MEMBER PROFILE FOR Variation-XBA

Total Reviews: 333
Average Overall Score Given: 7.39249 / 10
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Reviews
X-Morph: Defense

It seems that at one point Tower Defense games were insanely popular. There have always been a lot of them around and there’s no shortage of games in the genre. That being said, if you’re looking for something new and unique, that’s pretty rare these days. It seems EXOR Studios has addressed this shortage though, combining tower defense with a top down twin-stick shooter. Oh, and you’re also the intruder this time around instead being the one who tries to stop the alien invasion. I was expecting another typical tower defense game, but instead I enjoyed what is offered, although it is far from perfect.

You play as an alien race, seeking planets to harvest for resources. Scouring the universe, you happen to come upon that blue planet you see in so many picutres. Yep, you arrive at Earth, a resource rich planet that looks prime for the taking. It’s a shame that humans don’t take lightly to alien races harvesting their planet, so you’re going to need to defeat waves of armies to protect your base as you attempt to terraform the Earth.

You begin your planet takeover going country to country, each one acting as a new level, each one showcasing more human resistance as you progress. You’ll need to deal with ground and air armies, along with a few special surprises along the way, and although playing as the bad guy is a fun take on the genre, it does tend to get a little repetitive after a while. The narrative has a base guideline but there’s no engaging storyline aside from its general premise, which is a shame, but at least some effort was made, unlike most tower defense games that lack any narrative purpose or basis.

The core gameplay takes place is two separate stages. The first stage is where you prepare for the imminent human attack. Pressing ‘Y’ allows your controllable ship to move around in Ghost Mode, making you move very quickly and be invisible to your enemies. This also allows you to use your limited resources that you’ve gained to place turrets nearly anywhere you like on the map in strategic locations. Your superior alien knowledge allows you to visualize and determine the human’s pathway of attacks, allowing you to strategically choose the best attack and choke points.

The other stage of battle is during the actual attack phase, defending against waves of human armies who are trying to destroy your base. Once the armies are wiped clear, and your base is safe, you’ll repeat this process 5 or 6 times per level until you reach the final boss stage. I won’t spoil these end waves though, as they were some of the best moments from X-Morph: Defense. Complete each wave and the level is complete, allowing you to move onto the next country for world domination.

While humans won’t overpower you with weaponry, as you’re an alien lifeform that can shoot lasers (pew-pew), bombs, and other weaponry, what they do well though is overwhelm you with their sheer numbers. Most enemies are easy to destroy on their own, save for some heavy tanks and other vehicles, but when you have dozens coming from all directions simultaneously, you can become quickly overwhelmed. You’ll need quick reaction time and be able to place your limited towers strategically if you want to keep your base intact against humanity.

The routes that the humans use to reach your base can be visually seen on the overview map as you pilot your ship around. If left untouched, the armies will make a quick trek to your base and defeat you quite swiftly, so one of your main goals is to make their path as long as possible to reach your base. Although there is a singular path that can potentially reach your base (or else it would be easy to trap them in a loop), when you have many starting points all around the map, there will almost always be multiple exits for enemies to reach your base.

You’re able to place towers in designated areas of the map, though you’ll always want to place them near the enemies’ set route. Not only do turrets act as automatic fire against the humans, but if you place two nearby each other and you can actually link them together with a light fence, stopping any troops from passing through (unless of course there’s the only one path to your base remaining). These fences force the humans to take a different path, making their journey to your base longer, allowing you more time to destroy them. This is a unique take on the tired turret placing; however, what I really enjoyed was that they can be moved at any time without consequence, and should one become destroyed, you gain back your resources to replace it once again instantaneously.

The combat of X-Morph is a lot of fun, being able to maneuver your ship and shoot in any direction like a decent twin-stick shooter. You’ll have special attacks that can be charged up for more damage and the controls work surprisingly well. You can’t simply rely on your turrets, as they won’t be enough to stop the enemy alone, so the bulk of your gameplay will be controlling your ship and shooting everything that’s attempting to swarm and reach your base.

Between matches you’re able to choose from an array of different upgrades, meant to deal with different situations. These cost in-game points to use, so you’ll need to decide on which upgrades to load for each attempt. This upgrade system allows for varied gameplay when you try the stages again on harder difficulties, allowing you to experiment with different strategies. The number of upgrades is quite surprising, and before selecting each stage you’ll see what types of enemies you’ll be facing to help you better decide which upgrades to focus on, such as changing your turrets to counter air or ground units specifically for example.

Even though X-Morph eventually feels like a grind, there’s many reasons, and options, for you to continue playing and repeat levels numerous times. While I’ve yet to delve deeply into the local split-screen mode, as I don’t generally have friends over to game, it’s worth noting that it does exist, something that many in the genre don't tend to possess. Having one person responsible for attacking and the other dedicated to building and turret maintenance sounds like a ton of fun.

Even on the Easy difficulty, the gameplay can become quite challenging in the later stages, as one wrong turret placement or failure to relocate them quick enough can result in becoming overrun and your base will fall. I never tend to get excited about a new tower defense game, as a majority of the time it’s always results in a 'been-there-done-that' kind of feeling, but X-Morph: Defense did enough to switch things up, adding new mechanics and gameplay, yet still preserving that core Tower Defense feeling.

If you’re a fan of the tower defense genre you’ll no doubt enjoy your time with this game, testing out the upgrades, working on optional objectives and fighting bosses that break up the monotony. Even though fatigue may eventually come quickly for casual fans of the genre, and the difficulty can spike quickly, kudos to EXOR Studios for creating a different tower defense X-Perience.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Super Comboman: Smash Edition

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Small indie studio starts a Kickstarter to fund their game and bring their vision to gamers around the world. Yea I know, this is a pretty common routine these days, and sometimes the result is an awesome game, while other times not so much. Super Comboman started out this way, asking for a modest amount on Kickstarter to help fund their game to bring it to the masses. Enough seemed to believe in their vision, as it released on PC initially, but is now here for console players as well.

You’re Struggles, a lovably chubby older brother who takes care of his younger sibling, Biscuit. Struggles is having a hard time making ends meet financially, something I can relate with, so he sets off to collect coins and money to help pay their mortgage. Where their parents are, I have no idea, but to make ends meet Struggles will punch, kick and combo his way through all of his construction co-workers to get the job done and collect his coveted paycheck at the end of each stage.

If that sounds like an odd premise for you it only gets weirder when you realize Struggles is trying to emulate Super Comboman, one of his favorite comic book heroes. Oh, and he has a talking fanny pack. Yes, you read that right. It’s an odd premise and setup, but the colorful and friendly visuals seem to just make it work, so don’t question it too much as you fight your way across a 2D landscape through dozens of enemies.

The core gameplay will have you punching and fighting your way through tons of worker enemies, though at first it will seem a little confusing with the controls. You have a regular attack, a stun attack and a power move, along with being able to double jump, though your move repertoire will expand greatly as you progress. As you play more and more, fighting will feel more natural as you get used to the controls and enemy patterns.

Your light attack is what you’ll be mashing the most, as you can attack with it as much as you like, but does very little damage. Your heavy attack will knock back enemies and do a large amount of damage but is tied to your stamina, so you can only use it sparingly. You also can utilize a Stun attack, also tied to a slowly regenerating meter, allowing you to knock enemies off their feet for a short period so you to gain an upper hand. Use the heavy or stun attacks too much and Struggles will briefly become stunned himself, leaving himself vulnerable to enemy attacks, so you need to watch your meters and combo efficiently across all types of attacks.

As you smash boxes and defeat enemies they will disperse coins to collect and food that will replenish your health. These coins will later be used in the Combo Store, allowing you to purchase new movesets that will allow you to combo attack in many new ways. What surprised me was that many of these moves are performed with Street Fighter-like inputs, rather than straight button combinations. While this adds an interesting fighting element, it’s a little convoluted when you need to smash buttons and also twist in some Street Fighter inputs like fireballs as well.

You can also purchase Perks, allowing you to gain a short term bonus once you’ve reached a certain combo number. These perks activate automatically once your streak becomes a specific number, adding defense, offence or other bonuses. You can have two perks at once, switching them between stages to suit your play style or make up for where you lack skill wise. Level design is very straight forward with only one real path to follow, though there are a few short paths to find hidden sticker collectibles. These are strictly for collecting, adding a little more length to the gameplay should you be inclined.

The first few levels start off easy enough, throwing just a handful of enemies at you with nothing terribly challenging. Eventually more enemies, and more difficult ones, will be thrown your way, along with having to platform and avoiding instant death spikes as well. You begin each stage with three lives, a classic staple for games of old, with nostalgia eventually kicking in when you start dying repeated times, having to restart stages from the beginning. Game Over’s can be frustrating when you near the end of a stage, only to have a new tough enemy thrown at you without warning, causing you to die and have to restart all the way from the beginning.

Balancing could use a little work, as new enemies should be introduced near the beginning of a level to teach you how to fight against them properly, instead of near the end, causing you to die and have to repeat the whole stage over again numerous times. I became quite frustrated with this, as 30 minutes into a level I keep dying, only to be reset at the beginning. There are a decent amount of checkpoints, but they only are for your 3 initial lives, not continues.

What helps set Super Comboman apart from the competition is its vibrant and colorful art style. The characters of the world look like stickers, so the animations are simplistic yet work fluidly. The story is told through cutscenes and dialogue boxes, but sadly they aren’t narrated. In general, the audio as a whole is a little unforgettable, as you’ll mostly be hearing the attacks and smashing of boxes more than a memorable soundtrack.

If you’re a fan of the 2D platformer brawlers, then you’ll no doubt enjoy your time with Super Comboman, especially with its vibrant and colorful visuals. There’s some depth here for those that want to grind for coins and unlock new movesets and perks, but your average fan might be a little overwhelmed with the sudden spikes of difficulty. Super Comboman was fun, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression, so unless you’re a huge fan of the genre I suggest waiting for a decent sale to pick it up before helping Struggles with his struggles.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 BLEED

It’s funny that indie games still have a stigma about their quality. Sure, many of them don’t look pretty, but I know my thoughts about them have drastically changed over the last couple of years, as you sometimes find some gems that you probably would have never even looked at twice otherwise. BLEED is one of those games that I wouldn’t have probably even glanced at previously, but after playing it I can honestly say that I am quite glad that I got to experience it.

You play as female protagonist Wryn, determined to become the greatest hero of the world. The problem here though is that the world already has a handful of beloved heroes, so to take the glory all for herself she’s going to have to prove that she’s the better than those that are already considered the best in the world. To do so she’s going to have to defeat some massive monsters plaguing the world and even rid the previous heroes in an effort to prove that she is definitely better qithout question. It’s a cute premise, and while there no real narrative beyond that idea, BLEED’s strengths comes from its straightforward and challenging gameplay.

BLEED controls much like a twin-stick shooter, moving with the Left Stick and aiming/firing with the Right. Since you need to constantly use both sticks, jumping and dashing is done with the Right Trigger, which can feel unnatural in the beginning, but eventually it won’t become much of an issue. You’re able to double and triple jump with the trigger as well, something that you’ll need to master to not only reach high and far platforms out of normal reach, but to avoid enemies and bullets. When you double or triple jump, it acts more like a dash in whatever direction you aim, so it takes some getting used to, but it becomes absolutely critical later on, especially on difficult boss fights. Wryn also has the ability to slow down time for a short period with the Left Trigger, a necessity for also surviving boss battles and mass projectiles.

Story Mode is where you’ll want to start, as that’s how you’ll unlock the other modes, which I’ll delve into shortly. There’s only a handful of levels, with each feeling unique and has its own setting. Defeat the two bosses found in the stage and you’ll be able to move onto the next. Stages aren’t terribly long, with the whole game being able to be completed on Easy in roughly an hour, but there are multiple difficulty levels and upgrades to earn that add some replayability. I initially started on Normal difficulty but I quickly bumped that down to Easy until I got the hang of things with some much needed practice.

Wryn begins her journey with a pair of dual pistols and a rocket launcher, but as you progress through the game, and earn credits for completing levels, you’ll be able to purchase new weapons, though I still mostly continued using the dual pistols for the duration of my gameplay time due to their quick firing and decent damage. You are also able to spend your coins upgrading your health bar or extending the duration of your slow-mo, which ever one manages to fit your play style. I suggest playing through the Easy levels a few times, earning credits and spending them on upgrades, before attempting Normal and above.

Due to the low number of levels found in the game, you’re meant to play through each level multiple times, especially since some of the levels can be completed very quickly. Luckily, checkpoints are more than generous, and when you do eventually die, especially on the harder difficulty levels, you won’t lose much progress. If you become a master at BLEED, then you’ll want to challenge yourself with the Arcade mode, which tasks you with attempting to complete the whole game with one life whole managing not to die. I’ve still yet to do this successfully on Easy, so goodluck.

Boss battles are fun and frequent, and while you simply need to memorize their attack patterns, they can be quite challenging, requiring you to use all your tools at your disposal, especially your slow-mo dashes to avoid being hit. No boss was terribly difficult, yet they were still a challenge, so the balance was just right. There’s also a Challenge Mode that pits you against 1 to 3 of the bosses of your choice once you’ve beaten them in Story Mode. Battling two at a time was a great challenge, though I’ve still yet to beat three at once. Again, it adds more value to BLEED for those wanting to sink more time into it after the short campaign.

BLEED challenged me a lot more than I thought it would, especially on the harder difficulties. You’re going to need quick reflexes and perfect aim to conquer these difficult challenges. Even though the level count is very low, being able to earn currency by completing them numerous times encourages replayability, making subsequent runs somewhat easier with each upgrade, eventually giving you the confidence to try a harder difficulty. With its low cost of entry, BLEED is a fun little title to tide you over for a day or two if you want to challenge yourself and don’t mind replaying levels a handful of times. Heck, BLEED is also a great distraction when you want a break from playing any of the triple A titles that may be out this fall too.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Vostok Inc

I’ll be honest; I would have never looked at Vostok Inc if it hadn’t appeared in my lap to review, but I am sure glad that it did. All I knew going in was that it was a money-making game where you’re trying to amass a fortune... in space. I honestly expected my playtime to be very quickly done, but here I am, hours later, letting the game run in the background as my bank account skyrockets while I do chores and write this. Your goal is to make obscene amounts of moolah, yet the game is presented in an odd mashup of Geometry Wars and Clicker Heroes of sorts; not what I expected, but the result was entertaining none the less.

You’re the CEO of Vostok Inc and your primary goal is to earn as much cash as you can. This simple goal will have you traveling to other solar systems to take over and colonize every planet you can find to set up different types of refineries and watching your bank account bloat. Aliens don’t take kindly to you trespassing in their corner of space from planet to planet to take over their homes, which serves as a very loose storyline of sorts.

To begin you’ll need to raise some capital, done so by destroying asteroids with your tiny ship in space. Yes, this capitalist game takes place in space and plays like a twin-stick shooter for many parts of it. Destroying asteroids will net you small amounts of money, but collect enough and you’ll be on your way to starting to mine planets. You’ll also have Jimmy, whom will annoy you at every chance he can get with tips and tricks of what to do next, or offer repeated and useless advice.

Be prepared to hear from Jimmy on a constant basis, as he’ll constantly be spouting gibberish (with subtitles), attempting to be helpful, but becoming more and more annoying as your journey extends. You just destroyed an asteroid? Jimmy will tell you the benefits of doing so. Had your shields depleted from enemy aliens firing at you? Jimmy will remind you that they replenish over time. Want some random one liners and quips? Jimmy’s got you covered there too. It was only until a handful of hours in that I found the setting to disable Jimmy’s annoying antics from popping up (save for storyline segments), so make sure you do so as soon as possible.

You’ll be taught the basics in the beginning, but I wish there was some more help with the menus and getting started when you colonize planets. The game is simple enough, and after some time you’ll become very quick with the controls, but some more explanation in the beginning would have been quite helpful to understanding the metagame quicker. I didn’t realize that you could buy ship and weapon upgrades, along with general perks to make quality of life much better for the gameplay. Even combining weapons was trial and error as it wasn’t explained. The first while I was simply focusing on combat and asteroid destroying as my source of main income, something that was a huge mistake until I learned better.

Given that a large part of the gameplay is a twin-stick shooter, you’ll feel right at home with the controls. Movement of your ship is controlled with the Left Stick and you fire in any direction with the Right. Fans of Geometry Wars and the sorts will have no problem digging right into the space battles.

Enemies will randomly appear on screen as you travel around in top-down 2D space. Most enemies will be simple with low hitpoints, but as you level up and travel to new solar systems, you’ll encounter more challenging enemies, occasionally to the point of being overwhelmed. Every so often you’ll have a couple of very elusive enemies around you, and if you’re unable to defeat them you’ll be locked into a battle against waves of enemies. Beating these encounters earns you some decent money rewards, so it’s worth doing in the beginning, but that’s before you realize how ludicrous farming for money on planets becomes.

There are even boss battles that need to be defeated before moving onto the next galaxy, though they won’t appear until you’ve earned an obscene amount of money (for that solar system) to even attempt. These are fun little distractions if you enjoy the shooting part of the game, and while not a huge challenge once you’ve learned how to upgrade your ship and weapons, they’re a welcome change of pace.

Speaking of upgrades, once you earn enough spare cash, you’re able to improve your ship and weapons in many ways to suit your playstyle. Improving shields and regeneration can become quite overpowered once you realize that your regenerating shields have to be depleted before you lose hitpoints in battles. Weapon upgrades too cost an obscene amount, but you can eventually unlock 3 different weapons in 3 different slots. Combining different slots makes for some very interesting and unique weapons. Having a pulse laser on its own is no big deal, but have another laser in the second slot and you fire a beam that ricochets and bounces off everything. There’s some interesting combinations that promote experimentation, though some are simply much better than others. You can even hotkey weapon combinations to the D-pad for quick swapping which is a nice touch.

Once you have enough cash you’ll then want to invest in the perk to find managers and executives floating in space. This will put a small blip on your radar, indicating that there’s a person that needs to be rescued before their oxygen runs out. Collect them in time and you’ll recruit them to your empire. These managers will add bonuses to your earnings and can make quite a drastic difference. Executives on the other hand are the ones that will permanently give you awesome bonuses as well. To get these bonuses you need to make sure they’re happy which requires destroying asteroids and enemies to collect items. Give these items to the execs and their perks will make you earn money even quicker. You could focus solely on keeping them happy, but then you’d be missing out on the most rewarding part of the game; earning stacks of cash.

When you land on a planet, you’re able to spend money to place specific buildings, which earn you money over time, only limited to your cash flow and which buildings you’ve unlocked so far. Power Stations are what you’ll begin with, as they are cheap and don’t earn much in return. Eventually you’ll unlock farms, malls, and a handful of other buildings, each costing and earning more than the last. Each building unlock as specific requirements, so just as you think you’re earning a lot of money you’ll unlock a new building that earns more than double than the last. Each building also has a handful of upgrades that can be purchased as well, increasing the income or efficiency of each building.

Keep in mind this is planet to planet, and you’ll need to do the same for each one. You can even save up a lot of money and install an A.T.M., which means you will constantly earn the money, even when not on that planet, or else you need to go to each planet every time to pocket the earnings. Once you learn these mechanics, this is how you really start to rake in the huge dollar amounts. I used to think thousands a second was a lot, then millions, then billons, but your empire grows exponentially, even across solar systems as you progress. Once you realize that the more you spend on your enterprise, the more you’ll earn in return; it just takes time.

This is where a little of the grind comes in, as numerous times I’ve sat the controller down to do other things as my money keeps rolling in, even a half hour at a time. Coming back to a huge bank account is awesome, as is spending all of it quickly on upgrades and more buildings. Earning millions per second is awesome, which eventually becomes billions, trillions and more. Everything eventually costs more, so the earnings are scaled to your progression for the most part, though there are a ton of upgrades I’ve still yet to buy because of the exorbitant prices.

This is where the cycle begins, as you need to spend money to earn money and vice versa. The shooting mechanics are fun, though at times it can feel like two completely different games. I chose to focus on the money earning aspect more, but you will need to do a bit of everything to progress.

Vostok Inc can be funny at times and it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The humor makes its silly premise work and the core gameplay can become quite addictive when you want to build just a few more buildings to make your earnings replenish quicker. Vostok Inc is a grind but a fun one, and with its $14.99 (CAD) price tag, I recommend it if any of the above has sounded entertaining and you want to amass an obscene fortune across the galaxy with some addictive gameplay.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Demetrios: The BIG Cynical Adventure

Even with the stigma of failed Kickstarters, there are a few projects that live up to their promises, Demetrios: The BIG Cynical Adventure being one of those. Developer COWCAT, though technically a one man show by Breton Fabrice, asked for a modest $2500 to help fund his game, and nearly double that was pledged. Technically it didn’t hit the stretch goals to bring Demetrios to consoles, but it seems they made it somehow, as it’s now arrived on Xbox One for point and click fans.

There’s very few point and click adventure games that release these days, nothing like in previous years when there was plenty to go around, so whenever one comes, especially to console, I’m always eager to give them a shot. So how does Demetrios compare with others in the genre, especially with ones from the likes of Artifex Mundi who has the genre on lock down on console? Well, it depends on how immature you are and if you find farts and toilet humour funny. It’s clear that Demetrios doesn’t’ take itself too seriously, which is all part of its charm.

The narrative follows normal guy Bjorn Thonen who runs an antique shop. After acquiring an odd antique he is attacked from behind and his new statue is stolen. Your main goal is to figure out what happened, who did it and why. Bjorn is just a regular dude though and by no means a detective of any sorts, so he’ll need any help he can get, mostly from his next door neighbor crush Sandra.

You’ll start your adventure in your messy apartment, eventually uncovering new locales like down the street, a hotel, bar, graveyard and other exotic places. The tale takes place across 6 different chapters, some lengthier than others, but lasting a surprising amount of time, clocking in just under 6-10 hours or so based on your prowess in the genre and reliance on the hint system.

Bjorn is not the smartest man, so many of his revelations are quite silly, as is the solutions to many of the puzzles. At times the content can become a little gross and vulgar, like using vomit as ‘glue’ for example, but it’s this immature humor that makes Demetris stand out among others. Demetrios has its moments with its humor, eliciting a chuckle here and there, again, if you find toilet humor, farts and urination stuff hilarious.

Visually Demetrios looks like an amateur comic book, with all the dialogue done through text boxes (sadly the goal wasn’t reached for voice acting to be included), though there’s only some minor animations, usually just subtle details like eyes, hair and background items. Just like the genre entails, you’ll be searching for items to collect and saving them for the right puzzle to complete or combining with other items for peculiar solutions. The majority of the puzzles have logical solutions, though combining some of the items together for the item you need can be a little nonsensical at times and a stretch of logic.

Controls are very basic, as you simply move the cursor around and click on objects that can be inspected or interacted with within each scene. Many intractable objects are simply for decoration and fluff, though you can hold the X button to see all of the items in the scene highlighted with labels. What surprised me though was the amount of minigames also included during Bjorn’s journey. Usually games of this type is the same start to finish, but there were times where some minigames were required to progress, such as fishing, horse racing or shooting a fart gun at animals. Yes, you read that right. These games are ridiculously simplistic and don’t require much skill but they help break up the monotony of searching for items across numerous scenes.

There’s an interesting hint system in place that requires you to eat cookies per hint. In every scene there are three cookies hidden in plain view. Each cookie you collect can be eaten to give you a hint of what to do next should you be come stuck and unsure what to do next. The first cookie will give you a very subtle hint, the second a little more description and the third basically telling you exactly what to do. This three tier hint system is quite helpful, and some of the puzzles are a little abstract, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for the cookies to use them for later. The main issue with finding these cookies is that they are so well hidden in the scenes that it turns into a pixel hunt most of the time. Some you’ll find no problem but others will have you completely stumped, as many simply look like a brown pixel or two hidden somewhere. There’s even an achievement for finding every cookie in the game, so good luck without a walkthrough.

Demetrios: The BIG Cynical Adventure doesn’t do anything special that others in the genre don’t, but what it does well is stand out amongst the crowd, even if it is mostly for its immature toilet humor. Man-child’s like myself found myself laughing on more than one occasion as it never tries to take itself seriously at all. Given that Demetrios is created by a single person is even more so impressive, as I was expecting a very short adventure. The story draws out and isn’t as captivating as in the beginning, and there is a lot of going back and forth from scene to scene numerous times, but it’s still an entertaining adventure.

For $10 it may seem a little steep at first glance with its hand drawn visuals that appear low budget, but the length is surprisingly long. Puzzles are never too difficult for the most part, and even if there are moments of frustration of what to do, this is where the cookie hint system comes into play, allowing you to rely on it as much or as little as needed. If you have a juvenile sense of humor you’ll surely enjoy Demtrios for the silliness it presents, even if it can smell at times.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Fortnite

I’ve spent many, many hours in Gear of Wars' Horde modes over the years, and possibly even more in Halo’s Firefight modes, so I clearly enjoy the genre and gameplay, but something about recently released Fortnite just hasn’t clicked for me yet to fully enjoy it. Fortnite is portrayed as a mashup between a survival, building and shooter, and it has some great concepts, even in its Xbox One Game Preview state. Normally we don’t do full-fledged reviews for titles in Game Preview, but given that Epic is currently charging $39.99 to $149.99 (CDN) to play (though it will be Free to Play in 2018), we’re treating it essentially as a regular release since it costs to play.

Story wise, "The Storm" arrived without warning, wiping out 98% of the world’s population. Shortly after, a seemingly endless horde of monsters started to arrive, called Husks. Clearly victims from "The Storm", these creatures are obviously former humans, as you can notice some of them wearing their former skin almost like a jacket. You’re tasked with fighting and pushing back by any means necessary. Overall it’s a pretty intriguing story, though I wish it was delved into the premise a little bit deeper and in a more interesting way than what is presented.

Fortnite is essentially a mashup of Horde mode and the game Minecraft of sorts. You need to split your time gathering resources, building a base to defend and defeating waves of Husks to survive before moving onto the next mission where you repeat the process once again. You’ll collect many different heroes with varying abilities as you progress, so there’s no one hero for you to focus on, as you’ll want to have some diversity to round out your groups. You’ll even have a home-base to call your very own, allowing you to showcase your creativity given you have the materials needed to build your dream base.

Most missions follow the same structure, dumping you into a map so you can harvest wood, stone, and metal resources with your pickaxe. At one point you’ll need to defend the Atlus, a device that thwarts those affected by The Storm, so you’ll need to use your materials to build a base on, and around, the device so that the Husks don’t destroy it as it charges power. This is where the gameplay turns into a shooter with Horde-like elements. During a match it feels as if the genre of gameplay shifts quite quickly from one type to another.

The basics are easy to comprehend, but the game eventually opens up to the point of being vastly overwhelming, which is furthered by the fact that so little is taught to you. I normally play and finish my reviews quite quickly, but this one has taken much longer than usual, and to be completely honest, there’s still a few things I still don’t fully understand; that’s how involved Fortnite can become, yet it doesn’t do a satisfactory job at teaching you much of it. That being said, it’s very simple to jump in and start harvesting and shooting, but the more in-depth meta game will take a lot of time and effort to learn on your own.

Your first dozen hours or so will breeze by, rarely being challenged, but eventually you’ll hit a brick wall and you will be forced to figure out how to craft better weapons, break down unused items, how the game's survivors work and more. It also feels that eventually you get to a point where, if you don’t have some of the top tier weaponry and know how to grind efficiently, you’re going to fall behind, unable to progress without frustration.

In the beginning Fortnite will feel as though you’re playing a survival game, chopping down trees, breaking down buildings and demolishing cars with your pickaxe. Once you have your materials, gameplay then switches to a Minecraft-like style of gameplay. Using your spoils you'll create floors, ceilings, walls, and ramps to defend your base. Lastly, the game then feels like a Horde type of game with non-stop shooting and meleeing hundreds of Husks in an attempt to survive. The varied gameplay is a novel idea. but the problem is that nearly every mission plays out exactly in the same 3-tiered path. To top it off, there are collectible cards, items and literal 'loot pinatas'; this is Fortnite in a nutshell.

Weaponry includes your typical pistols, shotguns and rifles, but you can also arm yourself with hammers, axes, swords and more if you want to be a more melee centric character. Obviously, the more rounded your group composition the better you’ll do, but given you’re randomly acquiring specific characters from loot boxes, you may not find a character that suits your play style for quite some time. It took quite awhile to finally get a decent rare character with skills that I enjoyed before leveling him up. Each different type of class has its own strengths, weaknesses and bonuses, so it’s all based on how you want to play, even if your focus would rather be gathering or building as opposed to shooting.

When you start a game session you’re simply dumped into a world with a short checklist of things to work towards. You’ll want to harvest as much as you can for materials, but there are also items that can be searched for bonus items, allowing you to craft ammunition and gather pieces for crafting better weapons. Treasure chests also randomly fill the world, so you’ll want to find these as soon as possible, as it’s everyone for themselves for the loot within (and material gathering for that matter).

Once you’re onto the building section of the game session, you essentially have freedom of what you want to create and how, though your tools are a bit limited. You work with 3x3 sections of floors and walls, and you can also make ramps from your different materials. If you want to create a window in your wall you just cross out the middle block of the grid before placing it (or edit it afterwards). If you only build the bottom 3 cubes of the grid you’ll make a low lying wall to block Husks from charging in, allowing you to shoot easier. It’s nowhere near as creative as Minecraft, and the interface is very simple, but it gets the job done for basic designs done quickly, which is what you’re usually after.

A major gameplay issue that is quite noticeable is that during most matches anyone can trigger the next phase of gameplay, and without fail someone will always trigger the Atlus defense, usually well before a solid base has been created. This 10 minute defense period requires cooperation to complete successfully, so it’s a little frustrating playing with random online gamers that are just doing whatever they like, sometimes unknowingly.

One of the main issues I have is that items have specific durability. So, you spend all this time farming materials and finally get an awesome blueprint, only to have it decay after a certain amount of use. In the beginning to mid-game point this isn’t a big deal, but when you’re crafting the high end items and they break over time, it’s clear it’s a design mechanic to sink more money into as an artificial challenge. Once you finally wrap your head around the crafting system you’ll come to realize that most of the items you get are pretty standard and not worth much of the hassle.

With all the matches I played, I can without a doubt say that Fortnite is a better game if you play strictly with friends. Playing with random people can work, but rarely as evidenced by the times that I encountered random online gamers. People will go off doing their own thing, and some won’t even help during the defense phase, so it becomes maddening to try and make up for others slack. That said, with a group of friends, especially with one or two that know what they are doing, and can help teach you mechanics better than the game ever attempts to, then it becomes fun. Rounding out your squad is a lot of fun, as is creating a base together to defend exactly however you wish.

My biggest complaint is really just the repetitiveness of the design. Nearly every match plays out the same way and the load times are quite lengthy, which doesn't help. Even though Fortnite will eventually be Free to Play, you need to purchase it to be able to play now, and numerous times, when loading the game, it checks to verify your purchase. This stage (checking my purchase) failed for me quite a few times, requiring me to hard reset my Xbox One to solve the server issue. Yes, this game is in the Game Preview program, so of course there will be bugs, but when people are laying down a lot of cash, this is not acceptable.

For whatever reason, Fortnite simply didn’t sink its hooks into me. I appreciate that it’s trying to be different by melding different styles of gameplay together, but when you’re not a fan of certain aspects and are forced to focus on them every match, it can become tiresome. If the tutorials were better, and taught more of the metagame, I probably would have understood things much clearer than I even do now. Trying to figure out all the currencies, crafting mechanics, strategies, cards and more is quite cumbersome and requires some serious dedication. In the end, you’re going to have to grind, even for simple things like creating ammunition, or of course you can pony up some cash and bypass these roadblocks.

If you have friends to play with and want to devote a good chunk of time into it, Fortnite can showcase a lot of entertaining times with some great teamwork and cooperative builds. As it stands right now though, I think gamers should wait a little while and see what gets added, changed and tweaked. Maybe by then there will be some more variety added to spruce up the tired repetitive gameplay and it will be more of a game that will make a more positive impression on those who play it.

Overall Score: 6.6 / 10 Gigantic

I’ve never been one for MOBA games, so I went into Gigantic with tepid expectations. Like others in the genre, Gigantic is based on a free to play model that allows you to join in without any cost commitment. It is also an Xbox Play Anywhere title, allowing you to play on Xbox One or Windows 10. Like others, there’s a rotating list of free characters to use, though play enough and you can buy your favorites with the in-game currency you earn, or you could pony up and buy it with real cash.

For a MOBA, Gigantic feels very approachable and not too encumbered with very specific strategies that need to be employed to win. The colorful and cartoonish visual style also play a part in this approachability, as does the constant action within the confined maps. I had to describe Gigantic to a friend the other day, while playing it for this review, so I could convince him to give it a shot, and the best I could come up with was a mashup of League of Legends, Smite, World of Tanks, Paladins and Overwatch. Needless to say, that got him to give it a go and we’ve been having a blast together within Gigantic since. Even though it takes influences from other titles, its own unique spin on the genre, and polish, makes it stand out amongst the crowd, and I’m consistently learning new things about it, especially when it comes to gameplay strategies.

There’s no real main story or narrative to Gigantic, which is par for the course for the genre, but your overarching goal is to have your team’s gigantic Guardian defeat the enemy's Guardian, with each team of 5 attempting to help damage or defend. While you don’t control your Guardian directly, the actions you and your team take by defeating foes and other smaller objectives does. It’s a little much to take in at first, even with the tutorial, but once you figure out the smaller intricacies and strategies, Gigantic becomes a ton of fun when you have a team working well together and you’re proficient with a handful of characters.

The game is online multiplayer only, and it allows for 5 versus 5 gameplay (or 5 versus AI bot matches), though you’re forced to complete a tutorial in the beginning moments to give you a brief understanding at some of its mechanics. The tutorial will teach you the basics of shooting and objectives, but there’s simply not enough information given to you to really get an overall grasp on all mechanics, as some of it is very vague or only briefly mentions what things are for, like upgrading creatures. I was overwhelmed at first, not really understanding some of the objectives and mechanics, but I found that once you push through that barrier and ‘get it’, the game opens up completely and starts to make sense.

It actually took me a handful of hours of playing to really understand how all of the mechanics work together. A few matches in I also realized that I was able to upgrade my abilities in different ways. Sure, it was briefly shown to me in the beginning, but not in a clear way, and this is where Gigantic falters, as you won’t really understand many components to it until you’ve put some time to learn on your own with trial and error.

Luckily, you need to rank up a little before being thrown to the wolves in PvP action, so get used to bot matches for the first while, which is welcomed, as the difficulty seems just about right to not only learn the core mechanics, but also test out new characters that suit your playstyle or pique your curiosity. Winning matches, even against bots, earns you overall experience for your account and character that you played that match. Two modes may not seem like much, as is the low map count, but I fully expect more to be added in the future if popularity rises, and while action based shooter MOBA style games aren’t new, the Guardian component of this game really makes Gigantic stand out among the competition, giving it its own flavor to the genre. Each team has its own Guardian, which currently there’s only two of, a griffon and a snake. You fight alongside your Guardians but on a much smaller scale. The two Guardians stay on their respective sides of the map and don’t do much else aside from attacking enemies that get too close, much like towers in other MOBA’s, until your team reaches a certain score.

Once you’ve earned enough points from kills you’ll be prompted that your Guardian is about to strike the opposing team’s Guardian, which is when the most chaos tends to take place. During the time when the Guardians are fighting, the enemies’ Guardian is vulnerable to direct attack from your team, as this is the only time you can actually damage it. This brief window of opportunity will have both teams colliding into a small area to attack and defend, and it brings some serious excitement when it happens.

The Guardians have 3 bars of health, and if you do the maximum damage per Guardian battle, you’ll deplete a full bar of health from them. So, in a perfect match you’ll only need 3 Guardian attack phases to win the game, as the opposing Guardian dying is the ultimate goal, and how you win, though there will be times where the defending team doesn’t allow much damage to get through, so some matches may take longer with more attack phases needed.

While the Guardian battles are your main objective, this is a MOBA, and instead of towers around the map that need to be destroyed to push forward, you instead summon different types of creatures that act somewhat like a traditional MOBA tower. The interesting thing about these creatures is that they are located at certain chokepoints, but you’re able to choose specific creatures that either heal nearby teammates, block pathways, spot nearby enemies and more. While I favor the healing creatures personally, there’s clearly a strategy required for placing the ‘proper’ creature at specific spots to help your teams effectiveness. You’re also able to upgrade them as the match continues on, making them more powerful, so they can be quite an asset and need to be defended, as letting the enemy team kill them will grant them more power.

Combat plays a big role in Gigantic, with your skills being mapped to the triggers and bumpers, and there is even an ultimate move, called a Focus Attack which powers up by defeating enemy players. You’re able to sprint and dodge, though these moves consume your slowly regenerating stamina bar. Every skill and ability can be upgraded along two different paths, so as you earn experience from kills and other objectives, you’ll earn skill points to upgrade your firepower. By default there’s a quick recommended upgrade path, such as more healing power, faster shots, etc., or you can look at the options and decide to spec a specific way. You should also note that these upgrades are specifically for the given match you’re competing in and not permanent beyond that.

Being able to specialize a certain way really opens up some unique strategies and how to better meld as a cohesive unit with your teammates. I main play a healer, Vadasi, and most of the time I’m focused on healing my teammates, but there are times where someone else will also be playing a healer on the team as well, Uncle Sven for example, so in situations like this it’s great that I have the ability to spec towards a slightly more DPS build or buffs instead of straight healing. This versatility is true for each character and encourages experimentation, finding what works best for your play style and team composition. The recommended upgrades are quick and simple, but knowing exactly what each skill can branch into will go a long way, separating the casual players from the pros. My biggest complaint is that there’s nowhere in the menus outside of a match to look up and study this information, so you’ll need to take valuable time per game to read and decide.

Like most MOBA’s, Gigantic also employs a ton of characters, some quite standard and others very unique. Of course you have your typical DPS that can be melee or ranged, tanks, and healers, but there’s also a handful of hybrid characters that play quite unique from many of the others. Aisling is one of my favorites for example, listed as Summoner/Utility, she is able to summon a ghost of her dead father to fight alongside her or can even pull him back inside her sword for a quick heal when needed.

There are currently 19 heroes in the selection screen, though clearly more will be added in the future. Popular among MOBA’s, there’s always a handful of characters that will be available to play for everyone, and as this is a free-to-play title, so they rotate the free characters every so often. Obviously you can buy a pack of characters or specific ones once you find out which characters best suit your play style. Full disclosure; we were sent the Ultimate Pack (around $30), which grants every current and future champion, so I’ve been able to give every single one a go, clearly favoring some over others. There’s a Starter Pack as well for those not wanting to jump in both feet first, but even the $30 price point is decent for everyone included.

Even if you decide to stay as a 'free play' user, this is where the Fortune Card system makes it a little more tolerable. You earn currency for winning matches, but there’s also an included mission objective system built in with Fortune Cards. These are randomized cards that you get that will give you specific objectives to complete, and doing so will earn you extra experience and currency. You can have seven cards in play at any given time, working towards multiple ones simultaneously. Once you complete one, you’re able to choose one of three randomly drawn cards from your deck (should you have any, as these are also given for leveling up).

What I enjoyed about this system more than your typical objective missions, that say World of Tanks gives you, is that you have a choice of which you want to work on. Some cards will be rare and harder to complete but give better rewards, while others will be for specific characters as well, which encourages you to try out someone you may not have previously, as I normally tend to stick with what I know. You’re also able to discard a card in play as well if you know you’ll never work towards it or have no desire to.

I really enjoyed the aesthetic Gigantic uses, as it’s cartoony and colorful, somewhat like a mix of Overwatch and Paladins, and it seems to suit the mood and feel of the game as well, especially the Guardians. When playing online, even in full 5 versus 5 matches, I had no performance or lag issues, which is welcome at launch for a multiplayer driven game like this.

As I mentioned above, I was very unsure going into Gigantic, simply because I’ve never found a MOBA that I’ve really enjoyed for a long period of time. Even though there needs to be some balancing and more maps added in the future to prevent staleness, Gigantic is off to a fantastic start with a wide selection of unique characters, fun upgrades for abilities and some unique mechanics that allow it to stand apart from others in the genre. It may not be popular enough yet to dethrone other games from the top spots in the genre, but it sure does have some 'gigantic' potential.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure

It seems that back in the 90’s, platforming games were the go-to for hit titles, producing some instant classics like Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie among others. There’s been a slight resurgence of the genre, especially with Yooka-Laylee releasing recently, so I was interested on how Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure would hold up against others in the genre, as it’s been quite some time since I’ve played a great platformer.

The genre might not be anywhere near as popular as it once used to be, especially with the lukewarm reception Yooka-Laylee received, but I always enjoy a decent platformer, so I had high hopes for Unbox going in. I was surprised with how much charm Unbox had, as you play an adorable cardboard box (yes, you read that right) that rolls and hops his way across a huge adventure, complete with a silly, yet fitting, story premise. The beauty about the genre is that it’s generally quite easy to pick up and play without too much instruction needed to learn complicated mechanics, and it’s no different here either. The world and art style is very cute and welcoming, so the younger audience should have a fun time controlling Newbie even if there are some decent challenges within that will require some serious platforming skill.

You play as Newbie, an adorable cardboard box (it’s hard not to smile while writing that) that’s off on a grand adventure. In fact, every character is some sort of cardboard box, so it’s a unique world and setting right from the get-go. While it’s a typical ‘save the world’ type of narrative, kind of, it’s got a cute twist on the trope that seems to also fit with the adorable setting. The Global Postal Service (GPS) are sentient boxes that deliver themselves, but one day some of these boxes split and made a new faction called the Wild Cards, essentially turning into the ‘bad guys’. The Wild Cards are bent on stopping the GPS, so Newbie is set out to defeat their leader and bring the GPS back to its former glory. It’s a story that’s absolutely silly but feels fitting given the characters and backdrop. Given that Unbox never tries to take itself seriously, it simply works, and you don’t question it oddly enough.

Newbie may be a simple cardboard box, but he has the ability to move in any direction, jump and even unbox, which acts as a double jump of sorts (though you can do it up to six times). You move with the Left Stick and control the camera with the Right, pretty standard stuff, and it may seem like you’re controlling a rolling sphere at times, you need to remember that Newbie is a cube, so sometimes his movements won’t be a smooth as expected given his edges.

At the title menu you’re actually able to customize Newbie from a plain brown box to be outfitted with eyes, hats, clothes and accessories. There’s only a handful of options from the beginning, but as you progress through his adventure, you’ll unlock more customizable options, some being quite silly, again, adding to the charm of your own personal Newbie.

I found the unbox mechanic to be quite unique, as you’re able to jump with a single button press, but you can have a maximum of 6 unbox charges, allowing you to essentially double jump, up to 6 times in succession. Every time you unbox, a slightly smaller Newbie pops out of the box and is your new controllable Newbie, much like a Matryoshka stacking doll. Around the world you’ll find pickups that can replenish your unboxes, but his is how you’ll traverse to many difficult to reach places. It’s an adorable take on the mechanic, and you’ll need to be very strategic with how and when to unbox if you want to find all of the hidden collectibles throughout the world.

I’m not normally one to obsess over finding collectibles hidden throughout the world, but something about finding the 200 golden tape rolls had me searching high and low for as many as I could. There are also hidden stamps and prisoner boxes to rescue as well, so there’s plenty to accomplish if you’re a completionist. The core gameplay is you progressing through challenges so that you can earn stamps, allowing you to challenge the Wild Cards’ leader once enough have been earned. Some of these challenges are simple time limited delivery missions, others have you traversing tall buildings and more. You’ll notice after a handful of hours that many challenges eventually repeat and feel shallow, but that’s when I would go hunting for some golden tape as a slight distraction.

Many of the challenges are quite simple once you have a feeling for how Newbie controls, but there’s always the odd time that you’ll lose precious time from getting stuck in random places or the camera disorientates you, not uncommon to 3D platforming games. These challenges were easy enough for me to complete, save for a few, but quite challenging for my 4 year old daughter, so it will come down to your platforming skill.

My daughter loved being able to roll around as a box, but enjoyed customizing Newbie even more so once I unlocked silly accessories like goofy classes, bunny ears, and more. If you’re simply going to focus on the challenges and progress through the campaign, it can be finished in short work, so I highly suggest taking the time to do some collectible searching to add some length to the gameplay.

Newbie’s world is very colorful and inviting, putting a smile on your face when you realize you’re talking to cardboard boxes. There may not be any voice acting involved, as it’s simply Sims-like gibberish, but the writing is quite clever and there’s quite a few humorous lines contained within if you take the time to read the dialogue between characters. The soundtrack is also very fitting, employing a fleeting and lighthearted vibe that fits with the fun backdrop.

While there is a local multiplayer option included, I rarely have friends come over to game, so it was a little disappointing to see the lack of an online multiplayer component included, as I would have played for much longer if I was able to search for gold tape rolls with a friend online. Given the slightly high price tag for this type of game ($22.49 CAD), this would have added a lot of value and justified the asking price. There are some random bugs that I ran into such as framerate drops, getting stuck in odd places in the geometry, long loading screens and other minor issues, but these are more nitpicky observations. In general, Newbie plays and performs fine for the most part, but it will take some time to become accustomed to how to control Newbie with precision.

The genre may not be what it once used to be, but Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure proves that you can still create a fun and inviting game within its constraints. While it won’t reach classic status like Banjo-Kazooie, Unbox is a fun distraction that offers a decent amount of gameplay should you want to invest the time into it, all while being an adorable cardboard box. If you’re a fan of the 90’s platforming and have been yearning for another adventure, come meet Newbie and help the GPS, as it will most likely put a smile on your face.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 SUPERBEAT: XONiC

I’ve always gravitated towards music and rhythm games, so when the genre exploded in the late 90’s and 2000’s I had more than enough different types to play depending on my mood. From DDR, Beatmania, Guitar Hero, Pop N Music, PaRappa and even more, if there’s a rhythm based game out there, chances are I’ve played it. This is why I was excited to get my hands on SUPERBEAT: XONiC, as it’s a spiritual successor to the DJMax series, though it looks or plays nothing like it. Even though I never really got into the DJMax series, developers PM Studios clearly knows what they’re doing when it comes to rhythm based games given their pedigree. While the gameplay is unique and incredibly challenging, the only thing holding me back from really loving it was the music catalog.

Very few music based games revolve around any type of narrative, and that’s no different here, as you’re just focused on the music and gameplay more than anything else. While gameplay is incredibly important in a rhythm game, I’d argue that the music itself is even more important, as if you’re just not into the beats that are offered, there’s little hope that you’ll return to keep playing after unlocking every song. This is somewhat my problem with XONiC, as I enjoy the incredibly challenging gameplay, but the music catalog isn’t really my cup of tea.

Actually, I didn’t recognize a single song in the whole playlist, as it seems a bulk of the music is very anime inspired and comes from overseas, so don’t expect any licensed music that you may be hearing on the radio at all. That’s not a knock against the game itself, and I’m sure fans of anime-like soundtracks will enjoy it, but I found it uninspiring to continue playing once I unlocked the bulk of the songs. That being said, some of the music was beautiful, as many songs are low tempo with lots of lyrics, though there are a few EDM-like tracks and much more ‘harder’ types of songs sprinkled within as well, I just wish there was more variety, or some more western based music.

Like all music based games, your score is dependent on how accurately you can press the corresponding buttons in rhythm at the correct time. Even though there is a small tutorial in the beginning, the UI will take some time to really grasp ahold of and understand, and the buttons you use are dependent on the mode/difficulty you play on. 4Trax mode is essentially the easy/normal mode you want to begin, as it doesn’t use all of the buttons and is an easy entry way into the melodic gameplay. Once you jump to 6Trax though, it’s a whole new game with many more button inputs to follow and succeed with. For those that truly have skill, there’s even an unlockable 6Trax FX mode that amps the difficulty even higher, though I’m still struggling with 6Trax myself.

The notes you need to play originate from the middle of the screen and flow towards the outer edges where you need to press the corresponding button at the right time. If the regular bar notes go to the left side of the screen you need to use the up and down on the D-pad to hit that note, if they go to the right then the buttons are used instead. There are yellow arrow notes that need to be flicked with the corresponding left or right stick at the appropriate time, and also notes that need to be moved up and down with the rhythm with the stick. Once you get a hang of the regular notes, the flick notes and stick holds will surely throw your rhythm out of balance until it starts to make sense and feel natural.

Combined with hold notes and you can quickly see how challenging this can become. Once your skilled enough to try the 6Trax mode, there’s essentially 3 lanes on each side which use the up, down, and left/right on the D-pad for the left side notes, and the top, middle and bottom face buttons for the right side. Once you make it up to the 6Trax FX mode, they also throw in FX notes that uses the bumpers to hit, so when you become quite skilled at XONiC, nearly every button and stick will be used at all times, resulting in frantic but satisfying gameplay.

Stage mode is where the bulk of your gameplay will happen, where you choose one song at a time to play and net an overall ranking once a certain amount of tunes are completed. You need to pass your current song to move onto the next, and at the end of all three songs you’ll be given an overall ranking and are able to play those songs in free play. World Tour mode is a set of predetermined song set lists and goals to achieve that you play back to back. What I enjoyed most from this mode is that your combos continue between songs, so it’s possible to rack up some massive combos when you’re playing 5 songs in a row.

XONiC has a leveling system in place that I didn’t expect, and is done in a unique way. As you level up you’ll unlock more songs, naturally, but you’ll also unlock new DJ’s that can be used. At first I thought they were just profile pictures, but it turns out each DJ has its own passive bonuses that can really improve your gameplay experience. Some of these DJ bonuses range from extra XP, more health, able to miss notes without your combo breaking and more. Once I saw the bonus perks for each DJ, the gameplay became a lot more interesting, as I would use a DJ with an XP bonus on songs I had no problem completing, but used others to help carry me through the more challenging tunes. I do wish this was explained more clearly early on, as I wasted a lot of gameplay time before realizing the bonus perks for using different DJ’s.

You’ll also unlock different sound effects that can be used during play. These sounds are your ‘hit’ markers that you’ll hear hundreds of times a song, and some sounds are better suited for specific types of songs. You’ll get the typical snare drums, high hats, and boops and beeps, but eventually you’ll start to unlock odd sounds like dog barks and such that add a unique flavor to the music, but are more silly than practical.

SUPERBEAT: XONiC has a lot of potential and offers some really unique and challenging gameplay. Its worth is essentially going to boil down to two factors though: It’s genre of music selection and its bulky $39.99 price tag. Granted, there’s a good amount of songs included, but as I mentioned above, if you’re not into the genre that it heavily relies upon, you might feel the asking price is a little too steep.

There’s a lot of gameplay mechanics I really like, as it’s been quite some time that I’ve been this challenged with a music game, as I normally can master them quite quickly, but XONiC still confuses me in a good way. I’ll surely dabble back into it now and then for its gameplay, it’s just a shame about its music selection and price, as I could see this one doing well otherwise for fellow rhythm based lovers like myself.

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 A Hole New World

It’s not uncommon these days to launch a Kickstarter to help fund a game, going from concept to reality. A Hole New World is no different, as a few years ago it had a modest goal of $8000, which luckily was met. Their pitch was to have a NES inspired retro title with modern playability and mechanics, so clearly there is still a desire for gamers to have this type of game in their library. Well, the game is now on the Xbox One for console players, and I’m always excited to play some NES retro goodness as that was my childhood as a young gamer.

Created with simplicity in mind, A Hole New World doesn’t over complicate things with tons of mechanics or fancy features. In fact, if you didn’t know it was a recent release you would most likely mistake it for a classic NES game from decades ago, that’s how well they nailed not only the retro visuals, but the incredibly challenging gameplay as well. You start out only being able to attack by lobbing an endless amount of potions, but you eventually learn new abilities and attacks as you progress through the handful of worlds.

You play as a potion master who is seemingly the only one that can defeat the evil Lord Baduk, an enemy who has torn the world in two after finding one of the world’s powerful and mystic crystals. The regular upper world is good, while the invasion of enemies have come from the evil one below. You’ll need to traverse across through both worlds, and many levels, to finish your journey, but don’t expect it to be an easy feat, as the classic and challenging gameplay of an era gone by has been amped up, even seeming unfair at times.

Within minutes of playing you’ll recognize the games that inspire A Hole New World, as there are traces of Castlevania, Mega Man, and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to just name a few. There’s no easy mode setting or tutorial, but it does boast that you should already know how it play with its simplistic jump and shoot control scheme, and it’s true. While it’s quite difficult later on, you should instinctively know how to play right from the get-go. Pressing ‘A’ will jump and ‘X’ will shoot, and eventually when you gain more potion types you can switch between them quickly with the bumpers. If you’ve ever played any of these types of classic games before, you’ll have no problem jumping right in.

As mentioned above, the developers absolutely nailed the visuals, making it look like a classic NES title with its retro graphics. The spritework is amazing and the animations are fluid, just as if they belong in the NES era of gaming. I swear some of the animations were taken directly from some classic games like Castlevania, that’s how great they look. Controls are just as tight, as you’ll jump and move exactly where you want, and when you die, it’s usually your own fault; usually.

The world setup is taken from classic gaming as well, as you’ll need to progress from world to world, defeating the big bad boss that, once defeated, grants you access to a new type of attack, a la Mega Man of sorts. Your default potion attack is a simple arced lob, but as you vanquish each boss from the worlds you’ll gain new attacks like a lightning strike, fire and ice ricochet and more. You’ll need to combine all your attack types with jumps and dodges if you want to progress, and eventually you’ll hit a brick wall of difficulty, especially once you’re forced to traverse the underworld more often.

One mechanic I didn’t expect, and actually found out by accident, was a dual world mechanic, going back and forth between the two main worlds. Most games from this era had tons of pits that if fallen into would instantly kill you, but in A Hole New World the game takes you to the other world underneath. So, when you first fall into a pit by accident, don’t expect to die, as you’ll be underneath the surface still playing. When you’re in this other world though, everything it’s reversed, as you’re walking on the ceiling and gravity is reversed, so this gameplay can mess with your mind, even more so when gameplay becomes chaotic with tons of enemies shooting and chasing you.

The difference between the two worlds is noticeable, as the overworld is bright and colorful while the underworld has an evil vibe with fire and poison traps all around. The underworld isn’t just a pallet swap either, and in the later worlds, when you’re forced to play more underneath the surface, you’re going to curse yourself for not getting used to the ‘backwards’ world earlier on.

The game's difficulty has to be noted. Now, I know that games back in the NES era were difficult by design, but wow, the difficulty of this game really spikes right around the second world boss. All of sudden you’re constantly dying and you have to be much slower and methodical with your plan of attack. Boss fights are the worst for this offence, as normally it’s simply a matter of memorizing their attack patterns and adjusting, but most bosses do massive attacks that can cover nearly the whole screen. At first I thought I could hide from these projectiles by jumping to the underworld, but nope, they go across both of the worlds’ plains. Expect to get hit and die a lot, especially during boss fights where you’ll need to hit continue a dozen times or so while you pray for some luck.

Many enemies start to become unfairly cheap as well, as eventually their projectiles can travel through barriers, yet you’re unable to do so. Just like in classic Mega Man fashion, if there’s a single platform you need to jump to, I guarantee there will be some sort of enemy waiting for you there or one around the area just about to shoot something your way to cause you to fall off. It becomes frustrating and seemingly unfair at times; nothing that can’t be learned, but be aware you’ll need some patience.

Not only does the art style and graphics fit the 'classic' era, but so does the music. The melodies fit the mood and tone of the world you’re in, though expect to hear the same riffs over and over, as it restarts every time you die, just as it did back then as well. Some modern day enhancements have been added though, as there is the option for a New Game+ if you have the fortitude to actually complete the game the first time through, Boss Rush, and more, so those seeking a challenge and longevity, you’ll be happy to know there’s a lot of content here for the price.

There is one massive black stain on the whole experience that I ran into many times, resulting in numerous unfair deaths. When there’s too much going on the screen due to enemies, projectiles, or both, the framerate starts to tank horrendously. The odd dip here and there could be tolerated, but in a game where you need perfect precision to live with a small health pool, and framerates dipping down to literally 0 at points, it’s unacceptable. Even during boss fights there were times where they did their massive area attacks and the framerate literally stops for moments, causing numerous unfair deaths.

At the end of the day, even though I personally feel the difficulty was set a little too high, I enjoyed my time with A Hole New World for the most part, save for the horrendous framerate issues that pop up here and there. I grew up in the NES area of gaming, so titles like this are close to my heart and whisk me back to a day where I would sit at home all day on the couch trying to beat a single game. Sure, the game is unfair at times with its difficulty, but that’s how games were back then, and this is a love letter to an era long gone, which is a shame, as the artwork and gameplay comes from a special time in gaming, something you don’t see replicated well very often.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Grim Legends 2: Song of the Dark Swan

It seems every month or two there’s a new Artifex Mundi release that finds its way onto my lap, and to be honest, I always look forward to it. I’ve become a fan of their simplistic HOG (hidden object game) gameplay over the last half dozen releases. I find these types of games quite relaxing, and even though puzzle games generally have the ability to frustrate if you become stuck, there’s a welcome hint system should you need to rely on it to progress.

Not all of their titles receive a direct sequel, and I quite enjoyed the first Grim Legends, so I was looking forward to continuing on this journey that had already played out its first telling. Does Grim Legends 2: Songs of the Dark Swan improve on its predecessor to call itself a great sequel, or is it more of the game with simply a shared name?

You play as a healer, summoned to the kingdom to help the Queen recover from a terrible sickness. As per the course with Artifex Mundi titles, the situation spirals completely out of control once you arrive, leaving you alone to solve the mysteries held within and save the day. Given that the campaign can be completed during a single sitting in two or three hours, depending on your puzzle solving prowess, I won’t give much away, but like nearly every other Artifex Mundi game, you’ll see the plot twist coming a mile away. Sure, the predictability may come down to its writing, but in the end it’s still an entertaining journey due to its gameplay.

If you’ve played any of their HOG titles before, you’ll know exactly what to expect with its search of items and solving of puzzles that impede your progress. Slider puzzles, check, rotating puzzles, check, HOG’s, check. It’s as if they have a master template of a game saved somewhere and just add in the new storyline elements and call it a day. While it should be becoming stale after this many titles of generally the same gameplay, I’m still finding myself enjoying each title that releases.

Given that I categorize these types of games into the HOG genre, they of course make a return in Grim Legends 2 as well, though I found the ones included here much more difficult than normal. Sure, you could simply spam the ‘A’ button and move the stick around to find all the items randomly, but part of the fun is to find each item legitimately, scowering the scene for items hidden in plain sight. If there was an award for being able to blend objects into the background, Artifex Mundi would certain be the champions, as I had to sometimes result in the hint system or the ‘A’ button spam to find those elusive objects.

Just like most of their titles, eventually you’ll gain a small sidekick that can help you reach or retrieve items, adding another subtle layer of complexity to some of the puzzles. Most of the games from Artifex Mundi allow you to have the sidekick for a short time, but in Grim Legends 2 you’ll actually gain access to three different sidekicks; an otter, forest spirit and a small bird. They don’t play a huge part of the gameplay, and will only be used a handful of times, but they are cute and resourceful as always.

You’ll complete the campaign in a handful of short hours, so luckily they’ve included a short-but-sweet bonus episode that gives you another hour or so of gameplay. Most of their games include this bonus story that plays as an epilogue, though this bonus story simply revolved around the forest spirits trying to get rid of a sleeping dragon. Not that I’m complaining, but it didn’t really relate to the main story as well as some of their other games.

If you’re concerned with longevity and replayability, the standard casual and expert difficulty are present, with casual giving you more hints should you become stuck. There are also hidden collectibles scattered throughout each of the scenes should you want to find absolutely everything and lengthen your gameplay.

I’ve always been impressed with Artifex Mundi’s art direction, as enough good things can’t be said about their hand drawn backgrounds. Each scene is seemingly hand painted, vibrant in colors, and each feels unique in its own way. The animations have become much better with each title’s release. Facial animations are much improved in Grim Legends 2, as they don’t look like puppets with stiff animations any longer. It’s not perfect, but it’s a vast improvement, which gives me hope that the next title will look even better.

As for the audio, they still have the same problem as before: very poor voice acting. It’s like a black spot on the series, and I would be willing to overlook it if the main characters were voiced decently, with the side characters being done poorly, but some of the voicing in Grim Legends 2 is absolutely cringe worthy. There’s a handful of characters that sound as if they’ve never acted before and will completely take you out of the immersion, and I truly hope this gets remedied in future titles.

I’m a fan of the HOG genre and nearly every Artifex Mundi release, and for $10 it’s a great diversion from your regular go-to titles if you simply want a break from the norm. While Grim Legends 2 wasn’t very challenging overall, save for a sliding puzzle or two, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Even though it’s a sequel, it’s still a great title to jump into if you’re new to the genre and looking for a relaxing HOG puzzle game, even if it doesn’t necessarily add anything new.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Perception

I’m not usually one for survival horror games, as I become very tense with the suspense and jump scares that ensue. I’m also not usually one for walking simulators, as they usually don’t offer a lot of gameplay other than, well, walking around. The recently released game Perception seems to have blended these two together, which seems like it would be my worst nightmare, but given the fact that the development team houses some industry veterans, I went in with no expectations.

Perception has you navigating a haunted mansion as a blind girl trying to solve its mysteries, all while some “presence” chases you down. Given that you’re blind, you navigate with echolocation, which makes for some unique visuals, but sometimes lackluster gameplay as well. Perception is an unusual title with some good concepts, some that I’ve not played before, but there’s a few issues that need to be addressed.

Story wise, you play as Cassie, a blind girl who has reoccurring nightmares about a certain mansion, so just as any sane person would do (note sarcasm), she seeks out the haunted mansion, alone of course, and decides to investigate it. It’s seemingly been abandoned, but it doesn’t take long for Cassie to realize that something isn’t right here, as if there’s a presence watching her every move. You’ll be searching throughout the house, through the previous owners’ things, to gather clues to explain what’s happened.

As it turns out, there’s a spirit of some sort that inhabits the house, seemingly for generations, and now that Cassie is trapped within, she must solve its mysteries if she wants to survive. The narrative is broken into separate chapters, each of which revolve around a different story of each one of the house’s previous owners. You’ll explore vastly different stories, and each one also makes the house itself slightly shift to match its narrative. There’s one chapter that revolves around a wife worried about her husband deployed overseas during the war, and certain hallways will transform into bunkers with barbwire. Another chapter will have you going to the 1600’s. This 'shifting' is an interesting way to change the backdrop even though it’s still confined within the mansion itself.

Due to Cassie’s blindness, you ‘see’ with echolocation, much like how Daredevil does, with sound reverberations. Stand still and you’ll see nothing, but tap your cane and take some steps, or turn on a fan, and the soundwaves allow you to see a short distance all around you. It has an interesting aesthetic, as everything is outlined in a blue hue for the most part, with doorways and hiding spots highlighted in green. Even though you can somewhat see due to this, you’re still at the mercy of your disability though, especially in the later chapters where you don’t want to constantly be tapping your cane, as sound also attracts “The Presence”, the ghastly creature trying to find you.

You tap your cane with the Right Trigger, and anything in your immediate vicinity lights up, allowing you to essentially see for a short period of time. This means that you need to constantly be tapping your cane, which does become annoying after a while. On one hand you need to tap to navigate, but on the other you’re also discouraged from doing so, as it allows 'The Presence' to find you as well, so it’s a mixture of a unique way to display Cassie’s handicap, but it also makes for frustrating gameplay.

You have no weapons to defend yourself, and while there’s no combat in the game, as you simply need to run or hide when you’re being chased, the bulk of your gameplay will be fumbling around in the dark, searching for objects to help you explain what’s happened in the mansion. Cassie does have a phone, which she will use from time to time to allow for picture-to-speech, and it is also a clever way around her blindness. There’s also an app that she has that allows Cassie to upload a picture to a representative whom will describe what they see.

The suspense in Perception is quite high, as you’ll constantly be hearing sounds from afar, not knowing if it’s something nearby or simply the house itself. There’s no real enemies aside from the handful of times when 'The Presence' chases you, but there are a bunch of jump scares that you’ll need to endure. Most of these are cheap scares, but there were a few instances when I was really creeped out. For example, I came into a room with a disturbing doll held within a barbwire cage and a single note on the ground at a dead end hall. I used my phone to scan the note and it translated it to say “behind you”. Needless to say, I didn’t want to look behind me, and it’s these moments that the game shines when Cassie’s vulnerability feels like yours as well.

Even though the gameplay itself is quite slow and simple, I ran into some problems that really brought down the whole experience. One time I was getting chased by 'The Presence', and as I interacted with a hiding spot to escape, but I guess it caught me at the exact same moment, killing me and having me fall through the world. No buttons worked and I was forced to quit and retry that section once again. Another time had me opening a door, as usual, but the game completely froze, forcing a dashboard quit, only to restart from my last auto save, losing a half hour of aimless wandering progress. Needless to say, with these two issues are examples of what you might experience, and I know that I felt frustrated and wondered why they occurred.

What Perception does do right, and very well, is its narrative, especially once you piece together the story arcs and figure out what’s going on. More importantly though, the voice acting is a highlight. The woman who voices Cassie does so amazingly, as her performance sounds completely believable, even when doing a quick monologue about the mundane objects she’s inspecting.

Sadly though, the majority of the gameplay focuses on you fumbling around in the dark, trying to find the next object that triggers a door to unlock or pathway to open. Given that the house can literally shape shift and change, it’s hard to sometimes keep a bearing of where you are or where you’ve been with your lack of sight; a conscious decision I’m sure, to play into the blindness effect, but it really makes the gameplay mundane and frustrating.

There’s very little reason to reply the game once you’ve completed the story unless you’re searching for all the hidden collectibles. The gameplay is very repetitive and generally devolves into you frustratingly getting lost and going in circles until you happen upon an object you missed the first ten times you walked by it. Perception has some great ideas and concepts though, and there’s definitely some tension and suspense that highlights the horror aspect, but as a game, it’s more unsatisfying than it is entertaining. I applaud its uniqueness and blind girl heroine, but there’s too many shortcomings and bugs to offer it a full recommendation.

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 Town of Light, The

I had no idea what to expect from The Town of Light before I began playing it, what I ended up experiencing though is a dark and heavy narrative based on real life events. Mental health isn’t an issue tackled very often in gaming as gaming is meant to whisk you away from the real world for a short time, free to clear your mind of any issues and and allow you to have some fun, so when a game tackles serious subject matter like this, I always become intrigued as it’s not something you get to experience often in a game format. But after the credits rolled, I asked myself if The Town of Light was really a game, or more of a slightly interactive story.

The Town of Light takes place in the 1930’s and 1940’s, revolving around the mental health care system in Italy. Mental institutions, as their aptly called, are a backdrop used in many creepy or scary games and movies, and for good reason; sterile rooms, long dark hallways, screams of patients and staff that usually take advantage of their patients, all of which apply to The Town of Light’s story as well.

By its looks alone you’d expect The Town of Light to be full of jump scares, but that isn’t the case at all, as you explore an abandoned mental asylum years after its doors have been closed, finding bits and pieces of information relating to a young 16-year-old patient named Renee. The further you dig the more horrifying the revelations become, as developer LKA does not shy away from any of the adult content, which includes abuse, rape, and lobotomies. Needless to say, The Town of Light deals with some very heavy subject matter, and even though some topics are simply alluded to, it gives you an eerie peak into atrocities that actually happened not all that long ago.

What makes the game's content even more disturbing is that much of this tale is based on facts and evidence found years later. As a matter of fact, the building you explore, is an actual place as well that was in Italy, named Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, is an actual mental health institution from years ago. Seeing pictures side by side makes the tale even creepier, and ultimately, incredibly saddening knowing that these events have taken place in some form or another.

So, while the narrative of The Town of Light is rooted deep in fact and horror, the gameplay can be simply described as a walking simulator. You interact with certain items by pressing ‘A’ with your reticule over them, but the majority of this interaction consists of simply opening doors or finding the item you’re looking for. There’s no HUD at all, so you need to listen and pay attention to know where to go next, as the character will say things like “I should check the nurse’s room” to give you a clue of where to head off to next. Sometimes the hints are a little less subtle, but you shouldn’t really become stuck at any point. This is the majority of the gameplay, simply finding where to go next in the massive building and progress the story along.

As you explore you’ll learn more about Renee, finding out why she’s there, and more importantly, what horrific things happened to her under the care of her doctors. There’s no combat, there are no jump scares, there’s simply walking around at an incredibly slow pace to read letters, diaries and look at pictures so that the narrative can unfold before you. The pace of the gameplay is much too slow, and if you don't have any patience for walking simulators, slow ones at that, you’re going to grow tired of how long it takes to get places, not even including becoming lost and wandering aimlessly.

You can press a button to repeat the last hint to tell you where you should head next, but I ran into one part where it didn’t actually tell me that I needed to find a specific room and close the door and windows to trigger the next event. After an hour of aimlessly wandering at a snail’s pace, I had to resort to looking it up online, which made me wonder why I wasn’t told what to do it in the first place; possibly a bug I guess.

For those that want to explore everything, there are a handful of Renee’s diary pages to be found, giving you some more insight into her character and the tribulations she faced. At certain points you’ll be given options of what to think and how you can respond (to yourself), which can lead the narrative in a slightly different path. You can either play into Renee’s thoughts or completely disagree and disparage her opinions, which results in different branching paths. So, while this is a great way to add some replayability once you see the credits roll, the painfully slow pace kind of made me not want to play it again, even if I’d experience some slightly different cutscenes. The initial loading times are also excruciatingly lengthy and the menu is sluggish, which clearly doesn’t help encourage you to want play any longer than you have to.

While the environment looks very detailed and fitting for the setting, there are numerous graphical issues, like lots of framerate drops and some serious screen tearing. While you’ll only see other characters in Renee’s memories, they appear quite dated, slightly taking you out of the intended immersion. On the other hand, the voiceover work was done incredibly well, as you should really be able to relate to Renee through the narrator, like I managed to do. The rest of the audio has a very distilled soundscape to it, making the deserted building almost come to life.

Gameplay didn’t add anything to the experience, and to be honest, it probably took a little away from what this gaming experience could have been. It’s a journey of discovery, but one I would have rather watched than ‘played’. It’s hard to believe that situations within this narrative actually happened, but we know it has at some point, and this is quite an eye opener, for myself at least.

The Town of Light’s narrative is incredibly heart wrenching, and at times very disturbing and difficult to watch without eliciting some sort of emotional response. The ending I received will be remembered for quite some time, and I appreciated the short live action summary once the game was concluded, but that made me realize something very important; The Town of Light would have been much more engrossing and powerful as a short film instead of a game, it simply feels like the wrong medium for such a tale.

