mind about when it was originally released, you’ll start to appreciate it for what it was at the time, and in the present it is almost like a time capsule directly back to 1999.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Frost

I usually really enjoy card based deck building games. Something about the strategic element of thinking numerous moves ahead, or how to plan accordingly, generally comes naturally to me. There’s always going to be a random-like element to a card game for the most part, even with a game like Solitaire, where you have no idea what the next face down card that you will put in your hand will be, and how you must adapt. But what do you do when the odds are so unfairly stacked against you that it’s seemingly impossible to win most of the time? That’s where Frost comes in, a card based title that boasts a narrative reasoning behind its premise.

A frozen world is being engulfed by an approaching deadly winter storm, and your group must flee in search of refuge. Where you live is the only safe place you’re aware of, but the storm is constantly approaching behind you, and the journey won’t be an easy one. You’ll cross paths with many dangers, not only limited to wolves and other people, but managing your resources and hunger also.

So how does Frost implement this narrative into a deck building game? In some ways, very cleverly, but in terms of the execution, very frustratingly. The Frost is indicated by a counter in the top left of the screen, and at the end of every turn, the dial either counts downwards (closer), or upwards if you’ve managed to move forward on your journey. You’re going to need a certain set of cards to clear each step of the journey though, and with the Frost constantly within reach, and a seemingly unfair set of winning conditions, you’ll become quite frustrated before ever reaching the refuge for the first time.

Most cards games are simple in premise, so they are easy to pick up and play, but they require time and practice to master. Frost requires time and practice, but it is absolutely not a simple game to pick up and play; that is, if you actually want to win. You’ll need to think very strategically, not just to win, but to even stay ahead of the Frost that is a constant reminder of your impending doom. You’ll need to clear twenty or so areas to make it to the refuge, but you’ll soon see why this is incredibly more challenging than it first appears to be.

You’ll be given a preset deck of cards in the beginning, with food, wood, survivors and despair cards. These are your resources, and while small, must be managed essentially perfectly, and need to hope that the randomness doesn’t play against you too harshly, though it will. To clear an area and move ahead, you’ll need to ‘feed’ the area card the resources is desires, such as a certain amount of survivors, wood or food, by handing in these cards. There are also idea cards where you can trade a certain amount of one resource for another, or more appropriately, a chance at another, so long term strategic thinking is an absolute must. This won’t become apparent either in your first few dozen games until things start to make sense, even after completing the tutorial.

The Frost is constantly moving towards you, and at the end of every turn, it will either get closer or further way, depending on if you cleared the area or not. If you fulfilled that area’s required resources and choose to move ahead, the Frost counter, which maxes at eight moves, will move upwards, indicating you’re further away from the Frost. If you don’t have the resource cards to fulfill the requirements for the area and exhausted the cards in a hand, the Frost counter ticks down, killing you once it reaches zero. You’re going to waste a lot of turns on moves where it seems you’re unable to win, and in some cases, is actually impossible to do so.

Moving your cursor around and menu management is a pain. You navigate by clicking up and over rather than using a free range cursor. So when you want to click on a card at the top of the screen, you need to constantly press up and over. It’s not very user friendly, and the menus are even more frustrating, as you’ll need to navigate to the “X” to close the menu instead of simply pressing “B” for back.

Some actions have hotkeys linked to buttons, like End Turn is Right Trigger, and Move Ahead (when you clear an area) is Right Bumper, but there’s another design flaw here. When I clear an area I want to move ahead to the next, thus bumping up the Frost Counter and progressing. The problem is both options are there for you, including 'End Turn', which makes your frost counter tick down closer to death. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve accidentally hit Right Trigger to end my turn instead of Right Bumper to proceed. There really should be no reason End Turn should be an option if I’ve fulfilled the area requirements, or at least warn the player, as I’ve lost a handful of games due to this.

You’ll start off with access to only basic cards in the beginning, but the more you play, the more you’ll unlock. At first I thought it was a great idea to play as much as possible to unlock all the different cards, hoping it would make finding the refuge much easier. In fact, it did the complete opposite. You see, cards you’ve unlocked will randomly be thrown into your game, even if you’re a beginner playing on Easy mode.

For example, I unlocked a higher tier enemy card that required three spears to kill (if I don’t want to take health damage), and because decks are built randomly, I was lucky enough to have this card given to me in the first area. You don’t start with spear cards to ‘fight back’ enemies in your opening hand, as you need to trade resources for those, so I started off on a losing battle because I have this card unlocked permanently in my deck now. There are a few dozen cards to unlock, but like I said, the game becomes more difficult as you unlock them, which to me seems like backwards design.

At the top of the play field you’ll see Idea Cards pop up each turn. These are where you can exchange resources for others. If you’re completely out of wood, hopefully you’ll see an Idea Card where you can trade a food and survivors for some wood. This is where the resource management comes into play. You always have a counter of your resources in your deck, though it’s randomized what cards you’re given per hand of five, including the junk despair cards that are simply unusable.

You won’t progress far if you don’t start trading these resources for others, so you have to not only think very strategically, but hope that the randomness is on your side for once. Happen to get a handful of despair cards that you are unable to do anything with? You’re going to have to waste a turn, thus ticking down the Frost counter, to just refresh the cards in your current hand. It’s a constant battle of watching the Frost counter, hoping you have the right resources and trying to battle any enemy cards that get placed as well. To say it’s a continuous and unfair battle is an understatement.

If you’re short on the right resources needed to progress, you can also send out your survivors in your hand to scavenge, hopefully bringing back exactly what you’re looking for. They can bring back food, wood, other survivors, worthless despair cards, or even die, so it’s a gamble of how badly you want to risk sending them. Lose the required survivors and the game will tell you it’s basically unwinnable, causing you to lose and start anew once again.

So, not only do you have to satisfy the current area’s resource requirements to move on, you’ll also be given a random event in every area as well. With any luck it’s a simple trade opportunity, like an idea card, but now and then you’ll come across wolves or enemies that will attack you. At first, wolves are manageable, once you figure out to trade for the spears AND hope you get that card in your hand before moving on, but eventually you’ll have to battle harder enemies. Some will take two or three spears to kill, and others will even attack you at every turn, not just at the end of moving on from the area if not defeated.

If you don’t kill the enemy you’ll take damage when you move onto the next area. You only begin with four health, so you can either take the damage yourself or sacrifice one of your survivor cards in your hand, if you’re lucky enough to draw one that is. When you unlock the higher tier cards, there will be ways to replenish health if needed, but these are usually quite costly, and again, simply another resource you’re going to have to balance and manage.

Once you’ve finally got luck on your side, and you manage to finally make it to the refuge, there’s no grand scene that plays out or anything that feels rewarding. It took me a dozen or two games to get my first ‘win’, but when you do finally do so, Custom and Endless modes will unlock. Custom Games allow you to build any game with certain win parameters and Endless Games is self-explanatory. You’ll also unlock Scenarios as you play, with each one having its own twist to the game, such as not having to worry about Frost, or having some special abilities available. These are entertaining for a change of pace, and offer some varied gameplay.

For a game that’s very minimalistic with hand drawn art, it’s odd that there are some performance issues, even on an Xbox One X. Certain motions, like dealing your hand a new card, or changing areas, tend to lag out a bit, only worsened if you’re trying to hit the buttons needed before the game is ready to do so. This is by no means a deal breaker, but something worth noting.

The biggest frustration for me though was its difficulty. Even on Easy Mode, you’re going to lose dozens of times before you just happen to get a decent loadout of cards that tend to go your way. You’re constantly pressured to move ahead and progress, but are given minimal resources to do so, which in turn takes you longer to do.

Great games are supposed to ease you into the experience, to build your confidence and strategy building skills before hitting a steep difficulty curve. Frost does nearly the opposite, simply throwing you in, causing you to lose a lot of games before getting close to the refuge and losing again because of a bad hand. Frost is unforgiving, and worse yet, seemingly more based on luck than skill, which is a shame, as it has a ton of potential otherwise.

Overall Score: 4.5 / 10 Danger Zone 2

I can’t believe it’s been a full decade without a new Burnout game. Burnout Paradise, while great, was missing the uber popular Crash Mode from the previous titles where I spent countless hours playing over the years. It’s been a decade and I’m craving more Burnout for its crashing excitement. While not the exact same thing, Danger Zone 2 is essentially a spiritual successor, and since EA isn’t giving us our fix of Burnout in the last decade, so it’s what we’ll have to enjoy in the meantime.

If you stripped Burnout’s Crash Mode from some of its previous games, Danger Zone 2 would essentially be the result, though not as detailed or polished. If you’ve yet to experience the wonder of Burnout and its Crash Mode, let me explain. You fundamentally hurling your vehicle down an open stretch of highway into a busy intersection, seeing how much destruction and mayhem you can cause. Oh, and your car can also blow up, sending others flying into traffic and causing more damage, and all of this is tallied in a figurative dollar amount. While there’s no story present in any way, shape or form, that’s ok in a game like this that can be fun to just cause vehicular destruction.

While the crashing itself is physics based, the physics used are certainly exaggerated, as rear ending a car, or slamming it from the side, will send it flying forward at a speed and angle that shouldn’t be possible. Your goal is to create as much chaos as possible with the traffic driving on the roads, tallying the biggest dollar score possible with every crash, flip and explosion. Most ‘tracks’ will have a stretch of highway for you to either avoid, or start your crashing early, before reaching the goal area where the major accidents are to take place.

If you sit down and play Danger Zone 2 in lengthy spurts, you’re going to notice that every level looks and feels virtually the same. Sure, some have longer road run ups, or ramps, but every highway and background looks essentially the same with very little variance between them. Some variance of backdrop would have been welcomed, or weather changes of some sort, but all 23 challenges (yes, 23) will all blend together and play nearly the same throughout.

Hit a car on the run up at just the right angle and you’ll be able to check it, launching it forward without crashing yourself. I wasn’t able to really tell if the vehicle you’re given really makes a difference for the car hitting and distance, though I found I was crashing a lot less when I was using the larger semi. Even better, flatbeds moving supercars, or trucks delivering pipes, will cause even more damage and havoc if checked, especially into oncoming traffic. Seeing cars flying into the air and smashing a ton of others will always put a smile on your face when the sparks start to fly.

With only 23 levels to play in, there’s very little content included unless you really enjoy chasing high scores and leaderboards. To get the coveted in-game Platinum medals, you’re going to need to not only cause some mass destruction in the danger zone, but also complete the run up objectives for bonus cash. These objectives range from simple ‘Hit X amount of cars’, ‘Boost combo X times’, ‘Use Slow-mo camera off every ramp’ and more. These aren’t necessary to complete levels and attain a bronze, but will be if you want to Platinum each level you'll have to complete them too.

Each level gives you a predetermined vehicle (semi, taxi, truck, F1 car, etc.) and layout. Almost like a puzzle game, you need to figure out the best path and way to cause the most damage to get those coveted Platinum medals. The issue is that once you’re plunked into a new level, you’re basically going to have to fail a few dry runs to learn the traffic patterns and bonus pickups to plot the best course of action. Doing the most damage to other vehicles is paramount, but placing yourself in range of other bonus money pickups and smashbreakers can be just as equally important.

What’s a Smashbreaker you ask? This is where you’re able to blow up your car on command, after a certain criteria of smashed cars is obtained. This will cause a massive sonic boom around you, pushing cars all around, exploding them and hopefully launching them into others, causing bigger jams and more destruction. One of the major things I noticed in the first few crashes though is that the camera is permanently fixed on your car only. So you’re causing all this destruction and chaos, but won’t see much of it, as it happens elsewhere, further away from you. Burnout was great at swooping the camera around to show you where the accidents were happening, but that’s missing here. You’ll hear a lot of crashes and screeching tires, but won’t see much of it for the most part.

When you use your Smashbreaker, you’re able to subtly maneuver and glide your car a short distance. This is paramount, as to get the other powerups and extra Smashbreaker tokens, you’ll need to make sure you’re placed somewhat nearby, as you can’t really glide that far during the slow motion sequence. There’s nothing more frustrating than being inches away from another Smashbreaker powerup (which lets the countdown timer go longer) but you're unable to get it, ending your run.

Enhanced for Xbox One X with 4K support or 60 frames a second at 1080p, it looks smooth and pretty. Granted, the models and textures aren’t anything mind blowing, but there’s just enough paint scratching and sparks with particle effects to make it look great. What is missing though is the soundtrack. It took me about an hour to notice it, but there’s absolutely no music in the game. All you’ll hear is your engine and crashing, that’s literally it. Sure you can put some Spotify on in the background, but it’s a very odd omission to have, be it due to rights or costs.

Danger Zone 2 isn’t a terrible game by any means, but it is bare bone and almost devoid of any personality. It’s a fun distraction in short bursts if you really like climbing leaderboards, but there’s no longevity. There’s no soundtrack, no multiplayer, no replays and the menu system looks as tacked on as it gets. At $10 I could see it being a hard sell, but fun for those of us that miss the classic Burnout days, but the problem is, it’s being sold for double that. $20 for a single game mode from a classic just isn’t enough when it doesn’t even match its quality and personality. That, and there’s no Kenny Loggins.

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 MOTHERGUNSHIP

I love bullet hell shooters. You know the kind, where you need near god-like dexterity and reaction time to avoid an onslaught of bullets and enemies. Most games like this aren’t usually in first person view, like a standard FPS, so MOTHERGUSHIP was something completely new to me. Essentially a bullet hell FPS, MOTHERGUNSHIP adds some interesting ideas that makes it unique and fun to play, such as randomly generated stages and a crafting system where you actually build the guns you want to use. Yes, you build your guns to suit your playstyle; not simply customization either, actual crafting.

You are a member of the resistance, fighting back against an enemy robotic invasion, come to destroy earth in the search for information and data. Sure, it’s a trope we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the story really takes a backdrop to the gameplay. You’ll need to shoot and fire your way through thousands of killer robots to make your way to the MOTHERGUNSHIP and save Earth, but doing so won’t be so easy, so prepare for a fight with your own creations of weaponry. Characters speak over comms, and although interacting with them would have been favorable, they are written and acted quite well, and there are even some moments of hilarity and witty jokes.

While the core premise is simple, destroying everything on your path as you make your way each step closer to the final confrontation, how you do so with the guns you craft will be where most of your entertainment lies. Each level is procedurally generated, so the experience stays relatively fresh throughout. Gameplay is very quick paced, maybe not to the twitch levels of Quake, but certain stages and boss fights will require you to be very nimble with the shooting and dodging.

You begin with being able to triple jump, not only to allow you to reach ledges and heights, but to avoid the near endless projectiles constantly coming your way. Enemies will drop health, coins and pickups, such as extra jumps that last that series of stages, and with enough, you can seemingly almost fly at certain points.

MOTHERGUNSHIP’s real bread and butter though is its crafting mechanic for its weaponry. Using three different categories of parts, connectors, barrels and caps, you can create a weapon that you’ve always wanted to utilize in a shooter before. Personalization and customization is much more than a simple paint scheme and an attachment or two. Have you ever wanted to shoot saw blades with a gatling gun? Or a 10 barrel shotgun that also launches spiked balls? The choice is yours when you craft your weapons, given the parts that you have on hand anyways.

You have two hands, so you’re able to create two weapons for dual firepower. A barrel is basically the type of standard weapon, such as rocket launcher, shotgun, pistol, etc., and can be equipped on its own if you wish. Attach it to a connector though, and that’s where things start to become interesting. A '3-connector' for example allows you to place 3 separate barrels, or caps, to each of its sockets. So, if you want one weapon to shoot rockets and shotgun shells at the same time, so be it.

There is a catch though, or else everyone would simply place the most powerful barrels on a single gun and one-shot everything. The more powerful weapons, like a rocket launcher for example, takes more energy per shot, whereas typical weapon types use less. Also, the barrels must physically fit on the connectors if you want to attach multiples. So yes, you can make completely crazy weapons, but the more powerful they are, the more energy it takes to shoot. Do you want a triple rocket launcher that can kill nearly anything in one hit but takes forever to reload, or something that constantly fires, albeit weaker shots? This is where part of your playstyle comes into play, and once you get a hang of which enemies are more annoying than others, you’ll probably cater your weaponry choices accordingly.

Caps are small little attachments that essentially act as mods. These can increase a weapon’s stats, giving it more damage, faster rate of fire, bouncing ammo and more. Again, these caps need to physically fit on the connectors with the barrels, so it becomes a metagame of making everything fit just right if you want to use larger pieces. Eventually you’ll start to earn higher tier parts as well, something that, I found, became even more addictive. Simple grey parts are what you’ll begin with, eventually working towards the most powerful purple and yellow pieces to craft with.

It will take you a few hours to really learn the ins and outs of each barrel type, mods, and what works best together. Given that you’re restricted to a certain amount of parts you can bring with you into a ship, it’ll simply take time to 'trial and error' what works best for you. Sometimes things go your way and you find a combination that works great, and other times you’re lobbing bouncing spiked balls at a ton of flying enemies, which isn’t so efficient. Since the levels are procedurally generated, you’ll never really know what you’ll be up against either.

Each level is an alien ship you are invading, clearing room to room until you usually face some sort of boss or simply make it to the end and hit the destruct button. Not only will you have to face off against dozens of enemies in the levels, but also a ton of environmental hazards and turrets that can’t be destroyed, almost acting as a deadly wall to avoid. Some rooms are very basic and minimalistic, whereas others are much more vertical and have more jump pads to navigate around.

Before you enter one of the doorways to clear the next room, you’ll notice its threat level. This is basically the difficulty of that room, with each subsequent room becoming more challenging as you progress. Rooms can only be exited once every enemy is killed, and while some have a single exit doorway, others may have multiple exits, or a quick pit stop where you can purchase and craft your guns once again. Some rooms are designated as challenge rooms, earning you a bonus if you can survive X amount of seconds, kill X amount of enemies in a certain time, don’t use your left weapon and more mini objectives. These earn you a bonus and makes you try and play a different way for a short period.

Enemies randomly drop coins, and when you reach a safe upgrade room after it’s all clear, you’ll be given a random set of parts and health that you can spend these coins on. Happy with the weapons you’ve made this time around? Then save them for when they are needed. If you only have enough parts to craft one weapon, then spend those coins and make a second, or buy a better part to swap out the piece you’re unhappy with. It’s an interesting way to change up the shooting gameplay mid stage, allowing you to improve or purchase some much needed health replenishment.

The real excitement comes in the end of a final room marked with a red skull, indicating a boss fight is next. These bosses are easily the highlight of the gunplay and design. Not simply a large enemy with some powerful guns, these bosses fill the whole room and will require a lot of firepower to take down. I won’t spoil any of these experiences, but they are why I kept on playing and wanting to progress, even more so than earning new gun parts.

You’ll earn experience throughout your bullet blasting adventure as well, which can be used to upgrade your suit that you fight within. You can improve a myriad of stats, like health, jumps and more. These upgrades end up costing more and more, but are a good way to supplement your play style and preference, even if it is a bit basic and feels tacked on.

Given that you’re fighting a robotic horde in their ships, the tonality is very metallic and inorganic. Gameplay is fast and frantic, and while it all looks decent, there’s nothing that will ‘wow’ you, maybe aside from the cool bosses. There I some minor hiccups now and then when things get really chaotic, and there’s a weird lag when each room door is loading before it allows you in. As for the audio, it is also on par, with weapons sounding powerful and booming and the characters voiced very well. The musical score fits the style of gameplay but is unmemorable in the long run.

At first MOTHERGUNSHIP wasn’t really doing much for me. I enjoyed the gun crafting and seeing what absurd weapons I could come up with, but the gameplay is the same mini treadmill repeated over and over of clearing room after room of enemies. That being said, it grew on me after a handful of hours, but it felt like a lonely experience. Luckily the developers have addressed this with the newest patch to include cooperative gameplay with a friend. Now two friends can take on the MOTHERGUNSHIP together, adding more chaos and fun. The best part? When one of you die, you turn into a turret on the other player's shoulder, so no waiting around for them to hopefully finish the level to respawn. This co-op patch has added a ton of additional excitement to the title, though I wish there was a lobby system to join random players, as it's only your friend list currently that can be invited.

MOTHERGUNSHIP is a crazy frantic bullet hell FPS, a first of its kind experience for me. Crafting weapons and seeing how they perform is fun, even if it’s trial and error. I wish that there was more upgrades in relation to leveling up, but even so, I enjoyed my time with it. Boss fights are what kept me going from ship to ship and the humorous writing along the way helped balance the experience. It may be a little shallow aside from its shooting mechanics, but sometimes you just need to turn your brain off and shoot an onslaught of robots to relax.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 No Man’s Sky

To say that No Man’s Sky was a hyped launch when it was released on the PS4 two years ago would be an understatement. Excitement for the game was high and it was one of the most hyped games I’ve seen in quite some time, which is even more impressive given it wasn’t a AAA known brand IP. Then the launch happened. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was probably one of the most disastrous launches in recent memory, resulting in near exile for the development team and a less than favorable appeal for the title to say the least.

Previously, No Man’s Sky was not available on Xbox One, that is, until the game's latest update, titled NEXT. Essentially fulfilling their promises from the launch two years prior, the NEXT update surely improved the game dramatically from its initial incarnation, to the point where I’m actually having spurts of fun with it. Yes, the fun comes in spurts, because the rest of your time is filled with frustration and resource management.

Part Minecraft, part ARK, part exploration, No Man’s Sky literally dumps you into a galaxy that is beyond the scope of comprehension, as its sheer size is near as infinite, as it is a procedurally generated universe. Because of this design, you’ll be able to travel the cosmos and explore planets that no one has ever seen before, and discover flora and lifeforms that may never be seen again. Better yet, when you make these discoveries, you’re able to rename them to nearly anything you like, profanity excluded. If you come across my planet, called Buttsville, you’ll know it’s mine, and that I’m a grown child at heart.

No Man’s Sky is essentially an amazingly vast universe that is a giant sandbox for you to explore and play in however you wish. With all of the updates since launch, the experience has become much better and robust, but it’s been a long arduous road. While there is technically a narrative and story to experience, it’s by no means the focal point, and more of some slight guidance. You’re looking to reach the center of the universe and uncover long dormant mysteries. Of course there’s a little more to it, but that’s one of your main ‘goals’ if you’re looking to follow a narrative. Now, I won't spoil anything, but be very wary of doing so, as there is a consequence when you do reach the 'end' that you are given no warning about. I'll simply leave it at that, but I know that I wasn't very happy with the outcome.

How you want to play is completely up to you. Choose between different modes that suit your playstyle, from a casual experience on Normal, slightly more challenging Survival mode, a hardcore Permadeath mode or even a relaxing Creative mode where you can explore and build freely without costs. I made the mistake of starting off on Survival, and because you’re simply thrown into the world with very little help at the beginning, I found that I wasn’t enjoying myself from the very start, so I decided to start a game on Normal and during my playtime for this review I have now been enjoying it much more, especially after the steep learning curve in the 'be-free-to-explore-the-galaxy-as-you-see-fit'.

If you want to simply mine for materials on the surface of a planet, do so to your heart’s desire. Do you want to fly through space dogfighting pirates and blasting asteroid belts? Do so if you wish. Hell, do you want to travel from system to system, planet to planet, to find that perfect atmosphere and build roots for a home base? Again, it’s up to you. With essentially infinite planets and systems to explore, you’ll always have new things to do and new areas to discover. It’s exciting to see new planets and life forms that have never been discovered before, staking your claim as the first to experience and witness them. Of course, doing so with HDR10 and 4K support looks amazing if you have an Xbox One X to play on as well.

Depending on your luck, your initial impressions will happen within the first few moments of being dropped into this vast world. You’re placed on a random planet, and with my amazing luck on my first Survival game save, it also happened to be in a poisonous atmosphere. So, here I am, 10 seconds into the game, slowly dying and unsure why or what to do. You’re given small quests in the beginning, acting as a sort of tutorial, but very little is explained from the opening moments, so if you’re like me, you’ll become increasingly frustrated without being taught the proper knowledge. Sure, you can read through dozens of text sections in the help area of the menus, but it’s a slog to get through and won’t make much sense without much trial and error by experimentation.

This is one of No Man’s Sky’s biggest faults, as the smallest things aren’t taught to you in a simple and effective way. After playing for an hour or two, and having to quit out, it was then that I realized that even how to save my game wasn’t really taught to me, as you need to enter your ship (once repaired) and exit to create a manual save. I obviously didn’t do this, or know to, before quitting, so I had to start over again. Lesson learned; and its many situations and mistakes like this that you’ll encounter during your adventure where you’ll do the most learning of what, and not, to do.

In a game so vast, with this scope, a helpful menu system would have been a blessing. Instead, it’s a disaster that takes many different button presses to do the simplest tasks. If you want to take a quick glance at how many of a certain material you have on hand between your exosuit and starship inventories, you’re actually unable to do so and need to do the math yourself. Want to have a button to automatically organize your limited inventory space? Not currently an option to do so. For a game that’s so much about exploring and resource gathering and management, you’re not given many tools to make it a simple job to do so, which is one of my constant frustrations, made worse by the fact that you’re given so few inventory slots early on, leaving you with little room to work with.

Regardless of how you decide to play No Man’s Sky, its core is all about managing your resources, which is where a lot of your play time will take place, including using your mining tool destroy plants, rocks and other items on the planet’s surface to harvest the materials you require. This is where a large part of the grind comes in, as nearly everything you need to do, or craft, requires a handful of other materials. To collect these resources you’ll need to fire your mining beam at rocks, plants and other objects, and doing so will break them up and place them in your inventory. Flora, for example, nets you Carbon, which you will need for many recipes and craftable items, and also to refill your mining beam. So, it’s a constant hamster wheel of gathering materials to use them for crafting, to gather more.

I love exploring space and flying anywhere I desire, but to do so efficiently, you need fuel. To get fuel, you guessed it, more mining for materials. If you want to focus on making money and selling wares across galaxies for profit, you’ll need special fuel to jump from galaxy to galaxy, so no matter how you want to play, you’re always going to have to devote some time to mining for some time. If you’re a Minecraft fan, and desire to play in that style, then you’ll be in heaven, with endless worlds to explore and gather from.

The majority of planets are quite barren. Granted, I fully appreciate the tech and sheer work it must have been to even create the experience along with trillions and trillions of worlds, but every single one I’ve been to are all essentially the same vast barren landscape. Sure, each will have its own flora, animals and resources to gather, but if you’ve been to one planet, you’ve been to the majority of them. Some are more friendly, toxic or dangerous, but they all seem similar in experience.

Using your scanner allows you to see special materials or points of interest on your HUD in range, such as special nutrient rich flora or others that can simply be picked up. At night these also tend to glow quite brightly in the distance, so they are easy to spot from afar. You also able to use your visor to show you hidden areas or special points of interests that you can then tag and make your way to. This visor view will only show you points that are somewhat close, but there’s always something of interest within walking distance, that is, if you have the resources to unearth it.

Yes, you will need to dig into the planet’s crust to unearth many other materials and secrets. Once you have the ability to terraform with your mining gun, you’ll be able to dig holes anywhere you see fit. Need to get out of a dangerous storm that’s depleting your shields? Dig a hole underground and get out of the storm to regenerate your shields. More often than not, dig down a few dozen feet and you’ll most likely find an underground cave, rich with deposits and materials to harvest. High value materials, like copper, gold and other deposits, can only be mined with the terraformer, which of course uses more valuable resources to power, thus begins the constant cycle once again.

So, you’ve found a planet you like that doesn’t have too harsh an environment, has great resources and you want to call it home. That’s where the base building comes in. If you have the materials (again, there’s the catch), you can easily build floors, walls, roofs and other pieces quite simply. Almost done in a Fortnight style of snapping pieces together quickly, you can build nearly anything you can think of, from a simple box with door, to an elaborate base with a unit producing farm. As you progress, you’ll learn blueprints that allow you to craft new machines and decorations for your base, if you decide to play that way and focus on that of course.

You begin with very limited inventory space in your exosuit and starship, but as you earn more credits, quest and explore, you’ll be able to upgrade and purchase new pieces, allowing for more abilities, upgrades and precious inventory space. How you upgrade is also completely up to you, so if you find yourself on harsh environmental planets, you can upgrade your radiation shields, or health if you desire. There are limited upgrade slots per piece available though, so you need to carefully weigh what you want to slot and where. In terrible design, you can also install these upgrades into regular inventory slots instead of dedicated upgrade slots, making you waste precious space and unable to reverse the mistake. You can probably guess where I installed my first upgrade slots.

Leaving the atmosphere and into space is a wonder to behold, especially since there’s no loading screens at any point. Delving into the vast darkness feels great every time, as you are going warp speed through asteroid belts to your next destination. I’ve spent hours freely shooting asteroids for precious materials, though be warned, you’re going to at some point, run into deadly space pirates. A warning signal will appear and if you answer in time and you’ll be able to barter or pay them off to not attack you, but since credits are so sparse in the beginning, you’ll be attacked without much choice. You’ll usually face against two or three ships, and it’s basically the last man standing. During battle you’re unable to use your warp drive to escape, so you’re better off fighting and trying to defeat them; it most likely won’t go your way the first few times though, until you get a hang of the controls.

With the latest update, NEXT, multiplayer has finally been included, allowing you to play alongside three of your friends at a time. Given that this was a promise from the initial launch, and a source of much of the drama, having it included has been a long time coming. So what does playing cooperatively with your friends do differently? Well, really not that much. You can see each other and trade materials and items back and forth, but there’s nothing very co-op focused to do. Need a ton of copper for building something? Have your friends come with you and do so much quicker, or fight alongside each other in space against some pirates.

It’s easy enough to join friends through the main menu, which will put you in their galaxy and within range, but the targets and markers tend to bug out quite often when playing together and be inaccurate. I wish there were more benefits for playing together, and maybe there is that I’ve yet to discover, but from my experience in doing so, the only real reason to play cooperatively is to not be so lonely in the universe. From what I can tell, there’s also no simple way to find random players and join them either, I guess unless you randomly happen upon another player in the vast universe and communicate that way.

I’ve had such an odd time with my experience with No Man’s Sky. One minute I’m really enjoying my time, especially once I figure out a blueprint, defeat some space pirates or manage to find a motherload of valuable deposits. The next time however, I feel like shutting the game off out of frustration because I can’t figure out how to do something, craft an item or I am dying to space pirates again. It’s an odd rollercoaster of enjoyment to frustration, repeated over and over. I’m finding at times it’s very hard to focus on one single thing, as 10 other processes or materials are needed to do almost anything. The universe is so vast that there’s almost too much to do, becoming overwhelming at times, even more so once you work on your factions and can undergo quests. Regardless of how you want to play, you’ll constantly be drawn into the endless grind that repeats infinitum. Even so, I’m finding new things to do, craft and explore, even after dozens and dozens of hours.

The small grand moments of wonder and realization can be breathtaking, but they are too far and few between. Granted, that’s with how I played, so it may be completely different for you. The majority of your time will be simply managing your materials and meters, then spending time gathering materials to do what you intended to do an hour ago, only to find out you need another type of material to do a different step of the process. It’s odd to have such a rollercoaster of highs and lows of excitement and frustration, even after learning so much and adapting to its faults. That being said, I’m still exploring the galaxy with the free time I have and realizing four hours have passed and I've missed my bedtime by a long shot due to wanting to explore just one more thing.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Tempest 4000

I was lucky to be born early enough to see, and experience, the birth of gaming. While the likes of Pong and such were slightly before I was born, Tempest actually released the year I was born, so I remember experiencing it at a young age at some point. If you’re unfamiliar with Tempest, it’s a very old school ‘tube shooter’ that utilizes the classic vortex style of graphics. Watch some classic 80’s movies and you’ll most likely recognize those classic Atari visuals.

Normally I wouldn’t dive too deeply into a game’s history for a review, but there’s a reason that related directly to this newest release, Tempest 4000, so bear with me. Originally designed by Dave Theurer, Tempest was very unique and impressive for its time, gaining quite a following over the years. A decade later, game developer Jeff Minter released a sequel, Tempest 2000, for the Atari Jaguar. Do some research and you’ll see how that console turned out, yet Tempest 2000 was still one of the best games released on it.

Roughly another decade later, in 2015, Minter released a game titled TxK for the Vita, with plans to release on PC and other platforms. The problem was that TxK was essentially a ripoff of Tempest, and not even slightly, it was Tempest, even with the iconic claw ship that the player controls. Sure, you could get into a discussion about how he designed Tempest 2000 a decade prior, but in the end Atari wasn’t happy and stopped any further sales of his TxK title, which people seemed to enjoy.

Here we are three years later, and Tempest 4000 is now available from none other than Minter and Atari working together. This was kind of surprising, given the things he had to say about Atari at the time of the lawsuit, but here we are. This isn’t meant to be an in depth history lesson on Atari or Tempest, but having done some research after playing Tempest 4000, I’m convinced this is simply a ‘remaster’ of his TxK, with Atari’s blessing.

That may or may not be the case, but if you take the time to watch some videos of each game you’ll notice very few differences. That being said, those who really enjoyed TxK, or classic Tempest games, now have a new title to play. For the rest that aren’t as nostalgic or who may appreciate the ‘classics’, it’s not going to make much sense for what you’re looking at, what you’re supposed to do, and how much they priced it at.

You control the Claw, a ship that, well, looks like a claw. You’re on one end of a geometric plane shooting at the enemies on the far end before they can reach your side. Your main goal is surviving wave after wave of enemies and earning the highest score you can, but if you’re unfamiliar with Tempest, you’re going to be utterly confused from the opening moments. You need to destroy every enemy before moving onto the next stage, but that won’t be so easy with dozens of enemies to kill at once and sloppy controls.

You need to keep in mind the technology available back in the early 80’s when Tempest was designed, and here we are, nearly four decades later, and Tempest 4000 still plays essentially the same, albeit with much more visual flair yet the same vortex-like graphics at its core. The play field you navigate from side to side is called a web, and your claw ship can move back and forth across it, shooting down specific lanes towards enemies when lined up. Each level has a different web shape, which can dramatically change the flow of the gameplay, especially when you have intersecting points and have to remember which way left or right will move your ship.

You’ll begin by choosing between the three different modes, which aren’t really explained very well in terms of the differences between them. Classic, Pure and Survival will all play the same save for the amount of lives given and the ability to continue from your last reached level or not. Survival mode nets you 10 lives to see how far you can reach before losing them all, whereas Pure mode gives you three lives and the inability to continue.

When power-ups appear, you’ll need to catch them with your ship if you want the bonuses. These are seemingly randomized, upgrading you with the ability to jump, faster bullets, laser beams and more, though they only last for that specific level. Every level you’re also given one bomb, allowing you to clear the screen of enemies and gain a 2x multiplier on the ones destroyed. This is also a free pass when an enemy has grabbed onto you and is about to kill you by dragging you to the back of the web.

As you clear a level and move onto the next, you’re given a small minigame that lasts a few seconds. Here, you need to traverse your ball of light through some rings to earn a ton of extra bonus points. This is all well and good, but there’s no real indication of where you are in this black void of space. I thought I was in the middle of the rings, but apparently I wasn’t, resulting in missing out on a ton of points. There’s nothing to aid with your relation to the rings and why you aren’t scoring. Granted, it only last a few seconds, so it’s not too big a deal, but it doesn’t feel very well thought out or intuitive.

The biggest issue I have with Tempest 4000 isn’t its abstract premise or retro graphics, but the controls. To say that controlling your claw feels ‘slipperly’ would be an understatement. You don’t have any precise movement unless you move incredibly slow, which won’t work for this game given how quickly you need maneuver from side to side of the webs to destroy approaching enemies. It feels as though you’re moving on ice, so stopping at the exact lane you want is nearly impossible in the thick of battle. Many times I’ve lost lives due to sliding past how far I actually intended to move because of this.

Tempest 4000 still looks like the classic Tempest that I grew up with, but with an upgrade to the colors and background visuals. Given that nearly everything is presented in that classic wireframe style of art, it’s not pretty to look at in the traditional sense, but those that are my age or older should enjoy the nostalgia of growing up with titles like this in the arcade. Shapes and colors will constantly splash across the screen in bright neon, and it will take some time to figure out what you’re exactly looking at, but it is beautiful in its own way, even if it looks like randomness at times.

The highlight for me was the retro soundtrack. While the game sounds are very basic and repetitive, the techno inspired soundtrack was bumping on each level, oddly fitting for the graphics and gameplay, and I really appreciated that I could listen to each individual song buried in the credits menu.

Even though Tempest 4000 boasts a title that implies it’s in the future and is a sequel, very little has changed since Tempest 2000 for the most part. This is more of a refinement than an overhaul, and given that it seems like a ‘remaster’ of TxK from a few years ago, you may have already experienced Tempest 4000 in some form or another. I can appreciate the retro style of gameplay and graphics and don’t really hold the retro-ness against it, as it simply is what it is, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t having as much fun with it as I used to 30 years ago.

Diehard Tempest fans will no doubt really enjoy it for its abstractness, colorful and psychedelic visuals, and beat inducing soundtrack, but if you’re not part of my generation and grew up with titles like this, I don’t feel there’s going to be much appeal or appreciation for games like Tempest 4000.

The final issue I have, and something that is the biggest hurdle Tempest 4000 has to overcome, is its ridiculously overpriced cost of entry. I was absolutely in shock that Atari is charging $29.99 CAD for this. At half the price it would still be a hard sell, but at nearly half the price of a full retail game? There’s very little chance that I can recommend it simply because of its price. If it was regularly $10 or so, that would be a different story, but for a game that only permeates fun in short bursts, unless you’re the specific target audience and diehard fan, it’s difficult to recommend otherwise until there’s a serious sale or price drop.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Bomber Crew

When you think of a war game, you most likely think of Call of Duty or Battlefield, or maybe a flight combat or RTS, but probably nothing like Bomber Crew has crossed your mind. Developer Runner Duck Games has done some great work here, not only designing a bomber flight crew based game, but a highly addictive and adorable looking one at that. Don’t let the cartoonish visuals fool you, Bomber Crew requires a ton of strategy and quick reflexes if you want to not only win, but manage to not lose your whole crew as well.

While there is a campaign, it mainly consists of bite sized missions that you choose before taking on the critical mission and progressing the difficulty. There’s no real overarching narrative that takes place other than pushing back the enemy, as it’s loosely set in the WWII era without any specific theater of war backdrop. Essentially it’s setup as a bunch of small bombing missions that you choose the order of, progressively becoming more challenging and rewarding.

I’m absolutely terrible at micromanaging and having to multitask with many different things at once, which is most likely why I shy away from MOBA’s and RTS style games, so when began my bombing career had me manage a ton of things and crew all at once, I was a little overwhelmed at first. Battles become very chaotic, hectic and intense, and you’re never able to simply focus on one single crew member or task, as each person and system need to be worked in tandem to achieve victory.

I was very overwhelmed in the beginning, as there’s a lot of button combinations that you need to do, depending on what you want to accomplish, and there is very little downtime, as you need to constantly be doing something with your crew, being it targeting locations or enemies, repairing your plane, healing your crew, or putting out fires. After about an hour though, the controls began to make sense and I wasn’t having to think about how I wanted to execute what I was trying to do. Once you stop struggling with the controls, or what you should be doing, the game becomes enjoyable and addictive.

There’s a little bit of a learning curve in the beginning, not just with the controls, but the proper way to use your crew and how to react when things don’t go quite your way. One early mission I lost a couple of my crew, which introduced me to the permanent death mechanics. From that point on I was much more careful and strategic in my combat choices and priorities.

Bomber Crew gives you a crew that takes to the skies to bomb specific targets. Each member of the crew has their own role and specialization, but should things go wrong, anyone can jump in and fill anothers' shoes, albeit nowhere near as efficiently. It’s your job to make sure they are given orders and carry them out, all while trying to succeed in your mission and bring them home safely for the next bombing run.

At its core, Bomber Crew is really a management game. You don’t technically fly the plane in a traditional sense, though you can give your pilot orders to soar at specific altitudes or take evasive measures when needed. Your gunners will shoot down any enemy targets you spot, the engineer will repair damage when necessary, and of course, the man of the hour, your bomber, will be the one dropping the heavy payloads onto the marked areas when in range and your reticle is over the target.

There’s much more to it than that though, as you’ll have to manage your fuel, refill ammo when empty, make repairs when taking damage, and heal your crew back to health if they become wounded. Just like in real life, sometimes things simply don’t go your way, and moments after takeoff maybe the hydraulics stop working, so you’ll need to send the engineer to fix them quickly. Doing one task at a time is no problem, but when you’re getting shot at by a dozen planes in the midst of a flak barrage with a dreaded enemy Ace pilot on your tail, it becomes frantic quite quickly.

Every crew is equally important in their own right. Even losing one teammate can spell disaster for your mission and crew. Moments after takeoff you’re going to constantly have enemy pilots after you, AA guns firing your way, and other dangers. It won’t make a lot of sense in the beginning what you should focus on and how to prioritize things to become victorious, but it does come in time if you stick with it, and is quite rewarding.

Your navigator will spot directional points, and if you focus on those for a few moments, your pilot will take that as your next waypoint and fly in that direction. It takes some getting used to, as you’re not directly controlling the flight of the plane, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. The same goes for enemy pilots, as your crew manning the radar will sense enemies in the vicinity, and you’ll need to hover over their blip for a moment to have them targetable by your gunners. Failure to do so will result in your gunners being essentially blind and unable to shoot at anything. Sadly, you’re unable to choose one specific target to fire at, but your crew will become better over time, learning new usable abilities and becoming much better at their roles.

That is, until they die, and it is not if, but more of a when. You’re able to purchase improved gear for each individual crew member, adding to important stats wherever you deem fit, hopefully to help them survive missions. You’re able to customize each person’s look and name, so have fun naming them after family and friends, which will help you care about them a little bit more. As they complete missions and level up, you’ll unlock special abilities and even subclasses, so it becomes imperative to try and keep them alive for as many missions as possible. When they die, you’ll have to recruit a basic crew again, without any abilities, so do everything in your power to save them when needed. A nice touch is that the main menu has a memorial to honor all of those that have perished in previous missions.

Completing the short and low risk missions as often as possible will allow you to earn some easy money, which in turn will go towards upgrading your bomber plane. Not only can you customize the paintjob of your plane, but even upgrade its parts. This is where you’ll start to see the grind, as parts are quite expensive, but absolutely necessary. In the beginning I was getting damaged quite a bit in missions, so I focused on upgrading my planes armor, but with that comes an added weight, eventually hitting my weight cap. So, then I needed to upgrade my engines to allow a higher weight allowance, but that dropped down my armor, so there’s a balance you’ll need to figure out as you progress.

Do you want way better turrets, well, be prepared to add a ton of weight, or you may want add some extra med packs and fire extinguishers just in case, also adding weight some weight. It’s all about figuring out what works best with your playstyle until you earn enough intel, another type of unlock currency, to gain access to the top tier parts. I do wish there were more bombers and planes though, something that I hope gets addressed in a future patch or sequel.

Missions range from low, medium to high risk, as well as length. Shorter and easier missions don’t have as much of a payday, but there is less of a chance to lose your crew if things go sideways. I grinded the easiest missions I could for a while just to earn enough cash to upgrade my bomber enough so that I wasn’t being shot down so easily. Every now and then you’ll notice that there’s an Ace Pilot that is inescapable in your missions. These act as minibosses, on top of your regular bombing objectives, and will take some serious upgrades to take head on. At any point you can take on the critical mission, which when completed, will essentially progresses you to the next difficulty stage of missions and bigger paydays.

Challenge Mode also awaits you when you grow tired of the grind. This mode puts your crew into a bomber, tackling nonstop waves of enemies and objectives to see how long you can survive. The best part is that there’s no consequence to failing in this mode, so experiment with loadouts add see how a different playstyle works for you. Since it is nonstop waves of challenges, you’ll need to navigate to the floating gasoline pickups to refuel, wrenches to repair your bomber, or health pickups to restore your crew. It’s an interesting change, but I preferred the campaign simply for the progression you make customizing your bomber and crew.

The biggest downfall is how the menus are laid out and control. You need to use the bumpers to change the main categories, then again once you’re in the menu you want, but you’ll constantly hit the wrong button or back out, something I catch myself doing even after many hours invested. For as much I enjoy my time with Bomber Crew, it does become quite a grind if you’re wanting to reach the top tier of upgrades and gear.

Even with the grind that hits at later levels, I kept telling myself to do just one more mission. It’s a little intimidating and overwhelming at first, but stick with it for an hour or two and you’ll start to make sense of the complexity and chaos, resulting in a lot of enjoyment when missions start to go the way you expected. Don’t be like me and initially judge it by its cartoonish visual style, as there’s some serious strategy involved with each bombing run to ensure your crew survives.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 War Thunder

It’s no secret that if you wanted to have online tank battles against a healthy community on console, World of Tanks is where you’ve gone ever since the last generation. Gaijin Entertainment wasn’t satisfied having only PC fans enjoy their competitive title though, so now they’ve brought it to Xbox One players while also including cross platform play. War Thunder is much more than tanks though, as not only do you fight in armored vehicles, but you’ll take the skies in planes and also across the seas in naval combat as well. To say that War Thunder is an all-encompassing battle simulator is an understatement.

Better yet, it’s free to play. Well, it will be, but currently in Early Access, you’ll need to pony up for one of the packages if you don’t want to wait until its full release. Since cross play is included against PC players, you’ll have plenty of opponents, and teammates, to play against and alongside (though this can be turned off if you wish to only play with console players). World of Tanks may have had a huge head start on console, but the experience War Thunder delivers is quite a different one altogether.

Much like the competition, War Thunder is pegged as an online military battle game, so don’t expect any sort of traditional, or any really, campaign or narrative. So while you’re simply playing in online matches, the vehicles are from the World War II and Cold War era, and since there’s more than just tanks, but planes and navy fleet as well, there’s a ton of historical weaponry for you to choose from based on your fleet preference.

If you have an Xbox One X, the first thing you’re going to notice is its great visuals. Enhanced for Xbox One X, War Thunder supports 4K resolution for those that can make use of it. Even without a 4K TV myself, everything looks very crisp and sharp in the heat of battle. Exterior damage will show visually, and certain mechanical problems will arise when you become damaged, jamming your tracks, turret, flaps along with another multitude of issues, so damage isn’t just visual, and adds a whole layer of realism. The audio is equally as impressive, as the cannons from each tank sound varied (and I assume authentic), engines can be heard straining going up a hill or dive-bombing in your plane and even the tracks from a tank have a lot of subtle sounds that feed into the immersion.

As soon as you begin your War Thunder experience, you’ll probably run into the same problem I had: being utterly lost and confused with the menus and what to do. It’s clear that this console version was a port of its PC counterpart, so much in fact that you need to move the ‘mouse’ around with your Left Stick and use the Right Trigger, not the standard ‘A’, to select anything. Pressing ‘A’ does do certain things though, so it took me quite some time to figure out that the Right Trigger was meant to emulate the Left Click of a mouse. Confused yet? I haven’t even delved into the menus confusion.

The fact that even this isn’t explained is only the beginning. There’s a lot of menus you’ll need to navigate; a LOT, and it’s not explained at any time where to find things, what they mean or how to do what you want. If you were a previous World of Tanks player, you’ll have somewhat of an idea, as it’s the same premise and layout for leveling your tanks and vehicles, dumping research points into them so that you can move up in tiers, but if you’re fresh into the genre or casual, you’re going to struggle from the opening moments, leading to some early unneeded frustration.

Every tank, plane and boat will handle differently, and there’s a massive amount of button combinations you’ll need to master if you want to become proficient, again, that really isn’t taught to you well. For example, if you want to use your binoculars to spot enemies from afar, there’s a button combination to even do so. Or you’ve put a plane into your lineup and don’t know why it doesn’t let you fly one ever in a tank match? That’s because someone needs to call in air support, which you need to then do another button combination to even take part of this quick air run against the enemies.

My favorite part though has to be when you land a good shot on an enemy, as a small window will pop up showing an X-Ray view of not only where it hit them, but the penetration angles inside against the crew as well. This helps you see where you hit if it ricocheted and bounced off, so that you can adjust your angle, decide to flank or change your ammo type. And yes, there are multiple types of ammo for different situations, something you’ll need to decide on how much to bring into each battle. After dozens of battles, I now know how much ammo I average in a match, so I decide to not bring as much, as it leaves you more susceptible to blowing up and explosions if you’re carrying tons and tons of ammunition.

Up to 32 players can play in a match, and you’re given the option to choose to play cross-network with PC players. This has pros can cons, as matchmaking is usually under a minute with cross play enabled, but substantially longer without. Also, when you’re just starting out and not well versed in warfare, I’ve found that portions of the PC community isn’t very friendly to you as a newbie console player, not that that’s any fault of the game itself.

There’s a healthy amount of maps that you’ll be randomly put into, each of which will require very different strategy and teamwork, from snowy hillsides, to heavily populated residential buildings and barren deserts. I did find though, just like its competitor, is that it’s not uncommon to be placed in a match that’s not balanced very well. Even one person having a tier or two higher of a tank can make a massive difference in a battle, as does player rankings for the experience factor.

The main differences will be depending on where, and how, you decide to play. There’s essentially two modes you can choose from: Arcade, which is just that, quickly played matches, enemies being spotted and other assists. Or, Realistic, which is a whole other ballgame and experience in itself. Realistic doesn’t have any guidance, enemies will kill you without you having a clue from where and teamwork is absolutely essential. I think of Realistic Mode as a racing game without any of the assists turned on in ranked competition, then getting the crap kicked out of you because you don’t know how to play properly. It’s no joke, and will require dozens of hours of dedication if you want to play in this more simulation mode. I even have a friend that’s been playing non-stop since War Thunder has released, and even he is apprehensive about going into the Realistic matches.

Lastly, there is a fun Assault Battle mode which has you and a number of other players playing cooperatively against increasingly difficult waves of enemies that are trying to take your base. These can be very fun, but your lowly Tier 1 tanks will be wiped out quite quickly if that’s all you bring to the fight, so I suggest going in once you have a few tanks of different tiers ready to go.

While War Thunder is all about land, sea and air battles, its bread and butter really is with the ground warfare of tanks vs tanks. You’ll be able to grind to unlock dozens and dozens of tanks, from many different countries; from light, all the way up to heavy tank destroyers or AA guns. Just like its competition, there are also premium tanks, of which have to be bought with real money, but these are kitted out and upgraded and are amongst the best in the game. We were lucky enough to have been given the Elite Bundle for review, so we had access to some premium tanks as well as the premium currency to buy more, and upgrades, with.

There’s a healthy amount of aircraft to choose from as well; not as many as the tanks, but still a fair amount, ranging from standard gunfire to bombers. You’re able to freely choose if you want to play a tank or plane match, but the beta for naval battles is also included. It took some time to figure out how to play these, and even more for a match to populate, but it is there for those that are able to navigate the confusing menus. Currently there’s nowhere near the amount of naval ships to choose from compared to tanks and planes, but I can see these being added later quite easily.

You’ll begin with choosing between a handful of free beginner vehicles, eventually earning XP and able to upgrade them and purchase better ones. Research points are needed to unlock the next vehicle down the line you’ve chosen, which you earn through battle. Money, represented as Lions, is the main currency which you’ll need to hire new crew members for your tanks and aircraft, or to upgrade them to be more efficient. Of course, you’re constantly tempted with a quick unlock with the premium currency, Eagles, and the game will remind you at any chance that you should buy some, either to buy a fancy new premium tank, or upgrade your current one without having to grind as much.

And that’s where you’ll start to notice the grind. If you have your hearts set on a top tier tank, plane or ship, it’s going to take quite some time to earn it by simply playing. The ‘money sink’ is a very easy trap to fall into, especially if you want the better premium vehicles, of which some are only sold in bundles. This means that those with more disposable income will have a head start and easier time from the beginning, or have an insanely cool looking tank that they bought cosmetic items for with their premium currency.

Yes, it’s free to play (eventually), but you’re going to be outclassed with someone that can drop $50 on a super tank that comes fully kitted out. With multiple types of currency, it can become quite confusing on what you should use and when, again, something that’s not really explained all too well. As a newcomer, I know I was quite confused and frustrated trying to figure it out, so I can only imagine others that actually paid for access, only to find out you’re going to “have” to spend more money to be competitive, or dump hundreds of hours into it to be competitive at the higher tiers.

Given that War Thunder is in Early Access, and essentially a PC port, right down to its mouse controls, expect bugs to creep up now and then. I’ve had my ‘mouse’ become bugged and slow numerous times and the game crash at inopportune times, but I keep coming back, as getting a really good match in when you’re on point and making all your shots count is exciting. Yes, War Thunder is fun, but it’s a not just a mountain to climb for its learning curve, but more like a sheer cliff. While Arcade Battles are slightly easier to simply dive into, once you’ve figured out the menus, it can still be quite a hardcore experience, and that’s not even including the realistic mode.

The menu, currency confusion, being outclassed by pay-to-win players and lack of help is very off-putting in the beginning, but it does start to make sense if you can devote the time to learn it and stick with it. It’s not going to be for everyone, and I’d still wager it’s more catered towards the hardcore crowd, or those with disposable income, but War Thunder can be a deep and exciting game in the heat of battle. Once it’s free to play and out of Early Access, there’s no harm in giving it a shot, like your tank cannon.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Red Faction Guerrilla Re-Mars-tered

Volition, best known for developing the Saints Row titles, also had a hit last generation with its take on the Red Faction series with Red Faction: Guerilla. While it was a generally decent game, albeit with a bland story and setting, what really set it apart was its destructible environment and explosive gameplay. This is the remaster generation after all, so what better time to re-release a somewhat popular title for people that may have missed it, or want to revisit Mars once more. So the question is, is this remaster, cleverly titled Re-MARS-tered, the one we’ve been waiting for with tons of upgrades, additions and improvements? I wouldn’t go that far...

Red Faction: Guerilla tells a tale about Alec Mason and his brother, looking for a new life on Mars. Within the opening moments, you’re introduced to the oppressive Earth Defense Force (EDF) when they viciously kill your brother. This sets the pieces in motion for Alec to join the resistance and extract his revenge by taking out the EDF by any means necessary, usually resulting in mass destruction of their property. Alec now fights for liberation of Mars, and of course revenge, so it’s up to you to bring the fight to the EDF.

Ironically, I found the story missions to be the more boring and dull compared to the plethora of side quests available. So, while you’ll need to push through the campaign missions to progress the narrative, there’s plenty to do outside of that, and I actually found a handful of these other missions much more memorable, and more importantly, fun, than the campaign itself. One of the earlier quests, for example, has you barreling through tall EDF transmitters while being chased, or demolishing a ton of EDF buildings with a combat walker. It’s an exhilarating mission that was more entertaining than a bulk of the story missions, and there are a handful of these.

Set in an open world, you have freedom to tackle missions however you like, or simply be destructive and destroy every building you see should you wish. Played in third person, there is a shooting aspect to it as well, as you’ll need to engage EDF forces at nearly every turn, but the true gameplay comes from its physics based destruction mechanics. You’ll need to work on faction missions to progress, unlocking more help and more missions for you to work on. Luckily, you’re able to tackle missions in any order you desire, or do none and simply just destroy stuff, but it’s cool seeing more resistance members joining in the fight against the EDF the better your faction becomes in an area.

So, you’ve already played Guerilla before and simply want to know what’s new in the Re-MARS-tered edition? Essentially, it’s just a shiny coat of paint on top of the same experience from nearly a decade ago. Improved shadows, textures, lighting, and of course, 4K support. Having seen side-by-side videos of the original vs Re-MARS-tered, it indeed looks sharper and cleaner, but visually it still has that dated 360 look overall, especially with the pre-rendered cutscenes.

Obviously the visuals were the main focus of this release, but the small amount of DLC that was offered post launch is also included here. Aside from that, there are no fixes or extra content of any kind included. There’s a quick prequel mission that you have access to, or those wanting a little more lore, but once completed there’s no reason to play it again. Wrecking Crew mode on the other hand is nearly worth the price of admission alone, where you’ll challenged with causing as much destruction as possible within a time limit and specific weapons.

Given that nearly a decade ago, it was super impressive that Guerilla looked and performed as well as it did, I was really hoping to be seriously wow’d with this remaster, and while the 4K inclusion is always welcome, it brought along with it some performance issues. Slowdown isn’t uncommon when things get truly chaotic and explosions are happening everywhere, even on an Xbox One X in performance mode, which was quite disappointing. Camera issues are still a constant frustration, especially in chaotic demolition of buildings.

Which brings us to the real reason to even play and experience Guerilla; its physics based destruction. This is the bread and butter of this game. Not only can you destroy buildings and objects, but it’s extremely entertaining to do so. There’s nothing quite like knocking out the support and structural beams of a building and seeing it topple in grand fashion, killing some EDF in the process. Need to quickly ambush some EDF inside a building? Blow a hole through it, or drive into it directly.

Even all these years later, the environmental destruction is still some of the best in gaming. Other games have destruction as well, but usually not to this level, or they have restrictions on how much a building can be destroyed. There’s simply nothing quite like placing a few strategic remote charges after swinging my sledgehammer at a building’s corners, and watch it come crashing down.

Destroying isn’t just for fun and entertainment though, as this is how you will collect scrap, Guerilla’s form of currency. You’ll also earn scrap from completing missions, and then use it to purchase upgrades. The problem though is that you don’t earn much scrap per mission, or even for demolishing large buildings, so there comes a point where you’ll need to seriously grind to get the upgrades later on.

I remember dropping a few hours into the multiplayer back in the day when the original game was still new. It wasn’t great by any means, but the destruction mechanics added another layer of strategy onto your run of the mill shooter gameplay at least. I was hoping for a few fun hours once again with this version, but it seems those fans have long moved on, as it took an incredibly painful amount of time to even find a match. Of the two matches I was able to eventually find, and participate in, not a single one had players that didn’t drop out during the match. Even though Guerilla supports up to 16 players online, matches won’t start until 4 are present, and simply finding 3 others took an exorbitant amount of time.

If you’re looking for a deep and interesting story with fleshed out characters and great driving and shooting mechanics, look elsewhere. If you’re simply looking to demolish some EDF buildings for the resistance, and blow a ton of stuff up, then you’ve come to the right place. Red Faction: Guerilla Re-MARS-tered is a fun distraction if you want to turn off your brain, but don’t let the title fool you, this is as shallow as a remaster comes, as it’s simply a new thin coat of paint on top of the same experience we had almost a decade ago. There’s no need to play again if you’ve already have, but it’s an entertaining experience to destroy everything in sight if you haven’t.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Insane Robots

I keep telling myself I would stop judging a book by its cover, well, a game by its cover, but I still find myself unknowingly doing it at times. When Insane Robots arrived to review, I checked out some of the screenshots and assumed it would just be another forgettable indie title that I wouldn’t even remember playing in a week. Luckily, I can admit my mistakes and be pleasantly surprised when I’m proven wrong. Don’t let insane Robots’ cute demeanor fool you, there’s some fantastic gameplay within for anyone yearning for a card battle type of game with some deep strategy and addictive gameplay.

Starting out as a basic robot named Franklin, you are sentenced to death for simply “asking questions”. By whom or what, that’s a different question that you’ll uncover during your journey. Any robot that is perceived to be malfunctioning is labeled as insane, forced to battle against other insane robots, hence the title. The plot is interesting enough and sets a decent framework as to why you’re battling other robots in an almost battle royale type of setting.

You’ll eventually learn about “The Kernal”, who is apparently the one behind all of this, so it’s up to you to battle your way as a sole survivor to take down this mysterious foe. Even though the story is paper thin, it’s not a problem, as the gameplay itself does more than enough to carry the rest of the experience on its shoulders. The campaign will take you a handful of hours, and there’s plenty of replay value, so the price of admission is well worth it.

I’ve dabbled in card battler games before, such as Hearthstone, Gwent and others, but they usually have a high barrier of entry, as they are usually quite deep and involved from the get-go, and can be quite intimidating to delve into head first. I expected the same with Insane Robots initially, but after a handful of hours, I kept wanting to do just one more tournament.

You traverse on a hexagonal grid, and as you explore the map you’ll come across money pickups, mini-quests and of course, other insane robots to fight. You are only able to move a certain amount of spaces per turn, as are the enemy robots, and as you land on another robot, you’ll begin a battle. You’ll also come across shops where you can buy upgrades, health replenishments, and more, to help outfit your robot into a powerhouse fighting machine of death, for a cost of course.

When you begin a battle, you’ll take turn-based moves where you’re going to need to plan out the best strategy with the hand you are given. Even though I’ve labelled it a card battler, I guess technically it deals you chips, you know, to match the robot aesthetic. Your deck will be randomized every time, so there’s no need to build that ‘perfect deck’, which is great, as it keeps the randomness and challenge ongoing. You’ll need to outfit your chips in a way that allows you to simply deplete the enemy’s health to zero to win. Sounds simple, but it becomes much more challenging and deeply strategic the further you progress.

Setting up your attack and defense numbers is simple at first, as you need to slot both attack or defense areas with a chip for it to take effect. The value of each chip is randomized as it goes into your deck, but there’s a smart system in place that allows you to bolster your stats, or deplete theirs. So, simply slot two attack chips into your robot and you’ll have the combined value usable as your offence. The same goes for defense, as you gain those bonus shield points if you slot two chips, gaining the combined total of both.

It costs energy to slot in chips though, and each turn you have a limited amount, so there’s a very important resource management in play that you need to be aware of at all times. At first it comes down to simple math, as you will damage the enemy with your attack number, as long as you have the resources to do so (it takes three energy to launch an attack) and your offence is of a higher value than their defense. So, it becomes a cat and mouse game of balancing keeping your offense and defense up, but also trying to whittle away your opponent’s health. These are where the hacking and other special chips come into play.

There’s a number of special chips that can instantly alter the outcome of a battle and have to be utilized in specific ways to be very powerful and useful. You begin with basic hack chips, allowing you to boost your attack or defense chips that are slotted, or decrease the enemy robot’s numbers. Swap chips allow you to do just that, swapping your chip with the corresponding enemy’s chip, to boost yours and decrease theirs. There are also lock cards, allowing you to lock a specific chip so it’s unhackable and can't be swapped by your enemy, or used to break their locked chips. You can see there’s a ton of strategy in play, depending on what your play style is more geared towards, and how you react to theirs.

Certain chips can also be combined with others, for an energy cost of course, allowing you to combine a weak card with another to boost it to full power, or make an uber hack, etc. Again, when the best time to create the super cards, place them, attack, or stack up on defense, all depends on the situation and battle. There’s a surprising amount of depth given there’s only 20+ different chips.

When you finally defeat your enemy you’ll gain money, which can then be used to buy upgrades and other items to enhance your robot. Each battle allows you to earn a certain amount of cash, based on how your battle played out, and you can earn another larger bonus at the end of the tournament when every robot is defeated if you’re victorious. Some of the upgrades are permanent and extremely useful, like a lower cost on certain chips, maximum health and more, so it’s worthwhile grinding for some money simply for the upgrades. Factor in that you can unlock a bunch of different robots, each with their own perks, and there’s a ton of value and replayability within.

Other than Campaign, there is Quick Battle, simply placing you against a certain enemy, each becoming progressively harder, but it’s with a default robot, not the one you’ve powered up through your campaign spoils. There is also local co-op battle, as well as online, which I was excited to try out. Sadly, every single time I’ve attempted, I’ve haven't been able to find a successful match, not even once. So, while it’s great that online battles are included, unless you have a friend that also purchases the game, good luck finding a match. I’m not sure if it’s a server issue, or simply a lack of people playing online at the time though, but luckily the campaign is broad enough to keep your interest for quite some time.

Visually, Insane Robots is quite colorful and has a great comic based art style to the robots, making them extremely adorable. Each robot looks completely unique and has its own personality, each of which includes their own smack talk during battles as well. The soundtrack is just as good colorful, adding some beats to each battle, upping the intensity.

My only real complaints are the lack of community playing online, as described above, and the overly heavy loading screens. The loading screens don’t take long, but they happen quite frequently, but they can also basically be skipped, so I’m not sure why they are even included at all.

Insane Robots is an amazing example of how to ease players into a genre without demanding too much of a learning curve, yet also being deep enough to satisfy the players that want to strategize at a much higher level. A bunch of smaller ideas come together to make a great experience, one you’d be insane to pass by.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Eventide 3: Legacy of Legends

I can’t even count the number of Artifex Mundi titles I’ve played and reviewed on the Xbox One so far, nearly every title I believe. Even after a handful of games that differ slightly from one another, I still find myself enjoying my time with them, as it’s a calming getaway from the regular shooters, RPG’s and racers that I normally indulge in. The standard formula hasn’t changed much in nearly all of their titles, except for the previous release of Grim Legends 3, which was a big step up in production value, so I was hoping that would be the norm going forward with their newest releases.

It seems that’s not the case though, as Eventide 3: Legacy of Legends feels much like the standard type of Artifex Mundi HOG (hidden object game) rather than a step forward. Not that that’s a bad thing, I just had some high hopes for something new and impressive, as it all feels very predictable when you’ve played nearly a dozen of the same type of game, especially from a single developer.

I believe it was last year Eventide 2 was released, and the original, Eventide: Slavic Fable, the year before it, so it’s been a yearly endeavor for me within this beautiful and colorful world. The Eventide series resolves around a celebrated botanist named Mary. Following the events of Eventide 2, you’ll finally have a conclusion to the overall narrative. Mary’s brother, John, is kidnapped by a mysterious creature, so she sets off with her sharp mind, and potion concocting abilities to save him and stop a sinister plot.

Yes, it’s another ‘someone is kidnapped’ tale, but the story themselves have never been its strong suit, as it’s all about the puzzle gameplay in a genre like this. Mary isn’t alone though, as she’ll befriend a magical creature, known as Aitvar, which I would best describe as a huge owl-like creature. It’s a good thing too, as you’ll need to periodically call upon him to ride his back to fly to the floating isles where you need to be. It’s a fantasy setting and that plays into its surroundings, beautifully hand drawn and full of color.

If you’re not like me and haven’t played every single Artifex Mundi game to date, their HOG games essentially have you exploring scenes for items and objects which can then be used to uncover other items, which in turn allows you to solve a puzzle and progress. Sure, that’s a horrible simplification, but that is its' core gameplay cycle for the most part. There’s plenty of scenes to explore, dozens of puzzles to solve, and tons of great artwork to soak in. So if you’ve played any of their titles before, you’ll know exactly what to expect, almost to a fault.

For those new to the genre, or a casual fan, you’re able to choose Normal difficulty. Here you’ll have access to a hint system, giving you clues of where to go next, or you can even completely bypass a puzzle if you’re absolutely stuck and need to rely on it. Expert mode is also available for the more tenured puzzle solvers that don’t require any hints (and want every achievement). Sadly though, there’s no epilogue like in some of their titles, so once you hit the credits after a couple hours, your journey simply ends, as there’s not much replay value aside from lingering achievements. Also not included this time, like in previous titles of theirs, there are no alternative games to play instead of the HOG puzzles, something I quite enjoyed in the past.

Returning from Grim Legends 3 is the Rune Battle minigame. Here you’re tasked with winning three rune battles against your enemy. They will be a number of runes on the AI's attack, and you must choose the runes on your side that don’t match any of theirs. Choose correctly and you’ll win the round, and you need to win three rounds to defeat them. It’s not as in depth or as challenging as it was in their other title, so it does feel a little tacked on, but it was one of my favorite new features in their games, so I’m also glad to see it return, even if it’s not quite the same.

The difficulty curve of the puzzles themselves is fairly decent, though there were a few more challenging puzzles, like color matching, rotating puzzles and more. The HOG games themselves obviously return, where you have a shopping list of items, and you need to find them hidden within the scene. Some are quite obvious and stand out, whereas others will have you spamming the ‘A’ button as you move the cursor around, swearing it doesn’t exist until you happen upon it accidentally. The puzzles themselves are more catered to novices of the genre, which is fine, but there’s enough different types of puzzles to keep you interested, regardless of skill.

A staple in the series, and all of their titles really, is the beautiful hand drawn artwork. While the animations are quite rough and basic, the backgrounds are incredibly gorgeous and always a pleasure to take in while you’re searching for your next item or puzzle. I was hoping that the bump in art and production would return from the last Grim Legends 3, but it seems Eventide 3 follows the older traditional template of design instead.

Sadly, the cringe-worthy voice acting returns once again, Artifex Mundi’s achilles heel. Almost all of the voiced lines aren’t acted very well, nor are believable at all. Luckily, the gameplay is what you come for, not the story or voice acting. You don’t need to have played the previous two Eventide’s to know what’s going on, as it’s a completely self-contained story within itself, though obviously you’ll get a little more out of it if you’ve played the previous two.

Artifex Mundi are the leaders in this specific niche genre, and while this latest game is not their best offering, it’s still worth a recommendation, as the formula is simple and a great escape for a few hours. The fact that I’ve not grown tired of their games after about a dozen or so speaks volumes for their gameplay, as there’s no better offerings on the console within the genre.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Anima: Gate of Memories - The Nameless Chronicles

I reviewed the previous Anima: Gate of Memories game back when it was released, and was impressed for what it did given the small development team. Sure it had its flaws, as the voice acting wasn’t great and I was constantly lost, but it had an interesting artistic style and a half decent story if you were able to follow along. When I found out there was a sequel coming, I was intrigued, as I had a decent outing the last time I was in the Anima world, hoping they would address some of the issues I had and looking forward to some more lore of its interesting world and characters.

This sequel, The Nameless Chronicles, actually takes place alongside the original game, except instead of playing as The Bearer and Ergo once again, you’re actually in control of Nameless, someone you’ll remember quite well if you’ve played the original. While Nameless was portrayed as the antagonist in the original game, seeing his story from his point of view gives you a very different perspective and reasoning to his actions.

Eons ago, Nameless, along with others, sealed away a demon that could destroy the world, Baal, and has uncovered a plot about a group planning on releasing him from his prison. Given that this takes place parallel to Gate of Memories, you’re going to run into some familiar faces, like The Bearer and Ergo, and if you’ve played the first, you’ll get to relive some of the battles they had, but from Nameless’ perspective this time. That being said, expect the same outcomes from their run in’s the first time, though there’s much more to Nameless’ tale than these few encounters.

Much like Gates of Memories, the narrative in The Nameless Chronicles is interesting and quite involved, but you really need to give your full attention to it or you risk being confused and lost as to who, what and why. The overall narrative has the same framework as before, but the deeper and more intimate tale of Nameless’ immortality, along with being helped by a mysterious spirit known as Unknown (yeah, they aren’t the greatest at naming characters), made for an interesting saga the more that was uncovered. That being said, I still found The Bearer and Ergo a much more compelling tale, probably because of the personality clashes between the two characters.

Because The Nameless Chronicles takes place alongside the first game, you’ll eventually have a sense of déjà-vu if you’ve played the the previous title, as you’ll start to notice reused assets. The worst part of the original, the puppet mansion, returns for another go as well, and while it makes sense from a narrative point of view, it hasn’t gotten any better. Your main hub is now The Nexus of Memories, a small area where you’ll routinely travel back to when you complete a main section, or become lost and don’t know where to go.

This was my biggest gripe with the first game as well, that you have no guide or marker to direct you where to go next. Sometimes you’re in an area that’s very linear, but other times you’ll be wandering aimlessly from area to area, trying to figure out where to go. Again, like the first game, this had me frustrated at times, as there’s no real quest journal or clear indication of where you should be heading next.

While combat will make for the bulk of the experience, there are a few puzzle elements that take place as well. Some were done quite well, others were much more subtle, but I enjoyed the odd break from the mind-numbing combat now and then, I just wish there were more of these segments. In combat you have access to a lock-on targeting system, but it’s fairly wonky, and at times, more of a hindrance than a help, especially with enemies that constantly move and teleport, whipping your camera all around.

In general, combat is nearly identical to the first game, without the character swapping of course. Nameless prefers to get up close and personal with his sword, though you do have access to a ranged shot as well, something you’ll need to heavily rely on in certain battles. You have light and heavy attacks, an uppercut where you can start an air juggle, and more, but I found it near impossible to string together more than a few simple hits before being interrupted.

Much of the combat strategy is also utilizing your meter that also allows you to become much more powerful for attacks, but slowing you down in the process. This energy regenerates slowly, and some enemies’ defenses won’t break without these more powerful hits. You’ll also find new weapons along your journey, offering better stats and damage for different play styles, but even by the end, I felt no more powerful than I did in the beginning for the most part.

You will also need to heavily rely on dodging, again, represented by another stamina bar you’ll need to manage during fights. You can specialize in either close range melee or long range attacks, but there’s no real fusion between the two. Sure it’ll look cool as you dash in, hit once or twice, dash back and shoot from afar, but there’s no system in place to encourage this. Keep in mind, if you’re using the lock-on system, you’ll constantly get spun around from warping enemies, opening yourself up to attacks when fighting a group at once.

Maybe it’s just been awhile since I played the first, but I found the combat in The Nameless Chronicles to be much more challenging than the previous game. You’re kind of eased into the mechanics, but even the tutorial is a miniboss fight to show you the ropes. Even generic enemies can easily overwhelm you in numbers if you’re not careful (or using lock-on). Boss fights are quite challenging, not because of the telegraph moves are difficult to notice or avoid, but because they last forever. Even after numerous weapon and skill upgrades, I never felt more powerful, seemingly doing only a minor increase of damage, and when you are fighting a boss and minions simultaneously, it’s actually quite challenging.

Luckily health refills when killing enemies, but you’ll always need to be on your toes. The large scale boss fights are quite enjoyable though, with two being quite memorable. I won’t spoil anything, but I really enjoyed the mechanics for the final confrontation, even though it meant I had to slog through all of the previous hours.

Killing enemies will also earn you XP which you can then use to level up your skills and abilities. Nearly identical to the first game, you can spend your skill points however you wish, bolstering your favorite skills or choosing others to round out your abilities. Luckily this time you only play as Nameless, so the skill tree is much simpler this time around. When you choose to unlock a new skill, you’ll also earn passive bonuses that are linked between the two, so sometimes I was choosing a new ability more-so for the passive bonus, like extra health, rather than the skill itself. A small issue I had with the first game returns here as well, as the skill tree is done with diagonal lines, so you can’t simply press down to see the skill below it, you have to follow the skill path line. While not a deal breaker, it makes it more cumbersome and a chore than it needs to be.

Visually, not much has changed from the first title, that I can tell anyways. It still has that anime inspired artistic style to it, which suits the source material. I get that a small team can only do so much, but it does look quite dated at this point, even if you enjoy the art direction. There’s sometimes a distinct clash though, as many areas will be dark and grey, while others are very bright, vibrant and uses great lighting and effects. The soundtrack is pleasant enough, but again, the voice acting is very hit or miss, depending on the character.

If you’re a fan of the lore and Anima series, then The Nameless Chronicles is a no-brainer and an easy sell. If you’re looking for challenging combat with some RPG elements, you could do worse. It has a very interesting story if you can follow along, more-so if you’ve played the first, but is simply bogged down by its constant and repetitive combat that does little to excite.