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 Jump Stars

I hear the cries for local multiplayer and splitscreen games all the time, and I have to admit, I was once in the camp of yearning for more couch co-op games with my friends, but that was years ago before online gameplay was the norm, as it is today. Nowadays it’s pretty rare for me to have a friend or so over, and if I do, it’s usually for more sophisticated reasons, like dinner or playdates for the kid, so I don’t have a need for many local multiplayer games anymore as I once used to. Sure there are people out there that still gather weekly or so and do local gaming together, but no one I know does that anymore, including myself, as we all just get online and play together from the comforts of our own homes. There’s a time and a place for everything though, as having a fun local multiplayer game is great to have ready at hand for those rare occasions that you do have a friend, or three, over.

Jump Stars aims to be your new go-to for local multiplayer antics with friends, as it’s filled with numerous minigames and quick play sessions that can be customized however you deem fit for your group of friends. Yup, Jump Stars is a local multiplayer only game for 2-4 players, so don’t go in expecting any sort of single player component or online play with your friends, which was my mistake, but for the low entry price point, it’s hard to argue.

The general premise of Jump Stars is that you’re participating in some sort of demented gameshow on TV where the prize is to win and stay alive. You, and the manic host, are cute little cubes with faces, and you’ll take part in a handful of event types across 20 or so stages. You need to survive the tournament by defeating your opponents in each minigame, yet need to work together as well if you want to boost your overall scores, so things can become an interesting affair when your friend suddenly turns on you, trying to ‘cheat’ his way to a victory when you assumed cooperation. This is Jump Stars’ strength, yet is also its weakness, as it doesn’t feel as if it has one unified goal, or way to accomplish it well.

Once you’ve gathered at least one friend to come over and play with you, you’ll head into one of two modes: Tournament or My Show. Tournament has you playing through a random series of events, each of which end when there’s only one player standing. Your goal is to accumulate a high enough score by the end of the small series of events to participate in “The Gauntlet”, which requires teamwork to even come close to doing. If you want to completely customize your party experience, My Show is where you can modify each game type and stage to your, or your friends’, wishes and play up to 9 events in a row.

Each minigame is somewhat unique, almost playing out like a watered down Fuzion Frenzy or Kung-Fu Chaos for those original Xbox owners out there that remember these classic party style games. Some events will have you jumping over a rotating arm, others playing hot potato with TNT, and even one where you need to eat the pies quickly or else you’ll shrink into nothing from hunger. Sure some of them are a little wacky, but it’s fitting with Jump Stars’ backdrop.

What makes the gameplay frantic is that you can also punch either direction to other players as you’re jumping and bouncing around, knocking them backwards a short distance. You can’t deplete any health bars of any sorts, but knocking off your friends into pits or into a pillar about to drop down is how you’ll win most of your matches, as the stages become increasingly faster as it continues.

Eventually random modifiers will manipulate the levels, throwing your strategies into the toilet, as it’s near impossible to do what you intend when controls are reverse, the world is upside down or everyone jumps incredibly slow. It’s an extra pinch of chaos, surely to create some loud shouting, possible swearing and tons of laughs depending on your group of friends. Medals are awarded at the end of each event, showing your score and how close you are to hopefully participating in The Gauntlet.

This is where Jump Stars starts to have a little bit of an identity crisis, as you’re trying to obviously win each event for yourself, but you also need to all work together to raise the overall points. This can go very well, or poorly, depending on the types of friends you have. Running over your own color’s platforms will make the overall score go up, but you never know if your friends are going to help you, or hinder you in their own quest to try and get first place.

After a short while you’ll also see all that Jump Stars has to offer. There’s only a handful of actual minigames, with the number being inflated from simple skin changes to the levels. Jump Stars will wear out its welcome very quickly if you try and play for hours on end, as you’ll participate in every event type quite quickly, so unless you want some bragging rights, or had a few to drink with the buddies, Jump Stars is best enjoyed in bite sized doses.

Most of the game types are simple to pick up and understand, as it will give you a brief outline of each minigame’s goal, but there are a few types of levels that my four year old had issues getting the hang of. Sure she’s well under the recommended age for this game, but for a few of the easier stages she did grasp the concept and really enjoyed herself. It got to a point where I had to build a playlist of the rotating arm stage on repeat, 9 times. Sure I’m looking at the game more critically, but my daughter really enjoyed the stages she was able to understand the goal to, even if she’s not the greatest at jumping exactly where she means to all the time, so the younger audience should have a blast with this one.

A lack of any simple player component, even with bots, and no online really brings down the replayability, and you’ll notice the repetition kick in quite quickly if you’re playing for more than a half hour at a time. That being said, if you do often have a few friends come over and are looking for a quick multiplayer game to laugh at each other with, Jump Stars has you covered, even more so if the ones playing are a younger audience.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Chroma Squad

I’m not going to lie. At first glance I expected Chroma Squad to be a cheap mobile-like game that was a clear knockoff of The Power Rangers. Granted, it does say it’s inspired by Power Rangers right on the title screen and doesn’t attempt to hide this fact by any means. I didn’t realize that it was actually funded by Kickstarter, almost doubling its asking goal too, so there was clearly some interest behind the concept when it was pitched to the masses. What I came away with was surprise. Chroma Squad impressed me with its mechanics, deep RPG elements, silly premise and writing. If Power Rangers was going to make a parody game of themselves, Chroma Squad would be that game.

The narrative revolves around a group of 5 stuntmen (and woman), the ones who play the Chroma Squad members in the TV show. Yes, in this game you’re playing as the stuntmen who act in a cheesy Power Rangers-like show. The actors get fed up with the terrible director and decide to not only quit on the spot, but create their own studio so that they can create the episodes they want, just how they want. With only access to a small and dingy warehouse, their company begins small, but as you amass a fan base and contracts, earning money in the process, their grand vision is your ultimate goal as you film from season to season.

You begin by choosing your actors, each with their own special abilities, specific play styles and pay grade. You need to fill each of the roles, like Leader, Techie, Scout, and more, just like how each Ranger in the show had their own specialized role. I was impressed with the vast options of characters to choose from, and once you make your choice you’re locked in, so choose wisely.

Once you have your crew hired and set you’re off to begin filming. You record episode to episode, each with its own plot and overarching narrative to the whole season. A season usually consists of two to four episodes, with each episode being a single set or even broke up into three mini sections, all of which revolve around battling a slew of minion monsters with a big boss battle at the end of every episode. It’ll bring you right back to your childhood if you’re in my age bracket, and the whole “we’re filming a TV show” twist was a welcome addition of humor, as the enemies are actors in costume as well.

What surprised me was the amount of text contained within, not that I’m complaining, as some of the writing is actually quite witty and funny, but after a handful of seasons, it feels like fluff to lengthen the gameplay. There’s a fast forward button you can hold if you wish to skip right to the fighting, but be sure to pay attention to the season finales, as there’s an overall arching storyline as well.

At its core, Chroma Squad feels like a watered down take on a Final Fantasy Tactics style of gameplay. You get to make your moves and actions with each of your characters, then the enemies get to react accordingly. Certain characters can move further than others, but there are also special acrobatic moves that allow one team member to be vaulted a few more spaces on the battlefield grid. You’re given multiple objectives per episode that will net you bonuses should you fill the requirements. Sometimes this ranges from killing X amount of enemies, or hitting a boss in the first turn, among others. I appreciated these small objectives, as it gave me a small goal to complete per episode, allowing me to try some different tactics that I wouldn’t’ have normally utilized.

After a certain amount of turns you’ll be able to morph into your power suits, er Chroma suits, allowing you to use special abilities, more of which unlock as you progress in your TV seasons. I ignored these abilities for the first while, but once I learned how useful they could be, I never looked back, using them whenever possible. The season will cumulate with the one thing the real show was best known for: giant robot battles. Sure it’s not technically a Megazord, but you’re robot fighting a giant monster, so we all know the truth. As seasons go on you’ll fight with it much more often which is always fun, doing massive damage in a timing skill based minigame.

Your main goal is to build up your audience, which in turn earns you more money. More money allows you to purchase better weapons, armor and robot parts. There’s even a crafting system built in from enemy drops that allow you to create upgrades for your squad as well which was quite unexpected, but welcome. You’ll eventually get tons of offers thrown your way from marketing firms, fans, directors, mysterious people and more. You’re also able to upgrade your studio, allowing for more earnings should you decide to spend your money that way instead.

I’m a sucker for anything Power Rangers related, and even though I unfairly expected the worst, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The small bite sized episodic format allows for quick gaming sessions, but the RPG elements make it deep enough to play for a longer stretch at a time if you desire as well. The whole ‘filming a TV show’ angle took me by surprise, but it works, as you can imagine some of these silly conversations actually taking place if you were to film your own Chroma Squad episodes. This homage to one of the classic kids’ shows was not only entertaining, but I wanted to keep 'filming' just one more episode to see what happens next in its retro representation.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Tekken 7

I’ve always enjoyed fighting games. Ever since I could remember I was either battling in some Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, Battle Arena Toshinden, and of course, Tekken. At one point I was so into the genre that I bought one of those fancy fight sticks, granted, I never became actually good enough to become competitive, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself when I did play. While not always my very go-to, the Tekken series has always been a great backup fighting game to my library over the years. I remember playing hours and hours of the first few Tekken games, though to be honest, I don’t think I’ve played very much of the last two or three iterations, with Tekken 3 or 4 being the last one I put any serious time into.

Here we are in 2017, just shy of almost a decade since the last major Tekken release, so fans no longer have to wait as their beloved series has finally returned, and in a big way with some great changes that not only adds new gameplay mechanics for returning veterans to learn and utilize, but added layers of simplicity for new players to the series to jump in without feeling as overwhelmed with the perfection needed that other fighters tend to do. With a huge roster, working online multiplayer, and some great fighting, Tekken 7 has returned to the forefront of the genre in a big way.

One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about the Tekken series is that its main narrative continues on from game to game, with each getting closer to a final conclusion regarding the main conflicts. It seems Tekken 7 may have finally concluded the overall main storyline involving the G-Corporation and Mishima family once and for all. The story mode last a few hours, being told by a journalist narrating what he’s uncovered about the real truth behind the conflict. There’s even a few really cool parts where you get to reenact, er fight, classic battles from before, but with the new mechanics employed in Tekken 7, complete with the updated graphics, something that diehard fans of the series should really enjoy.

Story mode allows for multiple difficulties based on your skill level, but there’s still a level of AI smartness that will adjust to your fighting strategies. Simply mashing buttons will work some of the time, but eventually you'll need to be purposeful with your move inputs or you’re going to get wrecked very quickly, especially from the ‘boss’ stages. Once you do successfully complete the story, another difficulty unlocks alongside extra bonus stages and a slew of other options that open up the gameplay even further.

I really only had two complaints about the story mode: First, the narrating journalist is poorly voiced and simply not engaging enough to care about. While the main characters are of course done very well and are entertaining, having to slog through the narration bits can be frustratingly boring, especially since many of the cutscenes are done in a comic book style and not in-game, which I found odd for such a AAA game. Lastly, there are some serious loading issues. Not just the loading times between stages, but it seems the game loads during these cutscenes, so there are some major hitching issues that present themselves. As you’re watching a great cutscene, all of a sudden it will completely stop as it buffers and catches up on loading, taking you completely out of the immersion. While it only happens during the cutscenes and not actual gameplay, it’s still a major distraction and was unexpected.

Tekken 7 has a huge roster from the get-go with over 30 characters available, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses and cater to a specific type of play style. While the roster may not be the biggest lineup in its history, the majority of the staple characters return, complete with a new ingame engine.

Tekken’s unique control scheme maps each individual arm and legs to one of the buttons, so it plays different than other fighters, which is one reason why so many people flock to it and enjoy its style. Each character has simple moves that can be combo'd by button mashing, but there’s a lot of depth contained within each character if you truly want to become a Tekken master. It’s cool being able to put together a few awesome looking combos, seemingly by accident, but once you learn the intricacies of your preferred fighters and learn their move-sets, it becomes even more rewarding when you’re pulling off intricate combos with ease and purposely.

There are two main mechanics that really make Tekken 7 stand out and show that the developers are trying something new to entice new and old players alike. First is the ability to essentially absorb an attack mid-animation, allowing you to take some slight damage, but perform a powerful move to counter, almost like their version of an EX-move. When the AI starts using this in the later fights you’re going to start cursing the system, but once you learn how to harness its powerful capabilities, it’s a game changer.

Secondly is the newest, and arguably coolest, addition to Tekken 7, the Rage Arts. These are fundamentally an answer to Street Fighter’s Ultras, or Mortal Kombat’s X-Ray specials. This is completely new for the series, and while it takes some getting used to if you’re a pure Tekken player, I find it’s done very well and balanced accordingly. When you’re down to roughly a quarter of your health left you’ll start to have a red aura glow around you, indicating your Rage Arts is ready to use. This move is performed with a specific combination of buttons, varying from character to character of course, and will do massive damage if it lands, while of course performing a flashy cinematic move to sit back and enjoy. Miss though and you’re left open for a serious counter attack, so you need to learn your timing and range to utilize it to its fullest.

On a less serious note, you can now earn money and unlocks for playing certain modes, allowing you to purchase cosmetic items for your characters. These items allow you to dress up your favorite characters in some seriously cool, and utterly ridiculous outfits, to suit your preference. There’s a ton of items to get, and if you want to unlock them all it’s going to take some serious grinding to be able to afford them all, which brings up the replayability value substantially for Tekken 7. You can find normal everyday items like cowboy hats, sunglasses and shirts, but there’s even a more completely ridiculous roster of items like frog hats, sushi backpacks, horned hats, sexy outfits and more. This allows for some crazy customization and simply allows you to show your personal flair on your favorite characters, online and off.

Speaking of online, I was honestly expecting the online multiplayer to either not work outright, or not well at launch. I can happily report that neither of these are the case, as I have zero issues finding someone online to battle with each time I tried. Instead of simply waiting in a lobby for someone to join doing nothing, you’re put into a practice arena where you can practice some moves and combos as you await a challenger. There’s a ton of different options and with all of my matches I had no lag creep in, making for some flawless matches online.

I applaud the series for continuing an overall narrative, and the surprise characters and reveals were quite exciting for its story mode. Tekken 7 is not only a return for the series to the forefront, but a great addition to the genre as a whole. It tries new things and succeeds in almost every way, and even though I’m not the biggest fighting fan these days, as I’ve retired my fight sticks, I’m still quite enjoying my time with Tekken 7, in lengthy or short bursts. Even my 4 year old really enjoyed playing, being able to put together a few combos by button mashing, but more importantly, dressing up the characters quite silly to her liking. There’s lots to do for series veterans to learn but is also a great entry point for newcomers to the series. Tekken 7 is back and shouldn’t be missed, regardless of your skill level.

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Race the Sun

Race the Sun is an endless runner, much like Temple run and others in the genre. You are tasked with running forever, or in this case flying until you inevitably crash. While simple in premise, there’s something relaxing about the endless runner genre, and even though Race the Sun is quicker paced than others, it still has a serene quality about it as you narrowly dodge obstacles and hover slightly above the ground. Your enjoyment may vary depending on the day you decide to play though, as the courses change every 24 hours, for better or worse; a great way to keep the limited content feeling fresh.

There’s no narrative within, and your goal is right there in the title: Race the Sun. You need to simply race to the sun in the distance, which is obviously not possible to reach, so seeing how far you can race before you crash or before the sun sets is your goal. You see, your ship is solar powered, so if the sun goes down you have no energy to continue racing and it’s game over. The challenge comes with the increasing speed and sheer amount of objects you’ll need to avoid as you hurl yourself constantly forwards towards the setting sun.

Gameplay starts out fast and frantic, and you’ll crash many times early on due to the learning curve of the controls and getting used to the speed. You’ll really need to ‘get in the zone’ and focus on what’s ahead of you, as you don’t have a lot of wiggle room to react, sometimes relying on pure instinct for your reaction time. Luckily when you do crash, the restarts are quick and you’ll make a mental note of what to avoid the next time.

The controls are as basic as they come, as you use the Left Stick to steer your ship, though eventually you’ll get the ability to jump with the A button once you collect the corresponding power-up. Since you always start at the beginning after each crash, you level up by completing mini objectives that are set out to you beforehand, with easier ones earning you one point, and the hardest nets you three points. Gain enough points and you’ll rank up, earning new customization options for your ship, or even other modes to play.

Once you gain the ability to jump, and collect the green jewel power-up, you can leap high into the air, gliding for a short while above all of the obstacles below. This allows you to get a quick overview of what’s coming ahead, but be careful of your landing, as you can crash into a wall just as easily. You also need to keep an eye out for blue orbs, which when collected bump up your multiplier for your score. The more you collect the faster your score will rise, but the longer your run goes the more difficult it becomes, so you always need to be focused.

There are two ships to choose from in the beginning, though I was unable to find any gameplay difference aside from the aesthetic. Eventually you’ll unlock attachments that will help your efforts, like being able to store two jumps or have the multiplier orbs magnetically fly towards your ship. The more you level up the more you’ll unlock, naturally, so it’s a little bit of a grind to get everything available to you.

Because of the breakneck speed you need to stay focused on what’s ahead of you on the screen, and Race the Sun has decided to use a minimalist style to help cope with the speed of which objects are thrown at you. The game looks bare bones basic, yet has a certain drab style to it even though the world is simply made out of rectangles, triangles, spheres and cubes. The world is passing you by so fast that anything more detailed would probably become a distraction, so it works. It’s not going to win any artistic awards, but the enjoyment comes from the gameplay.

As you level up you’ll eventually unlock randomly placed portals in the levels, which if flown into will whisk you away to a special serene world that is a slower paced and lets you relax for a few moments before throwing you back into the hectic speed based sun chasing stages. You’re also able to unlock a Sunrise mode, which is a slow paced endless mode. There’s nowhere near the amount of obstacles in this mode, as this is meant for a more relaxing gameplay experience with some chill ambient music in the background.

One of the most unique features about Race the Sun is that the levels you play are always the same but only in a 24 hour period. Each day the levels will randomly change, and even though it’s all the same objects, their placements will make for a completely different race each day. This can work for or against you. You can eventually learn a course inside out, but after the day passes, you’ll be given a whole new world to race in. One day I got really good at the courses, but once it changed the next day I found it much more challenging, so it can work both ways. On a more positive side, even though the content is very slim, this daily automatic level switching ensures the gameplay stays entertaining and fresh each day you play, allowing you to return on a very regular basis for a new experience.

To unlock the top tier attachments, and modes, it will take some dedication, and eventually gameplay does become easier, but no matter how good you get you’ll eventually crash or have the sun set on your gameplay. The pace is frantic, the speed is tense, and Race the Sun is a perfect pick up and play game that allows for short burst play. I don’t suggest sitting for hours at a time with it, as the courses change each day, but if you’re looking for a quick in-between game, you can try and Race the Sun, but your enjoyment may vary depending on the day.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Crawl

If I tell you that Crawl is a dungeon crawler, you’ll probably think of a dark and gloomy underground dungeon where you must fight hordes of monsters to try and escape. While you wouldn’t be totally wrong, as that is the general premise of a dungeon crawler, Crawl tends to add something unique to the mix by not only focusing solely on the hero that needs to survive, but it also adds a gameplay element where you get to control the monsters themselves to try and stop them from escaping. This unique take on the genre takes a generic trope and makes it much more exciting and entertaining, tenfold if you actually have friends to come over and play with you.

Crawl is presented in a retro pixelated style, which I know is overdone at times, but it seems to fit the mood and gameplay just fine. You and 3 friends are trapped in the depths of a dungeon, and only one can escape, so you fight to the death with a lone survivor. Your goal is to simply survive and escape, but to do so you’ll need to reach level 10 by defeating monsters just to gain a chance at escape by defeating a boss.

Remember those friends that you murdered? Well, they turn into ghosts and they are able to haunt objects and spawn nefarious creatures to stop you, because if they do stop and kill you, their humanity is restored and they become alive once again while you turn into a ghost. It’s a great concept, though while shy on any deep narrative it is a fun premise and at least sets a reasoning for your actions and situation.

I knew that Crawl was meant to be played with up to four friends, which is fine, but I didn’t realize how well it would play solo, as you’re able to set up the 3 AI bots with varying difficulties. Sure, the AI won’t be anywhere as fun as 3 other friends on the couch, but it’s great that it’s an option to allow solo players to experience Crawl for what it is.

So, the beginning has only one person standing after a duel who turns into the 'dungeon crawler'. As the sole survivor, you need to explore, kill enemies, and gather experience points and coins, all in an attempt to reach level 10 as soon as possible. Doing so allows you a chance against the dungeon’s boss, and your only way to escape.

The catch is that the other 3 players (or AI) control ghosts, out to kill you, because whichever ghost lands the killing blow is transformed into the human, swapping places with them. Ghosts can possess items like barrels and tables, launching them at the 'dungeon crawler' in an attempt to hurt them. In larger rooms there are pentagrams on the floor which indicate that the ghosts can spawn and possess a powerful monster, again, in attempt to try and kill the human and take over their body. One really cool feature during the boss fights is that the ghosts can possess certain body parts or objects of the boss, making survival for the human much more difficult.

It sounds simple in concept, and it is, but I was surprised with how fun it was being both the dungeon crawler and the implementation the ghosts. Possessing items brought me flashbacks of the Sega Genesis game Haunting, which had a similar mechanic, a game I remember fondly. Exploring the dungeon is quick and most rooms need to be cleared of all monsters before allowing you to progress. You collect gold as you search rooms, allowing you to spend them on items or more powerful weapons in the shop once you find it. Given that the dungeons and monsters are randomly generated each time, there’s a ton of replayability within.

Controlling the monsters is a lot of fun, as there are numerous types to play with, each with specific upgrade trees. The more the dungeon crawlers you defeat as a ghost, the more ghost XP you earn, allowing you to become a stronger ghost to try and defeat the dungeon crawler. It’s a very clever way to balance the leveling of human versus ghosts, and even if you continually get defeated by the human, you’ll become stronger each time, giving you a better shot at killing them when you meet them again.

While I’m a sucker for the retro pixelated visuals, as it brings me to my childhood, things can become very hectic on the screen at times, especially with 4 players. With the blocky visuals, it can a little chaotic and messy to track exactly what’s going on at times.

Crawl is hands down best played with 4 friends together locally, and the biggest fault is has going against it is a lack of online multiplayer. While I understand this isn’t always an option for smaller indie studios, not everyone has the ability to do much couch co-op. Online play would have been a blast, especially trying to kill the survivor as the ghosts, but sadly that will have to remain a long shot hope.

The balance of the 'alive vs. undead' is done almost perfectly, and while I appreciate the randomness of the entire gameplay, sometimes you’ll have a few runs that are much more difficult because the monsters you’re given aren’t as good or they don't suit your play style, or the weapons in the shop are simply not as powerful as they could be. Given that runs only last about a half hour or so, it’s hard to dwell on it, as each game will be unique, but there are great runs and not so great ones due to the randomness.

Even if you play solo, Crawl is a fun title that doesn’t require a huge time investment to gain some enjoyment. Defeating a dungeon’s massive boss is exciting and rewarding, as is landing that final blow to the survivor and regaining your humanity. With 4 friends on a couch, playing locally is a blast, though expect many swear words to be thrown at each other while doing so, in the best possible way of course. Even though an online component is sorely lacking, Crawl is still worth crawling through the dungeons for.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Flinthook

When a game touts itself as a roguelike, I tend to go in cautiously because I don’t generally have as much time as I would like to play games, so dying repeatedly isn’t something that generally interests me, which is usually what happens in roguelike titles. Certain games though find a way to make the constant deaths not as frustrating as they usually are, usually due to a great mechanic or some form of progression so that you don’t feel like you’re just wasting time. Developers Tribute Games has found a way to do this with their title, Flinthook, which, excuse the pun, has me hooked. What’s not to love? You play as a pirate who can zip around with a hookshot, use slow motion powers and shoot enemies in 360 degrees. Gameplay is very fast paced that revolves around action and looting, complete with RPG elements to keep things interesting. You’re going to die a lot, and that’s simply part of the experience, but you still progress in certain ways, so all is not lost.

It seems the galaxy is overrun with pirates and generally despicable aliens, all of whom want to become rich, but there’s an overarching evil looming, threatening life as we know it. Cue our hero Flinthook, tiny in stature but the toughest and most nimble pirate there is who is attempting to save the galaxy on his own. There’s a little more to the story, but not by much, and that doesn’t matter, as the gameplay is what will keep you hooked, coming back for more even after dying numerous times.

From the first few moments of gameplay you’ll be taught how you use your trusty hook to zip around the stages, all of which are procedurally generated and laid out in a metroidvania style map. You’re invading other pirate ships in search of coins, treasure and secrets, hoping to find clues of where the next bandit is located in the galaxy. Don’t fret when you start dying quite often early on, as things will naturally feel almost too fast and frantic. Even after quite a few hours of gameplay, I still find myself panicking at the chaotic nature of some of the levels. Stick with it though, as it becomes much better once you start saving up for a few upgrades and perks, making each run slightly easier, until it becomes second nature.

Your general goal of each stage is to find the end of the ship, which is randomly generated, and loot the huge treasure chest. Doing so will net you a special stone, and a certain amount of these stones will finally reveal to you the boss ship and let you attempt to defeat him. So for example, the first boss, called a bounty, requires 3 of these stones for your compass (which is adorable) to locate where the boss is hiding in the galaxy, allowing you to attempt to challenge him. Doing so clears the bounty, earns you massive gold and experience, and moves onto the next bounty. The trick is that you need to clear 3 of the levels in a row without dying for the stones to reveal the boss level, and that’s where a little of the grinding will come into play.

Because you’ll obviously fail often in the beginning, you’ll feel like having to start at the beginning of the 3 stage wave is frustrating, but you keep all the gold and experience you’ve earned to that point. So even though you’re failing, you’re progressing, which is its saving grace. This allows you to try again, only slightly better stat wise this time around. It’s addicting, as you can tell each attempt that it’s slightly easier than before.

Each ship is a maze of navigation, complete with secrets and traps all over the place. Even only a handful of bosses into the game, the challenge begins to spike pretty harshly as you progress. Traps become more unfair, enemies become more infuriating, and I keep going back for more. Most ships are roughly 50/50 when it comes to platforming exploration and combat. Many rooms will lock, preventing you from leaving until every enemy is defeated. For those really wanting a challenge, there are even daily and weekly challenges for those wanting to master the game and have more bragging rights.

Your hook is your bread and butter at traversing each ship’s rooms. Every room has specific rings hanging that you can hook onto, propelling yourself in that direction. It takes a lot of getting used to, but once you’re able to move around the stages without having to think about it, avoiding enemies and their fire, it feels smooth and natural when it all comes together, you just have to make it over the steep learning curve to get there. Flinthook can also wall jump, though I found this skill not as useful aside from a handful of situations, though to be fair, levels are randomly generated, so maybe I just got lucky.

You also have a pistol, your main way of destroying your enemies. This can be fired in any direction, but is also mapped to the left stick that is also your movement, so it can become quite tricky to be accurate. At first it feels dumb that movement and aiming is on the same stick, but there’s not many times you want to be standing still, or even standing at all, especially in the later levels. You’ll need to constantly be moving, and quickly, but that’s where the slowmo ability comes into play.

Using this ability you’ll be able to briefly slow down time, allowing you a few extra moments to either maneuver a certain way, line up a better shot, or phase through some lasers unharmed. It’s an incredibly useful ability, one that even I forget to use as often as I should, but it can only be used in very short bursts, so you can’t rely on it as a crutch too often.

Whenever you die or complete a bounty, you’re able to cash in your earned experience and gold for upgrades. You have a certain amount of perk slots that you can fill with either more health, better combat abilities, earning more experience or more unique abilities. But these slots fill out quickly, so you’ll need to purchase more to equip numerous ones however you wish, opening up the RPG elements and building your pirate to cater to your playstyle. So even though you’ll be dying a lot, especially early on, you’re able to upgrade often which makes each subsequent playthrough that much easier.

Being persistent pays off in Flinthook, as you’ll slowly become accustomed to the frantic gameplay, becoming better and getting further each time you upgrade and retry. Don’t let the opening hour fool you with the many deaths, as the more time you put into Flinthook, the more it rewards you for sticking with it. Even though the difficulty eventually spikes quite significantly, getting that much closer and closer to a boss stage is addictive, as is unlocking a new perk or ability to test out.

The 2D pixel art is brilliant, as it’s vibrant, has a ton of detail, and looks incredibly sharp and colorful, complete with fantastic animations and smoothness of gameplay. The soundtrack is also very well done, with fitting tunes that suit the retro vibe and set a tonality. for the gs no doubt about it, Flinthook is a highly challenging 2D roguelike that wants to keep you playing, and even though it’s a steep challenge, there’s just enough wiggle room of fairness that hooks you, wanting you to come back and give it one more try.

Sure you’re going to swear at the bubbled enemies that need to be hooked before they can be attacked, and you’ll die to an ‘unfair’ trap a hundred times, but you learn your lessons each time, improving as you progress. With tons of hidden collectibles and procedurally generated levels, there’s a huge amount of replayabiilty within, even if you do master your hook and become the best pirate in the whole galaxy. For a small indie title, I came away impressed, not with just the quality of each aspect of Flinthook, but that in the end, it was simply fun to play, even with its frustrations.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 'n Verlore Verstand

I’m a big fan of completely quirky and abstract games, so when I read that in ‘n Verlore Verstand I will be “transported to a reality of dreams and nightmares. What will you discover about yourself in this journey through the subconscious?” I was insistently intrigued. I love when developers create something so unique that it can even border on nonfigurative, which is done here, but the other piece to an intriguing game is having an actual entertaining gameplay to go alongside, something that seems to be a missing piece here.

If you’re wondering about the pequliar name, ‘n Verlore Verstand essentially translates from Afrikaan to mean “a lost mind”, which is quite fitting once you experience some of the imagery shown within. I don’t like to generally use the term ‘walking simulator’, but that’s where the core of the gameplay will be derived from, that and terrible first person platforming sections that will have you restarting dozens of times. So get ready and let me attempt to explain the experience of ‘n Verlore Verstand as best as possible.

From the game’s description, I interpreted it as you living through your subconscious, most likely dream sequences. There’s no dialogue, there’s no HUD, there’s nothing aside from you walking, running and jumping your way through each scene. This was a deliberate design choice by developers Skobbejak Games, which I understand, but there’s also no explained meaning of what you’re doing, where you’re going or why. Being that you’re exploring the subconscious, everything you experience and see could be a metaphor, or it could be literal, that’s up to you to determine.

Your only goal is to each this peculiar tree that you can constantly see in the far distance of almost every scene, and when you do so you’ll be whisked away to the next scene, though usually a very different setting. There’s no verbal clues to figure out where you need to go aside from the isolated tree that sticks out amongst the backdrops you’re exploring. You’re left to answer all the questions you have yourself, which can be intriguing, but also create no connection with the game if you simply don’t 'get it'.

The entire game is played in first person view, so I simply assumed I was playing myself in my abstract dreams. Certain items in specific levels can be interacted with by simply walking up to them, like payphones and lights, but your main goal from the start is to walk to a bleak tree located in the distance. The first level is a plain blank world with only the tree in the distance, and that’s how you’re taught that your goal is to find this tree to progress.

The second level transports you to an abandoned mansion with narrow hallways, the perfect backdrop for a horror game, yet there’s no life in these dreams aside from yourself wandering. There’s an almost endless amount of doors to explore and eventually you’ll find a painting of the same tree from before, which will send you off to the next scene. Thus begins your journey across 18 scenes, each becoming progressively more challenging with its platforming controls and level of ambiguous objectives to reach the tree.

The only constant across all of the scenes is that you need to reach this tree for some inexplicable reason. The levels only vary slightly, as some are pure platforming based and a little more involved with figuring out the correct path to the end. Eventually you’ll revisit scenes, but they will be extended slightly, adding more pathways, like hallways and doors in the mansion, or more sections where you’ll need to avoid being run over by drivers on a bridge. If this sounds confusing, it is, but that’s part of its charm, simply soaking up these theoretical experiences, like jumping across floating and moving blocks high above the ground.

Where things start to fall apart is the platforming scenes. Because the gameplay is in first person, you need to jump across blocks and moving platforms where you’re unable to see your feet, so you don’t always know where you’re going to land. You’re going to fail and fall a lot, causing a restart at the last checkpoint, which by the way there’s no indication of, so sometimes you have a long retry ahead of you. Your viewpoint makes it very difficult to judge when to jump off a ledge at the very end, or how far you’re going to jump. The city scene is a great example of this frustration.

There are some things that ‘n Verlore Verstand does very well though, aside from have you experiencing nonsensical imagery. A few of the levels have some fantastic atmosphere, making it feel like you in some sort of dream landscape. The lighting is great most of the time with the sun or moon emitting glows, and with clouds that seem to react to your movements. The soundtrack is great as well, as it sets a mood and tone with its electronic vibe. The sound effects, especially the subtle sounds in the mansion levels create an eerie setting even though you know there are no enemies within.

The latter half of the game becomes a frustrating challenge to slog through, especially a level that has you platforming high in the air, but instead of dying when you fall, you land on the ground below and need to restart from the very beginning all over again by walking all the way back. The scenes where you’re trying to cross a bridge while avoiding traffic is maddening, as you don’t know when or where trucks are coming from behind you before they kill you, forcing you to restart.

If there was an engrossing story that tied all of the scenes together, or at least gave you an overarching reason or explanation, it would have been a more cohesive experience, but instead you get poor platforming gameplay surrounded in abstract interpretation. There are optional colored plants to collect for achievements, but no way to tell which ones you’ve gathered or how many are in a specific scene to collect.

If abstract platforming is your thing, you’ll enjoy ‘n Verlore Verstand, but beware that the mechanics are not fun or entertaining with the first person view, and with a lack of any ‘reason’ to play, you probably won’t feel very connected to the symbolism it represents. ‘n Verlore Vertstand is an interesting concept, but as a game it’s not very entertaining. I fell somewhere in between trying to understand my motives and the visuals for what they mean, but also trying to enjoy a game at the same time. I’m not sure if I ended up accomplishing either.

Overall Score: 5.2 / 10 Deformers

Deformers is probably one of the more unusual arena combat games I’ve played in recent memory. At first glance it looks adorably cute with its small and round squishy characters, represented as balls. What makes it really unusual though is that fact that developer Ready at Dawn is behind it, the studio best known for bringing us The Order 1886. Going from one genre to this is a drastic jump, and while I’m glad they got to work on something a little more lighthearted, the execution was overall lacking for numerous reasons.

Deformers is strictly a multiplayer experience, be it splitscreen or online, so don’t expect any offline gameplay or any sort of story. Deformers is simply an arena combat game, nothing more, nothing less. So while the asking price may not be full retail price, it still feels a little high given the content, or lack thereof, contained within the package.

You play as these squishy round balls named “Form’s”. These forms can be rolled in any direction, jump, grab objects and other players and shoot little pellets. Depending on the mode you decide to play, your objective is either to throw other Form’s off the map, destroy them or score goal in a Rocket League-like mimic.

As you begin you’ll only have a few skins of Forms to choose from, but there’s a ton of cute characters and customizable items to unlock as you progress through the ranks online, should you be able to get it to work, but more on that shortly. The characters are adorable, each with their own unique look, ranging from barnyard animals to a stack of pancakes or hamburger. You can then further customize them visually, but again, that content is locked behind your progression.

There are only a handful of different maps that you’ll play on, ranging from a carnival theme to different deserts. As you’re about to begin your match you’ll need to choose from one of five different classes, each of which has their own strength to match your play style. Speedster is obviously the quicker one, Ranger is average in everything, and the others are suited for offence or defense, depending on your play style.

In Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch, you defeat your enemies by either making them explode or knocking them off the edge of the very small circular maps. You have the ability to do a Sonic-like dash that can blast an opponent quite a distance and damage them, you can pick up your enemies and throw them or even shoot tiny pellets from your limited arsenal if you decide to play that way instead.

Movement in general takes a little getting used to, as motion doesn’t feel precise at times. In the beginning you’ll no doubt overshoot where you wanted to go and miss many of your dashes into other players. Shooting also feels a little off, as it takes some getting used to to do properly. Shooting your pellets is a way to defeat the other enemies, but you have very limited ammunition and it takes a lot of bullets to defeat another Form from full health. The majority of your points will come from your dash attacks either splatting or knocking enemies off the edge of the map.

There are three different modes for you to compete in: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Form Ball. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are self-explanatory where the player or team with the most points at the end of three rounds wins. Form Ball on the other hand is an attempt at trying to be like the uber popular Rocket League, yet devoid of the fun and excitement. If you’ve ever wanted to play Rocket League with squishy balls instead of cars though, Deformers has you covered.

In theory, Deformers’ 8 player online competition sounds like a ton of fun, which I believe it absolutely would be, that’s if I could ever find a match. In the whole time I’ve had Deformers to review, I’ve spent an obscene amount of time waiting and looking for a match online to compete with other players. I’ve been unsuccessful in this attempt even once. So I’m not sure if it’s a server side issue or simply a lack of any player base, but I was unable to compete with other players online, which is how you level up your rank and obtain the unlockables.

So how fun is a multiplayer only game where the multiplayer doesn’t work? Not very. So I had to play split screen and make custom games (which do not award experience points). You’re able to add dummy bots to your game, but there’s no way to change their AI, so I populated my match with 7 other AI and began, only to become even more disappointed. Even though you're able to add dummy AI into my game, but they aren’t actually AI, as they literally just sit there and do nothing. Granted, this was an easy way to farm some achievements, like kill a certain amount of Forms, but the fun was nowhere to be found.

Luckily I had a friend who also owned the game, so I matched up with him to give multiplayer a go. I was able to add Dummy AI in once again, but it was really just him and I trying to throw each other off the map. There were inconsistencies with lag on his end and was even a time where he wasn’t able to see me moving anywhere on the map, yet I was still able to hit him. Needless to say, after a few games of this and a 1 vs 1 in Form Ball, I’ve had my fill with Deformers.

Ready at Dawn has made an incredible game in the past, but Deformers won’t be their crowning jewel. Gameplay is incredibly basic but the content within is severely lacking with only a handful of maps and 3 very basic modes, one of which is a knockoff of a currently popular game from a completely different genre. If some new and interesting modes were added for free and the matchmaking actually worked, then I could see Deformers being a fun time waster. As it stands now though, the cuteness and squishiness of the characters isn’t enough to justify the asking price when the core premise of online multiplayer doesn’t even work properly which the gameplay revolves around.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 BUTCHER

With a game title like BUTCHER, you’d expect it to be filled with tons of violence and gore, and you’d be right, as developers Transhuman Design have done just that, but in a stylish sidescrolling 2D aesthetic. When the main quote for the game is “The easiest mode is ‘HARD’!”, you know you’re in for a good time of brutal, gory, and challenging gameplay. And if you were wondering, yes, the title BUTCHER is in all caps, probably in an attempt to be more hardcore.

BUTCHER can be described very easily: If the original DOOM was made as a 2d sidescrolling shooter instead of a FPS, this would be the result. Even though the gameplay is quite different, it’s got that DOOM spirit, complete with awesome metal inspired soundtrack, vicious brutality, and enough blood you could paint the walls. If you’re going to make a tribute to a game, it’s hard to go wrong with one of the legends of all gaming.

Just like its inspiration, BUTCHER isn’t going to wow you with a dramatic narrative, in fact, you’re a cyborg tasked with eliminating all of humanity. With your wide array of weapons, ranging from your trusty shotgun, assault rifle, flamethrower, grenade launcher, and even a rail gun, you’ll shoot anything that moves to complete your mission as you travel from stage to stage.

The inspiration from DOOM is apparent from the get go, as the levels are displayed in the same manner, and upon completion, even the blood style drips to wipe the screen happen, bringing you nostalgia if you’re as old as I am. The easiest mode is HARD (though technically there’s an easy mode, but it’s far too easy and meant to just experience the game), and while that’s true, it’s borderline too difficult to be fun, especially in the latter levels when you’re fighting incredibly hard enemies.

Your go-to weapon will be your trusty shotgun, as it’s your starter firearm, but it doesn’t perform like any other shotgun I’ve used before in any game. While it is incredibly powerful close range, you can get some incredibly long range shots that are accurate, thanks to the slight aim assist, making for some rapid gameplay. You get new and more powerful weapons as you progress, finding a favorite that suits your playstyle, though eventually you’ll run into certain types of enemies that have weaknesses to specific types of weapons over others.

The best part about your arsenal is that each weapon feels incredibly powerful. Seeing an enemy splatter into a pile of red mist is always entertaining, and even though the graphics are pixelated and 2D, the amount of detail put into the blood effects is astounding. Puddles of blood will drip based on where the enemies have died, and body parts will even stick to some surfaces. The relatively clean areas will eventually become painted in red blood by the time you clear each stage, especially the sections that has you trying to survive waves of enemies.

There are a handful of stages, each broken into four levels that don’t take terribly long to beat, though there are hidden collectibles scattered throughout the levels for those that want to earn 100% completion and achievements. Some levels are much quicker than others, where the later stages are a little more complex, having you flip switches to raise and lower doors and platforms to progress. Your first playthrough will probably take a few hours until you get the hang of things, but subsequent runs should be much smoother, depending on your difficulty level of course. There’s even achievements tied to completing the game under set times, which is going to take some dedication.

To accompany all of the bloody goodness is an awesome metal inspired soundtrack, something that sounds as if it was taken directly from DOOM as well. With each stage having a different backdrop and theme, the music tends to fit alongside. The pixelated 2D graphics may seem primitive at first, but there’s an incredible amount of detail and style hidden within.

My only real complaint is the controls. While the shooting works just fine, you need to jump with the Left Trigger, something that doesn’t feel natural, and cycling through the weapons with the Bumpers wasn’t as easy or as quick as I wanted, causing for a few unfair deaths. It feels awkward at first, but you will eventually become accustomed to it, though just be prepared to die and restart from the beginning of the level until it feels natural.

While DOOM was revolutionary for its hyper violence in the early 90’s, seeing violence and blood in almost any form of media these days is par the course. So while it doesn’t have that shock value that the legendary game BUTCHER is pulling its inspiration from, it nails the soul of the game perfectly, even with its completely different visual and gameplay style. BUTCHER doesn’t wear out its welcome with its perfect length and options for replayability with harder mode and collectibles.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Human: Fall Flat

It’s odd. On one hand I absolutely love physics based puzzle games, as I enjoy the challenge that comes with solving problems with physics and gravity in a game, but on the other hand, usually these types of games become so frustratingly difficult that I usually end up giving up before it’s finished, Human: Fall Flat is no different.

Human: Fall Flat’s premise is a quirky one, as you play an ordinary guy that controls as well as someone who’s constantly drunk. You don’t walk in a straight line, you barely have use of your arms, yet you’re tasked with solving increasingly difficult physics based puzzles as you progress. If you were a fan of the game Octodad, you’ll have an idea what to expect, as doing the simplest tasks will take patience and many attempts since you don’t have full control over your limbs.

You play as Bob. Bob is a simple human without any special abilities or powers. He’s plain white (though can be customized in the options to add a little flair and clothing) and resembles how you would make a human being out of clay or playdoh. Bob has a problem though, as he can’t walk straight nor use his arms very well. I’m not sure if he was out on a crazy bender the night before or something, but Bob needs your help traversing to the end of each stage, something that sounds simple, yet is anything but. That’s the essential mechanics to the game, getting to the end, but you’ll need to test your patience when trying to get Bob to do exactly what you want.

While Human: Fall Flat is a puzzle game at its core, the real challenge is the controls, but it’s done purposely, as the poor controls were a conscious design by developer No Brakes Games. You’ll need to master how Bob controls each of his limbs, as you’ll need to run, jump, climb, pull switches, swing across caverns, and more. Bob’s limbs seem to be made of Jell-O at times, as your arms and legs can go veering off in inhuman directions at times, which results in hilarity and frustration.

The most unique mechanic has to be that each of Bob’s arms are controlled individually with each of the Left and Right triggers. Oddly enough though, you don’t move your arms with the sticks, but instead they will go where the camera is facing. So, if you want to grab something above you, you need to look straight up and hold the triggers down to hold on, the same goes for grabbing things below you by having to look at the ground. It’s a very odd control scheme, one that will take you a handful of hours to become accustomed to. Even when you become proficient at certain maneuvers, like climbing or swinging, knowing what you need to do and executing it are two completely different things.

Bob can pick up small objects and move them where he likes, but the heavier the object the move effort it will take to move, usually requiring some problem solving beforehand. A good example is when I had to move a beached motorboat but only had two logs to move it with, as the boat itself was too heavy to push. So I moved the logs in front of the boat to act as a rolling ramp. After a good half hour of repositioning and swaying back and forth I was finally able to get the boat into the water as I originally intended.

The hardest part about the controls is that you don’t always know exactly where you’re trying to grab since you need to move the camera in the direction where you want to move your limbs. This makes grabbing smaller objects, or specific spots, a patience test of trial and error. The camera can sometimes fight you as well. There was one puzzle where I needed to use a long candy cane stick to swing across a pole, but the top of the stick wasn’t always in view, making for a lot of guesswork in a puzzle that required precision. Even worse is when you need to rotate a crank to a catapult or two independent ores from a rowboat.

Early in Bob’s adventure you’ll find small remotes that will play videos for you, giving you a tutorial of sorts, which is how you learn the basics like climbing onto ledges. Climbing is another great example of a simple task, but not always easy to accomplish because of the camera related controls. To climb a ledge you must look up to raise your hands, hold the triggers, then jump and hope your hands grip onto the ledge you’re aiming for. You then need to move the camera downwards while still holding the triggers, thus pushing your arms down and your body upwards. Don’t forget to let go at the right moment though or else you’ll fall down and have to reattempt it all over again.

One great thing about a game that supports ragdoll physics is that there’s usually some hilarity involved when things happen to your character that probably shouldn’t have. Case in point, in one puzzle I got Bob’s head stuck between some bars, unable to get free, so the result was his body flailing around while I laughed historically at his misfortune. Sure, I became frustrated once I realized that I was going to have to redo a whole puzzle section all over again, but there are small moments of humor littered throughout, usually unintentionally.

Nearly every object you see can be manipulated in some way if it’s free to move and not too heavy. The physics within are serviceable but also allow you to solve puzzles in numerous ways, like building a ramp, catapulting rocks or yourself, and other imaginative ways to solve what blocks your path. A friend and I were playing our own game simultaneously and a handful of times we both solved puzzles in completely different ways.

Levels start out small and grow in size and difficulty as you progress. You’ll think you have Bob’s limbs mastered, only to be given a puzzle that seems impossible. Each level has its own theme, with my favorite being the castle level. You’ll need to swing across gaps, knock down walls with a crane, drive a boat, and even launch yourself in a catapult. The levels are varied and will constantly have you wondering how to progress. Even when you do figure out what you’re supposed to do, actually executing your solution is a whole other game. Fun can be severely dampened when Bob’s limbs don’t do what you’re trying to accomplish for the tenth time. The best example of this is the Water level, which I won’t spoil, but it wasn’t long after that I raised my arms in the air in defeat, unable to progress any further without my controller being thrown out the window.

On one hand, Human: Fall Flat is hilarious, engaging, and will give you a ton of laughs, especially when you solve a puzzle in an unorthodox way, probably not the way intended by the developers. On the other hand, frustration can set in quite easily when you’re reattempting the same puzzle a dozen times without making any progress. I get that the controls are purposely quirky, as that’s the whole gimmick, but it’s also the source of most of the frustration as well.

Human: Fall Flat was a rollercoaster of a ride, as one minute I was laughing hysterically, then cursing shortly after. Sure, you’ll feel like a genius when you solve puzzles in a unique way, or by accident, as you get those “Ah-ha!” moments, but prepare to resist the urge to destroy your controller shortly after when Bob won’t do what you want him to do because his arm is stuck behind his head. It has a steep learning curve, and even once you understand how to play, the game will constantly challenge you every step of the way, by design and arbitrarily. At the end of the day the game is worth the play, as long as you know its flaws head of time, and then you should enjoy seeing Bob moving in awkward and hilarious ways.

Overall Score: 6.6 / 10 FlatOut 4: Total Insanity

I used to really enjoy the FlatOut series, especially FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage for Xbox 360, as I’ve spend dozens of hours with its popular Stunt Mode. It’s no secret that since then though, that the series simply hasn’t been the same ever since switching developers with its declining quality and forgettable gameplay, so when FlatOut 4: total Insanity was announced, I was cautiously optimistic, as it’s another new developer, Kylotonn, trying to bring back FlatOut to the masses once again.

Thankfully it seems that Kylotonn has laid some great groundwork at getting the franchise back to where it once was, not surpassing it, but makes an entertaining destruction based racer that also doesn’t forget why many enjoyed the series in the first place with its Stunt Mode. While it doesn’t break any new grounds, it’s a completely adequate return even if it does become repetitive after time.

FlatOut 4’s campaign is broken up into two main sections: Career and FlatOut. Career is very standard, starting with you choosing one of two cars to start your racing profession, both of which aren’t very good stat-wise. There are three classes of cars and events, but you’ll obviously begin with the lowest class and need to make your way up the ranks to earn more money to purchase better vehicles and upgrades.

The three different tiers of cars also house their own set of cups to compete in, for a total of over 2 multi-events to take part in. Ranking in these events are how you unlock new paint jobs, drivers, horns, and more. The first issue you’ll encounter when playing through the campaign is that even if you place well, which you won’t until your car is fully upgraded, is that you don’t earn money quickly, making the campaign almost feel like a grind at times. You’ll be able to max out your car’s stats in a decent amount of time, but saving up for a whole new car, especially in the higher tiers, will take some dedication.

The next thing you’re going to probably notice is how frustrating the difficulty can be, not that there’s a difficulty setting to choose, but how madding it can be for the AI to tap your bumper as you spin out or crash, losing a ton of time when forced to respawn. Some races it seemed I would be left alone for the most part, and others as if I was the only target that the AI tried to make crash. I’ve lost many cups and medal placings because of this.

While the career mode does try and switch things up now and then by throwing some different types of events at you sparingly, the majority of your time will simply be racing, aiming to place high as you can for points for that series. I wish there were more destruction derby events thrown in, or even a handful of the Stunt Mode trials would have been refreshing, but because the racing is what you’ll primarily do, it becomes tedious after a handful of hours.

Even if you do manage to stick with it long enough to grind out enough races to save up for the higher classes, it’s essentially the same setup, but with less rusty and much faster cars. There are over 20 different tracks, some of which are more unique than others (I’m looking at you ice track…) while some are generic racing-through-the-forest for a backdrop.

That being said, the destruction physics are quite entertaining, as you can plow through almost all the obstacle sin your way, complete with sparks and explosions. In fact, that’s how you fill your Nitro meter, along with slamming into your competition. While not anywhere close to breakneck speeds of say Burnout, unleashing a full tank of nitro in the highest tier of vehicle is pretty exhilarating.

FlatOut mode is essentially a secondary career mode, but is more varied than simple standard races, as it offers more unique challenges, like Assault Mode (racing plus weapons) and Arena (varying from Deathmatch, Survivor, and CTF). These series are slightly more entertaining as it’s much more varied and usually centers around more destruction based events, which is always entertaining.

Why many fans flock to the FlatOut series though, like myself, is its popular Stunt Mode. Not only does Total Insanity bring back six classic and re-imagined mini games like High Jump, but also brings us six completely new games to launch your driver through the windshield for points, complete with online leaderboards.

The majority of these events will have you driving down a short ramp with a blockade at the end. You’re tasked with holding the ‘A’ button to get just the right angle and launching your driver through the windshield, complete with ragdoll physics. Depending on what particular event you choose, you’ll be launching your driver into a castle made of blocks for destruction, a golf course, a baseball bat to get a home run, among a handful of others. As far as I know, this is also the first driving game complete with beer pong, so there’s that.

For those that tend to have gatherings of friends locally, you’ll be happy to know there’s an included Hot Seat Mode where players can take turns in the crazy stunt mode. If you want to test your skills, you can even play online with up to 8 people in specific races and events, though after a week of playing and searching, I was only ever able to find a single match online, so I’m not sure if it’s a server issue or simply a very low player base.

The best part about online play is that you can customize your race lobby just how you wish, so if you want the number of laps, damage or even your Nitro gain to be at 200%, you’re welcome to. By default though each race is allowed to be entered by any class, so this can make for some seriously outmatched competition if not double checked. The biggest miss though is that there’s no online play for the game's crown jewel, the Stunt Mode. Sure there are leaderboards, but being able to play online with friends, even if turn based, would have been a game changer, so it’s extremely disappointing to see that it was excluded.

After a half dozen hours in the campaign it simply dawned on me that while FlatOut 4 has its moments, namely in its entertaining, yet offline only Stunt Mode, the campaign itself was simply average. The main problem is that it feels like a grind and there’s no hints at what’s needed to unlock all of the customization items like paint jobs and exhaust flames. FlatOut 4 is completely serviceable game, but there’s a lot of issues with its AI and buggy physics, as I’ve fallen through the world more than once. While it won’t bring the series back to the forefront with its rough edges, it has a decent amount of content within, topped off with a delightful stunt mode that will constantly having you aiming for a higher score, even if it is a solo affair.

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 Planetbase

Developed by Madruga Works, Planetbase released on PC back in the tail end of 2015, and here we are two years later with their console adaptation of their popular planetary colonization title. Now Xbox One, gamers gets to experience the trials, tribulations and hardship that is required to survive on another planet. Be prepared to fail a lot and have endure many citizen deaths, as Planetbase is as harsh as the planets you’ll try and inhabit with its difficulty, but the payoff comes twofold once you understand all of its intricacies and mechanics, learning to use them in your favor.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to colonize Mars, or some other foreign planet, Planetbase is a great rude awakening to how difficult survival is when starting from nothing, let alone creating a civilization. Humans have ventured to the far reaches of space to inhabit neighboring planets, and you’re tasked with taking a handful of humans and helper robots to create not only a community, but to fully colonize a planet with your very limited resources.

You’ll need to prioritize everything you do, balancing what you can and can’t live without to continue survival for your people. You not only need to worry about oxygen, but power for your settlement, food, water, rest areas and more. You’re given enough resources to get a few things built and started, but how you do so, and in what order, are completely up to you, and you will fail the first few times quite quickly, even after completing the tutorial, as it’s a very fine balance of survival and expansion.

This is where Planetbase falters at first, as while there is a tutorial, I followed it almost exactly to a tee during my first real playthrough attempt and everyone ended up dying quite quickly. The first time they didn’t have enough oxygen, the second was not enough power, then a lack of food, etc. Planetbase is a lot about trial and error, and the very steep learning curve may be a little too high for some, as I know I got frustrated to the point of having to resort to watching a few 'beginner' videos on YouTube to help my early game start off much more efficiently. Once you have the basics down though, and understand the “proper” order and manner in which to build and expand, Planetbase truly opens up and becomes a lot of fun.

Each colonist has their own specialty which determines their specific job at the base. At first this is infuriating, as you only start out with a handful of people, and should they perish there’s not much you can do to recover at that point, as other people can’t take over someone else’s job. Medics can only heal, workers move items, biologists handle the crops, etc, so you need to make sure you have the right amount of each type should the worst happen, which is almost inevitable.

Just like people in the real world, your virtual people need to be kept fed and happy or else they won’t work. This is where your building skills will come into play. You’re in charge of creating the base however you deem fit. You determine where you want to build each type of room and corridor, but be aware, there is an ideal placement for nearly everything you do, as you want everything to be as efficient as possible.

You’ll also start with two robots to help your colonization get started. These helpful androids can carry materials and are the ones responsible for actually building your structures once you’ve placed them. These are simply robots though and can break down, and this is where your engineers come into play, as they need to not only repair them but also repair your worn down structures like solar panels and wind turbines. Nearly every structure or unit somehow relies on another unit or resource, and this is where the deep meta of the game comes into play.

Before you can build more structures and expand, you’re going to need to gather resources, but to gather resources, you’ll need even more resources and manpower, so it’s a constant cycle, one that takes some time to learn how to do properly. There’s such a thing as building too quickly, as expanding rapidly will deplete your resources like food, water and oxygen faster than you’re producing, which will require you to expand more, thus making the problem worse.

Power is one of the most important components you’ll need to focus on creating right away, as without electricity, nothing in your base will function. The two main sources for energy are solar panels, which is great in the daytime, and wind turbines, which generate electricity when it’s windy. You’ll need to create both if you want enough energy for your ever expanding base, as solar panels don’t help you at night, and turbines only work when the wind is blowing. You’ll also need to create energy capsules to store your energy, for those times when it’s night time and there’s no wind blowing.

When creating any building or structure they need to be placed close enough to another building so that it can be connected, the problem being that you don’t always know where you’re able to place buildings due to uneven land or not enough room before trying to do so. Structures can be made small, medium or large, but the larger versions take more resources to do so. This is just another example of how a simple decision can be your undoing, as making a large structure might have used the last resource you needed to build something else critical.

To net more resources you’ll need to mine, plant, and refine, which of course takes certain types of workers to do so, along with an area for storage. Nothing happens quickly though, and this is where planning the layout for your base comes in. The longer it takes for workers to walk to and from places can be the difference of survival and extermination. You need to plan your base layout strategically for the best possible results.

Should the need arise to construct a building in an emergency, you’re able to prioritize a structure over others if the need is dire. You’re also able to cut the power to any building or area if you start to run low and need to conserve it for any reason. In the beginning, before your base is completely self-sufficient, you’ll need to learn these strategies quickly if you want to start your expansion.

Building a landing pad will allow other colonists and visitors to come to your settlement, and this is how you’ll gain new members to your colony and workforce. You’re able to set exactly what type of workers you want to land, and every so often you’ll see a drop ship come with new people to add to your settlement.

You start out with only access to one Mars-like planet, and to unlock the others you need to hit a certain amount of milestones. These can be certain objectives like reaching a specific population, building a number of structures and so on. Unlocking these is how you access the other planets, which become more challenging as you progress.

So, how does Planetbase fare with a controller in hand instead of its native mouse and keyboard? Well, I’m glad to say that it seems developer Madruga Works has taken the time to make their game very controller friendly. They’ve redesigned the controls to make use of the controller in a logical way. You can move the camera with the sticks and the bumpers are how you access the numerous menus. Poor controls can be a death sentence for a PC to console port, and I’m glad they’ve taken the time to do it even though there will be more frustration than not until you learn all of the intricacies of how everything works together.

That game is also a constant balance of resource use and expenditure. You’re going to think the AI of your workers is broken, but it’s not. You’re also going to learn the hard way, many times, that you need to watch over everything. I had a little over 60 people in my colony and was expanding when needed, but I wasn’t watching my workers’ numbers and expanded too fast. I started to run out of food, then energy and finally oxygen. I went from a thriving colony to everyone dead in a matter of minutes simply because I forgot to turn off new visitors on my landing pad, unable to keep up with the expansion. One small mistake will be your undoing, so make sure to save often and learn from your faults, as the next attempt will go much smoother, although you'll find lots to learn.

The game can seem unforgiving, forcing you to learn how to play properly on your own through trial and error, but once you learn how to play correctly though, the game opens up and is very entertaining; it’s a large hill to climb to really figure it out in the beginning but it can be done. I know if I didn’t make an effort to look up some tricks and beginner help videos I would have given up quite early on. After learning what and how to prioritize when starting out, my opinion completely changed once I started enjoying myself.

Once you learn how to build a self-sustaining colony, there’s a lot to do, but you simply have to remember not to do it too fast or you’ll expand too quickly and will suffer for it later on. There’s nothing like being well on your way to expanding, only to have a meteor destroy your oxygen tank or other life support system. Planetbase starts out incredibly infuriating but becomes really enjoyable after you make it over the steep learning curve. If you’re looking for a colonization simulator that controls well on console, look no further than Planetbase.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Anoxemia

The dictionary defines Anoxemia as “a deficiency of oxygen in the arterial blood.”, or in simple terms, a lack of oxygen. This is fitting for Anoxemia, a game developed by BSK Games, as it’s set in the ocean, underneath the surface, where you are constantly in search for oxygen. Looking up the medical symptoms of actual Anoxemia is very fitting for the game as well, as anxiety and confusion is something that you may also experience by playing this dark and brooding underwater title.

You are Dr. Bailey, a scientist who is at the bottom of the ocean and tasked to find and collect specific plant samples for research, but your submarine has crashed, so you must not only finish your mission, but also survive by finding scattered oxygen tanks throughout the ocean bed. It seems odd to me that Dr. Bailey must complete his mission no matter what, especially after such a catastrophic event, rather than focusing simply on survival.

These plant samples seem to be of some serious importance though, and it’s not only until about half way through that you start to question why, or what the motives may be to collect them. The story itself is told through comic book style panels rather than animated cutscenes, and while not terribly involved or exciting, it has just enough mystery to keep you wondering why, hopefully retrying the levels over again when you inevitably die many times for numerous reasons. Many small details of the story are heard through quick quips from Dr. Bailey, so you best be listening to get the most out of the minimal story.

You’re deep under the surface in the ocean, so there’s virtually no light aside from the small glow around you. This is where your sonar comes in, as with a press of a button you can quickly see, at a glance, any imminent danger like mines, enemies, and even a general idea where the plants you need to collect are. And that’s the main goal of the game, finding all of the stage’s plants allowing you to progress through each of the game's levels to find all of the plants. It sounds basic because it is, but don’t be fooled, things become much more difficult in later stages.

The complete gameplay experience involves Dr. Bailey underwater with his trusty little drone guiding him where to go. You don’t actually control Dr. Bailey, but instead the small drone, as the good doctor will follow it to the best of his ability throughout the levels. The drone will gain a few abilities as you progress, like a harpoon hook and a speed boost, but the core mechanic simply revolves around exploration in a timely fashion, as your oxygen is a limited resource.

There are plenty of traps for you come across causing you to perish, like acidic water, harsh currents, enemies, mines and more. The biggest challenge will be determining if you should spend precious time searching for more upgrades and oxygen, or try to rush to the plants to beat the level. Certain actions, like speed boosting, uses more oxygen as well, so when you run out and can’t breathe, you die and need to start the level over.

Eventually you’ll collect dynamite to blast open weak walls, but the issue here is there’s no simple way to determine if you’ve picked up dynamite, or how many you possess. There’s some small meanings to the icons on your drone, but it’s never explained well, and even after a few hours in, I was still guessing if I had collected what I needed to or not. Make sure to move away before the explosion goes off though, as being caught in the blast radius which will instantly kill you, sending you back to the start of the level once again.

Dying is something you’ll become very accustomed to, especially in the latter portion of Anoxemia. Clipping a mine, having an enemy shoot you, running out of oxygen, or accidentally being too close to your dynamite explosion will send you back to the start of the level. In the beginning stages this isn’t a big deal, as levels are just minutes long, but later on the levels become huge and much more involved, and without any checkpoint system a simple mistake can lead to death and a lot of frustration as you have to restart.

Since you’re always trying to follow your drone, and the controls aren’t’ perfect, you'll find that you will become stuck on edges or other small objects like rocks, only to get permanently stuck, forcing you to run out of oxygen, die and try again. This issue becomes even worse in the handful of ‘inside’ levels, where you’re exploring the insides of a sunken bunker or ship with little room to move or a clear direction to go.

Movement is very difficult, though it should be since you’re underwater, but at times it’s not fair, especially with certain physic puzzles as you struggle to deal with the lack of precision of said control. If you happen to stumble upon Anoxemia’s version of a treasure chest, you need to use your sonar to unlock it and you are forced to wait a few moments before it opens. This doesn’t pause the action around you though, and you'll die many times from an enemy that will get you, unfairly, while you are waiting for the chest to unlock.

As for the visuals, the artistic style is dark, brooding, and claustrophobic, but it should be as you are supposed to be at the bottom of the ocean floor. While interesting, there’s not much detail to appreciate, as the majority of everything simply looks like silhouettes as you move across the scenery. There’s a few moments where it feels you’re in a 3D world, but these are far and few in between. The comic book elements of the narrative are well drawn, but there’s simply not enough to keep you engaged between levels to make you care enough to collect underwater plants.

Given that Anoxemia is only a few bucks, it’s hard to knock it too much, and if you can deal with the frustrating controls and the seemingly unfair deaths, there is a decent amount of gameplay here with almost 40 levels to explore. With a few checkpoints thrown in between each level, I would have enjoyed my time with Anoxemia so much more, but there were times where I was wanting to hold my breath, hoping it would be over sooner than later.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom

It seems developer Artifex Mundi has found their stride releasing their catalog of titles on Xbox One, both new and old, seemingly having a new one to play almost every month. It feels like it has only been a few weeks since I reviewed their last release, and here we are with their newest release, Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom. I’ve been a fan of Artifex Mundi since their first Xbox One port, so I’m always excited to try out the newest game from them, as I find their Hidden Object Games (HOG’s) a nice relaxing distraction from my normal gaming regiment.

While I love enjoying my time with the genre that Artifex Mundi has single handedly brought back to consoles, Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom simply doesn’t feel as complete or as special as their previous titles, even though this is one of the newest titles in their catalog. Something just feels missing even though some new things were introduced, and tried, in this latest game.

Lost Grimoires tells a story about a young alchemist who is raised by a caregiver after being orphaned as a young child. Your caregiver, whom you call uncle, is a powerful alchemist and has shown you everything you know about becoming a great alchemist of your own. The heroine has finally returned home only to find a masked thief has broken into her house before she is knocked unconscious. There’s a magic amulet involved, a mystery surrounding your parents, and maybe your caregiver isn’t the person whom you thought him to be. From here you’ll experience a tale full of clues and puzzles as you uncover the truth to what’s really going on and what happened to your parents.

Many of the plot points you’ll see coming a mile away, and I found the character development really lacking this time around. I didn’t really care much about the protagonist, and the villains motives are never really explained aside from him thinking it’s what needs to be done. Normally I can finish each Artifex Mundi HOG in a single sitting after a few hours, but Lost Grimoires seemed to be over very quickly, much more so than their other titles. All of their games have an unlockable bonus chapter, but that’s not included here, so the replyability aside, from missing achievements and a harder difficulty level, is quite low.

If you’ve played any HOG’s before, you’ll already be familiar with the general mechanics and layout of the gameplay. The art is beautifully hand painted, and while the animation is quite lacking, the visuals have their own distinct style which I can appreciate. You’ll progress across a number of scenes throughout your journey, solving puzzles and collecting items as you go. Each item you collect will allow you to progress further in another scene elsewhere, most of the time, so there’s a little jumping back and forth between scenes. Luckily the game map allows you to quick jump from one area to another instantly, so that you don’t need to navigate each scene manually.

Unlike many of their previous titles, there’s not as much collecting of items in Lost Grimoires, as each item you procure will be used almost immediately after. In previous games there were items you needed to collect a certain amount of before being able to solve specific puzzles, and while that is included here, it’s nowhere near as much as previous games. There’s also not much backtracking or scene jumping compared to other titles, so that could be a positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. I personally liked not having to jump between scenes so often (and the instant map travel helps greatly), but it sure did cut down the overall play time. The map is handy, as it will show you where you are and what areas have a puzzle that needs completing provided you’re playing on casual difficulty, as expert won’t give you hints.

Given that these games are classified as Hidden Object Games, you’d think that this would be a primary focus on the puzzles within, but it felt like Lost Grimoires had the least amount of them compared to other titles for the developer. Maybe it’s just the overall shortness of the game, but it really felt as if there was only a handful of HOG’s to complete.

There has also been a conscious decision to remove an alternative game to skip through some of the HOG’s that the rest of the other titles have always used. This was a way to play a different type of mini-game in lieu of completing the classic HOG style of puzzle. I always preferred to play the HOG myself, but it seems like an odd exclusion. There’s even a few HOG’s that instead of giving you a checklist of items to find, you’re given riddles to solve instead, where the answer is the item you need to find. This is an interesting change and much more challenging, but even I had to resort to spamming the ‘A’ button across the scene when I became stumped.

There’s an option to get hints, and even completely skip puzzles if you become stuck and frustrated, an inclusion that I never had to rely on in previous games until now. These 'skips' will automatically complete the puzzle for you, and while the overall difficulty didn’t seem much more difficult than previous titles, for some reason I had a lot of troubles with one of the types of puzzles, forcing me to rely on the skip here and there. It’s a great option to have when it’s needed so that anyone can experience the whole game, regardless of skill.

The biggest addition Lost Grimoires is the inclusion of an alchemy mechanic. Throughout your journey you’ll concoct more than a dozen different potions from collected items, each with a different and specific use to progress the narrative. Along your adventure you’ll find specific items that aren’t used for puzzles, but instead are ingredients, simply used to create a specific potion. Once you find all of the recipe’s ingredients you’ll mix them together then need to solve a puzzle to complete the potion brew. These mini-games revolve around rotating some gears with colored orbs, tasking you with creating a specific pattern. These begin out simple enough, but become much more difficult near the end, which is what I needed to rely on the hint system for.

It’s not a groundbreaking mechanic, as you’re simply collecting items which then gives you a quick puzzle to solve, but it feels new to the genre. I simply wish there was more depth to it, as once you create the potion it’s obvious that’s what you need to use next to progress, and there’s no making potions twice, as you’re always working on a new recipe after completing the previous.

While the Artifex Mundi games have never been known for their great voice acting, Lost Grimoires seems tobe the worst of the batch, in my opinion. None of the lines are delivered in a believable way, which is probably why I didn’t end up caring about the characters in any way. While I still enjoyed distracting myself from my regular games for a few hours with Lost Grimoires’ puzzles, the story was very predictable.

Maybe it’s the onslaught of releases, or genre fatigue, but Lost Grimoires simply felt as if something was lacking compared to their other titles, which I really enjoyed each time. If you’re looking for a quick distraction and want some puzzles to solve, you could do worse though. Given its cheap price point it still garners a recommendation from myself, a self-proclaimed HOG expert, even if it isn’t as great as their other titles.

Overall Score: 6.9 / 10 Cities: Skylines - Xbox One Edition

When you think city building games, and how they began, you’ll most likely think of Sim City right away, depending on your age and gaming history. It’s no secret that after the debacle of Sim City 4’s launch, the brand hasn’t been what it once used to be, and in those shadows has emerged a new, and arguably more feature rich, city builder over the years. I’m of course talking about the Cities games.

Released back in 2015 for PC, Cities: Skylines made a big impact on the city simulation genre. It was robust and offered some fantastic gameplay, and now just a couple of short years later we finally have a console edition for Xbox One. Fear not, as there are no online requirements, other any other arbitrary barriers, to block you from playing, but how well can a very in-depth city builder translate to console when going from keyboard and mouse to a controller? Turns out developer Tantalus Media has somehow figured out the very solution, making Skylines a wonderful console experience for those of us longing to build our dream cities.

Skylines not only is just a port of the PC title, but it also includes the popular After Dark expansion, adding more content and a complete day and night cycle for those that want to experience it. Simply building a few roads and buildings won’t cut it though, as there’s so much depth here that you’ll need to play for a while to learn all of its intricacies and how to best solve your populations ever changing needs and problems.

As you begin your first city building adventure, you’ll be able to choose your backdrop. Some areas have more watered space than others, and each has different amounts of resources. While there’s not really a hard or easy mode, there is the fantastic decision to include an option for “infinite money” and “unlock all buildings”. I would suggest building a city or two with these options on until you learn how to set up the basics for your city, like energy grids, water ways, traffic flow and more. Take note though, playing with these options enabled does disable any achievements, so those wanting to add to their Gamerscore are going to have to earn them the legitimate way.

You're taught the basics at first, like how to lay down some roads, building an energy source, connecting powerlines and creating waterways for sewage and fresh water. While the hints are helpful, they could have been a little more in-depth, as it took me some time to figure out how to setup my pipelines properly, not knowing I had to connect them all to the same system for it to flow correctly. This is just one of a handful of things you’ll need to figure out yourself before becoming a great city builder in Skylines, which is why I suggest playing with the unlimited money option the first few times.

All of your menu options are located along the bottom of the screen in different categories. Once you select one of the categories, more options open up to you, so if you want to build a road, you open the road menu and that will give you a bunch of more options, like one way streets, highways, etc, depending on what you’ve unlocked up to that point. Navigating these menus is very simple with the D-Pad, and while a little more information would have been helpful, you’ll eventually figure it all out with some simple trial and error.

If you’re not playing with unlimited money, you’re going to want to start out small, simply building a road or two and setting up all your infrastructure before you slowly start to expand. Expand too quickly and your expenses will outweigh your income, and it takes time for your city to grow in population. Slow and steady is how you want to progress. Seeing your city evolve and expand is a lot of fun, especially once you hit thousands of citizens and witness how busy your creation is becoming.

Once you get the hang of how to generally build and expand, there’s more depth hidden underneath for those that want even more flexibility and customization. There’s a whole menu dealing with your economy and loans, zoning areas to specialize in certain traits, and a whole bunch of graphs and charts for those that truly want to deep-dive into the inner workings of their city. Even after dozens of hours playing, I’m still learning how to efficiently run my city as best as I can, as there’s a lot here to learn if you want to even balance budgets for nearly everything.

You’re given the option to pause time if you wish, allowing you to plan and build without anything distracting you or your metrics changing, but unfortunately one feature that has been left out of the console version is the ability to fast forward time. Sometimes you have everything built just how you want and you'll need to simply wait as your city populates even more, as there are certain milestones to reach that unlock a bunch of features and buildings. Sadly, you’re unable to speed up time, so you’ll need to leave the game running if you’re simply biding time for whatever reason. This isn’t a major drawback, but defiantly something that is lacking when you become proficient at constructing your city.

The first city or two is actually a little overwhelming, even with infinite money enabled, as there’s simply so much to do and learn. Planning roads is one thing, but adding a bus system is a whole other ballgame, as you need to create lines, routes, stops and more. The same goes for taxis and trains. You’ll begin with a single squared area, but can eventually expand up to nine of these squares should you wish to create a massive metropolis.

Eventually you’ll need to focus on meeting all of your citizen’s needs and desires as you expand. You’ll need to make sure there’s enough schools and educated people, a police force, hospitals, parks, and a whole lot more. You can create specific laws for certain areas should you wish, like pet bans, smoking bans, no noise allowed after certain times and more. These policies allow you to create a truly unique city with different suburbs and districts, allowing for more freedom of creation.

The biggest win that Skylines has on console is how fluid and natural the controls feel and work. It’s incredibly simple to create what you want, how you want, without any effort required. Essentially everything you need is only a button press or two away, even if you want to switch from straight roads to curved or free-form. Holding the ‘Y’ button allows for context sensitive options and information to be displayed or chosen, something that you’ll need to learn on your own, as it’s not really taught to you.

Also simplified is the ability to snap roads, pipes, powerlines and more together. While the snapping will do most of the work for you, sometimes you’ll need to zoom in with the triggers if you want a very precise placement, as doing things zoomed out can be a little trickier if you want something placed perfectly. There are times where I’ll be placing a road or powerlines through another road or other obstacle, and it’s not smart enough to know to move over the blocked object a hair so I can place it. Something like this forces you to demolish the object and build what you wanted in the first place, making for an extra step, something that could have been a simple solution with a confirmation instead.

While Skylines doesn’t have all of the up to date expansions and DLC found on PC, After Dark is included, which is highly praised for its day-night cycle and additions of new policies, zones, transportation (taxis!) and more. I was hoping for mod inclusion, but alas, we’ll have to do without for this first time console release.

There’s obviously some give and take needed to bring Skylines to console, as the draw distance is nowhere near what it is compared to PC, especially with the traffic. You can see individual cars and people, but only when you’re zoomed in quite close, the same goes for foliage and other small details. The larger your city grows the more that’s going on underneath the hood, and it seems this is where sacrifices had to be made. There’s the odd framerate hiccup, but nothing major or deal breaking.

I was truly impressed with how Cities: Skylines port to console performed, not just in its implementation, but its obvious that a conscious effort has been made to make this version feel natural on console. It’s great to see your humble town evolve into a massive metropolis, becoming more and more expansive and intricate as your population grows.

Kudos to Tantalus Media for streamlining the menu system into an easy to use and understand layout. This is a fantastic step in the right direction and proves that city building games, previously thought of as PC-only, can work well on console if done with the right amount of effort and care. Being able to relax on the couch and slowly grow one's city as mayor is fantastic, and even with its few limitations and sacrifices, Cities: Skylines is clearly the go-to for city simulation/building game on console.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Punch Club

If you’re a fighting game fan like myself, you might have gravitated towards a small little title, called Punch Club, simply for its name. Developed by Lazy Bear Games, you may initially think it’s a pixelated retelling of the movie Fight Club in some form, but Punch Club is nothing of the sorts. Sure, there’s some fighting involved, but don’t go in hoping for some form of fighting game to tide you over.

Punch Club does something else completely different, putting you in the role of a fighter who needs to train, sleep, eat, fight, and train some more, and it is done in a simulation manager setup. So, while you won’t be directly in control of any fighting per-se, you’ll be managing the daily life of the protagonist, which just happens to include a lot of mundane tasks to do in an effort to get you to your next fight. As long as you know you’re going into a simulation management game, you’ll know what to prepare for, as it’s much more in depth than I was expecting.

Punch Club starts out with you, as a child, witnessing your father being murdered. You make a vow to your dying dad that you’ll avenge him one day, so from that day on you set upon a path to become the greatest fighter ever and find out who killed him. It’s a silly premise for a story, but it works for the context of the game setting, as it’s littered with humor and tons of 80's and 90’s pop culture references.

You are now grown up and are about to embark on your fighting career to become the best fighter in the world. To do this you need to eat healthy food so that you have the energy to train hard in the gym, but to do so you need to buy your groceries from the store, but to do that you need money, so you get a part time job. Now that you’ve worked you’re hungry and tired; and this is essentially the lopped premise the gameplay revolves around. You always want to do something but you need to complete a separate action to do so.

This is where the management simulation starts to kick in, as you need to constantly balance your time, food, health, training, work and of course, finding the time to fight and rise up the ranks. So while it’s billed as a boxing management game (though it’s more MMA or Kickboxing), the majority of your time will be managing your fighter’s day to day life and chores. While it may not sound exciting at first, and believe me the screenshots fooled me too, there’s a lot to do in Punch Club and you won’t realize it until you spend a few good hours playing.

As you begin your career you’ll almost exclusively need to worry about training and eating, but eventually your money runs out, forcing you to work, which takes time away from the set hours in the day. As you progress further, more special and unique events and opportunities open up to you, like delivering pizza to the sewers, joining an underground fight league, turning into a super hero and more.

Once you join the rookie fighting league at the local gym, that’s where your journey really begins. Fights are scheduled a few shorts days in advance, so you need to plan out your schedule ahead of time to make sure you’re rested and trained for fight day. You’ll want to make sure you improve your main stats and skills through training, but you can’t neglect your other duties either, or else there will be consequences. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that has a steep learning curve to figure out on your own.

If you don’t make the time to train, rest, eat, and more, your performance in your fights will suffer, which makes you slide further down the rankings. As you progress you’ll have more priorities to balance, harder decisions to make, and more storylines to unfold should you decide to focus on them. Just remember, there’s always a consequence for ignoring something else. You essentially need to find the correct gameplay balance if you want to progress positively, which by halfway point can become a little mundane.

Training may seem like a simple task at first, but there’s quite a lot of depth within. The more you train, the more your stats will go up, like strength, agility, and stamina. At the end of every day you also have stat degradation though, so no matter how well you do to balance stats, you’re always in a ‘2 steps forward, 1 step back’ approach. It took some time to learn that you really want to focus more or less on a single stat, as it’s near impossible to keep them all level.

The reason for this is the skill trees that tend to favor a specific type of fighting style/stat. If you want to be a hard puncher you’ll want to train strength obviously, which plays into the 'Way of the Bear' skills, which requires high strength to use specific moves. The same goes for the other two stats, with their own corresponding 'Ways' with skill sets and moves.

You can only train for so long before you become tired or hungry, which starts the cycle of needing to rest, work, etc. It is addictive once you figure out the proper ‘formula’ to being efficient with your time, money, and training, but it does start to become like a mundane grind after triple digit days.

Just like life, you’re constantly struggling to keep everything balanced, and while I applaud how many choices there are, and things to do, none of it is explained very well aside from a quick tip or blurb here and there. If you venture off the efficient path of training, working, sleeping, eating and fighting, it can feel like a struggle to get back on track. I ventured off to try one of the side missions, only to fall behind on training and having my stats decay to a point where I felt discouraged from experimenting and enjoying, as all my hard work was gone so quick.

What surprised me the most about Punch Club was that you don’t even participate in the fights you sign up for either. You have a specific amount of fighting moves and ability slots that you choose to set however you see fit, then once you start the fight you sit and watch it as it unfolds randomly in front of you without any sort of input. This is where your training comes in, as you will do far better if you focus on a specific path and stat, yet not completing and ignoring the others as well.

My first few fights did not go so well, but eventually I was able to unlock some new abilities and moves, making my way up the rankings, but that’s when I decided to pursue a relationship in the game, which in turn took time away from training, bringing more losses to my record. As you fight though, and in between rounds, you can swap moves with others if you think there’s a better strategy or balance, but with a small and limited amount of slots to use, it’s hard to strategize and usually feels more like luck than anything else.

I do wish there was some sort of mini-game during the fight that would allow me to help sway it in my favor. Watching the first dozen or so fights is fun as you watch how your fighter wins or loses, but eventually I would start the fight and just ignore it until it was done as it needed no input from me whatsoever. If you enjoy simulation management then this will be right up your alley, just don’t expect a fighting game with some sim elements thrown in, as it’s not that at all.

The retro 90’s graphics suit the game well, especially with the constant pop culture references. I still smile whenever my virtual fighter goes to work out in his garage and see that he drives the A-Team van. On the other side of the coin though, the music can be a little repetitive over time and all of the dialogue is done via speech bubbles. Oddly enough, I think some cheesy voice acting would have been a great fit for this title and fitting for the setting.

At first I was hooked on the slow progression once I figured out how to balance my daily duties, but the progression eventually slows down, almost to a halt, and if you’re not constantly on top of what you need to do something will always suffer. I lost multiple points in my main stat then become broke when I tried venturing off my proven treadmill of progression. Upgrades eventually become incredibly expensive to purchase, which requires more fight wins, which in turn requires more training, etc. Even after getting one of the upgrades I had been eyeing for quite some time in my 'Way of the Tiger' tree, it didn’t feel like it made a big difference at all, which was kind of discouraging.

To the developer’s credit, there is essentially an easy mode that stops stat degradation if you simply want to focus on winning and story elements, but achievements are disabled in this mode too, which is why I skipped playing it. Punch Club can be addictive, and if you’re a sim-management fan you’ll feel right at home with tons of things to balance and do, weighing the pros and cons of every choice. In the end I think that Punch Club Manager would have probably been a more fitting title for this game.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Late Shift

Movies are a linear experience as you sit there for about 2 hours watching a story unfold from beginning to end without any interaction or input. Games on the other hand can be very cinematic, but allow for interactiveness, as you forge your own stories and destiny based on your actions. What if there was some sort of way to blend the mediums together, allowing for a Hollywood-like cinematic experience, but with options given to you, the audience, to change the story and outcomes?

Late Shift, created by CtrlMovie, a small Switzerland studio, is aiming to do just this with what they’re touting as the world’s first fully realized 'choose-your-own-adventure' film. Blending the two mediums together feels different at first, but that’s simply because it’s a newer medium. That’s not saying that Full Motion Video (FMV) games haven't been tried before, as it seems there was a small boom in the 90’s with the Sega CD, but it never really caught on. This is where CtrlMovie hopes to change that, with a fully-fledged interesting movie that puts you in control of the two styles of entertainment together.

Late Shift gives you up to 180 decisions to choose from, with seven endings in total to experience. You’re in control of the major decisions of the ‘game’, allowing for the main character to react however you see fit. With a budget of $1.5 million, you can expect a full HD quality movie that actually has quite an interesting story with a cast of wonderful actors and a well written script.

Written by the author of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, Late Shift has a compelling story revolving around a seemingly nobody that gets forced into joining a heist at gunpoint. You ‘play’ as Matt, a seemingly normal guy working the night shift at an underground parkade where rich people keep their exotic, and incredibly expensive, cars. Late Shift is all about making decisions, some trivial, like choosing to help a lost tourist with directions, and others that carry more weight, like trying to run away and escape your kidnapping, or playing along and waiting for the right moment. It’s these decisions that will shape the story that unfolds in front of you, usually different every time you play.

Nearly every decision you make has a consequence in some way. Deciding to help or not help the cute girl wanting to borrow some car keys will certainly lead you down a different path later in Matt’s story. You’re given just a few seconds to make your choice, forced to live with your decision afterwards, watching events unfold from that point on, just like in life.

I don’t want to give away too many plot points, as there’s numerous and different scenes to uncover based on your decisions, and it’s actually quite an interesting tale. This interactive movie will last roughly 90 minutes or so, but some decisions could lead to a longer or shorter runtime, as certain scenes will play out, or not, based on your choices. If you were to watch every scene in Late Shift, there’s about 4 hours or so of footage, which shows you how much work has gone into creating the multiple branching paths of storyline that can possibly play out.

Matt, played by Joe Sowerbutts, and May-Ling, played by Karuka Abe, both do a wonderful job with their acting as the main characters. The support cast also fills in their roles with believable performances and I’m glad that this came across like a true Hollywood movie experience in terms of the cinematography and acting, as I was prepared for a B-list performance given the medium has a somewhat a rocky past.

Every so often there will be 2, sometimes 3, buttons that appear on the bottom of the screen, and these are your choices for what action, or reaction, you want to make next. The options only appear for a few seconds so you can’t spend much time thinking about what your decision will be, but instead react emotionally. The feature that surprised me is that there’s no in-game pausing to make your decision, so the movie will play on regardless if you make a choice (it defaults to the left choice as opposed to the right I believe), leaving no awkward pauses between scenes. That being said, there seems to be a slight lag, or hitching, when the scene transitions from one to the next, but it is nothing too terrible to ruin the experience, but it is noticeable.

There is also no way to fast forward or rewind scenes, so if you’re playing for the tenth time, there’s no skipping the parts you’ve already seen, even the credits. There is a built in checkpoint system should you need to go quickly or turn off your Xbox One, allowing you to continue near where you last left off. I understand the thought process into not being able to skip scenes, as it’s supposed to be a cinematic experience, but a 90 minute commitment, multiple times, is a tall ask, and even after going through Late Shift about half a dozen times, I’ve yet to see every ending, as I don’t want to sit through the same scenes over and over again, back to back.

Late Shift is all about decisions, and then living with the choices you made. The first time I played I decided to do the ‘right’ thing, trying to play along, waiting for my time to make my escape, just how I think I would react in a crazy situation like that. By the fourth or fifth time playing, I had no regrets and wouldn’t hesitate clubbing an old man with a golf club. What’s interesting is that if this was purely a cinematic experience, I would have never been able to see completely different viewpoints and events.

It’s thrilling at first to see your choices play out in front of you, especially since it’s acted out by human actors. You feel as though you’re watching a movie, but now when you shout at the screen to “look behind you”, they’ll actually do said action. Choices are all about reactions and consequences. Do you make a run for it when you’re held at gunpoint, do you play along and try to turn in the bad guys, or do you give into the situation and demand a cut of the payday? Each plays out in completely different ways and have their own butterfly effect later on.

Deciding on the more difficult choices makes them feel as though they have weight to them. Do you give up the girl and blame her when you’re being tortured, or trust she won’t say anything and endure the pain? It’s exciting to replay through a few times, seeing all the twists and turns the story can bring, some of which completely shocked me, especially one of the endings.

I do wish that you could go to any of the scenes or checkpoints after completing a playthrough, as apparently this is an option on the mobile app version. Not that that’s a bad thing that you have to sit for the full experience every time, but there’s only so many times one can see the same scenes over and over again, knowing what one's decisions will be ahead of time. I’m actually planning on having a friend come over and play it so I can see their decisions, which I think will be quite interesting.

Is Late Shift any good though? As a movie experience, I’d say so, as you finally get to choose what the protagonist does. Do you lean in for the kiss from the girl or hold off for later? Do you get into a street fight or flog them off? This makes you feel like you’re the star of the movie and Matt is simply your vessel. As a side note, the developers were smart by moving the achievement and notification box that pops up on screen out of the bottom-middle of the screen up to the top right, as to not ever block your decision choices from view, a small touch that didn’t go unnoticed.

As a game, there’s no real mechanics here aside from choosing between multiple options and selecting them with the ‘A’ button. So, while it may not be interesting in its gameplay, that’s not what it’s setting out to do. Late Shift is attempting to blend two mediums together, something I think they did well, making certain decisions weigh heavily on your conscience, unaware of the ramifications later on. You’ll need to commit some time to see all of what Late Shift has to offer, but finding a new branch to the storyline is exciting, and I’m still trying to find a few of the different endings. It's a game experience where your decisions are yours alone to make. Your decisions are you.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 NeuroVoider

I absolutely love twin stick shooters, as for rogue-lite games though, they need to stand out for me to really enjoy them, as I usually find permadeath somewhat off-putting. There are exceptions to this rule for me though, and it seems that Flying Oak Games has crafted an engaging and fun rogue-lite twin stick shooter that hooked me from the first time I played their latest release, Neurovoider.

The thing about rogue-lite games, at least for me, is that I usually become frustrated with permadeath in games, as I don’t find losing all my progress, and having to restart and grind to get it back, that enjoyable. Somehow though Neurovoider has remedied this either with its constant flow of loot upgrades or its brilliant nemesis system. Even when I died and had to restart I never become frustrated, which speaks volumes.

Normally games like these aren’t known for their compelling storytelling and narrative, and it’s no different with Neurovoider either. There is a story, something about robot partying on planet earth, but you’re just a brain that busts out of its tube and into a robot exosuit in an effort to put a stop to it. Don’t worry, I’m just as confused as you, but at least there’s some sort of reasoning behind your actions.

What makes Neurovoider shine is its' mechanics and gameplay. Everything in the game is essentially procedurally generated, meaning that all the levels, loot and even the enemies are all random, meaning that you’ll never play the same level twice. You begin by choosing one of three main exosuits to pilot, each of which have their own strengths, weaknesses and abilities to suit your preferred play style.

The 3 classes of the exosuits are Dash (very fast and can dash in directions, but low stats), Rampage (decent stats and can boost his attack) and Fortress (high energy and health, but very slow and can make a bubble shield). Each of these exosuits match different types of play, though I tended to favor Dash by a large margin, as you need to stay alive at all times, and dashing away is the easiest way to do so.

There are 5 stages, each of which are broken into 5 levels, and while that may not sound like much, keep in mind that the game becomes progressively more challenging. There are bosses at the end of each stage that will require some serious twin stick skills to survive. The majority of the levels simply require you to destroy core reactors before you can progress, but you can continue to explore the levels if you want to earn more loot from vanquished enemies.

At the beginning of each stage you’re given a choice of 3 different levels (save for boss fights), each being a different size, while the number of elite enemies and loot is randomized. So you can choose to play the shorter and easier levels, but the longer and more difficult ones will yield better loot that you can equip between each stage. There are miscellaneous random levels that have special objectives, like simply get to the end of it, but you’ll have to survive the hordes of MANY enemies. There are others as well, but I don’t want to spoil them, as they are quite entertaining, challenging and a great change of pace.

Like any twin stick shooter, you control your movement with the Left Stick and aim with the Right. The triggers control your left and right weapons, which vary depending on what you decide to equip. Gameplay will drastically change depending on your loadout and you’ll need to constantly upgrade and swap parts and weapons to keep up with the enemies in each level. This is easy to do though as you’ll have a stash of loot to sift through between levels and always have upgrades to choose from for the most part.

Loot drops from nearly every enemy and it varies in rarity, all the way up to the best ‘glitched’ weapons that are the most powerful in the game. Each item can be upgraded (boosted) up to 5 times and it will add longevity to it, but it will cost you credits to do so. There are 3 different parts for your robot (body, head, and legs), each of which will be upgraded as you progress and find better parts. These parts don’t drop nearly as much as the weapons do, so when you get an upgrade make sure to boost it to have to last longer.

There’s no shortage of regular enemies that generally take one or two hits depending on your weapon, but there are some nasty elite enemies too and they can wreak havoc on your plans. Some of these enemies are borderline unfair and can one-shot you if they have a nasty weapon equipped. This is where you’ll learn the rogue-like elements to the game, but what I didn’t expect was the nemesis system, which will basically be waiting for you in the same level in the next game, conveniently carrying your loot should you defeat him.

Once you get the hang of the elites and the gameplay, get ready to die again when you reach the bosses, as they are no joke. Multiple enemies spawn during a boss fight, so you need to avoid the bosses fire along with taking care of the never ending minions that shoot at you as well. On the harder difficulty levels these boss fights will take some serious skill to beat.

When you’re sifting through your loot it will take some time for you to get used to properly navigate the menus. It’s a little convoluted and busy for my liking, but once you’ve done it a few times you’ll get the hang of scrapping unwanted items for more credits or boosting items without pressing the wrong button. The best part about this menu though is that you can look at every item, see what stats are upgraded, and even see how each weapon will fire and its usage of energy per second.

While I love that Neurovoider throws loot at you on a constant basis, a good portion of your gameplay will actually be staring at the intermission menu between levels going through all your loot, simply because there’s so much, almost feeling like a chore. Eventually you’ll learn the tricks, like selling items that aren’t for your class quickly, but it takes a few playthroughs to become proficient at it. You’ll also eventually learn what kinds of weapons you prefer, be it rapid fire guns, flame throwers, bio weapons, rail guns, lasers, electricity, and tons more. Given that loot is procedurally generated you’ll always have some surprises to try out.

I haven’t even gotten to the best part of Neurovoider yet, its' visuals and audio. Going for a retro vibe, it looks as if it’s straight from the 80’s with pseudo CRT monitor edges and a super colorful palette that’s bright and varied. The absolute best part hands down though is its soundtrack, created by Dan Terminus. Its 80’s retro synth varies from each level type and gets the blood flowing and head bobbing, sounding like it was taken straight from the 80’s. I wasn’t expecting much from an indie game soundtrack, but this one truly blew me away, so make sure to check it out on bandcamp.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first started playing Neurovoider, and even though I died and had to restart many times, I never once became frustrated, always wanting to get in 'one-more-go' in the hopes of finding better loot. At the end of the day this is an awesome game for anyone that likes the mashup of the genres. Neurovoider is a challenging and gorgeous game that has addictive gameplay and an even better soundtrack.

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Thimbleweed Park

I grew up in the 80’s, and I’m glad I did, as I got to play point and click adventure games in their prime as a young kid. Back then, LucasArts and Sierra were common household names if you were a gamer, as they were responsible for a vast majority of the great classics that I came to love early on.

One of my favorite games, not just on the NES, but of all time, is Maniac Mansion. There was nothing else really like it at the time, and I could have bought it multiple times given the amount money I spent repeatedly renting it from the video store. I remember not being able to beat it for a long time, as back then there was no internet to quickly look up anything you wanted when you were stuck, so you either had to wait for one of the gaming magazines to come out with a 'hints & tips' section or somehow convince your parents to let you to call the expensive 1-900 hint line numbers. And yes, I’m guilty of calling those once or twice, possibly without my parent’s permission.

Maniac Mansion’s 30 year anniversary is coming up in a few months, and it’s crazy to think that I still have a ton of fond memories about this one game that was solely responsible for hooking me onto the genre. Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick are the ones essentially responsible for creating Maniac Mansion all those decades ago and starting the genre in many people’s eyes. In 2014 they started a Kickstarter to bring back the genre in a big way with a new game as it’s been dead for many years aside from a handful of releases.

Fastforward to the present and here we are with their recently released game Thimbleweed Park, a new point and click adventure title that feels like it’s been ripped straight out of the 80’s, yet modernized and updated to today’s standards, pixel aesthetics in tow. So, I hope you know Maniac Mansion, or at least something of it, as Thimbleweed Park makes constant references to it, and while you won’t be missing out on anything if you’re not aware of their previous game, there’s a ton of special content that fans of the classic will be elated to experience, as I was.

Thimbleweed Park takes place in 1987, ironically the same year Maniac Mansion originally released. You play as federal agents Ray and Reyas, who just happen to resemble a certain duo from the popular X-files show. Along the way you’ll meet a cast of other playable characters, each of who are incredibly unique and very memorable.

In the small town of Thimbleweed Park a man has been mysteriously murdered and it’s up to the agents to figure out who did it, why, and how a pillow factory, rude clown, and other strange events all fit in. Oddly enough, it seems that a majority of the town’s citizens, population 80, don’t seem very phased by this odd turn of events. The bigger question though is why a town of 80 has a phonebook with hundreds of names and phone numbers in it, or why the Sheriff is also the town Coroner and Hotel Manager, yet he vehemently denies it every time he is questioned.

I don’t want to give much more about the narrative away, as it’s actually quite entertaining, and uncovering each plot point is fulfilling and rewarding in itself. Each new character you meet is hilarious in their own way, the writing is phenomenal, and humor is a constant, even more so when you collect specks of dust or have a literal bag of red herring, another reference only the old school gamers will understand.

If you’ve ever played a classic point and click adventure from LucasArts or Sierra, you know exactly what to expect from Thimbleweed Park in terms of its mechanics. For those who haven't, you move around the screen by clicking the cursor where you want to go, but it’s the use of verbs listed on the bottom left that dictate how you’ll interact with objects and people. But bringing back a genre that’s almost died out completely wasn’t enough, as many improvements have been made, many that would have saved me a grounding or two because of having to rely on calling 1-900 tip lines as a kid.

First and foremost, there’s no more haphazard deaths or dead ends. These were mechanics to arbitrarily lengthen the gameplay back in the day, but it wasn’t fun if it actually happened to you, so this problem has been remedied. Near the end I thought I messed up and was in an unsolvable loop, but I eventually figured my way out of it, so there’s ‘proof in the pudding’ as they say.

Even minor characters stand out, such as a duo of plumbers that just happen to dress as pigeons, or a girl who works at a diner and will only serve you 'soon-to-be-rotten' hotdogs (which will excite you if you know your Maniac Mansion characters). All the characters have great lines in their dialogue and are generally voiced very well. That’s right, full voice acting for a point and click adventure, something I wished I could have had 30 years ago.

For a game that centers around a murder mystery there’s a heavy reliance on comedy and humor, as it should be in this genre. No matter how creepy or dark the source material becomes, it’s hilarious every step of the way. Thimbleweed Park constantly makes you wonder who the main suspect could be, as every new character you meet seems to have some sort of reason why they might have killed someone.

It’s hard to not peg Ransome the clown as your first suspect, as he constantly swears and has a Krusty the Clown/Sideshow Bob vibe to him, yet much more vulgar. Ransome actually turned out to be my favorite character in the whole adventure, as his quips and one liners are incredibly funny in a juvenile way. Plus, having swear words literally “*beep*”ed out is funnier than actually hearing and reading the curses, and there’s absolutely no shortage with Ransome.

While the overall plot has you solving the murder mystery, many other problems will present themselves that require your skills. While you’re constantly trying to solve one issue after another the game does a wonderful job at throwing in just enough story in between to keep you interested and on track. Every scene has places to explore, items to interact with and people to talk to.

The majority of the puzzles are logical in their own silly adventure game kind of way. There are none that require a lot of guesswork, just a keen eye and a want to explore and interact with everything. That’s not to say the game is a cake walk, as I did become stuck a handful of times, only to simply oversee a small object or neglect to exhaust all of my dialogue options.

Generally these games have a limited scope and are confined in the number of scenes you’ll actually interact with, but Thimbleweed Park feels quite large. There’s a ton of areas to explore, dozens of to-do items, and even more items to keep track of and experiment with. Eventually it becomes so large that you’ll have access to a map that allows you to quickly move from area to area without having to traverse the whole thing each time you go back and forth. For how big it is, the world is full of small details, many of which I didn’t notice or overlook until I became stuck, forcing me to scour and ‘pixel hunt’ nearly every inch of this crazy town.

Another mechanic that was brilliantly added is a to-do checklist for each of the playable characters. This is a general list of all the things you need to accomplish to progress further in the story, yet it leaves out any real hints of how to accomplish the solutions. It’s a clever way to point you in the right direction while not give anything away, as puzzle solving is what makes this genre so magical.

The majority of items you pick up can be shared across any of the characters, save for a few special items that are tied to certain characters. I initially thought that many of the puzzles were going to require a specific character to solve them, and while some do, you can complete a good portion of the gameplay with your character of choice, as I did when possible.

Keeping with its classic roots, everything is controlled by a cursor as you command where to walk, what commands to use, and how to interact with objects and people. It was a little clunky on consoles all those years ago, and it is still is today. There are times it feels that it’s been vastly improved in many ways. For example, you can use the D-pad and Bumpers to cycle through options and objects. Then you'll find times it’s still not perfect. Hover the cursor over an item and it will give you the most common verb use for that item, like “Open” for a door, but do so with elevator buttons and it will simply be looked at instead of used.

Generally the controls work decently, but some fine tuning could have made it even better. I wish I could have had my cursor over an item and then use the Bumpers to cycle between the verbs, rather than having to move my cursor to the verb and interact with the object separately. It’s not a big deal, as I’ve grown up with this control scheme for many years, but newcomers to the genre might find it a little tedious.

Something that surprised me is the inclusion of two difficulties, Casual and Hard. Casual is for those who simply want to focus on the story, which is what I did for my first playthrough. Hard mode adds many more steps to certain puzzles that will greatly lengthen your play time in this odd town. Having played through about half of the game a second time on Hard mode, I am impressed with how much more involved some of the puzzles are on the higher difficulty. There’s some minor differences otherwise, but Hard mode will certainly challenge you, as I found a few of the solutions to be much more obtuse with all of the extra required steps. Don’t be ashamed if you need to resort to walkthroughs on Hard. It’s a great way to add replayability as it includes seemingly ‘new’ content the second time through.

At a quick glance you would probably be fooled into thinking that Thimbleweed Park was taken right from the 80’s, but upon closer inspection, and by viewing old Maniac Mansion gameplay, the visuals have been improved, quite drastically. The pixel work has much more detail yet retains its nostalgic roots. There’s a color gamut used and each scene and character look distinct in its own way.

As a whole, the voice acting is superb, save for a select few who felt a bit flat. Unfortunately, one of those few is one of the main characters, Ray, as the performance simply didn’t do anything for me and sounded monotone throughout the whole adventure. This was why I actually opted to play as Reyas whenever I was able to. Other characters, such as Ransome and the Sherriff/Coroner/Hotel Manager, more than pick up the slack with their hilarious and perfectly timed deliveries of their lines, thanks to the fantastic writing of course.

Gamers my age will be sold on Thimbleweed Park with nostalgia alone, and if you enjoyed Maniac Mansion as much as I did growing up, you need to go and play this right now. There’s so many references and jokes that only fans of the original game will understand, and people like me are their exact audience that will enjoy it to its fullest. A few Easter eggs that stood out for me are that the mansion in this game is called Mansion Mansion, there’s a hamster in a microwave at some point, a poster talks about a meteor, and even the layout of some of the areas mimic ones from the classic. If none of this makes any sense to you, that’s fine, you won’t miss out on anything, but for fans of the original, there’s so much fan service here that it’s worth the purchase alone.

I’m not exactly sure why the genre died out over the years, but playing Thimbleweed Park made me realize how much I miss it. It has modern upgrades, not just visually, but mechanically, to make it stand out amongst the crowd, and the fact that it’s created by two legends in the industry who happen to be responsible for one of my favorite games of all time speaks volumes for its creativity and quality. It’s not going to resonate with everyone, as it’s still a niche genre, but as someone who’s been waiting decades to play an amazing classic point and click adventure, Thimbleweed Park does more than satisfy that craving, it renewed my passion for the genre and bring back a flood of great gaming memories.

The fourth wall consistently gets broken and the conclusion was very satisfying. It was much lengthier than I expected, as solving one puzzle usually requires a handful of other objectives to be met beforehand, and just when I thought I was done, it was simply the end of a chapter. My first casual playthrough was around 10 hours or so, but yours could easily take a handful more or less, depending on your puzzle solving prowess. Hard mode should take considerably longer with the extended puzzles and there’s many non-story things that can be done as well for those that want to explore and do everything.

Gilbert and Winnick have seemingly captured lighting in a bottle once again, as they’ve created something very special and memorable in Thimbleweed Park. I was smiling constantly while playing, and even afterwards while writing this review, I already know it’s going to leave me with some great gaming memories, just as their other title did 30 years ago. Thimbleweed Park is full of personality, not just from its characters, but its setting, writing, and everything else that encompasses the experience. It’s clear that this was a labor of love, and there was no two better people to be at the helm of bringing back this long lost genre. “Give” your money to developers Terrible Toybox and experience one of the best point and click adventure games in decades. And as an added bonus, this is the first game in history that I'm aware of that has a setting for 'proper' rolling of the toilet paper in game. That alone is worth a purchase and speaks about its level of detail.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Dark Arcana: The Carnival

Artifex Mundi started releasing their Hidden Object Games (HOG’s) on PC a number of years ago, and as of a few years ago, they also started to release their catalog of games on Xbox One. Normally HOG’s don’t translate well to console, so you don’t see many of them, but Artifex Mundi has somehow figured out how to make these types of games work with a controller, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Sometimes you just want a relaxing game for those nights when you want to chill out on the couch, and that’s exactly what has hooked me on these HOG’s. Generally not too difficult like other puzzlers, these games usually have you trying to find a specific list of items in a cluttered area and playing a handful of mini-games to progress further in the journey.

Dark Arcana: The Carnival is the newest Artifex Mundi release for console, yet is one of the oldest titles in their catalogue. The Carnival is a much spookier backdrop than I’m used to for a HOG, as it takes place in a twisted amusement park and has some wonderful visuals to accompany your journey. Of course there will be twists and turns, especially once you realize there’s an alternate dimension that can be traveled to through a mysterious mirror.

The Carnival opens with a mother and daughter visiting a seemingly normal amusement park, but in an unexpected turn of events the mother is kidnapped, leaving her daughter stranded, alone, and unsure where her mother was taken. I was totally expecting the child to be kidnapped like in most other stories, so having a slight twist to the trope was a welcome change.

You play as the female detective who is assigned the case. You set out to find where the mother has been taken to and reunite the family. The daughter is visibly upset and as you try to have a word with the park manager Jim, and he takes off running, locking the gate behind him. Obviously something is amiss and this is where your journey begins to solve the disappearance of the woman and what the park manager is really up to.

You eventually learn that the woman has been taken to another dimension, hidden away within mirrors, but this version of the world is very dark and twisted. This fact doesn’t stop you from getting to the truth of what happened. There’s more to the story, but with how short in length the game is, I’ll let you uncover the rest of what has happened, even if many plot points can be seen coming from a mile away.

Like other Artifex Mundi games, the backgrounds are wonderfully painted, seemingly by hand, and given that you’ll be travelling between the real world and an alternate dimension of the amusement park, you’ll see two very distinct versions of the same area. The colors are bright and varied, and even in the dark dimension, with its twisted version of every object, it’s beautiful to look at and has a ton of detail. Given that there’s no movement in the scenes for the most part, the beautiful artwork keeps your visual attention throughout.

The core of Dark Arcana is solving one of 3 different types of puzzles: HOG’s, collecting items, and a handful of mini-games. You’ll explore many different scenes, each with its own barriers preventing you from progressing further, which is where the puzzles come into play. Sometimes you’ll need to complete a mini-game to unlock a door, or collect a handful of different items from numerous scenes to find the solution you need. Any items that you need to collect and/or interact with will have some glowing sparkles on it to make it stand out, on normal mode anyways, as expert mode takes away this advantage as well as any reliance on the hint system.

Early in your adventure you’ll befriend a monkey who will become your best buddy in a few situations, as he’s able to reach items that you would have no hope of retrieving and return them back to you. There will be times where you might become confused, as you can’t figure out what item to use to solve your problem, so keep your primate companion in mind in these situations.

Like many of these types of games, you’ll return to each scene numerous times, usually with a new item in your inventory to help you progress where you were previously blocked. Throughout your adventure you’ll also have to find a collection of items like masks, gears, and other things before you can attempt to solve its related brainteaser. While many items will generally only be a few scenes away from one another, there are times where you’ll have to backtrack a half dozen areas to find the item(s) you need. Luckily you’re given a map that shows you how each area connects in case you get lost, though a fast travel system would have been ideal in some cases.

Given that the Carnival is one of Artifex Mundi’s earlier titles, I can tell how their games have progressed as I’ve played and reviewed their other newer titles in the past. The difficulty here is generally pretty flat, never terribly challenging and nowhere near as difficult as their newer games. I never had to skip any of the puzzles, which is a great inclusion for those that aren’t as skilled, nor use any hints, which will help you solve any puzzle you may be stuck on. These features allows any skill level able to complete the game yet has achievements for those that want a greater challenge, like solving a HOG without any misses, or completing the game without using any hints.

If you truly become stuck you can even completely skip puzzles, getting the game to automatically complete it for you, allowing you to progress without becoming frustrated. Like their other titles, there are also an alternative puzzles you can play if you simply don’t understand the initial one given to you, revolving around you matching cards until you clear a certain amount of powered-up cards. It’s nowhere near as challenging, but again, is a great alternative for those that need it.

The HOG’s are the showcase in these types of games, as you’re given a list of items to find in a cluttered scene. Sometimes you’ll need to combine items to create the one thing you need, like adding a candle to a candlestick, or polishing some shoes with a scrubber. Sure, you could simply spam the ‘A’ button while moving your cursor around the screen and complete them that way, but it defeats the whole purpose of these types of relaxing games.

As for the negatives, the voice acting stands out prominently, as it’s quite poor. I understand it’s one of their earlier games, but it’s quite a distraction and not believable in any way, even when the final plot twist is revealed and credits roll. The Carnival is quite easy in relation to their other HOG titles, even when played in expert mode, as I was able to easily finish it in a single sitting, including the bonus epilogue that explains events that take place after the main campaign. The other complaint is that it almost feels like they were cheating, given that you will essentially explore the same areas twice, in the real world and the alternate one.

Even with its flaws, and understanding it’s one of their older titles, I still enjoyed my time with Dark Arcana: The Carnival, even if it was a short adventure. I love these types of games for those nights I simply need to relax and not worry about shooting anyone or racing against my friends. You might scoff at HOG titles, but they are quite relaxing, and if you’re not proficient at puzzle games the difficulty here isn’t very high and it allows you many alternative ways to progress if you ever become stuck. While not Artifex Mundi’s best title to date, it’s still a fun adventure and a great way to get your feet wet with their catalogue in a long forgotten genre.

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 2Dark

If questioned what game started the survival horror genre, most probably answer Resident Evil, and while that game did help propel the genre to new heights, the classic franchise Alone in the Dark actually arrived a few years prior, yet it still goes unnoticed and forgotten. While it did spawn a few sequels, it also brought us a terrible movie that I wish I could forget. Frédérick Raynal was the one who created the iconic series, and he now returns with a new gritty horror game, 2Dark. In an attempt to mix survival horror, stealth, and point-and-click elements, 2Dark is a great premise with an eerily dark and gruesome storyline that tends to hit a little too close to home being I am a father with a child.

2Dark opens with Mr. Smith, a police officer, taking his family out for a camping trip in the 1960’s. He begins to set up their tents as his wife and two kids go in search for some firewood. Moments later Smith hears cries coming from afar, something you never want to hear in the woods with your family. He eventually finds his wife but she’s been gruesomely decapitated with the kids nowhere to be found. He hears them crying out only to see a truck speeding off with the children in the back crying for their father.

It’s a dark beginning to a game that makes me realize that I don’t want to ever imagine going through something like this as a father myself. In a single night Smith loses his whole family, so understandably he’s become a shell of his former self in the years following. It’s now the mid 70’s, and while no longer a cop, he continues looking for his children. There’s been a string of kidnapped children in the city of Gloomwood where he resides, so he takes it upon himself to do what he can to save the kids and solve what’s going on, as maybe it will lead him to the answers he desires about his own kids that he has not seen in many years.

It doesn’t get much more bleak and dark than that, and the opening totally hooked me for what I had hoped to be a strong narrative going forward. You are tasked with not only saving as many children as you can in each of the few levels, but you’ll also need to find evidence of what’s going on in the bigger scheme of things so that you know where to look next. So, while you need to save all the kids you can in each level, it feels weird that it’s almost more important to find information of a possible child trafficking ring, as you won’t be able to progress without doing so.

2Dark utilizes a top down perspective where the layout and background is made of 2D sprites, but all the characters are 3D and have a unique visual style that looks as if they are stylized in a ‘chibi’ fashion, meaning their bodies and limbs are small but have slightly oversized heads. It’s an interesting visual style that definitely makes it its own flair. The overhead view is how you know where to hide in the dark with stealth, and it also allows you to have a broader viewpoint of everything happening around you. Don’t let the pixels and weird chibi-like characters fool you though, as 2Dark’s backgrounds fit the disturbing content with plenty of blood filled rooms and other gore-filled backdrops.

My biggest complaint is that it’s almost always too dark to see or appreciate any of the artwork. Yes, I get how ironic that is with a game titled 2Dark, but the darkness leads to many unfair deaths and an unrecognized effort when a large portion of your environment is completely pitch black. This deep darkness means you need to always have a light source with you, be it your trusty lighter or flashlight, but as soon as you do so you’re unable to use stealth, so it’s an odd design choice indeed.

2Dark’s tutorial is cleverly laid out at Smith’s home when he returns one night seemingly locked out of his residence. This is where you learn the basic mechanics of searching and finding items only to then be introduced to the abomination of the poorly designed inventory system that you’ll be wrestling with until the credits roll, but more on that later. Smith’s house is essentially your hub between levels, as you research all the information and leads you’ve uncovered so far that assist you to plot your next area to search for children and information to find.

The first level will take you to an abandoned amusement park, the perfect backdrop of a creepy and dark kidnapping that you will search by yourself. You witness someone taking a child into a rundown building and you take off to save them. You'll also notice an even creepier funhouse that will eventually show you how unforgiving 2Dark can be with handfuls of enemies and unfair pit traps. There are a handful of instant kill traps hidden inside in the darkness, so you best have your light source out at all times.

It’s near impossible to see in the dark, as your lighter barely lights up anything, even directly around you, and your flashlight takes batteries to use, so you need to constantly balance using your flashlight and turning it off when it’s not needed. Because Smith’s visibility is so poor, you’re going to constantly run into the 'death' pits and one hit kills before you even encounter an enemy.

By poor design, the first level is actually one of the harder levels, so as long as you can get past this first test you should be mostly fine afterwards. Littering the opening level with such unfairness when players are still learning the core mechanics is very off putting though, as I felt that I wanted to give up after a few dozen tries.

Enemies will patrol the area, and while you will find weapons like a crowbar, knife, and even a gun, combat is not recommended as most enemies are bullet sponges. This is where you need to learn very quickly that stealth kills (and later on, traps) is how you’re going to have to defeat the bad guys if you want to survive. When you’re in the darkness enemies won’t see you, but in a lit room they’ll spot you no problem and give chase. They’ll also hear you if you’re within their circle of awareness (which has a visual cue) unless you hold Left Trigger to tippy-toe silently past. Sneak up behind an enemy and you can execute them with a one-hit kill, so you’ll have to rely on this tactic to take out your enemies.

Bosses are even more difficult, and without a full clip of ammunition you’ll want to avoid open conflict whenever possible. Combat in general is very clumsy and not very reliable, maybe by design to force players into the stealth element of the game, but it simply doesn’t work well when you need it to and just feels awkward.

When you do manage to find one of the children they’ll instantly know you’re there to help them and follow you, something I don’t imagine happening if they’ve been previously kidnapped. Most kids will instantly follow you, except for the odd skittish child that you simply need to use candy to lure them to follow you. Yes, you read that right, you use candy to lure a child that was previously kidnapped to follow you. Sure, it makes sense in a way, but it feels off-putting given the context. If needed you can even pick up and carry a child if you don’t want to wait on how slow they are, again, another odd depiction of carrying a kid over your shoulder given the context.

You can have the kids follow you like the pied piper, or get them to stay put somewhere as you clear the path forward with your stealth executions. I’m not used to games that allow children to be killed, but even more shocked when you can actually see the murders, something I was totally not expecting. The kids can, and will, be killed if you get them in harm’s way, so you need to bring them back to the beginning of the level to get them to safety.

The majority of your time with 2Dark will be played through experimentation, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then restarting from your last save when something goes horribly wrong. Luckily you can save at any time you wish by having a smoke from your inventory, but that surrounds you in a light source (your lighter) and doesn’t pause the game while you wait for it to save.

You’re going to die a lot, so prepare to save your game whenever you reach a new area in the level, as you’re never sure what’s hiding in the dark (e.g. instant deaths) or when patrolling enemies are going to surprise you. There’s no difficulty option, but it’s definitely on the more challenging side, I just hope you remember to save somewhat recently, because reverting to your last save when it was over a half hour previous is disheartening.

And now we get to the crux of 2Dark that made me want to stop playing it nearly every time; your inventory. Your inventory is represented as a column along the left side of the screen, visually showing you everything you’re currently carrying. Levels have you picking up lots of items, even clues for unlocking the next stage. As you pick up more items the inventory expands, literally to the point of taking up a quarter of the screen. It also doesn’t allow you to drop or hide items, so when you’ve already looked at a clue it will still sit there taking up valuable screen real-estate. Another issue is that even when you use a consumable item, the blank box where the item was stays there and doesn’t shrink.

There are context menus that can be used with the shoulder buttons, as Smith can hold a light source in his left hand and a weapon in the right hand, but the problem is that the game doesn’t pause when you’re fumbling around with your inventory, resulting in many deaths as you try to escape chase while switching weapons. There will be more than one instance of you accidentally turning on your flashlight as an enemy walks past because of a wrong button press, guaranteed.

Worse still, say you need a key to open a door, you need to be holding that item in your hand, as it’s not simply good enough that you’re carrying it in your inventory. So imagine having to do that while being chased or in the midst of combat. You can move items in your inventory with the Y button, and even combine certain items like the gun and ammo or the flashlight and batteries, but when you inevitably move the cursor to the wrong item, you’re going to be confused why something isn’t working.

During boss fights this poor inventory system makes things a hundred times as worse, as you can’t simply reload a gun with a simple button press, you need to drag the bullets to the gun in your inventory, and keep in mind the game doesn’t pause when doing so. You’ll want to get in the habit of organizing your inventory so that it makes the most used items much more accessible, but it’s tedious and you shouldn’t have to resort to this in order to overcome poor design. The inventory management is painful and is by far the biggest frustration and drawback of 2Dark.

Even though I took issue with many of 2Dark’s problems, such as poor voice acting, unfair deaths, and one of the worse inventory management systems I’ve experienced in recent memory, I can see the appeal of it. Its' replayability will come down to saving as many children as you can while collecting all that you can find, in the fastest time, but for many, that won’t be enough for much longevity. Once you learn how to deal with 2Dark’s issues it does become easier as you learn, it’s simply not as fluid as it should be nor as fair.

2Dark seems to suffer from an identity crisis, unsure if it’s trying to be more of a stealth game or lean towards horror roots. I was impressed by the very dark and mature subject matter, especially since 2Dark holds nothing back, adding to its atmosphere, but certain design choices seem odd or simply in bad taste. It’s a gritty tale surrounded by average gameplay, and even though it has some serious hindrances, I think that some will find the stealth gameplay engaging and fun, but for the average gamer many of the mechanics behind 2Dark are 2Difficult to deal with.

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight

I’ve never heard of the Momodora series until this review landed in my lap. What surprised me was that Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight is actually the fourth game in the series. Normally I’m up to speed on my Metroidvania games, but this completely flew under my radar. Even more surprising was how great the game is, not because I was expecting it to be poor in any way, but usually delivering such a polished game like Reverie Under the Moonlight takes some serious dedication and knowledge. Well, developer Bombservice seems to have that in spades, as this game can easily hang with some of the better Metroidvania’s out there.

Kaho is a priestess from the small village of Lun, forced to find a cure to a curse that is spreading across the land, and she has her work cut out for her before it’s too late for everyone. Armed with just her bow and trust leaf, she sets on her journey to find out what has happened and put a stop to this curse by travelling to the city to see the queen, but getting there won’t be so easy now that monsters have invaded the lands.

While not a completely original trope to rely on, the story is interesting enough, but the enjoyment from Momodora comes from its tight gameplay and not necessarily the narrative itself. Yes, there’s a story present, and you’ll make small footsteps in the direction to figuring out the who, what and why, but the gameplay is what will keep you coming back. I personally wish there was a little more emphasis on a much more fleshed out story, but the narrative is simply used as a backdrop for your journey and exploration, harking back to the classic days where gameplay was more important than anything else, a trait I’m sure Momodora is trying to emulate.

The first thing that’s going to jump out at you is the game's classic inspired 16-bit graphics, though clearly with a modern touch with its incredible amount of attention to detail and sharpness. You’ll move from district to district, each with its own distinct visual mood and setting. Much like other Metroidvania’s, each area has its own boss that allows you to gain an item, generally allowing you to access a previously locked area, progressing your journey forward.

The next thing you’ll probably come to realize after a little bit of play is how difficult it can be. Not excruciatingly punishing, but it’s certainly got some challenge to it. Health is a premium that can be extended with found items while instant kill pits and spikes litter the environment seemingly everywhere. Checkpoints are scattered around the world in the form of bells that need to be rung, and while not spread out too far from one another, if you forget to save at one and then die, you lose all the progress you’ve made since then, which can turn to frustration real quick.

In classic Metroidvania style, the world map is represented by connecting squares, and as you progress through it you’ll realize that many areas intertwine once you have the needed ability or item to progress past certain points. While the design is tried and true, I wasn’t a big fan of the amount of backtracking that was required before the warp ability comes into play, especially early on when you’re simply lost, trying to figure out where you need to go.

What I did appreciate though is the inclusion of an Easy mode, as this allows a little more leeway for those that either can’t commit a lot of time to become more proficient or simply don’t have the skills too. Easy mode gives you the maximum amount of health allowed from the beginning, which is a great help to get you accustomed to the gameplay. It’s an addition that opens up the game for newcomers to the genre or players who simply want to enjoy it in a different way.

Where Momodora excels is its action and combat, brought together in a wonderful package emphasized by the beautiful artwork and animation. Kaho uses her leaf for melee attacks, allowing you to achieve a 3-hit combo. Her bow allows for ranged attacks but is much weaker, but combining both weapons is how you’ll become much more proficient at Momodora’s combat trials ahead. The animations are wonderful, as no matter what combo or series of buttons you press, the transitions are smooth and have a large amount of detail.

In regards to traversing the game's levels, Kaho can double jump and dodge roll out of danger. Eventually you’ll even be able to transform into a cat to move faster and into smaller areas, unlocking their hidden secrets. Kaho controls exactly as she should, as I was never able to blame a death on spotty controls, even once. You’ll find numerous vendors across your journey, allowing you to spend your collected ‘munny’ (yes, it’s called that) on new items that will grant you new abilities and even passive bonuses.

Momodora is a visually striking game. Even though its visual style is cemented in the classic 16-bit era, the amount of detail put into even the smallest feature is very impressive. While the pallet is a limited one, the animation and how it flows is what makes it stand out amongst others that I’ve played going for the same sort of art style.

Even when you’re standing still you'll notice small animations, such as objects that move in the background, allowing for more immersion into Kaho’s world. My only complaint is that certain enemies blend into the background due to the limited color pallet, making for some cheap hits and deaths. The same goes for pits, as sometimes you’re able to move down to the next area, and others are actual pits of death, but they are difficult to discern from one another.

The audio is just as good, as each area has its own mood and tone that seemingly fits to the setting and story. While not composed by a full orchestra, the music is retro inspired, like its visuals, and brings me back to the days where a game’s soundtrack was just as memorable as its gameplay or story. The melodies change based on the setting, ranging from low key tunes to larger piano harmonies.

I hope the previous games in the series make their way to Xbox One, as I’m now invested into the series, even if this is the latest entry. With its dark setting and undertone, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight is a worthy and memorable Metroidvania adventure, even more-so to those that like to find every secret or love to speedrun. Visually it’s a masterpiece, and clearly a labor of love that hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially its' fluid animation in pure 16-bit bliss. Even though it does have a few minor faults, as an overall package, especially at its price point, it should be experienced for anyone that loves the genre or wants to relive the 16-bit glory days.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Bloons TD 5

There’s absolutely no shortage of Tower Defense (TD) games. On console there may not be nearly the amount as on PC, but there’s still a handful to choose from if that’s your genre of choice. Truth be told, there are a handful of decent ones out there but they are usually overshadowed by the sheer amount of poor to moderate Tower Defense titles. So while I like the genre, it’s hard to get excited when a new one arrives, as I tend to usually just expect the worst. Luckily, Bloons TD 5 surprised me, by quite a margin actually.

At first glance you’re going to assume that Bloons TD 5 (Bloons for short) is a tower defense game aimed for a younger audience, and I wouldn’t blame you, as I thought the same thing. I mean, how can a TD game based on monkeys stopping balloons from popping at their bases, wrapped in a cartoonish visual style, not make you think it’s based more towards kids? Well, you would be wrong, as Bloons is incredibly deep, much more than I was initially expecting.

While Bloons employs the same base mechanics of placing your towers (monkeys) near a path that the balloons take, tasked with stopping every one of them, there’s a level of deepness and strategy that really took me by surprise. I thought I was going to be done with it quite quickly, but it’s anything but, as I want to keep playing to level up. Bloons knows what type of game it is, plays into that fact, and is better for it.

If you’ve managed to avoid playing a tower defense game previously, the basic goal is to stop the enemies (balloons in this case) from reaching your base on a specific path. You do this by building towers, each with their own types of weaponry and attacks, though in Bloons your towers are actually different types of monkeys. Don’t roll your eyes quite yet, as I made that mistake initially as well. You earn cash for popping these balloons which helps fund placing more monkeys, or upgrading the ones already placed to make them even better. That’s the core mechanics of the gameplay, but what Bloons does so well is include a ton of towers, erm, monkeys, that have multiple upgrade paths, tons of different challenges and modes, and more.

I initially had my doubts about this release on console, as usually mobile and PC ports don’t go very well for numerous reasons, controls usually being one of them. On a mobile game you can instantly touch the screen to do what you want, but on console we don’t have that luxury, so I was concerned that having to use the sticks would make for sluggish gameplay. Well it turns out that developers Ninja Kiwi have managed to solve that issue, as controls never really become an issue after learning the basics. You have instant access to what you need and also even a way to move with precision when attempting to place a monkey in the absolute perfect spot.

As you're starting off you’ll begin by choosing which difficulty to play, and I highly suggest Easy until you learn the monkeys inside and out and have leveled up enough to have some bold strategies with multiple different placements. You level up the more you play, with each level unlocking a new monkey to utilize or a specific upgrade for them, so it pays off to continue playing, even if you manage to complete the generous amounts of levels included.

Easy will make you do 50 waves of balloon popping with only 200 allowed to pass to the exit. Bump up the difficulty and you’re tasked with more waves and less allowed to pass through. I thought transitioning from Easy would be simple, but you really need to know your monkey’s strengths and weaknesses to even have a chance at completing the higher difficulty levels.

A TD game is only as fun as its towers and upgrades are, and Bloons has no shortage whatsoever with over 20 different towers, each very unique and meant for a specific type of strategy. As you level up after a few hours of play time, you’ll notice that there are some imbalances, as some monkeys are simply overpowered and needed, whereas others aren’t as usual at all. Sure there’s a strategy for each type, but a handful of the more powerful ones are usually all you need in most setups. I tend to front stack the start of the trail, trying to pop as many balloons as I can as they spawn, but other viable options are to spread out your monkeys across the whole designated path as well, it’s completely up to you.

Part of Bloons’ charm is the monkeys themselves, as they are all varied, have unique abilities and are simply fun to experiment with. If you are truly devoted and sink enough time into the game, there’s even an area where you can purchase permanent upgrades by training them even further. The units won’t level up unless you use them either, so make sure you try to use them all, even if you don’t rely on it often, as you never know how amazing that fifth tier upgrade could be in the future.

The upgrades for each type of monkey is where a lot of the fun comes in, as seeing a simple cannonball shooter turn into a missile launcher is awesome, or your ninja monkeys upgrading their headband colors as they become more powerful from upgrades. A simple super monkey that gets upgraded heat vision is easily my favorite though. The visual upgrades are a nice touch and can make a big difference between success and failure. My only complaint is that you only get the description of what the upgrade specifically does when you initially level up, so if you forget, there’s no simple way to recheck it during a game (you have to go back to the main menu), so best remember what each visual represents.

Most monkeys first upgrade is usually based on more popping power (damage) or quicker attacks (shooting speed), but there are two different trees to work your way up into on each unit, each with 5 unique upgrades. The catch is that you can’t fully maximize each unit, as once you spend 3 points into one of the trees, that’s the only upgrade path you can upgrade to the maximum level. If you want the try the other upgrade path, you simply buy and place another unit down and upgrade that one differently.

The customization of the monkeys is much more in depth than I was expecting. There are even other types of towers you can place like a banana tree that drops bananas which converts to more money for you, or a monkey hut that buffs other monkeys in range in a variety of different ways. This is what allows for many different strategies to work and is a welcome addition to a usually stagnant genre.

There’s also a massive amount of levels, well over 50 I believe, so you won’t becoming bored with the same backdrop with repeat plays. They are really varied, from farms, to icebergs, hedge mazes, and even space. Some pathways are much easier than others, so there’s a lot of variety, not even including the difficulty options. Pathways with many U-turns and corners are great for the units that shoot out at 360 degrees, but not generally as useful beside a straight path, so the variety allows you to test new placements and strategies. Some levels even have pools of water, allowing your water-only units to be deployed for even more depth.

Other than the main campaign, there’s a ton of different and specialty modes which really adds a ton of longevity and replayability. These special modes are like specific scenarios that you need to try and complete for an extra mount of money and currency. My favorite was being given starting cash of $50,000 and using just that amount against a massive wave of balloons. It sounds like a lot, and it’s fun to have 100 times the normal starting amount, but it was incredibly challenging, yet a great change of pace when monotony kicks in after a long play session.

With a ton of levels, upgrade paths, units, modes, difficulties and more, there’s way more content included than I expected to have. I thought after an hour or two I would have seen and done it all, but here I am, many hours in and still tons of stuff to play and unlock. Easy mode allows new people to the genre to jump in whereas the harder difficulties will surely test veterans.

Given that Bloons was initially a mobile title, I have a feeling it had some pay elements to it where you could buy currency with real money to exchange and use for upgrades and other items. I’m glad to report that there’s no microtransactions like that included on this console release, but it seems like the groundwork for that system has been left in place, as there’s numerous forms of currency which doesn’t seem like it makes much sense using without that original economy. Getting the coin currency comes slow unless you want to take the time to grind for them, not an impossible task, but surely one that will need some devotion if you want to unlock the best upgrades and improvements.

I almost wrote this one off before trying it but came away shocked with its quality and mechanics compared to other tower defense games. Ninja Kiwi has done an excellent job at “consolefying” (yes, I just made that up) their game without it feeling like a poor mobile port, a fate that many games suffer from, so kudos for doing it proper. I was expecting an hour’s worth of content, but can easily see myself sinking in more than a dozen or two to simply do everything. Bloons TD 5 on one hand is a simple to pick up and play tower defense, but the more you invest time into it, you realize there’s a whole lot of depth to it, so don’t let the cute visuals and silly premise fool you, this is a very solid tower defense game that should be played if you’re a fan of the genre and been looking for a new title.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Inner World,The

Growing up in the golden age of point and click adventures, I fell in love with the genre. How could you not when you had amazing classics like Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, and nearly every LucasArts game from the 80’s and 90’s. The genre seemingly died out after the 90’s for the most part, which is a shame as some of my best gaming memories are embedded into the games listed above. That’s not to say there’s been no point and click adventures in recent years, but nowhere near the amount that there used to be.

So when a new point and click adventure releases, I become very excited to try it out and hope to enjoy myself just as much as I did when I was growing up with the classics. The Inner World actually released on PC back in 2013, yet it passed me by completely, but now that it’s making its way to Xbox One I jumped on the chance to check it out.

Created by German developer Studio Fizbin, The Inner World is exactly what I was hoping it would be: a funny, engaging and challenging point and click adventure with a ton of heart and charm that’s clearly been a labor of love. The art style is completely hand drawn, giving it a unique look and style, though don’t let its cartoonish visuals fool you that it’s intended for kids, as there’s a ton of adult underlying tones and innuendo that even surprised me.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from The Inner World’s narrative when I began, but I was pleasantly surprised with an engaging story filled with memorable and amusing characters throughout and an overarching story that kept me playing to find out what was going to happen next. Taking place in the world of Asposia, a unique landscape, as it’s simply a world of infinite soil and dirt, except for the small hollow bubble that the Asposians live in. Their air supply used to come from three separate wind fountains but they stopped working, angering the wind gods, the Basylians. They were so angry that they started turning nearly all of the Asposians to stone, save for a select few.

This is where you’re introduced to your protagonist Robert, a cute yet ever so clueless character that has a heart of gold, but has no idea of the adventure that lies before him. Robert is the apprentice to Conroy, a wind monk watching over the last functional wind fountain, who has also sheltered Robert his whole life in his palace. Conroy forces Robert to play a soothing song with his unique flute nose, consisting of a single note, and this is where the quirky adventure begins.

From the onset you can tell that something isn’t right with Conroy, and while some plot points of obvious from the get go, that doesn’t dull down the narrative in any way, as you’ll meet a handful of memorable characters, each with very distinct personalities. You’ll spent the bulk of Robert’s adventure with a shadowy thief named Laura and a pesky pigeon named Peck. Once Robert is off on his own he starts to see how sheltered he has been his whole life, and while usually oblivious characters like this are annoying, Robert is so wonderfully acted that I couldn’t help but cheer for him the whole way.

Even just the main plot is odd, but that’s part of what makes The Inner World have so much charm. It’s a unique story wonderfully written and has a very distinct art style that only helps emphasize its quirkiness. My wife and daughter actually asked what I was watching, not playing, when I was going through it, and my daughter sat and watched it just as if it was a cartoon she’d see on TV. The whole game is completely hand drawn, so there’s a ton of details and intricacies in nearly every scene that simply wouldn’t be as natural if done otherwise.

It’s not easy to have a playable game that looks like it’s simply a cartoon playing, as the animation is completely smooth, even when you’re in direct control of Robert. So while it’s labeled as a point and click, you do control Robert as you normally would any other 2D game, moving from scene to scene and object to object. Not enough flattering comments can be said about its visuals, as I instantly fell in love with the distinct style.

Part of the reason many games in this genre don’t translate to console well is the awkward controls with a controller, and while not completely perfect here, it works once you figure out how to utilize it efficiently. Given that you control your character with the thumb stick and not the traditional point and click, this solves half of the tedious problems. Part of the solution Studio Fizbin came up with is the ability to press the bumpers to cycle through all of the interactive objects on the screen that are within range.

As you begin, this seems to work decently, as there’s usually only a handful of objects that can be inspected or manipulated, but in the last few chapters, there’s a surprising amount of objects on screen sometimes, making cycling through objects a little tedious. Granted, you can stand close to the item you want to select it quicker, but sometimes that isn’t as efficient. If an object is selectable, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to interact with it at some point, either by taking, manipulating the item or talking to the person.

Selecting an item will show you 3 different icons that represent different ways to interact. You can look (magnifying glass) at it, interact (gear icon or speech bubble), or add an item from your inventory to combine (the plus symbol). While there’s no real tutorial that explains how to do so, it’s pretty obvious and doesn’t need much explanation. It would have been nice to have been taught how to combine items, but you’ll also figure that out on your own easily once needed. When you do have a conversation with another character you can choose the topics of what you’d like to talk about, represented by a specific icon, though you won’t know if all of the conversation has been exhausted until you try to speak about it again a few times.

The core gameplay of The Inner World is solving the numerous puzzles placed before you, though these aren’t your standard types of puzzles, and will have you wracking your brain as to what the solution could be. The puzzles seem to be completely tailored for the world of Asposia, as it never takes itself seriously and will have you thinking in unorthodox ways to solve Robert’s problems. One example: having to distract a guard that won’t let you pass, so you make him look the other way, swap your wanted poster for a poster of himself, then watch as he arrests himself. This is the type of silliness you can expect, and it's a better game for it.

It’s quirky thinking like that that will have to be used to progress your adventure. While many puzzles have a logical solution, you simply need to figure out the Asposian way to doing so, usually leading to some hilarious moments and obtuse solutions. Even though each chapter only contains a handful of scenes in each, you’ll be moving from one to the next as there’s always a handful of tasks to complete, generally in linear fashion. If things become overwhelming or simply don’t make sense, this is where the fantastic hint system comes into play, something which I had to rely on numerous times. While some may feel the hint system is cheating, it’s completely optional and is done in such an ingenious way, offering you as much or as little help as you want.

The hint system is multi-layered, so if you look up a clue to what you need to do, it’ll generally start out with a much broader clue. Still don’t get it? Keep checking the hint system and it will eventually tell you exactly what to do next, even to the point of using item A with object B, or talking to a certain person about a specific topic. Many times I needed some help, but only needed a slight clue, other times I needed to be hit on the head with what to do next, so having the multilayered hint system was a great mechanic to have. This allows everyone to complete the game regardless of their puzzle solving abilities and skill level.

I’ve said many great things about the distinct and beautiful visuals of The Inner World, but the script and voice acting also needs its own mentioning. Sometimes when you get a game what was initially developed in another language, converting it to English sometimes makes it lose its humor or leaves poor translations in its conversion. Luckily these concerns aren’t a factor, making for excellent dialogue and even better voice acting.

Voiced by Mike McAlpine, Robert is a lovingly believable character that comes to life with an amazing performance. Robert is so naive that you just want to love him for how innocent he really is. Nearly every character in Asposia you come across is voiced wonderfully, adding to their character and quirky personality. I’m done playing The Inner World, but I’ll remember many of these characters for years to come.

Given its cartoonish hand drawn art style, you would think that The Inner World is more aimed towards kids, and while there’s nothing stopping them from playing, there’s times where it seems like the much more adult demographic was intended. There’s a barkeep you’ll come across that goes on about her adult exploits, simply done with innuendo of course, or a female creature that gets into a verbal spat with Laura, causing for some interesting choice of words to be used while insulting each other. While I myself found these moments hilarious, just be mindful if you want to shelter the younger ones away, as the childish appearance may make it look kid friendly.

For how much praise I give to The Inner World, it did have a few issues I came across. Namely the control scheme, while functional, is a little cumbersome at times when you need to tab between multiple items to highlight the one you want. Given that much of the gameplay is trial and error, it becomes a pain if you’re simply guessing over and over what to combine with what having to cycle between a dozen objects on screen.

I also had one instance where I was unable to move after interacting with an object, clearly a simple bug and one I was able to remedy by playing my flute nose, but I had that small moment of panic wondering if I was going to have to restart and lose my progress. Lastly, some of the puzzles will make sense after solving them, but when you’re struggling to figure it out, it can seem a little too obtuse at times. Granted, the hint system is there to help when needed, but you’re going to have to learn to think completely out of the box for some of the solutions.

I didn’t want my time in Asposia with Robert to end. Each character was a treat to interact with and the writing is filled to the brim with humor and even better voice acting. The graphics are stunning for its style, and even though you’ll be done The Inner World in roughly 6-10 hours depending on your puzzle solving abilities and reliance on the hint system, I was completely satisfied once the credits rolled.

The humor will constantly having you crack a smile or smirking, and you can’t help but get the sense that The Inner World was a labor of love. Simply put, The Inner World is endearing and charming and I’m glad I got to experience it, as should you. If you’ve been craving a great point and click adventure, or simply want a game with some fantastic visuals, audio, and narrative, look no further than The Inner World and spend a wonderful few hours in the world of Asposia with some memorable characters.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Ghost Blade HD

Ghost Blade HD can be described best in two ways: “Shoot-em-up” (shmup) and “Bullet Hell”. If you’ve not played a shmup bullet hell game before, they were huge in the 90’s, with the most popular titles in the genre being Raiden, R-Type, Gradius, and my personal favorite bullet hell of all time, Ikaruga. Most of these games are played with you piloting some kind of ship, usually moving vertically along the screen instead of horizontally. The term bullet hell comes from the sheer amount of enemies and bullets on screen, filling the movable area with seemingly nowhere to safely maneuver. You need some serious skills to be proficient at shmups, and while there’s a ton of good and bad titles in the genre, let’s find out where Ghost Blade HD sits amongst the greats with this retro inspired indie title.

These games are primarily known for their gameplay, and while some do have a trace of story attached to them, you’re generally a lone pilot trying to fend off some sort of alien invasion, or some variant of the overused trope. The same goes here with Ghost Blade HD, as there really is no story, but the gameplay fits the motive. You’re coming to shoot waves of enemies and avoid screenfulls of bullets, and that’s what Ghost Blade HD gives you; no more, no less.