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 NieR:Automata BECOME AS GODS Edition

Last year in 2017, NieR:Automata released for PS4 and PC to much critical success. Sadly for Xbox One owners though, many were unable to enjoy this completely unique and exciting title, but good things come to those that wait, and now NieR: Automata has finally arrived for Xbox fans to also see what the big deal has been this past year. With PlatinumGames behind the development, and visionary director Yoko Taro directing, NieR:Automata BECOME AS GODS Edition has not only been bundled with its previously released DLC as a single package, but some massive graphical improvements have been included for those playing on an Xbox One X, such as 4K resolution and HDR lighting.

I somehow managed to avoid spoilers of any kind when it came to NieR, and I’m grateful that I managed to, as the campaign and narrative were incredibly exciting, engaging and one of Automata’s best aspects. Set far into the future, mankind has been driven from their home, overdriven by invading machine lifeform. The world is in near ruin after the invasion, so androids were created for the sole purpose of taking it back. Part of the YoRHa squad, androids 2B and 9S are the ones tasked with succeeding this near impossible mission.

While it may seem like a typical “save the world” type of backdrop for story framing, there’s a lot more to uncover as you progress, something I don’t want to spoil in any way. It begins simply as an ‘us’ vs ‘them’, but there’s more to it than what’s on the surface, something you’ll uncover from separate narrative angles with 2B and 9S along the way. There are some pretty important “woah” moments where your jaw may be on the floor, especially at a couple of the endings.

Oh, you noticed I mentioned multiple endings? To really understand the whole story, Automata will need to be played through multiple times, and for good reason. Bear with me, as I’m usually not one for multiple playthroughs with games due to weaning interest and simple lack of time, but you need to invest the time into Automata if you want the full experience from it.

Described as “routes”, you begin the game playing as solely 2B, and completing her story is labeled ‘Route A’. Once the credits roll you can then start up Route B which has you playing as 9S’s point of view. While some major events will cross over, this isn’t simply playing the same game again with a slightly different character, quite the opposite actually. 9S’ campaign intermingles with 2B’s, allowing you to see what took place from a completely different area or perspective, all encased in a very clever way, but also with some interesting changes.

Normally I wouldn’t bother with second, or third playthroughs, but you’re allowed to carry forward the progress you’ve made in levels, experience and more, making it much more rewarding rather than simply starting over from scratch. These Routes are also more than a simple New Game+ mode as well, as they are essential to the overall narrative. You’ll encounter new enemies, mechanics, plots and more, so it’s absolutely necessary to stick with it. Yes there are multiple endings, but don’t consider the campaign truly complete until you’ve done so after at least Route C. I won’t say anything more, simply trust me.

With no loading times, aside from fast travel, the world is expansive and seamless. The post-apocalyptic setting gives an eerie backdrop, devoid of any human life, with visuals that look fantastic on the Xbox One X. Automata's gameplay was something I really wasn’t expecting, even from the opening segment. While the majority of your gameplay is a 3rd person hack and slash, what took me by surprise was not only the subtle shift to 2D sidescrolling platform run & gunning sets, but parts where you’re piloting a ship and essentially playing a top down bullet hell shooter for certain segments as well. These aren’t simple one-off sections as well, as some bosses are fought with your swords on foot, and others in your ship. There’s new mechanics introduced in Routes B and C as well, but I won’t avoid spoiling much else.

While the story is a linear tale, there are handful of sidequests that are optional to undertake, should you want to spend more time in the fascinating world. These sidequests are done quite well, giving you special rewards or lore. Many even have quite a bit of humor, something I didn’t expect from a heavy machine based narrative. There’s a handful of sidequests I highly suggest doing, as they make the overall experience much more rich, but I’ll leave that up to you.

So what’s new with this BECOME AS GODS Edition you ask? The very uniquely named 3C3C1D119440927 DLC included adds new outfits for the main characters, skins for your Pod and more. The costumes are obtained through some arena battles that unlock as you progress and are quite challenging, even on the easiest setting. This allows you to have another goal to work towards, even after multiple playthroughs. This DLC is welcome, but certainly catered towards the player that’s going to grind for levels and chips long after the final Route is finished.

Combat is very fun and addictive, and with the chip system in place, you can customize your character’s abilities to suit your playstyle. 2B has access to two weapons and her Pod, whereas 9S can only use one melee weapon at a time. Weapons range from light and quick swords, to big slow heavy hitters, again, based on your preferred play style. Luckily the controls are customizable, as I found the default layout to not be so intuitive, so I have ‘X’ and ‘Y’ for my light and heavy melee attacks, Right Trigger for my Pod and plane mode shooting and Right Bumper for my dodge.

Attacks feel, and sound, powerful, and dodging an enemy attack will give you a slight moment of slow motion, adding to the coolness factor of it all. Like most PlatinumGames titles, the combat is very addictive, smooth and rewarding once you take the time to learn its intricacies. Once you have a grasp on combat and learn that there’s no limited or stamina meter for dodging, something you’ll need to heavily rely on, it all feels and looks so satisfying and stylish.

2B and 9S have a floating Pod that follows them around, used as a form of communication with HQ, but also an aid in battle. These pods will not only help you safely float through the air from tall heights, but can be outfitted with different weaponry. Laying down on the Right Trigger will have your Pod shoot an endless stream of bullets forwards, or towards your locked on target. You can purchase other abilities for your Pod to equip later on when you save up enough credits, each of which are unique and worth experimenting with.

Chips are how you’ll customize 2B and 9S, not just their combat abilities, but also regenerative, hacking and even running speed options. This is the main RPG element to Automata, and once you wrap your head around how the system works, with the cap of slotting chips, it becomes quite interesting to build the perfect set of ability improvements to suit your style of play.

Chips have ranks of +1 and so on, and the higher versions of a chip have a higher cost to equip. You start with a low cap of chip values you can have equipped at one time, but eventually can upgrade the cap to use more. The better the chip the much higher a cost it will have to slot it, so it depends on if you want to be specialized in a few abilities, or decent in a variety; this is where your customization comes in to cater to your gameplay. If you need more cap to equip an awesome new chip, you can unslot the chip that shows map, damage numbers, quest markers, HUD and more. Given the context that you’re an android, it’s a very clever system.

Combat can be quite difficult to get the hang of, so rather than having a very difficult barrier of entry, the easier modes allow you to equip “Auto Mode” chips that will automatically attack, shoot and even dodge for you if you equip them. I found these quite helpful in the beginning when I was getting my bearings around all of the mechanics and systems in place, as there’s not much help tutorial wise aside from the opening basics.

Should you die, well, more when you die, you’ll learn about Automata’s death mechanics in place. Much like Dark Souls, when you die, you lose your stuff, or in this instance, your upgrade chips. To get them back you’ll have to make it back to your body without dying again, and while this amy seems harsh, it felt purposeful here, as deaths weren’t generally unfair, and more a lack of skill. On the flip side, when you die, you leave a corpse for others to find (if you decided to play connected to the server).

Now, also somewhat like Dark Souls, when you find corpses on the ground, which means that a player has died there, usually indicating a challenging fight ahead. You have two options when you happen upon a corpse; resurrect it to have it fight alongside you, or loot some of its gear and credits. While you can only resurrect one player at a time to fight alongside you, essentially think of corpses you find as mini treasure chests, granting you free loot for every one you find. One boss battle in particular, the floor was just littered with corpses, so I resurrected one to distract the boss as I went on a looting spree.

Visually the world looks amazing, as the post-apocalyptic setting feels very realistic without a human presence, and the finer details look superb in high definition. Even more impressive though is the audio and soundtrack. The voice acting is perfect across the board, but the musical score is absolutely amazing. Each boss fight, each area and event has its own distinct sound and feel to it, completely suiting the mood it trying to convey visually. This is one of those soundtracks I’m going to go buy separately.

NieR:Automata is a stunning action RPG that I’m incredibly excited that I got to experience. There’s plenty to uncover, all with a deeper meaning if you stick with it through to the multiple endings. Many games get forgotten once completed, as I’m glad to have played many, but very few stick with me for quite some time, and even less that I euphorically have to recommend experiencing. NieR:Automata is one of those must have games, as it’s completely unique and unlike anything else I’ve ever played. Thank you to those directly responsible for bringing this amazing gem to the Xbox One for more fans to enjoy, as I probably would have never gotten to experience it otherwise.

Overall Score: 9.8 / 10 Slime-san: Superslime Edition

I generally don’t like to compare games to others, as each is unique in its own right, but sometimes the comparison is simply the easiest way to describe it, or it's so heavily influenced by the source material that it’s near impossible to not compare directly. This is the case with Slime-san: Superslime Edition, as you can tell that it’s been heavily inspired by the classic, and challenging platformer, Super Meat Boy. There’s been plenty of games trying to replicate its success, but nothing really captured what made it truly special, so when something similar releases, I’m understandably a little skeptical. Truth be told, I really wasn’t expecting much from Slime-San before starting it up, and you’d think that after years of reviewing games, I’d learn to not judge a game by its cover. This is one of those instances where I’m glad I was wrong, as Slime-san completely took me by surprise.

Not only does Slime-san hide its greatness behind its simplified visuals, the gameplay is so spot on and perfect that I have no qualms comparing it directly to Super Meat Boy for its quality of gameplay. Are you a fan of super challenging gameplay, speed running and want a massive amount of gameplay and replay value? Slime-san has you covered in spades. Don’t let its confusing and simple graphics fool you like it did me, give Slime-san a shot and you’ll be greatly rewarded with a fun and lengthy experience that simply gets it right.

Included in this Superslime Edition is 3 separate campaigns, each of which are unique and entertaining in its own way. The core campaign, Mama’s Madness, revolves around your slime being swallowed by a massive worm, and you need to get out by platforming your way back up its stomach and out its mouth. Beware the deadly stomach acid that will creep up on you during levels though. The Blackbird’s Kraken campaign is a similar tale, but this time you’re swallowed by a huge kraken, so again, you much jump and platform your way out before it’s too late.

More unique is the Sheeple’s Sequel campaign. In this tale, Sheeple comes to realize he’s simply an NPC in a video game, so he decides to re-code himself as the villain and challenge you in much more challenging ways than simple platform jumping. In total there are a couple hundred levels, almost feeling like too many at times, not even including all the extra bonuses, New Game+ and the handful of exclusive levels included in this wonderful edition. The best part is that the bulk of the content is not gated behind progress, so you’re welcome to jump between campaigns freely without having to slog through hundreds of levels before trying out the newer content.

You play a small slime, hence the title, and you’re tasked with progressing from level to level in an attempt to escape the giant animal that has eaten you. You’ll need to not only jump, but dash, swim and more, but with accuracy and speed. Each level has 4 smaller segments that should only take you roughly 10 seconds or so to complete, but that’s quite a stretch, as it will take a lot of time and practice to become that proficient, but it does eventually click, resulting in not having to think so much about what you want to do and simply doing it by reaction alone.

Part of Slime-san’s charm is its simplicity, not just in its gameplay, but the visuals as well, but this design choice has a purpose other than aesthetics. White lines and platforms is regular ground that you can walk (do slimes walk or slide?) on, red are traps and enemies and should be avoided, and lastly, green, which can be used as a surface to pass through or interact with. While this color scheme seemed natural to me (green good, red bad), you’re freely welcome to change the colors to whatever works better for you including a number of colorblind options.

While it might sound like a simple premise with only a couple moves to worry about, it’s anything but. Levels become increasingly more difficult and complex, but Slime-san does an excellent job with its learning curve, slowly introducing new enemies and mechanics at a steady pace, as to not completely frustrate you suddenly with a sudden difficulty spike. That’s not to say you won’t be challenged, and you will die a lot, but I found I never really became overly frustrated, especially with the levels being broken down into four smaller bite sized sections. While there is a timer always present, it can be ignored until you have the confidence at working towards those faster times and collecting the bonus coins and apples along the way.

So you’ve played the original Slime-san and wondering what’s new in this Superslime Edition? Essentially it’s a GOTY edition with all of the campaigns included along with some bonus content, including 10 exclusive levels where you get to play Grandpa-san himself. Honestly, there’s almost too much content here, and will take you quite a while to get through it all, so the value is easily there for the price.

Controls in a platforming game need to be on point, or else you become frustrated from unfair deaths. I certainly became frustrated at times, but it wasn’t because of the controls, it was simply due to not having the skill needed to do what I needed to complete the level yet, something that I gained in time. I never had an unfair death, and every time I did die, was because of my miscalculation or mistake, not the game.

You move your slime with the Left Stick, jump with A, dash with X or phase through green blocks with Left Trigger. The bonus with phasing is that it also slows down the gameplay, so in really hectic situations you can slow things down slightly and be a bit more accurate. Luckily, you’re also able to completely remap your buttons however you wish should a different control scheme suit you better. Different slimes and characters will have different abilities, so even if you can’t get the hang of it, there may be a different playstyle that suits you better, or if you want a bigger challenge. Again, the amount of options and content offered, even small, is staggering.

Levels begin basic, slowly introducing more elements, obstacles and enemies. Eventually some puzzle elements get introduced and need to be tackled as well as speed. It can, and does, become overwhelming eventually, but that’s the beauty of having the other campaigns not gated at all, as I can switch to any other one at any time should I become bored or stuck. Sheeple’s Sequel for example is much more puzzle based than the other campaigns, having you touch every specific block before the exit opens. I wasn’t great at these levels, so I decided to play the other campaigns more, but the freedom to switch back and forth on a whim was a brilliant design decision, as I probably would have shelved the game long ago if not.

When you want a break from the seemingly never ending levels of the campaign, you can leisurely explore the large hub city where you can spend the apples and coins you may have collected along the way. These areas are filled with NPCs to talk to, many of which are hilarious and unique. More than a few times I found myself laughing at their writing, names or situation, so kudos to the writer for all these characters. You’re able to shop for many different types of items, ranging from background art, sketches, cosmetic items for your slime, new characters (with unique abilities) and even some mini games and arcade titles.

I thought this hub world was going to be a thing I just visited once, but I kept going back once I had a handful of apples to spend (there are different items to collect based on the campaign you’re playing). There are hidden areas to uncover and a bunch of unique mini games, including a purposely terrible rip-off of Superman 64. I’m not even joking. You’re also able to purchase different shaders to have as a filter for the game, one of which is literally the red and black Virtual Boy style. Tons of little details like this is what gives Slime-san so much charm. If you manage to uncover some secret areas in the regular levels, you’ll come across some rare coins which can then be spent on arcade games that mimic a Mario Kart, Doom and more.

The retro graphics simply work well for this type of gameplay, and the varied options are a welcome addition for those that want to customize their experience. The soundtrack is filled with some fantastic chiptune music that keeps the energy high and matches the tonality of the gameplay. The music is very catchy and doesn’t simply devolve into a boring loop like some games rely on.

For how much I really appreciate the plethora of content and the options given, oddly enough that was also my main gripe with Slime-san as well. Campaigns are almost too big and can drag on and on. Because of this, I found myself getting a little bored at times, and while the campaign switching and bonus games help with that a bit, it’s hard to see the end in sight when there’s hundreds of levels to get through.

Slime-san: Superslime Edition is hilarious, perfectly tuned and has an astonishing amount of content, more than enough to keep you going for quite some time. Don’t let the simplistic graphics fool you like it did me initially, as the gameplay is near perfect and can suit nearly any play style or preference. Even after a dozen hours or so, I’ve still a long way to go and much to master. For its price, the value and replayability is enormous and near unbeatable.

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 ZAMB! Redux

There’s no shortage of tower defense games available, so to stand out amongst the crowd you need to do something different or unique to catch those who enjoy the genre's attention. Sometimes this involves a specific gameplay mechanic, or in the case of Zamb! Redux, mashing up two genres together, specifically Tower Defense and Twin Stick Shooters. It’s true, this combination has been done before, but is there enough uniqueness and fun within to make a worthwhile purchase? Kind of...

Originally released on PC back in 2014 as Zamb! Biomutant Extermination, improvements have been made, rebalancing has been done, and of course, it has been brought for a new audience, those who play their games on console. The game is an interesting mashup that includes local couch co-op, a necessity if you want to have any longevity with its mediocre gameplay.

The game's heroes, Cye and Chrome, are tasked with taking down an evil genius’ biomutants. I’d like to report more about the story but that’s really the only framework given. We don’t learn anything more about the characters or enemy, and while a strong narrative would have been appreciated, there usually isn’t strong ones included for this genre; case in point.

Gameplay is pretty basic, as you control one character while a friend can locally control the other, or if you don't have a friend over, then the AI will control the other. You use your weapons to shoot, or punch through, waves of enemies while also building turrets and using special abilities for maximum damage. Waves of enemies will pour out along set paths after hacking into one of the placed reactors. Killing enemies levels you up, earning you skill points for upgrades that I’ll delve into shortly.

More importantly, mixing and matching combos and elements will cause massive damage, coming in handy when things become a little hectic. This comes in handy as enemies will drop gems quicker, which in turn can be used to build your turrets or use your special abilities, depending on whom you’re playing as and prefer. Each reactor will set off a handful of waves, becoming marginally more difficult each time, and you win the match by activating all reactors and killing every enemy before moving onto the next, and ever so slightly, different map and going through the same motions all over again.

If enemies manage to destroy all reactors, or kill both of your team members, then you lose the match and must restart. The difficulty is set fairly low, so don’t expect much punishment aside from some dullness. When playing alone, you’re able to swap between Cye and Chrome on the fly should you want to swap for their abilities. Obviously playing co-op would make this much easier, as your AI partner will simply follow you around and attack whatever is in its vicinity, as you’re unable to send them to guard or attack specific points separately.

Levels are setup almost like an arena, with the reactors placed in specific spots and the enemy spawning nearby. Unfortunately there is not much variation in the levels, as nothing, other than the boss fights, stood out from one another. Most stages will have barrels littered around that can also be thrown for massive damage, though as I found out the hard way, you can instantly kill yourself and partner if you are too close to the explosion. Because of the lack of stage variety, once you find a strategy that works, you can essentially do the same thing throughout your whole campaign. That being said, there are bonus objectives to strive for should you desire to work towards more stars.

Cye is a brawler who can use his fist-like swords to get up and close with the enemies. Chrome on the other hand, uses a blaster from afar, so they both play fundamentally different. Cye uses the collected gems to activate one time use abilities, like lightning sparks or setting traps, whereas Chrome uses the collected currency for placing turrets of many different types. Cye has to get close, so will usually take more damage, but he doesn’t feel all that much more powerful, whereas Chrome shoots for practically no damage but moves equally as slow.

Given that turrets will last permanently, as long as they aren’t destroyed (and they don’t have much health), I found they were a much better overall investment since you’re constantly struggling for gems to craft more turrets or use special powers. There’s a whole combo system in place to do big damage to enemies, but I found it was hard to time these correctly, and only a handful of enemies really require it in the later stages.

You’re only able to bring 3 types of turrets and abilities into each stage attempt, and you’ll have plenty to choose from as you unlock more. There are numerous types of turrets, from standard firepower to freeze rays, poison, healing and more, so there’s a healthy amount to cater to your specific playstyle or preferences. I do wish that turret placements had more strategy associated with them though, as I’ve tried to setup a tactical placement of turrets, only to have it not really matter much in the end. There are a few spots where, if a turret is placed, it will get a bonus to its range, damage or life, but these specified spots aren’t usually ideal.

Earning skill points from leveling up will allow you to spend them however you choose. You can upgrade each power a variety of different ways, or even the life, range or damage output of every single turret you’ve currently unlocked. While I did like this addition, it feels like quite a grind if you really want to max out all your abilities and turrets.

Graphically speaking, the game's visuals are passable. You'll find that the art style has a comic book vibe to it. Sometimes the camera is a little frustrating, hiding you behind a pillar or object, but the levels are so small that it won’t matter too much in the end. The audio is nothing special to write about either, as it’s just some bland beat looped indefinitely.

There’s a few boss stages that change things up, which I enjoyed, but they were too far and few between the monotony of the regular stages that have little variety. While I did like the leveling system, and being able to improve each type of ability and turret in many ways, it will take some serious grinding to upgrade everything, which normally wouldn’t be much of an issue if the core gameplay is fun and made you want to continue playing.

In my opinion, the regular $20 price tag is simply too high, and would still be a hard sell at about half of that. Given the lack of stage variety and basic gameplay, it’s mediocre at best, borderline boring at times, slightly improved if you have a partner to play with at home. It really comes down to if you want to play a new tower defense game, and if you do, enter into this one with caution.

Overall Score: 4.8 / 10 Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn

The 90’s was a weird time with its trends, and on the gaming side it seemed like nearly every sports pro athlete was getting their own video game at the time. One of the most memorable ones from that era was Shaq Fu. Sadly it wasn’t remembered for how great it was though, as it’s usually on many 'worst games' lists of all times. It revolved around putting uber popular basketball player Shaquille O’Neal into a fighting game, and history wrote itself from that point on.

A few years ago a crowdfunding campaign began to bring Shaq Fu back with a complete reboot. This was no simple or small request either, as its goal was near a staggering half million dollars. Surprisingly though, the goal was surpassed, so the wait for the release on console began. It would be a long wait, but the time has finally come, as Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is now available in an attempt to clear its sullied name. I’ll admit, given its pedigree, I was fully ready to write it off from the beginning, but it is much better than its predecessor, though that bar wasn’t set very high.

The story has an abandoned baby, Shaq, being found in the village of Hunglow in China, taken in by his master, Ye-Ye. Shaq was always teased for his size compared to all the other children and he became a lowly rickshaw driver, but Ye-Ye knew he had something special within him, so he taught him the way of martial arts. Shaq’s village comes under attack, and with his master’s last words, he warns him of an evil being that has been progressively trying to dumb down the population for years. Shaq’s mission from that point is to kill these demons who just happen to disguise themselves as famous celebrities. Yes, you heard me right, Shaq is required to kill some celebraties that you might just know.

I wish I could come up with crazy stories like this, but I can’t make this stuff up, as this is actually the game's plot. You’ll travel across the globe to find these celebrities in an effort to put a stop to these evil forces across six different stages. A complete run through should last you roughly 2-3 hours or so, and once you’ve completed the campaign you most likely won't find a reason to play again, unless you care about increasing your scores.

Once you reach the main menu, you’re greeted with a new rap jam from the man himself, Shaq, boasting about himself of course. As corny and as dumb as the jingle is, it’s catchy, and sets the tone when going forward with its grossly juvenile humor. For its gameplay, the core mechanics are based on your typical beat-em-up, with shades of classic Final Fight, you control Shaq as he beats up near endless hordes of enemies, varying from fascists all the way to whips on Wall Street.

Like most typical games in the genre, you have light and heavy attacks and a dash attack that can stun enemies. Your light attacks will be the bulk of your damage throughout, but charge your meter enough and you can unleash Shaq’s size 22 boots into enemies for more damage. Now and then you’ll perform a stylish finisher, slowing down time and zooming in on the enemies being defeated, but I’m not sure what the criteria on making this happen is, as it just seemed to occur at random. My favorite though is when you smash an enemy so hard that they fly into the screen, seemingly cracking it in the process, something I adored from the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade games and Battletoads.

Littered throughout the stages you’ll also find weapons you can pick up, like barrels, signposts, and more, that are quite powerful, but they also break after a few hits. Every couple of levels you’ll also get to transform into Big Diesel (another 90’s Shaq reference) or, get this, a cactus. Yes, Shaq turns into a cactus and shoots hundreds of needles at enemies. Again, I can’t make this up. Funny enough, these sections were fun since you are completely overpowered and simply need to defeat a certain amount of enemies before moving on.

Design throughout the game doesn’t really vary. You’ll simply have to defeat a handful of waves of enemies, walk forward a new scene, repeat numerous times until you beat the boss and you then move onto the next stage. Certain enemies require specific strategies, as one type will counter attack you if you try and use your heavy attack, or you will come across a lawyer who will shoot pages at you, requiring you to throw them back at him. The waves never really stop and you simply need to slog through until the end. Enemies and objects drop coins, something I was hoping to buy new abilities or movies with, but it’s simply for points, which I don’t see a reason to care about in a game like this.

The basics are all present, as combos seem natural, but after three hours of spamming the same buttons it does become a bit repetitive. Enemies and objects will drop health orbs to replenish your life, and in typical Shaq fashion, pick up an Icy-Hot and you’ll have a 100% heal to full. Again, an obscure reference that 90’s kids or Shaq fans will only know.

Boss battles happen at the end of each stage after hundreds of enemies have been beat down. These are the demons you must defeat to progress, but they are disguised to everyone else as a celebrity. You’ll have to defeat Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and more. Each boss level has its own tone and style to it, and while it’s interesting to have celebrity bosses, it’s very pop culture and won’t be relevant forever (is Paris Hilton still relevant?).

The humor contained within is very awkward at times. It starts out light hearted but silly, like Kim Kardashian turning into a large floating butt that farts gas to hit you, and the voice acting is terrible, but it has that “so bad, it’s good” vibe to it. There is even numerous fourth wall breaks, a la Deadpool, but with shallow and corny jokes. What took me by surprise was how insensitive the humor eventually becomes, cracking insults at overweight people, gays, and the use terrible Chinese accents. I’m no prude by any means, and make terrible jokes when I shouldn’t, but this game almost feels like they were desperately trying to be edgy, but it can come across borderline racist at times. I’m not one to get offended, but others most likely will, so just a forewarning.

20 bucks for a 3-ish hour campaign is asking a bit much, especially when it’s repetitive, short, and has little to no replay value. I fully expected Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn to be a complete disaster, and while it has faults, it’s competent, but yet mediocre at best. Even though it’s not completely terrible like its predecessor, Shaq needs to be remembered for his ball skills, not voice “acting” and games. Icy-Hot won’t save you from this one.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Lichtspeer: Double Speer Edition

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a game described as an “ancient Germanic future”, but here we are with Lichtspeer: Double Speer Edition, a small indie game developed by two people that has a basic premise, but challenging gameplay. If I had to simply describe its gameplay in one simple sentence, it would be something along the lines of "A lightspear throwing experience where you face near endless hordes of enemies".

You are given power by the gods, well, a god who is kind of bored actually and they simply want to see what happens when you’re given the power of the Lichtspeer, a spear that automatically regenerates, giving you an endless supply of this weapon. And you’ll need this endless supply too, as you’re going to have a violent road ahead of you (in a light hearted way though), trying to impale everything that rushes towards you such as zombies, ice giants, sorcerers, walruses and more.

It’s up to you to please the gods for their amusement, but one mistake and you’ll perish, having to restart at the beginning of the stage. I wish there was more to report regarding the narrative, but that’s literally it. While there’s a framework built as to why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re playing Lichtspeer for its gameplay, not its' story.

Each stage is broken into a handful of waves, each becoming progressively more difficult and adding some type of new enemy or obstacle to keep you on your toes and test your aiming abilities. Most stages will have you in the bottom left corner, standing in place, chucking your endless spears at the oncoming enemies. Think Angry Birds, as you need to hold your power button and aim, factoring in angle and drop. In the beginning this will be easy, but eventually different types of enemies need to be prioritized, as some will walk slowly, some others run, and some even slide down a chute into your face. Aim, shoot, kill and repeat, that’s your objective and what you’ll be doing the whole time, with many deaths peppered in between.

If your accuracy and aim is on point you’ll be able to pull off headshots, and these are basically one hit kills, which again, in the beginning isn’t difficult, but the action will become much more frantic later on, resulting in difficulty of have the time to pull off multiple headshots in a row. Headshots raise your combo meter, allowing for some crazy high scores, but things become so crazy later on that you’ll be more occupied with trying to stay alive rather than aim perfectly. One touch from an enemy and you’re back at the beginning of the stage to try all over again, unless you’re on a boss, then luckily it starts you there again.

In the beginning it’s a little jarring to aim exactly where you want, as you need to hold down a button to power your shot, but you also will need to aim up and down for the exact arc you desire. Eventually you do become more proficient, not having to think as much for angle and distance, but that’s also when you start getting more and more difficult enemies, such as flying animals, jumping fish and more, that require very skilled shots. Other enemies, like the giants, take two hits if you don’t land a headshot, causing more commotion. When there’s multiple types of enemies on screen simultaneously, that’s where quick thinking and strategy comes into play. By the end, it’s almost borderline unfair and calls for near perfection.

To help with this, you earn LSD for completing stages. Calm down, this is simply the currency you earn for your performance in the levels, not the hallucinogenic drug. The higher the score the more you earn, and this LSD can be spent on purchasing new skills or upgrading your favorites. There’s a surprising amount of abilities to be unlocked, though only a handful are truly useful and worthwhile. This encourages replaying levels numerous times to earn currency, which can make subsequent runs that much easier. I do wish there were more useful abilities, maybe even passive bonuses, instead of having a choice of a dozen skills.

The available abilities will refresh over time and should be used when in a tight pinch. These types of sections are usually the challenging, but refreshing, boss fights. Each stage is broken into 5 level sections, and at the end of each second stage is a boss fight that will require some quick thinking and precision. Eventually bosses become quite challenging, and since you’re stationary and unable to move, throwing your spear into a small pink block will allow you to teleport to other footholds on the playfield. Combine this with shooting down projectiles and other enemies and you’ll find that you can become overwhelmed quite quickly.

If you find yourself not doing well, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a 2-player local co-op mode available, for those times you really need some help. The second player gets to play as the main character’s pet (I believe it’s his pet anyway), throwing their own spears wherever they like for double the firepower. Having online support would have helped with longevity, as I don’t really have friends over much, and this wouldn’t be my first choice of a party game if I did.

What I did enjoy was the soundtrack and audio. It has a heavy techno vibe with good beats which suited the visuals quite well, changing based on the levels you’re playing. Headshots sound satisfying, making you want to achieve more of them. And for those wanting more, there’s even a Rage Quit mode, seeing how far you can go in a single life. Not for me by any means, but a great inclusion for those that enjoy difficulty.

Within minutes I was reminded of playing those old pocket tank-like games from my youth, Scorched Earth and Scorched Tanks, as the premise is somewhat similar, keeping you rooted in place and you angle your shots at enemies. While the controls may be clumsy, seemingly better suited for a mouse or touch controls, you do eventually become used to it but you will still suffer cheap and unfair deaths, quite often in the later stages.

The biggest offender in what affects this games overall experience is its repetitiveness. Sure new enemies are introduced often, but the one hit death mechanic can become quite frustrating. Having a dozen near useless abilities doesn’t help either when you learn which few overpowered ones to save up for instead. Unless you are longing for those Scorched Tank days from way back when, you may want to 'spear' clear until a decent sale.

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 Earth Atlantis

As anyone who reads my reviews should know, shoot-em-ups (Shmups) are one of my favorite genres, and always have been. From the days of R-type, 1942, Raiden, Gradius, and my personal favorite of all time, Ikragua, I’ve always been drawn to the genre and became quite skilled at them as time has passed. So, anytime a new shmup is released, my interest is instantaneously piqued. Enter Earth Atlantis, developed by Pixel Perfex. It is a shmup that has you piloting a submarine, instead of the typical space or aircraft, set under a waterworld-like backdrop. What makes Earth Atlantis stand out right away is its unique artistic style, a choice that is equally refreshing yet somewhat frustrating.

“The Great Climate Shift” has hit the planet, leaving 96% of the Earth’s surface covered in water. Machines have adapted to this new paradigm shift of humanity’s downfall and have filled the endless ocean with marine machine hybrids. You, a “Hunter”, are now tasked with taking down the worst of the worst machines, but it won’t be easy, as you’ll have to fight against mechanical fish, squids, crabs, sharks and more. It’s a really interesting premise, but don’t expect a much more in-depth storyline aside from what's told in the beginning, but at least it gives a decent framework for your motivation and reasoning.

While the core gameplay is like any typical shmup, shooting down near endless enemies while trying to survive, it also has a Metroidvania-like map setup, allowing you to explore open pathways and caverns in the ocean depths. Interestingly, there’s also a monster hunting aspect to the gameplay, as your main goal is to reach every accessible boss and destroy them. Doing so will obviously not be as easy as you might assume, as you’ll have a ton of exploration to perform, with many dead ends, and tons of enemies to get through to progress.

One of the most unique aspects Earth Atlantis utilizes is its da Vinci style of sketch art style. The whole game looks as if you’re playing on an old parchment from the 15th century, which is something I’ve not seen before and quite enjoyed, but that was until it was more of a detriment later on. Let me explain.

Given that the bulk of the game has the same visual style of aged parchment, there’s not much variation in the hues, and it is devoid of all other colors for the most part. Where you start to run into issues with this visual style is that many of the enemies’ projectiles later on are pure white and easily blend into the lighter background. During boss fights you’ll take a handful of hits, given it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish all of the bullets from the background when things become incredibly hectic. While I applaud the unique visuals, there’s absolutely no variation, so over time it actually becomes a little dull.

You only have access to the first submarine at the start, with three others that you can unlock should you be lucky enough to randomly happen upon one of the other pirates. Destroy these pirate submarines and you’ll gain access to their sub, though this really isn’t explained all too well in the beginning. Each ship has varying stats and shot types, suiting different playstyles and situations. As you defeat enemies you’ll find random power-ups, such as rockets, electricity, homing missiles and more, adding to your arsenal.

The beginner sub simply shoots forwards and backwards, with more bullets added to your shots as you collect power-ups. The other ships have different shot types, such as one that shoots in a near 360 degrees around him, but less concentrated, while another one has a spread shot in front and back, and another one emits a super concentrated lasers on both sides. Even though it says the ships have different stats, I didn’t seem to notice much of a difference between them, and I made my choice based on a sub's maximum shot power and type.

What’s not explained from the beginning is how the minimap in the top left corner works. You’re dumped into the water world and you need to figure out what to do and where to go. The map will show you where the boss you need to defeat is located, but because the actual level layout isn’t on the map, you won’t know the exact path to get to where you want to go without trial and error. Sure, it has the Metroidvania-like map, but it is missing the most important part, showing how the levels are actually laid out. If the map was actually more useful, I wouldn’t have had as much frustration as I did given how often you need to backtrack. A proper execution of the map mechanic would have made for a much friendlier experience, as I wasted a lot of time trying to find the right path, only to hit a dead end and have to double back and try another section a long way.

There’s also no progression in terms of becoming more powerful. Sure you’ll find power-ups that increase your damage output and shots, but you can also lose them by getting hit by certain enemies and bosses. When you finally find the right path and are presented with a boss fight, these are exciting at first, but eventually you are forced to re-fight them again later on, albeit a more powerful and annoying version with new attack patterns.

There’s more than twenty bosses to fight, even some that more event based, such as having to kill 45 of a specific enemy, but you don’t really get much from defeating these foes aside from the map updating showing you where the next one is located, vaguely of course. There’s a handful of bosses, some more unique than others, each with their own attack types and patterns that will challenge you. Some bosses will open up a new pathway to use as a shortcut between main sections, but again, it’s not labeled on your map, so you better have a good memory.

This is how the progression of Earth Atlantis unravels: You search and search for the right way to the boss, littered with enemies, defeat them and try to find the next boss, and repeat until your map is clear of boss icons. There is another mode that unlocks when you finally manage to defeat all of the bosses, and you’ll most likely have unlocked all the ships by then. Once I was done, I didn’t have much desire to continue on again with a higher difficulty.

While I applaud the unique setting for a shmup and its interesting art style, you’ll take many hits because of how projectiles blend into the background chaos. After a couple hours, it becomes very frustrating to have to kill a boss on one side of the map, then have to traverse to the complete opposite side, essentially blind, unless you have a photographic memory. Ideally, killing bosses would ‘unlock’ a new pathway to a new area and grant you access further into the ocean depths with harder enemies, but you’ll constantly be motoring from the easy beginning side all the way to the more difficult with each boss kill.

After the final boss was completed, I had my fill. It’s not that Earth Atlantis was a bad shmup, it was simply kind of dull. The majority of your time will be trying to find your way to the boss located on the map without any indication that you’re going the right way or not. You'll also be restarting from checkpoints because of the later bosses that are quite annoying to fight. If you’re dying for a new shmup to kill a few hours you could do worse, but I’d wait for a sale before entering the depths of Earth Atlantis.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Gorogoa

Every so often you come across a game that it stands out amongst the crowd for various reasons and is memorable long after the credits roll. To say the puzzle genre is crowded would be an understatement, so to be noticed in the genre you need to be different in some way. Sometimes right from the beginning you know a game is going to be special, like when you rewound time the first time in Braid, or you went through a portal in Portal or you fought against the Flood for the first time in Halo. While I don’t think Gorogoa will go down in the history books as one of the greatest of all time, it sure does stand out in a crowded genre with its unique look, style and gameplay.

More importantly, this curious little puzzle game is a one man show, created by Jason Roberts, first shown as a demo in 2012. Released late last year for PC, it’s now arrived on console for puzzler fans to enjoy. Hand drawn and made as a labor of love, Gorogoa will be in the back of my mind for quite some time, even if it has its own quirks and issues along the way.

Framed with a story, Gorogoa uses no dialogue or text, as it is simply animated and static images that are used to convey the narrative instead. It’s almost done in an abstract way, as a boy sees a fantastic creature in the beginning and sets out to collect five different colored fruits. I understood it as an offering of some sorts, but that’s what happens when a story is told in an abstract way, everyone will have their own interpretation of what they think it all means. While you may not understand much of what’s going on, or why, this is the gateway to the unique gameplay, having you click and move pieces across panels as you try and solve what you’re actually tasked with in the first place.