You begin by choosing one of 3 different ships, each with its own female pilot. There’s no statistical differences that you’re shown, but they do play slightly different from one another. One has a wide spread shot, another has a medium spread shot, and the last has a more focused middle shot. I don’t believe there’s any statistical differences between the three that I could tell, damage or speed wise, so it’s mostly a preference and suitability to your playstyle of which to choose. I personally enjoy the middle pilot best, as the wide spread shot is extremely handy in the later levels when enemies come from nearly every side of the screen.

From there you pick between Easy, Normal or Hard difficulty and are then let loose into some bullet hell goodness to see how long you can last against the onslaught of enemies. If you’ve played any game in the genre before, you’ll know what to expect: shoot tons of ships, get some powerups, and close the levels out with a huge and challenging boss fight that fills half the screen as each level becomes progressively more difficult. So while it may follow the tried and true cookie cutter approach to the genre, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the gameplay is mostly solid, even if it is a little short in length.

With the first 30 seconds of gameplay you’ll basically have your weapons powered up to max, which I found quite odd, so there’s no need to worry about being weak with tiny missile shots for too long. Normally I wouldn’t say that a tutorial is needed for a shmup like this, but there’s a very important game mechanic that I didn’t learn until I was basically done playing just before starting to write this review.

Your ship has two ways to fire, with the standard shot that fires your spread shot with the ‘A’ button, or a second focused shot with ‘X’ that pulls all your bullets into a thinner but much more condensed line of fire, destroying almost anything except for bosses in a matter of moments. This focus fire isn’t taught to you and I had no idea you could even use such an attack until I was basically done with the game. This focus shot is how you easily (as easily as you can do so while avoiding hundreds of bullet anyways) take down the more larger and powerful ships that fire at you.

Once you learn this key mechanic, it’s all about rotating between shots, and learning when to do so, as focus firing makes you move much slower, usually a death sentence in these types of games. As per the usual, you will also have access to a number of bombs, clearing the screen of any bullets for those in-a-pinch moments to prevent you from exploding and losing a life. Another mechanic I wish was explained was that destroying enemies with normal fire will drop multiplier stars, whereas focus shot kills go towards filling/replenishing your bomb meter. Mastering this balance will be needed to succeed, especially on the Hard difficulty.

As the screen fills with enemies, and you destroy them, their dropped stars will automatically start to fly towards you to be picked up. At first I loved this feature, as you don’t have to worry about picking up those nagging power-ups or stars (except for the land vehicle stars, as those won’t automatically come towards you and stay grounded), leaving you to focus on your shooting and dodging. The downside to this is that there are always a mass amount of stars heading in your direction, so it becomes extremely distracting, even more so when the screen is already littered with bullets and you’re simply trying to dodge them.

I always start new shmups on the easiest difficulty even though I’m quite skilled at them, as it gives me an idea of what to expect from enemies, bullet patterns, and potential strategies. One feature I absolutely enjoyed on Easy mode is that when you get hit, and if you have a bomb left, it will automatically use it for you, clearing the screen of most enemies and all bullets. Think of it as an 'auto-oops' feature, and it’s a great way to learn the patterns before tackling Normal and Hard mode. Just be sure you don’t rely on it too greatly, or else you won’t have any bombs left when it really matters, namely against bosses.

For those wanting a challenge, Hard mode surely provides that. I can’t tell exactly what’s different, as enemy patterns seem to be identical, but I swear there’s more bullets on screen and they tend to move faster, but maybe that’s just my psyche playing with me. Most casual fans will have a hard enough time with Normal mode, as it won’t automatically use your bombs to save you from your mistakes like on Easy.

Ghost Blade HD is visually impressive for a small indie game. The genre isn’t known for its realistic visuals, as it tends to focus and rely more on its gameplay and bullet patterns to wow the player. At its heart it feels retro, but it surely has a modern skin on top of it all. The only fault here is that there is a crazy amount of slowdown when things become a little too chaotic on the screen, namely during boss fights where you barely have any space to maneuver. Even the sound effects slow down until the screen is clear of a certain amount of bullets.

As for the audio, it’s nothing to write home about or memorable, but it’s fitting for the genre and sets the mood for the action. Each level seems to have its own tonality, both visually and with the audio, but you’ll be far too focused on avoiding bullets to truly appreciate either.

The controls work great, and without precision movement a shmup game is doomed to be a failure. Luckily that’s not the case here, aside from when you have to fight against the massive slowdown that intermittently occurs. If you die it’s because it is your fault, not the game. There’s no blaming any cheap deaths on the controls.

While Ghost Blade HD is a completely serviceable title, it has a lack of longevity with its only 5 included stages. Sure, there are multiple difficulties and a very welcome local co-op mode, but only the diehard fans of the genre, like myself, will truly appreciate it, whereas I think casual fans might feel the price is a little steep for only 5 levels worth.

As an indie 'bullet hell' title, Ghost Blade HD was a fun little title that I sunk a few hours into. Once I learned all of the mechanics it utilizes I had a lot of fun with it, as should you, regardless if you’re a casual or hardcore fan of the genre. Is it going to sit amongst the legends in the genre? No, but for the price of admission, shmup fans like myself will have fun trying to climb the global leaderboards trying to prove their shmup prowess amongst the community.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Sublevel Zero Redux

I can’t believe I was a teenager when Descent first released back in 1995. I remember it vividly because as far as I can remember, I believe that was the first six degrees of freedom (6DoF) game I ever played that looked and played as advanced as it did for its time. While I’m unsure that Descent was the game that really invented the 6DoF control scheme, it certainly was one of the first to make it popular, as it spawned numerous clones and similar types of games with its unique mechanics.

Sadly, over the years not many games aside from space and flight sims really use this control scheme often anymore, and for valid reasons, but apparently developer Sigtrap games didn’t get the memo, as they’ve brought Sublevel Zero Redux to Xbox One. Older gamers who grew up with these types of games will no doubt experience some flashbacks to their youth, especially Descent and Forsaken fans, but can this Redux bring back a long lost genre to its former glory?

You’re a lone pilot searching for answers to a cataclysmic event, and your only hope is to pilot a small ship and search mysterious places for answers. So while yes, there is technically a story, it’s not really worth noting as it’s paper thin, but not all is gloom & doom, as Sublevel Zero Redux’s strengths are actually within its gameplay and mechanics. While it would have been interesting to have a ‘real’ reason to care about why you’re doing, the lack of any true story won’t hinder your gameplay experience in any tangible way, as you’ll be solely focusing on surviving and piloting to worry about much else.

So let’s start off with the control scheme. It’s technically labeled as a “six degrees of freedom” structure, as you can move your ship up/down, left/right, forward/backwards, but also have the ability to move along the other axis’, yaw and roll, hence all six directions (6DoF). Essentially you are also able to barrel roll or front/back flip your ship along with the standard movements in other games. The controls do take some serious getting used to, as Left Stick moves the ship, Right Stick is your aim, and the D-Pad is used for rolling and height. Factor in sections where it auto rotates you, or leans you in specific ways without your input, and you can get lost real quickly.

Even after more than a few of hours of replaying Redux, I still often found myself fumbling with the controls in the heat of chaotic battles. I understand that 6DoF controls are nothing new, but if you’re not into the few genres that utilize them often, you’re going to have a very steep learning curve ahead of you to become proficient in your piloting abilities, even more so if you plan on using the boosters to travel faster.

That being said, when you do start to get the hang of the unique controls, and start to perform all the moments you’re intending to without thinking, Redux can feel great at times, especially during boss battles when you dodge incoming fire masterfully. As long as you take time to learn the controls it does become easier in time without having to focus too much on which direction to rotate, I promise.

An interesting choice that Sublevel Zero Redux implements is many rogue-like mechanics, meaning you better get used to permanent death. While I don’t normally gravitate towards games like that, when done right they can bring a lot of enjoyment and tenseness to the gameplay. If you manage to be a master at these types of games, a single playthrough can easily only last 2 or 3 hours, but for the rest of us, prepare to have to restart from the beginning many times over.

Luckily the levels and maps are procedurally generated, so every playthrough will be unique, though you’ll eventually start to notice reused rooms after a handful of attempts to reach the end. The levels are crafted by connected rooms. Sometimes a room will have multiple exits and tunnels, or just a single one, it will vary room to room and on each playthrough. Luckily there’s a handy 3D map that can be viewed at any time, as you’ll no doubt become lost and turned around often until you get the hang of the 6DoF controls. Eventually you’ll need to find colored key cards to pass specific doors, usually the path to the stage’s boss, your only exit to the next level. One lesson I learned the hard way is that your game doesn’t pause when you’re in the menus or map, so make sure you’re in a safe spot before doing so.

You’ll need to collect a specific amount of currency to do said upgrades and crafting, which is what most enemies will drop, along with ammo replenishments and the sought after health packs. Crafting upgrades is gradual, as you can’t simply create the best weapons right away, but there’s no real guide on how to create specific weapons or the branching paths of combinations. With a very limited inventory as well, you may not even see many crafting options, as you’ll most likely have to drop many items on your journey.

If you’re a completionist, you’ll have your work cut out for you as there’s logs to find hidden within the levels, new ships to unlock, and tons of challenges. To be honest though, if you’re not that into grinding for new ships, achievements, or unlocking every bonus, the replayability may be a little light for you value wise.

Enemies that are alerted to your presence will start to chase you, firing in your direction. The early enemies aren’t much of a big deal, but in the later stages survival is going to be a great challenge. Given that you can fly in any direction in the rooms, many enemies will be hiding in spots you may not think to check, seemingly from almost every angle at times. Most of the enemy ships are braindead and will simply try to run at you, but later on you’ll face smarter AI that avoids attacks and even tries to out maneuver you, so if you’ve not mastered the controls by that point, you’re going to have a very difficult time.

What I didn’t expect was a crafting system, allowing you to create new and different types of weapons for your little ship. Your ship can equip 2 primary and secondary weapons, each with its own type of ammunition. Killing enemies will drop ammo, currency, and sometimes weapons, allowing you to use them for crafting even better guns and missiles. The biggest downfall though is the crafting menu is poorly made and terribly confusing, and it's not helped by the fact there’s no real tutorial of how to use it properly. It actually took me quite a few playthroughs to figure out what I was crafting exactly and if it was going to be better or worse than what I already had.

Granted, you can simply equip the weapons you pick up, but the crafted upgrades are generally better, or used for even higher tier creations. You can also create ship upgrades to suit your play style, if you’re lucky enough to get the parts you need of course. While I’m glad there is a crafting system in place, the confusing menu and UI needs some serious work if they want it to be a focal part of the experience. Many times I crafted a weapon, using up the one I had equipped, only to find out I didn’t like it nearly as much as my original.

Graphically, Sublevel Zero Redux is an awesome blend of retro style low polygons, but almost as if it’s a modern take on Descent with its bright colors and smoothness. Screenshots don’t really do the game justice. The soundtrack is fitting with the overall mood and theme of the game as well. Audio is also retro-like with its upbeat tunes, but it has a sci-fi vibe to its tonality. I never once had to mute the audio or play my own playlist, which is a big win.

Normally I’m not big into roguelike games that tend to punish you for dying, but something kept me coming back for just one more try. Maybe it was the soundtrack, or flying with precision after hours of practice, but it never felt unfair when I did die. With only a handful of control schemes, it may take some time to find one that feels just right, and that’s not even including the steep learning curve for the 6DoF controls.

If you were a fan of Forsaken or Descent from back in the day, Sublevel Zero Redux is a no brainer, as it plays great once you learn it, looks fresh, and sounds great. Sure, it has some hiccups, but if you didn’t grow up in that era or are new to this type of genre, it’s a decent game to jump in with, as long as you know it will take some dedicated practice to learn how to fly how you want to without having to think about it.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 A Pixel Story

My gaming habits have changed within the past few years. I used to be able to play for hours upon hours a day without worry, but times have changed. I don’t have as much free time as I used to, so I enjoy the smaller indie games to fill my limited time as they don’t usually require a huge time commitment. A Pixel Story, developed by Lamplight Studios, fits this bill perfectly. It's a game that takes me back to my childhood, growing up in the 8-bit era and progressing to modern day gaming with its unique visuals. It's this aspect that truly impressed me. Bit there is more to this game then just the looks.

In most people’s eyes Pong is generally known as the first widely recognized videogame, and that ties into A Pixel Story, as your character’s life starts out as the iconic ball from Pong. Something goes awry and the ball, which is you, smashes through dimensions, causing a headache for people and damage elsewhere. You crash on a beachfront where you receive help from a small robot named Search, as you are inside of a computer after all. You are given a body, legs and arms, like a real ‘boy’, and so you set off on your adventure, but not before a pesky seagull steals the magic hat Search was about to bestow upon you to fulfill your destiny and destroy the evil operating system (OS).

This trope may have been used thousands of times before, as you need to fight the evil that lies ahead, but the narrative is told in an interesting way, allowing you to progress through many different eras of gaming, and this is where A Pixel Story truly shows its charm and heart. While you don’t speak, as you are simply a Pong ball, you’ll meet a large cast of characters along your journey, each with a distinct personality, some being very memorable.

Your beginnings may start out in classic 8-bit fashion, but you’ll eventually work your way to 16-bit graphics, and even up to modern day standards, as you progress through the worlds. The world is completely filled with humor and numerous pop culture references that will surely put a big smile on your face if you recognize the source material. While a platformer at its heart, A Pixel Story will surely resonate with gamers who grew up the era with the classic NES and Genesis, though it’s done well enough that even younger gamers will enjoy it as well. Seeing your character, and the world around you, change throughout the gaming eras, is awesome with its beautiful and colorful pixel landscape.

What I didn’t expect was that there is absolutely no combat in A Pixel Story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this allows you to focus simply on the platforming gameplay, which you’ll need to do if you want any hope of progressing to the end. Once you get your hat back, from the pesky seagull who stole it, during a brief tutorial of basic mechanics, this is when the game really starts to open up and show you what it has in store for you.

Your hat essentially allows you to teleport back to it whenever you feel like, and the majority A Pixel Story’s puzzles will play into this aspect, even some that are physics based. It may sound simple, and at first it’s not too challenging, but that will change as you progress, believe me. When you teleport (cache, as it’s called in computer terms in the game world) back to your hat, you regain any momentum you began with, so you may get a small vibe of Portal gameplay here and there, which is never a bad thing. Your hat can also float anywhere you drop it in the 2D landscape, and you’ll need to use that to your advantage as you progress.

So, say there’s a platform just above you that you can’t quite reach. You jump up high as you can, place your hat, then jump once again and cache at the same time, allowing you to reach the higher platform, as you keep your inertia from the jump before teleporting back to your hat (which happens to resemble a certain plumber’s iconic headpiece).

Eventually you’ll have to combine this mechanic with bumpers, moving platforms, platforms that can move your hat, bouncing walls, and more. The new mechanics are introduced slowly, allowing you to become accustomed to them during that specific level, adding those skills to your repertoire. Flipping switches and perfect timing will become commonplace and you’re going to need to react with near perfect accuracy if you want to progress in some sections. What A Pixel Story does well is never become unfairly difficult, as almost every section you know you can do, you just have yet to figure out the proper way to do so.

That’s not to say it will be easy, anything but, especially the final stages. Prepare to die, a lot here. The good news is that checkpoints are plentiful, as you’re almost always placed nearby where you died without having to backtrack too far. If I had to do a large section over and again after each death, I would have given up, so Lamplight Studios got this part just right in my opinion. You learn from your mistakes, and you will still most likely die another dozen times or so before making that jump you need, but man does it feel satisfying once you figure out what you need to do and executing it flawlessly.

While the platforming aspect is what you’ll be focusing on for the most part, the game is filled with quests, and even sidequests, that will challenge and reward you. The main story missions will progress you through the story, allowing you to move onto the next generation (era’s), but sidequests will net you a bunch of coins and other collectible rewards that give you more backstory (and achievements). The majority of these sidequests are simply finding someone or retrieving an item they need, but it’s always entertaining with some of the more unique personalities, like 'Not Batman' (trust me).

Normally when I die repeatedly in games I tend to become frustrated, especially when it’s not entirely my fault, but somehow A Pixel Story keeps pushing you forward, wanting you to try ‘just one more time’. Once you make it to generation 2 and see the graphics improve, that pushes you to want to make it to generation 3 and further. While certain sections will leave you dumbfounded for a while, the inclusion of humor and numerous hilarious pop culture references will make you forget all the frustration you previously had once you start laughing. Seriously, there’s nothing quite like playing a dancing minigame to “What Is Love?” or watching the iconic lava scene from Terminator 2.

While the main game is difficult enough as it is, for those truly wanting a challenge you can spend your gathered coins on special locked doors that open up Challenge Rooms. Now I know in most games a special ‘challenge room’ may not be a big deal, but man, they are no joke here. Seriously, I was unable to complete a single one for each one I’ve unlocked thus far. While they are technically passable, as I know what I need to do to reach the goal, doing so with perfect precision and timing is a completely different matter, one that I’ll leave to completionists and those much better than I.

Some will find A Pixel Story a little too difficult, especially in the the later stages, but it never crosses the border to unfair. A majority of the time it’s your fault from such things as poor timing or improper hat placement, though there are times where the controls do feel a tad too ‘slippery’, which can cause a little frustration when you need absolute perfection and timing. The plentiful checkpoint system, and mechanic that allows you to warp to any previously unlocked checkpoint, is basically a saving grace for those not wanting to backtrack constantly.

While it probably resonates with me more so simply because I grew up in the classic era of gaming, it’s a real delight to see your hero evolve from 8-bit to 16-bit and beyond with each world completed. The inclusion of many pop culture references and easter eggs only adds to the charm which, for me personally, constantly brought a smile to my face, making me forget the frustration I previously had from dying a dozen times in a row. A Pixel Story is well worth the purchase as the time and enjoyment is fairly high, and I truly adored my time with the unnamed Pong ball hero from start to finish. If you enjoy platforming games of any kind, A Pixel Story needs to be the next one you experience, even more so if you grew up in the 8 and 16-bit eras or appreciate those classic games.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Chime Sharp

I absolutely love puzzle games, and rhythm based ones as well, so when there’s one that combines both I’m eager to give it a go. Truth be told, I somehow missed the first Chime game, released on the Xbox 360 Indie store, but now we have its direct sequel, Chime Sharp. At first glance you’re most likely to compare it to Tetris because of it requires blocks that need to be stacked and interlocked, but it’s a mix of that and Lumines if anything. Chime Sharp adds some new and incredibly challenging game modes with a great soundtrack. That being said, it will take some dedication to learn all of its intricacies.

Chime Sharp at its heart is a puzzle game where you need to stack blocks in traditional Tetris fashion, but many of the blocks aren’t your traditional squares and lines, but instead oddly shaped pieces that make creating combined blocks a more difficult task. What makes Chime Sharp different than Tetris though is that instead of creating a single line, you need to make a ‘Quad’, comprising of at least a 3x3 block without any missing spaces between.

Creating these quads will clear the board underneath said quad, so the larger quad you create the more of the board you ‘clear’, with your goal to try and clear each block for 100%. You’re only given 2 minutes to do this, but with good play you’ll net time bonuses, allowing for more time to clear the board. I’ve still yet to 100% a stage even with a lot of hours played, as Chime Sharp is quite difficult for a number of reasons.

Chime Sharp is also a rhythm game, as a glowing line sweeps across the screen, clearing your quads as it passes over them if the quad timer has ended. Any blocks not part of the quad will be left over, and after a number of passes by the sweeping line, they will disappear. If this all sounds confusing, it's because it is, and it’s not helped by the fact that the game only teaches you what a quad is, but nothing about gameplay or strategy. So prepare to fail a lot in the beginning until you learn the mechanics on your own.

While this is the core gameplay, the new modes add even more challenge, but no matter what mode you’re playing, the music contained within is fantastic. As stages begin you’ll only hear a basic beat, but as you clear more of the stages with your quads you’ll add new sections to the song’s beat, making for some unique music, as it’s based on how you play. The tempo and instruments can change and be added based on where and how you place your blocks on the screen, so that’s how Chime Sharp belongs in the rhythm genre as well as puzzle.

The biggest thing about Chime Sharp is that you’ll eventually just ‘get it’. There are no tutorials in the game, which I feel is a big miss, as you’re not sure on what strategies to use or why you sometimes fail quickly and other times not. Eventually you will simply understand how it all works though, and once it ‘clicks’, Chime Sharp becomes MUCH more enjoyable, as you’re now the one dictating the music and trying to 100% the stage purposely.

Each level is a single song, and I suggest starting with Practice Mode. This allows for no time limit when playing and it will not be as chaotic as the other challenging modes. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the mechanics of placing blocks and creating quads, you then need to strategize where and how to place blocks as well.

My problem starting out was trying to create quads in the same area, but once a quad is cleared by the scrolling pulse, you don’t need to place any more blocks in that area, as that part of the stage has already been cleared. So, you want to focus on sections at a time, progressively working outwards, aiming your quads to cover each block of the stage. Easier said than done though, and practice makes perfect.

You don’t need to clear a level 100% to progress, only 60% completion is needed to unlock new tracks and modes, though your progress is a basis for your overall score, as well for the leaderboards. The music is varied, some better than others, but the difficulty doesn’t seem to go in a natural curve. Each level has some areas where blocks can’t be placed, adding some unique challenges to each stage, but the faster the song tempo the slightly harder it is. So for example, the first level isn’t necessarily the easiest, as I was passing the middle levels in one go, whereas other stages I had to play multiple times to get the minimum 60% to unlock the next.

Difficulty is also based on the shapes you’re given. Each stage has a handful of preset shapes and blocks, and some are naturally easier to interlock than others, so even though you may love the song that’s playing, trying to fit “Z” blocks together may prove difficult for you to progress. The more obscure the shape, the harder it is to fit pieces together without any gaps to make your quad.

While you’ll begin on the normal mode, doing well will eventually unlock new songs and more modes. Be aware though that these new modes are incredibly more challenging, so be sure you’ve got a few hours under your belt and fully understand all of the mechanics.

Once you’ve completed a level with a minimum of 60% the Sharp mode of that song will unlock. There are 2 other modes to unlock, Strike and Challenge, but I’ll be completely honest with you, it’s going to take some serious skill to even get to these modes, but this allows for a lot of replayability for those that are truly determined.

Sharp mode is very challenging and the objective is slightly different than normal mode. Any blocks that stay on the playing field for too long will eventually disappear, and each block you lose will take one of your 10 lives. So not only do you have to focus on quad creation, and aiming for 100%, you can’t leave unused blocks on the stage for too many passes of the sweeping bar or you’ll lose lives quite quickly. You need to use your shapes in the most logical way that allows you to use the left overs to create new quads as well.

Strike Mode is even more challenging with a much more aggressive timer, and to be honest, I’ve yet to be unable to unlock the final Challenge Mode. The regular gameplay of Chime Sharp will take some getting used to and it’s unfortunate that there’s no real tutorial of how to play properly. It actually took me a few hours to learn how to play properly, as you don’t know why you’re sometimes scoring high or completing with a certain percent completed.

Visually Chime Sharp is basic, and many of the levels color schemes do it a disservice, as they clash making it difficult to determine what sections are completed or not. As I said, eventually things will just make sense and click, and once it does, Chime Sharp becomes a completely different game; one with great music and interesting gameplay that will constantly challenge you. In the beginning you’ll gravitate towards playing it like Tetris, but that strategy won’t get you very far, as you need to play completely different to be successful, eventually learning the precise timing needed to craft beautiful music as well.

If you love puzzles games with some great music you’ll enjoy Chime Sharp as long as you do have the time and patience to learn how to play properly, as it doesn’t hold your hand in any way, or even to teach you the proper mechanics. It’s rewarding and quite fun once everything ‘clicks’, but I do think that the difficulty level will most likely be a little too demanding for the average player to master the music, the gameplay, and the need to learn on their own.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Vaccine

I knew absolutely nothing about Vaccine, created by Rainy Night Creations, before it fell into my lap. From the initial screenshots I looked at, it instantly had a Resident Evil / Alone in the Dark vibe to it, so I was intrigued to give it a go. To say that those games were used as its inspiration is putting it mildly, as Vaccine tries to emulate what made those games so great 20+ years ago. Where issues start to arise is that sometimes games don’t age all that well, for numerous reasons, so emulating them with said faults and issues might not be the greatest gaming experiences to be had these days. But not all is dull, as there are some redeeming qualities, so let’s see if Vaccine is worth the money, time and commitment.

The story to Vaccine is as basic as it comes, you need to find a vaccine for your infected team member within 30 minutes, a trope we’ve seen used countless times before. I’d delve more into the story, but that’s literally it. “Despite all your efforts, your friend got infected again. Find a vaccine before the time runs out.” is what greets you every time you begin the game over once again, and that is the motivation for the bleak narrative.

As you begin the game you’ll choose between a male or female protagonist, searching for the vaccine for your infected team mate (the one you didn’t choose I assume). It’s your job to save them, but you must do so within a half hour or else they’ll turn. Now, there’s no getting around the large elephant in the room: Vaccine is trying to be like the original Resident Evil, to a fault. There are fixed camera angles, terrible combat mechanics, and some of the worst controls that I can remember in recent memory.

I get that Rainy Night Creations is most likely paying homage to Capcom’s titular PS1 classic, but man, there’s so much cross over that it’s hard to not label it a ripoff in many ways. After noticing the low resolution splash screen and choosing between two characters, a voice even says “Vaccine”, trying to emulate that classic Resident Evil opening line with a gritty tone. Oh, and the whole journey happens inside a massive randomly generation mansion. Sound familiar yet?

The biggest redeeming feature about Vaccine is that there’s an experience system where you gain XP for nearly everything you do, from opening doors to attacking enemies. This XP can be spent to upgrade your character’s many different stats, though given that you’re going to be dying dozens of times and having to restart over from scratch, you’ll probably want to boost your health and damage to start off with. Each character has slightly different starting stats, but nothing drastic enough to make the decision game changing.

You’re then thrown into the game, with no tutorial or explanation for anything other than the 30 minute timer counting down, and that’s it. You don’t know who you are, why you’re there, what the vaccine is, nothing. Granted, there are some snippets of information that can be found littered throughout the mansion in your journey, but it’s not terribly engaging or interesting. Speaking of the mansion, once you die for the first time (which won’t take long), you’re going to wonder why the layout is different than minutes before. Well, the mansion is randomly generated every time you start the game over, so there’s no memorizing rooms, items, monster spawns, or anything else, as it changes each time you start anew. This in some ways is great, as it makes each playthrough unique, interesting, and adds replay value, but soon you’ll learn the frustration of that randomization, which I’ll delve into shortly.

First let’s talk about the controls, as this needs to be put out there. Remember the tank controls from the original Resident Evil, where up moved you forward, down backwards, and left and right just rotated you? They were called tank controls, and they were awful 20 years ago, which is why the series improved on them since then, so why you’d want to mimic one of the worst mechanics a game had is beyond me. Tank controls are clunky, unintuitive, and are going to cause you many deaths, which results in starting all over. To ready your weapon, most likely your knife that’s always in the starting room with you, you have to hold Right Bumper, then A is to attack (or shoot once you get a gun and ammo). The B button will allow you to sprint for a short while, but you won’t need to worry about that for quite some time, until you learn how to deal with Vaccine’s unfairness.

The controls wouldn’t be such an issue if you weren’t pressed for time, but given the time constraint, you need to learn how to deal with them quickly and early on if you want to make any sort of meaningful progress. It’s going to take a lot of failed runs to simply learn how to run through doorways and take corners without having to stop and rotate if you want any chance of actually beating the game to completion.

Couple in the fixed camera angles and you may have flashbacks of being attacked by an enemy you didn’t see because the camera wasn’t facing the right way. Expect that many times here, as you’ll die numerous times from an enemy hiding behind a door or corner that you can’t see until it’s too late. Many deaths are unfair and not your fault, for more reasons than just the controls and camera angles, as the randomization of item placement as well is surely going to also cause you dozens of deaths.

Just like the rooms, items and monsters are randomly placed throughout the mansion as well, so in one run you might find a gun and ammo like I did, and the next dozen nothing but proxy mines and ammo (without the gun). This randomization of the items can really work for you, but it can also cause massive frustration, especially once you run into the wanna-be ‘licker’ monsters.

These enemies take a lot of attacks to kill, and there’s no way to do so with your knife without dying, but you also don’t want to waste your pistol and shotgun ammo on them either, as you need those for the ‘tyrant’ boss that guards the vaccine. So your only hope is to find a repellent item, which will cause enemies to not attack you for 10 or so seconds, even if you’re beside them and attacking them. This means that if you get unlucky with the item randomization on your run, find no repellent and run into a ‘licker’, you’re basically guaranteed to die and have to start all over. If you end up using your ammo and mines on them instead of the boss, then you won’t get the vaccine either, so you’re forced to play a certain way and hope that luck is on your side.

So you’ve managed to get extremely lucky with the mansions randomness, somehow defeated the boss and brought the vaccine back to your friend! Yay, you win right? Nope. You’re greeted with “Despite all your efforts, your friend got infected again. Find a vaccine before the time runs out.” nce again. What? Didn’t you just do that in 10 minutes? Oh, now you have only 20 minutes to do it all over again, albeit with your currently leveled character.

So you only had 20 minutes this time to get the vaccine, but you managed to bring it back. That’s surely it now right? “Despite all your efforts, your friend got infected again. Find a vaccine before the time runs out.” is what you’re greeted with once again. I’ll save you the agony, as you actually need to find the vaccine up to 9 or 10 times to actually ‘beat’ the game, with each run having a shorter time limit. Monotony is no joke in Vaccine.

Each run you need to prey to your gods though, hoping you’ll get lucky in your item drops and that the items you need, like keys, will actually spawn. I’ve had multiple runs where I checked every corner of every room and was unable to find a key or any way to progress. I’m sure I was missing something ever so slightly, as it’s very difficult to see items that can be picked up (they sometimes sparkle, once again, like Resident Evil), and I didn’t see the items I needed to progress, causing me to have to restart once again.

I keep comparing Vaccine to Resident Evil, which is something I don’t generally like to do, but there’s no way around it. Even visually, it looks like a PS1 era Resident Evil game with its muddy texture and very blocky character models. Even the environment looks incredibly basic and ripped right from the era, so while some will enjoy its retro style, others are going to find it looks absolutely terrible in terms of today’s standard. Myself, I’m somewhere right in the middle. I appreciate the feel it’s going for and influence, but it’s been 20 years since then, and many improvements have been made. The audio seems to fit right in with the setting and era as well, though there’s no real queues for when enemies are nearby, or behind a door, which would have prevented many unfair deaths.

Unless you’re a diehard fan of the old school style of gaming from the 90’s, you’re going to most likely hate the first few hours of Vaccine, as you’ll die unfairly a majority of the time. The other times you die will be due to poor controls, bad camera angles, or plain unluckiness of the randomization the mansion gives you. I know that doesn’t sound like a good time, but something weird started to happen once I figured out Vaccine’s intricacies (or simply learning to deal with them), as it started to become fun, somewhat.

Leveling your character’s stats does have a noticeable impact, and once you come to terms with having to die many times to make progress, the frustration somewhat goes away. Not completely, as there are still many issues, but there’s interesting ideas here, even if they are ones we’ve played 20 years ago. Even though I compare it heavily to Resident Evil, don’t expect any horror or tense situations, as this is more of a survival game more than anything horror based, even with the zombie enemies.

Starting a game off incredibly difficult and then getting easier as you go seems like backwards game design, but if you can reach that apex of gameplay and bring back a vaccine or two, subsequent runs become actually much more enjoyable, again, as long as the randomization gods are on your side. Given that you have to restart each time you die, Vaccine is decent for those wanting a game to sink 10 to 20 minutes into now and then, but if you’re actively going to attempt to ‘beat’ the game, get ready for some serious frustration. “Despite all your efforts, your friend got infected again. Find a vaccine before the time runs out”.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Typoman

All those years of playing Scrabble and Words with Friends are finally going to pay off in Typoman Revised, a slightly altered version of Brainseed Factory’s hit from 2015. While you may be fooled into thinking that the core mechanic is based around the wordplay contained within, which there are parts of, the majority of gameplay is platforming based. One question remains though: "Are there enough improvements that make Typoman worth the literary journey this time around?"

Typoman’s premise is a simple one, and one that has been told endless amounts of times before. It is a tale that is essentially about good versus evil. The backdrop is a unique world where letters make a bulk of the environments, creating a dreary and dark world that should be a simple black and white; however, it is anything but once you fulfill the role of the HERO. I spell HERO like this as your character is a mashup of the letters H-E-R-O and he is trying to survive in a harsh world filled with hostiles, EVIL, DOOM, and more.

While HERO may be small, he has a very unique ability that allows him to rearrange letters in the environment, crafting creations from letters that form specific words. Oddly enough, for a game that revolves around words, there’s no real narrative or dialogue contained within, as you’re left to interpret what’s going on and why. That would normally be a big detriment for a game, but oddly enough it seems fitting here, as letters seem to act more as objects in the world, that is before HERO is able to manipulate them.

While you may be expecting large changes and improvements in Typoman Revised, provided you played the original when it was a WiiU exclusive, it seems as though there’s been some small tweaks here and there. After completing the game I watched a few walkthrough videos of the original and saw very minor differences for the most part. Some small features were improved, and environments altered, but it’s largely the same experience without much extra content added.

At its core Typoman is a 2D platform puzzler. The majority of your gameplay requires you to jump from area to area, climbing ladders, swinging on ropes, jumping, and figuring out how to pull levers, but there’s also the puzzle aspect that revolves around HERO’s ability to manipulate letters within 4 chapters (prologue plus 3 chapters) contained within the campaign, each lasting roughly an hour or so depending on your word creation abilities and reflexes.

Things aren’t as simple as crafting any words you want, much like Scribblenauts, but instead figuring out the generally pre-determined word solution that can help save you from enemies, open doors, raise platforms and more. Sometimes puzzles are as simple as moving a letter to the end of a word, or simply switching “NO” to “ON”, while other times you’ll have to deal with a handful of letters to find the specific one you need, then use a LIE to craft the opposite word, using those letters for your initial solution, but more on that shortly.

HERO’s path starts out easy, simply trying to find an escape exit after being created from discarded letters, but soon you’ll run into monsters and creatures that are formed from words like EVIL, FEAR, DOOM and more, who are out to destroy you. Generally you simply need to survive and escape from these creatures, as you don’t have any real offence or attacks to thwart them their efforts. This is where word creation will come into play. There are also handfuls of secrets to find in the form of quotation marks, and these will give you a snippet of a much larger tale. It’s an interesting take on collecting secret items and they aren’t very hidden or difficult to get until you near the final chapter.

As for the platforming sections, most of them work very well and have obvious solutions. When you’re making your way across the screen it feels fluid and natural, though there are times, especially in the final half of the game, that you’ll want to completely give up. Certain sections are incredibly difficult and require absolute precision and reflexes when jumping, causing many deaths and restarts. Thankfully the automatic checkpoint system is very plentiful and forgiving, not setting you back very far from your mistake.

The feature that makes Typoman unique though is its wordplay elements, allowing you to scramble letters and create objects, or events, with words. This is much easier to explain with a few examples, so let’s say there’s a locked door blocking your path, but a jumble of letters placed nearby. If you have the appropriate letters to spell OPEN, and move that word near the door, voila, it will magically open. If there’s a switch that’s locking something that you need to get past, but the word beside it says NO, simply rearrange them to say ON and it will power up and allow you to progress. There are sections where gas fills the area, and you can only walk through it for a short time before you die, but bring along a letter P to put at the end of the word GAS creating GASP, and you’ll have a safe-bubble to breathe in.

These types of puzzles are fun to figure out and solve, though by the time the credits roll you’ll have most likely noticed that there are really only a handful of puzzles like these, and they are utilized over and over throughout the adventure. Since you’re always given a specific set of letters, you also need to figure out the developer’s solutions, as there’s not much variety to create more abstract words for unique results.

In the final stage you’ll come across a completely different type of puzzle, one where you’re given access to a machine with a certain amount of letters. You can use the machine to create any words you want, not just using the letters once like you may have done previously, so some sections become much harder with these as you may need to use a letter more than once as you’re not under the same restrictions as before.

My biggest complaint is that the controls for manipulating the letters is not very intuitive, having you rely on using the Right Trigger to move or discard letters rather than the standard A button. Even at the end of my journey I was constantly making mistakes hitting the wrong button when in a rush to craft a word.

The last noteworthy mechanic that’s introduced in the latter half of the game is the LIE creature. Sometimes these creatures are already in the world, requiring you to use them properly, and other times you’ll be given letters to summon a LIE. LIE’s are tiny little creatures that aren’t hostile, but will suck up any word and spit out the opposite word, killing itself in the process. So say you need a set of specific letters to OPEN a door, but you don’t have one of the letters, you would then create a LIE, make a word, have it spit out the opposite word, hopefully containing the letter you require. If that sounds confusing, it is, and one of the puzzles before the final boss requires you to do this word swapping numerous times to find the correct words.

The world of Typoman is a dreary and dark one that emits sadness, but it is beautiful in its own way. Seeing the world around you react and crumble is what gives it its own character, and even though the world appears to be dying, that’s what makes it look alive oddly enough. The only issue I had was that there were numerous times that there were visual stutters when new sections of the levels seemed to have been loading. Nothing that caused any unfair deaths, but noticeable enough to be worth mentioning. As for the audio, it fits the mood of the world and gameplay well, and I highly suggest checking out the game's soundtrack online.

I really enjoyed the first half of Typoman, but as HERO’s adventure goes on you will notice that you’re relying on the same small handful of words and solutions to the majority of the puzzles within. The LIE creatures could have been explained a little better, as the final area before the boss almost made me completely give up. To top it off, the final boss fight wasn’t anything I expected, and it feels a little anti-climactic once you learn how to avoid and defeat it.

Overall I did enjoy Typoman for what it is; a fun, short 2D platform puzzler. It may not have a long gameplay length or much replayability, aside from achievement hunting, but I enjoyed the majority of my time with HERO. Well, at least the times I wasn’t dying repeatedly or standing around trying to figure out what word I needed to create to get the opposite word, so I could construct a different word, and the opposite of that, to solve a puzzle. Its biggest downfall is that you’re essentially shoehorned into solving the puzzles in a way they were specifically designed, not allowing much freedom or the ability for your own creative solutions. Typoman may be a short one-off adventure, but its best parts are fun and work well, making up for its those sections that bring frustration.

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Vertical Drop Heroes HD

I’m normally not one to shy away from games with punishing difficulty, but ones that include permadeath and force you to begin anew each time you die isn’t my ideal definition of fun. With that being said I also don’t gravitate towards roguelike games as the aforementioned idea of permadeath is the biggest deterrent for myself, but indie title Vertical Drop Heroes HD really surprised me. I expected to have to slog through it, but low and behold I actually enjoyed this game. Let me explain why.

Two main characteristics that define a roguelike game usually revolve around permanent death and randomization of levels and enemies. There are a few more features that help define the genre, but these are probably the two big ones that are really make a game fit into the category. Vertical Drop Heroes HD makes a great compromise though. Even though you’re going to die hundreds of times, restarting as a new character each time, portions of your progress are carried over, making subsequent playthroughs slightly easier, until you get to the point of being able to survive long enough, hopefully to the end.

I actually never played the original Vertical Drop Heroes, which appears to have originated as a simple flash game on Kongregate, and now it’s returned with a HD version on console, and after trying the original flash version, for this review, that’s many years old, this HD version is vastly superior and actually much more addictive than I thought it would be.

The story revolves around a prophecy that describes a hero in search of some sort of Holy Sanctuary hidden across many strange and fantastic lands. The problem is that this prophecy is very generic and not descriptive about the hero, so everyone thinks that the great hero is actually themselves. Vertical Drop Heroes HD is a tale, not about the hero, but the endless piles of corpses of heroes that actually paved the way for the 'true' hero that the prophecy foresees. It’s a clever backdrop for a narrative that actually explains the permadeath mechanic and actually makes sense, so kudos to developer Nerdook, a single man developer, for coming up with a unique and hilarious narrative setting that relates to the gameplay.

Keeping up with true roguelike mechanics, each level you play is randomly generated, but what makes Vertical Drop Heroes HD stand out is that you’re actually progressing vertically downwards, instead of the traditional side to side (left or right). Each beginning offers you three different heroes to choose from, each with their own stats, weapons, and eventually, abilities, leaving you to traverse the levels downward to defeat each boss and move onto the next world.

But it won’t be that easy, as each level is littered with enemies, bosses that are very difficult early on, and even traps like fire, projectiles, and more that will make some serious attempts to kill you. Expect to die quite often, and quickly in fact, especially during your first few dozen runs. Dying in a matter of minutes is commonplace as you begin your journey, but any coins you’ve gathered, and abilities purchased, will carry over into your next character selection which incrementally helps surviving become easier.

Given that this game is roguelike, the gameplay itself revolves around knowing that you’re going to be making repeated runs through the levels multiple times. Each time you begin you’re given a choice of three random warriors, some of which will have huge swords, dual wielding, shields, arrows, magic wands, and more. Each character plays slightly different and can cater towards different playstyles. So, what happens when your heroe inevitably dies? You’re given another selection of three randomized heroes, but you’ll eventually notice that you’re sometimes given the same character you played before, but that character is the next one in the bloodline. With this in mind, though the warrior Earthstrider was valiant for example, he perished, but you might get to play as Earthstrider II, III, IV, and more as your hero continually dies and is replaced by their kin.

Since hero selection is randomized, you’ll have to make some runs with characters that you may not enjoy, or are not good with, but you can still make some progress by collecting coins or trying for achievements. During your runs you’ll come across merchants, again randomly, that will offer to sell you abilities and upgrades for subsequent heroes, and it's a safe bet to spend your hard earned coins here. These abilities are varied, some are more powerful and useful than others. My favorite is the one that causes all the coins on the screen to automatically be sucked towards you, making it so you don’t have to go and collect them individually. The abilities are also randomized on the heroes, so even though you really enjoy playing with Earthstrider III, his abilities may not be as useful as you’d hoped, though it’ll be completely different for Earthstrider IV.

As you defeat enemies you’ll level up, which is very handy as it also refills your small health bar each time. You may ask "what’s the point of leveling up if you’re just going to end up dying shortly afterwards?" Well, as you level up you become stronger, allowing you to progress slightly further, which allows you to gain more coins, allowing you to accumulate more money to purchase more upgrades. For the first few hours you’re better off simply focusing on collecting coins and purchasing upgrades, as it’ll allow you to survive longer and gather even more coins, eventually making each run slightly easier. While the first bit of the game will feel like a grind, the randomization of the heroes, levels, abilities, and even bosses, keeps the gameplay fresh and exciting even though you’ve played through the first level or two a hundred times.

Even though you’re restarting every few minutes, and the difficulty is quite high, you do feel slightly more powerful on each run after a handful of upgrades. There’s a hub that you begin in with each new hero, allowing you to spend coins on permanent health and weapon damage upgrades that can make a huge difference. The controls are quite simple, as there’s even an option for auto attack, which can be incredibly useful. The boss that guards the exit at the bottom of each stage will grant you many coins and experience points should you be able to defeat them.

There are a ton of treasure chests that are also randomly scattered throughout the levels, offering coins and health, but you’ll need to collect keys to open them. These keys are also used to free prisoners trapped in cages, which if freed, will fight alongside you until their health is depleted. These can be knights, thieves, wizards, and archers, each with their own pros and cons, but keys aren’t plentiful, so you need to strategize when to use them on treasure chests, for the always important coins, or freeing companions that will allow you to progress further, which in turn can mean even more coins gathered.

Enemies are randomly placed in levels, and even though the first stages always have the same type of enemy, and second stage has it's own enemies, and so on and so on, there are other 'one-off' enemies randomly thrown in that are much tougher for the level they reside in and they can kill you almost instantly when you’re simply beginning your journey. The payoff for being able to defeat these mini-bosses are a coins and experience, so there is good reason to defeat them if you think you’re able.

A unique mechanic within is having random teleporters placed throughout where you to warp back up to the top of the stage, essentially allowing you to drop down once again and collect every coin and key while defeating all enemies, should you wish. Sometimes you’ll want to rush through levels and progress, but other times you’ll want to kill as many enemies as you can to help level up, making the following levels and bosses that much easier.

For those wanting a real challenge, there’s even a way to play in a pacifist approach. At the start of a stage there will be floating heart-like icons that, when collected, grant you coins and experience, but they disappear once you kill an enemy, adding for an extra challenge, especially since the levels are randomized, so there’s no memorization allowing for an ideal route. Though you need to defeat the boss to unlock the portal to the next stage, a pacifist run requires a handful of keys to unlock the portal instead, so there’s quite a challenge in doing so on your vertical drops, especially without killing any enemies. There are even side quests that are randomly offered by NPC’s looking for you to collect a hidden treasure, collecting items, or other varied goals. These quests are an easy way to earn some bonus gold and experience and adds more variety to the simplistic premise of making your way downwards as quick as possible.

Vertical Drop Heroes HD may look basic in its visuals, but its style is very clean and doesn’t resemble anything as rough as its flash based roots. The animations are smooth and each of the 10 worlds are varied in looks and gameplay. Even more impressive is the great soundtrack, especially World 4, which makes me want to rock out every time I make it that far. I was expecting very basic visuals and sound, but I was incredibly impressed with the outcome for a small single developer indie game.

There is a multiplayer component, though sadly it’s only local split screen only, so those that have people to play on the same couch will find a lot of fun, but those wanting to play online with their friends sadly don’t have the option. I never expect online co-op in smaller indie games like this, but it sure would have added a lot of enjoyment and replayability if it was present. While it will take quite some time to complete all 10 levels, opening up New Game+ will allow more play for those seeking a challenge. In terms of overall gameplay, the journey is had in the hours and hours it will take to complete the stages, making baby steps each time you start anew. Normally I grow tired of having to play the same stages over repeatedly, but with the randomized levels and heroes, it never became stale.

Vertical Drop Heroes HD may not have lasting power to keep you playing for months on end, but it will satisfy you for a good amount of time, even more so for those looking a serious challenge. This game has sold me on the roguelike genre, which is quite an accomplishment and speaks volumes for its quality and gameplay.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Aqua Kitty UDX: Xbox One Ultra Edition

I say it every time I get to review one of these types of games, but it bears repeating: I love Shoot Em’ Ups, or shmups for short. Aqua Kitty UDX: Xbox One Ultra Edition (UDX for short) may have a lengthy title, but if you managed to play Aqua Kitty: Milk Mine Defender DX elsewhere before, then UDX is essentially an updated version with a handful of upgrades and additions to warrant the new lengthy title. So has the wait been worth it for Xbox One fans to finally get their hands on these aquatic felines?

I was born when video games were still new and very primitive. Games like Donkey Kong, Galaga, Tempest, and Defender were groundbreaking for their time, giving this new medium for people to play games in original ways. I mention Defender specifically, as Aqua Kitty UDX plays essentially the same as the beloved classic. Well, with kittens, oceans, and robots of course. Even though the core gameplay may have its inspiration and roots from a title over three decades old, there’s something endearing about playing a fun shmup without any crazy controls to learn, though the light hearted silly narrative surely does help put a smile on your face as well.

Developers Tikipod have cleverly come up with a story so silly and wacky that it almost makes complete sense. The world has come upon hard times with a massive milk shortage for the cats, so they are on the search for more milk sources, which they happen to find. Unfortunately the source is at the bottom of the ocean, and we all know that cats and water don’t mix well. Solution? Use submarines and get to excavating that precious milk!

It’s a silly premise, but it works given the game’s setting. So, unlike Defender being based in space, it’s essentially the same, but in the ocean instead. It’s a clever way to change the backdrop and keep the same core mechanics in place, plus it’s about kitties, so there’s always that. While the crews are extracting the milk from the ocean bed, it’s your job in your submarine to defend them from an onslaught of robotic creatures out to stop them. Why? Who knows, just go with it.

Controls are very simplistic, with a shoot button and one of the Bumpers to change your facing direction from left to right, and vice versa. With the mechanics being so easy, the challenge comes from the onslaught of enemies, all of which will be shooting at you to prevent you from protecting the kitties harvesting the milk. Aqua Kitty UDX has 3 main modes to enjoy; Classic, Arcade and Dreadnought, and there’s even an endless Infinite Espresso mode where you can challenge yourself to see how long you can last. Each mode has its own merits and would have been fun to play if it was the only option, but with this many being included, it ups Aqua Kitty UDX’s value substantially.

Classic Mode is the default choice, so many will start here. This is essentially the campaign mode, though there’s no story progression when you make your way through the levels. In each level you’ll face waves of enemies, each becoming harder and more numerous from the last, but you also need to protect your allies that are harvesting. There is a specific type of robotic jellyfish that can snatch them, and once they are brought to the surface, your feline friends are gone forever, as are your point potential.

The first few levels start off easy enough, but eventually you’ll also have to battle a boss as well as dealing with waves of enemies and potential kidnapping of your milk harvesters. Levels become progressively more challenging and eventually you’ll hit a brick wall of difficulty. Nothing completely unfair, but certain levels will require a few attempts with its onslaught of enemies.

There’s the oddly named Infinite Espresso mode that’s access through the Classic map. Here is an endless survival mode to see how long you can last against endless waves of enemies. It’s only a matter of time before you become overwhelmed by swarms of your foes, so last as long as you can.

Arcade Mode is the same layout as Classic, but with two huge differences. The first is that you only have one life. When you are dead you start all the way back from the first level, so this mode is for those seeking a challenge. The other mechanic that is changed is that you’re able to keep your powerups from one stage to the next, almost like an upgrade system, but nowhere near as robust. I liked the idea of progressively becoming more powerful as you complete stages, but once you accidentally die there’s not much incentive to start all over again from the first stage.

Lastly, and arguably the best, is Dreadnought Mode. These are essentially levels against one massive boss, along with waves of smaller bad guys of course. You need to destroy blocks of the massive ship’s body to open up its core, which needs to be destroyed to succeed. It sounds easy, but I was only able to complete a few of these Dreadnought stages, as they require much skill and dexterity, even for shmup veterans. It’s a constant balancing act of trying to keep the smaller enemies numbers down versus when to focus and attack the boss itself. It’s a fun mode that asks for a lot of skill, but completing these stages feels very rewarding.

The default difficulty level is Normal, and while that sounds simple, it’s anything but, especially on Dreadnought Mode. Easy Mode is much more realistic, but even then, the later stages become incredibly challenging even on the lower setting. Luckily you’re able to change difficulties at any time and only a few achievements require the Normal setting to unlock.

Much like the old school Gradius or R-Type games, powerups vary from different types of shots, to health, to bombs. Some shot upgrades are immensely more useful and powerful than others, like the spread shot that shoots at 45 degree angles, as opposed to the not as useful vertical shots. Powerups only last a limited amount of time, so when you get one make sure you destroy as many enemies as you can.

Local co-op is available for friends that share a couch with you, but alas, sadly there’s no online co-op. While online co-op wasn’t something I expect from a smaller developer, it would have been awesome to play alongside some of my best friends online, as doing it solo can become a little monotonous in long play sessions.

To be completely honest, I thought Aqua Kitty UDX was going to be a play once and be done with it type of game. I clearly judged it too early and have grown to really enjoy it. The best part is actually its fantastic soundtrack that plays while you’re shooting robots under the sea. The soundtrack is an old school electronic style that fits the gameplay and mood of the game perfectly.

Aqua Kitty UDX blends simple gameplay with modern visuals and an awesome soundtrack. Obviously with its silly name and premise it won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re a shmup fan and want a simple and fun game to enjoy, then help these kitties harvest the much needed milk from the ocean floor right meow.

Suggestions: Online co-op would be a fantastic addition!

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 iO

While not everyone is a fan of smaller indie titles, there’s something great about having small and simple games that you can play for minutes at a time when you simply need a break from the norm. If they say that “less is more”, then developers Gamious took this saying to heart, as iO may fool you with its barebones visual appearance, but don’t let that deceive you, as there’s a really interesting platform puzzler contained within.

Don’t come to iO looking for some in-depth mechanics, flashy visuals, orchestral score, or even a story, as it has none of those, yet it isn’t really considered a detriment here, as iO is trying to be a simple yet challenging game, which it excels at wonderfully. Better yet, iO feels different and unique amongst the slew of platformers flooding the market right now. So what makes this one stand out amongst the crowd?

iO’s premise is simple; get your ball (or I guess puck since it’s played in sidescrolling 2D style) to the goal. That’s it. To earn the gold, silver, or bronze medals you’ll need to be on point and very quick. Getting your puck to the goal won’t be easy after the first 25 or so levels though, as you're taught early on that you need to use physics, albeit not completely realistic, to reach each stage’s end point.

You need to utilize momentum, move obstacles, and come up with creative solutions. The main catch about iO is that you can shrink and grow your puck at will, which in turn changes the physics and its momentum. For example, you can scale a completely vertical wall if you start small and slowly grow your puck larger as you make your way up it. The same goes for gaining momentum, as you can launch yourself very quickly if you shrink suddenly when about to take off from a ramp. It does take a lot of getting used to, but this unique mechanic is your primary focus on how to solve each stage.

Getting to the wormhole exit on each stage won’t be easy and each level essentially gets harder as you go. There are well over 200 levels to challenge you, and you should be impressed if you can finish many of these levels, not even taking into account the brutally challenging par times for medal earnings. Each level feels unique and has some sort of catch to figure out to reach the exit. Most levels only last a few seconds to 30 seconds or so maximum, but expect to spend a large amount of time on some of them just trying to figure the level out.

Sometimes solutions are quite simple and you’ll solve them at first glance, while other times you’ll be completely baffled on how to progress. In the later stages you’ll need to deal with blue platforms that move in a set pattern, yellow objects that can be moved and are usually required to be manipulated, and deadly red areas that will instantly kill you if touched. Since the gameplay is physics based, you need to figure out ways to use your momentum and shrink/grow abilities to get past the blockades hampering your progress.

One of the earliest tricks you’ll be taught is how to gain speed and utilize your momentum to reach new heights. The bigger your puck the faster it will roll downhill, but slower uphill. Shrink your puck as you reach the end of a line and you’ll launch yourself in said direction with great velocity. Much of your success will be in learning how the physics work, grasping how to utilize specific maneuvers, and simple experimentation.

The mechanics of growing and shrinking your puck is fluid and works well, and when pulling off well-timed launches and moves it feels fantastic, but everything isn’t perfect though. The main issue I have with this mechanic is that when you grow, the camera zooms out, and when shrinking it zooms in. With some stages this won’t affect the gameplay too much; however, the latter stages require you to know exactly where you’re at, especially when launching your puck into the air, leaving you unsure where you are in relation to the level’s ramps as you’re completely zoomed in on your small puck. Having an overview of the stage is absolutely critical in many spots, and when you lose sight of that it feels as though many levels require perfect memorization, and a bit of luck, rather than skill. This is where trial and error comes in, many many trials, but even more errors.

Once the levels start to utilize moving sections and movable objects, the difficulty ramps up dramatically. Some levels are elaborately created with a specific solution in mind, though because of the ‘odd’ physics there was a level or two I completed because of some weird glitch, launching my puck when it shouldn’t have. For example, my puck somehow reacted to a hinge on a rotating object, but it luckily flew me right into the goal area, making for a 5 second finish when the gold par time was 20 seconds.

Even on the hardest stages, they may look menacing, but none are ever built too intricately and simply require the ‘proper’ way to complete them. Levels progressively become more challenging, but it’s not always a constant uphill battle, as you may be unable to complete a handful of stages in a row, then all of a sudden you are able to complete the next set without any issues, though that may simply be due to being better at some of the skills needed than others. I found that I can scale upright walls no problem, but the shrinking to gain momentum is what I struggle with, even hours into the game.

If you manage to be an aficionado of momentum and skill, the crazy difficult sets of stages range from Impeccaball, Incrediball, and Impossiball. These levels are no joke and will require all the skills you’ve learned up to this point and they are incredibly unforgiving. You’ll need to be a complete master of each maneuver and need absolutely precision to complete these challenging levels.

Visually iO is nothing to really look at, as it’s incredibly basic and simplistic in style, but this minimalistic approach allows you to focus on the level and gameplay. It may just be a bunch of lines and a puck, but the gameplay makes up for its rudimentary style. As for the audio, it’s fitting for the tonality of the game and never crosses the border of annoying.

Your average player will have no hopes of obtaining the bulk of the medals, especially gold, but luckily you’re able to choose any level at any time, never becoming frustrated and being forced into playing a single level until you complete it. The biggest miss for iO though is the complete lack of leaderboards. I would have really enjoyed seeing the best players’ times and of course, to brag against my friends.

iO is a great example of relying on a simple premise and fun gameplay over lavish visuals and an engaging narrative. Obviously there’s a niche market for platforming games like this, especially for those that love to challenge themselves, but given the number of rushed titles and influx of mediocre indie games on the market, iO really surprised me and taught me once again to not judge a game by its looks, but by its interesting mechanics and gameplay instead.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Halo Wars 2

I am not a big fan of Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. That got your attention right? Well, it’s true, mostly. I’ve never been good at them, with all the micromanaging and resource handling. They have not been not my cup of tea, and so I’ve essentially avoided them, that is until Halo Wars came to Xbox 360 in 2009. Ensemble Studios, the studio behind Age of Empires, took the reins on the first Halo Wars, a RTS specifically built for console.

This was a big deal given the fact that RTS games don’t generally translate well to consoles, the main reason generally being that converting all the keyboard and mouse commands to a controller is seemingly a near impossible job to pull off. Ensemble Studios proved this theory wrong, creating a RTS game that felt natural with a controller in hand. It may not have set the world on fire, but I fell in love with the original Halo Wars, not just because I’m a massive Halo fan, but because it made the genre accessible to someone like myself that’s always struggled with the genre's complexities.

Almost a decade later and we’re finally treated to a full sequel, Halo Wars 2, this time headed by Creative Assembly, best known for their popular RTS series Total War. Things have changed since 2009 though, and Xbox One is now the current console and Play Anywhere is a Microsoft backed initiative that is gaining steam on many titles, allowing you to play your game on Xbox One or PC and continue playing on either platform whenever you like.

Halo Wars 2 seems to have learned from the shortcomings its predecessor, improving many mechanics and issues players had, making for a much more cohesive experience and fluid game. I knew I was going to most likely enjoy Halo Wars 2 given that I fell in love with the first, but my expectations were blown out of the water once I was a few hours in.

Halo Wars 2 takes place nearly 3 decades after the first in the series. The Spirit of Fire crew has been in cryosleep all this time, but they are awoken when they drift within range of the Ark. Yes, the same Ark that Master Chief encountered in his journeys. A distress signal forces them to land on the surface and they save an AI named Isabel. Isabel catches the crew up on what’s happened all these years and how a new threat has emerged, a new Brute faction called The Banished, led by an absolutely powerful antagonist, Atriox.

Atriox is so powerful that he was able to earn his faction’s freedom from the Covenant. The first cutscene that introduces you to Atriox will show you how powerful he really is, and I for one am glad to have another looming evil presence that will hopefully see a showdown with Chief and Locke in the future. You need to stop Atriox, as he knows what the Ark is designed for; creating Halo Rings.

What really excites me about Halo Wars 2 is that it’s now parallel with the cannon Halo storyline in relation to the time of events that occur. I’ll admit it, I was giddy when Master Chief was mentioned, and Halo Wars 2 takes place after the events of Halo 5. Atriox is not to be messed with, as he’s declared war on everyone and will stop at nothing to succeed in his mission.

The storyline is one of the best features of Halo Wars 2, incredibly more engaging and exciting than the first game, in my opinion, and now that the timeline matches up with the core Halo games, there’s some exciting revelations to be had and crazy anticipation to see the outcomes of specific events (make sure you stick around after the campaign credits to see what I mean).

Blur, the studio behind the incredibly impressive cinematics for Halo 2 Anniversary, return, making for some truly extraordinary cutscenes, one of which may actually be my favorite in the whole Halo franchise. Their cinematics are on par with the best movies coming out of Hollywood and give Halo Wars 2 a sense that 343 truly cared about making this game one for the fans, something they’ve succeed in.

While Halo Wars 2 is a RTS at its core, the campaign doesn’t play like your traditional RTS where you are simply stuck gathering resources and crafting new units. Over the course of the 12 missions you’ll do some base and unit building, but it is more action orientated than that. You’ll be controlling units of ODSTs, Scorpions, Warthogs, and many more weapons of destruction against The Banished. I won’t spoil anything, but near the end is an event that I’ve wanted to do for a long time in a Halo game. Co-op is also an option, but only with friends, much like with Firefight, though I wish matchmaking was an option for those times my friends aren’t on.

What surprised me the most is how varied the mission structure in Halo Wars 2 is. One mission may have you simply getting from point A to point B while the next may have you defending a beach landing with many infiltration points. There’s even a level that plays out like a classic tower defense game, something that really surprised me and took me a moment to adjust my tactics. The constant changing of objectives and types of missions forces you to think and react quickly, something that is easily done with the excellent controller scheme.

I was honestly expecting a handful of missions that essentially played the same, but that wasn’t the case at all, as each mission is varied and there are many surprises to be had. My initial tactic of herding all my units in one massive onslaught simply wouldn’t cut it for many missions, and I had to split and make my army diverse across many fronts, all while managing bases and creating new units simultaneously. There are even a handful of collectibles to find (yes, skulls make a return) and many optional objectives to complete if you’re skilled enough. Some of these side quests are incredibly challenging and will take a lot of strategy and preparation to complete, adding to the replay value.

Before heading straight into multiplayer or campaign, I highly suggest playing through the 3 separate tutorials that will give you an overview of the core controls, mechanics, and the newly added Blitz Mode. They aren’t exciting or in-depth, but it’ll teach you the core basics that you’ll need to begin with, especially the controls.

It’s clear that the gameplay was built with a controller in mind, and while it does play slightly easier and quicker on PC with a mouse and keyboard, it feels natural with a controller, even in the most hectic battles. It’s not just about finding an intuitive way to map all the commands onto the controller, but the developers also needed to figure a solution to be able to do so quickly and intuitively, especially in the heat of battle. Creative Assembly seems to have figured out a solution, as you’re able to quickly cycle between bases, powers, units, squads, and more with just a button press or two. Sure, it takes a little getting used to, but eventually it becomes second nature.

You’re able to create custom squads, select one or all units, and even ‘paint’ and select any highlighted units. It took a while, but once I started grouping specific units together, for different purposes, my strategies became much more varied and purposeful, though it’s also fun to double tap the Right Bumper to select all units and send my complete army like a steamroller to roll over my enemies. Your leaders also have special abilities that can be called upon at any time, given that you’ve spent the leader point to unlock it and have the resources to do so. Call down ODSTs, missile strikes, or even healing aura’s to help your troops. These leader abilities can easily turn the tide of a battle if used properly, even more so in online matches.

One of the features I enjoy the most about Halo Wars 2 is that it doesn’t play like a traditional RTS. You don’t simply build a base wherever you like and then gather and manage your resources. There are predefined plots where bases can be constructed, sometimes in neutral areas, and often times behind enemy lines, as they’ve already taken it for themselves. Once your base is built you can attach a number of plots to it, ranging from supply production, barracks, flight pads, garages and more. The more resources you amass, the better the units you can create, but watch your max population count, as you need to balance power with numbers as well. Buildings can be upgraded, at a cost of supplies of course, but allow for even more powerful units, so there’s a constant balancing act of spending versus investing that comes into play.

Sometimes it’s necessary to spend supplies on turrets at your base to fend off any enemy attacks while you’re away, and these can also be upgraded to do more damage to infantry, vehicles, or air units. I really appreciated how powerful they’ve made the Spartans this time around, as they were supposed to be portrayed as mobile tanks in essence. The very few Spartans you do get to control are immensely powerful, and it never gets old seeing them hijack an enemy vehicle and using it for themselves.

With campaign out of the way, it’s not time to move onto the multiplayer modes, where a bulk of your time will most likely be spent. There’s essentially two different experiences to be had online, Skirmish and Blitz. Skirmish is more of your traditional type of RTS gameplay, of course with its own slight twists on the standard modes. For those wanting a slightly longer experience and classic gameplay, Skirmish is where you’ll want to head. Blitz is something completely new to the genre, and while some might scoff at it for being card based, and an excuse for microtransactions (which is completely optional and not needed), I really enjoyed it as it was faster paced and a completely new experience.

Skirmish mode offers a few different types of gameplay like Deathmatch, Strongholds, and Domination. While this may seem like a small offering, the modes are varied enough that fatigue shouldn’t really set in, especially with how chaotic 6 player Stronghold games become. This mode has your team trying to hold as many of the bases as you can on the map before time expires, and with two teams of three, some massive battles ensue at nearly every base.

Regardless of the faction you choose to control, Banished or UNSC, they feel balanced. Certain leaders have special abilities and units, but there’s a counter for every attack, defense, and unit. Brutes tend to be much more focused on brute strength (see what I did there?), whereas UNSC has a bit more tactical advantage. Each leader plays somewhat differently, so experiment with each and find the faction and leader that suits your playstyle (and team).

And now we come to Blitz mode, arguably the most interesting and controversial addition to Halo Wars 2. During the previous beta this was the mode that was showcased exclusively, so keep in mind that if you’re not a fan, you still have the traditional skirmishes available to play as well. Blitz mode is akin to a blend of RTS and card based battle. You earn new cards by simply playing Halo Wars 2, even the campaign. There are daily and weekly challenges to earn experience to level up and there’s no forced reason to purchase packs with money, unless you don't want to grind for them.

You build your deck of 12 different cards, each of which represents a different unit or ability. There’s no overall cost limit on building your deck, so you can stack it with the best 12 cards you have, but to use cards costs resources, so you won’t be able to use any cards for quite some time with that strategy, so you need to balance cost, effectiveness, usefulness, and more when creating your decks, of which you can make numerous presets.

Each leader has special cards only available to them, with their best cards being absolutely devastating should you be able to save up enough resources to use them. These specialty cards add variety and strategy to your decks and choices. There’s a lot of nuances with Blitz that also come into play, as playing a card at your home base is generally the best option because if you play it outside of the home base it’s damage and health are halved for about 8 seconds. So yes, you can play a stack of cards in the middle of a battle, but they will only be half as effective when doing so.

There are a ton of small instances like this that you need to factor in before playing your cards, figuring out what the best course of action is. The single Blitz map is a mostly symmetrical oval one with bases on each side and 3 points in between both sides. The first team to 200 points, by capturing and holding the points, wins. Sounds easy, but Blitz is incredibly fast paced and doesn’t deal with any base building at all. Instead, random resources will appear on the map at certain intervals that need to be destroyed then gathered. Do you split up your units to gather, or hold out on the point to fend off attackers instead?

Blitz is very chaotic, as you can have a battle almost won, only to see your opponent play a special powerful card, like a scarab or orbital strike for instance, changing the potential outcome and forcing you to react quickly. Once you get a handful of card packs from playing through the campaign and leveling up, bolstering your decks can become addictive, as duplicate cards work towards leveling those specific cards up, making them more powerful. This is where the allure of spending cash for packs comes in obviously, but it’s not needed.

You can choose to play 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3, all of which require different strategies and communication with your team if you want to be successful. Playing against the AI turns Blitz into a survival mode where you need to last against as many waves as you possibly can. My only real complaint with Blitz is the ballsy decision to only include only one map at launch. There’s no doubt that more will be added in the future, and I get that Blitz is very luck based, determined on your decks and card randomization, but some might burnout on the mode with only a single map to play on.

Play Anywhere is a Microsoft initiative that seems to be proving somewhat popular among gamers. A Play Anywhere game essentially allows you to play your digital version across PC and Xbox One, giving you access to both. So while I played for a few hours on Xbox One, the family wanted the TV, so I switched over to the PC version and my progress was there automatically. It’s a great feature, but sadly Cross-Play isn’t included, meaning PC and Xbox One players cannot play together or against one another on Halo Wars 2.

I knew I was going to enjoy Halo Wars 2, as I’m a Halo buff and super nerd, but I didn’t think I would enjoy it this much, especially the campaign’s narrative. The only issue I had with the campaign was that it seemingly ends too soon, nothing like Halo 2’s infamous "To finish the fight..." abruptness, but it definitely left me wanting more, even after the awesome final climactic mission that had me grinning from ear to ear. That being said, the post credit scene blew my mind; I’ll just leave it at that.

Halo Wars 2 proves that RTS games can not only work well on console, but deserve to be there as well when done right. Blitz mode may not be for everyone, but it’s a game changer for the genre regardless if you agree with its addition or not, at least they’re offering a different experience, something that inexperienced RTS players, like myself, have always wanted to enjoy, but wasn’t able to for whatever reason. Halo Wars 2’s campaign is fantastic, blending itself into the overarching, and main, Halo storyline seamlessly, and as a game, it feels right at home on a console. In the end this game reaches many different fans, including the fans of the Halo universe, fans of RTS games, and fans of gaming in general who may just want a good story combined with a solid gameplay experience.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Uncanny Valley

I’ve never quite played anything like Uncanny Valley before, a game developed by the people at Cowardly Creations. Sure, I’ve played my share of horror games, narrative driven mysteries, and retro inspired titles, but never one that combined all these elements quite like this. Now, if survival horror games are not quite your cup of tea, don’t despair, as Uncanny Valley isn’t your typical take on the genre; completely different from what I expected to be honest.

The very first screen you read is a message about how it’s suggested you play through the game multiple times to get the most out of the game, as the choices you make have consequences that change the outcome. So, to see and experience everything you’ll need to replay the game a number of times, hoping you learn from your mistakes to work towards a different outcome. While I’m unsure of how many endings there are, I’ve experienced just two in my handful of playthroughs, seemingly always being funneled into the same section in the latter part of the game, but more on that later.

You are Tom, a new employee at a mysterious remote facility, working as a night shift security guard. Buck, a heavy set security guard that works there is the one that shows you around and explains your job to you, explaining where you need to patrol and what areas are off limits. Eve is the other person you’ll meet, seemingly a maid, but for a whole apartment building consisting of just two people, you and Buck. You can tell from the get go that something isn’t right in this place, as the whole facility and surrounding area seems desolate, yet you need constant security and a maid. It doesn’t help that Tom is having nightmares every time he sleeps, dreaming of being chased by some ghoulish shadows, eventually waking up in a panic.

Tom’s story starts out very creepy, as nothing particular happens, but as you snoop around during your shift and read random emails from various computers, you start to piece together a bit of backstory that starts to paint a very eerie picture. For the first half of the game this is all you’re essentially doing before your nightly shift ends and you need to go back home. You are simply exploring and snooping in staff’s personal emails and listening to recordings.

Uncanny Valley doesn’t reveal its overarching plot in a linear way either, so you may get a glimpse of what’s really going on during one playthrough, but it isn’t until subsequent playthroughs that you’ll really start to understand the bigger picture. This non-linear approach to story telling is something I enjoy, but you do need to actually play multiple times or else the context will make absolutely no sense at all. There are even a few things I still don’t fully grasp, and I’ve gone through the game a few of times.

During your shift you have a set amount of time before you need to go back to your apartment go to sleep, thus beginning a new creepy dream sequence. Since you only have a limited amount of time to explore per shift, this is why you’ll need to play multiple times if you want to learn everything. For those that don’t have the patience, or are not able to piece together the strings of information on their own, you might become frustrated, as the story isn’t blatantly explained at any point, for the most part. You need to read a lot of emails and explore to understand most of the context, along with the who, what, and why, but even then it’s a little muddy at best, even after the most shocking mysteries are revealed.

One of the best things Uncanny Valley has going for it is its' consequence system that’s in place. Every action you take seems to have a reaction, and more importantly, a consequence. Usually in most games choosing ‘wrong’ results in "game over", but during Uncanny Valley the game continues to play out, but you may have a slightly different path ahead of you based on your choice(s). I don’t want to really give much away, as finding the subtle differences while taking these branches is what makes the experience compelling. This system also makes things confusing the first few times you play, as during one playthrough you may skip a whole scene because of a choice, while a next time you may experience something quite different. This experimentation is part of its charm, but it’s also quite mundane the 5th or 6th time you’ve done the beginning parts. This also makes the story muddled at the best of times, as almost every time I played I kept encountering a group of people that forced me into the ending I’ve seen numerous times.

Every time I play things always seem to go awry in the latter half of the game and I never really got an ending I was truly happy with. Granted, I’ve not been able to figure out how to see all the endings, but the ones I have seen left me unsatisfied, wanting to know more, but unsure how to do so. For example, the time I found Buck’s room and his car keys, I decided to leave, only to be thrown into a situation that I didn’t see coming at all. Lesson learned, so I played again only to eventually get to a point where I’m thrown into the same situation, almost as if it somewhat shoehorns a few sequences to occur, but I’m not sure as to why or the context. I know this sounds very vague, but I want to leave it a surprise for you, as it was quite shocking to see the first time.

The biggest problem Uncanny Valley has though is its controls. I couldn’t figure out why Tom wasn’t moving when the game started the first time I played, only to realize it forces you to use the D-pad to control Tom through the game world. This feels awkward at best, but to make things worse, you need to only use the Left Stick when navigating the inventory menus. Interacting with doors with ‘A’ was fine, but you need to use Right Bumper to converse with people and to pick up items. It’s unnatural and simply doesn’t make sense and overall the strange control choices make for quite a rough control scheme in general.

As for its aesthetics, I really enjoyed Uncanny Valley's retro pixel graphics, as the world seemed to have a mood and feeling of its own. The choice of art style also means that there’s not much detail in the world, as it all kind of blends together, but any items that are able to be interact with at least highlight when you are nearby to help identify them. I really enjoyed the charm of the retro graphics, as the animation is quite decent, although not perfect and there were some graphical glitches, but overall it definitely felt like it was from a different era. While there’s no voice acting, aside from listening to the found tapes hidden throughout, the sound design is very mood fitting with eerie noises, especially in the last few sections where the story takes sudden turns.

On one hand I love how Uncanny Valley’s story is told in segments that require multiple playthroughs to figure it all out, but on the other hand, even after a half dozen times doing so, there are some parts and reasoning that still elude me. The segmented approach works for those that want to have a quick run through the game, but to fully understand everything you will need to dump a few hours into it with multiple plays to learn everything, and I’m not sure many will have the patience to do so with the questionable controls.

Given the time I've had with Uncanny Valley, I admit that I always felt like I got the ‘bad’ ending. Granted, I’ve yet to experience all of the different finales which I know of, but I never felt satisfied with any of the endings I witnessed. Maybe there is no ‘good’ ending that I’m hoping for though, but after being coerced into the same ending multiple times through actions not entirely my fault (or that I can figure out), the lasting power of replying the game will eventually diminish. Once you’ve learned what you can about the ‘twist’ after a few playthroughs, and the 'aha' realization wears off, there’s little reason to continue playing unless you’re working towards specific achievements or you really want to see every ending possible.

Overall Score: 6.2 / 10 Sun and Moon, The

What I love about the puzzle genre is that there’s no set template that developers need to inherently follow. The genre is very broad, and with The Sun and Moon, you get a game that is part puzzler and bigger part platformer. While it may be more akin to a platformer, as that’s the heart of its gameplay, figuring out how to reach your goal on each stage is a puzzle in itself, which is why I would categorize it into both genres.

The premise of The Sun and Moon is as simple as it gets; you’re a small little sphere-thing with eyes (yes, I just described it like that), and you need to collect orbs scattered around each stage before you can exit through a portal. It sounds simplistic, and it is, but the heart of the game comes with punishingly difficult gameplay that requires precision, patience, and expertise.

There is no story, there’s no system to tag you along from one stage to the next, as you’re simply clearing stage by stage until you hit an inevitable brick wall of difficulty. The Sun and Moon title itself doesn’t seem to mean anything, but that’s ok, as it excels at being a platformer, not trying to be anything more or less. Just be ready to fail, almost constantly, as you need to learn to react quickly and not rely so much on thinking.

The main catch to The Sun and Moon that makes it so unique is its ‘dive’ mechanic, for lack of a better term. You’re able to dive into the ground, ceiling, or walls, based on your direction and speed. The faster you’re initially going, the further you’ll ‘dive’ into the walls, which will then slingshot you out of the walls at a faster velocity. It’s a very tricky mechanic to master, and even after hours of playing, I still have troubles always doing exactly what I want to do, quickly and precisely anyways.

Since the overall goal is simple, collecting the dots and making your way to the wormhole exit, you can solely focus on the gameplay as the artistic style is very minimalist. That being said, the camouflage backgrounds can be a little distracting, making it difficult to distinguish where you are when things are happening quickly.

Every level is different, but generally you’re leaping from one floating platform to the next, usually requiring you to gain momentum by digging and launching in a specific direction. You’re going to die, a lot, so prepare yourself as you fling into many spikes and into the abyss, requiring a restart. The game becomes punishingly more difficult the further into it you go, dramatically more so if you’re trying to finish the levels under the par times. The game is fair though, and if you die, it’s because of your skill, or lack there-of, or an mistimed jump.

When you do get into the groove and start flinging yourself upwards and outwards with speed and precision, The Sun and Moon feels amazing. The physics take a lot of time to get the hang of, but in those levels where things just click perfectly, you’ll want to continue playing, thinking you’ve mastered the game. That is, until you hit the next roadblock of difficult stages.

Sure, you’ll miss your jumps and fall into nothingness many times, but more often than not you’ll hit the precisely laid out spikes that kill you instantly. These force you to move or avoid certain areas with a purpose. This is why I said it feels almost like a puzzler, as you need to figure out the determined path to your goal, which generally comes with much trial and error. If you stick with it before giving up there will also be more advanced challenges that await you, like moving platforms, platforms that disappear and reappear, and even a few special levels where a ‘boss’ enemy will chase you.

There are well over 100+ levels, and what’s fun is that these levels usually last 10-15 seconds, if done properly of course. If you do the math, then you’ll naturally assume that you’ll complete the game in a matter of hours, but I promise you it’s nowhere that easy, and being stuck repeating levels for well over 30 minutes is the norm.

I also enjoyed the fact that levels don't unlock in linear fashion either. So, once you complete a level a handful of different ones (two or three) open up to play, all of which branch in different directions. So if you get stuck and frustrated on a specific level, you’re able to back out and try another stage instead. There’s a whole batch of levels I had to bypass, so I moved onto another set and was making progress elsewhere. The levels are numbered, and higher numbers are generally harder, but it helps offset the frustration of being stuck on a single level for too long.

Each level has a par time, but thankfully it’s completely optional (as well as related to achievements). You’re going to need all the skill and luck to simply complete the levels, not even factoring the unreal par times. Seriously, of all the levels I’ve completed to this point, I’ve only made the par times a handful of times. These par goals are for the extreme speed runners and those that want to devote themselves to The Sun and Moon, as your average player won’t even have a chance of obtaining even a fraction of them, let alone beating every stage.

There’s a handful of 8-bit themed music that accompanies the gameplay, and while I did enjoy it for the first while, there’s only a few tracks, so when you’re playing for any long period of time, fatigue will set in when you hear the same chiptune for the tenth time. The music itself is great, it's just that there is not enough variety, though I’m sure being constantly stuck and frustrated with levels played a factor into this thought process for me.

It feels as though the lack of any sort of leaderboard system is a really big miss. There’s no way to see how you stack up against others or your friends. I would have loved to be able to download people’s ghosts and see how they completed the various levels, given how near impossible the bulk of them appear to be later on. Since the par times feel like you need some sort of cheat to even come close to obtaining them, I really wish there was some sort of way to see how others solved the levels so I didn’t have to look it up on YouTube.

While new elements are gradually added, there’s not enough levels that ‘teach’ you how to deal with these new mechanics, so more often than not you constantly become stuck and not sure how to progress. I’ll admit it, I tapped out more than a few times. I’ve completed every level I can too, but there’s only so long I can handle being stuck on a stage. It’s a shame, as the difficulty spike is nearly vertical, so it may be a turn off for some, as it’s simply too difficult for most. That being said, and like I mentioned earlier, when things flow right and you’re in that groove, the gameplay is amazing.

A good platformer, and puzzlers, need to have a sense of accomplishment, so that when you finally beat that one stage you've been stuck on you feel awesome and want to continue playing. The Sun and Moon does this, but because the levels are inherently so short, you’re moving from being on stuck on one level to the next, especially in the later stages. The best part about this game is its flowing gameplay mechanics and awesome level design, but the extreme difficulty curve forces you to eventually learn how to react and not think, something that doesn’t always come naturally, or easily, unless you have a huge amount of time to dedicate to doing so. In the end those who love the challenge of very difficult games should take a look, but those without patience, or some skill, may just want to take a pass on this one.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Kill the Bad Guy

Usually a game title has some deep meaning or it alludes to some plot device within the game you play that you’re left to understand later on. With Kill the Bad Guy, the title tells you exactly what it’s about up front; killing the bad guys. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, and that’s ok for what’s contained within, as you’re aware of your goal simply from reading its title. Even though it’s a game that’s centered around killing, it’s mostly light hearted, as you’ll need to do so in comical ways, like dropping pianos on heads, launching cars over buildings into their path, and even hurling dead dogs at them from a distance, much like we used to see in wacky cartoons from years ago.

You play as an unseen member of a secret society, sworn to kill bad guys that think they’re above the law. You’ll be killing murderers, mafia, thugs, war criminals, drug dealers, and more. Think of the premise of the TV series Dexter, as you’re killing all the bad guys, so that makes you the good guy in a twisted sort of way. The catch is that you must make every assassination look like an accident and never be caught, as you cannot let your secret guild be known to the populous.

To accomplish this you’ll need to kill each bad guy in a unique, and usually comical way, making it look like a simple accident. At the beginning of each stage you’ll be given a brief synopsis on why said person deserves to die. Sometimes it’s nothing that deserves death, and other times it becomes really dark and feels like its gone a little too far for a game that’s trying to be somewhat comical.

There are 6 worlds, each broken up into 10 levels, andeach of these are a short minute or two long. These bite sized chunks of gameplay begin with the target bad guy wandering the streets in a set path, and your goal is to utilize the objects and environment around you to cause their demise.

Artistically the world is very black and white, literally, with very little color in the world aside from your target and their blood once they are killed. Visually it’s sterile and looks bland, but it works for the setting, as it’s obvious as to what items can be utilized as traps since they are a darker shade than everything else in the level. These dark objects can be manipulated in different ways depending on the item. Some have no purpose other than to be moved to coerce your target to detour and force them to walk a different path into your traps, while others don’t do much on their own, but can be combined with other items to create a specific trap.

These objects are the basis of the puzzle element of the game, as you’ll need to figure out the correct placement and timing to spring your trap on the unsuspecting bad guy to complete the level. Since your targets don’t know they’re about to die, you’ll need to become creative in some of your executions. Getting them to walk down a certain path where you have your trap lying in wait is commonplace and making sure no one is nearby to witness it is even more important.

Most of the items and traps are easy to use, whereas others are a little more complicated and require precision and perfect timing. The real challenge though isn’t simply dropping something like a piano on their head, or launching a dead dog into them, but doing so without nearby pedestrians and security cameras seeing anything is. The early stages are simple, as you don’t have to worry about any witnesses, but eventually the levels are populated with numerous pedestrians and cameras, making your job much more difficult as it will cause an instant fail of the level if witnessed, even if you do kill them. It seems like many of the stages offer some sort of freedom to find a solution to killing the bad guy, but many felt like there was only one ‘right way’ to do so.

Luckily you can pause time if things become hectic and you need more of it to set your perfect trap, or you can also speed up time if you’re impatient while waiting for your target to get to the designated area. Even though the premise is about killing, it feels lighthearted and comical, as many of the deaths are something you may see on a Saturday morning cartoons of yesteryear, plus the added blood of course.

Each level has a checklist of optional objectives to complete, and they will net you a star, adding to your total "score". There are even collectibles on each level for those that want more replayability, such as a hidden passport and catching the bad guy’s tooth that goes flying once he is killed. This adds some replay value for those that complete the main objective quickly and it is a welcome addition.

Levels only last a minute or two each, and they are even shorter if you can figure out the solution right away, but that makes Kill the Bad Guy a great game for playing in short bursts. It does have a little of that ‘mobile game’ feel to it, but it does translate decently to the Xbox One. The controls can be a little confusing and obtuse, as the tutorial does the absolute bare minimum, leaving you to figure out how many of the combinations and controls work. For example, it took quite a while to figure out how to attach a piano dangling on a top to the building roof, something that wasn’t taught or made obvious.

While the levels do vary, there is a lot of repetition. There’s only a certain number of ways to kill the bad guys, and the real difficulty only comes in with making sure there’s no witnesses. Although the overall feel is very comical, there are some very dark themes and even worse are some of the descriptions for some of the targets. I get that you’re killing the worst of the worst, but the tonality of the game doesn’t always match the sometimes too-serious biographies of those you are to kill. I get that it’s dark humor, but it may be a little too much for some.

Kill the Bad Guy feels like a mobile game ported to a console, which doesn’t usually translate all that well, but it seems to work here, for the most part. Sure, it’s not terribly challenging or engaging after you’ve seen all the kill types, and it becomes stale in long play sessions, but the low price point and bite sized gameplay make this puzzler an enjoyable side-game to play when you need a break from the norm, even if its theme centers on killing bad guys in the bloodiest way possible.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Metrico+

If someone told you that a good puzzle game premise would be running along info charts, pie charts and graphs, you’d probably roll your eyes like I initially did. Surprisingly, Metrico+ uses this concept as its background for a puzzle platformer that’s incredibly unique. The more mechanics that get introduced into the gameplay, the more difficult finding solutions to the puzzles become, but the more that’s going on, the more immersive the world becomes, which is part of its charm.

The game begins with your human looking character standing on a pure white backdrop. You are able to run and press different buttons. Things start to happen to the world, which is the game’s way of teaching you the controls, albeit in an abstract manner. As you make your way through the handful of worlds, your extremities slowly strip away, revealing a robotic skeleton underneath. I wish I could delve more into why this is, but there’s literally no narrative at all within, so it’s left up to you to figure out the who, what, where, and why.

Each world is filled with a dozen or so mini puzzles, and as you complete each one you’ll see your progress on the bottom of the screen in a sort of linear timeline. As you complete each world, you simply move onto the next. Where Metrico+ lacks in narrative and storytelling, it makes up for it in pure puzzle solving, even if the whole experience it a little short.

The catch to Metrico+, and what makes it so unique, is that all of your actions, from moving left and right, and even jumping, has a visual representation on the screen which needs to be used to progress and solve each puzzle. For example, to get to the right side of the screen where the exit is you may need to extend the walkway that you’re on, but it only extends when you walk to the left, so you’re tasked with figuring out how to walk left to extend the platform, but you still have to walk to the right to progress, as it will extend and shorten in real time based on your input.

This is just one simple example, but eventually you’ll have multiple layers of input making the world around you react in different ways, and you need to keep track of how each action morphs the world allowing you to reach your goal. Your movements need to be precise and with purpose, and you’ll easily get through a world or two without many issues, but eventually you’ll hit a brick wall of difficulty seemingly out of nowhere.

Experimentation is a theme surrounding Metrico+, and even though the world around you is experienced in a side scrolling 2D view, you’ll need to constantly test what works and what doesn't to figure out what each action’s reaction is. Each world adds a new gameplay element to the mix, making each puzzle more and more complex as you progress. Nothing is thrown at you without some sort of ‘training’ beforehand, but it’s up to you to meld all of your teachings beforehand together.

As I’ve said, you need to experiment, as each puzzle is solved in seemingly a unique way. In one puzzle jumping may move a platform up or down, but in the next, it may move it left or right instead. There’s no single input master key list, as it’s always changing, which makes for the bulk of the challenge. Eventually a single input will move multiple ledges or platforms, adding even more difficulty, but that’s half of its charm, as it’s always changing and evolving.

Each puzzle feels unique and different, and even though you’re simply going through a checklist of puzzles in each world with no overarching reason, the types of puzzles are diverse. It never becomes stale as you’re always trying to figure out the new way to each solution. The environment also changes with your actions, keeping things interesting in an otherwise sterile world. Having graphs raise and fall, or platforms move, based on your actions is what happens in the foreground, where your focus is, but take the time to look around and you’ll notice that many smaller reactions happen in the background as well.

Metrico+ employs a great soundtrack with some uplifting beats that never became tiresome, even when stuck on a single puzzle for an extended time. The puzzles and mechanics are the stars of Metrico+ though, and there are even collectibles that add a whole other layer of challenge should you be so inclined. If you’re quite adept at puzzlers, the game will be quite a short experience, but if you’re like me, you’ll get a good half dozen hours out of it, trying to make your way through all the worlds.

While Metrico+ may be a short experience for some, and a longer one for others, it’s challenging, addicting, and somewhat high quality. Whenever you become stuck, there’s obviously one little detail you’re simply not seeing or understanding, but once you do, you get that “ah hah!” moment, leading you to the solution and a feeling of accomplishment. I do wish it had more replayability; however, I did enjoy my time with it, even without a narrative. Sure, there’s not much of any context as to what’s going on, or why, but Metrico+ is a distinct experience that should be had by puzzle fans, even with the noted shortcomings.

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Nevermind

I absolutely love games that break the norm and that take risks to try something new, even if it’s completely way out there. Sometimes this works wonderfully, giving you a truly unique gaming experience that is memorable, while other times, not so much, falling flat and almost feeling too niche. The more abstract and interesting the better though. Where does the recently released Nevermind fall into this spectrum?

Nevermind’s narrative places you in the role of the newest doctor at a specialty facility. You’re what they call a Neuroprober, a therapist of sorts that helps patients deal with their emotional traumas that they are enduring in their lifetime. What makes these specialists unique though is that they actually venture into ones mind, seeing an abstract version of one's thoughts and feelings. To add to this, since you aren’t directly talking with a patient like a normal therapist, you will need to figure out what much of the symbolism and surroundings mean on your own, but that’s why you’re one of the Neuroprobers that people come to see.

I absolutely loved the premise once I read about Nevermind. Truth be told, I never heard of the game when it originally released for PC back in 2015. I wasn’t a fan of smaller titles like this back then, so I’m glad my tastes have changed over the years, and even more so that I got to try Nevermind, as there really is nothing like it.

While it has puzzle elements to it, Nevermind is more akin to a walking simulator. You begin by entering your facility as the newest addition to the team. You log into the roster with your name, whatever you want it to be but not that it makes any difference in game. There’s a training level that simulates being inside a patients mind, but don’t let that opening stage fool you, as it is interesting, but it’s nothing like the experiences inside an actual in-game person’s mind.

You’ll find yourself walking through a forest area in the training level, and while it may give off a horror game vibe, it’s not. Sure, there are times where the imagery may be creepy and a little spooky, and there’s no combat whatsoever, you’ll simply be searching for photographs which will help you close out, and hopefully mentally heal each patient.

The greatest strength of Nevermind is its imagery. There’s nothing like going inside of a patient’s mind and seeing how seriously screwed up the things their subconscious can look. You’ll see city blocks tipping over, creepy mannequins, a desert of metronomes, spiraling corridors and more. I’d honestly love to give a detailed description of each patient’s psyche, but some of the best parts of Nevermind is experiencing the truly unique surroundings. Some of it is clearly disturbing, as it stems from a seriously screwed up situation in each patients life, but that’s what makes Nevermind so unique, as it feels like you’re seeing things about a person that they would never share otherwise.

There’s only a handful of patients, and with each one only taking roughly an hour to complete, you’ll get roughly 6 or so hours of gameplay. Your goal is to usually help the person realize something traumatic they’ve been through, or how to come to terms with it. Because you’re in a person’s subconscious, many of the puzzles you’ll be dealing with are very obtuse. While I do enjoy that they have a representation and meaning, the obscurity of the meaning behind each can make it difficult to figure out what to do at times as there’s no clear explanation of what you might need to do or how to do it.

The main goal of neuroprobing is to find and collect 10 different photographs, each of which has a picture and writing that relates to their backstory or situation. Since the game is essentially linear you can’t progress to the subsequent area without collecting everything you need to. It’s impossible to miss these photos as long as you’re looking for them for the most part.

The most important thing to remember is to pay attention and listen to everything going on around you. Once you collect all 10 photos you’ll need to choose the 5 “correct” ones and place them in order to tell the story of what tragic event happened in their life or their backstory. While I get the symbolism for these end-level puzzles, these sections are the most frustrating part of Nevermind. You aren’t told which pictures are wrong if you don’t choose the correct 5, and even if you have the correct ones you won't be told which ones are in the right or wrong order. So, many times you’ll be trying to solve these sections with trial and error rather than logic. It’s frustrating, not fun at all, and the ‘solution’ doesn’t always make sense.

If you were following the PC release you’ll know that the game originally had support for ‘biofeedback’, a device that allowed the game to react to your heart rate and emotions, supposedly making a more terrifying experience. I would have loved to try this feature out, but unfortunately it was not possible at this time to bring the biofeedback to the Xbox One version of Nevermind.

What Nevermind excels in is immersing you into a world that seems like only someone tripping on bad drugs could come up with, which is a great setting for the subconscious mind. The themes and stories are incredibly adult based and deal with some serious issues, one of which kind of hit home with me and made me choke up a bit given the events that played out. The individual stories are meaningful and deal with very touchy and sensitive issues, so those that are very emotional about certain topics might want to take heed.

What’s lacking is an overall narrative. You simply help one patient after another, but there’s no overarching storyline aside from getting a thank you note once you’ve helped them via your neuroprobing. You don’t even see anyone in your facility, making the setting feel a little too sterile at times. If you can deal with its' obvious flaws, obtuse puzzles, and lack of meaty ‘gameplay’, Nevermind is truly a unique title worth checking out if you want to see some astonishing imagery, some of which there is a good chance that you've never seen anything like it.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Crypt of the Serpent King

Sometimes a game’s premise is so simplistic that it doesn’t require any setup, explanation, or narrative at all, as is the case with Crypt of the Serpent King by Rendercode Games. Normally I would delve into the backdrop and plot, attempting the paint a picture of what to expect narrative wise, but there’s none here. In fact, there’s no narrative, dialogue, or anything of the sort at all throughout the game. You’re simply thrown into a randomly generated dungeon and have to escape and survive. Simple seems to be a reoccurring key theme in this game.

Played in a first person perspective, you begin your journey inside a square room in the depths of a dungeon with no idea what you’re doing there or, how you got there in the first place. This isn’t a clever setup that’s explained to you, as you literally just start playing the game with no introduction to anything. You’re tasked with finding a set amount of keys so you can open a door that houses that stage’s boss, allowing you to move onto the next dungeon. Repeat across all seven levels that last around 10 minutes each and you’ll realize how quickly your journey in Crypt’s dungeons are.

As you begin you’ll notice that you have stats and weapon choices, neither of which you have enough experience points or gold to upgrading at first, so you start your journey with base stats and the dullest axe there is (and I don't mean boring). Each dungeon has a different look and feel to it, along with a different type of enemy to face in combat. Given that the dungeons and enemy placements are completely random every time you play, there’s at least a little replay value within.

Casual difficulty is a good start for you to learn the techniques needed to defeat enemies and how jump across traps. There's a normal and hard mode, but I don’t foresee many people wanting to play these aside from hunting for achievements, as one run through will most likely be good enough unless you have endurance for dull games.

Combat is challenging, not for all the strategy you need to use, but to simply do so without falling asleep for killing the same enemies over and over again. Once you’ve been spotted the enemy they will come at you in a straight line. The trick is to make them attack, back up slightly to get out of their range, then you can move in and attack, repeating if necessary if you’ve not upgraded your weapon yet. That’s it, for every single enemy in the game, including the “bosses”. I emphasize bosses because they really aren’t anything but a normal enemy with their own unique skin and slightly more health.

Every level has a different type of enemy, but only that single type, except for the boss. So expect to kill handfuls of spiders, orcs, skeletons, snakes, rats, and more, repeatedly. The combat is simple, but it’s also dull because of the single strategy needed to kill any enemy. Once you perfect the 'back away and attack' move, you’ll kill every enemy in the game without getting hit.

Truth be told, the hardest enemy in the game is actually battling the controls when jumping over pits. You need to collect a certain amount of keys in each dungeon before you can unlock the boss door. These keys are always on a small pedestal surrounded by lava or spikes that you need to jump over. I’ve died more times as a result of missed jumps than I’d care to admit. I actually uninstalled the game after a good half hour or doing so, only to find myself reinstalling later to complete it. Timing the jumps is terrible and you will die many times, forcing you to replay the same dungeon from the beginning.

During your search for keys, which really is just a way to arbitrarily pad the length of the game, you’ll come across treasure chests. These chests will randomly give you gold, food to replenish your health, or arrows for later on when you can afford a ranged bow weapon. The gold is what you’ll save up to purchase better weapons like a halberd, mace, sword, and more. Initially, the costs for the weapons seem quite obscene, but after a few levels you’ll have more than enough gold to afford every weapon in the game, leaving you with nothing more to do with your spare gold.

Killing enemies earns you experience points, which in turn can be used to boost your stats up to a maximum of 10. Boosting your stats help slightly, but I didn’t notice anything majorly different. The best thing to focus on is getting better weapons, and maybe some agility to help your run speed to make the jumping a bit easier. Since you’ve already mastered how to kill any enemy in the game, the stats really don’t make much of a difference aside from making it a little easier on the more difficult modes.

I did run into a few issues during my playthrough. Most notably, the visuals aren’t very pretty to look at. Truth be told, the game looks like it’s ripped right out the mid 90’s with its low polygon models, choppy animations, and blotchy textures. The worst offender was the serious lag I got during the seventh and final stage where, for some reason, there are doors at every corridor, whereas no other dungeon had them. The more doors I opened the choppier my gameplay became.

Some of the audio on the other hand is great. Not the primitive clanging of the weapon or whoosh of your swing, but the music. Each dungeon stage has its own music theme, some of which are very fitting of the mood. Two of the background songs will actually make you think something is about to happen or that an enemy is behind you with its dark tone and sharp sounds. Sadly, the bosses don’t sound unique, so don’t expect too much from the audio standpoint aside from the fitting music.

An odd design choice that stood out to me was that there is only a single save file. That means you can only play on casual, normal, or hard in a single go. So, you either need to finish it to completion or lose your progress when you change difficulties. I got to level 4 on my first casual playthrough and kept dying as I wrestled with the poor jumping mechanics, so I decided I would try normal mode instead (also for the achievements). This overwrote my casual save and I had to begin that all over once I gave up on my normal playthrough.

At its heart, Crypt of the Serpent King is a very simple and basic dungeon crawler. It may even make for a decent ‘my first dungeon crawler’ game for someone new to the genre or who is new to gaming as a whole. It is by no means going to excite you, but given that it’s only priced at $3, its' issues can be somewhat forgiven. Regardless of its score, you’ll get $3 worth of entertainment out of it, just don’t expect much more value than what is offered so you won't have any regrets when finished.

Overall Score: 4.3 / 10 Feist

There was a time when smaller games, including indies, were sparse in the Xbox One library. Since the launch and support of the ID@Xbox program however, there’s been a non-stop slew of smaller titles, both good and bad, that have seen release on the console. Because of this I’ve gotten to experience many titles that I would have never even known or cared about. One of those games is Feist. Visually inspired by LIMBO, Feist is a game that looks adorable on the outside, but it will challenge you with its punishing difficulty.

Feist tells a story, kind of, as there’s no dialogue, narration, or writing, leaving you to make out what you can of the unfolding events. Your journey begins as a small black fuzzy animal locked in a cage. You are forced to break your way out by swaying the cage back and forth until you’re free. There are much larger furry monsters that appear to be the antagonists, and you’ll need to make your way through some brutal and harsh environments to survive as you make it to freedom, at least that’s how I interpreted the narrative-less story. Be careful though, as everything in this world is seemingly out to kill you, from the smallest bug to the larger insects. The environment is also littered with traps and the world is savage, making surviving very difficult across the handful of stages.

So let’s get this out of the way: Feist looks heavily inspired by LIMBO in terms of its visuals. The world itself has more color, but the foreground and characters are all dark and look like shadows, much like its inspiration. Visually, Feist is stunning, even with its simplistic style and this is one of its best features.

At its core, Feist is a platformer, but a very difficult one at that, as there’s a lot of combat, and some avoidance of it, involved in completing the game's various levels. You’ll not only be running from left to right, trying not to die, but you’ll need to use the environment to get to your destination or to survive against enemies. Feist begins out simple, as you’ll complete the first handful of levels without much, if any issue, but you eventually hit a brick wall in terms of difficulty and it doesn’t get any easier even though the levels are short.

The controls are simplistic, as the jump, grab, throw and toss buttons are pretty much standard fare, but knowing how to use them and where this game becomes challenging. You’ll need to make jumps in the treetops, being precise when doing so, and hope you don’t land on an enemy below. You’ll also need to throw rocks and branches, setting off traps, and even grabbing an insect to shoot at other items/enemies with its stinger. I was hoping for some hidden secrets, as there are many branches that look like they are placed there to be jumped upon, but alas, they were not.

Be prepared to die, a lot. With only a few hits from enemies you’ll be forced back to the nearest checkpoint by death, and there’s no indication if you’ve crossed one or not. Traps will outright kill you, and you can easily get caught in a damage loop, causing you to die almost instantly. Many enemy insects will shoot darts at you, and if you don’t bob and wave they’ll know your position and you’ll die, again.

Most levels have a ‘boss’ of sorts, usually one of those larger beasts that kidnapped and trapped you. These enemies take a slew of hits to defeat, and can easily grab you and throw you into other enemies. These boss fights are quite frustrating and eventually Feist will just throw more and more at you, causing you to die many times. You'll find that the checkpoints are generous, and other times you’ll have to repeat long difficult sections repeatedly until you manage to somehow survive. Many sections will force you to defeat said bosses because it allows you to move on, so you can’t just focus on avoiding combat, and will need to face your foes eventually.

Many times you’ll have to rely on trial and error when figuring out how to progress, as there’s no direction from the game at all on what you should be doing, or how. This ambiguity makes completing sections very rewarding, but if you become stuck and die many times over, the frustration kicks in, as you’re unsure what to do.

When you get into a flow and make all your jumps and throws, Feist is a lot of fun. When you’re having to repeat the same section, not so much. At times it feels like Feist is being difficult for the sake of doing so arbitrarily, while other times it just feels extremely unfair. Normally when you complete a level like that you are excited to play the next, but I knew it was going to be more difficult than the last, which brought on more frustration.

Feist is beautiful to look at, but all of this praise is overshadowed by the unfairness and frustration from its unbalanced challenge. Sure, if it was easier you’d complete it less than an hour, and a bulk of the achievements are almost unattainable unless you learn the game inside out. Casual players will find nothing but frustration with Feist, but those that like a good challenge should find an enjoyable platformer that will, no doubt, test their patience.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Castle Invasion: Throne Out

Bargain bin priced indie games always intrigue me. On one hand I know that for just a few bucks I’m not going to get some AAA experience, so I keep my expectations low. On the other hand, sometimes for just a few bucks you’ll find a decent game that you would have never given the time of day to otherwise. Developer Cat Trap Studios seems to have done the latter, making a tower defense-like game which has been done a million times before, but they have done it in a fun way with terrible puns and an addictive upgrade system across 50 levels, all for $5.

You play as the hero with no name, a simple man who just bought his own castle for himself. Unfortunately. the King demands you to turn it over, because reasons (no really, the reason is “non-descript”), so what do you do? Fight back of course!

You don’t take well to demands and decide to stand your ground and fight back against waves of the King’s army even though he threatens that you’ll be throne out (yes, get the pun now?). So, you pick up your bow and start shooting at every attacker that comes close to your wall. You’ll need to fend off hundreds of peasants, wizards, jesters, and even dangerous black knights.

Castle Invasion boasts 50 levels, which may seem like it’s not much at first, but the later stages become difficult quickly and will require the utmost precision to succeed. You can scroll the screen sideways to see the oncoming army that’s about to attack you, allowing you to strategize, but the later stages are so frantic that you’ll be doing everything you can to simply hold them off mere steps from your wall.

Completing a level will net you up to 3 stars based on if you completed the side objectives, which can vary from simply completing the level, finishing it under a certain amount of time, or not letting a specific enemy type attack your wall, among others. It’s an easy way to add some challenge rather than simply finishing the levels, and you’ll need a certain amount of stars to unlock some of the later achievements. Every tenth level pits you against one of the King’s bosses, ranging from a dragon, to a troll, a marksman, and more. These boss levels were unexpected but quite welcome for a diversion from the normal gameplay. You’ll even want to come back and redo these boss levels alter once you have upgraded your weapons, as there’s no way to complete these bonus objectives the first time through with your weak weapons.

You can expect to fight hordes of knights, jesters, executioners, ninja’s, moles, and more, each of which are charming in their own way, but don’t let that stop you from shooting them with your bow and arrow, crossbow, spear, or slingshot. Even though the enemies vary, you’re bunkered down atop your castle, so don’t expect a change of scenery at all.

The only slight variant of level change is the handful of night levels which has you defending at night time with flaming arrows instead of regular ones. The battlefield will go completely black if you don’t constantly shoot at the torches below, meaning you won’t be able to see where the enemies are coming from. Because of this reason I started to really dislike these night levels, as it’s difficult to change to any other weapon since you constantly have to be lighting the torches below as well as defend your castle against the waves of enemies.

Another way Castle Invasion tries to switch things up is the handful of time trial levels. In these levels more enemies than normal are thrown your way, but you’re in control of the speed of which they move (you move and shoot normally). What makes these challenging is that you need to finish them under a certain par time for the stars. So while finishing them isn’t difficult, doing so under a set time is where the challenge comes.

The first bit of the game is quite easy, allowing you to ease into the gameplay, but the difficulty will quickly spike, making it harder to progress. I actually couldn’t figure out a way to beat one of the levels as I kept getting swarmed without a way to defend myself properly, but then I figured out what I was doing wrong; I didn’t know about the upgrade system.

When you defeat an enemy they will drop coins, that when shot, will collect them for your hero. These coins can be spent in the store on weapon upgrades, allowing you to improve your weapons in many different ways. The game doesn’t tell you explicitly to go spend your coins, so I figured it out for myself.

While the upgrade system may be basic, it’s absolutely needed, even though you’re simply upgrading damage, range, speed, and other areas for each type, it’s competent and adds a little more complexity than I initially thought Castle Invasion would have. Even after upgrading my weapons, there was a point where I needed to go back and replay levels to grind for some more coins so that I could progress further, but nothing that took too much extra time.

It’s no secret that the tower defense games have been done to death, and while Castle Invasion won’t bring flocks back to the genre, it’s a fun little diversion even if it does have shallow gameplay. At first glance you’d probably mistake it for an old school Flash based game, and even though its visuals won’t excite you, the writing is very funny and full of terrible puns (the best kind of course). I didn’t run into any bugs during time with it, and even though you can finish it in a single sitting if you try, I still enjoyed my time with it. Castle Invasion is a fun little title to waste some time on when you need a break from the norm; and for $5 it won’t break the bank.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Wick

I mention it every time I need to review a scary game, but it needs to be repeated: I’m a wimp when it comes to horror games. With movies I have no problem watching the most disturbing, gory, or creepy films, but when it comes to games, I can barely handle them, wanting to only play in the daylight with other people around. This is somewhat funny as my 4 year old daughter was watching me play and she had no problems watching this scary game, whereas I was flinching at the jump scares.

For some reason though I still love these horror games that I can never usually finish, and if you listen to me play while streaming, you’d probably laugh. It used to be that the horror genre of games were pretty much nil aside from the Silent Hill’s and Resident Evil’s, but then along came Slenderman and Five Nights at Freddies, paving the way for smaller scary games to make their way to an audience. While each scary game is trying to be that next big hit, does Wick fit the bill or is it simply spoopy? Yes, that’s a word, look it up.

Developed by the aptly named developer Hellbent Games, Wick feels as though it’s trying to take some of the ideas from games like Slenderman and Five Nights at Freddies and mash them together for its own unique game. It may sound like a cheap way to cash on in others successes, but it tends to work and come together as its own experience, one that definitely creeped me out as I tried to survive till dawn.

Wick’s premise revolves around an urban legend that teenagers would tell each other, coaxing someone into trying it. One person is placed into a seemingly haunted forest, brought blindfolded, and dumped there without anything aside from a candle and a few matches. The goal is to simply survive until dawn without dying. Sure it’s an overused cliché trope, but for the setting of Wick it works to set the backdrop. Once you’re dumped in the forest, you take off your blindfold and must simply survive until the sun awakes. Easier said than done in these woods, as there are ghosts and other paranormal activities that seem to be trying to kill you throughout the night.

If my friends blindfolded me and dumped me in the woods, let’s just say they wouldn’t be my friends anymore, if I survived that is. You get dropped off at midnight and are told they’ll come get you at 6 AM, so you just need to survive 6 long creepy hours in the woods. While it may seem like a paper thin plotline, it serves the basic purpose of why you are where you are, and why you’re being hunted by children’s ghosts.

Wick is split into 6 different chapters, lasting between each hour from 12 AM to 6 AM. You start with a half dozen matches in your pocket and a candle, needing to simply survive until the top of the hour which acts as a checkpoint. Thankfully each hour in-game is in reality only 10 or so minutes, but don’t let that fool you, as you’re going to be hunted the whole time, scavenging for more light sources before the candle completely melts, leaving you in darkness.

Your candle won’t last long, especially when you need to run and flee from the ghosts, so you need to continuously be on the lookout for more candles to transfer your flame to. Given that you’re in a remote forest, there’s absolutely no light nearby, so you can only see a short distance in front of you with your candle lit. Luckily Wick will briefly show a shimmering glimpse of a spot in the distance where you’ll find another candle. Given that candles only last a minute or two, you need to constantly search for the next one, as you don’t want to be caught in the darkness with just a match, or worse, nothing.

While the forest itself is static and doesn’t change during the whole game, the placement of candles, and extra items to collect for backstory, are, so there’s no memorizing where to go, as it’ll be different every time you play. The only issue I have with this randomization is that it can work for or totally against you. For example, you generally want the candles spread out, so that you can run for a minute or two between each, hopefully making it to the top of the hour. I’ve had numerous playthroughs where multiple candles were maybe only 20 seconds or so from one another, resulting in me ignoring the rest of the forest. Sure, I had to loop around, but when you need to run from one of the children, you’ll get lost quickly as there’s no map of any kind.

The first ghost that you’ll deal with is a boy wearing a creepy mask that likes to jump out in front of you to scare you. You need to not get in the habit of using your sprint when it’s not needed, as you need to save it for when you’re being chased and need to make a quick getaway. It’s tempting to run when you see a candle nearby and you’re low on flame, but always be prepared to be ambushed from any direction.

Each hour will task you with trying to survive a different child hunting you, each of which needs to be dealt with slightly differently than the last. Most simply can be avoided by running away from them in the opposite direction, but there are others that you’re not able to look at, ala Slenderman, and another that will chase you as long as there is light nearby. Individually they’re not terribly difficult to deal with, but in the latter stages when you have more than one chasing you, things become much more difficult, especially with the randomization. You’ll inevitably be running away from one threat directly into another, completely by chance.

Because you’re constantly being hunted, you need to continually be moving, and generally don’t want to be caught in the dark without a light source. Given enough time you may start to learn the general layout of the forest, but with the fog and low light it’s near impossible to figure out where you are and where you’re heading, which is part of the appeal; being completely lost. From the early onset you’ll learn that Wick likes to rely on jump scares to frighten you as well. The woods sound so eerie and freaky, but when one of the children flash in front of your eyes just for a moment and scream, only to disappear, it feels a little cheap at times for the easy scares. Yes, they continually make me jump, but Wick tends to rely on them a little too much at times.

I appreciate that there’s been some effort taken into placing a story into Wick, regardless of how cliché it may be with dead children that haunt the woods, but any of the extra collectables you find along your way will help flesh out the story a little bit more, even if it is lackluster. The overacted voice acting doesn’t help things and it was only a matter of time until you hear a children’s nursery rhyme being sung creepily.

The way the menus are set, it’s clear that the console version of Wick was ported from the PC, and the controls don’t help either. Many times I needed to do a quick 180 to run away from one of the ghosts that appeared in front of me, only to turn around very sluggishly, which at times caused me to be caught and die, forcing a replay of that hour once again.

The best thing Wick has going for it is its audio, save for the poor voice acting. The forest sounds fantastic with the wind blowing through the trees, the crickets in the background, and the random footsteps and broken branch sounds that fill your ears. As soon as you hear one of the children nearby you become hyper aware, trying your hardest to focus on where to run and where to avoid. Visually it may not be stunning, but with a surround headset on, I felt immersed with the audio, listening for the smallest queues while I tried to survive the night.

As for what’s going against Wick, a few things. The sometimes sluggish controls can make for some unfair deaths, the children themselves don’t look all that scary, the unfair deaths by the ghosts spawning near you as you’re mid-animation of getting a new candle, along with a heavily reliance on jump scares are what you'll notice. None of these are deal breakers by any means, but something worth noting.

Wick does have a few things going for it, such as its creepy tone (even if it does heavily rely on jump scares), collectables for those wanting a little more substance, a generous checkpoint system after each hour, no UI which helps you immerse into the atmosphere, and great audio that will have you wondering what that sound you just heard was.

While at its core you’re simply running away from anything that spawns in front of you, riding out a clock full of jump scares, Wick still does the job at being creepy. Some playthroughs I had no problem surviving or becoming scared, while others made me jump every few minutes. Again, yes I know I’m a wimp, but Wick does a great job of immersing you into a lonely and terrifying forest, knowing you’re being hunted at every moment. While it won’t command many hours of gameplay, it’s a fun little divergence if you’re looking for something different, or even better, something to stream and show how much of a wimp you are to your Twitch followers.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Bombing Busters

Some of my fondest memories in gaming are those of when I was playing Bomberman with a group of 3 or 4 friends on the SNES with a multitap, a peripheral that allowed up to 5 players to play simultaneously on supported games. Back in those days, getting more than 2 players in a game was something special, as it required a separate hardware purchase for the small handful of games that actually supported it. We may take it for granted these days, but getting together in the same room with a group of friends to play game on the same screen made for some great gaming memories that I’m glad I remember.

So, why the Bomberman reference? Well, Bombing Busters for the Xbox One is clearly inspired by that classic multiplayer game, and I’d even go as far to say it’s a straight up clone. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so developers Sanuk Games must have absolutely adored Bomberman, because that’s essentially the same experience you’re getting here, and not that that’s a bad thing, and it even tries adding a few new features to make it stand out. But does it escape the shadow of one of the classics?

You play as a simple robot, created by Dr. Wallow for one reason: To use your bomb capabilities to destroy alien worlds and take over the galaxy. It sounds more nefarious than it really is, but I guess when you look at it, you are blowing up any lifeforms you come across. Thankfully, Dr. Wallow has a sense of humor, as does Bombing Busters as a whole, and you’ll hear a lot of one liners throughout, some of which are quite comical.

If you’ve never played Bomberman before, shame on you, it’s a classic. The general gameplay revolves around placing bombs through a grid-like map. Some barriers can be blown up while others can’t. You’re allotted 5 minutes per stage to clear out all of the enemies, and blowing up the blockages will net you a multitude of different power-ups to make your bomb-focused life much easier.

The most common power-ups will increase your bomb length, the amount of bombs you can place at once, and speed increases. You’ll randomly find other power-ups that allow you to kick bombs, throw them, set them off remotely whenever you desire, and even walk through them as if they don’t exist. I know, you’ve played Bomberman before and this all sounds familiar, and it is, but what starts to set Bombing Busters apart is the enemies and sheer difficulty compared to the classic.

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve played this type of game, but Bombing Busters has quite a spike in difficulty even during the first handful of stages. Starting enemies are dumb and slow, but they will eventually do everything they can to avoid your bombs, even knowing to hide around the pillars that can’t be destroyed. This forces you to search for some power-ups and think of some other strategies given that you only have 5 minutes per level. Eventually enemies will try to hunt you down and even spit projectiles at you.

There are 5 worlds and each one consists of 5 stages, with a big boss to battle at the end of each world. These bosses are no joke, and even the first boss took me easily a hundred or so tries to defeat. You’re given a specific set of power-ups and their attacks change during the battles. The bosses vary and they become more and more challenging as you get to their respective worlds. Just be ready to die multiple times when attempting them, but luckily you’re able to skip ahead to the next world if the bosses are simply too much for you at the time.

As for how it looks, Bombing Busters essentially an updated Bomberman. The artwork is clean and each world has its own theme to it, sadly the level layouts are all the same rectangular grids though with no variety aside from the enemies on the screen. On one world you’ll blow up icicles, and then the next world will be bushes or rocks, that’s really the only variety aside from the backdrops. As for the audio, there’s a generic tune that simply repeats, so turn on your own music and enjoy some bomb busting to your favorite tunes instead.

Two things I really enjoyed was that every time you die and have to restart the level the layout of where the blocks and enemies are changes, so there’s no memorizing specific levels as it’s always different. Oddly enough, I also really enjoyed the tips that are displayed during the loading screens, as they are usually witty and hilarious. For example, here’s my favorite one: "Pro Tip: Read the Pro Tips." Small touches like this give Bombing Busters a little heart and make it feel like not so much of a clone.

What would a game like this be without multiplayer, and like I said earlier, I’ve made some great memories with friends in the past, gathering together around a single screen, but times have changed. Online multiplayer is more prevalent and is really the only way I manage to game with my friends anymore, so I was saddened to see that only local multiplayer was included. Granted, if you have the capabilities (and friend count) to support a gaming night at your house, Bombing Busters is a fun way to host some 4 player mayhem, and no multitap purchase is needed anymore.

If you grew up with Bomberman, and love the gameplay, Bombing Busters is an easy sell, especially for its cheap asking price and interesting gameplay elements such as the very challenging boss levels and a sense of humor. While it may be a very heavily inspired title, that doesn’t take away from its fun and frantic gameplay, even if the difficulty is much higher than I expected and many may see it as only a substitute for the classic it draws inspiration from.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Nebulous

I love me some puzzle games, and if it’s physics based, even better. Sometimes I grow tiresome of the same shooters and “big” games out there and I simply want to unwind by challenging my mind instead. Enter Nebulous, created by Namazu Studios. With a simple setup and premise, Nebulous will throw one puzzle at you after another, as fast as you can solve them. Be warned though, some of the puzzles become quite challenging, and simply understanding everything you need to do in succession is only half of the solution, as you’ll still need to actually solve it afterwards.

The story begins as Dash Johnson is minding his own business during a routine spacewalk, when suddenly he gets sucked into a black hole of some sort. This black hole warps him to some far distant region in space where he’s now powerless to do anything and has to rely on you, the player, to get him home back safely somehow. To do so you’ll need to ensure that he gets from point A to point B, but only with the specific tools you’re given in each puzzle, all of which are physics and gravity based.

You play as some sort of God figure, placing and moving pieces so that Dash can be guided to the next checkpoint, thus moving onto the next puzzle. You’ll need to pay special attention to the direction of gravity, momentum, and the tools at your disposal to guide him safely, albeit with many bumps and bruises along the way, hopefully finding a way home in the end. But Dash has a sense of humor and will mock you when you mess up, sometimes a little too much, though some of the lines are worth a good chuckle.

Even though you’re in space, the playfield takes place in a cube-like structure. Think of the sides of dice, but only a singular one. Early Levels are somewhat easy, only having you playing on a single face of that cube, but eventually the sides will link together as you solve up to 5 different sides for a single level. For example, if Dash falls into a yellow wormhole he’ll come out the other end, which is usually on a completely different side of the cube. In this playspace you need to make it to a different colored wormhole, which will bring you to yet another side to solve. Eventually it becomes incredibly challenging even to simply figure out where Dash will exit once he enters one of the worm holes.

The first thing that came to mind when playing Nebulous was that this game would be amazing in VR, and oddly enough, it was designed with that in mind, but alas the Xbox One version has no support for this. On each puzzle you are given specific items that you can place wherever you like, such as conveyor belts, rocks, blocks, gravity fields, and other things. You’ll want to note which way the gravity is ‘flowing’ on each play field too, as it’s always from top down in the beginning, but it can be any direction in the later stages making for some “why didn’t I see that before” moments.

Whenever you think you’ve placed your items in a way to guide Dash to the exit, you'll let him out of his box and watch him fall and bounce, hopefully to the end. And when, not should, you make a mistake, you can instantly cancel his freefall and move any pieces you wish before trying again. Also, when you fail, Dash will let you know about it, not pulling any punches about your intelligence, or a lack of such.

A good puzzle game needs a steady difficulty curve, one that teaches you as you go and allows you to learn and adapt to the new mechanics that are introduced. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here as you’ll be randomly thrown new objects without any idea how they work. There’s one stage where switches are introduced, and it took me a good half hour to figure out why I couldn’t beat the stage, only to learn I needed Dash to fly over the switches in a specific order first. My problem was that I thought they were mines, so I avoided them until I became frustrated at why I wasn’t able to figure it out.

Once you learn a new mechanic you would think that things become easier with your newfound knowledge, but wow, Nebulous doesn’t like to hold anything back, and the challenge just increases exponentially as you progress. Factor in that you’ll eventually be playing stages on 5 different 'cube walls', it can become overwhelming quite quickly if you’re new to the genre. The addition of a fast forward is very welcome, so that you don’t have to wait and watch Dash bump and fall over again for the twentieth try.

As Nebulous a physics based game you can simply 'brute force' your way to a solution if you want, trying a specific placement of items, see how Dash reacts, then adjust over and over, but the levels rank you with a star system, and if you use a lot of time and attempts, you won’t receive many stars. Granted, these stars aren’t tied to any progress, but getting more than a single star on levels requires some serious problem solving skills along with incredibly fast thinking.

Sure the premise is silly (gravity in space?), but Dash’s constant insults make what could have made a very dull puzzle game into a somewhat interesting one. There’s barely any audio, playing into the space theme I assume, so prepare for a very tranquil experience, that is as long as you can hold your rage back during the umpteenth attempt at a level. Nebulous is hard, quite challenging in fact, that you may want to break your controller at times. While it never feels unfair, it does a great job at making you feel stupid, which actually is half of its charm. Overall it's not a bad game, just be prepared for a challenge as you need to really think many of the included puzzles through.

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Gas Guzzlers Extreme

Truth be told, for how long I’ve been doing game reviews, I can generally get a good sense of how I’m going to enjoy it even before playing it after watching and reading up on it. Sometimes I’m dead on and know I’m not going to enjoy a game, and other times I’m taken completely by surprise. Case in point, I initially thought Gas Guzzlers Extreme was going to be a play once and be done with it type of game, but alas, it took me by surprise and I ended up enjoying much more than I initially thought I would. While it has its shortcomings, it brought me back to the days of playing arcade combat racers that paved the way like Carmageddon and Twisted Metal.

For fans of the arcade style of racing, Gas Guzzlers Extreme may not be the most known out there, but it has a lot of potential fun behind the wheel. You won’t be worrying about realistic physics, but instead trying to blow your opponents up so you can be first across the finish line, or the last one left in the race. Vehicular combat isn’t anything new, but Gas Guzzlers Extreme tries to do it with a sense of humor, poking fun at itself in a Duke Nukem or hilarious Arnold parody voice, which I’ll explain shortly.

Career mode is where you’ll be spending the bulk of your racing time, revolving around you earning point sin events to eventually becoming the top earner on the leaderboard. There are multiple types of races and events to participate in, some of which will earn you more or less points based on your standings at the end of each. The more dangerous the events, especially the ones with weaponry, the more points potential you can earn, whereas standard races are less risky, but you earn less rewards as well.

It takes a while to earn enough points to make your way to the top of the leaderboards which then grants you access to the final tournament, consisting of one of each type of event. Win those and you earn your reward for that whole tournament, moving onto the next and unlocking new rewards and events. Given that you can choose the type of event you want to participate in every time, the career doesn’t feel very structured, as you simply need to grind out enough races until you reach the needed points to try and win the cup. This causes repetition to kick in, and while there are the odd special events that pop up here and there, I didn’t really enjoy most of these one-off events like capture the flag, but at least there’s an attempt to break up the monotony.

I was surprised at how well the game controlled. Sometimes with smaller name racers the steering mechanics can be all over the place, usually more frustrating than fun, but that’s not the case here with Gas Guzzlers Extreme. Don’t expect any type of simulation racing, but the cars handle well, can be upgraded, and you’ll unlock better cars to purchase the further you progress.

You’ll earn money for not only winning, but destroying opponents, smashing objects, and even squishing chickens. There are even random subquests in each event for you to try and complete for a chance at earning even more money, like destroying a certain amount of enemies with mines or making sure a certain racer doesn’t place in the top 3. As you start winning events you’ll unlock new car decals, parts, and even cars for purchase, and eventually you’ll have so much money in the bank that you won’t have any issues affording any upgrades or new cars after a few hours of play. Start winning enough races in a row and sponsors will want you to race for them, giving your car a special paint job and letting you earn even more bonus money. Once you start losing though, no one will want you to represent them and you’ll be back on your own.

You’ll become very familiar with the tracks, not only because you’ll be racing on them numerous times repeatedly, but because there’s only a handful of them. After a dozen races or so on the same track, it can become a little tiresome, but this is also how you learn the best shortcuts in each map. There are different themed tracks, some more confined while others are a little more open, but you’ll be more focused on destroying your opponents and trying to make it to the finish line rather than taking in the sights.

Speaking of your opponents, the AI does a decent job at playing at your skill level. While it does seem like there’s a bit of unfair rubber-banding at times, the AI can sometimes be very ruthless, trying to ram into you at every opportunity or gunning right for you. The constant adjusting of the AI means that no race is a shoe-in and it always feel frantic, even on the easiest setting. To win races you’ll need plenty of nitro, and to earn it you either need to grab the power-ups littered throughout the track or by destroying objects and eliminating your opponents.

Given that this is a combat racer, what kind would it be without an arsenal full of deadly weaponry? You can equip shoguns, machine guns, and even rocket launchers based on your preference. Each has pro’s and con’s, and some can even shoot backwards if you tend to always be in the lead. Ammo needs to be refilled which is done by collecting the appropriate power-up during the races, or purchasing a refill in the garage between events. As you race you’ll pick up other special one-time use items like shields, mines, smoke clouds, and more. I wish the game had an introductory tutorial that explained everything though, as it took a few races to figure out what icons meant what and how to use your items properly. To be honest, I still don’t know how to tell when I’m close to out of ammo for my main weapon, so it shows that it’s not always explained very well.

Gas Guzzlers Extreme really sets itself apart from others in the genre with its humor though. Sure a manchild like myself can’t stop but giggle at the announcer with a terrible Arnold voice doing terrible one-liners, but it’s funny and something you don’t see in this type of genre often. Sure the lines get repeated after a while, but it’s still entertaining none the less. Also, you’ll notice that the AI opponent’s names are terrible puns, like Lou Briccant, Otto Mobile, and Alotta Fagina among others, but someone immature as myself will get a chuckle out of them.

Normally this is where I would talk about multiplayer, and while its PC release included it, it’s sorely lacking from the Xbox One edition for some reason. Given that the career mode does become repetitive and mundane after a half dozen hours, multiplayer could have added more value and longevity, but it’s nowhere to be found unfortunately, which is a huge mark against it.

As I said before, I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I was about to start Gas Guzzlers Extreme, but I enjoyed it much more than I initially expected. It has flaws, like a missing online multiplayer component, but it’s a fun way to spend a half hour or hour here and there. Playing for hours at a time will become tiresome, but it’s a great title to play in some downtime. While it’s not going to go down in the history books in the genre amongst the greats like Twisted Metal and Carmageddon, it’s immature and over the top, which is what you sometimes want in a combat racer once in a while, much like your favorite fast food that you know you shouldn’t eat, but you enjoy when you do.

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Slain: Back from Hell

That’s it, I’m tapping out. I’m not normally one to give up so easily on difficult games, but man, Slain: Back From Hell is punishingly difficult. Originally a PC release, Slain has been improved from its initial poor reception, fixed, re-tweaked, and improved upon and now released on Xbox One. So do all these improvements make for a much better game? Yes, but with a caveat; it’s still frustratingly difficult, almost to the point of being unfair.

I grew up with old school Nintendo games, known for their brutal difficulty, but when I was a kid back then I didn’t mind the challenge of playing over and over. Now that I’m older and have specific tastes, I find the very challenging games frustrate me when it feels unfair. Dark Souls, known for its difficulty, at least does a great job of teaching you from your mistakes. Slain on the other hand just makes you bash your head against the wall until you figure out how to beat a specific section, enemy, or boss.

What is Slain: Back from Hell? Well, if your favorite heavy metal band and Castlevania had a baby, Slain would be the result. Inspired by classic metal music and artwork, along with traditional side scrolling gameplay, Slain has some of the best retro pixel artwork I’ve seen in quite some time, along with an original metal soundtrack that completely fits the mood and setting perfectly.

You play as the hero Bathoryn, awoken from a deep slumber by a spirit, informed that the land weeps and that he must destroy foul demons that have awoken. Thus begins your journey of vanquishing thousands of demons that stand in your path.

If you haven't played the original release on PC, Slain is essentially a take on Castlevania, a sidescroller with a heavy metal soundtrack and gothic theme. The first thing you should know is that Slain is incredibly difficult, so if you’re hoping for an easy playthrough, or completing it at all, you might want to look elsewhere. Even though there wasn’t enough checkpoints in the original release, there are definitely more in Back From Hell, but it’s still punishingly difficult.

You’ll be fighting against skeletons, rats, demons, ghosts, and more along your journey. Bathoryn himself is a muscular long haired dude that wields a giant two handed sword and head bangs whenever he defeats a massive boss, all while a heavy metal soundtrack plays in the background, recorded by Curt Victor Bryant of Celtic Front fame.

Gameplay will bring you back to the glory days of Nintendo and Genesis games akin to Castlevania and Altered Beast where there isn’t many button commands to memorize, but mastering them will take dedication and skill. While there’s not much variety in your attacks, the combat can feel satisfying when the game isn’t trying to be unfair. When you die, and you will die hundreds of times, you simply have to figure out what works and what doesn’t, hoping to learn from your mistakes. There’s absolutely no hand holding here aside from telling you the basic controls, after that you’re left on your own to survive and fight your way through hell.

Rapid presses of the attack button allow you to perform a combo, and holding it can charge up a special attack that can be devastating when released, but you need to master the timing, as it cancels if held too long and you’re unable to move when charging as well. You’re able to block attacks to reduce damage, and if you master the timing, you can actually parry enemies, opening them for a critical attack. Bathoryn also has the ability to use magic, shooting enemies from afar, but only in short amounts, as your mana bar is quite small. He is also able to dodge backwards with a tap of the Left Bumper, but it takes getting used to, as it’s only a leap backwards, so you have to be aware of which direction you’re facing when using it.

I found relying on blocking wasn’t advised, as you still take damage, and eventually there are too many enemies coming at you that you’re going to get hurt regardless. Many enemies also shoot projectiles at you, and while you can reflect them back with a perfectly timed sword attack, these returned volleys do very little damage. Sometimes the controls work flawlessly, and other times it felt as if there was a slight delay, as I wouldn’t counter back the projectile and get hit instead. Once you start to have enemies surround you, along with flying enemies above, it becomes quite overwhelming and feels truly unfair at times, resulting in much frustration.

I wish there was an option to upgrade your health and abilities. Later on you gain access to different elemental weapons, but there’s no way to upgrade anything else, which seems like a missed opportunity. Access to different spells, or being able to boost health, would have been welcomed. I know Slain is tailored for a certain experience, but it’s simply much too difficult, and when you eventually get to the point of wanting to throw your controller out the window as you don’t want to continue playing much afterwards, well you get my point. This review actually took longer than expected because I needed a day to relax and reset my frustrations a handful of times when I got stuck on the same section for over an hour at a time.

Oh, and if you’re an achievement hunter, you’re going to have a really bad time with Slain trying to unlock them all. Some of them are incredibly challenging, like defeating specific bosses in under 30 seconds and/or without getting hit, but for the truly sadistic, there’s even an achievement for completing Slain without losing a single life; something I’d love to see.

While I have some issues with Slain, the graphics and audio are absolutely impressive and impeccable. Everything to do with the visuals are retro styled that hark back to the classic 8 and 16-bit days. The pixel work is among the best I’ve seen, as even the rain and minor details look great. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the minor details, and it shows. Even the animations are varied, and your sword looks truly bad ass once you get the on-fire version of it. There are even CRT options for those that want to relive the old days where the TV screens had those faint horizontal lines across it.

Even better is Slain’s audio. Composed by metal guitarist Curt Victor Bryant, all of the audio is unique, metal inspired, and will have you wanting to start head banging. Obviously if metal isn’t your genre of choice, it’s not going to appeal to you, but it’s amazingly well done and fits the tonality of Slain absolutely perfectly. They’ve managed to find a way to make it noticeable enough to be front and center, but not overpowering at the same time

Even though I was incredibly frustrated with Slain at times, even avoiding it for a day at a time by throwing my arms in the air and proclaiming that “I give up”, I kept coming back to it to see if I could get Bathoryn to the next checkpoint. Bit be forewarned, even with all of its improvements over the initial release, it’s still much too difficult, in my opinion, to the point of wanting to constantly give up on it. Just like how you got used to seeing “You Died” in Dark Souls, get used to seeing the “Slain” screen, hundreds of times.

If you have a huge amount of patience and love self-punishment when gaming, then you’re going to have hours upon hours of fun with Slain: Back From Hell. If you’re like me though, you’ll appreciate what it does well with its amazing visuals and audio, and retro feel, but completing the game is whole other question. It’s easily recommended if you enjoy frustratingly difficult games and a challenge, but it can feel unfair a lot of the time that many will give up and stop playing. That being said, raise up those metal horns and grow out your hair, you’ve got some head banging to do.

Suggestions: A difficulty option, or many more checkpoints.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Dishonored 2

I feel I need to get this out of the way right off the bat: I never played the first Dishonored. I had every intention to, as I bought it on release, yet it’s still on my shelf sealed, most likely to never get touched with my amassing backlog of games. I’ve read tons of reviews of the original, from critics’ praises to friend’s asking me to play their GOTY choice, unfortunately I just simply never got around to it for one reason or another. That being said, I went into Dishonored 2 with a completely fresh point of view, without any love or hate bias. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect other than a stealth-like game with some supernatural abilities thrown in, and after playing I can say that I’m glad I got to experience it.

Dishonored was kind of a surprise when it released 2012. A new IP sometimes has a hard time of reaching an audience, but Arkane Studios did just that and now the franchise has quite the following. It a game known for its story, interesting characters, striking artwork, first person combat, and a stealthy based gameplay that allows you to tackle missions almost as you see fit with your supernatural powers. It won many Game of the Year awards, so it was only inevitable that people would get to experience more of Corvo’s legacy.

15 years have passed since the conclusion of the first game, but now a new threat looms and disturbs the peace that Emily Kaldwin has ruled with in the years after the assassination of her mother. There is a "Crown Killer" on the loose, framing Corvo and Emily making it look as if it’s them eliminating their enemies. Once again a coup plays out in the throne room, forcing Corvo and his daughter Emily to solve who’s behind the attack and get their revenge.

The attack is led by a woman named Delilah Copperspoon, claiming to be the true rightful heir to the throne. If you’ve managed to play the “Brigmore Witches” DLC for the first game, then this name will ring a bell, though if you have not like myself, then you’ll be left trying to put the pieces together until the narrative does so. With massive mechanical solders at her side, she attacks, turning one one of the two protagonists into stone (the one you don’t choose to play as). That’s right, you can choose to dawn Corvo’s Royal Protector mask once again or have a new and different viewpoint by playing as Emily throughout this adventure in the hopes to save the other. Whomever you’ve chosen must flee from Dunwall and travel to the southern region of Karnaca to figure out how to stop Delilah.

Even though Dishonored 2 was designed with a stealth base at its core, you can play it exactly how you want, just like the first game. I chose a violent and chaotic playthrough with Corvo on my first go, utilizing stealth to simply get the drop on my enemies or anyone who stood in my way. There’s a lot of challenge here for those that want it, as there are achievements tied to not killing anyone, playing the game without being seen by anyone, and more that will allow you to experiment in other ways and play outside your comfort zone. Having your supernatural powers plays a huge factor into your play style as well, depending on what skills you want to focus on and upgrade, and there’s even a decision early on in the game to play without being imbued with any powers at all, allowing for a completely different Dishonored experience.

While the first person combat and stealth does take some getting used to, enough good things can’t be said about the game's amazing level design. There are 9 core missions to play through, each lasting an hour or two based on your skill and style, but there’s also a handful of optional side quests that can pad some more hours into your playtime. Each area and level feels unique and distinct from everywhere else. Given that most missions have multiple ways to complete its main objective, this allows for some freedom and choice of how you want to tackle each mission. Given that I was playing a high chaos and straight forward aggressive style, I killed everyone I could, but there are other options that will require some thinking of how to complete it without an assassination.

The world is littered with papers to read and conversations to eavesdrop on, usually giving you more insight into people’s actions, and even possibly giving you safe combinations and/or hints of how to complete a mission differently. Even though the core progression is linear, how to get from point A to point B is almost completely up to you. The levels stand out, especially the mission “A Crack in the Slab” that has you utilizing an object to not only peer into the past, but travel between the past and present time. This time travel mechanic is utilized in a very compelling and unique way which I really enjoyed and will remember for some time. Can’t get past a blocked path of rubble? Go into the past where the mansion was inhabited and unbroken, but guarded heavily, allowing you to stealthily pass without obstruction. Another mission has you attempting to reach your foe, but his castle constantly shifts and transforms based on which levers you pull. The level design is some of the best I’ve experienced in recent memory.

Instead of leveling up via killing enemies, since complete stealth is an option, you are instead on the search for hidden bonecharms and runes scattered throughout the world which encourages exploration. Runes are collected and can be spent on unlocking new abilities or empowering your favorites even further. Corvo’s Blink ability is the most recognizable, allowing you to essentially blink from one area to another instantly in any direction. You can spend your runes on collecting many different abilities like pausing time, being able to utilize a wind blast, summoning rats, or you can simply upgrade the skills you tend to rely on often to make them more powerful.

While many of the upgrades seem like they cater to a very specific playstyle, that’s great news if that’s how you happen to play or desire to. While many abilities cross over regardless if you choose Corvo or Emily, they both have a few specific character only abilities, allowing for a unique playthrough. Emily has some really interesting abilities, such as being able to Shadow Walk, essentially allowing her to move undetected for a short period of time. She can also summon a doppelganger, allowing for an easy distraction as you slip your way past some guards. The Domino ability is without a doubt the most unique and fun to play with. This ability allows you to link 2 (and eventually up to 4 if upgraded) characters fates together, meaning if they are linked and you kill one, the other instantly dies as well. You can just start to see where the fun in this ability comes.

Emily plays very differently from Corvo, which is a great way to encourage multiple playthroughs, not just including their own unique perspective and dialogue. The voice acting quality from both the main protagonists is fantastic and very believable, my only complaint is that you’re stuck with your chosen character for the complete game. I would have liked to have been able to switch between the two or have varying missions rather than relying on two complete playthroughs at a bare minimum.

Even though I never got around to playing the first game, even just reading about it it’s easy to tell that Dishonored 2 improves on many facets and improves in many ways. Being able to play how you want, not just with navigation of the areas, but how you complete a mission as well, is one of Dishonored 2’s greatest strengths. One of its faults though is that it doesn’t do a good job at explaining the previous game and lore very well, so newcomers to the series, like myself, are lost until near the conclusion. While it tries to explain some things, it’s not done with much detail, which resulted in me having to learn more about its backstory and characters via Wikipedia rather than the game itself. For those returning to the world of Dishonored though this obviously won't be an issue.

Dishonored 2 has a solid foundation to build from, and it’s improved in many ways, allowing for new and unique ways to play as Corvo once again, or as his daughter Emily. While the freeform gameplay and level design is easily the highlights of Dishonored 2, the storytelling does need some work, especially to ease newcomers into the events that transpired previously so they don’t feel lost in the narrative. At the end of the day Dishonored 2 is a memorable experience that encourages exploration and experimentation, something not many developers can pull off well, but Arkane Studios has managed to do so.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Farming Simulator 17

While many gamers might scoff and laugh at a game revolving around farming, there’s no denying that it has a following, even if it is niche, or else there wouldn’t be this many iterations. Sure, many of us aren’t cut out to be natural born farmers, but if there’s one game that might start training you for such a career, Farming Simulator 17 would definitely be it.

Cards on the table; I’ve never played one of the Farming Simulators before, but to be completely honest, I’ve always wanted to give one a try out of curiosity. Normally I don’t find mundane tasks in games too boring, but Farming Simulator 17 surely will put you to the test of boredom as it did for me. Farming in real life is incredibly difficult, time consuming, and tedious, and this is a simulation of that, so the same descriptions apply even in game form. Given that Giants Software has the market essentially cornered in this genre, they could easily put out a slightly refined version every year and still do fine, but they’ve been adding new features in each iteration and trying to improve, which is great to see.

Sometimes you simply need a break from shooting things, racing cars, saving the world/princess, or solving puzzles. Farming Simulator 17 is an obvious choice if you’re looking for something relaxing and peaceful even though it is incredibly in-depth, allowing you to make it as easy or as difficult as you want. Games are meant to be an escape and entertaining, and while I got to virtually live the life of a farmer, it made me realize how boring that could be.