Your ‘play field’ is four square panels in the arrangement of a window pattern. Gorogoa opens with its beautifully drawn artwork in one of the panels, though you can move that particular one to any of the others should you wish. Some objects are interactive and others you can actually separate from the main panel. Eventually you’ll have four panels open at all times, each one allowing you to explore its own environment, delve deeper within it, or even combine them of sorts if you place them correctly adjacent to one another. Other times you’ll need to combine certain panels with others to create a new one, which can then be explored or separated even further.

It’s a really interesting gameplay mechanic that requires some getting used to. So many of the puzzles are cleverly created that I wish there was some sort of tutorial included. You’re simply dropped into this world and left to figure out not only what you’re supposed to do, but how. There’s a friendly ‘ping’ that happens when you click on a non-interactive section on a panel, giving you an audio and visual clue of what you’re able interact with, though there’s no other hint system in place, requiring a lot of trial and error.

You’ll need to think creatively to solve Gorogoa’s sometimes complex puzzles. Detaching a panel may give you an outline with a cutout that you need to match with another panel, or you may be able to zoom into a panel multiple times to rotate an object, etc. You truly need to think out of the box and the gameplay needs to be experienced for you to fully understand. It’s an interesting system that makes all of the panels share the same world and design, but at the same time they are different and isolated in worlds of their own. There’s literally depth in every panel you can play with, sometimes even having to scroll to the side to see other events unfold.

Great puzzle games reward you with those “ah-hah” moments when you finally solve a puzzle that you’ve been stuck on for what seems like ages. Gorogoa does this in spades, as you’ll surely get stuck at some point, but then you will feel a sent of great relief, and feel like a genius, once you solve it. Eventually the puzzles become very complex and intricate, though they still feel natural with a controller. Oddly enough, for my anyways, the middle part of the game was incredibly difficult when compared to the easier final section, something I didn’t expect.

Obviously your puzzle skills will determine your playtime from beginning to end, but I was able to complete it in a single sitting without much issue. I’d expect most people to complete it in roughly 2–3 hours, but there’s even an achievement for speedrunning it in under 30 minutes. Speaking of game length, even though it’s a little light on length, there is an interesting unlockable once you finish. You can actually play through the 2012 E3 demo, adding a little extra play time, but more interestingly, you can see some of the same puzzles and how far the game has evolved over the years and ideas matured.

The color pallet is beautifully hand drawn with many vibrant colors, and it has a kind of watercolor style to it. While the animations are basic, it has beauty and charm to it, especially when panels are paired together to work in unison. The audio is very light hearted and places a great backdrop for the journey before you, seemingly calming you even with your frustration when you become stuck.

While Gorogoa is an amazing experience, it’s a very brief one with little to no replay unless you’re chasing the few achievements you missed the first time through, or you may really want to experience it again afterwards with a better grasp of its mechanics. As a puzzle game, it’s unique, interesting and absolutely gorgeous. It’s obvious that Gorogoa was a labor of love, and it shows. Mechanically it’s ingenious and what it lacks in length, it makes up in quality. Quality over quantity is the perfect slogan for this unique puzzler that I’ll remember for quite sometime.

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Grim Legends 3: The Dark City

Artifex Mundi has carved out quite the niche genre for themselves on console in the past year or so. They specialize in hidden object games (HOGs) with a heavy emphasis on puzzles. Most of their catalogue utilize a fantasy backdrop, have decent stories, and some beautiful artwork. The original Grim Legends was actually my first foray into the HOG genre by Artifex Mundi, and I’ve been hooked since. I used to think games like this were a waste of time, but as I’ve gotten older, I tend to really enjoy these types of games more now, as everyone needs a break from the typical shooters and racers now and then.

I really enjoyed the first Grim Legends, whereas the second was not quite as polished, especially with its atrocious voice acting, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this third installment. Truth be told, it’s as if Artifex Mundi has a cookie cutter template for their games, although they do vary now and then, but they all follow the same suit with some minor tweaks. I fully expected to go through another typical HOG adventure, and while the setting and mood always changes, the artwork, animation and voice acting are usually always very similar regardless of which title you’re playing from their library. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they’ve been working on improving their ‘template’ in a big way.

You’re thrust into the role of a monster huntress, a member of The Order, a special and high ranking group of people whose sole purpose is to protect the world from evil forces. There’s a powerful artifact that keeps a horrifying monster in another dimension safely away from others. Of course, evil forces want to steal the artifact and unleash the Koshmaar monster upon the world, so it’s up to you and your mentor to track down the person responsible, and of course, save the world. I only wish that there was an effort to give some backstory to the two previous games, as this is the third chapter in the series.

You are taken away to the mysterious land of Lichtenheim, with a tale that will keep your interest for as long as it lasts, and even though I was able to complete the game in a single sitting, I still enjoyed myself throughout. When you do complete the main narrative, there’s a short-but-sweet bonus epilogue that rounds out the abrupt ending, giving a little more playtime and a handful of puzzles.

As per any title in Artifex Mundi's catalog, you progress from scene to scene, looking for items to gather and use to move further along, unlock items and find more puzzles to solve. You’ll be solving a variety of puzzles, completing mini-games, and of course the HOG’s as well. While not new to their games, there was certainly a lot more focus on combinable items from your inventory. Certain items will have a “+” located in the top left corner of the item, indicating you have another item that can merge with it, creating a completely new item for you to use that you’ll need. While I didn’t mind this, Grim Legends 3 seems to rely on it much more than any of their other titles I’ve played to date.

While I was able to complete Casual mode in a single sitting, there is an Expert mode available as well for those looking for more of a challenge. Those wanting to really get their money’s worth can also search each scene for a ton of hidden collectable items, something that is great for the completionists. Given that this is a puzzle game at its heart though, the majority of your time will be searching for items and engaging in puzzle solving.

There’s a handful of puzzles you’ll solve throughout your adventure, though I didn’t find very many of them very challenging. If you aren’t proficient at puzzles though, there is a hint system in place that can also automatically solve said puzzle for you should you become completely stuck. There’s a variety of puzzles to keep things interesting, such as its own take on Sudoku, some alchemy mixing, tile swapping, HOG’s and more.

New to the series is the entertaining Rune Battles. These act almost like a boss battle of sorts where you and your enemy have an energy shield braced on one another for combat. You’re tasked with choosing a symbol on your playfield that doesn’t match any of theirs. Choose correctly and you win that round, win 3 rounds and you defeat them. These are quite easy early on, but eventually you’ll have multiple symbols on both sides as they rotate and move, making things more challenging.

This new addition to the game didn’t go unnoticed and I quite enjoyed them. After completing the Rune Battle you can then remove your opponents mask and dine into their Memory Mirror, almost like saving their soul in a sense. This mini game has you moving panes of stained glass to correctly match the story being told. Again, I really enjoyed this new addition.

As I mentioned above, nearly all of Artifex Mundi games have a very similar visual art style to them, slightly varying based on its setting and backdrop. One thing that always bugged me was the paper doll-like animation they utilized, as it was quite basic, albeit pretty. What took me by complete surprise in this latest entry though was the new animation added to Grim Legends 3: The Dark City, as it seems they’ve upped their game by adding actual cutscenes in certain plot points. To be quite honest, it actually looks quite good, so kudos for trying to improve their experiences.

As well, the voice acting was never great, and sometimes, like in the case of Grim Legends 2, downright terrible. It seems they’ve taken this ongoing criticism to heart and have vastly improved their voice acting quality. While not perfect by any means, it wasn’t as laughable as in previous titles, so again, I’m glad they are trying to improve the quality of their games.

With all of the drastic improvements made to their formula, this was the most enjoyment I had from an Artifex Mundi title yet. They relish in having their own style, puzzles and pretty much go unchallenged in the genre. If more improvements, like the ones included here, continue to advance, I’ll be even more excited for all of their releases. While still a short affair and not too challenging, I had a great relaxing few hours solving puzzles, Rune Battling and saving the world.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Drive on Moscow

I expected a RISK-like experience when I chose to review Drive on Moscow, but what I got was something drastically different and much more in-depth than I anticipated. You don’t really see a lot of games like Drive on Moscow on console, the kind whose physical board game contains a few hundred pieces and requires a solid day and a half to complete. Designed by Ted Raicer, creator of the popular Paths of Glory board game, this digital historical war game is surely to fulfill a very small niche market, as it’s not a common genre found on console.

Created by developers that also brought us Battle of the Bulge, you are tasked with leading an offensive strike on the Soviet capital during a pivotal battle in World War II, or trying to defend your motherland as the Soviets. Drive on Moscow is a historically accurate representation of this specific battle and time period, to the point of being very unbalanced, as that’s how the war was. You are the commander, organizing and directing troops across the campaign, crafting strategies and planning counterattacks against your enemies. You’ll not only need to battle the opposing faction, but the harsh weather and terrain as well.

I’ll be honest, at first I was beyond overwhelmed. If you’re not used to extremely detailed and intricate war based board games, or a massive history buff, it’s a lot to take in at once. Visually, it’s represented much like a classic board game, complete with little tiles representing your units and area zones outlined with borders. I don’t want to say that the gameplay is dry, but the only real animation presented are your unit tiles being shifted around during movement choices. Even battles play out as simple gunfire from tile to tile instead of a grand visualization of war.

There are only four scenarios to experience, though you are able to play each one on both sides of the front should you wish. Granted, the offering is quite small, but keep in mind that there is a very specific battle that is being depicted here, so it’s to be expected. This particular moment in history was quite pivotal, and it seems that historical accuracy was chosen over gameplay, which is fine, as long as you prepare for that beforehand. Could changes and tweaks have been made to make these scenarios more fun and balanced? Absolutely, but that’s not what happened in the war, so expect some lopsided battles and near impossible odds.

There is a tutorial that teaches you the basics, but even after completing it twice, I was still quite confused at just how in-depth and intricate your strategies need to be to stand a chance. Even after a handful of full matches, I was only starting to understand how the mechanics and scoring systems worked. You should fully expect to lose your first few matches, especially depending on which scenario you are playing, as you need to keep in mind that some sides are much more overpowered, as that’s how certain battles historically were.

The singular map is divided into sections, not quite hexagons like most board games, but more sectors or zones, much like towns or cities. Branded the ‘impulse based’ turn system, the moves play out turn based, but there’s much more to it than that. During each turn you can choose any region and command all of the troops in it to attack, flee or occupy other nearby zones. Movement allotment and range is based on troop types such as front line soldiers, tanks, convoys, airborne, cavalry and more, as well as connected railways, bridges and roads, so there’s plenty of strategy in play at all times.

Moves take time, and certain scenarios have a maximum amount of time to be played out, yet each move can cost a different amount of time. For example, moving your foot troops may forward the clock ahead a couple hours or half a day. So, a large part of your strategy needs to be looking ahead to the move ‘schedule’, as timing is almost as important as the moves themselves. This will take a long time to get the hang of, as it did for me. Once a unit has been moved they are unable to be commanded again until the end of the movement phase (usually 72 hours).

Even the easiest AI setting will be no pushover, as they are tailored for each side of the battles for specific scenarios. Again, don’t expect to win your first handful of games, but once you start to piece together all of the mechanics, and truly start to develop some sound strategies, victory tastes oh so sweet. Even though there’s only a handful of scenarios, playing both factions feels almost almost completely different games. Having to defend Moscow from an onslaught of enemies is drastically different in gameplay than trying to strategize how to break through the defenses.

The controls will take some getting used to, luckily though you’re able to back out and cancel moves before finally committing to your choice. It doesn’t feel natural or fluid with a controller, as even picking specific map areas can be tricky at times. For those that always dream of “what if’s”, especially in a historical setting, Drive on Moscow is perfectly suited for those types of people, as it allows you to try and change the outcome of history, even if the stakes are very much against you.

If you’re a fan of strategy games like RISK, then Drive on Moscow takes that depth to a whole new level, focusing on micromanagement and preplanning. History buffs should truly enjoy the accuracy depicted within, and those that can’t afford the very expensive physical board games will be happy to only pay a fraction of the price to enjoy similar gameplay.

Drive on Moscow is very unfriendly towards new players if you’re not willing to put in the time to learn all of its strategic intricacies, though if you put in the time and really plan ahead, there’s some great historical gameplay to be had within, even if it looks extremely bland and uninviting. Sure, it’s going to only satisfy a very specific niche, but those fans will most likely really enjoy this theatre of war.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Through the Woods

It’s not uncommon these days for a small studio of just a few people to turn to Kickstarter to help fund a portion of their vision. They detail what the game is about and why they need the help, and if they can sell their vision to likeminded gamers, then it becomes funded and the wait for a release begins. This is what happened with developer Antagonist and their successfully backed game, Through the Woods.

Having released in 2016 on PC, Through the Woods has seemingly made the travel through said woods and has finally released on console. Before starting to play, I checked out the trailers and initial pitch and thought I was going to be in for a horror based experience, as a background of an empty forest with the protagonist set aside essentially writes the horror for itself. Instead though, not many scares were had, and instead, a more story based adventure took place, albeit with some minor horror elements, but not at all what I initially expected.

At its narrative core, Through the Woods tells a tale about how far a mother would go to save her son. Inspired by Norwegian folk tales, the adventure begins with the mother, Karen, recalling events of what exactly happened to her and her son, Espen. When asked where her son was, this is the beginning of her tale.

She recalls her and her son retreating to the wilderness for the weekend, but when Epsen wants to play, Karen is much too tired from her pile of work. You can tell there’s some tenseness in their relationship, events happen and eventually Espen is missing. Finding small traces of her son’s whereabouts, she explores and delves deeper and deeper into the seemingly empty forest nearby. Expect to feel lonely and afraid, as being alone in the woods can be frightening on its own, but factor in that you’re searching for your lost son with mysterious forces seemingly all around you, and the setting is a grim one.

Your only real tool you’ll have access to in your search for Espen will be your flashlight. Luckily it seems to have endless batteries, but eventually you’re going to prefer the darkness as your friend, as using the light to see easier will also bring you unwanted attention at times. And yes, I’m being vague on purpose, as the adventure is quite short in length, as I finished it in a single sitting in roughly 2 hours or so, so any spoiler really detracts from the overall experience.

Just like in real life, when you can’t see well, your other sense become heightened, and you’ll be hearing not only the wind whistling softly through the dense thickness of trees and foliage, but also what may lurk within the shadows.

Left Trigger will allow you to sneak slowly and unheard when needed and the Right allows you to run when needed to escape or simply traverse along the lengthy paths quicker. There’s no attack option, simply because there’s no combat. If you manage to run into, erm, an enemy, you’ll simply die outright and have to try again. While this creates a ‘run or hide’ tenseness in certain moments, this is also part of the problem of having dull gameplay.

The majority of your gameplay will be running from point A to B with only a few slightly off the beat paths to find a hidden collectable, but for the most part, Through the Woods is mainly a walking (well jogging I guess) simulator as there’s no combat or puzzles to solve along your journey. Having nothing else to essentially do along the way really also cuts down the horror element. Sure, there’s one or two spots that are a bit tense (again, purposely being ambiguous), but don’t expect any jump scares.

This was a little bit of a letdown, as exploring the woods at night by yourself is a perfect and natural backdrop for a frightening tale. That being said, I was always compelled to journey on and find Espen, as I wanted to find out what happened, and being a parent myself, I know I would continue on as well, regardless of the danger. While it may not have the fights or excitement, it managed to keep my attention with its slowly unfolding dialogue as I proceeded to search the woods.


I would normally detail the visuals before the audio, but the audio here is much more important for this tale. Given that you’re nearly always in the dark in the thickness of the woods, you’ll rely on audio clues around you in place of visual clues. You’ll hear things in the woods, unsure if it’s a natural animal, or something else entirely. Certain creatures react to you differently, sometimes chasing if they see you, some being blind but can hear you, among others, so you’ll learn what’s nearby with their auditory queues.

The ambient sound, wind in trees and minor noises brings more tension than anything else, and the soundtrack is quite decent when there’s a section of exploration and the backdrop of music. It’s a shame that the voice acting on the other hand is near atrocious for mostly everyone else. It’s not the worst I’ve heard, but far from even average. In a horror-like game, you need to believe their performances or else the whole experience simply falls flat. I wasn’t convinced for a second that Karen was in agony trying to find her lost son, and Espen surely didn’t sound convincing either.

Visually, everything is a mixed bag as well. The forest backdrop looks decent, though I guess it’s hard to tell when you’re almost always in the darkness. Most textures look passible, but certain pieces, even the skybox at times, looks terrible. I took a screenshot of me looking into the sky, and the sun simply looked like a white circle. The same went for night time, where the stars looked like an MS paint drawing with square dots littered throughout. While the villages you come across are decent, the animations clearly need a lot of work. Every movement feels janky and very robotic, and if you look at Karen’s face as she’s talking, she looks like an animatronic more than a mother in deep distress.

I can see the appeal for Through the Woods, as it does something a little different, but the 2 or so hour length coupled with the dull gameplay will be sure to be a disappointment to some. Despite its list of flaws, I was compelled to see it to the end, and to be honest, I think the ending will stick with me for quite some time.

Even though trailers may suggest a horror experience set in the lonely woods at night, it’s not exactly that. Its substory is its real strength, but is hidden behind hidden optional collectables littered throughout the woods. It does have a tense and eerie atmosphere, but lacks depth and interesting gameplay more than anything else.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Ys Origin

I knew the Ys series has been around for a while, but I didn’t realize it debuted over thirty years ago in 1987. I’m normally very well versed on my JPRG’s, but for some reason or another I’ve never actually gotten around to playing a Ys title before, despite owning a handful of them. Now that developer DotEmu has decided to bring the series to Xbox Fans for the first time, I dove in head first with the newest release, Ys Origin. While this title was released for PC back in 2006, then on Steam in 2012, it’s now making its console debut with a few bonuses for Xbox fans who may want to jump into the series.

Taking place 700 years prior to the first Ys title, Origin serves as a prequel, so no prior knowledge of the series is necessary, though Ys fans with keen eyes will notice some fan service. The world is at peace until one day an invasion of demons wreaks havoc on the lands, constructing a massive tower, aptly named the Devil’s Tower. The land of Ys is ruled by twin goddesses, Feena and Reah, but they mysteriously go missing once the invasion begins, so naturally, it’s up to you to find the goddesses, restore order in the land and destroy the demons plaguing your home. Of course nothing is simple, and the search party gets separated from the Holy army, thus leaving you on your journey, one which begins at the base of the Devil’s Tower.

You’ll begin by choosing your difficulty level, ranging from Easy, Normal to Nightmare, then you will choose between two characters to play as, Yunica or Hugo, each of which has their own complete playstyles and abilities. Yunica is a young and eager apprentice knight that is unable to use magic of any kind, so she uses her large axe to attack and has quick mobility. Hugo on the other hand is the magic user, shooting magic from afar, but he is much slower. Both play vastly different and their stories are separate, even if they result in the same end point. This promotes multiple playthroughs and allows you to see a different point of view, which is always welcome.

The majority of your gameplay involves exploring the tower’s many levels and floors, searching for levers, items, and whatnot, while encountering hordes of enemies along your journey. Actually, you’re whole adventure takes place in the tower, which I thought was just going to be the beginning area, but alas, you’re stuck inside the almost never ending tower for your adventure.

I was initially disappointed about this, but your environments will change while inside the different sections of the tower, so while it may not be a large overworld map you’re exploring, the scenery does alter, even if it does all take place indoors. You’ll come across water based floors, fire and more, as any typical RPG would employ.

You’re going to need to find keys to open doors, find switches to move platforms, and even search for hidden secrets. While the general layout of the floors isn't terribly confusing, there’s no map system included, so it is possible to get lost if your memory isn’t sharp. I wish this wasn’t the case, as it seems like an oversight, nevertheless, rooms will respawn full of enemies every time you zone out and go back in, so it is possible to grind some levels and experience should you wish.

Speaking of combat, it’s pretty basic and plays more like a hack and slash than a traditional turn based JRPG, as you simply maneuver and attack, something I didn’t expect but really enjoyed. Controls were spot on, attacks felt powerful and it’s always fun to see an enemy explode into EXP gems, items, SP and more. As expected, enemies in the beginning will pose little threat, but as you progress further up the tower, things becomes much trickier, especially when it comes to the bosses.

When you come across a Goddess statue, they will not only serve as save points, but also teleportation spots and where you’ll spend your gathered SP. There are upgrades that will improve your equipped armor and weapons, run speed, abilities, resistances and more. It’s an interesting change of pace from the norm and really forces you to grind quite a bit if you want the highest tier of upgrades. Luckily rooms fully respawn when you re-enter them, so it’s a matter of finding the most efficient spots to grind in, which I highly suggest, as bosses will surely challenge you with their interesting and unique battles.

When you do make your way through the six hour or so campaign, you are treated to some new game modes that unlock, all of which add some replayability and longevity to the game. Time Attack is pretty self-explanatory, challenging you against the clock. Arena Mode will have you facing waves of various enemies from the different floors, unlocking new arenas as you progress. What’s really cool are the two Xbox One exclusive additions: Blood option, which was previously a hidden PC setting, and Speedrun Mode. Speedrun is more than just the time attack, as the dialogue can be skipped, you can’t use save points, and certain glitches were intentionally left in for those that want to utilize them for quicker runs.

Visually, Ys Origin is absolutely gorgeous. To be honest, I was worried it was going to have that 'mobile remake' style of visuals that updated remakes have been getting lately. These aren't as pleasing as classic traditional sprites, but that’s not the case here. Even though all of the environments are set indoors, the variety in the visuals is quite decent and looks pleasant. Backdrops, enemies and characters are all drawn wonderfully. The audio is just as good, and even though I wish it was voice acted instead of text bubbles, the music is very fitting to the mood of the floor you’re exploring.

I really only have one negative to point out throughout my experience, that being that it’s very difficult to tell where you are on the Z-axis when trying to fight enemies, bosses and crossing platforms. While using shadows helps one to figure out where one's placement is, having to run up the back of a boss is quite difficult simply because you aren’t easily able to tell where you are in relation. Not a deal breaker by any means, but something that I was occasionally running into.

At $20, Ys Origin is priced perfectly with the amount of value you get within, allowing for multiple character playthroughs and unlockables to be discovered. The story and characters are interesting, the gameplay is solid, boss fights are interesting and memorable, it looks beautiful, and the gameplay is fantastic. Fans of the series will enjoy seeing some backstory while new fans, like myself, now have an entry point to start from, bringing them into the series.

Overall Score: 8.6 / 10 Laser League

Developers Roll7, best known for OlliOlli, have released their newest game, Laser League, hoping to break into the sports genre with tons of lasers and a colorful Tron-like artistic style. Maybe it’s due to being an 80’s child, but I instinctively find myself always gravitating towards games with a vibrant neon Tron-like style. Like most sports games of this nature on gaming consoles, you’ll catch on really quickly to the core mechanics, but you will need to spend some time to learn its intricacies and strategies to win consistently.

The year is 2150 and the hottest sport is Laser League, where you fight for control of nodes that spawn deadly lasers of color, attempting to not only defeat, but destroy your competition to win. This is the future though, so obviously everything is bright, vibrant, neon and of course, lightning fast. You’ll surely need to use your reflexes, master fakes, and strategically choose your classes and power-up use timing if you want to be victorious across the handful of arenas.

Like most sports, there are different types of players, categorized into classes. While they may not have positions like in traditional sports, each one is completely unique and has their own special abilities, making half the strategy choosing the correct classes to outplay your opponents. The six classes are as follows:

Blade – Able to utilize a short range attack to eliminate the competition.

Smash – Equips a shield that can short-range dash into enemies, knocking them backwards and briefly stunning, hopefully into the moving lasers.

Ghost – Allows a brief moment of invulnerability, allowing you to phase through a laser to escape or revive a teammate when needed.

Thief – This class has an ability that allows you to steal an active enemy node away from the competition.

Shock – This class has an ability to produce a small area of effect that will briefly disable (stun) enemies

And lastly Snipe – This class allows you to drop a marker, which produces a line between it and wherever you are, allowing you to teleport to it, subsequently eliminating any enemies if the path if timed correctly.

Surely, some people will gravitate towards specific classes, as they cater to certain playstyles, but over the course of playing dozens of matches, I found most players online tend to stick with Smash, as the knockback is simply too good to pass up, especially when you learn its range and timing, both offensive and defensively. I’m hoping some balancing tweaks will come in the future that will make choosing the other classes more enticing. Not only do you have a choice of class, but modifiers as well, to help augment your playstyle, either to help improve your class or make up for your shortcomings.

During a match, you’ll not only have to keep track of everything from players to lasers constantly changing and moving, but power-ups will also appear on the playfield randomly. These can be game changers and sway the match in your favor, but it can also sway against you if the enemy uses them at the appropriate time. With over a dozen different power-ups, you’ll want to learn the icons, as grabbing the power-up that swaps all laser colors, especially if you’re in the lead, can be more of a detriment. There are over a dozen power-ups that will wildly change the field for a short time, such as swapping laser nodes, cancelling all active ones, reversing laser directions, pausing lasers and many more.

Another skill you’re going to have to master quickly if you want to rack up the wins, is the wall wrap. This allows you to evade or attack by quickly warping from one side of the arena to the other. Simply walk into the left wall and you’ll appear on the right side. Run upwards and you’ll appear on the bottom. You’ll need to master this if you want any hope of winning, as it’s usually the only way to avoid the laser grids and opposing team.

When you’re playing 2v2 or 3v3 and a teammate gets eliminated, there will be an icon on the ground indicating where they died. If you manage to run over the icon, they can be revived, though this becomes very tricky when avoiding lasers and enemies alike. A good team will have each other’s backs, making reviving a priority whenever possible.

There’s a level-up/progression system, and it is based on how well you do certain things such as winning matches, etc. There’s also a ton of character customization items you can unlock as well, allowing you to tweak your character to your liking. It does take a while to unlock many of the pieces, but this will help with the longevity if you want to have all of the unlockable items.

Local competitive play is available, and so is online 2v2 and 3v3 matches. While a multiplayer only game will live or die by its community numbers, Roll7 did something smart and included bots for when players can’t be found to fill matches. I’d say about half my matches played were against someone with AI substitutions, and the rest were matches full human controlled players. It seems as there’s not much of a matchmaking system behind the scenes though, as numerous times a group of us low level players were pitted against much higher ranked players, rather than evening out the teams. Maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but that was my online experience while reviewing this game.

Laser League is very easy to understand and pickup, but like most great titles, it will take time and patience to master. There’s a lot more to the gameplay than simply avoiding lasers, even though that may be your first impression, as there’s a surprisingly deep strategy that needs to be employed to pull off those wins, along with lightning quick reflexes. Laser League is fresh, new and exciting, and even though it emanates an obvious Tron vibe with its visuals, I applaud its innovativeness and accessibility for those looking for something different than what’s offered now in the competitive landscape.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Phantom Trigger

I’ve never heard the term or genre Neon Slasher before, but that’s what Phantom Trigger is marketed as, so expect plenty of hack and slash gameplay coupled with a vibrant neon color palette of pixel art. If you’ve played Hyper Light Drifter in the past, you’ll have a moment of déjà vu, as the gameplay is very similar on the surface.

You’re introduced to Stan, a normal middle class man leading an ordinary life, which is until he runs into some severe health issues. Given that his condition is likely fatal, Stan chooses to opt for an experimental treatment rather than a grossly expensive surgery. The majority of the gameplay has you controlling The Outsider, set in a mysterious and brightly neon world, with the vague connection between the two people and the worlds.

There’s clearly a connection between the two, with small snippets of story told through flashbacks, which was my favorite trait about Phantom Trigger, as there were some interesting reveals and twists. Slowly things will come together and make sense, but you won’t really know what’s happening, or why, until the very end.

A hack and slash at its core, Phantom Trigger relies heavily on its combat to keep you interested, the problem being that it’s simply not that enjoyable to begin with, as there’s a lack of variety. Each level has you searching around a wide area for paths to explore, with every corner infested by a variety of enemies, all whom are trying to stop and defeat you. You’ll find checkpoints randomly across the level, serving as respawn points when you inevitably die.

In certain spots you will find yourself locked into a small play area where you won’t be allowed to progress until every enemy is defeated, which usually occurs after a handful of waves. These aren’t terribly difficult, but they happen so frequently, and your checkpoints are so far and few in between, that you’ll have to attempt sections repeatedly due to dying.

It doesn’t help that there’s no tutorial, as I didn’t know that I had different types of attacks or that combos were a thing, as you need to rely on them heavily throughout the 6-hour or so adventure. A great example of this shortcoming is when I came across the first puzzle. Four pillars appeared of different colors, popping up at different intervals. I kept hitting them but I was doing something wrong, and when I did so, enemies would spawn. After about 20 minutes I was unable to figure out what I was doing wrong after repeated fails and deaths.

As it turns out, The Outsider actually has 3 separate weapons and attacks, conveniently color coded as well. A blue quick slashing ice sword, heavy fire knuckles, and a green whip that allows you to pull in enemies. If this was taught to me beforehand, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time on the color based ‘Simon Says’ puzzle, as all I needed to do was match my specific weapons to the pillars in order.

You also have a quick dash that allows you to briefly teleport in the direction you aim, allowing you to phase through attacks, avoid enemies and traverse levels quicker. Combine all of these elements and you have the basics of the combat system, yet for some reason though, even after hours of gameplay, it didn't feel natural. Individual weapons don’t have combos, but combined attacks in three hit sequences, and you’ll perform combos, something you’ll need to almost exclusively rely on to reach the credits.

There’s only a handful of combos in the game, but there’s clearly one or two that are superior, so eventually the combat devolves into spamming the same button combinations until you win, or die and try again. The combos are all about timing, as is the rest of combat, though most enemies are repeated throughout the game and take a lot of damage to defeat. There are boss fights to spice things up a bit, though most of these aren’t anything special and simply have you attacking it along with waves of endless enemies.

With the never ending bombardment of enemies thrown at you, I expected there to be an interesting progression system, something that would improve your abilities or made you stronger. Alas, that isn’t the case here. Your weapons will naturally level up the more you use them, but you don’t ever become stronger with their attacks. Instead, certain combos require your weapons to be at a specific level, so that’s really the only progression you’ll make. It was disappointing to not have your weapons become stronger over time, forcing you to rely on the combo attacks solely for the majority of your damage.

For those that enjoy streaming, there’s some built in Mixer integration, which I hope catches on with more games. Should you have an audience to stream to, your spectators can decide to give you more health, upgrade your weapons, or of course spawn enemies. Given that this is the internet, expect to have many more enemies spawned if you do decide to stream with the Mixer integration turned on.

While the combat was repetitive and I felt somewhat let down, the art style is very aesthetically pleasing. The neon isn’t terribly 'in-your-face', nor does it look like it’s ripped straight from the 80’s, but it’s colorful, bright and vibrant at the same time. While the level design lacks variety, the pixel art is wonderfully done and flows naturally. Audio is on the same level, as each attack, especially the fire punch, sounds distinct, unique and powerful. This is all wrapped with a great electronic soundtrack that fits the mood and visual style of Phantom Trigger perfectly.

While Phantom Trigger looks attractive and very inviting, the lack of any meaningful progression and repetitive combat throughout really hinders its enjoyment. Priced at $18.99 (CAD), your enjoyment is going to solely be based on how much you find on repeating the same combos over and over fun or not. After the first few hours, I wasn’t enjoying the gameplay much aside from knowing that I was close to another story segment, something I did enjoy.

If you’re looking for a new weekend game to play and be done with, check out Phantom Trigger when it’s on sale. At $10 I could see this doing much better, but as it stands right now, it’s an alright game that simply lacks motivational power to entice you to continue on.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Runestone Keeper

I enjoy my dungeon crawlers and my roguelike games, both of which combined isn’t necessarily uncommon, but I have not quite experienced something quite like Runestone Keeper before. Runestone Keeper seems to blend a dungeon crawler with some roguelike mechanics, but the gameplay is more akin to that of a board game of sorts. I’ll admit, I was a little turned off when playing in the beginning, but as I put some time into it, and learned the inner workings that isn’t directly taught to you via a tutorial, I started to enjoy it much more and simply took it for what it is.

Don’t go in expecting some grand narrative. Actually, there’s no story here really at all, as your first selectable class is simply named “Guy” with no real reasoning for your quest other than progressing further in the dungeon. You’ll have a brief tutorial that teaches you the basic mechanics but many of the ‘deep down’ mechanics you’ll simply need to learn for yourself.

The general concept of the game is to explore dungeon levels, defeating monsters, and progressing as far as you can before ultimately succumbing to death, resulting in having to start all over from the first floor. You view the dungeon from above, in a grid-like format, controlling a cursor and choosing which tile to click and uncover what may lie on it. Only one tile is viewable from the beginning of each floor, so you need to click any adjacent tiles to uncover them, almost like the fog in a RTS title. Each tile you click has a chance at being something beneficial, an enemy, an item, or other surprises that are completely randomly generated every time you play. And of course, a good dungeon crawler wouldn’t be complete with every floor becoming much more dangerous than the last, and that’s no different here.

Given that every tile is randomly determined when it loads, and you don’t know what is on each tile until you click on it, so randomness will either work for you, or usually, very much against you. Traps are plentiful, hurting you and decreasing your health pool when you uncover one, and special items can be acquired and used when needed, again, completely dependent on the randomly generated floors. You may find special shrines that allow you to pray to Gods for special buffs, though be prepared to uncover many enemies on the tiles at the most inopportune times.

All you need to progress floors to find the exit, some simply need to be clicked, while others will require a key that a certain enemy is holding. While you can quickly jump floors with some luck, you may want to explore nearly every tile per floor, as you’ll need to kill enemies to level up, making each following floor easier to handle. Simply rushing through floors will not end well for you when enemies can easily take you out without sufficient levels and equipment.

So, by that description above, it may sound like you’re simply clicking on boxes to uncover what’s underneath, and at its core this is true, but once you start making it to double digits, you’re going to have to be very strategic in every move you make, taking into account your health, soul points, mana, items, and more. If you’re lucky, you’ll uncover hearts that can be used to replenish your health, as permadeath occurs once you reach zero.

Every time you uncover a tile, you earn a soul point, which you use for items that have a soul cost to them, as do other abilities and bonuses you can uncover on floors as well. You’re only able to hold three items at a time, so many times you’ll need to weigh which is better suited for your playstyle and current situation. Once you start taking all of these into account, as well as your mana to use powerful character based abilities, there’s actually a decent amount of strategy and depth involved in the gameplay.

Monsters are varied, and even though they only appear as icons on the tiles, they can be quite formidable. Their icon will show their attack, health, and shield stats, so much of the strategy is figuring out who to attack, when and with what. To do so efficiently, you’ll need gear and equipment to do so. Enemies can drop gear, which is also randomized, though you can also spend your precious gold on upgrades in the random stores you happen across as well. You’ll start with a basic sword and armor, but eventually you’ll come across other gear pieces with varied stats that can make a world of difference in your survival.

There are two sets of weapons you can have as well, and while it may not seem like there’s much point at first, you’ll eventually come across deadly ranged enemies that will attack you each time you click a tile, and if you are numerous tiles away before you get into sword attack range, you’re going to die very quickly, hence the need for a bow or staff so you can attack from a distance.

Like any good RPG, Runestone Keeper also implements a leveling system that allows you to choose from an increase to your specific stats that not only makes you more powerful, but it allows you to equip higher level gear and items as well. This is where part of your playstyle will come into play, as you can increase your damage every time you level, or decide to gain more health with heart pickups instead. I suggest trying to stick to a specific stat or style, as having rounded out stats never really worked out well for me for the most part.

When you die, you will lose all of your gear and progress, and the only persisting item you’ll keep is the gold you earn from each playthrough. This accumulates and can be used for numerous different bonuses, making each subsequent playthroughs slightly easier. The smartest use for your gold though is to save up and use for permanent passive upgrades, like extra gold and XP per kill, among others, though you need to back out to the main menu to purchase these. As well, any of the Runestones you find will also persist through death, along with Gods you’ve unlocked by preying at their alters. For a nominal gold fee you can also start a run with certain items pre-purchased, though you’ll always be at the mercy of the randomness.

It’s taken quite a few hours of grinding for nominal amounts of gold to save up for the passive bonuses, but now that I’ve got a grasp on the deeper mechanics and have devised some of my strategies, I last much longer than I used to, nearly always reaching double digits in regards to the dungeon floors. The randomness can result in your death very quickly or it can be incredibly lucky with tons of heart pickups, there’s no telling how a run will go beforehand. This may frustrate some, but you always earn some gold at the end, so it’s a matter of sticking with it long enough to save up for some bigger upgrades and bonuses.

It’s clear that Runestone Keeper was originally built for PCs overseas, as some translation issues have slipped through the QA process (e.g. - I’ve been told to use space bar) and doesn’t always read fluently in English. By no means is it a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable and awkward. It’s simplistic in nature, but there is some depth and strategy needed to be consistent and successful, and that’s only if luck is on your side. If you put in the time to slowly progress, you’ll enjoy your dungeon crawling experience, even when you’re dying every few floors, it’s just a shame that the majority of your success is out of your hands and relies on pure luck.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Pure Farming 2018

I reviewed my first farming simulator last year, fully expecting for it to be a waste of time and skeptical that it could be fun, initially scoffing at the idea, and the genre, but I came away kind of surprised with how in-depth it really was, and more importantly, how much work farmers put in. I was really surprised with how popular the farm sim genre is after being exposed to it, as I didn’t expect it to be with how niche it is. Previously, there really has only been one main game in the genre that releases every few years, on console anyway, but developer Ice Flame is looking to break into the market with their inaugural offering, Pure Farming 2018.