As you begin your farming career (allowing for 3 different save slots) you begin by choosing a male or female character, then you get the dramatic choice of the color to your flannel shirt. There are 3 difficulties to choose from: Easy, Medium, and Hard. When on Easy things are much simpler, as you won’t have to worry about your crops withering and dying, whereas on Hard, you’ll have to be much more meticulous, even having to refill the gas in all of your machines, or else your crops will wither and die. Being as this is my first go at the series, I naturally chose Easy, and even so, found myself at times overwhelmed with how much needs to be micromanaged.

As you begin career mode are introduced to a short, but necessary tutorial. It will only teach you the very basics of moving around and doing a few of the beginning tasks, and once complete you’re thrown into the world with no other direction given. The main menu hosts a handful of other tutorials, which I highly suggest doing, as it will give you more practice for the other jobs you’ll be needing to perform later on in your farming career. There really isn’t enough tutelage before sending you off on your own, as there’s things I’m still learning hours into the game, usually by accident or out of necessity.

Since Simulator is in the game title, there’s a wide array of mechanics that help it live up to its name. There’s a button, or combination of button presses, to do almost literally everything when it comes to your heavy machinery. There’s a button to turn on your headlights, the safety flashing lights, opening vents, unfolding equipment, and virtually any other flip or switch you would need to operate your machinery. It’s incredibly in-depth, but that means it’s also terribly confusing. Even after using a specific machine for an hour straight I found myself still pressing the wrong buttons or rotating the right analog stick the incorrect way. Given that there’s so much you can do with some of the equipment, I don’t see how it could be made any simpler on a controller, but it’s not intuitive by any means.

There’s so much to do that you’ll most likely find yourself overwhelmed at first. You only begin with two or three farms, but even that is a lot to throw at you in the beginning until your inner farmer starts to shine through and you get a handle on the tasks you’ll need to perform. As you drive around the town you’ll come across other farms that you can buy or you can help other farmers by doing some tasks for them, which they’ll pay you for your efforts. So, in the beginning it’s a good idea to help the other farmers and earn some extra cash to get you started.

Farming in real life is a multi-step process, so farming in the game is also the same. You’ll need to learn how to use a chainsaw, tractors, trucks, plows, sowers, fertilizers, and more. Given that each machine has its own uses and intricacies, it’ll take time to learn how to use each efficiently, and more importantly, properly. You can even turn on the radio while in your machinery, changing the stations to your preferred music choice, though all very generic and country centric. You’ll be cultivating wheat, potatoes, chopping wood, and even raising animals and/or livestock, all with the goal of creating a farming empire and boosting your bank roll.

Farming Simulator 17 tries to be as true to actual farming as it can be, so don’t expect to simply plant some seeds, wait a few moments, then gather and sell them. It’s much more involved than that, as you’ll need to clear your farming area, plow it, plant the seeds, and even fertilize them at each stage if you want the biggest yields. Eventually you will own livestock which is a whole other challenge, as you’ll need to make sure your animals have water, food, a place to rest, and more. While you simply begin with wheat, you can have up to almost a dozen different types of crops across over 20 fields once you have the bankroll to do so.

Once you’ve managed to harvest your crops you can either store them in your silo or sell them directly to the local businesses. As time passes, the demand for certain produce will fluctuate, just like a real economy. So if you manage to sell your wheat when the demand and price is high, you’ll earn much more mullah for your bankroll. Earning more money allows you to either pay off your bank loan or invest into more equipment to expand your operation. Oddly enough, as it may sound boring, it’s also compelling, as I kept driving back a load of grain, almost constantly, once I had a handful of machines doing their thing.

No one person can farm their land on their own, especially once you own multiple land areas and crops. This is where hiring help comes in. With a simple button press, you can hire someone to complete the job that’s right in front of them should you wish. This will obviously eat into your money earnings, as they need to get paid, but paying multiple people a wage to get many things done at once can pay off. Sadly, the most time consuming and boring task, transporting your harvest gains to and from the store, is not something you can hire someone for, so get used to driving the same path many times over. Hiring assistants will be a necessity, especially on the harder difficulties where you need to harvest in a specific amount of time before the crops die.

Something I didn’t expect was the inclusion of mods. While there’s not a huge amount, you can download new tractors, fertilizers, buildings, and more. Adding them to your game is simple and only takes one button press, but so far it’s strictly meant to add new objects into your world, not crazy configurations like other games with mods allow.

If you have a friend that also has the game, you can farm together. Actually, up to 6 of you at once can play together online. Interestingly, this simply uses the host’s career game save, so multiplayer can make things incredibly easier, or if you allow random people online to join, could be a complete disaster as they destroy your farm. This is probably why I was always denied joining random people’s farms online, as I too would be nervous that they would be wasting my resources and destroying all of my hard work. But having up to 6 friends together also means that you can do some silly things together, like tractor racing or seeing who can crash the hardest off some hills. Not the intended purpose, but it will most likely happen.

Graphically, Farming Simulator 17 looks better than previous iterations, but that’s not to say that it looks great. The farming equipment looks spot on and it is very detailed, but some of the world, not so much. There’s a massive amount of pop in, and things you see in the distance aren’t rendered properly until up close, so while you may see an empty farm from far away, and drive towards it, you realize as you get close that it’s actually ready to farm or harvest instead, because of the pop-in. There’s also a ton of clipping and weird issues. Driving through a huge field of crops will show them clipping through your truck, and the physics feel ‘off’, especially when you get one of your forklift forks stuck in a fence and start flipping the vehicle back and forth like a windshield wiper.

More annoying is the audio though, as there’s very little music selection aside from typical country twang, but the biggest offender is that the engines for the vehicles are deafeningly loud. When the camera is close all you hear is the loud whirl and rumble of the engine, and you are unable to hear anything else. Worse yet is that there are no options in the game anywhere to mute music or game sounds, so you’re stuck with it the whole time. This makes party chatting with friends near impossible if you’re doing the farming instead of hiring help, as you won’t be able to hear them very well.

Farming Simulator 17 is exactly as the title suggests: a deep and robust farming simulator. If you’re purely looking for an entertaining game, this might not be the one for you. If I was to score the game solely on its farming simulation capabilities, then it would receive a very high score, because that’s what it excels at doing. From a game standpoint though, where I look at gameplay mechanics, and most importantly fun, this is where it falters. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had within, as I laughed till my sides hurt at times when I was doing things I ‘shouldn’t’ have been, such as jumping tractors, going off-roading with a trailer full of livestock, or trying to run over pedestrians in my slow and dangerous farm equipment (sadly you’re unable to).

To be completely honest, even though I’ve kind of laughed at the series in the past, once playing I came to realize how involved and deep this series truly is as a simulator. It’s very daunting, even from the beginning, and you’re not given much help aside from a much too short tutorial. It’s incredibly complex and takes a lot of time to learn all of its intricacies and controls. The biggest problem it has is that most of the tasks are dull. Yes, farming is not a glamorous job, so there’s not much they could have done to change that, and while some will find a serene-like quality to its laid back gameplay, others like myself find it mundane and tedious.

Make no mistake, Farming Simulator 17 is incredibly in-depth as a simulator, almost to the point of being too complicated, but as a game it’s simply not all that entertaining, unless of course you’re all about that farming life. That’s not to say I didn’t find some enjoyment in my time with it, but it was when I was doing things unintended. At the end of the day if you’re looking for an authentic farming simulator, there’s no better out there, but the amount of fun you’re going to have is based on how much fun you find in actually farming.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 One Hundred Ways

The ID@Xbox program has been wonderful at giving developers and small studios alike an outlet to bring their games to a new audience, and of course gamers get a slew of new games to play that were previously exclusive to PC, mobile, or other platforms. Sometimes this works beautifully as console gamers get to experience games that wouldn’t have been possible before, but other times the market can get flooded with titles that don’t really suit the console experience. Where does One Hundred Ways fall in this spectrum? Let’s find out.

One Hundred Ways is a puzzle game at heart, devoid of any real story, as you’re simply tasked with solving puzzles that range from incredibly simplistic to frustratingly difficult. There’s a marble that will start rolling down a ramp when you start, and you’re tasked with placing specific objects on a grid so that the marble can reach each level’s end goal. Oddly enough, there’s well over one hundred levels, so the name is a little confusing, but alas, expect many levels including some that can be completed in more than one way.

At the beginning of each level there’s a cute little robot that generally tries to give you some advice for the challenge ahead of you. Sometimes his advice is helpful, while other times his text is garbled (purposely), making some of these ‘intros’ feel completely useless. The hints don’t generally tell you what to specifically do as they are more of a generic “think of a different way to solve this one!” kind of clue. Not helpful at all.

Now, I completely understand that Sunlight Games isn’t a natively English speaking developer, but it looks really unprofessional when the game has numerous spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and misworded sentences. Sometimes letters aren’t capitalized, or spaces are missing, but it’s clear that there’s been little to no priority at localization for English speaking gamers.

You learn the game’s mechanics in the early stages, slowly learning about each type of object and how they interact with your rolling ball. There’s essentially only a handful of items and objects, but they are used over and over during the 100+ levels. A great puzzle game gives you the tools you need to solve each puzzle quickly if you’re up to the task, but in One Hundred Ways you’re forced to slog through its confusing menu system and watch in agony as you wait for the level to finish completing without the use of a fast forward.

You are given objects such as teleport pads, speed ramps, bounce pads, redirection launchers, rubber fences, and more. Your ball will roll in a direct line at a set and constant speed, which is where object placement is critical to get it from point A to B. While initially One Hundred Ways looks like a physics based puzzler, it’s really not, as your ball will roll forever if unobstructed and allowed to keep going. The beginning 50 levels or so weren't much of a challenge, especially if you think logically and just reverse engineer the solution, starting at the finish point. Eventually you’ll become stumped as there’s seemingly no smooth difficulty curve; you’ll simply hit a brick wall of challenges after completing other levels without issue.

Given that you’re simply staring at a grid for hours, going from puzzle to puzzle, you’d hope that there would be a varied soundtrack to help pass the time, either with some upbeat tracks or some relaxing tunes to set the mood. Unfortunately that is not the case here as there’s only a single song during the whole time you play across every single level. Making things worse, there’s absolutely zero audio when you’re on the world map selection (choosing which stages to play), making for a very disjointed experience. Do yourself a favor and load up some of your own music, as you’re going to not want to hear the solitary tune from One Hundred Ways after a handful of levels ever again.

It may seem like I’m simply only pointing out the negatives, but there are so many that needs to be mentioned. For example, there’s no way to rotate the map, so when you’re on a puzzle that’s very crowded with numerous tubes, cranes, and other objects, you can’t easily see which tile your placing your object on or the direction you’re intending for your jumper objects. There’s also no speed up or fast forward option. So, if you know you’ve solved the puzzle you need to wait until the ball slowly runs the course from start to finish.

Some of the pieces you’re given are also complete guesswork on how fast they will speed up your ball or how far it will launch it, simply leaving you to waste time experimenting rather than strategizing. Some puzzles also seem like they need to be solved ‘wrong’, such as launching backwards over the starting ramp, instead of a clear path elsewhere. Maybe this is part of the intended design, but you’re not given any information to figure it out and are left to just experiment with what works and doesn’t.

It’s obvious that One Hundred Ways was built for a mobile device or a PC with a mouse, as the control scheme is incredibly frustrating with a controller. Even after more than a handful of hours with the game I was constantly pressing the wrong buttons, or hoping that the camera would magically start to follow the ball when it was in motion. The grid system isn’t very responsive either, and placing an object from your inventory takes more button presses than it should.

I’m all for small developers and studios having opportunities for their games to be brought to as many gamers as possible, but there’s an effort that needs to be taken to make sure that it’s a right fit for that audience. One Hundred Ways is a serviceable game, but it’s meant to be played in very short bursts on the go, not for hours on end enduring a repeated song while trying to relax on your couch with a controller. Don’t go in hoping for a Marble Madness physics puzzle game like I was either as you'll be disappointed. I’m normally head over heels for puzzle games, but there’s simply too much against One Hundred Ways to earn a heartfelt recommendation at its current price point and jarring issues.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour

I may have already been a teenager when Duke Nukem 3D originally released in 1996, but that didn’t stop the immature child in me from giggling at every one-liner Duke had to say throughout his adventure to save Earth. I remember staying up late at night, going through the levels again and again, trying to unearth just one more secret that I had not found. Duke Nukem 3D has been ported to virtually every playable device so far, and it was only a matter of time before it came to current consoles. While it may not be the all-encompassing package some would hope for, there is a lot of new features and content contained within to entice you, even if you’ve played the game for the past 20 years like myself.

Given that the game is 20 years old, there’s a good chance you’ve most likely played it in some form during the past 2 decades. If you have not somehow managed to do so, all you need to know is that Duke Nukem has balls of steel when it comes time to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and he’s all outta gum. It’s a good thing Duke released many years ago when it did, as it would be met with even more scrutiny than it did back then in today’s politically correct world.

So what’s exactly new with this 20th Anniversary Edition? The first thing you’re going to notice is the graphic upgrade. Now this is nowhere near a remake or HD version, and it’s not trying to be, but it does look better when compared to its original release. Taking a cue from the Halo Anniversary playbook, you can toggle the original and the new “True3D Rendering” graphics instantly with a tap on the D-Pad. Keep expectation in check, as it still looks like it’s from the mid 90’s, but it’s definitely more ‘cleaner’ albeit a subtle improvement.

New music has made its way into this release, and the iconic theme song is intact, but the real treat is newly recorded one-liners from Jon St. John, the voice of the titular hero. Also, in the audio department is an inclusion of a commentary that can be toggled on or off. Finding icons scattered throughout the levels will allow you to get a behind the scenes viewpoint from original developers. My only gripe with this is that there are a ton in the first few levels, and very few afterwards, with many levels having none at all.

Lastly is the selling point that will get most long time Duke fans excited: A brand new episode of retro levels created by the original designers Allen Blum III and Richard “Levelord” Gray. These handful of new levels feel as though they belong, almost as if they were found on the cutting room floor and put back into the game where they were supposed to be in the first place.

I was very pleased to find out that when Duke dies, there’s a rewind feature that allows you to rewind to ANY point in the level and start again from there. How many times have you wished you’d done something different before you died? Well, this can help you remedy that, giving you a second chance, or as many as you need to complete the level.

While primitive compared to current games, it’s been a few years since I played Duke 3D, and I was shocked at how good the level design was for a game this old. I obviously view the game much different than I did when I was in high school, trying to make sure my grandparents didn’t hear or see what I was playing, but I was really impressed with how well it holds up, not visually or with its simple gameplay, but just the world design as a whole.

Sadly the 20th Anniversary Edition doesn’t include the numerous expansion packs from previous editions. While it’s not billed as a comprehensive Duke Nukem 3D experience, it would have been nice to include given the age of the game. Granted, the new episode does help take away some of that sting, and there is a lot of extra bonuses included.

My favorite feature had to be the inclusion of classic cheats. Back in the day, pre-internet, you had to know someone who knew the cheat codes or wait for the latest gaming magazine to print them to try them out. Many games had cheats unlike today, so it’s a great throwback feature to include. The best part is that it doesn’t disable achievements like in most other games that include the feature.

Multiplayer is included but every time I tried to find a game, I was unable to. I’m sure the player base isn’t huge, but even after days of trying, I’ve yet to experience it unfortunately. There’s also a weird delay when weapon switching worth noting. Nothing that’s a deal breaker, but it takes an odd amount of time to swap weapons, something you sometimes need to do quickly on the fly when the situation arises.

If you’ve never played Duke Nukem 3D before, the 20th Anniversary Edition is easily a 'recommend' given the slightly cleaner graphics, new hilarious one-liners, and a fitting new episode made by the people that know the game best more than anyone else. That being said, for a game that’s two decades old, the $19.99 price tag does seem a bit steep, even for us longtime Duke fans that have bought the game multiple times before. Now, who wants some?

Overall Score: 6.9 / 10 Mantis Burn Racing

I’ve always had an affinity for top down racers ever since the classic NES game Micro Machines. That leads me to Mantis Burn Racing, my latest review. While it tends to take itself a bit more seriously than a typical toy car racing game, it manages to break away from the pack of poor to mediocre top down racers with its tight controls, expansive career mode, upgrades, as well simple and fun gameplay. There’s enough content here to appease hardcore racers, yet easy enough to delve into for casual players to enjoy themselves a simple race at a time.

The bulk of your gameplay will be in the career mode. Here you’ll find a variety of different race types, ranging from standard races, elimination, and point based races. Instead of your standard ‘come in first’, which you do want to do, you are able to earn up to 6 gears per event; 3 for winning, and 3 others for completing side objectives. These side objectives can vary from things like drifting a certain distance, getting a certain amount of air, destroying a number of objects, beating a specific lap time and more.

These side objectives are a neat way of earning your progress and something that I really prefer, since you can still earn some gears even if you don’t come in first place. This also challenges you to try something different during your races that you may not regularly attempt. The final events in a season are locked by a set number of gears that you need to access the final race. You generally shouldn’t have to grind for the gears to unlock them, but there’s actually quite a few seasons to be played, all the way up to a Pro level for those that really want to sink some time into the game.

Most race events are your basic 'must-come-in-first-place' variety, but there’s generally a good selection of others to keep things interesting. Knockout races add some frantic gameplay making sure you’re not in last place on each lap or else you’re eliminated. Time trials generally gives you 2 or 3 laps to make your best time, and beating the par time determines your placing. There’s even an interesting mode that awards you points for the better position you’re in during the race, with the winner being the first to earn 10,000 points. All of these will earn you rewards as you go, and can even be replayed to grind for XP or try and get those secondary objectives for the gears if you desire.

There are essentially two environments you’ll be racing in: city and desert, but 90% of the time will be in the desert. The tracks are somewhat varied, each with their own layouts of twists, turns, and jumps, but most of the time you’ll be racing the same handful of tracks, sometimes in reverse. There are one or two interesting tracks, but honestly, the variety is lacking, and racing the same desert map over again can become a little dull a few career seasons in.

Mantis Burn Racing incorporates the use of 3 different types of vehicles: Light, Medium, and Heavy. Light vehicles are like buggies, very fast and quick turners. Heavy vehicles are very slow yet can burst through barricades for secret shortcuts. Lastly, medium vehicles are right in the middle for performance. Most events will lock you to a specific type of class, but there are a handful of open races which allow you to choose your favorite (or most upgraded) vehicle.

I was quite surprised with how well the game’s controls were. I’m so used to decent racers, particularly top down racers, being brought down by terrible controls, so I guess I just expected it. Mantis Burn Racing handles great, and while it will take a few races to get the hang of, it’s very basic to learn, yet it has some intricacies for those that really want to improve their lap times. Even once you get the hang of drifting, the controls are very tight, and crashes feel like they were completely your fault for trying to drift too close to that inside barrier. A minor complaint I do have is that since you’re constantly switching vehicle types so it’s hard to get really used to one of them since you’re never stuck with a specific type for more than a race or two generally.

As you progress in events and earn upgrades, you put these upgrades into slots on your vehicle. These upgrades range from better tires, suspension, engines, and more. Your starting cars have 3 upgrade slots, and once full you can pay to upgrade it to a better version with more upgrade slots. It’s a smart way to continually improve your vehicles and customize them however you wish. Keep in mind though, you have 3 different types of vehicles, and if you constantly upgrade a certain class, the other ones will start to fall behind, making it much more difficult when you’re stuck with them for specific events.

I generally don’t expect smaller indie titles to include an online multiplayer, but again, Mantis Burn Racing surprised me by including it. There is local and online co-op, and the host can designate which types of vehicles, race, map, and even enable or disable upgrades. This means you can bring your career mode’s cars online and test them out against others, which is a great feature. While there weren’t a large amount of people playing, but I was able to find a match every time I tried to play online, which speaks volumes compared to other smaller titles’ online communities.

My biggest complaint is the terribly long loading times that take place before and after every race, even if you mess up and need to restart an event. The gameplay is smooth throughout, and the graphics are serviceable, but the prolonged loading times really damper the experience if you’re playing for any prolonged amount of time.

As I said before, I love top down racers, and Mantis Burn Racing does a great job at being accessible for casual racers, yet it has enough features and a full bodied career mode for those that want to dive in deeper. It has a surprising amount of depth, and I kept wanting to race ‘just one more race’ every time I played. Sure the track repetition becomes stale at times, and the loading times are frustrating, but if you take it for what it is, a simple and fun toy car racer with some depth, then you’re bound to have at the least a few hours of fun.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 HoPiKo

When I first saw screenshots for HoPiKo I had no idea what I was looking at. If you do the same, I bet you’ll have the same reaction. As for playing it, it’ll take a few minutes to acclimate yourself into its gameplay, but once you do, you’ll discover one of the more unique ‘platform-like’ games out there. Are you into retro inspired, challenging, and speed run centric gameplay encased with a soundtrack created 100% on an original Game Boy? Then HoPiKo is for you! Have no idea what I’m talking about? Read on.

So technically there is a story to HoPiKo, but it’s just as abstract and off the wall as its frantic gameplay. There’s an evil Nanobyte virus on the look out and it is attempting to destroy gaming as a whole. It’s up to you to save your HoPiKo brothers (think of them more like a species than a family) and save gaming for everyone. Confused yet? Yeah, I don’t totally get it either, but you have come for the platform-like gameplay, not the narrative.

Like with any good platformer, the gameplay and mechanics are what will keep you playing, coming back for more after every repeated death. HoPiKo actually plays very uniquely, in the sense that you only use the Right Stick and Right Bumper; that’s it, you completely ignore the left half of the controller. There’s a few very brilliant reasons for this. While in virtually every game you use the Left Stick for movement, it’s the Right Stick that you’ve become precise with over the years playing shooters, platformers, and other games. Because of this, you can instinctively aim much more precisely with the Right Stick, which is why this default control scheme that has been chosen. It’s a simple idea but makes absolute sense, though you can change it if you desire (but you’d be wrong to do so).

So, why is it a game that is described as platformer-like? Well, normally in a platformer game you have to run and jump from spot to spot, but in HoPiKo you simply launch yourself in your desired direction with a flick of the Right Stick or tapping the Right Bumper. Controls are very simple to get the hang of, but the real learning curve comes from simply figuring out what you need to do and the best way to do it once you figure out the different types of platforms.

There are a handful of worlds to complete, separated into 10 ‘areas’ with 5 missions each. The catch? You need to complete all 5 in a row without dying to continue on. Normally I would become frustrated with something like this, as you’ll die on stage 4 or 5 a million times, only to be sent back to the first stage, but playing levels in a single order wouldn’t be nearly as challenging or rewarding.

Things in the beginning start out simple, as you are only focused on aiming in a direct line to the next platform without missing. As expected, the further you progress int the game the more the challenge starts to ramp up, slowly introducing different types of platforms, lasers, and even enemies that chase you. These are introduced slowly, allowing you to figure them out and the best way to quickly recognize them since the gameplay is so fast paced.

While there’s technically no time limit, you will die if you stay on a platform for too long, plus you won’t earn the bonuses for completing levels that have a bonus for time finished. Finish a world completely and you’ll unlock a Speed Run and Hardcore Mode, along with new music tracks. Speed Run Mode is pretty self-explanatory, keeping track of your time as you try to go through all the levels. Hardcore Mode is a whole other beast though. If you thought the regular gameplay was difficult, doing 5 levels at a time, this mode challenges you to beat all 50 in a row. Die and you’re right back to stage 1. I’ve still yet to accomplish doing this, even on World 1, but it allows for more gameplay for those that want a real challenge.

HoPiKo’s visuals are really unique. It’s basic at its core, but the gameplay is so fast and frantic that it’s hard to take it all in at times. It’s minimalistic in design, but it's also confusing to figure out what’s going on until you learn its obstacles and they become second nature. The real standout though is its brilliant soundtrack, all of which was composed on an original Game Boy. Unlocking new tracks is awesome, as every track is catchy, has its own vibe to it, and is super retro, fitting the look and style of the game.

There’s the odd bug here and there, as I’ve died many times seemingly for no reason (seriously, it’s not some excuse). I do wish there was either a countdown timer or that the levels didn’t ‘start’ until I made my first move, as the later stages force you to begin the moment it starts, or you’ll die. You constantly feel frantic and pressured, even once you become more skillful and go back to old levels to better your results.

If you’re a fan of games like Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV, where brutal difficulty is your thing, and you can resist throwing your controller out the window in a fit of rage from dying a hundred times in a row, then you’ll absolutely love HoPiKo. Put the time in and you will become better. I thought there were levels I would never complete, but here I am, passing stages that I previously thought unbeatable, and then I get stuck once again, seemingly forever, but I know I’ll go back trying to best it once again. HoPiKo has amazing level design that feels constantly varied and a level of challenge that makes you want to try just one more time, even though you told yourself that fifty tries ago.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 XCOM 2

Firaxis, best known for their Civilization and XCOM titles, has finally graced console gamers with the release of XCOM 2. While it originally released on PC over six months ago, seemingly as a PC exclusive, it has finally made its way to the Xbox One for fans that prefer to relax on the couch with a controller in their hands. XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the Xbox 360 was a fantastic showing of what Firaxis could do with the strategy genre on last-gen, so I was quite excited to see what improvements would be made for its long awaited sequel on the Xbox One. Depending on which ending you got in Enemy Unknown, the cannon storyline in XCOM 2 continues 20 years after the war was lost. A terrifying alien regime, the Advent, has been ruling over humanity for the past two decades and a resistance is beginning to arise to free mankind from their clutches. The story focuses on the rebellion taking the fight to the aliens, as opposed to defending like the previous game, and this carries over to the gameplay.

Instead of simply holding back the enemy, you are now tasked with sabotage, intelligence interceptions, and actually pushing the front lines forward. While there is an overarching storyline, it’s nothing substantial enough to care about, and you won’t form any real bonds with any of the characters unless you name your soldiers to match your real life friends and family and they happen to die in virtual combat.

XCOM 2 plays almost exactly like its predecessor(s), albeit with a laundry list of improvements and changes. It’s still a turn based strategy game at its core, focusing on squad based tactics and building up your human resistance against the aliens. If you were a fan of Enemy Unknown you’re going to fall in love all over again as XCOM 2 vastly improves on almost every facet of gameplay, adding many more options, and subsequently, much more difficulty as well. If you’re not a big fan of strategy games, then obviously XCOM 2 may not be on your radar, and believe me, I used to not be a big fan of strategy titles before, but Firaxis is the best in the business when it comes to the genre and they prove it big time with XCOM 2.

Once of the biggest changes you’ll notice almost instantly is the mission structure and variety. There were only a handful of different mission types in the previous XCOM, but this has been improved upon in XCOM 2. Now you’ll be assaulting bases, attempting to destroy or protect valuable targets, rescuing civilians, and even saving VIP’s. The biggest catch is that a bulk of these missions are timed, not with an actual time limit, but with moves instead. Because of the hectic pace, you can no longer simply rely on hanging back, going into overwatch, and waiting for enemies to fall into your line of fire. Now you need to be aggressive on the assault, making for some very risky, and much needed, new strategies to be employed.

Since most missions are timed now you can’t always dictate the terms of combat any longer, which can be frustrating and uncomfortable at first, especially if you have became accustomed to tried and true tactics from Enemy Within, but it’s also where a big majority of the satisfaction comes from when you finally complete a mission, regardless of the casualties. Even if you manage to protect your best soldiers until the endgame, they are never completely safe from danger, as you’ll need to almost always put yourself in danger to progress against the aggressive time crunch. At first I didn’t really enjoy the forceful nature of the missions, but I began to warm up to it, adapted my strategy, and learned from my fatal mistakes.

Since the mission objectives vary wildly the campaign seems to breeze right by, and even if you’re not playing a true ‘ironman playthrough’ without reloading saves, the maps are procedurally generated every time, so even if you do reload a previous save to prevent your best soldiers from dying in combat, replaying a mission won’t always be the same, forcing you to constantly adapt. Sometimes you’ll need to know when to cut your losses and call for an emergency extraction rather than having your whole team perish. These moments are very tense yet thrilling, as I didn’t want to rely on previous game saves to reload, so I eventually started to accept whatever outcomes my battles had. Doing so made XCOM 2 that much more intense and exhilarating, especially when you absolutely need a low percentage success rate shot to succeed, or else you die.

Not only does XCOM 2 dictate the pace you need to play at, this also is true for the campaign missions as well. There’s no simple grinding missions to beef up your soldiers that would allow you to take on the campaign once you’re overpowered, as there’s a constant "Avatar Project" that you witness slowly progressing on the world map. If the meter fills it means impending doom, so you need to complete specific campaign based objectives and missions to hold back the aliens progress in this mysterious project, as failure to do so means absolute doom for mankind.

If you’re an XCOM fan, you’ll feel right at home with this game's combat mechanics. You’ll still be given two actions a turn, allowing you to hunker down, go into overwatch, or shoot any enemies within distance. There are some great additions though, the most obvious of which are the slight variance of the classes and the much more defined branching skill trees. Each class can choose to specialize in a distinct path that’s meant to be played a specific way, but you can also mix and match skills as they level up in ranks to suit your play style and squad setups.

You’ll also notice that a stealth mechanic has been implemented, allowing you to begin most missions concealed against the enemy. This allows you to take a few moves to setup an ambush if you wish, or even bypass combat all together if you’re clever (and lucky) enough to not get spotted by wandering patrols. On non-timed missions I would take my time to set up a perfect ambush, luring packs of enemies into my squad’s wall of overwatch retaliation. Given that a bulk of the missions are timed though, it’s tough to use this strategy often, as you really need to play quite aggressively if you want to succeed. It’s a great idea, and works well in the right situations, but it needs to be fleshed out a little more in a hopeful sequel.

Many of your strategies will come from failure and losing your best fighters. Once you learn how specific enemy types behave, you can start to learn the best tactics to use against them while keeping your soldiers safe. After a dozen hours I finally found a perfect balance of classes and abilities that, most of the time, were unstoppable, but that’s where XCOM 2 is brilliant, as it will throw a new enemy type at you or simply have you miss a shot with 95% success rate, completely turning the tide of battle and causing you to react. It goes the other way as well, as praying that a 20% chance attack will land, and it does, feels overwhelmingly amazing. XCOM 2 is meant to be played through multiple times, as the first time or two will simply be a learning experience, and from there on you can really fine tune your best course of action against the Advent with your ideal builds.

The overworld meta-game has also been improved, as you’ll be tasked with connecting communication relays and liberating different countries from the aliens to bolster the resistance. You’ll need to expand and upgrade your base as well, allowing you to choose the best course of action. This specifically where it will take a full playthrough, or two, to figure out the best build paths (without looking online of course) as there’s no branching trees to see the best paths and the outcomes until it’s actually completed. I found this blind guessing a little frustrating, as I didn’t know if spending a massive amount of time researching something would be worth it in the end, as you’re not given much description of the result, making you unable to plan multiple steps ahead or the best way to min-max your playthrough.

You have limited resources and time, so you will constantly be making complex and difficult decisions on the fly. Do you prioritize a mass amount of time to research advanced weaponry or do you spend that time on multiple smaller projects instead? It’s completely up to you, but it’s a constant battle of resources and time, with an always looming thread close by to keep you pressured and moving at a brisker pace than you may like to at first.

There is also a multiplayer component included that allows you to take on another player with a custom squad of your own. You’re even able to control Advent forces in this mode, which is really cool, especially the more costly forces. Each unit has a predetermined value attached, and you can only spend a set amount to make up a squad, so it’s a balancing act of utilizing less but more powerful, or more but less effective. I’d love to give a more in depth analysis of XCOM 2’s multiplayer offerings, but multiple times I’ve sat at the menu, both in ranked and quick match, unable to find a game, even while sitting for well over a half hour. I assume it’s simply a small pool of players taking their squads online rather than any server issues, but it was unfortunate I wasn’t able to find a single game to play every time I attempted to.

For all the praise I’ve given XCOM 2 so far, there are a laundry list of bugs that constantly hampered my experience, even many hours in. First is the massive technical issues. The loading times are long and often, the camera angles don’t always work as intended, making for difficult strategizing, and the clipping at times is laughable when you see a character shoot directly through a wall or object. Aiming grenades seems to be a chore in concentration and feels very loose compared to the standard shooting. There was one instance where I was unable to hit the enemies in front of me, not because of a lack of skill or the randomness of missing shots, but the game didn’t think they were where they appeared on my screen. I was only able to complete that mission by staying in overwatch and waiting for them to move into ‘view’.

From beginning to end, you’ll constantly be challenged with XCOM 2. It’s difficulty is unforgiving if you’re not careful, and since death is permanent you can lose your best soldiers at any given time in any given mission quite quickly. I thought the original XCOM was fantastic, but it’s rare for a sequel to be better in almost every aspect that the previous game feels vastly inferior in hindsight. If you even remotely enjoyed the previous XCOM games you need to play XCOM 2, as it has a wealth of replayability, deep strategy, and impressive character building, even if it does force you to play overly aggressive. I’m not sure why they waited so long to bring XCOM 2 to console, or at least announce it at the PC launch, because even with its hiccups it’s an amazing gaming experience for any strategy game fan.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Emily Wants To Play

Unlike most young kids, I was allowed to watch horror and thriller movies from a very young age, and because of this, I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Scary movies are easily my favorite genre, and I can watch the goriest or most psychologically scary movie there is and not flinch. Well, when it comes to scary games though, I’m absolutely the complete opposite. I’m not really sure why, though most likely because I’m in control rather than watching a linear experience, but I don’t do well with scary games regardless of my movie tastes. So who else better to review Emily Wants to Play; probably one of the most dread inducing titles I’ve played to date.

I grew up with the Silent Hill's and Resident Evil's, and while those were scary at the time since I was young, these days there aren't very many horror games aside from a few breakout titles like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender. Originally released on PC, Emily Wants to Play is now here for console gamers to see if they have the courage to survive until morning while being hunted down by demonic and possessed dolls.

While some scoff at jump scares because they’re viewed as a lazy way to scare someone, they’re also a very effective way to make a player uneasy and tense, simply waiting for the next moment to happen. Emily Wants to Play uses this classic horror tool to inspire dread, almost to a fault, as that’s almost the only scare tactic it utilizes throughout. That being said, I wasn’t unable to complete the game after multiple attempts and hours; not solely because of the difficulty, but because I couldn’t handle another scare again without taking a prolonged break to relax my nerves.

While a vastly overused trope, Emily Wants to Play begins with you as a pizza guy making a simple delivery. The door is ajar, so naturally you go inside to find someone to give them their order. The place looks like it’s been ransacked, and just as you take a step inside the door slams shut and locks behind you seemingly on its own. The place is a mess, the windows are boarded up, and the lights are flickering; the perfect setup for numerous horror flicks.

Played in first person, your goal is to simply survive until morning, but that isn’t going to be easy by any means once Emily’s dolls start to try and kill you. As you wander around the house, you’ll notice doors opening and closing on their own, as do the flickering lights, adding to the already very creepy atmosphere. You start to notice notes left around the place such as “Don’t look at her”, and “Run away”; foreboding to say the least. Then you’ll come across the dolls, but you’ll wish you hadn’t, because once the clock strikes midnight, that’s where you need to start to survive.

As for the controls, it’s very basic. Sprinting is done by holding in the Left Stick, interacting with objects is the B button, and Left Bumper for your flashlight (should you be lucky enough to find one). That’s it. Sounds simple, and it is, but you’re going to need not only quick reflexes to survive the night, but nerves of steel. The sprinting doesn't seem all that necessary and is a little cumbersome to do so while holding in the stick.

Once midnight rolls around, you’ll start to hear footsteps and laughter coming from random areas in the house. Things start ‘simple’ with only 1 doll trying to kill you, but eventually you’ll have to deal with 3 at once before Emily herself joins in the 'fun'. Given that I have no problem with horror movies, I thought Emily Wants to Play would be no big deal. I was so wrong. It plays like a walking simulator, but the way that the mood is conveyed, with absolutely no music in the background, almost makes it scarier. As soon as you hear one of the dolls, you know you’re about to confront one of them, which gets your blood pumping and controller firmly clenched.

So how do you survive the night? Well, it all depends on which doll is currently chasing you. For example, the first doll you come across will laugh when she is near, and once you turn around she will be there staring at you, completely still. Even though you may have found a note earlier that says to “Don’t look at her”, you need to do the complete opposite to not get killed by Kiki the doll. Eventually she will poof and disappear instantly, allowing you to explore the house further if you’re brave enough, that is, until you hear her once again trying to get you.

There are other dolls that will join the killing fray as the night goes on, and you simply need to learn how to survive against them when they appear. It may sound simple, and in premise it is, but when you fail using the proper tactic to survive, the jump scare you get is no joke. Kiki for example lunges at your face, either just as your turn around to try to flick the light switch back on that was mysteriously turned off, shrieking as she does so.

Luckily the checkpoint system is generous and starts you back at the latest hour you’ve reached during your night in the house. Given that you just got scared though, your nerves become more on edge the more you play. Leaving a room makes you apprehensive, but you know you have to do so to survive some of the dolls attacks. It’s a simple way to instill fear, but it works.

If you’re good at the game and don’t scare easily, it’s easily beatable in under an hour, as you simply need to ride out the clock to survive, but to get to that point will take a lot of courage and many deaths. The graphics are very basic and the lighting is nowhere realistic looking, but even so, the game has a particular sense of dread surrounding it no matter what room you go into, even more so once you hear one of the dolls nearby.

I wish I could finish the game, but I can’t. Even playing in the daytime with the lights on and people home, I can only play for short periods of time before needing to take a break to calm my nerves. Yes, some of you are going to call me a wimp, and that’s fine, but it should show effective Emily Wants to Play is at creating a sense of terror. Sure its shtick is simply utilizing jump scares, but when it works, why change?

With its very cheap price point, Emily Wants to Play is a great title to get this month given the Halloween spirit, and even better to stream on Twitch for the amusement of others if you scare easily, just like me. While some won’t find it terrifying, or even scary, others just might need to play with the lights on or in the daytime with someone else in the room. Sure, the game could benefit from some improvements, but if you’re simply looking for a creepy atmosphere with the potential to truly scare some of your friends that come over, Emily Wants to Play is sure to get your heart racing. and you most likely won't want to be be near any dolls afterwards for quite some time.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Eventide: Slavic Fable

I’m really glad that developer Artifex Mundi has decided to publish their games on the Xbox One, as they have a huge catalogue of hidden object games (HOG’s) that they are in the process of bringing to console gamers. I didn’t know that I would enjoy these types of games as much as I do until I gave them a fair chance, but I’m glad I did, as I get to sit back and enjoy a few hours of stress free gaming. Eventide: Slavic Fable is the third game from Artifex Mundi that I’ve now played, and I figured that I would grow tiresome of the same gameplay mechanics by now, but I haven't. I seem to enjoy them more with every new title that comes our way, but the question remains: "Can they keep the quality continuous and prevent staleness from setting in?" Let’s find out.

Eventide places you in the role of Mary, a botanist who receives a letter from her grandmother one day out of the blue inviting her to visit and save a rare plant. Mary doesn't get many letters from her anymore, so she knows it’s serious and decides to make a visit. As you arrive you’re attacked by a massive bat-looking creature, only to find that your grandmother is then kidnapped in front of your eyes. To get her back you’ll need to befriend the creatures of Slavic origins in attempt to save her.

I won’t delve much more into the story, as it’s not terribly long, but it has just enough narrative to string you along from puzzle to puzzle while managing to stay fairly interesting. Some of the characters you come across are cute, while others are simply there to lengthen gameplay with odd quests, like fixing someone’s bathroom pipe so they can shower. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting better at these types of games or not, but the overall journey felt much shorter compared to the last two titles of theirs I’ve reviewed, as I completed it in a single sitting without any troubles at all on normal mode.

If you haven't played an Artifex Mundi HOG based puzzle titles before, it essentially revolves around finding an item which allows you to open an object to obtain another item that you’ll need to solve the next puzzle. Rinse and repeat. On paper it sounds basic and shallow, but there’s many scenes to explore, with bonus collectible items to find along the way as well. Sometimes you’ll simply need to find a certain item while other times you’ll have to solve a convoluted puzzle or you’ll be given a shopping list of items to find in a crowded and messy scene before being granted access to progress further.

Normal mode gives you an option to use a hint if you become stuck, and it can either point you in the right direction to go (though the map shows you what areas you have puzzles to complete) or it blatantly shows you what you need to click next. Expert mode takes away much of the hint system and doesn’t have items glow, making for a bigger challenge, especially if it’s your first time playing. I found that I didn’t need to rely on the hint system even once during my playthrough, but it’s a welcome addition for those that might need it so they don't become frustrated. Oddly enough, Eventide doesn’t include an alternate game to play like the previous games that they have released on the Xbox One, where you could play dominoes or mahjong.

For veterans of Artifex Mundi’s titles, you can expect more of the same. Eventide follows the same template, almost to a fault, as you’re only given the items you’ll need just before you need them. What is new though are the two sets of collectibles hidden throughout. Keep an eye out for Bestiary Cards, as these will unlock background lore of each of the creatures in Eventide in the bonus section of the main menu. They are strictly optional to find and aren’t part of the core game, but it was interesting to read more lore about creatures that crossed my path once I found them. There are also Ethereal Flowers that glow and can be collected, but these don’t serve any purpose aside from unlocking achievements.

Just like their previous titles, the artwork is great as always, though I suspect this might be one of their earlier games, simply because the animation didn’t look as smooth or as sharp as the previous titles that I reviewed. Following suit is the average soundtrack and simply “ok” voice acting. Usually the voice acting is passable, but it didn’t seem to be nearly as believable in Eventide. I’m not sure if it’s the writing or different actors, but it difference from past games was noticeable.

Just like their previous games released on the Xbox One, developer Artifex Mundi's Eventide: Slavic Fable is a great ‘filler’ game when you grow tired of the glut of AAA titles or simply need a break and want to try something different. The dev-team has nailed the formula, almost to the point where each game seems to use a default template but they edit it with new characters and vary the puzzles slightly. Even so, I’ve yet to grow tired of the tried and true gameplay formula. If you are looking for a casual game to play or just want something to relax while playing, look at Eventide: Slavic Fable, or any of their other HOG titles; there’s no better developer currently bringing this genre to consoles.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Gears of War 4

There’s only a handful of franchises that seemingly define a console or generation of gaming, and Gears of War is easily one of those franchises. Just shy of its 10 year anniversary, Gears of War has been pulling in fans ever since 2006 and it crafted one of the most iconic series that helped Xbox 360 reach the fan base that it did. Gears of War 3 was released way back in 2011 and fans have been waiting half a decade for a proper sequel ever since, and now that time has come with the impending release of Gears of War 4. Sure, there was Gears of War: Judgement in 2013, but it wasn’t the true sequel everyone was waiting for. Now, with a new studio behind the series, The Coalition, can the this true sequel live up to what Epic Games and Cliffy B. created a decade ago?

Even after all these years the gameplay and visuals of the older Gear of War titles still hold up, but the current generation hardware can do much more than the Xbox 360, and Gears of War 4 really proves this point, along with other agendas Microsoft is pushing like the very welcomed Xbox One/PC crossplay. The visual fidelity of Gears 4 is nothing short of amazing on the Xbox One, and if you have beefy enough PC rig to handle it, you can hit 4K resolution with this Play Anywhere title.

Crossplay allows gamers on their Xbox One to play with with those playing on PC in a variety of modes. You'll find that the majority of the multiplayer modes are available except for the competitive versus mode. It should be noted that Gears 4 is also a Play Anywhere title, meaning that when you buy it digitally you automatically own the Xbox One and PC version (for Windows 10). I’ve recently just upgraded my PC and this feature is a fantastic bonus to have, not even including the expanded player base that will help keep the game community alive longer.

I always strive to avoid any spoilers in my reviews, especially when it comes to a story campaign, so the only details I’ll divulge is from what’s been shown previously before launch. That being said, the story is much broader, grand in scope, and very involved. I just don’t want to spoil anything if at all possible. If you’ve avoided the most recent trailers, especially with a huge reveal, then you might want to skip ahead a paragraph or two to be safe.

Set 25 years after the events of Gears 3, a new Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) is formed, automated robots replace many solders in dangerous roles, and cities that were devastated in the locust war are starting to heal. The new COG are forcing people to live in specific areas in attempt to keep them safe, but it’s viewed as oppression by some, causing a new “Outsider” faction to form, and there is a very tense relationship between COG and this Outsider faction.

Many citizens are seemingly going missing, and COG naturally assume Outsiders are responsible. Given that the new protagonist, JD Fenix, son of the infamous Marcus from previous games, is the titular hero, we know that is most likely not the truth. JD is accompanied by Del and Kait, and when the autonomous robots, known as DeeBee’s, start attacking JD’s group, they must resort to finding his father for assistance. There’s much more to the story than this, but needless to say you’ll be facing a fearsome new enemy and unravel a whole new mystery when the locust were seemingly all destroyed decades ago. Campaign supports two player co-op, and even crossplay, so make sure to grab a friend and battle the enemies, regardless if they’re on console or PC.

If you haven't played a Gears of War title before, it’s a third person cover based shooter at its core. You’re expected to hide behind cover and shoot your enemies from seemingly safe protection, but Gears 4 implements new weaponry and tactics to counter enemies and players that think staying behind cover is safe. New weapons, like the Dropshot, fires a floating mine for as long as the trigger is held, drilling downwards and exploding when released. There are also cross-cover moves where you can pull an enemy from behind their cover, granting you a moment to execute them brutally. If you’re quick enough though, you can counter these moves, so there’s a few different strategies than can be utilized.

The core gameplay is largely unchanged aside from the new weapon additions and moves, and while it feels fresh, maybe because it’s been so long since a Gears game, it still feels familiar as well. There are a few levels where there’s a massive windstorm, forcing you to take cover while trying to progress. The wind is so strong and violent that certain weapons shots, like the Buzzkill, which launches massive buzz saw blades, will arc in the wind. These sections show how gorgeous Gears 4 can look and are very impressive set pieces which shows us something new the series.

Some vehicle sections return as well, which were the highlights of the whole campaign for me, making me want to replay them numerous times. If you’re a longtime Gears fan you’re going to be able to predict a lengthy gunfight a mile away, as there’s always seemingly a handful of waist high blocks conveniently placed between you and the approaching enemy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t get many surprise battles as the level layout makes it painfully obvious as to what’s about to go down. There are even a few sections where you’ll have to play a few waves of Horde to keep back oncoming waves of enemies to survive during the campaign, a welcomed change of pace.

While some will come to Gears 4 for its campaign and story, a vast majority will mostly likely return for its celebrated multiplayer, and it does not disappoint on its current-gen debut. Rankings and Re-Ups are present, ranging from bronze to diamond, as do dedicated servers and 60FPS, making for incredibly smooth gameplay. Now to be fair, I’ve only played a handful of matches given the small player pool before its release, but I didn't have a single issue.

Obviously there’s Matchmaking, but you can also setup private games as well if you simply want to play with some friends. LAN also makes a return, which I know some people will be ecstatic about, as does splitscreen play. And of course, crossplay is a huge bonus as well for playing with PC gamers. It should be noted that the crossplay doesn’t support versus matchmaking, for obvious keyboard and mouse versus controller issues, though at least you are able to crossplay in private matches should you desire to finally determine who actually is better among your friends on console or PC.

The new raking system is supposed to pair similar skilled players together in a better and fair manner, so a new player shouldn’t be matched up against someone who is much more experienced than you. Again, the player pool is so small as of the time of this writing that I’ve not been able to confirm how well this has been implemented, but that’s the theory behind the new rankings.

There are plenty of modes to play aside from the standard Team Deathmatch, some of which are a lot of fun and have their own twist. At launch there will be 10 maps, with the popular Gridlock being one of them, and while this may seem like a small number, The Coalition has promised new maps every month, both new and remastered ones. Now, before you sigh, thinking you’re going to have to purchase them, there’s great news: all DLC maps will be free for public play. They will rotate in and out of playlists, but they are purchasable if you’d like to own them for private and dedicated matches. Also, only the host will need to own the map, so it’s seems like a great trade off.

The reward system has changed quite drastically in Gears 4, as you now earn credits for all of your online games in Versus or Horde. These credits can then be used on Gear Packs in the store which unlock different items, XP boosts, bounties, horde skills, and even coveted weapon and character skins. Everything can be earned through gameplay itself, but you can disassemble duplicate cards and use them to craft new cards. It’s more involved than I was expecting, especially once you realize that cards are extremely important if you plan on delving into Horde mode, and will take a little time to war your head around.

Co-op Versus allows you to play with other players against bots, which is a great starting point to get the hang of the 60FPS multiplayer gameplay. Social Playlist is where you’ll head next when you’re confident in your skills to take on other players. There’s a handful of modes, of which I’ll just delve into the newer ones, as Team Deathmatch needs no real explanation. There is a Dodgeball, which may seem like an odd name, but its mechanic can make for some frantic gameplay. When you kill an enemy a teammate will respawn, so even though you might be the last one alive on your team, you always have a chance to turn it around by getting a teammate back into the game at any moment.

So far Arms Race is my favorite mode, as this is the Gears variant of “Gun Game”. Your team begins with a Boomshot and every 3 kills your weapon swaps, for the whole team, until you rotate through every single weapon in the game, each needing 3 kills. This mode is great for people wanting to learn the new weapons, as they do take some practice. My only complaint here is that your weapon automatically changes even if you’re charging up your Torque Bow or are in mid clip when shooting someone, which can ultimately lead to an unexpected death.

Escalation is Gears 4's attempt of getting rooted into eSports with this involved competitive mode. Escalation is a round based objective mode where there’s always 3 rings on the map at all times, one near each team's ‘home’ base and the third ring right in the middle of the map, equal distance from both teams. There are spawn flips aside from when rounds end, and you earn points for every second you hold the rings. Your team can try for a quick Domination victory by capturing all 3 rings at once if your gutsy enough. This is easier said than done though, as it takes time for the rings to neutralize and capture.

Everyone starts out with a default Lancer and Gnasher and there are no weapon pickups to begin the match, allowing for an equal start. If your team loses a round you’re granted a weapon that you can place on the battlefield in specific locations, but it can be obtained by either team during gameplay. So, while it may seem like placing a power weapon is a good idea, it could spell disaster if the other team gets it first or kills you and takes it. There’s actually a good amount of strategy that goes into placing the weapons, as you can use it to support your team, or simply block your opponents attempts.

Deaths in round 1 only last 10 seconds, but each subsequent round adds another 2 seconds, making an excruciating 20+ second respawn in the final rounds. Because of the chance of a domination victory, you better hope that your whole team doesn’t get killed simultaneously, or you could lose quite quickly in the later rounds. I can see this mode gaining a lot of traction and I’m excited to see some of the strategies that eSports pros will utilize in the future.

Lastly, Gears multiplayer wouldn’t be complete without the one mode that really put them on the map: Horde Mode. Dubbed Horde 3.0, it will initially feel familiar, but there’s a slew of new additions that easily make it the best version of Horde to date. Up to 5 players can play cooperatively against 50 waves of enemies, with each 10th wave being a boss battle of sorts. I don’t want to spoil some of the boss fights, but you better learn the intricacies of the mode before attempting Horde on the more challenging difficulties.

Not only are there new enemies to combat, but Horde now utilizes a class based system to encourage teamwork and revolves around a mobile fabricator ‘home base’ where you’ll spend earned money to build fortifications or weapons to help you survive. The fortifications that you build can be placed anywhere on the map and can also be moved whenever you desire, so you’re not stuck with a useless fence or turret if enemies are coming from another direction.

The fabricator acts as a pseudo home base, as defeated enemies will drop energy, and if brought back to the fabricator, it can be spent to build your fortifications. It’s indestructible, so there’s no need to guard it, but if it’s in a bad area, depositing your earned energy and spending it can be quite difficult. The fabricator can be used to build gates, turrets, decoys, weapon lockers, and more. Can’t find a specific power weapon to help you out? Spend the energy to build one! You can even revive downed teammates by returning their COG tags to the fabricator provided you have enough energy to do so. The only issue I foresee is when playing with random people that who want to cause havoc, as anyone can spend the earned credits or move the fabricator whenever they wish to anywhere on the map.

There are 5 classes for you to choose from in Horde mode and they can be individually leveled up, each of which is extremely useful in its own right. Finding a perfect balance of class makeup for your party will play a huge factor in how many waves you survive. The classes range from Scout, Soldier, Sniper, Heavy, and Engineer. Each of which has their own starting loadout and special abilities.

Soldiers are your basic damage dealers, and spawn with frag grenades. Scouts are your front-liners while Heavy’s deal massive damage and start with an explosive weapon. Snipers are self-explanatory and are meant to stay back and pick off enemies from afar. Engineers are meant to be responsible for fortifications as they’re the only one that can use the repair tool to prevent fortifications from being destroyed.

Even on the casual setting Horde was quite a challenge, and it will require a lot of teamwork and communication. Without it you’re going to have people wasting hard earned energy or not creating a cohesive group of varied classes. The card system comes into play and dictates what bonuses or skills you have going in, so learning how the card system works will only help you going forward, and will be essential when attempting Insane difficulty.

Gears wouldn’t be Gears without the ‘Seriously’ achievement. These achievements are for the most dedicated and hardcore Gears fan and usually entail putting an obscene amount of time into the game to earn. Seriously 4.0 is no different and will require you to learn almost all aspects of Gears 4. Here’s the rundown of what you’re going to master to earn this badge of honor which is no easy feat:

- Complete the Campaign on Insane Difficulty
- Get to Re-Up 10
- Earn all Ribbons at least once
- Earn a Rank Placement in each mode
- Get all 5 classes to Level 10
- Level any 5 Horde Skills to Level 5
- Complete all 10 ‘on-disc’ maps from Wave 1-50 (any difficulty)

I was enthralled with the Gears 4's campaign and enjoyed it from beginning to end. It’s full of mystery, character development, humor, and classic Gears gameplay. The memorable set pieces and vehicular sections are grand in scale and really stand out among the best moments of JD Fenix’s journey. Gears 4's color palette isn’t as drab and brown heavy as its predecessors, as it supports the new HDR lighting technology, which looks breathtaking (sadly I don’t have a TV that supports HDR) from what’s been shown.

While JD isn’t as rough as his dad, at least not yet, he is his father’s son, sharing some similar qualities, which makes him easy to accept as the series’ new protagonist. The new squad may not be as memorable or revered as Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole just yet, but they had a trilogy to build their characters, and Gears 4 is just the beginning of a new saga. I’m already anxiously waiting to see what’s in store for us fans in Gears 5. If you were nervous how the new studio was going to handle the Gears series, put those fears to rest, as The Coalition has delivered an experience that feels new yet familiar at the same time and worthy of the Gears of War title. Whether you’re coming for the campaign, competitive multiplayer, or Horde mode, Gears of War 4 has tremendous value and replayability and ushers in the new generation some change for the series.

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 Virginia

Normally once I see the credits roll after finishing a game I jump right into writing the review, as it’s fresh in my mind and I start to formulate what I want to convey. Virginia was a completely different experience gaming wise, and I actually needed to take a day or two to figure out what I had experienced, and how to explain it to you in such a way that it actually made sense.

Personally, I think part of what threw me off was that Virginia is more of an interactive movie experience than a traditional game. I don’t normally like to use the term “walking simulator”, as most people scoff at those types of games save for a few of the standouts, but that’s really the best description for its ‘gameplay’. It is a mystery tale that unfolds its layers in interesting ways, some that I’ve never experienced in a video game format before, mimicking filmography with its unique editing and storytelling.

Set in a first person view, Virginia tells a tale about protagonist Anne Tarver, a recent FBI graduate taking on her first case. It has a thriller tone and attempts to tell a story about a missing young boy that you need to investigate with your partner Maria. Now I don’t want to go into much more detail about the plot for a few reasons. The first being that Virginia is only 2 hours long. Yes, it’s very short, but that’s not necessarily a detriment, as its tale gets told in that amount of time, well... kind of.

Secondly, I have to be honest here and let you know that I’m still processing Virginia and trying to understand it. "But why?" you ask. Well, there’s zero dialogue in the game. None at all, so you only have subtle body language and facial cues to read when trying to understand what’s happening and why. This may sound like another detriment, but I honestly don’t think it would have been as impactful as it was if there was spoken or subtitled dialogue. I know, odd, but it seems to work here. You simply need to interpret people’s faces and actions to understand their thoughts and what they’re trying to get across.

It’s odd for such a narrative based story to be told with no dialogue or sounds aside from a brilliant soundtrack that tells almost as much as speaking would. Because of these choices I believe many people who will see the credits roll will all interpret the ending a little differently in their own way, which is brilliant. Akin to Fargo or True Detective, Virginia is an original experience full of drama and twists that you don’t see coming at all. It’s odd, and not a traditional ‘game’, but it’s a worthwhile narrative to experience.

As I mentioned above, Virginia is more of an interactive story than a traditional game. As for its gameplay, it’s simplistic, as you control Anne through a set of linear sequences, looking for items to interact with which will take you to the next scene. There are no no moral choices to be made or guns to fire, you’re simply going from point A to B while looking for objects to interact with that will let you progress. It’s basic at its core, but again, for some reason it simply seems to work in the setting. That’s not to say that you’re always walking down a corridor, as there are some small side areas to explore like other rooms while in a house, but it’s a very guided experience.

The game is odd in such that it is a mystery game, but it doesn’t have you solving any puzzles or piecing together any clues gameplay wise, as you’re simply along for the (short) ride, allowing you to attempt to figure out what events are unfolding before you and how they all piece together. What I initially found very jarring was how the scenes are edited from one to another. For example, I was walking down a hallway and I found a piece of paper that I was looking for and inspected it, next thing I know I’m in a car driving somewhere with my partner. There was no scene transition, no fade to black, nothing. This is how Virginia moves you from scene to scene, and it can be a little disorientating at first, especially when you are trying to figure out what’s going on without any dialogue.

Normally I wouldn’t dedicate a paragraph for achievements in a review, but they deserved to be mentioned here. There’s a handful of achievements, but there’s no point looking at the titles or descriptions, as neither will give you a clue of what needs to be done to earn it. Here’s a good example of the achievement and its description: Flea - Victories in space and time.

The vast majority of Xbox games tend to stick with achievement values that are multiples of 5, but since Virginia wants to be different in everything it does, that’s not the case here. Here’s a handful of the odd achievement values for you that you can unlock: 13, 23, 31, 32, 44, 49, and 68. The secret achievements are near impossible to attain without a walkthrough, and I’m not sure how some people even figured them out. Good luck to you achievement hunters out there, I know this will drive some of you crazy.

Virginia looks as if it’s dated, taken straight from some early 90’s CG, but the visuals feel stylized and purposeful rather than low budget. Vibrant coloring adds to the visuals too. The true standout to the whole presentation though is without a doubt the stunning soundtrack. I’m not normally much of an audio guy, but wow, Virginia’s soundtrack is something that needs to be experienced. Because of the lack of dialogue the audio is how you get the feeling and mood of the scene, and this is done to perfection with music.

Composed by Lyndon Holland, and performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, it is easily in my top 3 gaming soundtracks. It changes and responds to your actions and feels as though it’s telling you what the characters aren’t saying with words. Music becomes tense when you’re about to come across a shocking discovery and the mood can change almost instantly with a different tonality based on your actions. I can’t say enough great things about the soundtrack, as Virginia wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without it.

While some will scoff at Virginia for its ‘walking simulator’ mechanics and extremely short gameplay, there’s not a lot of games that have me thinking about the experience and wondering about it days after it’s complete. Sure, there are those gamers that will simply feel like it’s a 2 hour interactive cutscene, having you confused the whole way, but there should be those that see it as a unique experience as it is a journey surrounded in mystery, always having you guessing to what’s real or not, akin to a great episode of The X-Files. You’re not in control of anything in Virginia, and once you come to accept that, it’s a completely different experience. It’s not going to appeal to many, but for those of you that might understand it, you will find something truly unique that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Final Station, The

I had no idea what to expect when The Final Station arrived to review, as I initially assumed it was some sort of pseudo train-sim game given the few screenshots I saw. What I got though was something totally unexpected, unique, and contained impressive pixel artwork, though it does also have some flaws that seem more like oversights rather than massive design mistakes. So let’s get to it and see if it’s worth your time to reach the final station.

Setting place in a dystopian world, some cataclysmic event has happened, causing supplies to be scarce and society to break down. Sure, it’s a trope that we’ve seen a hundred times before, but it’s framed in an interesting way that places you as a train conductor, travelling from town to city, rescuing any survivors you can find while battling an unknown enemy.

There is a bit more to the story, but given that The Final Station only takes a handful of hours to complete, I really don’t want to give much else away in fear of spoiling its best parts. What I will say is that the narrative is only revealed if you take the time to explore and listen to peoples conversations and find papers laying about, but if you decide to not pay attention, you won’t have any context to why the world is the way it is and what has happened to everyone. Even though the storytelling is weak as a whole since the bulk of it is not mandatory, the ending was pretty powerful and iha still stuck with me, days later after completion.

Played as a 2D side scroller, you simply want to fulfill your job as a train engineer. Your character seems good hearted, as it’s as if he simply wants to do the right thing by helping anyone he can that he comes across during his travels. There are two main gameplay elements that you’ll participate in; exploration and travel. You need to explore seemingly deserted towns and areas to find supplies to help you continue your journey, then travel from station to station on your train, hopefully with other survivors that will reward you if you help them reach their destination. The general gameplay flow is train, explore, train, explore, and repeat until credits roll. It’s basic but the tension eventually builds, and once you get into the later stages and start piecing together what’s going on, it does become quite interesting.

You are forced to stop at each train station along the tracks due to special blockers being installed at each locale, ensuring you’re unable to leave until you find a special unlock code to undock your locomotive and continue on your journey. Sure it seems a little forced, but that’s how you’re guided to explore each town you stop at, unable to progress until you find said code. You’re going to want to explore as much as possible though anyways, looking for items to sell, resources like food and water, and of course, any other survivors.

The first few locations you stop at don’t seem too bad off, but soon you start to notice a military presence and a disturbing lack of other people. Taking the time to explore, reading computers and notes posted around, will start to give you a glimpse into what happened to everyone suddenly. Eventually you’ll come to towns that are seemingly completely deserted, but you’re still forced to search for the blocker unlock code to progress.

You’ll need to check every desk, closet, locker, and abandoned car to find food, health kits, ammunition, and more. Every item you find is useful, as it either has a monetary value which is used to purchase upgrades, ammo, and other items when you reach a major city, or the item can be used in crafting health packs or ammo for your travels. You’ll want to explore every area you can, as there are some hidden tunnels that will usually house survivors or an ammo cache, which will come in quite handy later on. Luckily there’s no escorting needed when you find a survivor, as they miraculously know how to get back to the train to wait for you to be done.

The other half of the main gameplay is when you’re travelling on your train from area to area. This isn’t a free ride, and you’ll need to work to keep your train on pace, repaired, and keeping an eye on injured survivors. If you manage to have a handful of survivors at a time, they’ll chat to one another, allowing you to get a further glimpse into the back story. Don’t stand around listening for too long though, as if you don’t keep up on repairs, your train will come to a halt until it’s fixed, which has disastrous consequences since you're constantly low on supplies.

Your train has three main areas for you to interact with, the first being the front of the train where you can craft items, check your map, and also communicate with other engineers. This is where you’ll use the items you've scavenged to craft more first aid kits and ammunition. You’re only able to craft on your train, so make sure you do as much as you can before you reach your destination.

The second area is where you’ll interact with numerous parts of the train that seem to be malfunctioning during every trip. There’s a handful of different devices that will malfunction or overheat, but you’ll only have to deal with one of them per train ride, seemingly randomized as far as I could tell. If you don’t take care of the overheating, the train comes to a stop, which puts the passenger’s health at risk, and will take you longer to reach your next destination. These minigames aren’t explained in any way, so you’ll need to be clever and figure them out quickly, but you’ll know you’ve done the right thing when levels start to cool and there’s a small checkmark, giving you a few moments to rest before having to do it again.

While dealing with the train issues, you also need to keep an eye on your passengers in the caboose. Standing beside them will show their continuously draining hunger and health meters, their profession, and how much money you’ll earn if they survive to their destination (usually a handful of stops). You have a dispensary of health and food, but it comes in very little supply, which is why exploring during the town levels is so crucial. In the beginning you’ll have enough food and medical supplies for a passenger or two, but what do you do when you have 5 or so at once and not enough to last to get to the next stop for everyone? Factor in you need to constantly be taking care of the train as well during these sections, and you can start to see the franticness that ensues each time.

So why do you need ammo and weapons if seemingly everyone is gone? Well, you’ll start to encounter black zombie-like creatures that will attack you on sight, so you need to either shoot or melee them until they go down. There’s only a handful of enemy types throughout the game, ranging from normal, small but quick, explosive, and armored types. Each have a slight variation of how to best defeat them, but once you’ve killed one and learn the best strategy, combat doesn’t become much challenge from that point onward.

At first you’ll have very little ammo, constantly barely scraping by with what you have, but eventually you’ll never run out, especially once you learn that melee attacks are the best way to conserving ammo. You’re able to be ‘cheap’ and attack from ladders and angles in which they can’t reach you, and once you learn these tricks, combat mostly becomes trivial and more of a nuisance.

While the enemies aren’t difficult on their own, you’re sometimes put against a pack of up to ten at once, which is where you’ll find yourself in trouble real quick if you aren’t smart on your strategy. Learning to headshot will save ammo, and shooting an explosive enemy saves you many more bullets as well. Some items can be picked up and thrown and should be used whenever available, as it’s an instant kill if used properly. Should you fall in battle, there’s a checkpoint system in place that’s very generous, usually only having you backtrack 5 to 10 seconds rather than repeating the whole level over again.

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Final Station in the first half, as the narrative isn’t told very well unless you take the time to read everything you come across. So some people may not ever truly figure out what’s going on or why. The bigger problem though is that the text font that was used is so incredibly small, that it’s very difficult to read easily, especially from afar on the couch. I’m sure the font was chosen to fit with the pixel art style, but it made reading every word a chore and sometimes guesswork. Another issue you’ll notice from the opening title screen is the odd decision to make the menu selections near impossible to distinguish what option you have selected or not. The menu is white, and your selection is an off-white, so it’s complete guesswork of what you’re choosing. A handful of times I almost lost my save file because I chose new game instead of continue, panicked, and reset the game to be sure. The issue continues while on the train as well, unable to determine your selection very easily, even more so during the crafting menu where is literally is a guess where the cursor is.

Lastly, the train sections themselves simply aren’t fun. While it only takes a few minutes to reach destinations, your time is spent running supplies to passengers, maintaining your train, and micromanaging everything. It really isn’t done well, or fun. Having to choose who to give your last med kit or food ration to seems like complete guesswork of whom to pick. Maintaining your train is trial and error since no instructions are ever explained. You can’t even stand beside the passengers for too long to read their dialogue since you need to bounce between train maintenance and supply rations which are off screen, not allowing you to see the dialogue boxes. The artwork is absolutely beautiful, and so is the music when there is some, but there’s very few instances where background music actually plays, leaving you with a mostly silent experience. I assume this is done on purpose to convey the atmosphere and mood, but it’s as if something is missing with no background music at all to piece it all together.

The Final Station is a unique and creative experience. While simple at its core and a mystery that unveils itself slowly, its gameplay mechanics are repetitive and dull. While not a bad game by any means, it simply starts to wear out its welcome when you have to deal with yet another train ride and a town to explore, all to find a piece of paper so you repeat the same experience again. I truly enjoyed the ending, which was a saving grace in my eyes, I just hope others will make it to the final station to experience it for themselves.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 King Oddball

Who knew that one day a game about flinging birds from a slingshot into buildings and pigs would become a massive success, spawning a near endless supply of other physics based puzzle games, all trying to capitalize on its success. While King Oddball does play differently, it utilizes some of the same concepts. The real question though is, does this one do enough differently to not fall into the Angry Birds clone stereotype, or will it be yet another physics puzzle game that gets forgotten? Let’s find out.

King Oddball won’t win any awards for its narrative, mainly because there really isn’t one included at all. You play as King Oddball, a giant floating head with an enormously long tongue that puts Gene Simmons to shame. You float in the sky, hurling rocks at your enemies, usually tanks, to try and destroy them all before you run out of boulders. That’s it. Honestly.

King Oddball is lucky, as the vast majority of his foes are simply stationary and don’t retaliate in any way. Apparently the military's idea of retaliation is hiding behind walls, under bridges, or in any flimsy buildings they can find. He has a single attack, and you only use a single button in the whole game, that’s how simplistic King Oddball can be. I say can because eventually levels will become quite challenging, as you’ve only a set number of boulders to hit every enemy.

Unlike having to aim and launch at the right time like other games, King Oddball will grab a boulder with his tongue then start to twist in place back and forth. Once you press the A button, that’s when he will release the rock, hurling it towards enemy tanks, choppers, and soldiers. Needless to say, the learning curve for the game is quite easy, but you will need to eventually master releasing the rock at just the right angle for it to bounce and hit multiple enemies at once.

Luckily for the King, if you manage to hit 3 enemies or more with a single rock, you’ll earn a bonus boulder, a tactic that is much needed in the latter stages with many enemies. As you progress, you’ll encounter different types of materials, all of which react differently when hit. Wood for example can be broken with a good hit, whereas stone walls can be broken, but take usually at least two hits to do so. You’ll also eventually encounter unbreakable objects, requiring you to think of an alternate way to lob your projectile at them since their hidden behind said wall.

The later stages become very difficult, as it seems as many stages only have one real solution to them. Eventually your throws need to be absolutely perfect or you will fail by running out of rocks. More often than not you’ll have one enemy left and one boulder to do so, only to miss by a slight bit, forcing you to replay the level once again. Most levels can be passed easily and with a single throw, but there are a handful that will have you stuck for quite some time, causing a lot of frustration.

At first you may think that King Oddball doesn’t offer much gameplay, as you can see how many stages are available on the world map, but you’d be wrong. There’s a large number of standard stages to complete, but you’ll also unlock a handful of separate bonus levels to challenge you as well. Some of these are interesting, having you lob grenades instead of rocks, something that I wish was incorporated into the main game itself rather than a bonus.

Unlike other physic puzzlers, King Oddball decides to do things a little bit differently; odd if you will (see what I did there?). Instead of having a 3 star rating on each stage then allowing you to replay them to earn a better rank, once a level is complete, that’s it, you can’t replay it. You’re also not ranked on how well you completed a level, based on how many rocks it took to do so aside from a message saying “great” or some variation of "good job". It’s an odd decision to design the game this way, as replaying levels is what gives games like this a lot of replayability. Granted, there’s a bonus section where you can replay some of the basic stages again, but it’s not the same as letting a friend try the same level once you finish it to see how they perform.

Instead of levels displayed in a linear form, there’s a world map that has you in a specific 4x4 grid, and once every stage in the grid is complete, you can then move onto the next grid of new levels until the whole map is unlocked. As for how it looks, it’s as if it’s been ripped right from a mobile game. Granted, a game like this doesn’t need anything special for visuals, but it stand out either. As for the audio, the music is decent at first, but it loops frequently and becomes very repetitive, so eventually you’re going to want to mute the audio, especially if you’re trying to complete all the levels or stuck on a specific one for quite some time.

While there are a large number of levels, many of them feel exactly the same. Very few stand out as memorable, as it’s usually slightly different enemy placement more than intriguing ‘puzzles’ that need to be solved. Something I kept asking myself while going through King Oddball was “Am I having fun?”, as if it wasn’t obvious, even to myself. My answer? Kind of. Maybe it’s simply because I never jumped aboard the Angry Birds train. Simply put, this would be fun on mobile, but as a console game, it’s not something you want to generally sit down and play for a few hours at a time, but instead, just a few quick minutes.

There’s a large number of levels and bonuses to play through, and if you were ever addicted to Angry Birds at some point, you’ll know exactly what to expect, even if at times it feels like you need more luck than skill. That being said, given its low price point, there is a decent amount of value contained within, even if the fun can be fleeting.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Hue

Because there’s a huge amount of platforming puzzle titles out there, these days it’s becoming incredibly difficult for a specific game in the genre to stand out. With titles like Limbo, Braid, or Ori and the Blind Forest, new games have a tough time not being tagged as a clone or as one that is simply trying too hard to be one of the better known puzzle games. Many games in the genre either fall into the mediocre bucket or simply get passed by because of how many there are, but every now and again something special does come long, like recently released game called Hue, a title that utilizes unique gameplay and offers many challenges with its puzzle groundwork.

Living in a completely grey and monochrome world, you control Hue whom is looking for his lost mother. She was a scholar studying colors, and is now trapped in a new type of world, filled with many vibrant colors; something Hue’s world has never experienced. Hue happens to stumble upon colors during the search for his mother, learning slowly how to control and change the world’s color around him on a whim.

As you progress you’ll find letters from your mother, giving you hints of what happened to her as you search for why she is missing. The writing is great, but the voice acting is absolutely phenomenal. Even though Hue’s mom is the only narration in the game and it comes in spurts, it’s done perfectly in a calming and soothing motherly-like tone that brings comfort. The clever writing, while short, provokes thought and brings emotion into the narrative. Kudos to developers Fiddlesticks for nailing this part of Hue perfectly.

Hue’s core mechanics are based on being able to control different colors of the world once they are unlocked, which allows you to interact with the world in very unique ways, making for some challenging puzzles. The artwork is seemingly hand drawn, adding a great personal touch to the overall experience. The art style, while simplistic, brings a certain calmness to the drab pre-colored world.

Hue needs to pass from room to room, and area to area, to get closer to solving the mystery of his lost mother, but of course there are objects blocking his path. The only way for him to progress further is use his newfound ability to control the spectrum of colors, allowing him to change the background color. Objects in Hue are a variety of colors, so you must match, or purposely mismatch, the colors to move forward. For example, say there’s a red block is blocking your way, having Hue change the background color to red will make that block completely disappear, allowing you to pass since it’s blended into the background. It’s an incredibly simplistic mechanic, but is utilized in very clever ways.

All that’s needed to change the colors of the world is a simple flick of the Right Stick to the color wheel, landing on your desired color. In the beginning it’s quite simple, as you only need to switch between a single color or two, but by the end of Hue’s journey you’ll have up to 8 different colors to choose from, making for some frantic color switching. Since objects of specific colors can be hidden within the same background, you’ll need to frequently shift colors to reveal them, though that means other colored objects might become hidden in the process.

Hue does a fantastic job of slowly easing you into its mechanics, teaching you the basics as you slowly move onto harder puzzles before adding another color into the mix. The learning curve is very smooth and I never truly became frustrated until the massive difficulty spike right near the end. Fiddlesticks has also done an amazing job at making sure no two puzzles ever feel too similar. Sure, at its core you’re simply moving boxes, but the process to do so is varied and never feels repetitive.

As you play, using the color wheel becomes second nature, and eventually you’ll get to the point of memorizing where every color on the wheel selector is without having to think twice. This makes the gameplay become even more fluid, and factor this in with the intended slow motion that occurs when choosing your color, Hue simply feels great to play. Sure, in the beginning you’ll come across a few puzzles that seem literally impossible, but once you figure out that room’s ‘trick’, you know better for the next time you come across a similar type of obstacle. The only real restriction when choosing your color is that you can’t be standing ‘inside’ another colored object, as it would kill you if you make it appear from being previously blended into the background.

Many levels are simply trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. If you think logically, or try to solve it backwards (starting at the end point thinking how to solve each prior step), Hue plays right into your strengths. While it’s easy to distinguish the main colors of yellow, red, blue, and green, it can become a little tricky to determine if you need the dark blue or the purple at times, especially during frantic sections. The same goes with yellow and orange, which are beside each other on the color wheel. If this is an ongoing issue, or if you’re color blind, there’s an option to show symbols on all similar colored items, allowing a more visual representation of each shade.

The majority of achievements are gained simply by progressing through the game and watching the credits, with the only elusive one being for collecting all of the secret hidden beakers. The map menu displays how many you’ve found in each ‘section’ of the game, and you can continue playing after the credits roll, allowing completionists to continue on Hue’s journey a little longer.

As I said earlier, it takes a lot for a game in this genre to stand out among the vast selection of other games. Hue takes an incredibly simple premise and turns it into a unique, fun, and challenging game that I’m still thinking of days later. To be completely honest, Hue wasn’t on my radar at all, but I’m incredibly grateful it fell into my lap by chance, as I’m glad I got to experience it from beginning to finish. Hue easily stands out amongst the crowd, not just because of its interesting art style or its fun game mechanics, but because it’s a really creative game that tries, and succeeds, to not imitate other games, as it leaves you satisfied yet wanting more.

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Valley

Better known for the studio that brought gamers Slender: The Arrival, Blue Isle Studios has released their newest title on Xbox One, Valley. While it’s a somewhat short game, clocking in at just around 4 hours, Valley can be beautiful when at its best. While it may be short in length, there are times that it makes this up in beauty and fluidity, but only in small sections when perfect conditions and mechanics are in play. During the rest of the journey though it can be somewhat dull for reasons that I’ll delve into shortly.

Your journey begins with your character exploring a cave in the Canadian Rockies after crashing in a canoe. You emerge into another world that’s seemingly been long forgotten. Beauty is the first word that comes to mind, as you are surrounded by lush vegetation and trees, wildlife, and sunrays that envelop the whole land. You stumble across a crate that contains a metal exoskeleton titled the L.E.A.F. suit (Leap Effortlessly through Air Functionality). From this point on you can run at incredible speeds (at least downhill) and jump across chasms effortlessly. The L.E.A.F. suit also empowers you to manipulate life and death, introduced in a 50’s style projector movie, reminiscent of something you’d see in Bioshock.

As the story unfolds, you’re in search of the Lifeseed, a mysterious power source that is capable of unfathomable power. Interestingly, aside from some wildlife, the whole valley seems devoid of any sentient life, which is beautiful in some ways, but when you find scattered notes littered throughout the land, you come to understand there were people here before. But why are they gone and where did they go? That’s up to you to solve during your travels.

Given that the whole narrative is told through audio logs and notes, it’s hard to become invested into the characters and reasoning since you don’t ever interact with anyone directly. While the narrative isn’t told very well, since much of the lore won’t even be found unless you’re trying to actively seek it all, it is an intriguing story once you start to piece together the events of what previously happened, and why no one is left.

Once you dawn the L.E.A.F. suit your real journey begins, as you’re taught to constantly run, rarely slowing down from that point onward. You begin by running down a path, gaining speed as you go, before leaping across a cliff. Eventually you'll get the hang of the controls, allowing you to run between trees and other objects at a quick pace, which feels great when you’re at top speed. For how beautiful the world is, it feels as though you never get a chance to appreciate it since you’re constantly moving forward at a quick speed. You’ll learn new abilities as you progress, but movement and fluidity is a constant for the majority of Valley’s experience.

There are times where it’s as if some of the layout wasn’t planned ahead of time, and when you attempt to take corners quickly at top speed it simply doesn’t work as you’ll almost always hit something or slow down much more than intended. It’s as if you’re unable to keep up with your own momentum at times and there are even a handful of giant leaps you must take only to find yourself land awkwardly into a tree or hitting a rock, as if it was placed in the middle of your path on purpose. While you can slightly adjust your movement in mid-air, only to a small degree, there will be times where you’ll attempt to avoid landing in front of an object but you're unable to.

While the first bit of the game takes place in the beautiful outdoors with sprawling vistas, there’s a good chunk of the game that forces you indoors, hampering much of your quick movement. In these bunkers you’ll be traversing through vents and small walkways, but you generally never get the speed that you’ve become accustomed to up to this point. It is here that Valley loses a lot of its charm in these claustrophobic stages and tends to feel like a completely different, and dull, game.

There is one saving grace in these areas though, and it is a couple of sections where you get to run at an even faster than normal speed on some on-rail like areas. These sections, while far too few, are incredibly fun and exciting as you run at crazy speeds, having to jump across massive gaps off of broken bridges. Sadly, there’s only two of these sections in the whole game, arguably the coolest moments in all of Valley, and they left me wanting more.

Eventually you'll upgrade your L.E.A.F. suit allowing you to use a grapple hook on specific points, which opens up your momentum and fluidity in specific areas. While these hooks can be fun when used properly, and it feels almost like you’re Spider-Man swinging around, you need to make sure you let go at the right moment or you’ll lose all your momentum and fall. Near the later sections of the game you’ll also gain the ability to walk along metallic surfaces, which will have you walking sideways, or completely upside down, at times.

Your L.E.A.F. suit needs energy though, as that is what’s used to do almost everything from shooting, double jumps, grapple hooks, and more. You refill energy by collecting blue orbs scattered throughout the land, and there’s almost always enough nearby that you’ll ever be completely out of energy. While it’s interesting that you have the power to give or take life, it never feels fully realized, as you only really use it to power up devices, or to give/take life from trees or wildlife. Sure bringing a dead tree or fallen deer back to life is heartwarming the first few times, but after that there’s little reason to do so, unless you always want your suits energy to be full.

What’s really interesting about the energy of your L.E.A.F. suit though is that it’s all tied to your abilities and health, as well as to the “life” of the valley. Instead of having a set number of lives for when you fall into water (which “kills” you since the suit is so heavy) or a pit, you and the valley are tied together in some way (this is explained later in the game).

If you happen to die the valley brings you back to life, but at the expense of its own health, represented by a branch with leaves in the upper left corner near your own energy. Die too many times in a row and the valley will die, then it’s truly game over, but don’t concern yourself with this, as I was able to complete Valley without ever coming close to the valley fading away. This is because to refill the valley's health you simply have to give life back to dead trees, animals, and other objects, and since there’s always more than enough energy orbs around at all times, this is very easy to do.

The only issue I had with the energy sharing mechanic is that if you are using a lot of your energy to shoot the enemies you encounter, you’re also depleting your own life bar at the same time. For some reason dying tended to take random amounts of the valley’s life away whenever I did die, instead of a same preset amount every time. I don’t know if this is intended, or a bug, but it seemed that the amount of life the valley would lose whenever I drowned or fell to my death was not consistent.

Combat is present in Valley, and at first it’s simply against some glowing bee-like swarms that shoot at you, but eventually you’ll also face some ghost-like creatures, and that’s it; only two enemy types in the game, neither of which are challenging, and only take 2 or 3 shots to defeat. The combat sections are weak, and while many of them can be avoided by simply running past them it feels almost as an unnecessary addition. Strafing out of the way and returning fire is all it takes to defeat any enemy, and their slow projectiles are simple to avoid. Save for a boss fight near the end, there’s absolutely no variety to combat, and if you shoot them before they notice you you can easily defeat all enemies without them even reacting.

There are some secrets and collectibles to find throughout the game world, and doing so will net you some extra upgrades. There are certain doors that take a set number of acorns to open (yes, acorns), so while you’re supposed to always be running forward there are rewards for those that want to explore as well. There are even special medallions that can be found, but you won’t know what they are for until the near end of the game. While some might simply write Valley off as a walking (well, running) simulator, there’s some great beauty to be had, especially some of the overlooking landscapes where you can see the Northern Lights above. Running and jumping at full speed, or utilizing the hook properly, feels absolutely great, but for every few moment of fun you have, there’s another that either slows you down or forces you to traverse indoors instead.

For a game that centers on life and death, it’s odd that there’s virtually no life within its world that you actually care about. Because of this it’s hard to become truly invested in it, and the constant ‘stop and go’ doesn’t help when you’re trying to keep momentum and fluidity constant. While there are some reasons for some to play through more than once, and find all of the secrets, I found that I was content after seeing the credits roll. Regardless of all its shortcomings though, I’m glad I experienced Valley and got to explore its intriguing world. Even though the game hits a few bumps along the adventure, the final few sections of the game, save for the combat, are very much worth experiencing. At the end of the day you'll become accepting of its' shortcomings and realize that there is a decent game in this indie title.


Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Binaries

I was raised to not be a quitter. Sure this was more directed as life advice than my gaming career, but I try and follow that motto when playing games as well. Well, sorry mom, I quit. While most people would use Dark Souls or a specific shmup game to be a benchmark for challenging games, those people clearly haven’t had a chance to play Binaries yet. Binaries lures you into a false sense of security with its retro inspired visuals and basic looking gameplay. Man, I was so wrong. Simple in design, basic controls, but brutally difficult. I had Binaries pegged wrong all this time.

The core premise of Binaries is that you control two sprites at the exact same time, blue and orange, and you need to get them to their respective colored goal areas. That’s it. In the beginning it seems almost too simplistic, as both sprites are locked to the same movements at the same time; so when you move right, both move right, and when you jump, they both jump, and so on. Your basic introduction is simply there to lure you into a false sense of security, as things become much more difficult very quickly.

Some levels are basic, others you’ll finish by sheer luck, but most though, will have you resisting every urge you have to throw your controller right out the window. You will learn to hate spikes, as those can kill you if touched, forcing you to reset the level (automatically). Luckily there’s zero time for reloads, and levels are only supposed to last around 10 to 30 seconds, if you’re going by the benchmark times for ranks. Eventually you’ll have other objects to avoid, like turret fire, and other nasty tricks that you’ll start to call mean names to.

What I wish Binaries did better was increase the difficulty gradually and slowly, but there’s a certain point where it just skyrockets in its challenge, leaving you frustrated and confused about how to even tackle the level properly. Luckily progress isn’t a linear experience, as the world map shows every level as its own dot on the map, touching other dots. When you complete a level, any other dots (levels) that are physically connected open up to be played. So this allows you to play any unlocked levels in any order. Sometimes you’ll breeze through a seemingly harder challenge, while the ‘simpler’ ones will have you pulling your hair out. This was a smart idea by the devs, as if I was forced to complete levels in order without being able to progress, I would have given up long ago.

To get your two orbs to their respective finish lines sounds easy, yet it’s anything but. Some levels are one big open area, while others tie each orb to their own ‘track’. While there is a time limit for each level, it’s simply for bragging rights (and achievements), and as long as you make it to the goal, regardless of your time, you unlock any adjacent levels on the world map. Eventually levels also include 5 second time bonuses, when if collected, will reduce your overall time for that attempt. They aren’t necessary, but for those that love time attacks, you have your work cut out for you.

Easily the best part about Binaries though is its humor. The background of each level has messages that pop up from the devs, sometimes with a funny joke (or terrible pun), or simply making fun of themselves, like how a developer was fired for making a specific level too hard. Normally when I become frustrated with difficult games, I found myself not wanting to go back for more, but Binaries is somehow different. Even though I want to destroy my controller at times, I still want to try new levels, even after the hundredth time.

While visually Binaries looks terribly simple, it’s appealing to the eye, and the smooth and precise gameplay helps with that. As for the audio, it’s a good fit, and I noticed there’s even some relaxing ambient music, possibly in attempt to try and relax the player from maximum frustration.

I know when I’m defeated, and Binaries defeated me pretty bad. For those puzzle fanatics that are able to complete every level, not even including S ranks, my hats off to you. Puzzle games are supposed to challenge, and Binaries took that to heart, and possibly even a bit too far at times. It’s not an easy game by any means, but it’s well deserving of its price point.

Binaries contains an incredible challenge, complete with a massive learning curve, continuously increasing difficulty, and simplistic gameplay. If you want to know how many swear words you truly know, sit down with Binaries for a few hours, and you might even surprise yourself with some of the profanities that come out of your mouth. Oh, and also stock up on spare controllers, you’re going to need them if you want to get through all of the challenges.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Nightmares from the Deep 2: The Siren's Call

Artifex Mundi is arguably the best current developer of hidden object games (HOG’s) on consoles today. Sure, there aren’t many developers these days that dabble in the genre, especially on console, but Artifex Mundi have seemed to find their stride and are bringing their engaging and fun titles from PC and mobile to the Xbox One, with success. It wasn’t until I got to review their last title on Xbox One, Grim Legends, that I realized I really enjoyed the genre for its laid back gameplay, allowing me to relax, solve some puzzles, and enjoy its beautiful artwork.

While some might scoff at playing point and click adventures like this, if you’ve played any of their titles before, you know exactly what’s in store for you with Nightmares from the Deep 2: The Siren’s Call. Sometimes you simply want to take a break from shooters and action games, and for times like those, The Siren’s Call is a great title to relax with and solve some puzzles.

The Siren’s Call is obviously a sequel, and while I’ve not played the original title, there’s a very brief attempt of catching you up on what’s happened so far. Given that titles like these aren’t generally story intensive, it’s appreciated that there’s at least an attempt to include an intriguing narrative, even if it sometimes falls flat in some parts. You play as the returning protagonist, Sarah Black, who works at a museum and receives a mysterious package one night from a shadowy figure. As you solve the puzzle of opening the package and obtain the artifact within, you’re instantly assaulted and robbed.

Thinking her crazy adventures were behind her, she's thrust into a new adventure in the town of Kingsmouth, whose population is filled with fishmen. You must retrieve the artifact and save a siren to prevent the evil mayor from summoning the Kraken to do his bidding. It’s a little out there for its' story, but fitting for the whole Davy Jones mythology. While the voice acting isn’t perfect by any means, it’s at least passable. Sure the story is cliché and predictable at times, but in a game like this, the story is simply there to string you along from puzzle to puzzle.

You begin by first choosing between Normal or Expert mode, with the main difference being that normal allows you to use hints after a certain amount of time and your map shows you where you have to go next. On expert you get none of these assists. The first handful of puzzles start off quite easy, easing you into the gameplay and teaching you the basics you’ll need to continue your adventure.

Most of the puzzles are either a HOG, tasking you with finding a shopping list of items in a messy area, or having you use and combine items in your inventory to solve other logical puzzles. The bigger puzzles are generally some sort of tile moving or rotating gears type, nothing too difficult that I ever became frustrated or stuck, but varied enough to keep things from becoming stale. Most scenes you come across will require you to inspect items, only to find out that you don’t have the pieces you need to progress before solving puzzles in a different area.

If HOG’s aren’t your thing, you can alternatively play a quick game of mahjong instead. Why mahjong I’m not sure, but at least there’s an option for those that would rather not sort through messy items. There’s even an achievement for playing all the mahjong games rather than HOG’s, so two playthroughs are required for those achievement hunting.

You eventually gain access to a map, not only for showing you how the scenes are connected and allowing you to fast travel to and from any scene, but it also gives you a hint of where you have left an unsolved puzzle (on normal mode) to prevent becoming too lost. While The Siren’s Call is easily completed in a single sitting if you’re a puzzle aficionado, especially if you’re relying on the built in hint system, it’s still a fun experience to be had. There’s an epilogue included as well that’s playable once you complete the main game. While it’s a very short addition and nowhere near as challenging as the main game, it’s still a welcome addition that adds another hour or so to the experience.

The art style that Artifex Mundi uses for their games is absolutely beautiful. While the voice acting and animation could use some work, the visuals alone is quite impressive with its' colorful and vibrant style, making for a charming experience. Every scene feels as though it’s been hand painted and fits the overall tone of the game and backdrop. While the music itself isn’t as prominent and featured as the visuals, it’s subtle and adds to the overall mood of the scenery.

Loading times are minimal when moving from scene to scene, and I never had to struggle with the controls clicking the wrong items in the HOG’s. Given that the reticule is quite large, it’s accurate for the most part, when trying to choose a specific item. Thankfully the framerate issues I encountered in Grim Legends seems to have been fixed and is none existent in The Siren’s Call, so good on Artifex Mundi for solving that nagging issue with their previous titles.

Sure, the game is only a handful of hours long (or much longer if you’re not great at puzzles), and the story is basic, but the gameplay though is fun and never becomes frustrating to the point of wanting to give up. If you’ve played any other games in the genre before you know exactly what you’re getting into, but even if you haven’t, or you don’t think it’ll be your thing, still give it a go. You might be surprised like I was and find yourself really enjoying the genre.

The Siren’s Call, and the whole Artifex Mundi catalogue as a whole, is a great ‘filler’ when you need a break from shooting enemies, squealing tires, or the cheeer of the crowd in any sports game, as it can easily be played in short bursts. My wife, who isn’t even much of a gamer, really enjoys helping me in the HOG’s, and I’m hoping that Nightmares from the Deep 3 comes to Xbox One soon so I can finish the trilogy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bunch of items to click and a game of mahjong to complete.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Worms WMD

I can’t believe I’ve been playing worms for over 20 years. I still remember the day I went to a friend’s house and saw him playing this odd game on PC with worms shooting each other. From that moment on I've been hooked. Even though I’ve been a massive fan of Worms, and their developer, Team 17, for over two decades, I’m not blind to the fact that some of the last releases have really been hit or miss in terms of quality and lasting power.

Many fans feel the series peaked way back in 99’ with Worms Armageddon, myself included, so the question for super fans is if Worms W.M.D. can be just as good, or better, than Armageddon. Well I’m happy to announce that W.M.D, while not drastically better than Armageddon, is easily at least on par, which is saying a lot given there’s been a dozen releases between then and now. Team 17 has done just enough to refine and add to the tried and true gameplay to make for a modern-yet-familiar gameplay for fans. There’s so much here that feels like Worms, yet I’m still learning a ton of new intricacies even after a couple dozen hours of gameplay.

While the core gameplay hasn’t changed drastically after twenty years, as you’re still commanding your team of worms against the opposing team with over the top weaponry and cartoonish graphics, it finally feels as though Team 17 has gotten back to what made Worms so great, making you want to play ‘just one more game’ after each one. There’s something for everyone here; single player, challenges, multiplayer, and a whole slew of new mechanics to learn and strategize with.

Even though I’m a Worms aficionado, I still always play through the single player campaign missions before taking my skills online. Normally these are pretty dull as you face an A.I. team, or teams, of worms of increasing difficulty, simply adding more worms to increase challenge. I honestly expected the same with W.M.D. but I’m more than happy to report that the campaign has been completely reworked and is actually engaging and really fun.

Comprising of 30 missions, each one has a main objective that needs to be met to get a passing mark. Each mission also has a handful of secondary objectives to challenge your skills. Some of the primary objectives may consist of defeating the enemy worms, defending a specific worm, collecting a crate, or other special goals. This adds some variety to the typical ‘kill all worms’ gameplay that the series is known for.

Secondary objectives are completely optional, but offer some new challenges and replayability, even for series veterans like myself. Sometimes these are simple and you may even complete them naturally, but others will have you approaching levels slightly different. Some of these might consist of your worm ending the round with more than the starting amount of health, or having your whole team finishing inside a building (more on this exciting addition shortly), or using a specific weapon to get the final kill. There are even hidden posters that can be found to unlock up to ten special challenges.

This new campaign setup is much more bite-sized, but the variety makes it become less dull since the primary objectives switch often. You earn XP for completing these objectives, unlocking new cosmetic items and sound packs, so there’s some reward in spending the time to do so. Team 17 has done a great job at changing up the formula and making it a mode that I actually wanted to sink time into and complete.

For those that have somehow missed playing a Worms game in the past two decades, it’s essentially a turn based strategy game where you’re tasked with defeating the opposing team(s) of Worms. You’re given an arsenal of weaponry that ranges from standard bazookas and shotguns to completely off the wall armaments such as banana bombs and concrete donkeys. There’s a surprising amount of strategy that goes into a match of Worms, and with all of the new additions, even more so with W.M.D.’s release. Thankfully the class based worms have been nixed from W.M.D., so expect a much more classic gameplay overall.

One thing I’ve noticed about Worms games when playing single player is that the A.I. is completely random. Sometimes they are as dumb as a bag of rocks and will shoot their teammate, while other times they seem to have prayed to their deity and make humanly impossible shots with pinpoint accuracy. This randomness seems to live on in W.M.D., as some matches the enemies will be a pushover, and other times they’ll make a shot that you wouldn’t be able to do if you tried a million times in a row. Given that Worms is primarily a multiplayer focused adventure, it’s not a deal breaker, but something to keep in mind when going through the 30 campaign missions or against bots.

There are a handful of weapons that are so iconic to the Worms series that even to this day when I see a banana, the banana bomb instantly comes to mind. Not that I have, but if I ever see a donkey statue in real life, I know Worms will come to mind. Many of the favorites and staples return, such as the bazooka, uzi, shotgun, super sheep, air strikes, holy hand grenade, concrete donkey, and many more. There are even a handful of new weapons that, while maybe not as iconic yet, they certainly fit in the silliness of the Worms warfare. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, as figuring out what’s new and how they work is half the fun, but I’ll just say that the phone battery is now a regular in my armament.

There are now also mounted weapons that can be used if you make your way to them. Placed randomly in the battlefield, you may come across a mounted sniper, machine gun, mortar, and others. Obviously their placement will determine your strategy to use them or not, but man, they can make a huge difference in a match if utilized properly, giving you a massive advantage.

As for utilities, Worms wouldn’t be the same without the staple jet pack and ninja rope to traverse around the map. For vets like myself, it’s been a rough time ever since the rope changes from Armageddon, as it’s never felt as good since then. It seems Team 17 has taken this to heart, and while it’s not as perfect as it was back in 99’, the ninja rope is once again an easy to use yet hard to master utility that can make a world of difference in your gameplay if learned how to be used properly. As a side note, learn to use the rope effectively so you can also destroy many worms with the new sheep on a rope weapon as well.

So what else has Team 17 done to make Worms fresh and relevant again? Vehicles. It’s crazy to think these haven’t been a part of the series until now considering how awesome they are. You can find scattered throughout the level (should your settings allow it) tanks, helicopters, and mechs. Yes, mechs. The first worm to get inside of it can use it, and while it can be game changing, it can also be hijacked by the opposing team on their turn and used against you as well.

While vehicles can deal a massive amount of damage, they do take some getting used to, and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve accidentally shot my own team with some poor helicopter flying skills. Just be aware that while you’re in a vehicle you do gain some extra protection, but if it blows up with you inside you’ll take that extra damage as well. The vehicles feel overpowered at first, but require quite a lot of strategy to use them effectively, especially since you can be ejected from them during an opponents turn.

Another new addition, and quite a game changer, is the ability to craft weapons. Not simply another bazooka or grenade, but variants of almost every weapon in the game. What if your bunker buster simply won’t cut it? Why not craft a mega buster that explodes with the power of a holy hand grenade. Heck, why not craft a holy hand mine instead? There’s a huge list of weaponry that can be crafted, each of which has a specific time and place to be used and opens the door for even more strategy involved.

You need a specific amount of resources to craft items, some of which can be found in crates, or you can deconstruct items you don’t plan on using as well. You break down these items into scrap which can then be used to create unique and even more enjoyable weapons to defeat your enemies. It takes a turn to craft a weapon, but you can even craft during an opponent’s turn, which is a huge addition and can easily turn the tide of battle if thought out correctly ahead of time. This mechanic absolutely needs to stay in any following Worms releases, as I found myself using it much more than I expected to.

The other big addition to the weathered gameplay is buildings. Now there are certain buildings that can be entered and hidden in. When in a building the opposing team can’t see exactly where you are inside, unless it’s been blown up or you’re in one of the few visible spots, like a window. This allows you to hide without having to rely on the standard digging that we’ve done for years, or even set traps for unsuspecting enemies. While it’s not as big of an addition as crafting, it’s big enough to warrant some new strategies.

W.M.D. has taken Worms back to its 2D hand drawn visual style, as opposed to the awkward 3D models on a 2D plane that occurred in the past few games. This results in a gorgeous style, full of color and charm. The new hand drawn look makes it feel fresh and new and arguably one of the best looking Worms game yet.

There was only one huge downfall in my time with W.M.D., and that’s the lack of a map editor. There’s options to change the style and type of landscape, but there’s no ‘paint brush’, so to speak, that previous Worms games have included. This may seems small to some, but for those of us who like to create our own maps for specific game modes, like rope racing (which is sadly missing), and while it may not be a deal breaker, it’s sadly a big miss. I’m hoping that this might get included in a future update, as it would really make W.M.D. a standout in the series.

To be completely honest, I’m willing to overlook the lack of a map editor (for now) simply because of the amount of other new mechanics that have been added. Crafting alone is enough to learn and strategize, and I really hope it’s a standard feature moving forward. Playing online with a friend resulted in many laughs, which is what Worms is all about. While it may not exceed the greatness of Armageddon in some respects, Worms is definitely back, and W.M.D. shouldn’t be passed over if you want an enjoyable night of gaming chucking a bunch of banana bombs and a slew of other new crazy weapons at a friend.

Suggestions: A map editor is a must.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Overcooked

I’m not a great cook in the kitchen. Sure, I can do the basics, and I make a mean plate of pirogi, but aside from that I leave the cooking to my wife in our house, as she enjoys it and excels at it. Well, thanks to Overcooked from Ghost Town Games, I can now boast that I’m a better cook than her; well at least on the Xbox One in this specific instance. Developed by a team of two, Overcooked is charming and silly, making for a unique experience that should be shared with friends on the couch.

Overcooked has a completely silly and over the top story centering around a massive spaghetti monster that is demanding to be fed. Unfortunately you’re not a skilled cook and you fail to appease its appetite, luckily though the Onion King arrives to save you by sending you back in time so that you can learn the culinary skills needed to succeed the next time you catch up in time and face off against the beast again. Going back in time and gaining the these skills is the only way you’ll learn to create delicious dishes, manage the kitchen, and get the orders of food out on time. It’s completely goofy, never takes itself seriously, and the art style is fitting for such a humorous tale.

Overcooked is a co-op game that turned out to be much more fun than I was expecting. It’s up to you and a friend (or up to 4 players) to run your kitchen properly, smoothly, and without it catching on fire. The first few stages start off slow and easy, but eventually the levels become incredibly chaotic and frantic, throwing unique challenges at you on practically every level.

Levels start off basic, tasking you with simply making soup. You complete this by grabbing the ingredient from the corresponding box, chopping it, then placing it in the pot to cook, though that’s all before plating and delivering it of course. Eventually you’ll have stages where your tables move, you're separated by food trucks barreling down the highway, rats that steal food left out on the counter, earthquakes that can separate your cooks, and even rotating platforms in space. Almost every level feels unique and offers a distinct challenge, which is great for variety, but it can make it difficult to master.

Gameplay is simple, but the challenges you face make Overcooked incredibly challenging at times. Orders that need to be cooked appear in the top left corner, which show the required ingredients. Certain items need to be chopped, cooked, or deep fried, so there’s lots of chaos that takes place since you need to do a handful of steps before plating and serving. The quicker you cook the better your tips, and subsequently your final star rating. Completely fail to cook an order before its timer runs out and you’ll actually lose tips, so gaining perfect scores requires precision, cooperation, and speed.

As you complete levels and gain completion stars, more levels will unlock until you reach a point where you need to go back and replay older levels because you don’t have enough stars to play the next locked stage. This 'gating' can be a little frustrating, especially if you’re playing alone, but if you have a friend to cook with then there shouldn’t many issues where you become stuck at a certain point.

Controls work well for the most part, with the d-pad controlling your cook, the A button used to pick up and put down items, and the X button used for interacting. If you’re playing alone, the shoulder buttons will swap between cooks allowing you to multitask; something that is vital. Even though the controls work well, the angled viewpoint makes it sometimes tricky to see what exact item is on a given area due to the low camera angle and the wall slightly blocking the view.

Overcooked is an adorable looking title with a cute kid-like style to it. My toddler even asked if we could get “those toys” after playing, thinking that the characters and food were also toys in a store. The cartoony style fits the humor, as the ingredients are as big as your head and dashing around in the kitchen is adorable with a handful of different looking unlockable cooks.

While Overcooked can be played alone, something that I did for the majority of my gameplay, the real charm shines through once you have someone to play locally with you on the same couch. Sadly there’s no online multiplayer, so you’re going to have to do it the old fashioned way. Playing alone means you need to constantly switch from chef to chef, juggling tasks on your own, though it never really feels fun as you’re constantly falling behind on orders and can't multitask easily. There is an option to ‘split’ your controller, allowing you to play both cooks at once, but it’s incredibly challenging to do and would take a lot of dedication to become proficient at.

You’ll want to play with friends, as even one more player makes a complete world of difference. To be completely honest, playing by myself for a few hours wasn’t all that entertaining, but I finally convinced my wife to give it a shot with me, and for someone that generally isn’t proficient in using a controller, she managed to catch on quickly after a level or two. Before we knew it we were running a kitchen together, delegating tasks to one another and working on the incoming orders.

Playing with friends means that each person (up to 4) can split up the responsibilities. So one person can be accountable for either one side of the kitchen or specific tasks like chopping, cooking, plating, washing dishes, or simply moving your ingredients to designated places. The more players you have the better your kitchen should run, but that’s a big ‘should’.

In theory, the more players you have the smoother things should be going, but in reality, you’re going to be bumping into each other, grabbing each other’s items, and participating in other shenanigans that will no doubt bring some laughs and shouts. Communication is absolutely required and needs to be on point if you want those perfect three star ratings, so you better play with some friends that can take orders without question.

Overcooked at times can be frustrating, especially when playing alone, but when playing with at least one friend, it becomes a hilarious title that you’ll no doubt make you laugh and curse at one another, depending on how your orders are being filled and whose fault it was that the tomato soup burned this time. It’s fast paced and the countdown timer adds to the crazy pace that needs to be adhered if you want to succeed. You only get tips once your meals have been served, so you need to keep an eye on your time and learn how long specific tasks take so you can figure out the best way to multitask.

Once I played the multiplayer mode, Overcooked truly surprised me. This can easily be one of the main multiplayer games any gamer will pull out when they have friends over, as it’s very simple to learn and will have everyone laughing when barking orders at one another. It’s got a unique concept, great gameplay, and almost anyone can enjoy its simple premise. If you don’t have anyone to play with though it’s going to be a frustrating and dull experience, but if you can get even a single person to play with you, Overcooked will have you coming back for one more order.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Solar Shifter EX

Bullet hell games, more commonly referred to as shmups (shoot em’ ups), tend to have a unique characteristic or mechanic to make each one stand out against the other games in the genre. These types of games, and their gameplay, are generally known to throw as many bullets at you as possible, requiring the highest of reflexes and nimbleness to survive. Solar Shifter EX, a game recently released on the Xbox One, may not reinvent the genre, but it does possess a unique gameplay mechanic that I’ve not seen in a shmup before. That being said, I’m just not sure if that’s enough to make it worthwhile. Like many smaller indie games coming to Xbox One, Solar Shifter EX was released on PC last year and it has now made its way to Microsoft's console, so if it looks familiar, that’s most likely why.

While shmups generally aren’t known for their in-depth or intriguing storylines, Solar Shifter EX does include a narrative, but it’s nothing we’ve haven't seen a hundred times before. The story revolves around an alien invasion and mankind needs to fight back or face extinction. While cliché, and not overly original, at least some effort was put into having some basis behind your actions. The story is not told very well though as the game lacks cutscenes and there isn't any decent voice acting. Get used to the fact that you’re coming for the bullet hell, and that aspect is definitely present, so just leave it at that and ignore the paper thin plotline as it doesn't do anything to be anymore interesting than what it is.

Like most shmups, you pilot a spaceship that can only sustain a certain amount of damage before being destroyed. A good shmup needs two key mechanics to work in sync in order for the game to be successful: precision controls and an accurate hitbox.

Controls need to be spot on since you’re dealing with hundreds of bullets on the screen at once, and if you can’t avoid them 'fairly' then the gameplay suffers. The hitbox for your ship also needs to be accurate and logical, allowing you to only get hit when you ‘should’, and if that is not the case, then that’s another big issue that’s a huge detriment. Solar Shifter EX is an odd case, because while it has decent controls, the camera completely messes up any effort that’s gone into making them accurate. The hitbox for your ship seems to suffer in the accuracy area as well, and I can’t tell if it’s because of the shifting camera or some other underlying issue; but more on that shortly.

Like any bullet hell game you will be punished for not being skillful enough. Sometimes you need to start from the beginning while other times you'll find that you can continue from certain checkpoints. Luckily Solar Shifter EX employs the checkpoint system and allows you to respawn not too far back, but get used to long loading times as the level seems to be completely reloaded every time you die. Considering that you’ll be dying quite often it becomes frustrating to wait so frequently, sometimes more than the gameplay.

What I found very odd was that there was no bomb system or super weapon to use when you’re stuck in a tight situation, which is unlike what most games in the genre utilize. There’s also no upgrade system in place aside from spending credits you gather from downed enemies to improve your main and secondary weapons (both shoot at the same time). For all of the upgrading that I did I never noticed any difference in my firepower. I don’t know if that’s because the enemies gain more health in the later stages, or if the upgrades are so minor that you can’t tell the difference. Either way, it felt like a waste since there’s no tangible benefit from upgrading, other than there’s nothing else to spend the credits on.

What sets Solar Shifter EX apart from others in the genre is its unique shifting mechanic. This allows you to instantly shift to other predetermined spots on the screen (top/middle, bottom/middle, left, and right) with a flick of the right stick. While you can’t spam the shifting non-stop, the cooldown is very minimal and there’s no limit to how much you can use it in a level. It’s a mechanic that is only briefly explained in game and it's not taught to you as well as it could be. You better learn how to utilize it to your strategy very early on though, as there are many sections in the game that you won't survive without shifting out of danger to a safe spot. It’s a unique idea, and has potential, but surviving in Solar Shifter EX is simply about finding one of the few ‘safe spots’ on the screen as enemies shoot in predetermined directions, so it becomes a test of memorization more than skill.

The level designs are bright and colorful, and there’s more than enough happening on the screen at once, but it’s impossible to take in the visuals when you’re trying to frantically focus on your spacecraft and any projectiles heading your way. While bullet hell games are known for filling your screen with projectiles and chaos, there’s just too much going on here for it to be appreciated. The inability to appreciate all that goes on is also most likely due to the terrible and shifting camera angles, as they are more of a detriment than anything else.

Every shmup that I can think of off the top of my head always has a static camera. It is usually a top down view and you shoot horizontally or vertically depending on the game. Solar Shifter EX seems like they wanted to mix things up and use odd angled views, but they are at inopportune times which you have no control over. So, sometimes the camera will move to a specific 45 degree-like angle, yet your controls don’t feel as if they’ve been re-calibrated to accommodate the new viewpoint. I get that they were going for a more cinematic approach, but when it’s a hindrance to the gameplay, and simply doesn’t work, it's not fun. The odd angles also have you shooting at weird directions, also being unsure of where the next ships and bullets will come from next.

At the end of the day I can appreciate that Solar Shifter EX is trying to do something new in the genre, and while the shift mechanic adds a new way to think about playing, it hasn't been fine-tuned enough to be something truly special. More than anything, the camera issues are the biggest drawback, along with the gameplay devolving into finding 'the safe spot’ to survive more than using reflex skill. Fans of the genre, like myself, will enjoy this game for what it is, but it won’t stand up against the greats of the genre like Raiden or Ikaruga. If you’re a casual fan however, I’d recommend waiting to pick this game up until it is on sale, unless you really need to see what bullet hell is really like.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Ninja Pizza Girl

Apparently a surprising amount of people answer the door without pants on when they get pizza delivered. That was one of the big takeaways I got when playing Ninja Pizza Girl. Well, that and the fact that bullying is bad. Released last year on PC, Ninja Pizza Girl has been delivered to the Xbox One, but is this delivery on time, or does it need more time in the oven and a few more toppings?

You play as Gemma, a bonafide ninja pizza girl who has some crazy parkour skills, allowing her to jump from ledge to ledge and rooftop to rooftop, all the while avoiding enemy ninjas. Yup, you read all of that right. Your goal is to deliver your dad’s famous and delicious PizzaRiffic pizza as fast as possible to your client’s door. Unfortunately for you, the huge pizza corporation MegaCorp has noticed a small dip in their profits because of your family pizza business. So what does any greedy corporation do to get more sales? Hire hundreds of ninjas to block Gemma from making her deliveries of course; I mean, that’s what I would do.

Your brother helps you out by giving you the directions (arrows on the screen) to each delivery’s door, though aside from a few unique levels, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Once you deliver your pizza though I found it odd that seemingly no one paid, though maybe they ordered online? Even worse, apparently everyone ordering pizza wants to open up to Gemma about their problems and life’s troubles. I understand the reasoning behind doing so, as the underlying message of Ninja Pizza Girl is about bullying and feeling good about yourself, but it comes across as terribly forced, as generally people don’t interact with their pizza delivery person in this way. Or maybe I’m simply doing it wrong, who knows.

Some of the mini storylines are very odd, like the one that revolves around the idea of a man who’s in love with a friend (that you just happened to deliver a pizza to earlier) but is afraid to talk about his feelings directly to her (yet he talks to a random pizza delivery girl and opens up no problem), so instead he orders a crazy spicy pizza for his secret love and asks Gemma to deliver it for him. Of course the woman receives the pizza, knows exactly who it’s from, and falls madly in love on the spot. It’s silly, but it’s a little too far out there for my tastes. That being said, it’s interactions like this that show that the game itself has some humor and isn’t trying to take itself too seriously.

At its core, Ninja Pizza Girl is a platforming speedrunner where you’re given a specific amount of time, usually around 3 minutes, to deliver a hot pizza to a customer before heading off for the next delivery. You’ll need to use Gemma’s parkour abilities to jump, slide, and hop onto ledges to overcome a seemingly endless gauntlet of rooftop debris. The more time you finish the level with the better your rank. Levels are linear in terms of getting from point A to B for the most part, but there are some slight branching paths that play into the rooftop verticality setting.

While I was able to easily finish the game in a single sitting, there’s a decent amount of gameplay here for completionists, as each level has a handful of items to collect, not all of which can be collected in a single run, meaning you’ll need to run each level multiple times. If you’re into speed running and online leaderboards, you’ll also be happy to know that those are included as well, so while it may seem like a shallow experience at first, there is a decent amount of replayability if those are your things.

Controls work well for the most part. You’ll jump and slide with ease, and eventually you can take out rival ninjas in your path by jump kicking or sliding into them as well. That being said, I found some issues where where I would get stuck on a ledge or couldn't climb up onto a corner that I should have been able to. While it didn’t happen frequently, for a game that focuses on smooth maneuverability, it did stick out. Eventually levels become much more difficult as you’ll have to jump gaps with moving platforms, swinging posts, and other objects that need to be timed correctly.

The items you collect during your runs can be spent on purchasing Gemma items to make her feel better. The more you ‘crash’ or get hit, the lower her morale goes, as does the grayness of the screen. So, to make her feel better you spend your earned currency on food, video games, or costumes. I understand the idea behind it, but it’s as if the moral of the story is to buy things to make yourself (or someone else) feel better rather than deal with it or talk to someone instead. I know it wasn’t intended that way, but that’s how it came across.

One issue I had near the end of the game was a specific level where instead of reaching the goal as quickly as possible the game wanted me to collect a certain amount of items. This was never explained, so when I kept failing the level when trying to reach the end, which I couldn’t as the level loops, I eventually figured out what I needed to do. Seems like a minor oversight, but it was enough to frustrate me slightly as I didn’t know why I was failing the level numerous times.

As a whole, Ninja Pizza Girl is a simple premise with some silliness behind it. Its goal is to teach players about bullying and to not listen to what the they may say. Sure, the message isn’t conveyed the best at all times, but it’s the underlying tone and meaning that’s important. As a basic game that can be completed quickly, it hovers at "just alright"; however, it’s got a good message for any of the younger gamers out there who are into platforming titles. Just remember; no pants, no pizza!

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 MX vs ATV Supercross Encore

Recently I got the chance to review another dirt bike game titled MXGP2, and while it didn’t set the world on fire, I had high hopes for my latest review, MX vs. ATV Supercross Encore, as I’ve always tended to prefer any racing titles where you could backflip and perform other crazy stunts. Although I’ve only recently learned about many aspects about the sport of dirt bike racing I have come to appreciate all of its intricacies and appreciate that there’s much more motorcycle racing genre than simply going fast.

The last MX vs ATV game I played in detail was probably from the PS2 days. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, I’m just not one to go out and get them when they release unless I find it at a discount sometime afterwards as I am not a diehard fan. It’s clear that MX vs. ATV Supercross Encore is made for the fans, but it does extremely little to bring new people to the series. Case in point, Encore is simply a somewhat re-release of the last generation version of MX vs ATV, albeit with a few additions, hence the Encore title.

Given that Encore is somewhat of a remake of the Xbox 360 title, I was fully expecting some impressive visuals and a plethora of additions to justify its existence and price. Sadly none of these are found within. The MX vs ATV series has been around for quite some time, though the past few games in the series have seemed to have stagnated, as each new game seems to add only a few tweaks here and there rather than any substantial changes and improvements.

What sets MX vs ATV apart from the competition is that it features, well....MX bikes vs ATV’s, wrapped in a casual play style setting when compared to other games that tend to be more on the simulation side. In the beginning you’ll customize your rider and vehicle, which is limited to only a few options, but this will change as you progress through the different modes. While many parts you earn are mainly cosmetic, there are some performance enhancing ones as well. While there’s not much visual differences in many of the parts, at least some effort has been made, which is more than some other games can say.

The career mode is where you’ll most likely start first, allowing you to race on a series of 5 to 12 tracks depending on the class and style of race. You’ll gain points based on where you finish, and the racer with the most points at the end of a series is the winner. It will take some time to learn how to steer properly, so I suggest starting out with Single Race instead, which should help you to get your bearings and grasp how the game handles.

New to the Xbox One version is a Free Ride mode, allowing you to just ride around an open area. This really brought back memories of the Motocross Madness series, especially since the game will ‘throw’ you back onto the map if you drive out of bounds. It’s a nice addition to have for those that simply want to just ride around and do some tricks, but it doesn’t feel like it adds much to the overall package, especially since the game looks incredibly dated with its muddy textures. Another addition to Encore are the outdoor tracks, something severely lacking in the previous release. Lastly, Rhythm Racing is also included, which is a straight track full of hills and moguls. It sounds easy but they were the hardest tournaments I faced and I had difficulties placing.

The controls are the most difficult thing to get used to in Encore. It seems as though they wanted to take a somewhat realistic approach to the steering, but because of the weird physics and movements it doesn’t feel right, even after a dozen hours of getting used to it. You need to steer with the Left Stick obviously, but you also need to lean with the Right; not a big deal. Where the issues start to surface is when you lean just a smidgen too much or too little and you completely botch your turn. You do eventually become accustomed to it, but when you upgrade your bike with new parts, it’s like learning this mechanic all over again.

To make things even more difficult, you need to pre-load your jumps as well, and this is done with the right stick, meaning that when you’re holding down to load up on a jump, and if you slightly lean to the side, things can go all kinds of wrong real quick. You’ll also need to maneuver while in mid-air to correct your position before the landing, and again this is done with the right stick. Many times I thought I had my wheels lined up and I was positioned at the right angle, only to be thrown off my bike and eat a face full of virtual dirt.

I was totally excited that Encore allowed me to pull off some backflips, Supermans, and other crazy stunts, but there’s no real reason to as you’re not scored on them in races. To make matters worse, it’s not a simple button or direction press either, as you need to hit a combination of directions, such as up, left, and right on the Right Stick for a single trick, but that’s only if you’re holding the Right Bumper first, to indicate you want to do a trick. It’s not gratifying even when you do manage to pull one off, and because of the difficulty in doing so, there’s no real reason to either.

Graphically, this isn’t an HD-ified version at all. There is lots of texture pop-in, nothing looks that sharp, and the open tracks, which I was excited to explore, are nothing but barren land with nothing to even find or challenges that you can set up for your friends. As you race the same lines in multiple laps on the various tracks, ruts will form and it looks as if the ground is deforming, but it never felt as if it made a difference to my racing at all, even when hitting the ruts at a completely wrong angle.

There is an online multiplayer mode, and I’d love nothing more to go into detail about it, but after 3 days of searching for a match I’ve still been unable to find a single game to join. When the game doesn’t hang while searching for a game, you’re unable to cancel or back out, forcing you to wait or close the game manually. There’s no simple Quick Match, so you need to select one of the numerous modes to join and hope that someone is hosting, or looking to join, that specific mode. Even trying to find a Freeride game brought no results, as I wanted to see what 12 players would be like, but apparently there’s no mini-games built in for you to have fun with. My guess is that there’s simply no one playing this online, which is a shame for fans that was hoping for a good community to join.

While the game is priced decently ($29.99 CAD), it’s unfathomable that this doesn’t include all of the previous DLC to this point, as this is a port of the last generation title. Delving into the marketplace, you can spend more than the price of the game on DLC alone, which comes across as trying to double dip. If anything, MX vs ATV Supercross Encore simply feels bland and mediocre as nothing stood out or is memorable, and I didn’t even feel like finishing up many of the achievements when failing tournaments numerous times in a row (I don’t want to Rhythm Race ever again).

If Encore had all of the included DLC and had signs that some effort went into making it for current-gen, then it would be a different story. Instead, you have a game that’s kind of fun in very short bursts, but only if you’re a huge fan of the series and genre. If the controls weren’t such a mess and the stunt system an exercise in what I see as "finger yoga", then I would say to at least give it a try, but in its current state though, this one is doomed to stay stuck in its own rut.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Ghostbusters

I love when I get surprised by a game and then get to write about it so that you, the reader, can make an informed decision to purchase it or not based on my opinion. Well, Ghostbusters, developed by ForeForge, surely did surprise me, but not in the way that I had hoped. A brand new Ghostbusters movie released this summer for a new generation, and while I’m old enough to have grown up on the classic, it seems as though Activision decided to cash in on a game tie-in for the new movie in hopes that if you liked the movie you'd want to buy the game as well. If you’re a seasoned gamer you already know the track record for abysmal movie tie-in games in the past. Sadly this might be one of the worst offenders in so many ways.

Let me just say that I absolutely love Ghostbusters, it was one of my childhood movies growing up, and I had all the toys. Given that the 2009 Ghostbusters game was actually quite good, I had high hopes for this 2016 version. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes too high. While the game looks decent from afar, delving deeper into it and its mechanics shows its many flaws that not only make for a blatant cash grab, but not even an entertaining game in the end either. Everything you loved about Ghostbusters is nowhere to be found here.

While technically it’s connected to the movie, it takes place after the credits and doesn’t star the four new Ghostbuster ladies from the current 2016 reboot. It's almost as if they were trying to avoid any of the politically correct drama that encapsulated the movie’s protagonist’s genders. The game instead stars two women and two men, all of which seem like a B-Team to the famous group. There’s actually only one or two lines that connect the game to the movie, so I hope you’re paying attention if you play.

The core narrative revolves around the city once again becoming infested with unruly ghosts. Who you gonna call? Well, the Ghostbusters of course. Sadly, there’s no major over-arching story or plot to coax you into caring about the characters or their reasoning. Simply blast all the ghosts and save the city, that’s it. There are only two cutscenes in the game in total, and they bookend the entire game, which is sad, as the animation used for these cutscenes looks like it would be something you’d see on a Saturday morning cartoon. All other story tidbits are laid out in cheap 2D narrated phone calls. Not what you’d expect from a huge franchise like this.

As you begin your ghost busting journey you’ll have the choice of one of the four main characters, each of which has a different type of weapon and grenade. That’s right, you don’t simply use your regular proton pack beam, instead you have to whittle down a ghost’s life bar with standard-like weaponry. These standard weapons range from assault rifle, mini-gun, shotgun, and dual pistols, and sure they’re proton pack-ified, but it just seems silly and not fitting of the franchise.

The core game mechanic is a twin-stick shooter at heart, which makes for simplistic gameplay and easy couch co-op play (sorry, there’s no online multiplayer support). You begin in a simplistic tutorial level that explains how to play, but after a few levels you come to realize that nothing changes for the better the further you venture into your quest to save the city. A good game should slowly introduce new ideas and new mechanics as you progress to keep things interesting making a game interesting to play, but none of that is found here.

If by some miracle you manage to lose all your health, any of the other team members will automatically come and try to revive you. In my whole playthrough I only managed to fall in battle one time, and that’s because of the notorious bullet sponges that the game throws at you in the later stages, which I’ll delve into shortly. You gain experience as you complete levels and bust ghosts, which in turn levels you up, allowing you to spend skill points on upgrades like better weapon damage, trap multipliers, and more. This is normally a good incentive to keep you playing, but even after having maxed out a bunch of the upgrades I didn’t feel more powerful at all, even when replaying the earlier levels.

In the beginning the shooting feels alright, but the gameplay is so repetitive and unvarying that it becomes dull. Eventually every enemy simply has way more health than they should, requiring you to reload multiple times to unload full clips to defeat them. You heard me right, you need to reload (vent) your proton-ized weaponry on a constant basis. You do have access to grenades, with a very long recast time, but they don’t feel anywhere near as useful as they should be for how seldom you can actually use them.

Just like the true Ghostbusters, you have access to your PKE meter allowing you to find hidden secrets throughout the level. In the beginning I was constantly using it to find all of the secrets, but you walk at a snails pace when you’re using the PKE meter, so it makes a dreadfully long game even longer when doing so. Sure, completionists will want to find everything, but I eventually just gave up using it aside from the few forced sections which spawn a mini-boss.

As the game progresses not only do the simplest enemies take forever to defeat, but more and more are thrown your way to artificially make it more difficult. Most enemies are just reskins of previous ones, adding no real variety to strategy or gameplay. The worst of this comes to light in the boss fights and the final stage, which I don’t want to spoil, but it was a terrible experience.

When you manage to finally deplete a mini or stage boss heath bar, you then need to play a mini-game to trap it, which also feels like artificial lengthening to the tedious gameplay. First you need to switch your weapon to the classic proton beam, aim and shoot the boss, then aim the right stick in the direction it tells you to. Then you need to use the Left Trigger to slam the ghost (usually 3 times) before you can actually trap it. To trap it all you need to do is press the ‘A’ button and then spam the button as many times as you can before time runs out to boost your multiplier. These small parts should feel most like true Ghostbusters gameplay, but in reality they simply feel like tedious mini-games.

After a half dozen or so hours, and vanquishing the final big bad ghost, to which there’s zero indication you're coming to the end until you reach him, I promptly finished up a few achievements and quickly uninstalled. I don’t mean to come across as harsh in regards to this review, but there’s little to no redeeming qualities of this shameless cash grab. What makes it worse is that Ghostbusters is priced at nearly a full priced AAA game. That’s right, everything about this game looks and plays like a budget download title, but sadly the asking price is well more than three times the price I expected.

If I had to note a positive about the game it would be that at least they licensed the classic Ray Parker Jr. version of the theme song that the series is best known for. Unfortunately they even messed this up though, as the song only plays in the menus and not during the gameplay itself. What’s wrong with the way it’s setup is that every time you go into a menu and back out to another, the song restarts every single time. So the chance of you hearing the song from beginning to end is impossible unless you simply let it play in the background before you subject yourself to one more level.

I don’t particularly like pointing out so many negatives, but when there’s virtually no positives to speak about it’s difficult not to. A nonexistent storyline, basic and repetitive gameplay, terrible and constant one-liners, and nothing that makes it feel like a real Ghostbusters experience, makes this game a difficult sell at $20, but it’s price is unfathomably three times that amount. Ghostbusters is pretty much a waste of time as there really isn't much fun to be had. Who you gonna call? Hopefully someone else so that you don’t have to experience this for yourself.

Overall Score: 2.5 / 10 Super Mutant Alien Assault

Sometimes games don’t always have to have an engrossing story and can easily stand on their own with a simple foundation. Super Mutant Alien Assault chooses to go the simplistic route, allowing you to slaughter waves and waves of alien invaders with handfuls of weaponry. Simple games can be entertaining, but they need to have solid gameplay to keep your attention for any length of time.

There is a story, albeit a paper thin one, that revolves around Aliens attacking Earth and three ships carrying the remaining humans have fled the planet to search for other galaxies to inhabit. To make this long journey humans had to be put into cryofreeze, leaving droids to watch and defend the ships should anything happen. As it turns out, the aliens have found the ships and are breaking their way inside. It’s up to you, a simple droid, to take them out to ensure mankind survives.

Your life as a droid is a difficult one, as you begin with absolutely no weapons or abilities. You’ll learn early on that you’re going to die a lot; however, as you play, and become more proficient, it does become somewhat easier, but the randomly generated levels can work for you or completely against you. Even though you’ll die quite often you will make some progress as you go, unlocking (the chance for) new weapons, abilities, and perks.

There are only a dozen levels in total, and while that may not seem like much, they are randomly generated, so every time you play they won’t be exactly the same as the last. Granted, you’ll see the same levels multiple times, but the game does a good job at mixing things up for the most part. Each stage has its own conditions for winning to help mix things up too. Sometimes you simply need to survive the waves of incoming aliens or you’ll have to bring an item to a certain machine numerous times, while other times you will need to stop canisters from exploding. And we can't forget that there are boss stages on each 4th consecutive level. Overall, some stages are much tougher than others since the objective must be met to move on, and killing everything only makes more enemies spawn. During the boss stage he must be defeated or else the minions will keep on coming. Depending on what types of these levels you like, you’ll either have a great run of easy levels or a slew of really tough ones due to the randomization.

While the aliens themselves are generally not too much trouble on their own, it’s the frequency and amount that spawn which is the difficult part. They usually come in a handful at a time and quite quickly so you can easily become overwhelmed if you aren’t doing your best to take them out quickly. Some have specific attack patterns, while others do their own thing, but when being crowded into a corner because of the volume of aliens coming at you, you’ll see why it’s easy to die very quickly.

A big issue that you experience early on, and quite often throughout the game, is that the levels are extremely small, making it quite easy to find yourself in a tight spot with not much, if any, room to maneuver to safety. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if your weapon pickups weren’t randomized, so sometimes you'll find that you have the completely wrong weapon for the situation you’re in and there’s nothing you can do about it, for the most part. For example, having a grenade launcher with enemies swarming in on you fast, causing you to take damage when it explodes nearby. Yes, you take damage from your own weapon as well, making the already sporadic difficulty even more challenging at times. It doesn’t help that many enemies take too much ammo to defeat than they should too, even the weaker ones.

Once you play the tutorial and learn about the weapon vending machines you'll discover that you can carry one primary weapon and a sidearm, along with an explosive weapon, an offensive and defensive ability, and a perk. All of these are dealt out at random. Once you’ve made it past the first boss you can at least respawn with a sidearm to begin with (yes, it needs to be picked up every time before you can have one on each play through). The majority of the weapons are your regular fare such as assault rifles, snipers, shotgun, rocket launchers, and more. There are some unique abilities and sidearms though, my favorite being the circular boomerang-like item that you can call back to you whenever you like. There are also ones I dislike, like the previously mentioned grenade launcher and an odd pogo stick that explodes when jumping on enemies. Because it’s completely random which weapon you get, you might find yourself wasting the primary ammo quickly just so you don’t have to be stuck with too long while you wait on the timer to get a new weapon.

There are special abilities that you can also get, ranging from a knockback, a double jump, a quick dash, and more. While it was nice to have the options, I found the gameplay much too frantic for me to use them as intended, or even simply remember that I had them. There’s no quick glance to remind you of which abilities you have aside from pausing, so you might think you have a dash equipped, only to remember later that you had it on during your last playthrough.

There is local multiplayer where you and a friend can play together, which makes things easier overall, but it definitely amps up the franticness with more happening on the screen at one time. The highlight of the game has to be its visuals, as it’s done in a retro pixelated style, but it’s done very well with lively animations and bright colors. The music is fitting and encapsulates the gameplay with some quick-beat tempo jams.

I found that one of the biggest flaws comes from some massive slowdown that always occurs on specific levels when you’re about to slip into hyperdrive. I initially thought it was a purposeful design mechanic, but after it happening quite often I don’t believe it is. It’s simply not done in a stylish way. Everything just goes maddeningly slow for a few seconds, then BAM, everything is back to normal, completely disrupting the flow of gameplay. I hope this important issue gets fixed soon, as it’s very jarring and is a big black eye to the experience.

Super Mutant Alien Assault is an experience you may enjoy if you playing for a game for a few simple few minutes at a time with complete randomness and challenging difficulty is your thing. That being said, while it does have some replayability to it with its randomly generated levels and weapons, there’s simply just not that much depth to be had if you’re looking for something a little bit more. It’s charming in its own way, and a fun way to pass the time now and then, but you might want to wait until it goes on sale to get your full monies worth.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Dynamite Fishing - World Games

If there was ever a game where you could decipher its core premise from the title alone, Dynamite Fishing – World Games would be near the top of the list. Originally a mobile game, and now on the Xbox One, it revolves around your desire to fish, but in true redneck fashion with dynamite instead of fishing poles. With an unlimited amount of explosives you’re going to blow your way up to the top of the fish catching leaderboards, but the real question is if this console port has anything special to offer over its mobile roots.

When you first start you can only choose a single character in his bathtub, which represents his boat. You will notice that new characters and other boats are unlockable, but they are behind a set number of trophies that you need to obtain. At first some of these unlockables won’t seem like much work, but the amount of time actually required to unlock them is much longer than you expect once you start playing a few levels and you realize how much of a grind it can be.

Played as a side-scroller, your main goal in the game is to catch the most amount of fish by the time you or your opponent reach the finish line. So, you can either rush to the finish line in hopes that they do not catch as many fish as you or you can take your time in each area, gathering more fish, hoping to have more than your opponent by the time they cross the finish line first. It’s a simple idea with very friendly and colorful graphics that my 3 year old seemed to really enjoy watching when I played it.

To throw your unlimited supply of dynamite into the water you simply press the ‘A’ button, and if it makes contact with any fish it will deplete their life bar. Once they’ve been killed, as some fish are very resistant to dynamite apparently, they will float to the top of the water for you to collect as you travel over it. You can toss your dynamite further by pressing up while tossing or throw it right below you by pressing down as you lay on the ‘A’ button. While you may think that combining different toss distances is the best plan, I found it was much more efficient, and simpler, to just press down and hold the ‘A’ button the whole time as you travel left and right. This made it easier to know exactly where the dynamite will drop and places you closer to the fish corpses when you need to collect them.

You need to rack up a bigger haul than your opponent, and when either one of you cross the finish line the one with the most fish in their boat at the time wins, so it’s a little bit strategic in the sense of balancing speed and gathering. At the top of the screen you can see where your opponent is in relation to you and the finish line, so you never have to guess where they might be. Some fish only take a single hit to defeat, while others in the later stages will require numerous hits. Eventually you’ll encounter fish that aren’t going to take your attacks ‘lying down’ andthey will actually fight back, either by trying to ram you or shoot you with their guns and other whacky weapons. It’s silly but it fits the setting and mood of the game.

There are multiple levels, each of which are split into 5 stages. In most games you have to complete each stage before moving onto the next, but Dynamite Fishing – World Games does things slightly different, as you might expect. Once you complete a stage you move onto the next, but you’ll also move onto the next stage if you fail it as well, so the main goal is to have the most fish as a total at the end of all 5 stages. Even if you fail a stage it is totally possible to make up for it in the next one if you’re skilled enough. You can even get halfway through a level then switch to another setting and work on that locale if you wish, as you’re not locked to a specific level at any time. It’s a small detail but it didn’t go unnoticed.

Although your main goal is to catch as many fish as possible, you’ll notice quite early on that you’re also going to have to survive not only a fish rebellion, but also other obstacles that can quickly deplete your life, causing you to sink your boat and fail. Most are standard water geysers and TNT crates, but there are other quirky things to watch out for, like rats, ghosts, and more. The most nefarious enemy you’ll encounter is the selection of bosses. I wasn’t actually expecting anything like this, so it was a welcome addition. Here you have a set amount of time to defeat them before they swim off, earning bonus money and a boat repair if you succeed. While most of these bosses are predictable, some are quite challenging and will no doubt defeat you early on before you have any upgrades purchased.

Speaking of upgrades, you earn money for not only winning stages and finishing a series, but also collecting coins and completing side bonus missions as well. This allows you to purchase upgrades for your selected character and vessel. What’s interesting is that each character and boat have their own single stat that can be increased, and they vary between selection. For example, the redneck and bathtub you begin with allow you to upgrade critical hits for him, and a speed boost for the boat. Once you unlock new characters and boats, they will have different bonuses that can be purchased, so it’s a game of upgrading a lot now versus more later with better choices. It will come down to how much you plan on playing. As I said before, unlocking the final few choices will take a lot of grinding to do so.

As you begin each stage you’re also given a choice 3 special weapons to bring along with you. These are completely whacky and fitting of the redneck theme, such as squirrel bombs, gatling gun, toaster, a nuke (yes, a nuke), and a handful of other crazy weapons. Some are, without a doubt, more powerful than others, as nukes are completely over powered, but they all act in a different way and allows you to choose special power-ups that suits your play style. If you manage to find treasure chests in the water, destroying them can net you a random power-up, or even a dangerous TNT, but it’s always worth taking the time to check, as these special weapons can net you a massive amount of fish in a short time.

The art style is very clean and colorful, completely fitting of the game's setting. The premise is silly and the game itself is humorous overall with its over-the-top wackiness. The audio also fits, but there’s only so many times you can hear the same one-liners over and over until you’ll want to mute the speakers. While I really liked that there’s a bunch of unlockable characters, boats, and even items to cosmetically change your character and vessel, you’re going to have to do a lot of grinding to earn any of the really good ones. You get a trophy for finishing a level (of 5 stages remember), but when you need 40+ trophies for the better unlocks, it can be a daunting goal to achieve.

Although Dynamite Fishing is a fun game, the sad fact is that it is fun only in very small bursts. Even after a single set of 5 stages it becomes a little tiresome. In short spurts it’s a fun way to pass the time, as it was intended to be played that way on mobile devices, but it’s unlikely to hold you attention long enough to earn the best rewards. At its current cheap price point I can recommend it if you’re looking for a simple game to pass a few minutes here and there, but if you’re looking for something with more depth though it’s going to be found elsewhere.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 MXGP2

So let me get this out of the way first and foremost: I know absolutely nothing about motocross. Before delving into this review I had no idea what ruts, 2-stroke, scrub, or even holeshot meant. Now that I’ve put a couple dozen or so hours into MXGP2 I’m by no means an expert, but I could at least carry on a conversation about the topic should it ever come up. Though some might see my lack of motocross knowledge a bad fit for this review, I rebut this notion by saying that I was looking at MXGP2 objectively as a game player and not a fan. Milestone S.r.I. is known for their racing titles, so I had high hopes that this would be another ‘great game’ under their name. While they did do some things right, there’s also many faults that are hard to ignore.

Sports games these days need a career mode as it gives players an objective aside from winning. Usually this means progressing your character, earning new items, or other forms of rewards as you play. If you’re meant to spend hours playing through a campaign you generally want something to strive towards, aside from some possible achievements or completion. So it baffled me that there’s no real end goal aside from winning in MXGP2’s career mode.

As you begin you’ll create your rider, choose a helmet and your colors, a starting bike, and off you go. Your goal is to earn points in races to eventually become the world champion. You’ll get offers to sign with teams and sponsors, and purchase new bike parts, but there’s a severe lack of customization of rider and bike. Aside from earning money and reputation for your wins, there is no other form of progression. Your rider doesn’t level up and become more skilled with stat increases, and there are only a handful of bike parts that can be purchased, but they are all the same stat-wise regardless of brand.

There’s also not much in the way of rider customization. Sure, you can pick some base colors and a handful of helmets, suits, and boots, but that’s about it. For some reason there are even some numbers that you display on the back of your shirt that aren’t selectable. I’m sure someone with more motocross knowledge than myself might know the reason, but it’s not explained to the non-fan. The lack of personalizatoin results in you not really looking that unique from any of the other riders on the track, and the same goes for your bike’s visual options as well.

Career mode tries to offer more depth by giving you a manager, a team, and sponsors, but they don’t result in any differences at all, at least that I could tell, aside from roleplaying purposes. Using GoPro as my sponsor was no different than choosing a different one, so it feels like a shallow choice in the end. The same goes for team selection, as there’s no real benefit in choosing one over the other, unless you’re a real fan and want to virtually support them.

I slogged through the campaign, making my way from track to track, eventually becoming the world champion, only to find out that the first season ended. Needless to say I was disappointed, as I put in hours into the campaign only to be rewarded with nothing of significance, and the game just expects you to work on the next season of races. There are other single player modes outside of career, such as MXGP, Monster Energy Motocross, Stadium Series, and even a Real Events mode, the latter I argue should have been the focal point of the game.

Real Events mode allows you to relive significant moments in motocross history. The first example is when Ryan Villopoto’s bike malfunctioned at the start of the race but he managed to recover and beat his rival. This mode starts you off in specific real life situations where you need to recreate the outcome. It was fascinating as a non-fan to see how many interesting stories and drama the sport has, even though I’m sure this is just a very small glimpse at some of the more memorable stories.

When I first started playing the game my first few races did not go well. It took a good 4 or 5 races before I finished higher then dead last. It doesn’t play like a standard racing game, nor should it, but the controls took quite some time to learn and adjust to. MXGP2 is clearly made for fans of the sport, and rightfully so, but there’s no effort taken into easing the non-fan into the sport and explaining what differences exist between bikes, classes, and more. Not that it’s hard to pick up as you go, but some explanation would have been very welcome. A true fan will feel right at home, as there’s a handful of real racers and teams that you can choose from in certain modes. A friend of mine was enlightening me on some of the more famous racers and it was cool seeing their virtual counterpart represented. For the super fan there’s a lot here to excite you.