Sure, farming sims may only appeal to a small market, but the fans who play them are very passionate about what they do, and don’t, like from their farming games. Pure Farming 2018 seems to have done their research, adding some very interesting features not found elsewhere, yet somehow also missing some big ones, like multiplayer and mods.

If you’re not a farmer, or a farming game enthusiast, it’s hard to find the appeal of any farming titles, as you need to work hard for any pay off, just like real farming. If ploughing a field for 45 minutes before sowing and watering for another 45 doesn’t sound appealing to you, then there’s not much these games will do to make it exciting, but if cultivating your own crops and selling them in other markets for huge profits sounds fun, you’ll most likely enjoy Pure Farming 2018 for what they’ve added to the genre, hopefully resulting in the competition stepping up their game as well.

Surprisingly enough, there is actually a campaign with a story attached to Pure Farming 2018. It won’t win any awards, as it’s simply a tale of your grandfather passing and leaving the farm to you, along with the debt that comes with said land. So, it’s up to you to save the family farm and turn it around into a profit. I appreciated that at least there was some type of narrative involved aside from the simple objective of making money, as there’s a reason behind doing what you need to do. So, you strap on your boots, put on your hat and overalls and start your journey to becoming a farmer that would make your grandfather proud.

To turn a profit, you’ll need to plant seeds, cultivate crops, raise livestock, run errands and drive heavy farming machinery. One thing I found very challenging about the other farm sims was just how in-depth they were, as you needed to turn the engine on, hit the lights, rotate your equipment, turn it on and more, and doing so with a controller only was quite challenging and unintuitive. Pure Farming 2018 doesn’t go as in-depth per se, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as good of a simulator either, it simply does things differently, allowing you to focus on other aspects and separating itself from the competition.

My First Farm mode is actually the campaign/tutorial, guiding you step by step on how to move around, how to drive and how to use equipment, and of course, harvesting your crops properly. Even though you’re generally given step by step instructions of how to perform your task at hand, it’s not done well enough, periodically keeping you confused and frustrated as to why what you’re supposed to do isn’t working. Some instructions are vague, eventually not giving you every single step in the process, leaving you to search the old tutorial tips or struggling to remember what you needed to do hours ago the first time.

Luckily, as a modern farmer you have your trusty tablet on hand at all times. This is where you’ll get your emails (tips and tutorial), statistics, view marketplace to buy new equipment for delivery and resources, taking another loan from the bank (if needed), hiring extra help and even launch your drone should you want to fly around the farm to get an aerial point of view. What I really enjoyed was how beginner friendly many of the options (and tablet menus) were, so newcomers shouldn’t be too intimidated once you’ve learned the ropes and general controls.

You have the choice of three different modes to play: My First Farm, which is the starting tutorial and campaign as described above, Free Farming, where you can choose the continent you want to farm on and even your starting cash flow (up to $5 million), or Farming Challenges that have you focusing on specific objectives to be successful. Free Farming is suggested for more experienced players, as there’s no hand-holding in any way, allowing you to freely farm however you choose. The nearly unlimited budget (should you chose) is a great way to test out new equipment and farm types. Farming Challenges will surely put your farming skills to the test, as they are objective based with very specific gear and goals.

As I mentioned above, you can choose a mode that allows you to pick where you will farm. That’s right, Pure Farming 2018 allows you the option to choose which continent to play on. You’re able to choose from areas such as Italy, Japan, Colombia, and of course the biggest map of all by a large margin, Montana, USA (and Germany if you buy the DLC). I didn’t think that having different areas would be a big deal aside from aesthetics and a varied backdrop, but I was surprised to see that each area has their own specific crop types that you can only farm there. For example, in Japan you can have rice farms and in others, hemp and olives. It was really interesting to see the different types of agriculture based on the various countries. You can even then farm crops in one country and sell to another for massive profits.

Farming isn’t possible without the proper equipment, and there’s plenty available for you to choose from, each with their own costs and stats. There are actual manufacturers included, such as Gregoire, Zetor, Mitsubishi and more. Granted, the selection is nowhere near the amount that other titles in the genre offer, but for someone like me, it was more than enough to offer varied options of how to cultivate my crops.

While you can obviously harvest wheat and potatoes, Pure Farming 2018 includes many more options based on what kind of crops you want to grow. Chickens, cows, rabbits, apples, help, rice, olives, greenhouses, cabbage, peppers and even green energy such as solar and wind, among others. There’s quite a large selection, some of which are only accessible on certain continents, so there’s plenty of gameplay should you desire it. Factor in that a large plot of land can take well over an hour to properly plow, seed and water, and you’ll start to get an idea of how much work farmers actually go through.

There’s really only two glaring omissions from Pure Farming 2018: no mods and no multiplayer. Mods allow for much more gameplay to be released by the community, and multiplayer would sure make the grind much more bearable with a friend or two. I’ve put in some hours into my crops, but it does grow tiresome after a while when doing it alone. Having a friend that could help me, or at least keep me company, would be much more preferable.

What I really enjoyed about Pure Farming 2018 is that it’s much more accessible than some of the others in the genre. Granted, the tutorial doesn’t do a good enough job, but I did eventually figure out what I had to do and how through trial and error. It’s still a simulator, but it feels much easier to do minor things overall, allowing you to focus on more farming aspects. It may not be the prettiest game out there, and it has its technical issues, but fans of the genre will most likely overlook these and enjoy their time cultivating their hard work.

Farming is hard work and takes time, and it’s no different here. You’re going to have to put in the hours to have a large, successful and profitable farm, but if you’re willing to do so, you’ll enjoy all that there is to do in Pure Farming 2018 that the competition simply doesn’t offer. If mod support and multiplayer are included in the hopeful sequel, there will be some serious farm sim competition in the genre.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Tiles

I’m always down for a good puzzle game. On one hand they can be very relaxing and a change of pace from typical shooters, racers and action games, on the other, difficulty can easily turn to frustration if something just doesn’t click. At first look, Tiles, created by lone man developer Romans I XVI Gaming, looks incredibly simplistic, and it is, but don’t let that lure you into a false sense of security, as you’ll eventually hit a brick wall of difficulty, or your fingers will become too tired to continue, one of which will come surely first.

As for Tiles’ presentation, don’t expect much in the visual department, as it's as minimalistic as it gets. Puzzles play out in a grid-like layout on top of a black background; that’s it. On a positive note, that means there’s absolutely no distractions, as you’re simply focused on the puzzle placed in front of you, nothing else. While catchy, the lopped music does tire over time, especially if you’re attempting to play for any length of time. There's also no attempt of a real tutorial, you’re simply thrown into a level and set out to figure everything out for yourself, so it can be a little confusing at first.

Your starting point is always on a green tile and your goal is to reach the red tile, but only after you’ve crossed every single blue tile on the screen first. Levels will start off easy, of course, then promptly ramp up in difficulty. If you think you can simply rush to the red tile to end the level before clearing each blue one, you’ll promptly be restarted and need to try again, so there’s some forward thinking needed to figure out the quickest and most optimal path. Oh, and blue tiles fall and disappear after a few moments, so you need to constantly be moving quickly and with purpose.

The biggest part of your strategy is not only figuring out the pathway to the exit while hitting every blue tile beforehand, but also timing your moves when you have to navigate with tiles that disappear quickly. The later stages are so elaborate that it will take some time to figure out the proper path, though the hardest part will be having the finger dexterity to actually do so in time accurately.

This is where the real difficulty for Tiles comes into play. The speed which you need to navigate stages becomes so incredibly fast that the majority of the time you die is because you’ve accidentally stepped one tile over too many into the abyss, prompting your level to reset. While I’d like to think I have pretty decent reflexes, as I’ve been gaming for over thirty years, the main problem with Tiles is that it forces you to use the D-Pad, and not the Thumbsticks, to maneuver your white tile around the level. Also, you can’t simply hold a direction, so when you’re plotting along a level with 50+ blue tiles to touch, along with others to avoid, you need to press the D-Pad every single time to move in the direction you want.

If the controller D-Pad’s were better, then maybe this wouldn’t be such as issue, but no matter what controller I tested it with, be it an original, Razer or an Elite, the D-Pad simply restricts your movement from being as nimble and quick as your mind wants to play. Tiles is also a Play Anywhere title, I also loaded it up on my PC to test it out, and it has the same problem, as you’re unable to simply hold the direction you want to move and are forced to tap the direction every single time, even on a keyboard.

Should you have someone in the household that you’d like to test your finger dexterity against, then you’ll be happy to know that Tiles also supports competitive multiplayer, seeing who can complete levels the quickest. I do appreciate how it’s simply drop in and out if someone wants to give it a shot without having to back out all the way to the main menu.

The main ‘campaign’ is filled with 90 levels, which, good luck if you’re able to complete them all, as I was unable to. If you do manage to somehow find a way to complete the dozens of levels, or simply get stuck and unable to progress, you’ll be happy to know that there’s much more content for you to enjoy, nearly an endless amount actually. Included is a level creator and sharing capability, so you have thousands of user generated stages at your (sore) fingertips. The level editor itself is very simplistic to use and figure out, choosing the grid size you want and then placing the different colors of tiles you want exactly where you choose. All you need to remember is what each color of tile does.

Blue: All of these must be stepped on before reaching the end red tile. If it’s the lighter shade of blue, it will need to be stepped on twice before disappearing.

Yellow: This tile falls at a predetermined time once the level has begun, even if you’ve stepped on it or not.

Orange: This tile constantly falls and reappears at set intervals.

Purple: A safe tile that never falls and allows you to ‘catch your breath’, well, rest your fingers, before continuing on.

Green: This is your starting tile. This needs to always be placed.

Red: The exit/goal to the stage once all blue tiles have been touched.

Keep these tiles properties in mind and you’ll be making some truly unique creations in no time. What surprised me was that since this is a Play Anywhere title, you can sort levels created by PC or Xbox players, so there’s tons of interesting creations for you to test your skills on. The user generated levels are very challenging and creative, as many players have even designed pixel style drawings that integrate into their levels in a clever way.

While Tiles is very basic in premise, the puzzle aspect of solving the proper pathway is quite entertaining. What isn’t as polished though is the forced D-Pad integration, as it’s quite difficult to do the moves you want to do in rapid succession because of it. Roughly 9 out of every 10 deaths were because I pressed the D-Pad too many times in a direction trying to keep up my pace, or accidentally pressing a wrong direction due to its imprecision. The later levels require your reflexes and speed to be near perfect, and trying to do so with the D-Pad alone is where the majority of the difficulty stems from.

Played in small doses, Tiles is a fun time waster if you’ve only got a short time to play something and don’t want to get too involved. You can plug away at the campaign levels or test out your finger dexterity with thousands of user created levels should you choose. Levels become quite involved and tricky to solve, and at some point your fingers will most likely tire because of the need to mash the D-Pad for every single move. If you’re looking for a fun puzzler for around $5 with near endless levels, Tiles has you covered, just prepare for a challenging and bland experience that will have your fingers begging for a break afterword.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Fear Effect Sedna

I still have both original Fear Effect games on disc for the original Playstation in my collection, so to say that I was excited to hear that Fear Effect would be making its return after 17 long years is an understatement. I have fond memories of the original games, as it was one of the first to really make use of the cel-shaded art style and had a Resident Evil-esque vibe to it. Interestingly, Fear Effect Sedna was actually funded via a Kickstarter campaign and developed by Sushee with a little over $100,000 being raised, so clearly there were others like me that yearned to see the series return.

While the iconic cel-shaded visuals are intact, the gameplay has completely done a 180, as Sedna is played as an isometric shooter, puzzler and stealth game. If that alone is making you raise an eyebrow because you’re an old school fan of the series like myself, you better sit down and prepare yourself, as that’s not all that’s changed. Luckily the iconic characters like Hana and Rain return, among others, and the story itself is decent, even if the writing and delivery itself is quite weak. I was more than excited to see Fear Effect was back, and I wanted to love it, I really did, but it wasn’t even the major gameplay change to isometric that turned me off, it was nearly everything else. There are parts that simply aren’t fun and don’t work well, but in general, it’s mediocre at best.

Taking place after the first game (as Part 2 was a prequel), Sedna follows Hana and Rain once again, delving into more of their backstory as they’re hired for another heist. Just like the previous games, a simple job turns into something much more heinous as there’s an underlying supernatural element to it all as well. The story is interesting enough to keep you intrigued and wanting to see what happens next, but it doesn’t seem to flow well. A few times I was left confused of what I was doing, and more importantly, why. It doesn’t help that the writing is subpar, but the voice acting is even worse, making it difficult to relate and believe the characters that I’ve known for many years.

Just like its predecessors, Sedna too utilizes a fear meter. When your fear rises you’ll take more damage, but you also receive a buff that boosts your outgoing damage as well, so it’s a tradeoff. In theory this works, trying to force you into a stealthy type of gameplay, but the AI is so bad that you’re unable to do so, constantly resulting in firefights, frustration and restarts.

Much of the time you’ll be in control of two or more characters at the same time, with the others simply following you and providing extra firepower when you get noticed. When your companion doesn’t take cover and dies, you become more fearful, thus taking more damage, yet your damage output increase doesn’t seem to make up for it in any way.

This is where the tactical portion of the game comes into play. Well, where they try and force you to use it until you realize it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. This allows you to pause time and plan your attack. While the world is paused, you can choose any of your characters and maneuver them where you like, leaving a breadcrumb trail. You can also then choose any actions like shooting at enemies or using their special abilities. Next you’ll switch to your other character and move them to where you want them to go and what actions to take. While in this mode it’s essentially recording your actions, and when you come out of the tactical mode it will automatically recreate everything you just did automatically.

This at first seemed like a really interesting concept, but almost from the first fight on I saw two glaring flaws. First, you don’t know where the enemies are going to go or be, so you’re making these plans by guessing. Second, the AI doesn’t care that you’re hiding behind cover and will simply walk up to you and start shooting you in the face nearly every time. At this point it simply turns into a gunfight and the last man (or woman) standing wins. Nearly every gunfight turned out this way, and I stopped using the tactical mode for the most part due to it. It’s virtually impossible to avoid being seen when trying to be stealthy, always resulting in either a game over or a mass shootout.

Stealth is a big element to the gameplay, and in some sections it’s forced, but if you even get one pixel into their cone if sight, the alarms go off and you get detected. I simply ended up shooting in real time, using my abilities and rolls to try and survive each encounter, healing myself afterwards when possible. Even though you can instantly kill enemies if undetected, it was never reliable as it should have been.

Every so often you’ll get thrown a few puzzles to change things up, though I found most of these frustrating as well. Even the first wire cutting puzzles took me a while to figure out, resulting in many game over screens and restarts. I did enjoy that the puzzles varied, though it may just be because it took me away from the awful combat for a few minutes each time.

Not all is gloom and doom though, as Sushee nailed that Fear Effect look that makes it unique and stand out. The visuals are striking and bright, and it’s great to see some old friends once again in HD after all these years. As for audio, the soundtrack itself is great and fits the setting, but the voice over work is terrible, almost across the board. There’s no realism to the performances, though that’s partly due to the poor writing as well. Rarely do the characters sound believable, making it difficult to care about their development or emotions.

I can deal with the drastic change to isometric gameplay, but there are so many other design decisions that don’t feel like they meld together very well. Puzzles can be frustrating, level design is basic and combat is terrible, though only second to the voice acting. I wanted to enjoy Fear Effect Sedna, I truly did, as I’m a longtime fan of the series, but even as a fan, it’s hard to recommend.

Overall, Fear Effect Sedna felt very underwhelming and mediocre at best. I’ve been searching for reasons to recommend it, but coming up with almost none. On the bright side, the developer is working on a remake of the original game, so there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for the series, sadly Sedna is going to be its black spot though. Goodbye Fear Effect, you had a great run back on the PS1.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was probably one of my favorite games on Xbox 360, and I’d probably put it in my top 10 or so games ever. I also really enjoyed DmC: Devil May Cry more than I expected. What does this have to do with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? Well, all of them are made by the same developer, Ninja Theory (they also created Heavenly Sword), so they have quite a pedigree when it comes to quality titles. Somehow I missed that Hellblade released last summer for PC and PS4, as I’m usually up to date on my favorite developers, yet somehow this slipped by me. Here we are, almost a year later, and Hellblade finally makes it way to Xbox One for more gamers to enjoy. In a way I’m glad I waited, as it’s been enhanced for Xbox One X in a substantial way, and given that I’m using an X, I got to enjoy it the way it was designed to be.

I didn’t realize how critically acclaimed Hellblade was before it landed in my lap, and after seeing the credits roll, it deserves every single accolade it has received, and more. With a tale that revolves around mental illness, exploring it in a way that truly makes sense and is incredibly eye opening, Hellblade is fascinating from start to finish.

With a backdrop in the Viking era, a Celtic warrior named Senua is on a dangerous mission alone to the gates of Hellheim to save the soul of her dead lover. From the very beginning of her journey, Senua’s tale is dark and disturbing, and not just from her surroundings and situation, but the internal battle that is happening within her mind; it is one that is even darker. There’s a larger, over encompassing story arc in play here as well, about where she needs to go and explore, and more importantly, why, but the most interesting experiences comes from what Senua thinks she is experiencing.

Each step of the way, Senua will battle her psychological condition, which makes it difficult to distinguish what is real and what isn’t. This explains all of the voices she hears in her head, which will act as a guide for you as you progress, warning you of danger, or what subtle clues to find. You’ll constantly guess if Senua is actually experiencing what you’re playing, or if it’s an intricate hallucination her mind is playing on her. Keep in mind, because of the era this takes place in, it wasn’t diagnosed as a disorder, but instead, people thought they were cursed, which adds so much more context into her battle.

Ninja Theory actually worked in collaboration with a team of neuroscientists to recreate what having psychotic breakdown (psychosis) is actually like, and has done so in a respectful, yet frightening manner. You can’t imagine what it would be like to live with a blurred line between fiction and reality, but you can get a sense of it for the eight or so hours you play Hellblade, and it’s terrifying to imagine if that was your day to day reality. Even though the gameplay is very linear in fashion, the story is told in a very unique and compelling way due to Senua’s condition, one that I can empathize with.

Gameplay is very linear, but it works for the setting and narrative path. As you explore the areas, you’ll come across pillars with some runes plastered on them, allowing you to focus your mind’s eye, giving you some lore, told as a story, as a reward. These are not mandatory in any way, but they further flesh out the world and its surroundings with a story to tell.

The first thing you’re going to notice is how absolutely stunning the visuals are, borderline photorealistic at times. This allows you to be immersed into Hellblade’s world. I routinely caught myself stopping to simply look at the scenery and take it all in. To help further the believability of this world, there’s absolutely no user interface or HUD at any point in Senua’s journey to remind you that this is a game, and it’s better for it in every way. Even animations are incredibly fluid, as she will gracefully sidestep and backpedal if moved in that direction. Her dreads flow naturally against her body in relation to her movement, and her face, I swear at times, is that of a real actress. The believability in Senua’s facial movements is so unreal it kept taking me by surprise that it’s not a real person but all in-game visuals.

There will be times where Senua will have to fight to protect herself against opponents, be they human or demon. While the combat is very basic, it works and is simple for the most part. You have light and heavy attacks along with some melee attacks, and you will also find the ability to dodge and block. When you enter a combat section, Senua will automatically pull out her sword initializing the combat sequence, and the sequence will end after you kill a few waves of enemies. They start off easy in the beginning, but they become quite challenging, especially the bosses, near the end of Senua's tale.

What I didn’t expect is the inclusion of permadeath should you 'meet-your-demise' too many times. Senua seems infected by some sort of blackness, and every time you die, it spreads further across her body, eventually killing her if it engulfs her. When you start to fight three enemies or more, simultaneously, you’ll need to listen for audio queues to block and dodge correctly, though you do have a focus you can sporadically use to slow down time in essence, helping you to defeat them easily.

The other major portion of Hellblade is how it handles its included puzzle elements. You’ll constantly come across doors that are locked by some sort of dark magic with runic symbols etched across them. The only way to unlock these doors is to find and match the same symbol somewhere in the environment nearby. For example, if the door has a cross symbol as its barrier, you need to find something in the environment that makes that exact shape. This is very clever, as the solution may be looking for a dead tree standing tall in front of you, with a branch from another in the background, and when you look at it at just the right angle, it forms the symbol you’re looking for.

The first few puzzles will surely stump you, though once you figure out what to generally look for, it becomes easier in time. Sure, this puzzle element is repeated throughout, but it’s still a clever way to do so. Other puzzles will have you walking through portals that seem to distort time, allowing you to explore your area, but in a different time. For example, going through a certain portal may cause you to go back to the past where the rubble that was previously blocking your path has now returned to its former glory of a functioning staircase. Again, it’s a very clever mechanic that also feeds into her psychosis condition.

If you’ve ever needed a game to use as an excuse to get an Xbox One X, as an upgrade from your original or S, Hellblade is one hell of a valid reason to justify doing so. On the X, there’s are three separate game modes for you to choose from, based on your preference, and they are resolution, visuals or framerate. If you choose Enhanced Visuals, the world is much more full and lively with added foliage, fog, improved shadows and other effects. If you have a 4K display, then you’ll want High Resolution mode, as the game is displayed in 4K at 30fps. I chose High Framerate, as I don’t have a 4K display, but playing at a smooth 60fps was an absolute treat, making movement even more fluid, including combat. If I was to actively search for flaws, there are some minor texture pop-in and some clipping in a few spots, but that’s me actively looking for minor faults. Given how amazing the overall package looks, arguably the best on the console to date, it gets a pass.

I’m normally not a huge audio guy, as I’m partially deaf in one ear, but you are prompted at the very beginning that it’s suggested to play with headphones on for immersive 3D audio. Sure, if you have an insane audio setup at home then you may not need to rely on headphones, but trust me, you’ll want to play with a good pair if you don’t have true 7.1 sound setup at home, as the audio is hands down, the best I’ve ever experienced in a game to date.

Normally for audio I tend to focus on the soundtrack and voice acting, but there’s so much more here in Hellblade. When it simply comes to environmental sounds, I’ve never heard anything so realistic before. The thunder in the background actually made me believe it was outside my apartment, as it was raining that night. Footsteps are subtle but noticeable, as are the crackles of passing by a fire.

The voice acting is on a whole other level, and probably one of, if not the, best performances I’ve ever experienced in any media before. Melina Juergens puts on a performance unlike any other, and given the fact she had to do multiple personalities for the voices in her head that you constantly hear as well, it’s an absolutely stunning performance. Not just her, but every voice actor involved is perfectly portrayed and completely believable. Do yourself a favor and use the best headphones you have access to, as Hellblade has easily the best audio design I’ve ever experienced before.

After experiencing Hellblade, it may shock you to learn that not only is Ninja Theory not a huge ‘AAA’ developer, but the price is also half that of a new release, making it an absolute must purchase. While some may not be fond of the simplistic combat, puzzle elements or linearity, I feel they were absolutely suited for this specific narrative. Enslaved is one of my favorite games ever, also created by them, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is easily their crowning achievement in every way.

You may think you know what it’s like to hear voices in your head, but Hellblade will allow you to experience it in a very raw and frightening manner, yet also being respectful to the mental illness, shedding light on the disorder. It just happens to also be an amazing game at the same time, again, with the best audio design I’ve ever experienced before, something Ninja Theory should be commended for in every way. I constantly felt fearful and tense, yet determined to help Senua along her journey, and even though the credits have rolled, Senua’s Sacrifice will stick with me for quite some time. Xbox owners may have had to wait to experience Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but as they say, good things come to those who wait, and this is without a doubt already on my Game of the Year contender list.

Overall Score: 9.8 / 10 TERA

While there are a handful available, consoles generally don’t have a wide selection of MMORPG’s to choose from, for numerous reasons. One such game is TERA. It was released on PC back in 2012, but here we are, 6 years later, finally able to explore the world of Arborea on consoles. So, while TERA is old in terms of an MMO in age, it’s brand new for the Xbox One, and given the updates the game has received over the years, and the unique console friendly gameplay, I was more than excited to get back into the world I left so many years ago on PC. Oh, and it’s also free to play.

As the case with nearly any MMO, you’ll have an endless amount of quests to complete as you level up, become more powerful, and earn new skills and abilities as you progress through your journey. As typical to most in the genre, you’ll be able to create your character to your liking, first choosing a race and then a class. It should be noted that not all races have access to each class, and even further, some classes are not only forced to a race, but also the sex as well. For example, if you want to be a brawler, as of writing this review, you are forced to play as a female version. This will get changed in the future with an upcoming patch, but more on that later. There are some interesting races, like the Popori that resemble animals or the Elin which is a small dainty looking type of race.

What separates TERA from most other MMO’s is its ‘True Action Combat’. Instead of queuing up a bunch of skills and auto attacking, you have to fight in real time, almost like a hack and slash. You’ll need to avoid or block attack from enemies and bosses while using your abilities to deal damage and stay alive. During massive boss fights, it doesn’t feel like a typical MMO at all, but more like a Platinum developed game or Capcom's Devil May Cry of sorts, as you need to be on your game, constantly maneuvering and countering boss abilities with your own. The transition from keyboard and mouse feels natural for the most part, when it comes to the combat portion anyway.

I wasn’t new to TERA, but it’s been quite some time since I played, so I was surprised with how much things have changed over the years. Controls are as you’d expect, with movement and camera tied to the sticks, and all of your abilities on the face buttons, bumpers and triggers. Holding the Left Bumper will also allow you to use the abilities set in another bank of menus, all of which can be customized to your preference of course. It’s awkward at first, but once you’ve spent some time with it, it becomes second nature.

I decided I wanted to play a tank for my group of friends, the class that stands in front of the enemies and takes all the damage. I made an adorable Popori cat looking creature and fell in love with being able to hold my shield up and block nearly any damage that came my way. Of course to balance this I don’t do nearly the damage other classes do, but I enjoyed it and stuck with it. My blocking drains an endurance gauge, and to refill it in combat I need to use my abilities that take mana. To refill my mana I need to use my standard weapon attack, so there’s a lot of thought that goes into a good damage rotation, as I needed to constantly think of each of my bars. There are a number of classes, each unique in their own way with their own specific purpose, so make sure you experiment and find the classes that speaks to your playstyle best.

Every MMO values different types of play. Some value questing, while others cater to dungeons and grinding. TERA seems to implement a value on each of these, as you’ll be questing and exploring dungeons throughout your TERA career. Quests will guide you from zone to zone in a progressive path, though once you learn that dungeon runs and PvP earn you a vast more amount of experience (XP) and rewards, there’s no real point to do much questing aside from some basic rewards and story reasons. You’ll be constantly upgrading your weapons and gear, becoming more powerful, and when you reach endgame, you’ll be grinding hard if you want to improve your gear to +9 and +12, each of which takes serious dedication. The only downside to this setup is that you’re so hastily rushed through levels that you don’t get to experience much of the world itself, as it’s simply not time efficient to do so.

Dungeons are where the fun of TERA really begins to shine, as does the difficulty, because this is where you’ll start to see that combat is very much skill (and gear) based more than just mashing some buttons. TERA utilizes the classic holy trinity for party makeups: Tank, Healer and DPS, and this rule-set will have to be followed when matchmaking for dungeons as well. The earlier dungeons will introduce you to some of the boss mechanics that you’ll encounter later on, as many bosses are reused throughout the higher level dungeons, but they become more difficult and they get added abilities to their arsenal every time you encounter them, especially once you reach the Hard Mode's top tier.

Dungeons are very diverse, though they usually have you fighting a gauntlet of bosses with trash mobs to clear in between. Some of the boss fights become incredibly technical, forcing you to pay attention to not only their attack patterns, but other events that can happen, like electrified water that covers half of the usable area, or rush attacks from adds that need to be killed before they reach the boss. Sure, once you learn the mechanics it becomes much simpler, but there’s also a gear check that takes place before you even enter a dungeon. Each dungeon requires you to be in a very specific level range, but also be above a specific gear score or else you won’t be able to queue up for runs. When you do die, you’re able to be resurrected by the healer if able, but you can also spend some of your hard earned gold to resurrect yourself in a pinch as well, which becomes quite costly later on.

Gear is not only granted to you via quests and drops, but you’ll also have access to Avatar Weapons every handful of levels. When you reach a specific level, you’ll start to see bosses drop relic shards, which when you collect enough, will unlock your best in slot weapon for that level range. Since levels come so quickly, you’ll constantly be upgrading, though you’re going to want to enchant those weapons as soon as possible. When specific tiered items are acquired from enemy drops, you can upgrade your gear to +9, adding many more stats and enhancements. The hardest part to enchanting is simply getting all of the materials you need to do so, and once you reach endgame, you can bring your gear to +12 with much more expensive materials. This is the treadmill you’ll constantly be working towards as you farm dungeons and missions for materials.

If PvP is more of your thing, then you’ll be happy to know that there are PvP servers, though you can only participate when you’ve reached max level, and there are also PvP events that anyone can queue up for. There’s a standard Team Deathmatch that’s included, but very few people seem to play this mode simply because the rewards for the other mode is vastly inflated, and sadly, one of the best ways to level. Kumas Royale is one of the most odd, and worst, PvP modes I’ve ever played in any game, yet rewards you immensely if you’ve able to win a match doing so.

Kumas Royale replaces your character with a default fat baby monster wearing a diaper and pacifier. Yes, you read that right. Everyone has the same static abilities and there’s a singular boss Kumas on each team. The goal to this mode is to damage the other team’s boss, and the boss who has the most amount of health at the end of each five minute round wins. This is where the problems begin for this mode, as whoever gets to the enemy's boss first gets to control them, for better or worse. Bosses have a bunch of abilities, but if you try and play offensively and use them, you’re going to lose, guaranteed.

You see, the goal of everyone on the team, save for the boss, is to try and damage the enemy boss, and once their health is lower than yours, you simply play defense, blocking and killing all of the other players trying to damage your boss. The problem is the abilities you have are terribly inaccurate and you move at an incredibly slow pace with no way to speed up. This is only part of the frustration though, as many players seemingly don’t know how to properly play and will lose matches seemingly from the get go by trying to play offensively with the boss and taking tons of damage.

I can handle losing matches, it's no big deal, but the problem with that is how the rewards are set up. You get some massive XP boosts and rewards for winning, making it totally worth the 10-15 minute matches (best of 3), but the problem is that should you lose, you get nothing. Not even half the amount of XP or rewards; absolutely nothing. You can imagine how losing a few matches in a row and getting nothing for it after a few hours can become frustrating. If the gameplay itself was fun it could be overlooked, but it’s not in any way at all.

Now given that TERA is free to play, there has to be a way for them to make money right? Well of course, and this is where the cash shop for EMP comes into play, as does Elite Status. There are many items in the TERA shop that you can buy with EMP, their own currency, which of course you purchase with real money. The majority of these are cosmetic costumes, mounts and other items, but you can also purchase extra bank slots, character slots and more should you wish. Can you get by without buying any EMP? Of course you can, but you won’t look as good doing so.

Elite Status on the other hand is also completely voluntary, though there are enough bonuses that make it completely worth it. Elite Status is $15 a month, as per most pay-to-play MMO’s, but gives you a ton of bonuses like 100% extra XP and gold, loot boxes you can open every day, and even the ability to teleport instantly to any main city or town. Normally you’d have to spend gold on a Pegasus flight or 'teleportal', so this makes it completely worth it. You also get to do double the amount of dungeons a day, so to me, someone that’s sinking many hours into it a day, is well worth it. Yes, you're capped with how many dungeons you can do in a day, but Elite status lets you double that.

Lastly, there are also Founder Packs currently on sale (but it’s not been said for how long). These range from from $30 (the pack we were given for review) all the way up to $150. Each one has their own special items and bonuses like Elite or specific amounts of EMP. While I don’t see the items offered as pay to win, you can purchase high end fashion items and sell them on the broker for in-game gold. To me, it feels they hit a great balance of time saving items, and of course cool fashion pieces, without reaching the dreaded pay-to-win that plagues other MMOs. TERA is completely playable as free to play, but if you want to save some gold and time, look into what’s offered with EMP and Elite.

Now, this is where things get a little tricky, as TERA is many years old on PC, but new on console. The console version is not up to date as the PC version is, and by most of the community’s guess, roughly a year or two behind on major patches and additions. Some of these exclusions are apparent, as we console players don’t have access to certain classes yet, like the Ninja, Valkyrie, Gunner and female Brawler. There’s also no ETA of when we can expect these additions that many players are yearning for. There’s always going to be a disparity between PC and console, and I’m hoping that we’re given a roadmap soon of what, and more importantly, when we can expect more up to date content.

I’ve truly enjoyed my time with TERA for the most part, but man, this was not ready for a full release yet. TERA is riddled with bugs, atrocious performance, multiple crashes and a slew of other issues, yet I keep finding myself logging on every night to run some dungeons with my friends. Luckily I have an Xbox One X, so I’ve not had to deal with the multitude of crashes and hard locks that many of my friends are experiencing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see my fair share of performance hits. Certain areas and fights will cause framerates to dip into single digits, menus can become laggy and there’s a ton of bugs you can read about if you visit the official forums.

TERA has some massive issues, but it is playable, for the most part. When it’s working well, your group is making progress in a dungeon and everyone is playing their specific role, I could play for hours. That being said, when someone in the party keeps crashing to the Home Screen, forcing your group to wait before pulling a boss, it can become quite frustrating. There’s a ton of design flaws, yet the foundation is there to be a great MMO that feels natural on a console. While the launch is a bit rocky, I’m able to play with my friends every night as we go farm some dungeons to make the high end gear, allowing us to then attempt the Hard Mode dungeons and endgame raids. This is what keeps me playing.

Technical issues aside, TERA is a blast to play with friends if you have a perfect group composition to run endless dungeons. The combat is fast, exciting and skill based, so you better know your stuff and practice as much as possible. That being said, the bugs and flaws also can’t be completely ignored, as it’s rampant and incredibly unoptimized. If the developers had great communication with the community and at least appeased players by engaging in conversation of what to expect and when, for fixes and content additions, then it wouldn’t feel like they did the launch and forgot about us. At the same time, it’s completely free to play and you can play without spending a single dime should you wish to wait until it runs better and has more of the PC's content. For now I’ll be sticking with my Lancer, running with my friends through some dungeons and having a blast nightly, until we’re forced to wait for them to log back in from their crash.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Story Goes On, The

Roguelike games tend to all have that one thing in common; permadeath. Normally I find this frustrating, as you lose your progress each time you die, though the ones I do enjoy though do have some sort of progression that persists through death so that all of your hard work wasn’t for nothing. This leads me to my review of The Story Goes On, which is a game that will have you (and a friend should you choose) exploring randomly generated worlds, searching for the elusive boss key which allows you access to fighting that world’s leader.

At its core, The Story Goes On is a top down hack and slash title, but with roguelike qualities. There’s a scarecrow that loves talking in puns, and it’s a very light hearted affair that doesn’t take itself too seriously. You start off with access to only one character, Aiden, a kid who is equipped with a sword and hookshot that allows him to traverse quickly, much like a dash.

Levels are randomly generated, filling each section with enemies that you kill for loot, coins, and keys. If you’re lucky you’ll find special upgrades that increase your speed, damage, attack, and other abilities, making survival that much easier. You’ll also find a slew of items and loot, some of which need a key to open treasure boxes to obtain, of which you’ll find plenty of during your adventure.

Played in a top down view, you control your character like any other twin stick shooter. The left stick is used for movement and the right stick is used to aim. The triggers and bumpers are how you attack and use your items and abilities, so it comes as second nature pretty quickly. A friendly scarecrow will walk you through the basics during a tutorial of sorts, as you’ll begin incredibly slow and weak. As you start adventuring further, and gathering upgrades, you’ll become quite proficient in combat, becoming quite a hero in the process.

Much like a typical Zelda map, you move from room to room, with each one only unlocking after all of the monsters are killed. You'll be searching for a boss key, which unlocks their lair. The map in the upper right is very helpful, as it will show the room layouts and a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been, so you know where you may want to explore next. The more enemies you kill, the more potential coins and keys you can find, so it’s not always a good idea to make a mad dash for the boss if you haven't fully explored every room, as those upgrade are going to come in handy very shortly once you die.

While it’s not hard to find the boss keys or their doors, the fights themselves are quite entertaining. There’s a handful of bosses, which are randomized as well, so every time you get to the first boss after dying and restarting, it will most likely be a different boss than the previous run. This helps with the monotony, though they are never too terribly challenging. Most bosses are simple hack and slash fights, but there are a few that are a little more unique and interesting. I quite liked the snow boss that was essentially a 'cup and ball' game, having to keep an eye on the quick moving igloos and choosing which of the three you think he’s hiding under. Choose wrong and an enemy will attack, choose right and you get a few moments to attack him before repeating the game again, but much quicker.

Oh, I should mention that you will die, but not because of the difficulty, as it’s actually quite casual in that aspect, but it will be more due to simple mistakes, or even boredom to be honest. The bosses aren’t even all that challenging, as it’s just pattern recognition. After every boss you’ll fall into a black hole where the scarecrow greets you once again, offering you a handful of choices of items to buy, ranging from weapons, hearts, keys and even a random item that could benefit or hinder you. When you die, you start at the beginning again, though there are certain upgrades that stay with you and persist through death, making each subsequent run through slightly easier, and eventually you'll become quite powerful. This is the hook that kept me playing, even though I was dying now and then, at least all of my progress wasn’t completely wiped.

There’s a surprising amount of humor contained within the game as well. The scarecrow uses silly puns that would make dad jokes proud, and even some of the items and their descriptions got a chuckle out of me. The randomness can work for or against you as well. Some run throughs will become incredibly easy, based on the random loot and weapons you get, while other times you might not get anything that suits your playstyle, causing you to die much sooner. With over 50 different items, each run will feel different given the random placement of the levels themselves, bosses and loot.

The first few runs, even with the deaths I experienced, was entertaining, but eventually the monotony began to set in. After a few hours you’ll probably have had your fill, unless you’re hunting for achievements, or specifically enjoy the random aspect to everything. As for the visuals, the game has a storybook feel to it, but it’s quite basic, even if it is colorful. That being said, some of the stages are quite dark and it can be hard to see the room doors, so it’s hard to appreciate some of the work that’s gone into it. As for the audio, I really appreciated how the soundtrack sped up and became more exciting if there’s lots going on, adding to the experience.

What I found as I played, was that I ended up dying from simple mistakes, and not out of sheer difficulty, especially once my character was more powerful. The hardest part about The Story Goes On is battling the tediousness, and sometimes the randomness. While the randomness adds a little longevity to the title, it can also go against you at times too, so it goes both ways.

For being a roguelike game, I enjoyed how The Story Goes On kept certain aspects of your progress, not being too harsh with its penalties. The core gameplay is decent, though not terribly exciting. It has some interesting ideas but definitely won’t wow you out of the gate. That being said, for $8.00 you could do a lot worse with games that offer a lot less.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Bridge Constructor Portal

There’s no denying that Portal is going to stand the test of time and forever be on many top gaming lists well into the future. It’s got such a fan base behind it and has become synonymous with puzzle games. You could seemingly attach its premise to almost any other game and strike gold. Well, someone has already thought of this, mashing up Portal and Bridge Constructor, aptly titled Bridge Constructor Portal. I know for myself, if GLaDOS is included, count me in. Luckily that’s the case here!

Bridge Constructor on its own was an entertaining game, but once you attach a huge license with unique gameplay like Portal, it takes it to a whole new level. Not only must you create structurally sound bridges, platforms and ramps, but now you’re going to have to manage with propulsion gel, turrets, and of course, portals. Simple triangles and engineering won’t be enough to complete your objectives, so bring your thinking hat, because the puzzles here are going to take some serious thinking.

Once again, you find yourself in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, though this time instead of being one of the test subjects, you’re instead a manager of sorts, in charge of ensuring that your subjects get their forklifts to their destinations in each level, though doing so will take some craft bridge engineering skills to complete. You need to make sure your test subjects arrive safe, and to do so it will test all of your portal and bridge crafting abilities.

While the story itself is your standard GLaDOS affair about testing subjects, for science of course, the bridge making aspect does add a neat twist to it. Gameplay is on a 2D playing field, but don’t let that fool you, as each test chamber comes increasingly more difficult and challenging as you progress. While Bridge Constructor Portal may not be narrative heavy, it makes up for it in charm and challenge. It may only be sparse, but the fact that Ellen McLain is once again reprising her role as the iconic GLaDOS brings that extra authenticity, really making it feel like it truly belongs in the Portal universe.

What Bridge Constructor Portal does great is that it blends both games together, nearly seamlessly, forcing you to not only focus on your bridge and platform making abilities, but factoring physics from portals, placing companion cubes on switches, disabling turrets and more. Not only must you factor in all of this, but you also need to make sure your forklift vehicle, on its own set path, makes it out of each test chamber safely. Easier said than done.

Each test chamber has an entrance that your forklift will automatically drive forwards from, as if the gas pedal is stuck, and you’re simply tasked with making sure it gets to the exit tube to reach the next test chamber. Problem is there’s always a gap or some other obstacles in your way that makes that simple objective much more difficult. Your only tools at your disposal are planks (and supports) and support cables. You’re only able to attach to specific nodes, so that’s where the challenge comes in, as you’re restricted with specific points already laid out for you.

Planks can only reach a certain distance, though you can place as many as you wish without limit, so it’s not really a factor. Support cables seemingly don’t have the same restriction, but again, you’re only able to attach to certain nodes. Where the challenge comes in is with the bridge creation itself, as you can’t simply lay out a line of flat planks, as it needs support, like real bridges. This is where triangles become your best friend, as they are the strongest shape you can use to create the support needed to keep your bridge up.

When you’re placing your planks, you’re going to want to angle them and distance them exactly the way you think will work best, the problem is though that getting that perfect angle or length isn’t always as easy or fluid as it should be. You can zoom in, quite close actually, to make absolutely perfect placements, but this requires some getting used to when making fine adjustments. While you’re about to place a plank, it will show you if you’re able to attach to any other points within distance, which allows you to make decisions on how many joints you’ll need for what you’re trying to build.

I found on quite early that the bulk of your gameplay will be trial and error. You’ll have this grand idea for a platform or bridge, create it, only to find out it can’t handle its own weight and buckle, or some other oversight. You’ll see stress points on specific supports and joints if it’s about to break as it turns red, and the smallest change can make a huge difference in not only keeping your structure upright and together, but making sure your test subject makes it to the goal. Luckily there’s no limit to how many pieces you can place, so you can try and make something elaborate, though I found early on that the simpler, the better. Luckily there’s a helpful guide in the menus that will show you the best ways to create supports, and even suspended bridges should you require some tips and best practices.

So you’ve finally built your structure and your forklift has made it to the exit; awesome! Well, that’s only half the challenge, as you can move onto the next test chamber, or you could challenge yourself to send a convoy of vehicles to the exit in succession. Sometimes it’s only 3, other times up to 10 or so. But you’ve already built your bridges and figured out the solution, so what’s so difficult you ask? Well, many of your structures will probably work for about one vehicle, as its weight adds stress to the joints, as I’ve had many fall apart after one or two forklifts cross them. You also need to factor in that vehicles may be crisscrossing in air or on ramps, so some carnage can occur if not setup just right.

Levels start out very basic and quickly ramp up in difficulty, and I mean quicker than landing on some propulsion gel. You simply start getting from A to B, then working with portals, throwing in turrets that shoot on sight, companion cubes for switches and more. Anything you did in Portal will also be included here for the most part. Trial and error is luckily not too difficult to tweak your platforms, as you can make minor adjustments with the press of a button, or completely delete it all and start over from the drawing board if something simply isn’t working.

You’ll be challenged with 60 levels, of which I’m still working on trying to complete, as the difficulty randomly spikes quite harshly. You’ll need to navigate multiple portals pathways, and while it’s not frustrating as some other puzzle games, expect to spend quite a lot of time on a single level trying to figure out the perfect placements and angles for all your platforms. The main issue I found was that the majority of my ‘play’ was the platform creation, not so much the puzzle solving itself. I put more time into trying to perfect my planks and figuring out how to keep them stable, more than solving what I need to do for the test chamber itself.

I was kind of surprised that more materials don’t come into your disposal as you progress. Planks and cables is all you need, so it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make those work for what you’re trying to do so you can get from point A to point B in a very convoluted way. Whoever came up with the idea of mashing up the two games is genius, as it simply works. The bulk of the gameplay is still Bridge Constructor, but the whole Portal element and backdrop adds a whole new aspect to the gameplay.

Sure, having something with more narrative and GLaDOS would have been welcomed, but like most puzzle games, I accept it for what it is, and you’ll get what you want out of it if you’re a fan of the genre. It would have been easy to simply throw a Portal paintjob on top of the base game itself, but they’ve gone beyond, adding many of the core mechanics from Portal and implemented them in clever ways, especially since this is played in 2D. Bridge Constructor Portal feels as though it belongs in the actual Portal universe, and that’s no small feat, even with its high difficulty. Now if you’ll excuse me, I was promised cake.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition

If you’ve read any my previous reviews, you’ll know that I’m an avid fan of shmups (shoot em ups). These are the games with a ship of somesort that flies, usually vertically, avoiding a barrage of bullets on-screen while collecting power-ups. There are some classics in the genre that others are inevitably compared against, such amazing games like Raiden, Gradius, and my personal favorite of all time, Ikargua. There’s no shortage of games in the genre, so to stand out you need to do something special if you want to get noticed. So, the question remains, does the one-man developed Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition have that distinct mechanic or design to become noticed? Well, there are some color matching that takes place, making it somewhat unique.

Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition (simply referred to as Overdriven in this review) starts out completely normal, with you choosing one of two ships, unaware of what the differences are. Well, it turns out that one ship’s fire pattern is a spread shot while the other is much more narrow and focused. So, you will want to take that into account when deciding which ship will better suit your playstyle. The stages slowly scroll upwards as you navigate the enemies, traps, and of course bullets. Much like nearly every other shmup, there are collectibles for you to gather (gold stars) to earn points and power-ups to grab to make your weapons stronger and faster.

You have a dedicated button to change your lasers to different colors, such as red, blue, green or yellow, which is the unique and interesting mechanic of Overdriven. While there’s no difference on what color your weapons are when shooting them, you’ll occasionally come across colored orbs blocking your path. Some are permanently a specific color, while others can be changed with your colored fire. The trick is to notice which one is the permanent orb and then match the attach orbs to that same color, as they will only disappear when three of the same color are touching.

Most of the time these simply block off (Editors Note: See what we did there?) a secret artifact to pick up, but sometimes it will also open an easier path as it allows you to avoid the bullets coming at you. It’s an interesting idea, one that took me by surprise, but there’s only a few sections in the whole game that this mechanic is relevant, plus trying to do so when the screen is full of enemies and bullets is quite a challenge.

Aside from this interesting color mechanic, everything else in Overdriven plays like your standard shmup for the most part. The Left Stick controls your ship and the ‘A’ button is used for your regular shots, though using the ‘X’ button allows your ship to go into 'Overdrive'. What this does is replace your regular shots with an incredibly focused and condensed laser that does much more damage, but the catch here is that you move incredibly slowly. Your health is also reduced to 20%, so it’s a risk vs. reward move, as it makes you incredibly vulnerable when being used. Stop using 'Overdrive' and your health will regenerate. Finally, the ‘B’ button will let you use your bombs, clearing the screen of all bullets and doing massive damage.

While I really like the classic 1-hit death in shmups, as it promotes perfection and skill, it was refreshing to have something different in Overdriven. Instead of the standard one bullet kill, you have a health bar, so it’s a little more forgiving. There are also health packs that can be collected from destroying specific enemies, refilling your health gauge, as well as collecting extra lives, so while it may seem much easier because of this, don’t let that fool you, you’ll still die plenty of times.

When you do die, you’ll respawn with only your basic weapons and without all the power ups, so you need to really be careful when you die. Don't worry though, power ups aren’t usually uncommon and you’ll have decent firepower after a short while. Should you lose all your lives, you’ll be given the option to restart the stage again, though you can choose to select any unlocked level as well, which is great as you don't have to start all the way back form level one.

What took me by surprise was the multiplayer offering. Two players isn’t uncommon for shmups, but four players is., but surprisingly Overdriven allows up to 4-players to play together locally (yes, sadly no online multiplayer support), turning the chaos up to 11. I’m unable to tell if there are more enemies with more players, but even with two players the general chaos on the screen was doubled. There’s already a lot of visual stimulation playing alone, so adding more friends only ups the commotion on the screen at once.

Once you’ve bested the final boss and completed the story mode, there’s plenty of more mode offerings for you to check out, not including the multiple difficulty levels. Arcade mode is simply the Story Mode but with the ability to continue when you lose all your lives, and Manic Mode is the same as the Story Mode, but much more difficult. There’s a handful of challenges awaiting you as well, each tied to a specific achievement, like killing a certain boss under a specific time, beating a level under 6 minutes, or not getting hit. There’s only a handful of them but they are fun challenges for a distraction.

Although I was disappointed with the number of times you get to use the color mechanics, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a ton of mini-levels that focus solely on this mechanic in Color Reflex mode. Here there’s no enemies, just lots of colored orbs blocking your path to the exit, so you need to constantly swap colors and clear a path for your ship to get through. The beginning levels start easy, but eventually it does become more challenging. The mode I really enjoyed though was The Line. Here you have to stop never ending enemies from reaching, well, a line at the bottom of the screen. Chaos ensues when you have dozens of enemies on screen, each shooting multiple bullets, while also keeping an eye on how close each enemy is getting to the line.

The visuals are very basic and there’s only a handful of enemies you’ll face, though it’s hard to look at much when you’re constantly avoiding bullets while your screen scrolls upwards, and there are stars, that clutter the screen, that are there for you to gather. The overall level design is pretty bland and basic but it does the job for a schmup. Finally, the audio is decent and fits the mood of the gameplay and genre, though nothing really stands out.

Leaderboards for most modes is a welcome addition, especially for those that want to claim bragging rights. Normally for a game like this with a price tag of over $10 (currently $10.29 CAD) it would be a hard sell, but, I love the genre, and even though I’ve finished what I want with this game, there’s a lot of content within for those that want to get more value out of it. Multiple difficulties, lots of extra modes, 4-player local co-op, and, one of the better points, it’s also an Xbox Play Anywhere title, so the value for the price is certainly here. It’s just a shame that the main color changing mechanic didn’t have a bigger spotlight, as it could have made Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition stand out more in a crowded genre.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Guilt Battle Arena

There will always be a market for local co-op games, as there’s nothing quite like having a group of friends over and playing a game together, usually complete with taunting and swearing amongst your buddies. Developer Invincible Cat, a one man crew, has come up with what they believe to be the next indie party game hit that you’ll want to gather your friend over for, titled Guilt Battle Arena. There’s no shortage of indie games, nor party titles, so the question remains that if this one is worth the price of admission and what the longevity is.

With a cute and quirky ensemble of characters that resemble something straight out of Castle Crashers, you’ll be able to play amongst family and friends in some frantic local couch multiplayer, cooperatively and competitively. While I don’t do the whole having friends over to play couch co-op anymore for the most part, when the rare occasion does occur, we have the typical go-to titles, so does Guilt Battle Arena have enough to earn a spot into my coveted party game rotation? Well, kind of, for about 15 minutes anyways.

While there’s no real story per-se, there’s something about your characters being a part of the GUILT patrol, tasked with battling against Dreadful Judge’s evil henchmen. That’s really about it, as narrative isn’t a focus here at all, as it’s simply a drop in and play multiplayer game for the most part. Guilt Battle Arena’s sole focus is as a multiplayer party game, and it doesn’t attempt to do anything more. There’s actually no real campaign at all, though I guess you could call the cooperative mode its campaign, but it only consists of a handful of levels that will take about 10 minutes to run through once. So if you’re looking for something with a lot of substance, start looking elsewhere.

Played in 2D, there are two main mechanics that you’ll have to get the hang of to become successful and earn up to three stars on each stage. First, you’re constantly in motion the direction you are facing, and while you can move back and forth from left to right freely, there’s no real stopping in the small playfield, so this will take some getting used to. Secondly, you have one bullet for your gun, which you’ll need to pick up and gather each time you want to fire it. This odd design decision actually adds an odd level of strategy, making you think quickly on what needs to be fired at first before retrieving your bullet and shooting again, weighing when it's safe to do so.

These premises are very simple, almost to a fault, but they work. While I don’t necessarily enjoy the constant motion and movement, you become accustomed to it quite quickly. There will be enemies that approach from both sides, on the ground and in the air, so you’ve got to constantly be moving to not only avoid getting hit and losing one of your three lives, but to pick up your bullet once shot as well. You’re able to dash by double tapping the stick in the direction you want, and you can also quickly dive down, though you cannot butt stomp enemies like a certain mustached plumber. Actually, it took some time to figure out, but you don’t actually take damage from enemies unless you are hit by their weapons, not their bodies, so this is another layer of strategy on determining what to attack first once you realize the hitboxes.

The foundation and controls are simple, yet it’s not clear how you earn 3 stars on certain levels. I’ve lasted a long time during a few of the stages, only to be granted a 2 star rating, so I’m not sure if there are certain other conditions that need to be met to earn those elusive third stars or not. The more you play though, the more characters you’ll unlock in addition to the initial 10 selectable. These are simply skins and don’t have any advantage or one another, but there’s something cute about a cat cop that made me smile. With over 30 characters to unlock, there’s at least something to works towards, though you just aren’t explicitly told how to do so, but I’d assume star accumulation.

You’ve essentially got two different mode choices; 1-2 player co-op or 2-4 player versus. That’s it. Cooperative has no friendly fire, seeing how many enemies you and a friend can defeat before someone loses their three lives. That’s right, if one person loses all of their hearts, then its game over for both players, so the better player can’t really carry the other person. This made it really difficult to play with my 5 year old daughter, as she was drawn to the game for its bright and colorful visuals, but we constantly had a game over after about 30 seconds every time. I do wish there was some way to bring back a friend, but alas, expect many quick game overs if you’re playing with a less skilled person alongside.

Versus mode is where things really get frantic, especially if you have 4 players all fighting against one another. You’re able to choose the different stages, each of which has a special modifier on it, like missiles coming at you, chickens to avoid, cannonballs and more. There are also some other toggles you can enable should you desire, like more bullets, jetpacks, invisibility and more. While these add some unpredictability and variety, they aren’t anything really special and might give you a few more matches of entertainment before you move on.

I initially thought Guilt Battle Arena was made by the Castle Crasher developers, as the art style is eerily similar, though I guess as the saying goes, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". It's very cute and colorful, which is probably why my daughter gravitated towards it and wanted to join in playing as soon as she saw it. The audio is very fitting, with cute sound effects to match the cartoonish style for every gunshot and attack.

While Guilt Battle Arena makes for a fun distraction, there’s simply not enough content included to justify its staying power, rotating into party game night, mostly due to its price. If it was priced at about $5 then it would be a different story, as I’d have no problem dropping that for a quirky party game now and then, but it’s listed at $13. Sadly, the price tag is too high for what’s offered.

That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s very simple and you’ll mostly likely had all of your enjoyment out of it in the first hour or two. If I wasn’t reviewing it, I would have uninstalled it long before I did, as it really felt like a ‘play once’ type of game, and when that content only lasts you an hour or two, you can see where the issue about its pricing comes in. Guilt Battle Arena has a neat premise but there’s simply no longevity to its gameplay.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Xenon Valkyrie+

Normally I’m not into rogue-lite games, you know the genre, the ones where permadeath is a real thing and the difficulty is usually astronomical. With that being said, there are a few that reward you just enough to tease you into continue playing, even after your thousandth death. While I enjoy playing the newest games with their current-gen graphic fidelity, there’s always a warm spot in my heart for retro inspired games, as that's what I grew up with, much like Xenon Valkyrie+.

Originally a VITA game, console owners now get a chance to see if the wait has been worth it to wet their rogue-lite appetite. One of the big questions I had, and think a lot of people may also have, is how a game that was on Sony's portable gaming maching would transer over to the bigger consoles and on a TV.

Your home planet comes under attack from a mysterious moon that has an evil witch buried deep inside of it, so naturally you and your team take it upon themselves to save the world from imminent doom. It’s nothing terribly exciting or involved, though these types of games you generally don’t play for the story anyways.

Rogue-lite games usually frustrate me. They are generally very difficult, by design, but require you to retry numerous times to learn allowing you to hopefully get further on each attempt. This premise sets you up for failure and asks you to stick through it, as usually you need to begin at the very start without any progress saved, and that’s no different for Xenon Valkyrie+. I can appreciate that there’s an audience for these types of games, and the great ones have some sort of progression that persists through death to keep you strung along, constantly working towards a bigger goal, even if you have to constantly restart from the beginning. While Xenon Valkyrie+ does somewhat have this in place, it’s wasn’t enough, or substantial enough, to keep my interest in the long term.

You begin by choosing one of three characters, each with their own look and special ability. Unfortunately, these abilities aren’t taught to you, nor are the general controls, so you’ll be left to figure them out on your own. It wasn’t until an hour or two in that I actually figured out I had a gun, which would have been helpful to know from the beginning. Each character has a sword, gun, grenades and an ability, and each character has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Renna’s special ability is a radar that will ping special points and enemies on the mini map. Eloen has a bomb she can plant every so often and Nue has a super jump, allowing him to get into much higher areas. Each character has a different attack, a different defense and different vitality stats, so it’s a matter of choosing whom suits your playstyle best.

Every time you begin your journey, usually after a death, you'll discover that the levels are procedurally created, so the map changes each time you play, placing the goal and enemies in various locations. You’ll always begin at the top of a level, trying to make your way downwards to the randomly placed teleporter to move onto the next stage. You have the ability to wall jump too, allowing you to traverse back up if you find yourself at a dead end. Killing enemies will earn you experience points that helps to level you up and grant talent points. Destroying caches nets you gold to spend too. Killing every enemy you see takes time, but the talent points earned will make the rest of your run that much easier.

In between stages if you manage to make it to the teleporter, you’ll be whisked away to a little area where you can spend your hard earned talent points and gold. With your points you can increase stats like health, damage or defense. With your gold you can purchase upgrades, ammo refills and more. Just be prepared to lose it all when you inevitably die, because it will happen over and over. Everything you earn gets wiped when you die and you start all over in a completely randomized level layout with none of the upgrades you've purchased.

While you’ll generally progress slightly further and further each time, especially as you become more comfortable with the game and its mechanics, there’s not enough that persists through death to keep it exciting and enticing you to continue playing. If you manage to defeat any of the bosses, who feel overpowered, and somewhat unfair given that for some reason it disables your gun use, you’ll earn a random amount of Teamerite currency. This is a special currency that persists through death and can be used to unlock super weapons and other goodies. I don’t want to spoil these, should you actually make it this far, but even after unlocking a weapon it was underwhelming and not enough to keep my interest for many more subsequent runs.

There’s a few other issues too that, with a few tweaks, could make this a much more enjoyable game. If you manage to defeat one of the larger enemies in a level you’ll be granted a key (or choose the character that always starts with one) which can be used for unlocking a super powerful weapon, or a minor upgrade. This is where randomness comes in, as there’s times where I’ve been given a weapon that does massive damage and kills anything in one hit, while other times it actually feels like more of a downgrade. You should always feel as though you’re becoming more powerful, and when permadeath is a constant, being given a weapon that is worse then what you're currently wielding is like kicking you while you’re down.

It took me quite some time to figure out that I could use the Right Stick to slightly move the camera in different directions, which came in very handy since you have to constantly drop down from ledges, unable to see if there are any traps or enemies below you. The amount of times I lost health and died, because of this exact problem, is way too often. Again, this is where the randomness rears its ugly head.

If you enjoy brutally hard rogue-lite games, then Xenon Valkyrie+ will surely have something for you, as the same goes for those gamers who are speedrunners, since there’s a timer always on the screen, teasing you with how short you lived on each run. More often than not, I felt like I died due to unfair randomness rather than my skill and abilities, and I kept wishing that some of my progress persisted through death, but alas, I was stuck restarting often, becoming increasingly frustrated each time. in the end, this game is somewhat good in short bursts as Xenon Valkyrie+ scratches an itch, but it lacks long term appeal due to its randomized difficulty.

Overall Score: 5.8 / 10 SWORD ART ONLINE: FATAL BULLET

I’ve never been that much into anime in general, but there are a few that I really enjoy, and Sword Art Online (SAO) is one of those special few. I am also a massive fan of MMO’s, so naturally I gravitated towards an anime that revolved around one as well. I fell in love with the main characters, especially protagonists Kirito and Asuna, so I’ve been craving to have more adventures in the SAO universe, yet I have passed on playing the previous games based on this world. But not any more.

Revolving around the second season of the anime, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet takes place in the VR MMO world of Gun Gale Online. For those not familiar with the anime, Fatal Bullet’s backdrop takes place in an online MMO that users play in VR for hyper realistic experiences, though some mysterious deaths started taking place in online world of Gun Gale, and out, which the show’s protagonists investigate. What’s very interesting, and caught me by surprise, is that I fully expected to be playing as the main cast from the show, but it’s actually quite the opposite.

While you’ll have plenty of interaction and cameos from your favorite show characters, you actually play as a completely new character that you create and customize. So, instead of playing as the immensely powerful Kirito, you’re a newcomer to the online world of Gun Gale, which is a slick way to introduce you into the world and the gameplay mechanics. Your best childhood friend is the one that introduced you to Gun Gale Online, and VR MMO’s, which serves as the clever tutorial. Shortly after you start you become separated from your friend by chance, only to stumble upon one of the rarest items in the game that even the best players haven’t found yet.

While you might assume the item in question is a super rare and powerful gun, given that the world is based in a 3rd person shooter, you actually come into possession of an extremely rare and powerful AI that everyone wants. It is an ArFA-sys that you can customize how you wish, one that people will try to steal for themselves throughout your journey. Your luck at finding such a prize so early in your Gun Gale Online career catches the attention of Kirito and gang, which is how you’re introduced to the Sword Art Online characters.

What I really enjoyed about the story is that it wasn’t the stereotypical trope of the world ending, with you as the only savior that can do something about it. Even more so, I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it as much as I did since I didn’t get to actually play as my favorite characters from the show, but you do get to recruit them into your party and fight alongside them, so it’s an acceptable trade off. There are twists and turns to be found during your adventure that keep you interested, and I was very impressed that they didn’t simply rehash the season and that they created something unique that fits in naturally into the universe.

You begin your adventure by first creating your character, and while it’s not the most in-depth character creator I’ve ever seen, there’s enough choices for height, face, legs and more to fine-tune your male or female look and make them look like they belong in the Sword Art Online universe. You are then thrown into the world in a clever tutorial that has your best friend showing the ropes of how to interact and play in the online world of Gun Gale and the basic combat mechanics.

You primarily explore and run though indoor dungeons, though there are few larger outer world areas that you will traverse to get from place to place and unlock fast travel waypoints. Oddly, the majority of your gameplay will be indoors in cramped bland looking virtual dungeons filled with enemies. These areas are essentially connected rooms and corridors that do allow for a bit of exploration as you make your way to the eventual boss room, which you must defeat to continue on. Aside from the standard enemies you face, these areas feel very desolate and bland, which is kind of a shame, as it’s not like the online world of Gun Gale from the show at all, as you simply clear room after room. That being said, the boss fights are frantic and fun, forcing you to create a well-rounded group of different abilities.

I fully expected this game to feel like a standard 3rd person shooter, but it has a few tweaks to it that I really enjoy and that sets it apart from others. One of the more prevalent things you’ll most likely notice is that there’s absolutely no aim assist when looking down your weapon's sights. This makes it very difficult to shoot at exactly what you’re trying to, especially given that enemies have weak spots that can be exploited for massive damage. Instead, there’s an aiming assist when firing from the hip if you enable it. This allows for much more run-and-gun gameplay, and even though you won’t aim for the weak spots, it’s more than enough to help you get by most enemies. In the beginning I naturally tried to always aim down the sights, but as I played more, the hip fire aim assist became very handy and I found that I rarely tried and manually aim. It takes some getting used to, but I really enjoy it now that I’ve learned its mechanics and limitations.

You begin with some dodge and roll abilities, allowing you to escape fire quickly, but as you progress, and level up, there are a handful of other abilities you can purchase to help you settle into a specific type of roll, even a support one with healing bullets should you wish. While the classes could be more fleshed out and varied, it’s intriguing given the possibilities that you can combine, making for some unique classes and playstyles. You’re also given a grapple hook of sorts in the beginning, which is necessary to scale certain ledges and pull down aerial enemies.

Given that Fatal Bullet takes place in the online online world of Gun Gale, you can fully expect to have access to a slew of different weapons to support whatever play style you want, such as sniper rifles, SMGs, assault rifles, LMG’s, and more. You’ll earn tons of weapons and armor throughout your journey, with big upgrades coming every so often. You’re also able to improve items if you can gather enough of the proper materials, so there’s a hefty RPG system in place that I didn’t expect to be as robust as it really is. The customization is a welcome addition as I was always on the search for rare or better gear, then wanting to improve it, watching my damage and abilities improve. Interestingly, weapons have stat requirements, so the best weapons will require you to dump your skill points into such as strength, dexterity, etc.

Even though Fatal Bullet takes place in a fake MMO, there is an actual online component to play with other players, cooperatively or competitively. While the modes themselves don’t have a lot of depth, as you’re mostly just fighting a boss with, or against, other players, the fact that it’s included for some extra gameplay, to tackle with friends once you’re done, the campaign is a plus.

I absolutely love the source material, so while I love being able to hang out with my favorite characters, I was surprised how much I enjoyed actually playing my own character alongside them. I honestly expected a pretty bland shooter, yet I was surprised with the depth, length, and progression of the game. While fans will get the most out of it, it doesn’t alienate newcomers to the universe either. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of action packed within, from start to finish, and I think you will too.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Kerbal Space Program Enhanced Edition

I remember first watching someone play Kerbal Space Program (KSP) on PC back when it was released, being intrigued by the sheer freedom given to the player to create essentially any type of spaceship they wanted, complete with cute little green men. The PC version had quite a following after its release, leaving console players wishing they could experience the same spaceship building antics. While it did release on console 2 years ago, it was a buggy and unoptimized mess. Here we are once again, but this time with the Enhanced Edition, promising some much needed improvements for console players hoping to have an improved PC-like experience.

It seems this Enhanced Edition has been remade from the ground up to utilize the consoles much better, addressing the numerous issues from the first release, yet it’s still far from perfect. While it is an improvement over the initial version, it’s still galaxies away from the PC version in terms of controls and ease of use. With a sudden interest in space travel again thanks to SpaceX, Kerbal Space Program: Enhanced Edition might just scratch that itch, as long as you’re willing to put in a substantial amount of time to learn its metric ton of features and controls.

While there’s no real storyline per-se, you are in control of the grand Kerbal Space Program, hence the title. Kerbals are little green aliens that are determined to create all sorts of spaceships, allowing them to explore the galaxy and perform science experiments. While you won’t need a degree in astrophysics and rocket science, there’s so much packed here that I’m sure that if you did understand every nuance, you’d also be impressed. Your Kerbal Space Center is your headquarters, based on the planet Kerbin, naturally, and you’ll be creating spaceships, rovers and nearly anything else your mind can come up with. If it flies or not is a whole other story, and if you want it to land again afterwards, you better be prepared to sink in some serious hours to learn all of the minute intricacies with mass experimentation.

The core game is unchanged, allowing you to focus on whatever aspect you desire, though I found the ship building, and launching (though usually after many failed attempts), the most entertaining. When you create a multi stage rocket with numerous fuel tanks, engines, wings and other highly technological parts, you’ll feel like an absolute genius that should be working for NASA, though, that is until you try launching and have it either explode or crash moments from liftoff, bringing your ego back down to earth. Once you do start to figure things out, slog through the unfriendly tutorial and eventually make it into outer space, it’s quite a thrill to see your adjustments finally succeed.

Tutorials are generally included to teach you the core mechanics of the game, easing you into the experience and make the learning curve much smoother. While KSP does have a quite lengthy tutorial, and it’s absolutely vital if you want to learn how to even maneuver the camera properly, the learning curve is absolutely insane. Even with the improvements included in this Enhanced Edition, the ease of use for newcomers to the game is so difficult and unintuitive that it’s actually a deterrent.

While I’m not a fan of difficult games usually, certain ones like Dark Souls for example is difficult by design, forcing you to learn from your mistakes and punish you for them, encouraging you to play more and learn. The same can’t be said with KSP, as it’s difficult, though not by design and simply due to a terribly poor job of teaching you how to play properly. There’s a ton of tutorials to go through that will take you step by step of learning the basics, and eventually the more advanced mechanics as well, but when I got stuck on the very first tutorial, that says a lot about its design.

Tutorials are done via pop-ups that need to be read and understood, explaining how to maneuver the camera, go to the menu of items, sub-menus, radial menus and more. Once you complete the step it asks you to perform you need to press RB+A to get back to the tutorial screen and then confirm. If you’ve done the step correctly it will move onto the next dialogue to explain what to do, but if you’ve not, the menu will sit there, leaving you confused as to why you can’t progress in the tutorial. Yes, you become confused and can get stuck on a step in a tutorial. I literally had to quit of the first tutorial numerous times because my cursor become stuck, as I wasn’t sure of the button combination to cancel out of what I was currently doing, or get rid of a misplaced piece. Get used to random and very awkward button presses and combinations, as there’s a handful of them that you’ll need to know to become a KSP master.

I’m totally on board when it comes to difficulty, forcing you to experiment and fail, but that shouldn’t apply to the tutorial and base controls. Even hours in I was struggling with the controls, having to purposely think of what I was trying to do and then remembering how exactly to accomplish going so. The PC version wasn’t as painful for its controls, as you have a keyboard and mouse, but the controller mapping is so incredibly unintuitive and unfriendly that it was making me not want to play as much as I should have. If I wasn’t reviewing KSP, I probably would have given up a long time ago due to this constant unwinnable battle.

If you manage to grasp the controls, the numerous tutorials will start you off with the basics, like creating a very simple rocket, all the way to learning how to make multi-staged boosters, how to land on the Mun (Kerbin’s moon) and even orbiting the solar system for science experiments. Many of these tutorials also assume you just understand why you need to change the fuel levels in certain fuel cells, or why certain wings are better for aerodynamics, and while it does try and explain them briefly, it again doesn’t do a good job of teaching and guiding you. Many times I simply followed the tutorial instructions, unsure why exactly without understanding.

While spaceship building was the feature I enjoyed the most, there’s a ton of other things you can focus on too should you wish, such as taking control of your whole staff, learning complex creations, landing on the Mun, research science experiments, using an orbit to slingshot deeper into space and more. There’s a large navigation ball, or NavBall, on the screen that will help you navigate space in 3D, directing you to your targets as you focus on other aspects of space travel.

In addition to the lengthy tutorials, there are different modes that can be played based on your preference. Sandbox mode was my favorite, as it simply puts you in the game with every item and technology unlocked, allowing you to create whatever you desire without having to worry about a budget. This mode was great for simply experimenting with each type of part, what they do and how they affect your ship. With unlimited funds, you can simply try and test anything you can think of in this mode, as I found it a great place to learn what worked for me and what didn’t. Scenarios are also available, essentially mini missions that task you with a very specific objective, such as landing on the Mun or orbiting a specific planet.

Science mode is almost like a career-lite mode, as you’re simply tasked with conducting specific experiments without having to worry about any money restrictions or other distractions. Doing this research will earn you points to spend into a development tree, thus unlocking new features. It’s a good segway mode before diving head first into the deep end of Career Mode.

Career mode is the all-encompassing mode for KSP, requiring you to run all aspects like building, upgrades, funding, staffing and more. You’ll need to take on missions and experiments to earn points that allow you to boost your headquarters, allowing for more features to be unlocked. I was quickly lost in Career mode, overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work you need to do and keep on top of. You’re going to have to sink a ton of hours into KSP to even attempt to perform well in career mode, but the option is there for those that enjoy that aspect and want a challenge.

I really do appreciate what KSP does and offers, as there’s no other experience like it. If you’re patient enough, can deal with the unintuitive and non-friendly controls, have a ton of time and patience, then there’s a ton of value here for you. There’s a ton of problems with this poor PC port, yet there’s still a certain charm to it. I’m not sure if it’s the dumb lemming-like grins on the Kerbal’s faces when I’m spinning them in space at crazy G-forces I can’t even fathom, or seeing their screams as I know I’m about to crash my poorly designed ship, but either way, I keep coming back to try a crafting a different type of ship and experiment with other parts. Sure the walls of text aren’t the best tutorial, isn’t user friendly, and the controls will take days to get the hang of, but there’s no denying the level of simulation KSP can achieve, I just wish this Enhanced Edition was even more enhanced and much more user and controller friendly.

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament

Being a Westerner, I’ve never heard of the Xuan Yuan Sword series before, though not to the fault of the developer, as they’ve never released them over here before. Finding out that there’s been over a dozen games in the series already, much like the Final Fantasy series, I was actually quite shocked. It seems the series even bleeds into other media as well, so the name has some weight behind it overseas. Softstar Entertainment Inc has decided that the time is right to bring the series over to this side of the waters, but given its heavily Chinese influence, it’s a risky move. While I’ve got a laundry list of issues with Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament, it’s an odd JRPG, and I keep finding myself going back to it regardless of the concerns I have.

A great RPG’s backbone is usually its story, and I wasn’t sure what to initially expect from The Gate of Firmament, but as I put the hours in, I found myself interested throughout. Like most RPG’s, the main narrative starts off incredibly slow, and small in scope, but as you progress and unearth more events, the scale and urgency of your journey will become more and more important. You begin as a normal village boy that’s simply trying to protect his home village, but like most RPG’s, you fall into some extreme circumstances which will have you turn into a hero by the time the credits roll.

The Gate of Firmament is more than just a subtitle, as it’s the actual gateway between our mortal world and something else. In ancient times, the divine Jade Emperor opened the gates of heaven, allowing mortals into his world to gain power, but only if they agreed to help find his missing daughter. Of course, someone took advantage of this, causing evil to invade the land of mortals.

The story is actually quiet decent, as long as you have the patience to read along if you’re not proficient in native mandarin. There is no English dubbing, just captioning. You start off as Sikong, a quiet young man from a small remote village, eventually recruiting others along your journey, all with their own backstory that you’ll explore along the way. I enjoyed the overall narrative, and the relationships between each character, but you’ll need to enjoy a very traditional Chinese setting to really appreciate it.

As you explore the world, you’ll be in certain areas rather than one massive seamless world. It’s a little jarring at first, but reach one of the end areas of any specific level and you can then fast travel to any of the areas you’ve previously uncovered. Each new area will give you a marker that you'll attempt to reach, which will most likely trigger a cutscene to watch. Get used to this, as there are a lot of cutscenes throughout the game, many more than I was expecting. The main storyline scenes will play out like a movie, whereas the minor scenes are rendered in game.

As you explore each area the map will be greyed out until you traverse down each path, revealing any branching routes or hidden treasure chests. Enemies wonder the areas as well, and you can choose to avoid or engage in combat, though I suggest battling as much as possible early on to gain some very important levels and skill points. As you run around, and if you are quick enough, you can actually preemptively attack monsters to gain an advantage in battle. Depending on which character you are actively controlling, you’ll get a different bonus for the battle, such as enemies starting with lower health, bonus treasure, or beginning with them stunned for a short time.

Combat is in real time and uses a global cool-down for ability usage. When you use an ability you’ll need to wait a short period of time before using another. You have two varying attacks that don’t take any mana, eventually allowing you to create different combos with different effects as you level up and unlock them. For example, spamming ‘A’ is your basic attack, but ‘A’->‘B’ will do a different combo, usually with some sort of bonus damage or effect. As you spend skill points that you earn by leveling up, you can also train in magical abilities, that do either damage, heal, or buff your team. These abilities can be used at any time when the cooldown timer has reset as well, so you need to pick carefully what ability, melee, or item you want to use, including healing or mana items.

Once you have your full team of 4 characters, you can swap to any one of them freely in battle with the d-pad, allowing you to take control of their attacks and abilities individually should you wish. Eventually you’ll unlock formations, somewhat like the Paragon system from Final Fantasy XIII. These stances will give your team extra damage or resists, and can be customized who will get what applicable bonuses per stance. It’s not terribly in depth, but it’s more than I was expecting, and once you learn to start relying on the elemental bonuses, it can change the battle outcome in your favor quickly. The majority of the game you’ll breeze through for combat, but bosses can be brutally difficult if you’ve not leveled up appropriately and have a ton of healing items.

A problem you’ll start to notice once you have a full team is that the AI is absolutely terrible. When in control of one of the characters, the AI will automatically use the other characters, but it does so terribly. There’s almost no logic in what abilities they decide to use, as they will cast a spell over and over, or use potions when not needed, draining your supply. They will even buff you and the rest of the team when battles are about done, and make other poor decisions that make absolutely no sense. The lack of monster variety doesn’t help matters either, as you’ll see the same variation of animals and weird faced baskets throughout your journey as you go from area to area.

There’s a lot of other mechanics included that surprised me, each of which are unique and blend well together with one another. Crafting, for example, works quite well once you figure out how to do it. Say you loot a steel staff, it would have regular stats for damage, but if you craft a steel staff instead, the damage output and other stats would be vastly greater than the one you found, or even bought. To craft you’ll need to hunt enemies for materials and search for treasure chests, but you’ll also need to purchase recipes at the merchants to learn how to craft the different items.

Speaking of chests, some are your standard click and open, but there are also higher level chests that require a quick puzzle for you to solve in order to open it. Oddly enough, the puzzles revolve around words and spelling the word with a missing letter. So you’ll be shown a word with a missing letter, like _UGGAGE for example, then given a row of 4 different letters, and you need to choose the right letter across 4 different words to successfully open the chest. It’s an odd mini-game that isn’t challenging, especially when you have words like LOCK or BUG for example, and completely unnecessary if English is your native language.

Interestingly, there’s a system in place once reach it you get an adorable pet boar that can be used to capture enemies in battle, which can then be used for a multitude of purposes. He carries a small urn on his back that, when the Right Stick is pressed, can attempt to capture a monster, much like throwing a pokeball. The captured monsters can be infused with one another to create stronger versions that you can you bring out in battle, or you can also use them to infuse weapons and equipment to level them up and make them stronger. It’s a very odd system at first, and one that isn’t explained very well, but once you learn its intricacies it becomes one of the more addictive parts of The Gates of Firmament.

The game's soundtrack is very lucid and beautiful, matching the scenery and setting, and even though I can’t speak Mandarin, the voice acting itself seems to be decent, at least if the emotions conveyed match the subtitles. That being said, the subtitles have clearly been done either in a rush or by an amateur, and they do not seem to have been proof-read, as the translation to English isn’t always accurate or how it would be natively spoken.

While I can forgive the fault of poor subtitles, the visuals are a whole other story. Plainly put, I was constantly reminded that The Gate of Firmament looked as if it belonged on the PS2 or original Xbox. Visually, you’re going to be blown away, specifically with how dated and ugly it is at times, which is a shame, as some of the backdrops of the areas are gorgeous, and the story encourages you to keep playing. It’s ugly to look at, simply put, and that’s before even factoring in the mass amount of texture glitches that stretch across the screen and the terrible object pop-in in the backgrounds. These distractions really take away from the experience, and even if you are able to ignore them for the most part, they last throughout and become very disrupting.

Even with the myriad of bugs there’s an odd and endearing quality that Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament possesses. Sure, the $25 asking price seems a bit high when you judge it on its looks alone, but there’s a surprising amount of gameplay held within, as long as you can stomach the lackluster visuals, poor translation and bugs. If you’ve been craving a new JRPG game to enjoy, there’s enough ‘meat on the bone’ here to keep you interested, even if there are better choices available. With some more QA time, and a better translation, this might have been a completely different, and even more enjoyable, experience. All the typical checkboxes have been marked to make for a decent experience, and there are a few mechanics included that I really enjoyed, but like a good B-movie, I enjoyed it for unintended reasons instead.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Monster Hunter: World

I’ve tried numerous times to get into the Monster Hunter games, but I have seemingly failed each time due to their lack of feeling accessible and friendly to new players. I always go in hoping that I’ll finally catch onto the allure, as it’s a very popular franchise, but it seemingly loses me quite quickly with every single iteration I try. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve gotten intrigued about Monster Hunter, so when Monster Hunter: World was revealed, my excitement began to peak again, hoping this would be the one to finally pull me in. It seems as if Capcom knew they needed to do something to bring in new players into the franchise, and in doing so, not have they only made an absolutely stunning experience, but it gained myself as a new fan, all without alienating the longtime players.

Welcome to Monster Hunter: World, where you play the role of a hunter, tasked with taking on veracious beasts within living and breathing lands full of flora, wildlife and danger. You can hunt on your own, or alongside three friends, and if you’re worried that Capcom has strayed from the tried and true Monster Hunter formula, fret not, as you’ll be hunting monsters to collect items to craft new gear to try and take on even more fearsome enemies.

You are a hunter, a Fifth Fleet member, who barely survives an attack from a massive beast, Zorah Magdaros, and you are landing in the town of Astera. This new town will be your main hub where you meet new characters as you hunt your way to find the path of destruction Zorah has left behind. The main narrative is interesting and conveys a much broader scope of the gameplay you’ll become accustomed to, which I really enjoyed. My only complaint about the campaign is that your character is the overused silent protagonist, simply nodding or being interrupted instead of being a voiced character.

Every monster you battle, no matter the size, feels like an epic boss fight, and while that first monster may have given you problems in the beginning, it pales in comparison to what you’ll need to defeat later ones as you progress. Each new area feels unique, not only because of its area (visuals and environment), but because of its inhabitants that you’ll be hunting as well. I was impressed with how the difficulty curve has been fixed, as I found the previous entries to be very challenging right off the get-go, which eventually turned me off, but it feels just right here. You progress through ranks of missions, with each subsequent quest becoming more and more challenging as you proceed in the campaign.

The first, and arguably most important, task you’ll be faced with is creating your character and customizing how they look. You’re given a healthy amount of options, and there are some creative ways to make your hunter look exactly how you want. Next, you’ll be customizing how your Palico looks, a sidekick that will aid you in battle, which just happens to be a large cat. These feline companions are absolutely adorable and will be a great partner for you as you are in battle. I won’t lie, I’ve become quite attached to my Palico with the dozens of hours we’ve hunted together.

You are introduced to the basics early on through a handful of tutorials. You’ll learn the core mechanics, but even after a the first dozen or so hours into Monster Hunter: World, I was still learning things that I wish were taught to me early on in a clear manner. Some things were very confusing. For example, as I’ve had to self-learn how to create my own ammo and traps, both of which play a big part into how I hunt my prey now.

One of the game’s greatest strengths though is how it naturally encourages exploration without giving you a quest telling you to where to go. The world is built in such a way that you want to explore every area, check out every climbable surface, and see what’s in those gloomy caves. Further enhancing this world is the fact that every area truly is an ecosystem that plays into one another. Plenty of flora and wildlife inhabit nearly every corner, and the large monster you’ll be hunting will even have a feeding ground and are territorial when others come into their nests. Much like previous games, each map you explore is sectioned into different areas, but now traveling between them is seamless, as it should be, as its one large area. No more loading screen between areas, and you’ll need to explore it all if you want to become a master hunter.

Movement is fluid and straightforward, as you can change direction quickly and smoothly, and when you're fighting a monster, you can dodge and dash to get out of the way. The graphics engine does a great job of not only showing the action, but letting you do all the required moves as well. Making the moves will drain your limited stamina gauge, and should you run out you’ll be prone and vulnerable for a few moments as you catch your breath. You can even climb quickly with your grappling hook, as the maps are very vertical as well, though this will also cause strain on your stamina.

You hunt with your weapons, and Monster Hunter: World gives you the option of 14 different ones to adapt to nearly any situation and playstyle. Weapons range from standard long swords, a sword and shield, a bowgun, lances, bows and arrows, massive claymores and even a huge blunt horn that can play songs and buff your party. Every weapon handles very differently and it will take you some time to find the weapon that suits you best, along with what fits in your group. I simply wasn’t feeling the first few weapons I tried, but I eventually found one that I was happy with and started to stick with it and upgraded it as I went along. The same goes for armor, as there’s a ton of different sets to craft and create, each with their own special properties, and they too will take a lot of getting used to. There’s no way you can simply button mash during gameplay as you’ll get wrecked by the monsters. Somewhat akin to Dark Souls, combat can be brutally difficult when facing monsters for the first time, so you best be cautious and don’t get too reckless, or you will pay for it. You can hack and slash, or even shoot, away at the monsters, but you’ll really want to focus on specific body parts, trying to uncover their weakness or manage to stagger them to cause more damage. You’ll notice that they have no health bars, and this is by design. Instead, you won’t know exactly when a monster is close to death, but there are visual indications, like the monster trying to limp away and flee, or its tail is broken off. This made the world feel more natural without the floating bars everywhere, and it lets you focus on the enemies attack patterns, rather than some HUD.

Killing the monster is only half of the battle though, as you’ll first need to track and hunt them before engaging in combat. Your hunter is equipped with a special vial of fireflies that help you navigate to nearby objects that can be interacted with, be it gatherable flora, pick-ups, or even monster tracks. This setup, again, makes the in-game world feel natural without having an arrow pointing you exactly where to go. Things don’t always go as planned though, as one time I was fighting my tracked monster, only to have a massive T-Rex come in and start to defend his territory. Do you stand back and let them fight and pick off the winner, or risk taking on both for double rewards? Natural occurrences like this really makes the world come alive and feel like you’re simply experiencing a part of it.

Interestingly, there’s also no traditional level-up system, instead you’ll simply need to craft your better gear by grinding out missions and foraging all you can which allows you to take on harder monsters, and thus the cycle continues. Quests are simple to understand, and your fireflies will generally direct you where to go when having to hunt and track down your specific monster. Before each mission be sure to stock up on supplies, ammo, potions, traps, and anything else you’ll need, but be sure to also leave room for your spoils. You can even purchase food beforehand which will give you invaluable buffs for your next hunt.

Tracking and hunting will get better in time, as you can essentially level up your tracking abilities per monster. The more footprints and claw marks you investigate, the more proficient you’ll become at knowing how that monster navigates the territory, and you can eventually become proficient enough to see where he is exactly on the map at any given time and where he will be heading next. Investigating also allows you to earn Research Points which then is used to unlock new items and quests.

Expeditions are almost like a mini-hunt, where sometimes you’ll be tasked with taking down a great monster, but you’ll be able to freely roam afterwards, allowing you to casually explore at your own pace instead of succumbing to the usual 50 minute timeline in hunts. This is a great feature of the game that allows you to work on your optional quests and bounties, explore, work on investigations, and more without a time limit to curb your progression.

Hunting monsters may be the main draw to the series, but I was floored with how in depth the crafting becomes as you progress. Every item or monster remain essentially has some sort of purpose, most of which is for crafting items, potions, ammo, traps, gear, and of course weapons. You can forge gear, based on the resources you’ve gathered and even upgrade weapons to keep up with the scaling difficulty of monsters. The cycle is quite simple: Kill monsters for items, use items to craft better gear, kill harder enemies and repeat.

You’ll have to farm monsters numerous times if you want to craft matching sets of gear, which is great when they have a bonus/buff for completing a set. If you’re constantly swapping weapons and armor, you’re going to struggle to keep up with the crafting components without having to constantly grind. You can even upgrade your Palico’s armor and weapon as well, though it's not as in depth, but it also takes from your resources, so it’s a matter of balancing of what to upgrade and when. Certain weapons and gear will also give you bonuses to elemental damage, which needs to be taken into account when fighting certain monsters, so the depth is massive. It’s an endless cycle, but it’s rewarding and exciting when you craft yourself that new upgrade.

While you can certainly play Monster Hunter: World solo, it really shines when you’re part of a team of four players who cooperatively take down a massive T-Rex. Bear in mind that as more players join, the difficulty and health pool of the monsters scale alongside to stay balanced. I sometimes found playing in a team more challenging, solely because in hunts you have three lives before the mission fails. If you’re playing co-op, those three lives are shared across your whole team. While playing with a group of friends that each pull their own weight is a fantastic experience, playing with random people online that aren’t as skilled and keep dying, causing you to fail, ends with frustration.

I find in general the pros for playing with other people outweigh the cons, as when I have friend join me, especially when they are able to not only do massive damage to a monster due to their gear, but they can also exploit weaknesses when the monster is distracted, allowing you to freely attack weak spots. Most weapons also become dull with lots of use and need to be sharpened, so playing with others allows you to quickly jet away and sharpen your weapon while they continue attacking.

Actually, the most frustrating portion of Mpnster Hunter: World is its online component, not playing together though, but actually getting it setup properly and joining. While the co-op is fantastic itself, there’s so many odd design decisions that make you jump through arbitrary hoops to even make it happen. For example, I’m playing a Hut mission and want you to join, but you’re actually not able to until I’ve watched the cutscene. Ok, no big deal, right? Well, not all cutscenes happen at the beginning of a mission, as some only play once you’ve managed to track down your target monster, which could take a while if you’re unable to find them easily.

After I finally watch the cutscene I then need to use an SOS Flare, signaling that I want people to help me in my mission, wait a good 5-10 minutes for my quest to be posted, then wait for people to join. It’s a convoluted way to get cooperative play working when it’s one of the main focuses of the game, and there’s usually some hoops you need to jump through to get it working, or find the exact lobby you want. There were some severe server issues at launch, like SOS flares not actually starting lobbies to be found, but it seems most of those issues have been fixed. It’s still asinine that I need to wait for people to watch a cutscene before I can join they hunt and have no simple drop in/out way of doing so.

Monster Hunter: World does an amazing job at simultaneously making you feel very powerful, yet keeping you always on your toes with dangerous foes that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Make sure you never feel over confident though, or else you’ll pay the price. The environment you play in is more than a simple man-made level, it really does feel like a living and breathing world that you’re experiencing.

Is Monster Hunter: World perfect? No, but its damn close. There’s some poor design choices, especially when it comes to cooperative play, but aside from that, you’re going to get lost in its world for dozens and dozens of hours. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it, and I really had to search to look for the negatives to complain about. It’s convoluted in its own ways, but it’s also incredibly deep, making for a robust RPG experience unlike any other. Find your favorite weapon, customize your adorable Palico and get hunting some voracious beasts in one of the better games that’s come out in quite some time. Monster Hunter: World needs to be explored and experienced.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China

For a long time I’ve been looking for a game to replace Crimson Skies as my favorite arcade air combat title. There have been numerous contenders over the years that have tried to do so, but none have even come close. It seems that developer ACE MADDOX is now the newest dev-team to try and put a game in this genre out for fans as they recently released Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China (FTSOC). There’s not many air combat game releases these days, so when one does come along, I get excited, as I want to experience air combat whenever possible.

Flying Tigers does something a little different though, although the game is set during the World War 2 era, it places you into the roll of pilot in many lesser known encounters from the war, rarely depicted anywhere else, specifically, the China-Burma-India theatre. I’m not a war buff by any means, but I know the talking points and battles, and everything included in FTSOC was completely new to me. Prepare to dogfight, man turrets, perfect bombing runs, land air strikes and more as you help defend China against Japan in these rarely seen battles.

You are a part of the American Volunteer Group, a little known squadron that fought alongside the Chinese troops in the war, helping with torpedo drops, night runs, bombing, dog-fighting and more. While I wasn’t aware of the specific battles included in the campaign beforehand, history buffs should be excited to experience specific missions like the Battle of the Salween Gorge, Invasion of Malaya, and raids on Rangoon, just to list a few. These missions are based on actual historic battles, so it’s quite interesting to see some of the missions that took place, and how chaotic and dangerous it really was.

I actually never knew there was an American Volunteer Group of pilots that helped within World War II, so it was fascinating to see this during the game and in a different context other than simply being a Air Force, Navy or Marine pilot. The campaign starts off simple with basic dogfights, but eventually you’ll need to fly close to the water to launch torpedoes, strafe ground targets with your guns and bombs, destroy search lights and Anti-Air turrets, and a whole lot more among the other missions.

While there’s a little variety in the campaign, I do wish it told the stories better. You’ve given a dossier to read before and after the missions, and there’s some brief cutscenes sprinkled in with some voiceover work, but nothing exciting or that will wow you. It comes across as very dry, and more than once I forgot what the point of my mission was, only to be reminded with the objective listed in the top left of my screen. Missions are simply given to you without much context, so nearly each one simply devolves into destroying all enemies, sometimes before they reach their intended target. There are a few exceptions to this rule, and I really enjoyed a mission where I needed to break up a Japanese bombing run by damaging each plane a specific amount, forcing them out of formation.

After a handful of missions you’ll realize that nearly every campaign stage has you shooting and destroying your targets before being able to progress. Yes, this is what the genre is about, but there’s not much excitement to it, even when you’re essentially using a new aircraft during each mission as well. Even though it’s repetitive, the campaign was fairly entertaining to play through at least once, even if it was a little on the short side, but luckily more modes have been added to attempt to keep your interest.

In terms of the game's modes, you have access to one's like Dogfight, Challenge and Free Flight. Dogfight is self-explanatory, as it focuses on the air combat portion. You choose any of the planes available, location, number of enemies and finally either Avenging Ace or Survival. Fighting against 10 enemies can get chaotic and will surely put your flight wings to the test. Survival is just that, seeing how long you can survive against endless enemies, adding a different type of gameplay to challenge yourself. Challenge mode is a handful of five specific missions with objectives, but the best part is that there’s a global leaderboard for these missions, so you best start practicing if you want to prove you’re the best pilot in the skies.

As for the flight controls themselves, it took me a little time to get used to them, and there’s an option for Arcade controls, making things a little simpler and accessible. Full control is where you can control the Pitch and Roll of your aircraft, so I advise you to start with Arcade controls to get a feel for the controls, but once you’ve got the basics down, you’re going to want to have full control if you want to become the best pilot out there. There’s also a few extra moves and mechanics you can utilize, such as using a slow-mo to shoot your enemies easier for a brief period of time, using the D-pad to loop and roll to avoid enemies, and even one where you use the Left and Right Bumpers to bank hard to try and flank your enemies. It’s not the most complex system out there, but it works, even though it did take me some time to stop using the right stick, as that controls your camera instead of your flaps and yaw, which I am used to.

With smaller titles like this, usually local multiplayer is present, but I was surprised to see that an online component was included, and on top of that, for up to 16 players in a match as well. There’s a handful of Online modes you can battle in, such as Team Dogfight, Rocket Battle, and even a Capture the Flag variant titled Flagbusters. Each player gets to pick their aircraft and test their skills against the rest of the world, so you better know what you’re doing before venturing into this foray.

That being said, there’s little to no community playing this online, as every time I try to find a match I had difficulty finding one. Luckily I had a friend with the game who was able to test it out with me, and once we were able to get into a match with 2 others. Unless you have a group of friends that all purchase this game, don’t expect any actual 16 player dogfights anytime soon. It’s a shame, as the potential to have Flying Tigers be a title to dabble in now and then for some online multiplayer loses its charm when there’s no one else to play online with.

Graphically, the planes look decent, as do the backdrops, but it's nothing that will blow you away. The same goes for the soundtrack, as it’s there and sets the tone with its orchestral tracks, but nothing memorable. One song that did stand out was one that plays during the credits, as it doesn’t seem to fit with the game at all. Not that I’m holding it against it, but it just seemed like a very odd decision to have a song play that doesn’t fit the rest of the tonality to the game itself.

Oddly enough, the game is rated M for mature, and this is mostly due to the racial slurs that are used when talking about the Japanese. Yes, this is accurate for the time period, so it’s not out of place, but there’s also a lot of other swearing during combat that I didn’t expect, causing me to mute it when my little one was nearby watching and listening.

If you’re craving an aerial combat title, as not many release these days, then Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China will certainly get you through a slow weekend with nothing else to play. The $18.99 CAD price tag isn’t completely out of the ballpark, but that’s as long as you know there’s essentially no community playing this online, which is why you would keep continuing to play after the brief campaign is completed. Flying Tigers is completely serviceable for what it offers, but don’t expect to be blown away, even if the premise of experiencing rarely depicted battles excites you.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Lost Grimoires 2: Shard of Mystery

If there’s one company that’s fulfilled a specific niche, Artifex Mundi sure has done so by bringing casual HOGs (hidden object games) to the Xbox One in droves. For about two years now they’ve been bringing their backlog, and some new titles, to the console, which I initially didn’t think would work well, but they seem to fit, as sitting on the couch with a controller in hand, solving some puzzles at a casual pace works. This time around we get the sequel to Lost Grimoires, aptly titled Lost Grimoires 2: Shard of Mystery. If you’ve previously played one of their titles then you’ll know exactly what to expect; a journey filled with mystery, fantasy adventure, twists and a whole bunch if puzzles to solve.

While technically a sequel to the first title, I failed to find many ties between the two, aside from the King that was in the first game and you playing another alchemist. The King’s alchemists crafted a Chasm Mirror, used to banish the evil witch Drosera into another dimension. The King’s health is starting to fail though, so he begins to prepare his son, Prince Fern, to take over the throne. On the day of his coronation he goes missing, and it’s up to you to find him and solve what has happened.

Like other titles in the genre, the story really isn’t the main showcase here, as it is filled with fantasy tropes and beautiful backgrounds for you to explore. Luckily you don’t need to have played the first game to make sense of this one, as the hook to these games is all about the gameplay and its puzzles.

Gameplay is much like any of the previous titles, as you’re searching scenes for items and clues that can be used elsewhere. You move your cursor around and you can point and click certain objects. Some will need to be solved to gather, such as needing a key for a lock, or a saw to cut planks of wood, but the theme stays true throughout until the credits roll. You’ll scour scenes, sometimes having hidden object games to sift through, or solve standard puzzles before allowing to you to progress.

The hidden object games were the highlight for me, as you’re either given a word list of items to find in a cluttered scene, or given simple silhouettes that you need to find the corresponding items for. Sure you could spam the button and move the cursor around, finding them with no effort, but trying to do it with no errors and purposely is much more rewarding. There’s a handful of different puzzle types you’ll encounter, though none of them will stump you for too long. Actually, I found Lost Grimoires 2 substantially easier than most of their other titles, though if you become truly stumped, you can use a hint that’s on a recharge timer to solve any puzzle, should the need arise.

Unlike most of their other games, there’s no alternative way to play a puzzle. In some of the titles, if you weren’t proficient, you were able to play some other type of mini game, like dominoes or something similar instead, but that is not present here. The same goes with the epilogue that many of their past titles have after completing the campaign, yet that is absent here too, so I’m not sure why some of the titles get certain treatment, yet not others.

One of the puzzles you’ll be solving regularly is when it comes to conjuring your alchemy ingredients. Once you have all three specific items needed to craft a recipe, you’re whisked away to a small game that resembles something like Bejeweled. Here you need to match 3 or more of an identical symbol to make the needed counter reach zero. Once you’ve done so successfully, the potion is made and you can continue on your journey. This mini game needs to be played every time you craft a new potion, and it becomes increasingly difficult as you progress. Well, I wouldn’t say difficult, as you simply need to make more combinations before you ‘win’. Again, these are not challenging at all, and not once did I have to reference a walkthrough to complete the adventure.

When you manage to complete the game, you can play an Expert difficulty level, though the only thing this really changes is that you don’t get any hints of where to go and the recharge for your hint timer is much longer. So, while it’s welcome to have a slightly more challenging experience, I wish the puzzles were more involved, as a single playthrough will easily be doable in a single sitting.

Casual puzzle fans should enjoy Lost Grimoires 2, as it’s a title you can sit down with and enjoy in short bursts if needed, and it isn’t overly challenging. For experts in the genre, you may want to look elsewhere if you’re looking for puzzles that are going to stump you, though luckily playing the first game isn’t a prerequisite to enjoy this one. While this isn’t Artifex Mundi’s strongest title in the catalogue, Lost Grimoires 2 is a fun distraction for $10 if you’re looking to relax and try out your alchemy skills on a lazy weekend.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Hello Neighbor

We’ve all had that neighbor at some point in our lives. You know, the weirdo that you wonder why they always have their their doors locked, windows closed and the drapes drawn, year round. What if you were a brave enough kid to sneak into their house and investigate the going-ons for yourself, only to find doors with multiple locks, further heightening your curiosity. That’s the premise of Hello Neighbor, though he won’t simply let you wonder around his house, so you better not get caught...or else.

My 5-year old actually knew about the game before I did, from the YouTube videos she watches, since then it seemed interesting. When I first saw Hello Neighbor myself, I was quite intrigued, as I can’t really think of a game with the same premise. Kids are curious creatures, and I know I always imaged what the inside of people’s houses looked like when I was growing up, so getting to act that out seemed like an interesting premise. Ideas are only half the equation though, and while it’s an intriguing backdrop, the execution is something completely different.

The core premise of Hello Neighbor is that you witness your next door neighbor seemingly grab someone and lock them in a closet from afar. You not quite sure if that’s what you actually saw, so being the juvenile you are, you decide to sneak into his house and investigate for yourself. That’s the hook for the most part. If I had to categorize it, I would say that this game falls into a blend of stealth, platforming, puzzle and slight horror genres.

Broken into three main acts, it’s simply you versus the AI neighbor. The game claims that the AI will learn from your actions and play style, thus making counter decisions to thwart your trespassing. But don’t let him catch you or else you’ll be subdued and locked away as well. There’s no real narrative, as there’s no dialogue, voice acting, or anything of the sort, it’s simply you with the gameplay, as you are left to determine what the meaning behind the abstract levels could symbolize, if you can even get to those points.

Developer Dynamic Pixels did a good job at creating a neighbor that appears to give off a creepy vibe, with his old man sweater right down to his mustache, he fits the part perfectly for the backdrop. As above, not only is there no real story in a traditional sense, but there’s no tutorial, map, arrows, or nothing at all to help guide you in your mission to quell your curiosity without getting caught. It’s a shame though, as the only real help your given is the control mapping on the pause screen. Aside from that you’re on your own to figure out not only how to do things, but why and where.

It’s odd though, as a game about trying to sneak into some creep’s house, there’s no real sneaking involved. Sure, there’s a button to crouch, and I assume make less noise, but you won’t make it far if you don’t constantly run from place to place inside the home. It seems the AI does get a little smarter the longer you play. He seemed to catch me in the same spots a few times when I would retry the same entry points, like a broken window or through the front door. Luckily there’s many ways to lure him where you want, like breaking a window and going the opposite way, turning off the power, etc.

Even though Hello Neighbor is broken into three Acts, I don’t think many will get past the first one. You need to find keys to unlock padlocks that restrict access to other areas of the house, and doing so is no easy feat. This isn’t because of the difficulty that’s been carefully crafted and designed, but more to do with struggling with the core gameplay mechanics when trying to do what you want, when you want.

Should you manage to struggle through the first Act, the second plays quite differently, as you'll find yourself locked in your neighbor's house and need to find an exit. I don’t want to spoil much else, as the gameplay from this point on isn’t as frustrating, but it’s a shame that you have to endure the opening bit to even try to make it here. The difficulty is a little off putting, not because I don’t like a challenge, but the unfairness and randomness is a huge burden.

You can tell when 'the neighbor' is nearby, as the visuals and audio change slightly to be more tense, but there’s no indicator of where he’s actually at in relation to you, if he’s actually seen you, or anything else to help guide you. If you’re outside the house and he’s on the other side of the wall, the game makes the same indicator as if he’s seen you and is making chase. Since the AI somewhat adapts, what worked in one attempt will be thwarted the next, so you need to constantly try new tactics.

Even if you didn’t have to constantly worry about being caught and locked up, Hello Neighbor would stay just as challenging due to the poor platforming that’s required to progress. Remember when I said Act One would probably be as far as many will make it? This is exactly why. For example, you’ll need to get on his roof, and there’s no way to do so, at least every time I’ve tried to do so, without stacking items on a bent shelf. The problem here is, even jumping to get to the top of the bent shelf is a challenge on its own with odd physics and some clipping. If you manage to get a box, or other item, to drop exactly where you want, you will need precision maneuvering, and almost an act of god, to make the jump you intend to make, though you’ll likely fall and probably get caught by the neighbor, forcing you to start all over again.

Controls aren’t any better either. Many times I had to press the interact button repeatedly for it to pick up and move an item, even though the reticule says I’m in range. Having to do this while being chased is near impossible, and that’s if you don’t happen to run into the handful of bugs I did in my playthrough. At one point I got stuck on some object I threw, tried to pick it up, only to be launched about a mile straight up in the air, falling to my death and restarting once again. Items will clip through walls and other objects, and the sound of it constantly jamming is enough to mute the game all together.

While the game is riddled with bugs, I will say that the artistic style used is quite refreshing. It has a cartoon-like stylization to it with a simplicity, though this also means it’s difficult to determine what items can be used or picked up at times without trial and error. Sure, bugs can be fixed in time with patches, and maybe a compass or map will be added, or even an indicator of where your abductor is in relation to you, but in its current state, Hello Neighbor is a nonsensical mess. Most times when I die I’m thrown back into the street to start all over, whereas other random times I’m locked in a room, having to run to the exit, then have to start over again. I just don’t get it.

If Hello Neighbor was in Game Preview, this would be a completely different conversation, as it would be in its early stages with promises of additions and fixes, but that’s not the case. Instead, you’re being asked to pay $30 for a game that not only doesn’t feel finished, and it is severely lacking not only polish, but more importantly, fun. Oddly enough, watching someone play Hello Neighbor on their stream is almost the exact opposite experience for some reason. Watching others play that know how to deal with the frustration and poor design is fascinating when you see how it’s intended to be played, rather than struggling against it.

There was a lot of hype behind Hello Neighbor, and I've even started seeing merch at stores to purchase, but at this point in time it hasn’t lived up to it yet, not even close. The ideas are there, as is the premise and backdrop, but the execution is severely lacking in the worst possible way. Sure, some fixes might make it a better experience, but there’s no way this should be a full release in its current state. With all this in mind, I say "Goodbye Neighbor".

Overall Score: 4.0 / 10 Hand of Fate 2

The first Hand of Fate really surprised me as I expected some sort of standard card based game, but I got anything but. Developed by Defiant Development, the anticipated sequel is now here, aptly titled Hand of Fate 2. Just like its predecessor, it may lure you in with its promise of card based mechanics, but there’s much more to it than that, including challenging combat and deck building strategy, but I hope you have luck on your side, as you’re going to need it throughout. Even though you might assume it’s a card based game, which it is, it plays much more like a classic tabletop game you’d bust out with friends more than anything else.

The memorable and mesmerizing dealer from the first game returns once again for the sequel, taking place a century after the previous game. Oddly enough, there’s no large overarching story, but instead there are 22 separate mini stories that act as levels themselves. It's here where you’ll be tasked with new objectives, meeting new characters and learning the evolving gameplay mechanics as you progress, all of which are very reminiscent of the first game.

If you haven't played before, you sit at a table in front of a very mysterious man that informs you is about to tell you a tale with his cards that are laid out on the table. You are represented by a small carved figurine, and you choose which pathway to take among the cards, each card revealing the story laid out in front of you as you progress. Some cards are helpful, coming in the form of shops or blessings, while others are traps, destined to make you fail your journey or resulting in you having to face ambushes of enemies trying to defeat you.

The stories that you are told are interesting, though mostly short, but some of them will take some time to complete given the secondary objectives you must do if you want to appropriately finish that particular story with a gold medal before moving onto the next. It’s a very interesting blend of RPG, card, and board game, as there’s not really much else like it that I’m aware of, done to this quality.

Cards are taken from your deck, which you specify for the most part, and your ultimate goal is to reach the end, usually ending with a battle against a challenging foe. As you progress, the objective becomes much more complicated, as you’ll need to earn enough fame, or find relics, etc., before making it to the end of each chapter. The cards are laid face down, so you don’t know which each one entails as you land on it, though the majority of them will have you facing battle or losing gold, health, or food supplies.

Certain cards allow you to make a dice roll to determine the outcome. Roll over a certain number and you’ll have success, fail and you’ll likely be thrown into combat against a group of thugs, thieves or worse, the new musketeers that can fire at you from afar. You’re given three dice and are allowed one re-roll of however many dice you choose.

Outcomes are also determined a few other ways, usually via a choice of 4 cards that are shuffled in front of you, but there’s no way to realistically follow a specific fail or success card to choose from, so it’s simply a game of chance. There’s also a ‘wheel spin’ of sorts, placing a number of cards in front of you and spinning them quickly, as you try and stop it on the card you want to choose. This takes practice to learn how much lead time you need to have in order to accurately choose the card you want, so this is even more chance based than skill as well. These little mini-games are fun, and even though I’ve had long stretches of wins, I've had even longer bouts of losses, in a row.

You’re also in possession of inventory cards than range from weapons, gear and accessories. These can be put into your deck to give you a leg up on the combat that you’ll face ahead. As you progress and clear missions, you’ll earn better gear, some of which is special, like a very high damage axe that requires you to have enough fame to wield it in each mission. To get fame you’ll need to explore the ‘map’ more and take your chances with landing on more cards, but this is where your resources come into play. You have cards for food, gold and health. Certain quests will ask you to decide whether to use some food cards to feed the poor, or maybe hand over some gold to avoid a battle, but if you don’t have enough resources, you’re going to suffer.

Sometimes luck is on your side and you’ll have an abundance of food, which at a camp, is usable at any time between card movements, and it can be converted into health, which you no doubt may have lost during your last combat or had bad luck on a game of chance with the cards. When not at camp you’ll be traversing a mountain, losing health almost every step of the way, so it’s a balance of how many cards you want to land on and turn over, hopefully gaining a reward, versus simply staying alive and making to the end this time around which seems more challenging than before.

You can attack, parry, dodge and bash, along with use specials and finishing moves with the triggers. Battles are short, as you are usually up against a handful of enemies, but they will challenge you as different types of enemies start to get mixed together. Combat itself is much like the type that the Batman games perfected, with colored icons above enemies’ heads displayed before they are about to make their attack, allowing you to dodge, counter or bash appropriately. The challenge comes when you’re surrounded, with later foes who are quite quick, testing your reflexes. While not as fluid as the Batman games, I started to do much better when I stopped button mashing, and instead, purposely hitting each button at specific times, sometimes waiting for a counter instead of constantly attacking.

Fill your combo meter and you’ll be able to utilize a special attack which varies based on which type of weapon you’re wielding at the time. These are very powerful and are a great reward encouraging you to try and keep your combo count up without getting hit. Certain zombie-like enemies will also have to have to be 'dispatched' with a finisher or else they may come back to life, so there is some prioritization of who to kill, and how, in some battles.

As you play more you’ll learn each enemy type’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, the stronger Viking-like enemies are very powerful, but slow, so you can easily counter or dodge away, whereas thieves are weak, but you need a much quicker reaction time to counter their attacks. Eventually you’ll be pit against a dozen or so enemies at a time, and it can become very satisfying when you’re able to do so without taking much damage.

Arguably the best addition to the series, and its combat mechanics, is the fact that you now get to take a companion into battle with you. As you progress through the campaign missions, you’ll meet, and recruit, new members into your party. While there’s only a handful to obtain, each of them add a completely different type of sidekick that will be best suited for different play styles, so you’ll need to play with, and experiment, to find out which suits you best.

Even though you choose your deck before starting attempting a challenge, the randomness of how they are laid out means that chance, or lady luck, plays a large part of your success or failure. Even though Hand of Fate 2 isn’t very narrative driven, which is ironic for a game where reading is involved between played cards, the gameplay is engaging and fun, even if it’s heavily luck based. I do wish that the dealer narrated all aspects of the reading parts though, as he has a wonderful and mesmerizing voice that calls your attention.

If you were a fan of the first Hand of Fate, the core formula hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s been refined as a whole. Some new additions, like companions, add some new exciting gameplay are to be found, but in the end, it’s essentially the same experience as before; slow progression and a feeling of repetitiveness now and then. Oddly there’s a lot of stutter and hitching during certain scenes and loading, though during gameplay it seems fine, even on an Xbox One X.

On one hand, the randomness adds in a factor of replayability, but on the other, the sheer randomness and luck involved with some of the elements can either be very rewarding or outright punishing. While it can become repetitive after a while, the decision to cut-up the campaign into mini stories is a great one, as you can sit down and do a challenge in a short amount of time if you don’t have much time to game in a single sitting. Even hours in, the gameplay is challenging and the randomness will constantly keep you on your toes, forcing you to weigh your options ahead of you. When all is considered, Hand of Fate 2 is still worth your time, so pull up a seat and get dealt in.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Oh My Godheads

It’s not very often these days, but when I do have friends over I always try and find a multiplayer friendly game to bust out for everyone to enjoy. While many people will always default to Mario Party or Jackbox type of games, Titutitech is banking on their newest game, Oh My Godheads, to become that go to couch multiplayer game.

A local only multiplayer game, Oh My Godheads pits up to four players against each other with silly characters and an even odder premise that is a unique take on capture the flag. You’re armed with weapons and explosive pies, and there seems to be a massive Godhead placed in the middle of the map. While it will take some time to learn how to play, the hilarity will ensue shortly after you figure the controls and premise out, though fully expect to some foul language to be thrown at each other based on how you and your friends are when you game together.

The game throws you straight into a match without any tutorial or explanation of what’s going on. This was a very jarring experience, as I had no idea what to do or what the giant Godhead on the map was for. There’s no story either, not even an attempt at one, so this needs to be looked at as simply a couch multiplayer experience and nothing else. While the gameplay isn’t confusing, and I was able to figure it out, some aspects I didn’t learn until I started to do the challenges later on, like being able to throw pies, use powerups, and dash attack. Once you know how to play with every tool available, the game completely changes, so it would have been nice know all of this from the beginning with some sort of tutorial to get you started off on the right foot.

Mayhem will ensue, and if you’re unable to gather three of your friends over for some rounds, then CPU players can be added should you really want to play. This experience of course is nowhere near as fun, but at least the option is there. You can even mix two players with two AI and decide teams, which is a nice touch.

Matches take place across 10 different locations, such as Japan, Cambodia, Mexico, Egypt and more, each with their own theme and hazards. There’s a handful of characters to choose from as well, complete with low polygon models, but they are purely cosmetic differences. Having some varying stats would have been interesting and allow you to focus on a specific playstyle. You’ll also have to utilize the 10 different Godheads, each of which has its own ability that, when held and utilized, completely alters the gameplay, sometimes in your benefit, sometimes to your downfall.

At its core, Oh My Godheads is a unique take on classic Capture the Flag, aptly titled Capture the Head, where teams of two must capture the Godhead and take it to their own base to score. The catch is that when you’re holding the godhead, you walk at a very slow speed and can’t attack. Oh, you don’t know what a Godhead is? Well, it’s literally the head of a God, but in statue form. You’re able to throw the Godhead if you want to try passing it to a teammate or simply throw it away from the enemy team. Do you let the other team capture the Godhead first so you can get a few moments to run with the Godhead after killing them, or focus more on the powerups littered throughout the stage to gain the upper hand?

The gameplay itself is quite basic, but it’s the Godheads’ powers that really make the gameplay interesting. Zeus’ head, for example, will unleash a wide area of lightning, blasting anyone in its radius, including you if you’re holding it. The Bastet Godhead turns things around and will literally reverse the controls on you if you’re holding it once it’s powered up. Skadi’s Godhead will freeze everyone in the vicinity for a short duration when charged, so it’s how you utilize these unique game changing elements to your advantage that will make you rise on top. These Godheads usually cause the most chaos in a match, usually resulting in some pretty loud laughter or choice words.

Aside from the basic Capture the Flag, there’s also King of the Head mode where the winner is the one that holds the Godhead for the longest amount of time. Because the Godhead charges up the more it’s held, it becomes strategic when to hold it and for how long. If these objective based modes aren’t to your liking, then there is also Headhunters, which is essentially Deathmatch for up to 4 players. This mode is chaotic and has you chasing and swinging your weapons at the opposite team. Also included is Last Man Standing, where you guessed it, the last man standing is the team that gets the point. I found that when I played with friends we focused more on the combat focused modes, but obviously that’s a preference, as your group of friends will vary.

If you want some practice and learn new skill sets, then Trials of the Gods is where you’ll want to head. These are a series of short challenges, which ironically is as close as you’re going to get to a tutorial. This sequence of trials is where I learned about my other abilities, like throwing my explosive pies, using powerups, as well as jump and dash attacks. If I knew this from the beginning I probably would have done much better from the get go. There’s a decent amount of challenges and some bonus unlockables are hidden behind progression in these.

I enjoyed the low polygon art style, and even though it looks basic it has a certain charm to it. I really wish some online component was included, as it’s rare for me to have friends over these days, and if you’re like me, the single player component doesn’t hold its weight when it comes to value. Sure, you can play versus AI or work on trial challenges, but the core game is meant to be enjoyed by friends locally on the couch.

The modes may be limited, and the graphics bare, but when you have friends over and enjoy slicing each other up and using giant foot powerups to stomp each other, Oh My Godheads can become quite fun. An introduction at the beginning would have been very beneficial, as there’s a decent amount of strategy involved once you know the whole move sets and abilities each Godhead can use, altering how the match plays out. If you regularly have friends over and are looking for a new game to play with them, Oh My Godheads is a decent option to go with, but with a price of $19.99, if you don’t fall into that exact category, the single player value simply isn’t there by a long shot given the shallow gameplay versus the CPU.

Overall Score: 6.2 / 10 Sky Force Reloaded

Infinite Dreams and Crunching Koalas know what they do best: shmups (shoot-em-ups). We enjoyed Sky Force Anniversary when we reviewed it last year, and this year they are back with Sky Force Reloaded, a completely re-imagined and vastly improved version of their previous game. Like any shmup, this is a vertically scrolling shooter that will challenge your skills, reflexes and patience to grind your way to the best upgrades.

It’s no secret that I’m very fond of the genre, especially classics like the brutally hard Ikargua or classic Raiden, so I wasn’t sure where Sky Force Reloaded would fit in amongst this crowd, especially being from a smaller indie studio, but man, was I blown away. Like any good shmup, you’re going to have to learn the levels, the enemies and the shooting patterns, hoping to reach the final boss before you die and start again. Sky Force Reloaded is all about fluidity and coming back stronger than ever each time you replay a level. It’s very easy to pick up, but the true challenge is there for those that seek it. Reloaded becomes incredibly difficult, but only for a matter of time, depending on how much you want to put into it, not only improving your skills and memorization of each level, but improving your ships as well.

Reloaded begins right away, as you pilot a fully upgraded ship, destroying anything in your path. You battle against a boss and inevitably lose, almost as if you woke up from a dream. This clever introduction to the game is a sneak peek at what the endgame can be like, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort into the game. It’s quite a shock going from a flying death machine to only having a peashooter, but that’s part of its charm to entice you, and I know it worked for me.

Normally, this is where I could delve into the story, and while there technically is one, it’s basically a throw away. Typically this would be a knock against a title, but let’s be honest, we play shmups for their addictive gameplay. I know I’m shooting the endless waves of bad guys, so adding fluff to a story I won’t care about is unneeded.

When I played my first few levels, I initially thought it was going to be yet another generic shmup, navigating the screen to avoid bullets, shooting anything that gets in your way, and picking up any power ups left floating around. While yes, it has all of these checklist items for a great shmup, it’s when you start to spend more time with the game and work on the included objectives that you realize how much more is under the hood for the gameplay and progression.

Destroyed enemies drop stars that you collect and use as currency to purchase specific upgrades. You'll find them amongst a wide selection of choices to suit your play style. Surprisingly, the difficulty curve is nearly perfect, with the first level or two being no problem to complete, but then it starts to ramp up as you unlock more levels. Each level begins on normal difficulty, and if you can beat all four challenges, which I’ll delve into shortly, you then unlock hard. Complete the objectives on hard and Insane unlocks, and so on. This is a clever way to add replayability without having to spend a fortune on level design. While some might scoff at having to replay the 15 levels repeatedly, and I thought this would be a huge negative, they’ve done it in such a way that it feels fair, and more importantly, fun, even when I’ve completed level 3 for the 100th time.

While collecting stars and beating the level is always your main goal, the four specific objectives is how you’re going to unlock the higher difficulties, which in turn allows you to earn more stars and upgrades. For example, a full clear on normal may net you 100 stars or so, and on hard maybe 300, and on insane over 1000, so the risk versus reward is finely balanced and you feel great being able to master those insane difficulty levels.

The four objectives across all levels and difficulties may not change, but completing them on Hard and Insane will surely test your skill. They are: 70% of enemies destroyed, 100% destroyed, 100% humans rescued and clear the stage without getting hit. Luckily you don’t need to complete them all at once, but the higher difficulties won’t unlock until all four are complete. This makes you replay the levels many times over, forcing you to memorize enemies and patterns, figuring out if you’re strong enough to attempt it now, or if you’ll need to go back to grind some more stars for upgrades to become tougher before attempting again.

I initially thought that I was going to hate the grind, having to reply levels over and over again to earn stars for upgrades, but Reloaded does something very smart, as each upgrade actually feels like it makes a difference. Every time I upgraded my weapons, or health, I seemed to make it further and further every attempt, becoming more powerful with each improvement. Normally most shmups are a one and done kind of affair, but after a week straight of playing, I still find myself going back to earn more stars and climb the leaderboards.

Each level varies in size with most ending with a massive boss that has numerous waves of attacks, though there is a level where your weapon is disabled, forcing you to do a pacify run, which is an interesting, and terrifying, change of pace. Each level becomes progressively harder, forcing you to spend the time to grind and craft a stronger ship. Once you’ve completed a level a handful of times, it becomes easier to memorize, but sometimes you’re simply just not able to shoot fast or hard enough to make it through easily.

Each upgrade adds more firepower, but there are a few other bonuses you can work towards if you want, like having a stronger magnet to pull in stars from afar, or boosting your health bar to take some more hits if needed. I highly suggest focusing on your offensive powers, as that’s what’s going to make your life much easier in the long run. There are many levels of upgrades to complete, with each subsequent installment becoming slightly more expensive. You can even boost how many slots of bombs, lasers or shields you want to employ if you prefer to play that way. The upgrades are very addictive, as being able to see your power increase only makes you want to grind more to become even more powerful than before, thus the cycle continues. As you become stronger, runs become easier, so the grind isn’t that bad once you’re used to it.

If the hook of constant upgrading wasn’t enough, there’s also a leaderboard for you to compete in and see how you hold up versus the competition. There’s a weekly tournament that takes place every weekend, adding an endless stage to see how long you can last, and even extra ship parts to collect, creating new ships with specific uses in mind if all pieces are collected. Play long enough and you’ll start earning tokens that will unlock technicians, whom add special bonuses to your gameplay.

Cards will also randomly appear throughout stages, and should you complete the stage alive, you then earn that card. There are blue cards that give you a specific bonus for 15 minutes of gameplay, and gold cards that are permanent bonuses. Even after dozens of hours of gameplay I’ve yet to collect every card, but it sure is exciting when I have a new permanent bonus, like starting every level with a bomb, etc. The blue cards are an interesting way to keep you continuing to play. For example, I got one in what was to be my last match of the night, then of course had to stay for the 15 minute duration to get the maximum bonuses.

Local co-op allows for 2-players to pilot separate ships, and while it’s fun, the lack of online multiplayer is really the only negative I can say about Reloaded. I get that couch co-op is fun, but it’s not really feasible for me these days, yet my friends who also have the game aren’t able to play with me online. The game allows you to see where your friends died in specific levels, and if you’re able to cover over their icon for a few moments, you’ll earn some bonus points. This is the same way you save the stranded humans, but as you hover over them for a short period of time, you'll just hope you don’t get shot down before their transfer to your ship is complete. The lack of online multiplayer doesn’t drag down the experience at all, it's just a disappointment.

I love shmups, they’re one of my favorite genres, but outside of a few of the greats, none really have longevity when it comes to replayability. This isn’t the case with Sky Force Reloaded at all. While it’s a grind to get the best upgrades, and the ship parts and cards are attained seemingly at random, I can’t put this game down. Even if I’ve only got 5 minutes, I’ll get a few runs in for some more stars, then realize two hours just went by.

Presentation wise, the visuals are great, with only some minor slowdown on the massive boss battles. The screen can also seem a little cluttered at times, when you have dozens of stars on the screen to gather, trying to discern the small enemy bullets, but the memorization comes in time. The audio is fitting as well, but there’s only so many times you can listen to the same down tempo beat before muting it and putting your own tunes on, since you’ll be replaying levels dozens of times.

Sky Force Reloaded never feels unfair, because when you die, you know it was your fault, prompting you to go back and grind some more stars for upgrades. While the grind is real and might turn some off, the reward for doing so is great. Prepare to sink many hours into this game if you want the pay off, but once you get there, it’s amazing. For a title that’s under $10 CAD, the amount of value within is outstanding. While it doesn’t surpass Ikaruga as my favorite shmup of all time, the fact that I had to think about it and compare it should speak volumes. I haven’t been this hooked and excited about a shmup in many years, and Sky Force Reloaded completely blew me away. If you’re a shmup fan at all, casual or hardcore, you need to have this one in your library without question.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 8-bit Adventure Anthology: Volume One

Nostalgia is a funny thing, as it usually makes us remember things better than they actually were. Case in point, I remember Shadowgate for NES being one of my favorite games for the console growing up. If I only knew how much money my parents spent on renting me that game over the years, it would have been much cheaper to just buy it outright. But that was 30 years ago, so while I’m showing my age, I have so many fond memories of my NES and a handful of the titles that went along with it.

8-bit Adventure Anthology: Volume One consists of three classic adventure titles that all released on NES, but also on the Mac beforehand: Déjà vu (1985), Uninvited (1986), and my personal favorite from the genre, Shadowgate (1987). The question is, does nostalgia make us remember these games in a way that is much better than they actually were? I probably haven’t played Shadowgate in at least 20 years, so I was excited to see how it, along with the other games, actually were now that I’m older versus how I remember them.

Starting with the oldest of the titles, Déjà Vu takes place in 1941 Chicago where you wake up in a bathroom with absolutely no memory of who you are or what has happened. You find a wallet, trench coat and a gun, and that’s before you stumble across a dead body. You’ll uncover a tale about kidnapping and blackmail, all wrapped in a Noir-like setting.

Next up, Uninvited tells a more supernatural tale, where you wake up alone after a car crash, unsure of where your sister is as she has mysteriously vanished. But not all is right, as the car explodes as you exit, leaving you stranded in front of a creepy mansion. Inside is a seemingly abandoned house, yet there looms a presence that leaves you uneasy. You’ll come across ghosts and ghouls while you search for clues of what has happened to your missing sister.

Lastly is Shadowgate. Here you’re placed in a fantasy setting as the ‘Seed of Prophesy’, aiming to stop an evil Warlock who wants to destroy the world. This castle backdrop is much broader in scope compared to the other two titles in this anthology, with mazes and mysteries that has death at nearly every wrong turn. What makes this one drastically different from the others is its forced time limit, represented with your torches. You can collect torches along your adventure, but should the flame go out, it’s game over.

Regardless of which game you begin with, they all have very similar UI’s, something that will take some getting used to as it’s very archaic and not user friendly by any means. Keep in mind these games were released more than three decades ago and game design was very different back then. The screen is divided into boxes, each of which has a different purpose. The largest main box is your character’s view and where you’ll interact with the world. The bottom houses a list of commands, such as examine (or look, depending on which game), open, speak, hit, drop, use, take, etc. These are the commands you’ll become very familiar with during your adventures and will have to be used for nearly any action, as even doors need to be clicked on with ‘open’ before being allowed to pass through.

Movement is done differently as well, as even though you play in first person, movement is controlled with the ‘move’ command, then either clicking on the door or passage you want, or by clicking the available exits listed for that specific room on the mini-map at the bottom. The inventory management becomes tiresome, as you need to flip through pages of items you’ve collected, move the cursor over the command you wish to use, then click on the play screen of what you want to interact with. It takes some getting used to, especially with flipping to your spell page or address book (based on which game you’re playing), but the template and gameplay generally stays the same throughout, across all three titles.

The common theme amongst all three titles is that at its heart, you’re solving a mystery, thus, the gameplay is to solve puzzles. If you can’t open a door, try any keys you’ve collected, if there’s a mysterious hole, try inserting any of the small items you have. Most of this gameplay is trial and error, usually more error that leads to death, but that’s part of its charm. Some solutions are more obtuse than others, especially in Shadowgate, but there’s also lots of extra items you can pick up and take that have no bearing on the main story, so not every item you come across will be useful.

You will die a lot, and in an odd choice for achievements, each of them are related to the different deaths you’ll come across. There’s no achievements for completing each game, just dying, which I found a very odd decision, though you’ll most likely find many of them natural as you play through each game if you’re not using a walkthrough. Some deaths make sense, like using the gun on yourself in Déjà Vu, while others are simply a lesson learned, like how stealing a pot of gold or smashing the wrong mirror in a roomful of them. These games came from a time with zero hand holding, so you made notes and adjusted for the next play through. Luckily game saves have been implemented in this anthology should you run out of time to play, and when you do die, you simply get reverted to the previous room before your untimely death.

It’s unfair to judge these games with how they look and sound compared to today’s standards, as these are more than 30 years old. During the time though, these were impressive. Sure, they don’t look good today, but there’s still an appreciation I have for 8-bit graphics and sounds, which is done wonderfully here. The soundtrack is also very rudimentary, with only small repeated music loops, but again, I was whisked right back to my childhood once I heard the music for Shadowgate start up. The music is very basic, and will surely grate on some peoples nerves, but I find it endearing to a gaming age long gone.

While these games are straight ports, there were a few small additions that allow for different TV settings to replicate old style TV’s, further enhancing your nostalgia. You can turn on CRT lines, play in black and white, even play with visuals like those old tube type of TV’s that had the rounded corners, among others. You can even choose different aspect ratios should you desire, but there’s no gameplay change or additions aside from the option to freely save.

Games like these really show how different gaming was back then, showcasing how far we’ve come across all facets, such as visuals, audio, user interface, and hand holding. Games back then were brutally difficult and completing games like these required patience and experimentation. These are faithful ports, even with their flaws intact, though I wish there was some extras or bonus material to unlock, or at least something other than combining the 3 game roms into one package and calling it a day.

8-bit Adventure Anthology: Volume One is simply a port of three classic games from the mid 80’s, and for just a few bucks ($7.99) CAD, it’s a great way to see what games were like three decades ago when kids my age were growing up, dealing with brutally difficult games and zero assistance (unless we were able to find a strategy guide or gaming magazine with hints and walkthroughs). Even though they don’t age well, they bring me back 30 years, sitting in front of my tube TV for hours on end. I can’t wait to see what games are included with Volume Two.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 >observer_

I’m usually not one for the whole cyberpunk dystopian futuristic setting, but >observer_ (simply referred to as Observer from here on) was a compelling experience essentially from the very beginning. It really kicks it into high gear once you realize what the hook of the game is, and that is experiencing some truly unique and abstract visuals that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, not just in games, but even film. Created by Bloober Team, best known for the critically acclaimed Layers of Fear, there’s no preparing you for what you’re going to experience from a visual perspective with Observer.

You see, Observer is attempting to be a physiological horror game, and while there may only be a handful of jump scares, some of the abstract imagery could be classified as horror, and you can see the team’s progression as a game studio. Observer feels fresh, as if they were trying to do something new, and even though there’s a handful of issues, I kept having to play until the story came to a conclusion and the credits rolled.

Observer simply asks: "What would you do if your fears got hacked and used against you?" It’s an odd question, as I know what fears I have and what scares me, but what twisted things could possibly be in other people’s heads? Set in 2084, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a corporate funded ‘police’ unit whose sole function is to hack into suspects minds, and you are simply known as an Observer. This is achieved easily, as it seems nearly everyone has had some sort if cybernetic implants, making the Chrion Corporation a super power that runs nearly everything in this digital focused world.

There’s been a digital outbreak, simply known as the Nanophage, which brings the digital dependent civilization practically to its knees. Observers are meant to be used to investigate crimes, easily finding the truth, as you can’t hide information that’s in your mind when hacked; and they will use any evidence against you. It’s a scary vision of a world that could be.

Observer begins with Daniel sitting in his car, receiving a troubling call from his distant son with no real explanation before the call ends. He tracks down his son's whereabouts to rundown apartment building in the seedy part of the city. This building seems to house some nasty people, and as you investigate further, in search of your son, you’ll uncover some troubling situations, and people, who you’ll need to interact with. I don’t want to go much more into the narrative, as the story that unfolds is quite interesting, even if it only lasts around 6 hours or so.

You play in first person, and at its core I would best describe Observer as a puzzle/detective/exploration game. The majority of the gameplay in the beginning is based around searching the apartment complex for clues and investigating crime scenes. There’s the odd dialogue choices that you get to make when conversing with people, but they are minor. There’s no guns or weapons, as a good portion of your gameplay experience will be inside the minds of others.

Your overall mission is to find your missing son, but in these slums people don’t cooperate with Observers, so you won’t find much help, leaving you mostly on your own to solve the mystery, following the smallest leads and clues. There’s no overlay map in the game either, so you’ll routinely become lost, even when you find the apartment maps plastered on the wall. Luckily, you’ll eventually become accustomed to the apartment block’s layout, but it will take some time aimlessly wandering around until you feel comfortable navigating the multi-floor building. Nearly every door is locked with no means in, so if you’re lucky, you’ll have one of the neighbors answer the door via their telecom and actually talk to you. This reinforces the fear the citizens have of the Nanophage and also the feeling of isolation a world like this could become.

Eventually you’ll come across various crime scenes that need to be investigated, which brings in one of the main mechanics to Observer. To search the scene for clues, you’ll need to use your 3 different vision modes, each specializing in a function. The Right Bumper allows you to see cybernetic items, like implants, wires and anything else digital based. The Left Bumper is your Biogenic vision which allows you to examine biological material, namely blood, in search of clues.

To be honest, I got stuck in the very first room for a while, as there isn’t a lot of explanation to introduce you how to properly use your 3 vision modes. Once you get the hang of it, and know what to look for, you’ll feel like a digital version of Batman in no time, knowing what to seek out with glowing outlines of objects that can be scanned or interacted with. Using any of your different visions basically blurs everything else in your sight except the cybernetic or biogenic objects, based on which view your using. There’s also a night vision mode to navigate dimly lit areas, but there’s only one or two places throughout the campaign where you’ll need it briefly.

Scanning items, objects, clues and people is where you’ll put your case together, learning more about your objective or how to find out where to go next. There are even a few sidequests that you can partake in if you’re adept enough at finding and solving certain puzzles and clues. While this adds a little more length to the gameplay, they are completely optional. There’s even a mini retro game to play should you find all of the terminals hidden throughout.

Where things get weird is when you hack into someone’s mind. The main idea behind Observer is hacking into people’s subconscious, so you’ll experience imagery that you’ve never seen before. You’ll witness events of what’s happened in the past to that person, their fears, memories and more. Many of these sequences won’t make sense in the traditional sense, and there’s a lot of symbolism that takes place, but to say that these sections are ‘weird’ is putting it lightly.

If you’ve ever wondered what the subconscious looks like in visual form, I would suspect Observer does a great job at trying to visualize that concept. Some of it is extremely disturbing, horrifying and plain confusing, but it is one hell of an experience. There’s only a handful of these sequences, so I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that the level design, even though mostly linear, is very memorable and unique to anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Reality can be distorted in the mind, and that’s the case here as well. Sometimes you’ll have to solve a puzzle, some of which are done in a very clever way. For example, there’s an endless hallway that seems to repeat itself every time you walk through the door, but you’ll notice a TV off to the side shows a picture of a specific doorway, so you go that way. The next time you walk through the door it shows a different doorway, which is your clue to follow this ‘path’. Do so successfully and you’ll make your way out of the never ending hallway, fail and you’re doomed to be forever wandering aimlessly in someone’s mind.

Later in the game there are some hacking sections where you’re pursued by a creature, and while I completely understand why, due to the narrative, these sections were included, they were more tiresome than enjoyable. I always dreaded knowing that I had to avoid a hulking creature trying to find me and that these stealth sections simply aren’t fun. To say that these mind hack sections can disorientate you is an understatement; remember, there are no rules in someone’s mind, and you need to let go and accept that.

Visually, Observer is very impressive, even more so when you realize how small the team that developed it is. The world is completely believable, as you see the bright cyber influences at nearly every corner counteract with the dark and dingy real world. That being said, there are some framerate issues, even on the Xbox One X, quite frequently actually. Navigating from one area to another will almost always chug down the framerate into the low single digits, completely pulling you out of the immersion.

Sound design is worth noting as well, as the background ambiance completely fits the mood and backdrop, and some of the voice acting is done quite well. I say some though with regret. Daniel is voiced by the one and only Rutger Hauer, who has quite a film pedigree, so there’s no question to his acting ability, but there were quite a few times where the delivery of some lines felt completely flat. Acting and voice acting are completely different skillsets, and I’m not sure if the was going for the whole monotone style, but it didn’t seem fitting for some of the situations his character was in. That’s not to say it’s all bad, but it’s not perfect.

The framerate issues are probably the worst offender to negatively affect the game, but I’ve also had some minor bugs that were more frustrating than critical. For example, I’ve had the game outright crash on 3 separate occasions completely randomly, though I only lost 5 minutes or so of progress each time. Also, I had times where my UI became bugged, one time locking me into one of the vision modes, unable to switch or disable it, causing me to restart the game yet once again.

>observer_ is a very unique title, as it’s heavily narrative driven and contains some of the most visceral and unique imagery I’ve ever experienced in a game. Some of the mind sequences are quite horrifying and paint a light on a future that, in all honesty, isn’t really that far off from our reality. Even though it may be wrapped in a science fiction cyberpunk package, the experience within is a very dark one.

The gameplay elements may be basic and not exciting on their own, but it’s more about the journey you undertake rather than just reaching the end point. The level design is brilliant and some of the experiences are very memorable even though it has flaws. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and want to experience something completely unique and twisted, look no further than >observer_.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 N++

When Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360 was in its infancy, N+ was one of the first titles that I played and truly enjoyed that was from a small developer. Metanet Software originally created a game called N as a small Flash game, eventually sparking the sequel, N+, which was to become one of the better titles from the Xbox Live Arcade’s early days. Here we are many years later with another sequel, appropriately named N++ (pronounced N Plus Plus), and even though it may not have many huge changes to its core formula, it’s much bigger in scope and has enough replayability to last you quite some time. It’s been 10 years in the making, but N++ still has a minimalistic approach to its gameplay with stripped down visuals, focusing on fun while being incredibly challenging at the same time. Just like N+, N++ deserves just as much praise.

Even though there’s a single player component, there’s no real narrative, well, not really anyways. What is there is a very clever way to explain the game mechanics as if it’s part of a story and reason why you play the way you do. In fact, here’s a piece what is written in the game under the Story menu:

"You are a ninja. Your god-like speed, dexterity, jumping power, and reflexes are all the result of an amazingly fast metabolism; tragically, so is your natural lifetime of 1.5 minutes. It emphasizes pacifism, humility, and the need to traverse a series of 5 rooms before the end of your lifetime, a feat known only as 'beating an episode'".

If you’ve played N or N+ in the past you’ll feel right at home and know exactly what to do with little instruction. If not, the basic premise is that you need to use momentum to reach your goal, oh, and you’re a stick figure ninja that can run, wall jump, and more. The catch is that you only have a short amount of time to beat a set of 5 levels, and each set is called an episode. A ninja needs some serious skills to reach the goal, a TRUE ninja will do it fast and accurately, collecting dots along the way to increase ones time. If anything, N++ almost feels like a map pack to N+, as the formula is vastly unchanged, aside from some tweaks and small additions, but included is a massive amount of levels that will challenge you the whole way, over 4000 of them actually.

The learning curve for N++ feels just right, as you don’t hit a brick wall of difficulty out of nowhere. The game does will get very difficult much later in the game. New mechanics and enemies are slowly introduced, allowing you to become accustomed to them, then slowly ramping up the challenge as you progress. Even though the game can test your 'gaming skills', I never felt any kind of frustration that made me want to quit playing. Movement and momentum play a large part of the gameplay, and once you get a feel for the controls and start to maneuver your ninja where you want, it becomes a smooth experience.

It should be noted that every one of the 4000+ levels are completely hand crafted, no procedurally generated levels here, which means that each level has been painstakingly created and tested for a specific solution. It’s a puzzle game in a sense, as to solve each level you need to hit a switch to open the exit gate before proceeding to the next stage. Jumps, ramps, and enemies are placed with purpose, so if you can’t figure out how to complete a level, it’s not because of the design, but you just need to think harder, and try harder. Every single stage has a leaderboard too, so you can see how you stack up against everyone else online including your friends. These leaderboards even exist for yours, and everyone else’s, created levels, which is unheard of, especially for a smaller indie game like this. While N++ may have a very bare bones minimalistic visual look to it, there’s a slew of color pallets and schemes you can unlock as you progress to further customize your game should it start to become stale.

The 4000+ hand crafted levels are spread across a range of different modes such as Solo, Hardcore, Co-op and Race. There’s more than enough content here to keep you, and your friends, busy for quite some time.

The cooperative mode allows for local play for up to 4-players, and the levels are designed with multiple players in mind, some of which will require one or more players to actually sacrifice themselves to be completed. Only one ninja needs to make it to the entrance, so you’re all working together, but some will get glory, and others, well they will get electrocuted.

Next is the competitive mode, which is for up to 4-players as well, called Race. Here you are racing against one another to reach the exit the quickest. The ninja with the fastest reflexes will earn a bonus before moving onto the next stage.

Lastly, and for those that can truly best all that N++ has to offer, there is a hardcore mode. Here is where you will find the hardest challenges that will require some serious skill to not only complete, but to finish with a good time. The clock isn’t reset when you die, unlike in the normal mode, and gold adds time to your bar, but only after you reach the exit. Dying equals a game over, so you better get those reflexes ready for some serious challenge.

If you’re the creative type, the fantastic Level Editor returns once again, allowing you to not only create any levels that you can imagine, but also share them online for anyone else to download and play. This essentially takes the massive 4000+ included levels to a whole new level, essentially giving you endless gameplay. Every single stage that has been created by users has a leaderboard associated with it as well, so you can see how you rank against everyone else, or how others fair on your creation.

I understand that indie games don’t usually include online multiplayer, and even though local co-op is supported, I kept wishing I could play with others online. Worst case, I wish that ghost downloads were possible from the leaderboard screen. I know this is more of a wishlist request, but it does feel that’s the one component that could have brought N++ to an even higher level. That being said, the soundtrack is a great mix of electronic artists and the gameplay is essentially refined to near perfectness.

N++ is incredibly challenging, but never unfair (not including the insane player made levels), as controls are very precise and everything simply works the way it should. It takes some serious skill to tackle the later stages and hardcore mode, but that comes in time. There’s absolutely no shortage of levels to play, as the amount of content is baffling, again, not even including the online creator level sharing capability. I’m glad that N++ is here and in my game library, as I felt right at home ninja jumping and sliding from the get go, as it caters to the gamers that want to sit down and play for hours, or the kind that only have 10 minutes to get a few levels in.

Overall Score: 8.9 / 10 Raiders of the Broken Planet

Raiders of the Broken Planet is an intriguing title. What, you haven't heard of it? That’s ok, neither had I until this fell into my lap to review. Developed by MercurySteam, best known for Clive Barker’s Jericho and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (along with its sequel), they are a small developer, but they have a solid pedigree, so it was my assumption that there was little concern about how Raiders of the Broken Planet would turn out. Well, I guess I should have been a little more cautious in my expectations.

In an interesting business model, you’re actually able to download the tutorial and first mission for free. This will give you taste of the gameplay. Should this entice you, it then offers new episodic content for purchase separately should you desire more time with it. Normally I would really be impressed with a pay model like this, as it’s not a simple demo of the best part, but it is the actual beginning of the game where your progress carries over should you purchase the episodes.

That being said, you’re going to absolutely need 3 to 4 friends to fully enjoy this title, as it’s heavily suggested you play online, as doing it with random people is an absolute nightmare if you can even find other players to begin with. Even if you manage to have the perfect group of friends, there’s a lot of design choices and mechanics that raise flags and concern, as you will struggle to figure out the most basic premises as well as what the handful of currencies entail and how to get them. Luckily for you I’ve put in more hours than I wanted to, but I believe I finally have a grasp on the game as a whole.

First, let’s begin with the narrative that takes place on a literal broken planet, dubbed, the Broken Planet. This planet has a massive crack in it and is split in half, but there’s a mysterious substance inside, Aleph, that everyone seems to covet. This substance has attracted many different factions, including your gang, the Raiders. When soldiers take Aleph, it turns them into super soldiers, so think of it like steroids mixed with Energon in a sense, so that’s why it’s so valuable. Of course the shady factions and bandits want it for nefarious reasons, trying to stockpile as much as possible.

Your group is led by Harec, and he only has a small team to thwart humans off of the Broken Planet and send them back to Earth. Harec and company are essentially trying to bring peace to this shattered world, but they meet mass resistance along the way. Each of The Raiders in this rag-tag group is an anti-hero in their own right, and each possess a very distinct personality (and gameplay).

As for the setting, the backdrop has a Mad Max/Borderlands feel to it, mixed with some Gears of War hulking brute archetypes and cover based gameplay. Sure, the story is a bit cliché, and these are overused tropes, but the characters are interesting, even if the voice acting is a little mismatched at times. It’s as if they had a checklist of accents they wanted in the game and they gave each character a different one just for the sake of being well rounded, so it’s a little odd at times, especially with the amount of swearing that comes out of their mouths. I’m not opposed to foul language by any means, but it just seems a little forced and out of place at times, making for a more intolerable character instead of one you want to rally behind. While the premise is interesting, there’s numerous issues in gameplay and design choices that drag this down further than it should.

The core gameplay is a cover based third person shooter where you can choose from a handful of different characters, each with their own weapons and abilities. I’d like to say gameplay is much like what you’d expect from Gear of War, given that much of your time will be behind cover, but don’t expect anything near that quality, as there are a lot of odd design decisions that bog down the experience, and the shooting mechanics even feel weak.

Missions task you with varying objectives, from holding off an attack, shooting down air support, planting bombs, and of course, boss fights. What I did enjoy was the varied objectives, as each mission feels distinctly different in its own right, but the endless respawning of grunts and enemies means you’re constantly having to move and work without much time to assess what to do next, so you should make sure to simply focus on your objective as best as possible. Playing solo on normal isn’t too challenging, though that depends on the mission, as some are very challenging to do alone. Play with people online and the number of enemies and difficulty will scale based on how many Raiders are in the match. While you can technically play Raiders of the Broken Planet offline and solo, it’s not the same experience, and you earn better rewards for playing with others.

Where Raiders begins to falter early on is in explaining its mechanics and objectives. For example, in the first mission you’re tasked with shutting down some reactors, but when you’re beside them you don’t have a prompt to do so, nor can you shoot them. Regular grunts are simply distractions and don’t pose much threat, but every so often, usually in phases, there will be more challenging enemies that are buffed from Aleph. What wasn’t explained very well, and had me scratching my head on what to do, was that you need to kill these elites to gain their Aleph, which is then used for the objectives, like shutting down the reactors.

Oh, you shot down the Elite and didn’t get any Aleph? That’s because you’re forced to melee them to absorb it. In a terrible design decision, this is also how you replenish your ammunition. Yes, shooting enemies in a cover based shooter won’t make enemies drop ammo, but instead, you’re obligated to run into melee range and defeat them that way, even if you’re a sniper. It wasn’t explained very well that I had to not only absorb Aleph from elites, but also melee to get it, so while I was doing that portion of the objective, I was confused why I was facing endless enemies over and over again.

Another core mechanic that the majority of gameplay is based upon is your character’s stress meter. Yes, giant hulking anti-heroes apparently become stressed from shooting, dodging, and even running. If your meter fills up past a certain point, enemies will be able to sense your heartbeat and zero in on your location. You can also see enemies through walls due to their heartbeat too, and this is important since there’s no map at all. Every so often you’ll see an enemy with a blue heartbeat, and they are weak but generally simply there to stop you from your objective. In the example above, the engineers simply try and cancel your objective meter from filling, which means you need to absorb more Aleph from an elite and start over. You can start to see how this becomes frustrating, especially if you’re playing solo and can’t cover each objective efficiently on your own.

As you progress through the campaign, you’ll unlock new characters. Most of these join Harec’s team through some sort of rescue mission, and while they are all unique and interesting, you can’t go back to older levels and use them on stages they weren’t meant for. It’s an odd decision, as focusing on a certain character’s abilities and customizing them seems almost a moot point if you’re not playing the missions they aren’t allowed to enter.

You’ve got different characters that use different such as snipers, shot guns, energy weapons and my personal favorite, a gatling gun. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses while filling in a specific style of gameplay for your squad. Players cannot choose the same character when online, so if you get stuck with someone you’ve never played before, or don’t enjoy, well too bad. There’s a real world money option should you want to purchase new characters, but after doing the math conversion, paying over $30 for character access is just atrocious.

This is another area that’s not explained at all, as you can upgrade your character in specific ways, but you’ll need to sift through and figure out what character points, faction points, gold, and coins do. There’s a card based system that determines what abilities your character currently uses, but I’ve still yet to figure out how to get new ones, or if it’s completely random. You can add more perks, but that costs character and faction points, a currency you earn for completing online missions. Yes, you don’t earn these from solo play, so if you’re not planning on playing online, well, good luck. So much here isn’t explained, and the only reason I took the time to try and figure it all out is because of trying to do this review justice; your average player won’t have a clue what to do or how.

This is where the multiplayer comes in. As noted above, you’re essentially forced to play online if you want to make any meaningful character progress. There’s an option in the top right menu to play solo or online, so of course I