As you begin a event you’ll need to race the track a few times. The first for determining your position, and then twice more to determine your final point tally for that specific leg of the circuit. Luckily there’s an option to forgo the qualifying race and let it default you to the outside starting lane, which is generally considered the worst, but it’s nothing hard to overcome once you become proficient in your virtual motocross racing skills. For those wanting the full experience, doing the qualifying race is obvious, but I found doing the same race track three times was to lengthy and tedious.

MXGP2 prides itself on being a realistic take on the sport, and as such it tries to make the gameplay realistic as well. Don’t expect any backflips or tricks that you can pull off (aside from a scrub) as the realism is the primary focus. This means you won’t be barreling into corners trying to drift out of it. It's almost exactly the opposite as you need to seriously slow down and work the brakes at almost every turn if you want to win. The realism doesn’t carry over into the rival AI though, as they will race their line, regardless who is in the way or not, sometimes resulting in hilarious AI crashes.

As you learn the controls and start to win races you will earn money which you will spend on new bikes and parts, but sadly there’s almost no reason to. You begin earning only small chunks of change at a time, but constant first place finishes, and winning seasons, will give you more money then you can spend. The other problem is that only a few pieces like exhaust, brakes, and tires, increase your bike’s stats. Even though there are a different brands to choose from they all have the same stat bonuses, so once you buy the best part, there’s nothing else to do with your money. Sure you could buy another bike, fit it with different looking parts, but it’s the same result in the end for the most part.

At first you'll find yourself settling for minor upgrades to allow you to progress further and win more races, earning more money, getting you closer to the best gear. You'll also realize that there’s no way to actually customize your bike for races either. Sure, you’re buying new tires and suspension, but you can’t actually tweak any of the performance of your bike in any way. Apparently this plays a huge role in real-life for pro racers and their bikes, and it’s simply not here. It’s a huge miss for a game boasting about being official and realistic.

If this doesn’t frustrate you, the inherently slow loading times will. Every time you load up a new race be prepared to wait at least a good minute or so. Yeah, I know it’s only a minute, but with today's technology it’s unacceptable, especially when you factor in that the graphics aren’t really all that impressive either. Not all is bad though, as there’s been some major improvements since the previous game. There’s now a rewind button you can use (up to a maximum of 9 times per race), there’s three types of realistic physics setting, the hardest of which will have you struggling to even stay sitting upright on your bike, and you can now also use the clutch, which is needed to get a holeshot.

As I mentioned above, the biggest hurdle I struggled with was the controls. You need to slow down, sometimes almost completely on some hairpins, so don’t expect to do much drifting. The bikes feel heavy, and even though you float as you go off a jump you land real quick and with some heft. The tutorial is something left to be desired as it doesn’t do a good enough job at teaching you the ropes. There’s some massive over-steering issues that you simply need to learn to deal with, and it will take a handful of races to even get the hang of it before you don’t have to constantly think about it at every turn. Even a couple dozen hours in I still make mistakes when it comes to over-steering, as it doesn’t feel natural but it’s simply something I’ve learned to manage.

You control the front and back brakes independently, and couple this with the fact that you need to balance your rider with their weight, it can be very confusing in the beginning, especially with the poor default controls. By default the Left Trigger is front brakes and the rear brakes are controlled by the A button. Yes, you’re expected to steer with the Left Stick, lean with the Right Stick, use Right Trigger for gas, and somehow use the A button if you want to use your rear brakes; asinine, I know. Luckily you are able to remap the buttons and triggers, so once I changed the rear brake to Left Trigger it changed my gameplay experience instantly. It’s a good thing that the game allows the remapping, or else an Elite Controller would almost be necessary to play effectively.

In regards to multiplayer, it took a good three days for me to finally get into an online match. After searching for quite sometime I was finally put into a lobby where my disappointment began. When you are in the lobby you can see in real time where every racer is on the map and in what order, what you don’t see is what lap they are on, how much time is left, or how long you’re expected to wait until the next match starts. There’s no spectating while waiting and you’re literally just sitting in the lobby waiting for it to be completed so you can join the next race, that is if the host doesn’t quit after the race, ejecting everyone out of the lobby and forcing you to start the search all over.

Once I finally got into a match after much searching and waiting I experienced some terrible lag when playing with others online (empty spots are filled with AI). I don’t know if it’s simply host based and that’s why, but after a single horrible race of finishing last because of lagging and rubber banding, I went back to single player.

I enjoy racing games and thought I would enjoy MXGP2, but it simply feels like too much is missing. It doesn’t look pretty by any means, the framerate can be abysmal at times, and the realistic physics are only realistic when it wants to be. Sure, ruts will cause me to dig in and get traction, but other times I can seemingly wall ride banners when I’m not taking a jump straight on. Landing on a racer doesn’t cause either of you to crash, but simply sliding at an angle with an AI hitting you, and you launch into the air. Also, riding over a crashed racer, or their bike, seems to do absolutely nothing in terms of messing up your race line, so no need to avoid them really.

There’s a lot of challenge to be had with MXGP2, and it does take quite a while to get used to before you become proficient in your motocross abilities. Yes, the game is flawed, but it can be enjoyable once you start to get a knack for it. If there was any sort of progression for your rider in the career mode, it would have made me want to continue playing, but there’s sadly no reason to other than ‘one more race’. If you’re a super fan, then it’s an obvious purchase as you’ll get to race as your heroes, but strictly speaking as an objective view to the game as a whole, it’s hard to look beyond the glaring issues, even more so if you don't follow the sport.

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 RevErsi Quest

I’ve loved Reversi since I was a kid, I just never realized that’s what I was playing. I grew up with Othello, a ‘practically the same game’ experience save for a trademarked name and some very minor differences. Othello on NES was one of the few games that was at Grandma’s house when I would visit, so I became quite good at it and have loved it ever since. Many other people may recognize Reversi, but under the Othello name, but for the most part it’s essentially the same game.

If you’re unfamiliar with Reversi, it’s traditionally played on a 8x8 board with small discs that are dark on one side and light on the other (usually black and white). The game begins with a preset pattern, equal to both players, and you place your colored sided disc down beside the opponents opposite color, thus flipping them to your color if it surrounds theirs horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. You take turns going until you successfully flip all of the opponent’s discs to your color, or fill the game board completely. It’s a very simple premise, but there’s a tremendous amount of strategy involved.

RevErsi Quest for the Xbox One takes the traditional board game to a whole new level by adding in its own twists and layering a hefty RPG element on top. Complete with a story mode, a map to conquer, items to obtain, gold to loot and more, RevErsi Quest will surprise you with its depth and challenge. Even well over dozens of hours in, I’m still grinding away, learning how to properly use some of the units and items to their full potential.

There’s an overarching story to RevErsi Quest, one that revolves around two kingdoms fighting over the landmass they share. You’re simply someone from an outside realm and play an important part of trying to bring peace to the land once again. It’s honestly a little bit of a convoluted story, but it’s much more than I was expecting from a board game based title. You’ll continue playing to level up your character, gain new loot, and unlock special items.

You begin by choosing your character, male or female, and are shown an overworld map of the area you’ll need to battle on (stages if you will). Once you choose a stage you’re then whisked to another board game-like setting where you’ll roll dice to determine how many spaces you can move. Your goal is to reach the end of said stage to take out the boss, but doing so won’t be as simple as it sounds. Like any RPG you have health and mana points that are used, and can be refilled in various ways, in battle. In the beginning it will be quite straight forward and simple, but once you unlock more dice, items, and find secret paths, it becomes much more involved to reach each successive boss.

As you roll the dice you’ll land on specific stops on the map, some putting you into battle to earn such things as a new unit for more battles, items, healing, stores to purchase items, and more. If you land on a battle square you’ll see your opponent’s stats and you can determine if you should challenge them or not. You’re going to eventually have to uncover each block, as you’ll learn quite quickly that you’re going to need to grind for a while to progress in the latter stages if you want any hope of surviving. Plus, getting battle experience in is always a good thing as it takes some time to get some solid strategies formulated, especially when you start to plan 2, 3, and even more moves ahead.

Once you enter combat this is where the game plays most like Reversi. Instead of simple discs with two colors there are actual individual pieces, almost like chess, where each type has its own attributes, strengths, and weaknesses. I tend to favor a more aggressive strategy, so I loaded my army up with more attack units. These are the ones that deal damage to the opponent whenever you ‘flip’ their pieces by surrounding them.

There are healing units, mana gaining units, and a handful of others that I’m still learning how to use properly as I continue playing. If you can get your opponents health down to 0 you win the match, which is why I favor this more aggressive style. Don’t be fooled though, as you’ll need to also utilize healers and more since there’s a maximum cap on how many of each type you can have in your deck at a given time.

When it’s your turn, clicking on one of your units will show you not only each spot on the board where they can be placed, but where they can use their special abilities as well. White squares will simply flip the adjacent opponent’s pieces, where red will cause damage, green for healing, and so on. This is extremely handy as it can get quite confusing with an almost full board, but you’re given all the damage, healing, and other information by clicking on a tile before you confirm your action.

When you’re successful in battle you will gain experience points, eventually leveling up giving you better stats and a higher cap for pieces in your hand. If you lose you’ll have to replay the fight again, so there’s no massive downfall to losing aside from your time. It takes a certain amount of HP to enter a battle, and winning those battles will refill a portion of your lost HP. It’s an intricate system, but nothing that can’t be circumvented by a little bit of grinding.

Once you land on a square and win, you’ll gain that item or unit. The next time you replay the stage, that square will be blank, allowing you to progress further on the board without any HP loss for having to initiate battles. So, all you need to do is simply grind for a while to ‘win’ all of the board stops, then cruise your way to the boss if you were unable to do so beforehand. You’ll want to reply stages a handful of times again anyways, as new stages that are unlocked after beating a boss can only be played when the previous board has a certain percentage of it unlocked. Also, new stages are very tough in the beginning, so you’re going to want to grind some XP, units, and all ranks of items as well.

While I focus more on physical attacks, magic based strategies are certainly viable as well. You can unlock new spells as you progress, allowing you to utilize your saved up mana (by using the specific units) to cast powerful spells to heal you, damage the enemy, and even other events like powering up one of your units or completely randomizing the units on the playfield.

Items will also play a vital role to your strategies, as some give bonuses to HP, mana, damage, guard rate, and even more. There are multiple ranks of each item as well, which can easily be grinded out by replying stages; another reason to do so. You can equip 2 items, allowing you to buff up your primary stats, or make up for what you lack in. It’s completely up to you and will play a big role in your play style.

At its core, RevErsi Quest is classic Reversi with a layered and intricate RPG element on top, but there’s more to it than that. A deep strategy game is made even more in depth, and even though you’ll be forced to grind to progress, I’m still really enjoying myself, even after dozens of hours, as I’m still unlocking new units and finding new tactics to earn my wins.

While I loved the game as a whole, there are a few minor issues that need to be noted. First is the fact that everything is chosen with a cursor, so your Left Stick acts as the mouse. It’s slow and awkward and it actually took me a few hours to realize that I needed to hold the A button down while I dragged the cursor up to scroll down my item list once I had quite a few. It feels clumsy and isn’t as accurate as it should be.

There’s also very little explanations given outside of the beginning tutorials. Sure, when you encounter a new unit or special board piece it will give a brief outline of it, but after that you’re on your own to figure out anything else or best practices. A much more in depth explanation of not only units, but items as well, would go a long way to ease the learning curve. There’s still stats on the weapons that I have no idea what they mean. This brings us to the final minor issue with RevErsi Quest. While I couldn’t figure out a few things in game, I decided to use the built in Help Menu that accompanies any Xbox One game. While it does have some information, it’s as if Google Translate was used, and not very accurately. It’s not completely broken English, but there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense or is worded incorrectly. I still don’t know some of the weapon stats, but I’m slightly more confused after trying to use the Help feature.

Even with its minor faults, RevErsi Quest is an incredibly in-depth strategy game with many layers and intricacies. If you love Othello or Reversi in its traditional form, check this one out, as the RPG take on the classic is very well done and fits very well with the core strategies while adding many new ones.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Drawful 2

It’s funny, growing up I used to associate party games as either Mario Kart, Mario Party, or something similar. I’ve grown up now, and while those types of games do have a time and place, I now view games such as Drawful as my go-to party game when I have guests over, for numerous reasons. This review is in regards to Drawful 2, the original's sequel. I don’t think I’ve played a game of Drawful 2 (or the original for that matter) where I don’t end up laughing till it hurts. Obviously the experience will vary from one group of friends to the next, but it’s a safe bet you’re going to have a good time since anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or computer can play.

It used to be if you wanted to play multiplayer party games you needed to have a certain amount of controllers, which can become quite expensive, and then usually some sort of special adapter or hub to attach them all to the console, again increasing the price of entry. Drawful 2 allows anyone to participate by simply going to jackbox.tv and logging in with the room code, be it on a phone, a tablet, or a computer, so hosting party game nights only requires the initial purchase of the software, and that’s it.

If you’ve played the original Drawful you’ll feel right at home and know exactly what to do. For those uninitiated, the game breaks down to essentially a hilarious take on Pictionary where you’re told what to draw and you must try to do so to the best of your ability within 30 seconds, and without an eraser. Needless to say, this isn’t your ordinary game of Pictionary. While the classic game may ask you to draw something like an elephant, the Great Wall of China, or something normal, the phrases you’re given in Drawful 2 will have you wondering “how the hell do I draw that?". Have you ever tried to draw “my self-esteem”, or “I wrote this book with my laser eyes”? Probably not, but you got about 30 seconds to figure out how. It’s extremely obtuse selections like this that lead to some very noteworthy and hilarious drawings.

New to Drawful 2 is the ability to finally have two pre-selected and random colors to draw with. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s definitely helped my poor drawing abilities to at least highlight specific areas or what I’m trying to convey in my artistry. Once everyone has drawn their masterpiece each one is then shown in order, allowing everyone to guess what the correct answer is. Part of the fun though comes at trying to make other people choose your answer instead of what the actual drawing is, as you’ll net points that would have originally went to the artist. This is where knowing who you’re playing with and pandering to their sense of humor comes in.

Each player’s drawing takes a turn at the forefront, and when everyone has gone once the cycle starts again with a new secret word or phrase to draw. At the end of the game the scores are tallied, as are the ‘likes’ that people can freely dish out to any answers they deem fit. After this you can begin a new game with the same players or get a new set allowing others to swap in and out freely should you have a big enough party to play with. While the minimum to start a game is three players, you’ll really want the preferred 6-8, as it’s much more entertaining and lasts a decent amount of time per round.

While the game itself has preset secret words for you to draw, another new addition to Drawful 2 is the amazing ability to make your own answers. Here you can write your own answers down, allowing you to customize and cater to a specific group of friends that may be playing with you. Being able to include inside jokes or blatant insults is what makes this addition incredibly amusing. This personalization is a first, and if you get a group of people to play together often enough, it will also most likely be the only way you play moving forward. It’s a very simple addition that was lacking in the first game and now I see it hard to play without it.

While most will play for points, there are others that find the ‘likes’ much more prestigious. Sure, it’s a secondary consolation prize for getting thumbs-up, but they are recognized at the overview screen alongside the biggest points earner. Also, it will depend on who you’re playing with, but when you have that one person that would rather try and get laughs than score points, it’s easy to see how amusing Drawful 2 really can be played with the right group of friends.

Aside from the additions listed above, there are also a number of smaller improvements allowing for a much better gameplay experience. The most notable one being that you can now rejoin a game session if you accidentally close your browser, hit the back button, or whatever. In the original this was essentially a death sentence, forcing you to sit on the sidelines until the game was over, but now you can freely rejoin if needed without hassle. There are also small streak bonuses allowing people who are not necessarily in the lead a chance to make a comeback, bit by bit. While there are some big improvements, the smaller ones almost feel as important, as it makes Drawful 2 feel much more complete and polished.

If you’re like me and stream your games on Twitch, Drawful 2 has you covered. Not only can you livestream the game, but people watching your channel can actually join your game and participate as well. If all of the 8 player slots are taken, anyone can join the audience, up to 10,000 in total, where they can dish out ‘likes’ to any of the answers. It’s a great addition and forward thinking that more games need to embrace.

At such a cheap entry point of $9.99 CAD, Drawful 2 is a fantastic sequel with many improvements that simply make for a better game than the original, and that one was already great to begin with. Again, the enjoyment of Drawful 2 will solely be based on the group of friends, or Twitch users, that you decide to play with, and your humor for poorly drawn artistry. I fall into all of those categories, making Drawful 2 an absolute must if you’re a party host for a group of like minded friends.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Kung-Fu for Kinect

It’s no secret, it seems as though major support for Kinect has died down over the years. At one point it seemed almost every Xbox 360 game was “Better with Kinect”, even if it was simple integration, but these days I can’t even think of the last non-dance game I played that had full Kinect support on the Xbox One. I still use mine every day for voice commands, but it looks as though I’m in the minority as the new Xbox One S doesn’t even have a dedicated Kinect port and the decision to end support for Xbox Fitness has been a blow to Kinect adopters.

Deja-vu is a funny thing. I don’t hide that I’ve been a Kinect supporter from the beginning, so when Kung-Fu for Kinect arrived to review I was all over it, as the list of Kinect only games these days are virtually nil. So I started playing and after a very sweaty hour or so it finally dawned on me why this felt so familiar, because I played this game already, back on Xbox 360 with the original Kinect.

Kung-Fu for Kinect is a repackage of the 2011 Xbox 360 game Kung-Fu High Impact, though be to fair, with a new engine and other improvements, including the much better Xbox One Kinect sensor required to play. This repackage has enough improvements to justify trying to release it once again. I remember having many issues with the movement tracking with the original game, though luckily it seems Kinect 2.0’s power and tech has fixed many of these issues. If you were a fan of the original you can look forward to ragdoll physics, more game modes, more enemies on screen, and of course, better body tracking.

While most games give you a preset character, or allow you to create your own, Kung-Fu for Kinect actually makes you the star, literally. The Kinect tracks you and places you in the game in real time, so the many moves you perform are transferred into the game itself, as if you were working with a green screen behind you. Sure, at first it seems gimmicky, but you’ll laugh and realize it has some charm. The campaign is laid out in a comic book style, asking you to pose in certain ways, then places the pictures that the Kinect takes of you into the comic strips to tell the story.

The plot itself is paper thin, but it’s silly and suits the comic book storytelling method, adding to its charm, never taking itself too seriously. Sure, the voice acting could be vastly improved, but again, it’s not taking itself too seriously either, nor should you. You’ll feel silly posing in the positions the game asks you to for the story sections, but these are some of the most hilarious moments when you see the results. My 3 year old daughter was laughing so hard once she saw me inside of the comic book doing all of these crazy moves.

As I mentioned above, it seemed as though the original Kinect didn’t fair to well reading your movements unless it was a dance game. In general, I always approach a Kinect game without many expectations, and with Kung-Fu for Kinect it was the same; however, I was pleasantly surprised as every move registers and everything seems to finally be working as intended, thanks to Kinect 2.0 and the work Virtual Air Guitar has done with the updated game.

At its core, Kung-Fu for Kinect is a side scrolling brawler that places you in the middle of the action, fighting off waves of enemies with your punches, kicks, and other kung-fu moves. If you want to attack the enemy to your left, you’re going to need to throw a punch or kick in that direction. Every time you attack in a speific direction, your virtual self will slide slightly in that direction too, allowing you to traverse the somewhat confined levels. This of course makes traversing the levels themselves somewhat a chore, though the majority of enemies will rush to you if you are stationary.

As you progress through the campaign you will also learn new special moves, such as a dash punch, somersault, a lightning strike that would make Raiden proud, and more. These offer up some variety to the simple punch and kick spam that will make up the bulk of your move set. To be honest, the first night I started up the game I was unable to get any special move like the dash or somersault to work, not even once. I reached out via email for some tips because I didn’t want to hold it against the game if I was simply doing something wrong. Nevertheless, I played the next day and by some form of magic, I was somersaulting and dashing anywhere I wanted to without hesitation. I assume it was simply a ‘bad night’ for the Kinect, as I was playing late with barely any lights on, but I’ve not had a single control issue since then.

The enemies that you be fight are very stereotypical, with ninjas, mummies, and more, each with their own attacks and strategies to fight against. In the later levels, when you become surrounded by numerous types of enemies, it’s quite entertaining to simply punch your way through a dozen or so opponents at once, especially if you’re holding something in your hand as a prop to really get into the comic setting. The enemies that shoot projectiles will be the bane of your existence until you master how to dash and somersault on command, but after that point it's child’s play to maneuver around on a whim. Scattered throughout the levels are power-ups and health refills, so learn how to traverse quickly early on if you want to survive the harder difficulty levels (which can be switched at any point if any stages are giving you troubles).

Once you complete the over twenty levels of the campaign, there’s no real reason to go back and replay them unless you want to level up your skills further. This is where the handful of extra modes come in. You can do time trials, survival, and even a one punch mode, allowing you to showcase a special finishing move where the enemy only takes one hit to defeat. Needless to say, my daughter absolutely loved this mode. All of these are nice to have but most likely won’t keep you around playing for long periods of time unless it’s for the kids.

What Kung-Fu for Kinect does better than most games is make you sweat. Seriously, 10 minutes in and you’ll be needing a drink and a towel. It’s a very physical game, and swimming punches and kicking repeatedly can become quite tiring. I made the mistake of loading up the game for the first time after a long day of work, regretting that decision quite quickly afterwards. That being said, it’s a fun way to get some exercise in and be physical without becoming bored.

To be completely honest, I was going to score the game a little lower than I did, but that was before I got my 3 year old daughter to play. While I’m a grown man, trying to dissect the game for what it does and doesn’t do, seeing the joy my daughter got from playing proved something else; that being it is a fun game regardless of its flaws. Sure, to me and you it may be a shallow experience without much longevity, but if you have kids they won’t care about that. They get to punch and kick some bad guys all while having fun doing so. The amount of fun she has with Kung-Fu for Kinect every time I load it up is amazing, and she is now asking if she can play the “hi-yah!” game daily. Kids will have a blast with it, and that’s who this is really for. It will amuse them for hours, tuckering them out in the process. That alone for parents is worth the price of admission, along with taking a video of them kicking some bad guys butts to share with family and friends.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Lost Sea

I’ve always been fascinated with the Bermuda Triangle and the mysteries it holds after all these years, so any game that uses it as a backdrop has my attention from the get-go. Developer Eastasiasoft brings us Lost Sea, a simple game with an even simpler premise; you’ve crash landed in the Bermuda Triangle and need to find your way home. Normally this is where I would go into more depth about the narrative, but there is no more to add. So while it has a very basic story, it tries to rely on its simple gameplay and exploration elements to keep you hooked. Is that enough though to motivate you to try and escape the Lost Sea? Let’s find out.

Once you begin you’ll have a choice from a handful of different characters, each with a different look and style, but it’s simply cosmetic as they all control the same way and don’t have any inherent special abilities or passives. Lost Sea begins as by putting you on a tutorial island that teaches you the basics, giving you a machete to cut your way through boxes, bushes, and enemies. Utilizing a top-down camera, you’ll move your character with the Left Stick and the camera with the Right Stick, and as per usual ‘X’ is used to slash and ‘A’ to interact. That’s basically it for the controls as it’s simple to jump in and play.

Your goal is to navigate your way out from the Lost Sea, but this is the Bermuda Triangle, so obviously it’s not as simple as that. You’ll need to use your ship to sail from island to island progressing through each one, with multiple themes around each set, looking for a way home. Nothing is as easy as it should be, and to sail from one island to another you need to find a magical tablet that dictates how many islands you can sail to before having to go to another island to find another tablet, starting the process over once again.

To keep things fresh the islands are procedurally generated, so every time you play each island will be slightly different from the previous one. I say slightly for a reason; the island’s layouts are randomly laid out, almost in a Catan-like style with map tiles linking together in specific ways. You learn early on though that although pieces of the islands are linked together in a random manner there’s clearly only a handful of ‘map pieces’, so you’ll eventually see the same tiles numerous times. There was even one instance where I had the same tile beside each other.

As you explore your main goal is to find the tablet on the island that will allow you to set sail a set number of spaces, inching closer to the island that houses the boss for that stage. Each stage consists of usually a dozen or so islands. While you can search for the tablet and leave right away once you do, consistently doing so will hinder you in the long run as you should also hack down enemies for experience and smash boxes for coins, both of which are used for upgrades that will be critical the further you progress. It’s a simple mechanic but it works, though only in short bursts. There’s an achievement for even beating the game in under two hours, but that’s quite difficult to do if you haven't completed a super thorough playthrough before, which I’ll explain later. There’s more to do though, as you’ll come across treasure chests that you can’t open, bridges that you can’t build, and more. This is where your followers come in.

As you explore the islands you’ll come across other survivors who are simply waiting to be rescued. You can recruit then and once you do they will constantly follow you, allowing you to make use of their preset skills such as lock picking, mining, carpentry, and more. While it’s completely possible to complete Lost Sea without any followers, you’ll have a much more difficult time, especially in the more difficult islands, as some followers can revive you (which is an absolute must later on), grant you damage bonuses, and even net you bonus experience when you defeat enemies.

Be prepared though to lose track of your allies from time to time. Given that the game revolves around you constantly having followers, you would think that they wouldn't lag behind when they get caught on a corner or rock without you noticing, sadly that’s not the case here. Many times I would come across a chest and one of my followers had the ability to open, but they would be nowhere to be found because they got caught on a staircase or corner somewhere way back. Not a deal breaker by any means, just frustrating and disappointing.

One of the best uses for your followers is the ability to make them carry your tablets back to the ship dock for you, leaving you free to swipe your machete at boxes and enemies while they do the heavy lifting. You’ll eventually find more survivors than you can allow to follow you, as you can only have up to a maximum of four (once the skill is upgraded) at a time. Since each ally has different skill sets, you’ll want to make sure that you have one with every type of possible skill covered.

As you play you’ll constantly have to reference your map which requires you to go into a separate menu. Having a rotating map on the main screen would have been welcome so you don't have to constantly pause the game to catch your bearings. Having some dialogue between you and the survivors would be welcome too, as there’s no real dialogue after the game’s opening scene, leaving for a slightly shallow experience.

Your machete is your main weapon, allowing you to break boxes, cut down bushes, and attack the wildlife that attacks you on sight. You never get to upgrade your weapon in any way aside from recruiting followers that damage enemies when close by, making it a necessity as you fight the harder monsters. Once you make it to the boss island of each stage and take on the "big kahuna" so to speak, you’ll need to figure out its pattern and the small window of opportunity when you can attack. It’s a welcome change that breaks up the monotony of the island exploration, but once you face the same boss again in later stages, albeit with a broader move set and slightly more difficulty, it’s a little disappointing.

When you defeat enemies and collect coins, these currencies are used to upgrade your abilities, some of which will be absolutely necessary if you want any chance to beat Lost Sea in a single sitting. Why do I bring up beating it in a single sitting you ask? Well, because you need to if you want to complete it. On my first playthrough I was having no problems, barely getting hit until about the third set of islands where the animals that attacked me started dealing much more damage, killing my allies, and eventually myself. No big deal I thought, I’ll continue on from here. Boy, was I wrong.

Given Lost Sea’s charming cel-shaded artistic style and cute visuals, I guess I got lured into thinking that it would be a simple game. Quite the opposite though, as it’s unforgiving, something you learn real quick once you die for the first time. Lost Sea wants you to play the entire game in a single sitting because if you do die you begin again from the first stage, regardless of how far you made it previously.

When you die you are given a small amount of bonus experience and gold coins to begin with, based on how many tablets you found in your previous session. You begin your new playthrough with this bonus, but surprise, absolutely none of your previously bought upgrades are available. Sure, it’s nice to begin again with a small bonus, but if you’ve simply been tablet searching and progressing without finding the extra ones on the islands, you don’t get nearly the same starting bonus.

There’s another major issue with this mechanic as well, and that’s related to saving, or lack thereof, your progress. For example, say you need to quit your game, the game crashes, or whatever the case, you will lose all progress you’ve made, even if it’s your new playthrough with the starting bonus, forcing you to start over from scratch. Granted, you can begin on the furthest stage that you’ve reached, but doing so will be even more frustrating as you’re starting out on a harder set of islands without any of the previous upgrades, essentially forcing you to play from the beginning again if you really want a shot at completing it.

Once you realize this is the way Lost Sea forces you to play, it’s difficult to get motivated to play it unless you know that you’re going to have a few hours to sit and do so in one go. It’s designed to be played slowly and methodically, but not everyone has that amount of time. Once I lost 3+ hours of progress twice, I was pretty much done with the game because of this nonsensical design flaw.

For all the frustration I had with Lost Sea, it is charming in such that it is simple and basic at its core. If there was a way to save one's progress I would have dumped quite a few more hours into it exploring an island or two here and there and looking to beat more bosses, but because of the forceful time commitment required, and losing hours of progress numerous times, it looks like I’ll sadly forever be stuck in the Bermuda Triangle’s Lost Sea. It's really hard to recommend this game for everyone, but if have the time to play this game in one sitting, and you are looking for a bit of a challenge with some interesting gameplay mechanics, Lost Sea may just be for you.

Suggestions: Save my progression. Don't force me to commit to sit and play for hours at a time.

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Neon Chrome

I’m an 80’s kid, so anything neon and cyberpunk is right up my alley. While Neon Chrome from 10Tons might be one of the most generic titles there are, it offers a twin stick shooter experience overlaid with a rogue sci-fi cyberpunk theme, complete with plenty of neon colors and gameplay that seems to have been influenced by games like Smash TV. While twin stick shooters are common, Neon Chrome tries to add some mechanics to the core gameplay to set it apart from the competition, such as persistent progression, procedurally generated levels, and an interesting plot premise to name a few.

You work for Neon Corp, and while most places simply escort you out of the building when you get fired, Neon Corp kills you. You are part of a group staging a rebellion and attempting to take down the Overseer from within. To do so you’ll hack into the network and begin climbing the ominous death tower from the ground up, floor by floor, by taking control of virtual character assets and shooting your way through each level.

Being a top down twin stick shooter, there’s not much to explain in its core gameplay, as you move with the Left Stick and aim with the Right Stick. What is welcomed though is that the levels are procedurally generated, so every time you die, which will be often, you will have to make your way through the floors again, but it’ll be a fresh experience in terms of layout. There’s only a handful of levels, each of which consist of roughly five or so floors before you reach the boss, and subsequent checkpoint. It may not sound like a lot of gameplay, but the difficulty in the beginning is so high that you’ll be replaying levels many times over, slowly making progress by saving up credits and upgrading your character.

You start off in a small room that consists of some terminals and a machine where you can hack into the network and control other people (assets), allowing you to safely fight your way to the top of Neon Corp from the safe room. Given that you’re simply controlling an avatar instead of your real body, every time you die and respawn you’re given a random selection of three assets to choose from, each one having different abilities and weapons. You awaken back in your safe room, able to spend the credits you earn along the way to upgrade permanent stats or purchase better abilities and weapons. Stat increases are your best bet for the first few hours, as these are permanent increases regardless of what avatar you control and they persist throughout the whole game, constantly increasing as you upgrade.

Every time you hack into the network you’re given a choice of three random avatars to control, each one usually varies given they are different types of classes. You have assassins, techie’s, hackers, and more, each of which have their pro’s and con’s based on your preferred play style. Given the difficulty of the game, I almost always chose whomever had a bonus to their increased health pool, as dying results in restarting the level from the beginning every time until you defeat the boss and can continue from that point on.

Hackers can be useful, as they can unlock special doors and loot boxes that others can’t, and some classes even have a little robot pet that follows you around, helping you defeat the onslaught of constant enemies as you make your way through each floor of Neon Corp. Some gamers may prefer the hacking abilities of some of the avatars, but the ability to loot slightly more boxes isn’t worth the tradeoff of a 10% increase or more to your health. There is an avatar for many different play styles, just be prepared to grind a lot for the first few hours until your stats start to increase, making things easier as you go.

Classes vary the gameplay approach, but so does the weapon you use at any given time. There are shotguns, assault rifles, SMG’s, and more, and each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. You'll have to power through and learn what works best for you over time. Sometimes a shotgun is best for levels that have many tight hallways, allowing enemies to be funneled through narrow doorways, while more open levels are better suited for a different type of weapon. Since floors are randomly generated there’s no way to plan ahead and you must hope that you luck out with your strategy.

You also start out with a randomized secondary weapon, some of which are incredibly powerful, and others that are almost useless. You need to loot energy for the secondary meter to fill, allowing you to rely on it more, and it will be needed when you become overwhelmed during boss fights. The randomness of the characters on each spawn sometimes works out perfect (health bonus, assault rifle, and missile launcher), but there will also be times when you know you don’t have a prayer of completing many floors with the build you’ve been given (shotgun, increased melee damage, and mines). This can be frustrating, but factor in the seemingly random hit detection, and things start to slowly become a test of your patience. Sometimes aiming is on point, while other times it takes a few clips to defeat a single enemy as your shots miss.

An awesome little touch is that the bulk of the environment is destructible, and this is something that you’ll need to utilize if you want to survive. Sometimes a slew of soldiers are behind a door just waiting to destroy you as you enter, so it’s sometimes better to simply blast a hole through the wall behind them and shoot them before they notice. This is preferred as you get double damage from behind the door as well. The AI itself isn’t too bright though, and you can usually lure one or two bad guys at a time without much trouble. That is until reinforcements arrive and you’re swarmed with over a dozen enemies at once all gunning for you.

Each stage consists of a handful of floors that need to be cleared in succession before you get to challenge that stage’s boss. The bosses themselves are quite difficult, but the bigger challenge is simply getting to their floor with enough health to hopefully survive the fight. Since health regeneration spots are completely random you might show up to the boss floor with little to no health and a very slim chance of survival. What makes the boss fights even more challenging is the fact that there’s usually waves and waves of enemies that are spawned to fight you simultaneously. Once you manage to take the boss down, you can then respawn from that point anytime you die and hack back in with a new avatar.

Enemies that are killed drop credits, as does opening special boxes hidden around the floors. These credits are highly sought after as it’s the currency you’ll use to upgrade your main character (which any avatar you use every time you restart gets the benefit of) stats permanently. Since you begin as a weakling with no upgrades at all, you’re essentially forced to play though many stages repeatedly, slowly amassing credits so you can spend them on some upgrades, hopefully making your next run slightly easier.

You can upgrade your damage, criticals, damage, and more, based on how you want to play your characters. After a few hours of grinding (by getting so far then dying over and over) I finally was able to afford a good amount of upgrades thinking it would drastically change the outcome of my battles. While you may notice a slight improvement, simply upgrading a stat one or two points is completely unnoticeable, it’s not until you get a dozen or so points in that you will start to really notice a difference. To save enough credits to even get to this point takes time, a lot of it, and even more patience. While you can purchase weapons and other improvements they are only for the next run, so you’re much better off spending your hard earned credits on permanent passive upgrades rather than a slight bonus for a single run.

As a top down shooter, and with a camera that is pulled way back, don’t expect to see much detail in anything. Sure the art style itself is very stylish with its neon colors, but levels constantly take place inside the office tower you’re trying to reach the top of, so you only see the same backdrop with bland office walls and cubicles from start to finish, save for the boss rooms. Some of the rooms have a very dark pallet, making certain walkways and walls difficult to see without any neon accents. As a whole it can be pretty, but there’s absolutely no detail in anything within the walls of Neon Chrome. As for the audio, the minimal voice acting is done decently, but unskippable when you have to replay the same floor numerous times. The music is fitting but nothing is memorable in the slightest.

If you happen to have friends over there’s an included 4-player co-op mode. Sadly there’s no online mode, so if you’re unable to have other people over you’re stuck trying to reach the Overseer on your lonesome. Watching some co-op, it looks as if things become drastically easier since you have much more firepower the more friends that play alongside you. I would have stuck with Neon Chrome much longer if online co-op was implemented, but sadly that’s not the case.

Neon Chrome has a few good things going for it, with its interesting take on progression and procedurally generated floors, but it’s simply going to come down to how much time you want to grind before you can realistically survive a handful of floors at a time. It took me a few hours to save up enough credits to get my health pool to a decent level, meaning I had to start the grind all over again to work on my damage, and so on. It’s time consuming to actually get to the point of having your character with decent stats, and by that point you might already want to move on.

Given that you only see the same handful of enemies from start to finish, Neon Chrome does become repetitive, and the lack of checkpoints, other than those found when defeating bosses, can be incredibly frustrating at times. That being said, if you’re a true fan of the twin stick genre and enjoy a challenge, Neon Chrome has a lot here for you if you have a tremendous amount of patience. It’s strategic and allows for some varied gameplay based on how you want to build and play your character, just be prepared to sink a lot of time into it before you get to that point.

Suggestions: Online co-op would do wonders for longevity.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride

I don’t know if it’s because I’m growing older or if my gaming tastes are changing, but I used to scoff at games like Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride when I was younger. I never really took them serious, as I didn’t see the appeal in object finding games, but I found myself really enjoying my time with Grim Legends, regardless of its faults. Then I figured it out; after a big gaming session of The Witcher, Halo or The Division, I simply want to lay on the couch and relax with a completely different pace where I don’t need to worry about my reflexes and can let my mind solve some puzzles.

Developed by Artifex Mundi, a developer who have quite a number of games released on PC over the years, and who have made a name for themselves, specifically in the puzzle genre. They now have a handful of their titles on the Xbox One, but this was my first of them that I got to experience. I wish I found their gaming library earlier, because if there games in general are anything like Grim Legends, I know I’ll enjoy myself for the few hours it takes to complete. If you’ve played one of their games before, Grim Legends follows suit with familiar mechanics, but in the Xbox One version there are a few new mechanics to keep things fresh for the veterans.

You are returning home for your twin sister’s wedding, whom you’ve not seen in quite some time. Just before the wedding a ferocious bear crashes the party and kidnaps her, so you set out alongside her husband-to-be to find and rescue her. Something seems not right though, and the nearby bottomless pit, known as the Abyss, is a place the local villagers fear.

There is more to the story, with unforeseen events and twists, and it has potential, but it feels a little thin, only really serving as a gateway to go from one puzzle area to the next. While the voice acting isn’t perfect, it’s passable for the most part to make you believe in the characters. It’s a shame the story tends to be cliché at times, with certain events being obvious and predictable if you follow along.

As you begin Grim Legends you have the choice to play on Normal or Expert. The only real difference between the two is that expert mode takes longer to refill your hint meter and you aren’t given clues on the map of where to go next. I was expecting the puzzles to be much more involved on the harder difficulty, but it doesn’t seem like they were from what I could tell. As you begin playing you’re given a brief tutorial of how to inspect the environment, gather items, and you are 'handheld' as you get through a puzzle or two to get your feet wet. What I enjoyed was that the bulk of the puzzles tended to make sense and there weren't any solutions that were super wacky or those that required inventory items to be combined. If you need to cut a rope, you’ll need to find scissors or a sharp blade. Need to get an object out of reach? Then you’ll have to find rope or something to pull it towards you. Common sense for the most part.

You also get a companion very early on, an adorable cute kitten in fact, that at times needs to be used to solve certain puzzles by reaching specific items or scaring away a rat or toad here and there. The kitten doesn’t get used often, but when it does you get to watch a short little animation of him doing something adorable before handing the controls back over to you.

You’ll come across many different scenes, each of which need to be explored by clicking and inspecting, allowing you to gather items or solve puzzles which give you items to help you in you quest to solve the next puzzle. Many items can simply be found, but others will only be rewarded when you play through the numerous and unique puzzles or with the common hidden object games (HOG’s) which Artifex Mundi is known for. If you’re like how I was, and roll your eyes at the thought of the HOG’s, there’s an alternative mini-game you can play should you desire.

Instead of sorting through a table full of jumbled items, searching for the ones on your list, you can opt to play a game of dominoes instead. You are tasked to eventually place a domino in specific areas by chaining them together. These domino games can be challenging for the simple fact that if you make a ‘wrong’ move you can actually fail the game since there’s no way to reset the board or clear tiles that have been placed, forcing you to play the original HOG instead.

As you complete puzzles and progress from one scene to the next, unveiling small story snippets as you go, you’ll gather new items that can be used in previous scenes, allowing you to progress elsewhere or gain a new item for the next puzzle. You eventually have access to a map which allows you to fast travel from scene to scene should you desire, though you never generally have to move more than 2 or 3 areas at a time, but it’s a welcome addition.

There seems to only be a handful of puzzle types throughout the course of the game. Some have you simply collecting items tucked away and hidden, well others need you to find all the items of a set before being able to actually attempt the corresponding puzzle. There are also more unique puzzles, but they usually revolve around sliding pieces or rotating objects to find the correct solution. Lastly is the iconic HOG’s, where you need to find all the objects on your ‘grocery list’ that are hidden in plain sight in a giant mess. If you’re a puzzle aficionado, Grim Legends is no doubt able to be completed in a single sitting in a few hours, and obviously longer if you aren’t as efficient in your puzzle solving abilities and depending on how much you rely on the built in hint system. There’s an epilogue that unlocks once you complete the main game that gives you another hour of story and gameplay, though these puzzles are much more linear in fashion and you don’t travel to many different places in comparison.

Artifex Mundi has made a very clever hint system that is completely optional to use should you get stuck or frustrated on a specific puzzle. While none of the puzzles were too terribly challenging for the most part, save for a few, simply having the option of help when needed was very welcome. Pressing up on the d-pad will give you a subtle hint, but if you truly become stuck, or frustrated, you also have the option to completely skip a puzzle entirely. Sure this takes the fun out of a puzzle game, but there’s only so much punishment you can take if you really get stuck for a long period of time and don't want to resort to Youtube or walkthroughs. There’s an achievement for not using any hints for 3 puzzles in a row, and completing the game without any skips, so keep that in mind if that's your thing.

There are many different backdrops within the game's campaign, all of which are beautifully drawn and colourful. This actually took me by surprise, as the art style is very unique and incredibly charming. Every scene, even the eerie swamps and dungeons, are vibrant giving a magical vibe and tone to what you see. The background music, while not as memorable, is fitting and does the job, but it just doesn’t leave nearly the same lasting impression that the gorgeous artwork does. While the artwork and visuals are beautiful, there were numerous times where the cutscenes tended to lag, quite badly at times, making for poor framerates and performance. While it doesn’t happen at every cutscene, there was enough of them to take notice.

Gameplay performance was perfect though, as there’s very minimal loading when transitioning from one scene to the next, even when fast traveling with the map. Controls worked very well and I never found myself clicking the wrong item even with the big reticule during the HOG’s; something I expected to have issues with beforehand for whatever reason.

Even if you’re not a big fan of the genre that Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride falls under, it is a great entry point, especially if you’re looking for something more on the relaxing side of gaming. This game is a great filler between playing the bigger games out on the Xbox One allowing you to take a break now and then. Even more of a testament, my wife even enjoyed helping me during the HOG’s, and she's not a gamer at all. Now that I’ve experienced one of Artifex Mundi’s titles on the Xbox One I’m really hoping for the sequels to Grim Legends to appear on the console as well.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Fragments of Him

For some, graphics are what matters most in their games, while for some it might be the audio or the gameplay, but if you’re like me, story usually triumphs all. Sure, there are games that have great mechanics and are fun to play, but without a good story behind it all giving you purpose, it can be a hollow experience that doesn’t last long. Fragments of Him, developed by Sassybot, is something almost completely in the other spectrum, focusing solely on story and seemingly forgetting almost any gameplay elements. I’ve never “played” anything quite like it, as it’s much more of a somewhat interactive story than a true 'game'. Luckily, care has been taken to employ strong voice acting and intriguing writing, as a story-only focused game like this could have turned out a disaster if it didn’t do these two things right.

I struggled writing this review for numerous reasons. The main being that Fragments of Him is, as mentioned, simply an interactive story, as there’s not too much else to write about other than the plot itself, but doing so would spoil the intriguing narrative, which is the whole point of playing it. That being said, ignore telling about portions of the story and there’s literally almost nothing to write about, so I will describe the core basics of the story without trying to spoil too much, but there’s details that need to be relayed for you to understand the emotional weight of the narrative being told.

Fragments of Him is a somewhat of an exploration game but with many constraints. You’re being told a story so there’s really no deviating from the linear plot aside from searching around some small confined spaces looking for the next object to interact with and progress the story forward. Revolving around the life of Will, a simple man that impacted the lives of people around him, it depicts not only his final day before his sudden death, but travels back in time to explore the relationships he had with others, specifically his grandmother, ex-girlfriend, and current partner, and the effect he had on them.

You experience the story almost in a 3rd person’s perspective, simply controlling the camera much like a ghost reliving the memories of Will and the people close to him. You are confined to a specific area, usually a room with one of the characters, and as you inspect predetermined items that are highlighted it triggers some narration and progresses the story forward, somehow relating to the object that’s been clicked on. It’s a very linear experience, as you’re given an exact path of what objects to click, allowing the narration to go in order for the larger plot pieces to link together.

The world is portrayed in bland grey and light tones with a minimalist approach to the models and animations making the objects you need to inspect stand out with their highlighted yellow or red outlines. Noticing a large bookshelf or door is easy, but sometimes you’ll need to look at smaller objects that are more subtle, like a toothbrush or alarm clock, to progress forward. That’s not to say that you’ll get stuck, ever, but there will be the odd time where you’ll spend a few extra moments trying to find the next object to click on and progress.

At the very beginning of the game you’re given a few dialogue options, which I thought would be a recurring theme throughout the whole game, but there was really only two or three spots where you get some selection of such. Though in the end this doesn’t truly matter, as your choice has no bearing on anything else in the story, even the ending. I thought that by the end I would be able to somehow help Will avoid his untimely death with my choices, but it’s a linear story that’s being told with emotional weight to it.

There are multiple times in the game where you’ll bounce from character to character in an effort to describe Will in a different light and perspective, and how he has affected each person specifically. One that stood out for me was the section where you interact with his grandmother. She helped raise Will, so when she finds out about his lifestyle and doesn’t approve, it plays out like you might imagine a closed-minded thinking person would react. She later discovers that regardless of his lifestyle, and her disapproval of it, Will has turned out to be an amazing man and human being. At times though it seems that certain points of the narrative are repetitive, as it takes a good dozen times for the grandmother to explain why she doesn’t agree with his lifestyle just to make a point.

Will’s ex-girlfriend was madly in love with him, but like many couples they drifted apart for specific reasons. Her character doesn’t get as much screen time as I would have liked, as she felt a little two dimensional, and at times cliché. They had an interesting relationship that gets hinted at, but it's never delved into too far to become truly interesting. I know this sounds vague, but it’s one of the plot points that should be experienced without being spoiled.

Given that this is more of an interactive story as opposed to a traditional game, some might be turned off by the lack of interactivity outside of clicking on a few objects here and there between narration. Even though it would have been essentially the same experience without any of the interactivity, I’m still glad I got to experience it and the accompanying narrative. There’s no challenge within, no scores, nothing, aside from selecting the various highlighted objects and pressing A. This doesn’t constitute as your traditional “fun” type of game. It’s a unique experience though that tells a story, it's as simple as that. You can’t explore as much as you would like and the game dictates where you can go along its linear path.

The voice acting is very well done, but the issue that appears early on, and consistently throughout, is that the lines are broken up and linked to the items to be clicked on. This means that if you don’t click an item directly after one paragraph of dialogue is spoken before clicking the next, there’s a jarring pause between the spoken lines that becomes distracting, slightly taking away from its emotional weight and importance.

Fragments of Him is a fascinating take on storytelling with the game medium, and while I know that many simply won’t “get it”, I appreciate what it was trying to accomplish: showing the fragments of a man that touched people in his life who died much too young, and the aftermath of said event. Even with the bland visuals, the emotional storytelling is well written with plenty of subtext for those willing to pay attention and enjoy the plot that unfolds. While there’s a fascinating story within, there’s sadly no replayability after you’ve completed it. Even so, I’m still glad I got to experience its uniqueness and got to look into the beautiful life of Will.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 TurnOn

Sometimes you simply need a break from the onslaught of shooting games or any game in general that might just frustrate you more than entertain you. Some might gawk at more casual style of games, but there’s always a time and place for them when you simply want to relax on the couch and just play something for fun. Enter TurnOn, a platform game that doesn’t play anything like traditional platformers. Oh, and did I mention that it is developed by a very small team of four guys from Russia? Well it is.

You control an adorable spark of electricity who crash lands on Earth, and because of this you’ve accidentally knocked out the electricity grid of a whole city. You’re adorable and friendly though, so you task yourself with restoring power to the humans and setting things right since that’s absolutely within your capabilities. The resident scientist in the city helps you begin your journey, and as you restore light and power to the citizens each stage will take you about 5 to 10 minutes depending on how much you want to explore.

As I mentioned above, TurnOn isn’t your traditional style of platformer. You are only able to travel along powerlines and other electrically influenced areas, such as lightbulbs, neon signs, etc. Powerlines are what you’ll be tethered to the majority of the time though and they pop into the foreground with the stages backdrop and scenery layered behind. You’re able to jump from one power conduit to another, but should you miss your jump and fall to the ground you’re simply placed at the beginning of the stage. TurnOn isn’t a difficult game by any means, save for a few of the later stages, which I’ll delve into shortly, as it’s more focused on exploration and collecting all the lightning icons should you desire.

As you pass over a light or item that uses electricity it will turn on and you’ll net some points for doing this. The more lights and items you turn on, as well as collecting the lightning bolt icons littered throughout the stage, the better your overall score and rank at the end of each level. I initially thought that you needed to collect all of the lightning bolts to progress, but that’s not the case at all, as they are more relevant for high scores and achievements. Speaking of achievements, TurnOn dishes them out hand over fist and requires minimal effort to get the bulk of them, so you achievement hunters out there will enjoy this aspect.

Even though your only controls are moving side to side and being able to jump up and drop down, controls generally work the way they should and are as simplistic as it gets. Instead of simply having to get from point A to point B you have goals to complete as you turn on the electricity, such as lighting a path for a woman walking home, starting a party for some random people, or even setting a romantic mood by getting some music and lights working. It’s a silly premise, but it works in an interesting and simplistic manner telling the game's story.

While the bulk of the game is comprised of standard levels like these, that play at a leisurely pace, there are a few other types of levels thrown in to change things up, and some of them really pull down the experience as a whole due to poor and unresponsive controls. After a handful of levels you partake in an on-rails level where you are automatically moving towards the right of the screen, but you must jump and drop to stay on the powerlines that are energized, indicated by glowing blue, and avoid the ones that don't have power flowing through them, or else you restart the level.

If you’ve played the musical levels from Rayman Origins you’ll know exactly what to expect, except that in these levels, where timing is absolutely critical, you realize the controls aren’t very responsive at the best of times. Truth be told, I have struggled on one such level towards the end as I spent well over an hour on a single level, but kept dying. Granted, it’s all about memorization, but when the controls don’t work as intended, it becomes incredibly frustrating having to start from the very beginning of the stage all over again for the hundredth time with its instant fails. I really enjoyed my time with TurnOn until I got to these levels.

What TurnOn really does have going for it is its visual art style and aesthetic. Given it has more of a casual vibe (aside from the hellish on-rails stages noted above), is wonderful to see the colors when everything is lit up is very bright and vibrant. Levels go from dark and dismal to a happy and refreshing look once you manage to restore power to the area. While it may look simplistic at first glance, it has a certain charm to it, especially given the adorable spark you control. The soundtrack also completely suits the tone of TurnOn with its relaxing jams, setting a great mood for some relaxing play (other than those horrendous on-rails levels where you’ll hear the start of the songs over and over every time you have to restart).

But not is all roses here, as I ran into a few glitches on occasion that were jarring to say the least. A handful of times, for whatever reason, my spark somehow became untethered from the normal constraints of staying along powerlines, seemingly able to simply float anywhere I wanted. I don’t know how it happened or why. This also happened to me during the on-rail levels more than once as well, causing me to die when it eventually decides to work properly again out of nowhere.

TurnOn is a peculiar game, as on one hand I really enjoyed the majority of it with its slow paced exploration and quirky gameplay. On the other hand, the on-rails levels seriously tarnish the experience as a whole with poor controls and instant fails. That being said, the game is still a charming little title that is simplistic in nature, colorful, and a great way to earn some easy achievements. If you’re looking for something to just play and relax during the the majority of some gaming time, TurnOn might just spark your interest.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 GunWorld 2

I’ve been gaming pretty much my whole life. I still remember the day that I got my NES as it was a pillar foundation of my broad gaming history. Gamers my age will remember the plight of having games that seemed nearly impossible to beat unless you had the corresponding strategy guide for hints or a friend who had beat it already. I grew up on the likes of Mega Man, Legend of Zelda, and other classics, so when a game tries to mimic these experiences, waves of nostalgia comes over me, bringing me back to those days of sitting as close as I could to the TV without getting in trouble from my parents, trying repeatedly to complete a level.

Developer m07games, who just happens to be one guy actually, gives a hilarious description for his newest title, GunWorld 2. It states that it's “The sequel no one asked for, to the game that nobody liked!” The first GunWorld passed by me, but I always tend to gravitate towards NES era looking games simply because of my childhood. While looking like a classic NES game is one thing, actually making it play and feel like one is a whole other challenge, one that GunWorld 2 nails for better or worse.

From the official game description alone, you get the vibe that GunWorld 2 is full of humor and jokes throughout, and it does, and this extends to the plot as well. After the main hero Dwayne saved the planet in the first game he has gone missing and is living a life of solitude. But there’s a new alien invasion threatening the planet once again, so President Eagle seeks out Dwayne to help save humankind once again.

Now if you were wondering why the game it titled GunWorld, it’s quite simple really, as guns grow on trees. Dwyane has seeds that instantly sprout trees that can be picked and used for ammunition. It’s a silly story and premise, but it’s filled with enough jokes and humor that makes it entertaining and worth the time to enjoy, provided you can overcome its classic difficulty and actually progress.

When beginning GunWorld 2 you’re offered 3 different modes, each of which have their own unique challenges. The main mode, which I suggest focusing on, is the RPG mode. Here you play GunWorld 2 like a classic adventure game, almost a carbon copy of how Legend of Zelda II is structured. This mode has many more RPG elements within (hence the title) such as leveling up and allowing you to save your coins earned from defeated enemies to spend later. Leveling up allows Dwayne to have a larger health pool aside from the starting 3 hearts. And just like Legend of Zelda II, walking around the overworld map will show shadow-like figures that will put you into a mini battle before you can progress on your way if they run into you.

The second mode, Old-School mode, puts all of the levels in order but doesn’t have you focusing on any RPG elements, but there’s a huge caveat to this, which I found out too late. While it doesn’t mention it in the descriptions, all of the achievements for completing levels are actually tied to only the RPG mode. This became an issue for me for a few reasons, as I initially started the RPG mode for review purposes, but wanted to progress further in the game quicker so I decided to play Old-School mode instead. This was somewhat of a mistake, as I didn’t learn till hours later that your progress isn’t saved like it is in RPG mode. So, the next time I started up the game I discovered that I lost all of my progress and had to start all over, nor did I get any achievements for beating the first handful of levels after hours of retrying.

If you’re a real glutton for punishment though, the third mode will challenge your skills even more as you are only given one life and the levels themselves are random. Given that you only have three health hearts and can die instantly in pits and from spikes, good luck, you’re going to need it. This mode is truly for the sadistic gamer.

GunWorld 2 is without a doubt inspired NES classics like Mega Man and Legend of Zelda II, but there’s inspiration and then straight up copying. Just like Mega Man, you gain access to a boss weapon once he has been defeated, which you’ll need to access special areas in previously completed levels. When playing in RPG mode, new weapons must be purchased in seed form from the vendor in town. It’s an interesting little mechanic, and in Old-School mode you’re simply given access to the new weapon since you don’t need to save up the coins to purchase anything. When you’re not shooting things though Dwayne will use his combat knife to knock enemies off ledges, shatter armor, and climb surfaces.

Each level is structured much like other Mega Man games with checkpoints, but they are very far and few between. To help with the difficulty you are able to spend your coins on a respawn item should you choose (in RPG mode). This allows you to respawn right away once you die, drastically shifting the difficulty in your favor, granted that's if you can afford to keep purchasing these respawns. These may be unneeded for some diehard gamers, but for those that don’t have the time to dedicate hours on a single level, repeatedly dying, they are a welcome optional addition. There is actually an achievement for completing RPG mode without using any respawn items, so keep that in mind if you’re a 'cheevo-hunter'.

When playing RPG mode, you’re given hints of where to find the bosses on the overworld map, but be prepared to wander for some time looking for the specific area you need to go, even more so if you forget the hint you were given. This again plays almost exactly as it did in the original Legend of Zelda II, so I’m not sure if it was by design or not.

If you didn’t know that GunWorld 2 released in 2016 you could easily mistake it for a classic 8-bit NES game from the 80’s. While the overall art style looks great in the retro form that is offered, the issue I constantly had was trying to read the text boxes, as they can look hand drawn and sloppy at times. The soundtrack is very fitting of the setting and mood of the game, and it is quite catchy at times, but be prepared for repetition when you’re stuck on the same level for over an hour.

I really only had two major issues with GunWorld 2 that are worth pointing out. Technically, the game ran well aside from when transitioning from area or area or backing out to the menu. During these times it feels laggy and almost as if your system has frozen for a few moments before getting back to normal. More importantly though, the difficulty curve needs some tweaking. You begin with a small tutorial of the basics, but then the game simply throws you into the deep end without much practice against easier enemies, something that would help you get a feel for the controls. You’re taught the bare minimum and then the game lets loose, only to have die when you encounter a new type of enemy without any inclination of how to properly defeat them without losing any life. I still hate the flying birds that dive at you, almost guaranteed to knock you into a pit.

I appreciate a game that attempts to hark back to the age of difficult games, especially when the source material is some of the most beloved games from the era, but in regards to GunWorld 2, it can be quite confusing and frustrating at times. That being said, you can grind the random battles for a while and level up, gaining more health to make things easier, or spend coins on the respawn items. Regardless of my complaints though, GunWorld 2 will bring back nostalgia for anyone that grew up with a NES, and if you’re a Mega Man fan, you’re going to feel right at home. While not perfect, I had a few laughs and was entertained for a few hours, which isn’t bad considering the low entry price of $7.99 CAD. Are you a bad enough dude to go save the world?

Overall Score: 6.9 / 10 Raiden V

Most normal people calculate their age by using their birth year, or by how many candles are on their birthday cake. I however, in true geek fashion, tend to use gaming anniversaries to see how much time has passed since I grew up playing video or board games. Case in point, the classic vertical arcade shooter Raiden is celebrating its 25th anniversary, making me 10 when it was released and finding a way into my young adolescent gaming heart.

While Raiden was not my first shmup (shoot ‘em up), as I think that award goes to 1942 on the original NES, it has always been one of my favorites over the years, mostly because of its iconic purple waving plasma gun that the series is well known for. Originally developed by Seibu Kaihatsu, a Japanese gaming studio, Raiden brought them success, but only for so long. Eventually the company went under, but many of the developers formed a new company, MOSS, whom to this day still work on Raiden titles, much like this Xbox One exclusive, Raiden V.

When translated, Raiden actually means “Thunder and Lightning”, which seems appropriate given some of the arsenal at your ship’s disposal. Normally shmups are known for one single thing: throwing tons of bullets at you along with tons of enemies and seemingly unfair bosses that feel like they were designed to munch down your pocket full of quarters. These days there aren’t nearly as many shmups as their used to be, and even less that still feel like the classics. Raiden V is a return of the classic genre, almost to a fault.

The genre is known for its gameplay and difficulty more than anything else, but given the age of gaming we’re in today, that simply isn’t enough to hold the attention of gamers, especially if you’re charging near retail price for a classic style game (Raiden V is $49.99 CAD on the Xbox Marketplace at the time of writing). MOSS has attempted to tell an intriguing story as well as bring a solid gaming experience for fans of the genre, but the execution doesn’t actually allow you to enjoy it. Let me explain.

In most games you complete a level and then you are treated to a cutscene of some sort that progresses the story and moves along the narrative. In regards to Raiden V, it has a storyline and plot, but it’s only told via character dialogue which takes place during gameplay. That’s right, when you’re solely focused on avoiding bullets and staying alive you’re also expected to follow the spoken dialogue so that you can get an idea of the overarching plot line.

As you can imagine, this simply doesn’t work at all. I’ve completed the game numerous times and I’m still fuzzy on some the narrative's details. I appreciate that MOSS has attempted to add some meaningful storyline to the genre and series, but the execution simply doesn’t work. Granted, story isn’t usually a reason you play a shmup anyways, but I digress.

Given that Raiden V is a vertical shooter and not a traditional side-scroller, you’ll notice that the actual play field is nowhere near as wide as your TV screen. The sides of the screen are used for tips, dialogue text, statistics, and more. Again, you won't actually be able to pay attention to these kind of things during the frantic gameplay. It takes some getting used to given you actually only play on about a third of your screen, but it becomes less distracting the more you play.

For those unfamiliar with bullet-hell games, your main priority is to stay alive by dodging the huge number of bullets on screen while shooting at enemies who want to destroy you. The genre is known for its brutal difficulty and the high skill needed to be successful. Normally one hit and you explode and lose a life, but new to the series is the inclusion of a health bar system; something quite uncommon in games like this.

You choose one of three ships, of which each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. One is very slow but can take more hits (damage), one is quicker but has less health, and the third is average across the board. There are achievements for beating Raiden V with all three, and given the short start-to-finish time, you’ll want to do this.

After choosing your ship you are provided with numerous options for your weaponry, again, not the norm for the genre. Normally you only start with a a basic shot and you have to collect floating power-ups to upgrade, but Raiden V lets you start with a weapon type of your choice, which include three different types including Vulkan, Laser, and Plasma. Within these three initial weapons are three variants. You pick one of each from the three main categories and then choose which individual one of each you’d like to use during that particular gameplay session. The weapons can be upgraded from level 1 to level 10 separately and they are swappable when you collect the matching colored power-up, all which can drastically change the outcome of the battle given your play style and skill.

As I mentioned, I’ve always been partial to the classic Raiden purple plasma beam that bends and locks onto enemies, but other classics like the blue laser beam return as well. While you are able to change weapons when you find the power-ups during gameplay, they aren’t very frequent so the best bet is to simply stick with one weapon and keep upgrading it rather than trying to have numerous lower-level weapons.

One very cool innovation from MOSS worth mentioning is its unique, yet odd, Cheer system. This took me a few playthroughs to figure out, as it’s not explained anywhere at all. Essentially, when playing you are connected to the game servers allowing other people currently playing to see that you just finished the first level, beat a boss, got a certain combo, and many more in-game actions.

On the left sidebar you’ll see that XBOXGAMER_420_SNIPE_MLGXxX just got some form of achievement in game, so you can use a dedicated button (of which, all buttons can be remapped) to give them a Cheer. Doing so will not only make them feel good about themselves, as the amount of Cheers received are counted on the screen for you and it fills a small meter, that when full, allows you to unleash a powerful special attack, so it pays to Cheer others on. As I said, it’s a very odd gameplay mechanic, but I have to admit it’s satisfying to see others send Cheer’s when I do something noteworthy in the single player game.

Shmups live and die by their precision gameplay. With so many projectiles to avoid on screen, if the controls aren’t tight and precise you’re going to have a bad time throughout. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case with Raiden V, as it has the required precision and smooth controls. This allows all people, no matter what skill, to play and enjoy the game (though the unlimited continues definitely help) without having to worry about unfairness or terrible controls that plague some games of this type.

Shumps are also meant to be played over and over again to work your way to a high score, and given that Raiden V includes online leaderboards, this will be your main source of longevity considering that each playthrough lasts roughly an hour. Sure there are multiple ships and weapon combinations to play with, but that will only last you so long unless you’re truly dedicated.

There are some negative issues that are worth mentioning. While the controls are spot on, some of the visuals are not. For example, there are some backgrounds that make it near impossible to see the bullets hurling towards you. The same goes for some enemies ships that seemingly tend to blend into the background at times. I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve blown up because of these ‘phantom’ bullets that seemingly come out of nowhere. Again, the overlapping dialogue during gameplay is the other big miss that makes it near impossible to follow along if you actually care about the narrative.

It’s quite rare for a Japanese developer to create an exclusive title for Xbox One, especially a niche 2D-shoot 'em up, but I’m glad they did. Raiden V is without a doubt a solid shmup experience from start to finish (and start to finish again and again), but the real question is if it’s worth the asking price of $49.99 CAD. If you’re an old school gaming fan of the genre, like myself, you’ll easily find value here with lots of replayability, even more so if you want to climb the online leaderboards. That being said, everyone that isn’t into this niche genre will no doubt wonder how a game like this is priced so high, so this group of gamers may want to give it a chance once it’s on sale. At the end of the day, if you want to experience a solid shmup like the ones you may have grown up with so many years ago, Raiden V is worth a close look.

Overall Score: 7.9 / 10 Anima: Gate of Memories

Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I’m still always a little surprised when I see a game release that was a successful Kickstarter project; even more so when the game itself is actually decent and lives up to its promises. That’s what we have here with Anima: Gate of Memories. If the Anima title seems familiar, that’s because there was a game previously released game that was set in the same universe titled Ark of Sinners, though Game of Memories is developed by a completely different team, a small trio actually, though it still employs the original writer.

I love my RPG’s, though as I get older, and now have a toddler to care for among other adult responsibilities, it’s becoming much more difficult to pour 100+ hours into a single game, especially since my backlog is already big enough as it is. Luckily Anima: Gate of Memories isn’t that long of a commitment, and that’s a good thing in this case as it has a grandiose feeling you’d expect from an open RPG, but you don’t have to give up your social life to complete it.

Anima’s narrative revolves around two core characters, The Bearer of Calamities (The Bearer for short) and Ergo Mundus. The Bearer is a young woman who has no recollection of who she is or what her name was, which is due to a pact that was made with Ergo a decade ago. As a team, though not always by choice, they work for an entity called Nathaniel, tasked with defeating creatures from the darkness and essentially keeping the impending evil out of the world.

An ancient artifact, The Byblos, has been stolen, and The Bearer is tasked with retrieving it. Upon catching up with the thief and defeating them, something goes wrong and they awaken in a strange building with seemingly no escape, unaware to what has happened. I don’t want to give much more away from the main story, as it can be interesting as long as you’re able to follow along, just be aware that it can be confusing at times to keep up. You’ll understand the main characters and conflict no problem, but the smaller details and reveals weren’t always as easy to follow, be it the convoluted writing, or the sometimes (but not always) terrible voice acting.

The most interesting part of Anima’s story is the relationship between The Bearer and Ergo, and given that Ergo is trapped inside of a book that The Bearer carries around, Ergo is only able to be released when ‘switching’ spots with The Bearer. As you progress you find out more revelations about their pact and their pasts, though they are completely contrast personalities, which sometimes works for the narrative, and other times is cringe worthy when you hear Ergo call The Bearer “baby” for the hundredth time. The Bearer is much more serene, honest, and good-natured, where Ergo is the complete opposite. The personality clashes make for some witty banter at times, but it’s hit or miss given the writing and voice acting.

As for gameplay, the overall package is that of an RPG but it has hack and slash combat very reminiscent of a Devil May Cry or Darksiders. You’re able to explore freely in the mostly open world environments, though many areas are locked behind progression gates. The outside world is very colorful and vibrant where the indoor sections tend to be very dark and moody, both of which encourage exploration for secrets and hidden items. There are even some puzzle elements included within, some of which are very simple while others will have you completely stumped.

Although you’re given freedom to explore, and it can be seen as a positive, one issue I ran into a few hours in was that there’s little to no help to guide you to where or what you should be doing at any given time. I understand that the open freedom is something that is important in a RPG like this, but there’s no journal or quest log for you to reference what you “should” be doing or working towards next. This becomes frustrating, as I was stuck for a few days, essentially doing nothing aside from searching every area for where to go next. By sheer luck I eventually figured it out but I was close to giving up, as I was simply running around in circles from area to area trying to solve what I was supposed to be doing.

At any time during exploration or combat you can freely switch between The Bearer and Ergo with a simple press of a button, and you will need to master this in combat if you want to make any sort of progression. Both of the characters have their own strengths and weaknesses, as The Bearer is more magic based and better suited for long range attacks, whereas Ergo is more at home up and close and personal in melee range, hacking and slashing away at enemies.

You’ll need to master switching between the two in-game characters because early on you’ll learn that certain enemies can only take damage from one or the other. For example, the white enemies need to be beaten by The Bearer and the dark ones can only damaged from Ergo, so when a mixed group attacks, you’ll be forced to constantly switch between the two. Unexpectedly, both characters have their own health bars as well, along with their individual move sets that can be customized to almost any button you like.

As you defeat enemies and earn experience you’ll eventually level up which grants you skill points to spend however you wish. The skill tree is where you’ll customize each character (both with their own skill points to spend) by adding new combat moves, passive abilities, and other bonuses. You can choose to focus on making each character better at their natural roles or focus on rounding out all their skills instead, it’s completely up to you. As you choose progressive skills further down the skill tree, you can choose passive bonuses as well, and sometimes I found myself choosing skills I necessarily wasn’t planning on using, but choosing them for the passives instead, like more health. The issue with the skill tree isn’t the abilities themselves, but the navigation. If you want to look at the ability below the one that’s highlighted, you simply can’t just press down; you have to follow the ‘path’ with the control stick, making navigating the menu much more of an chore than it should be.

Playing as The Bearer, you are more magic focused. You use Ergo's pages as your projectiles since he is bound to his book form when not being directly used. When playing directly as Ergo though, he uses his claws and violence to cut through enemies instead. ‘X’ is your standard attack, ‘Right Trigger’ is your always important dodge, and you can map any learned abilities to ‘Y’, ‘B’, and ‘Left Trigger’. As you learn more moves and abilities, it's up to you to figure out what combination works well with each other for your play style, just remember that you’ll constantly be swapping between the two characters, so mapping similar skills on the same button is highly suggested when you’re starting out.

Standard enemies don’t generally pose too much of a threat, that is until swarms are surrounding you, but the boss battles are the real challenge, forcing you to learn their patterns and weaknesses on the fly. While they are nowhere near the difficulty you’d expect in something like Dark Souls, regardless, you will need to memorize their subtle tells and possess quick reflexes to defeat them. You’ll eventually find a handful of moves that work best, but until that point the sudden spike in difficulty can be frustrating.

Combat itself works decently, and you’re given a lock-on system to help, but sometimes it becomes more of a hindrance than an aid. You’re able to switch between enemies, but in the heat of battle it seems like pure luck at times if you are locked on to your intended target. It’s usually much quicker to turn off the auto-lock, aim at your desired target, and then turn it back on. Doing so during a boss fight with multiple enemies though can easily spell defeat.

There are many items and secrets to find if you take the time, allowing for an enjoyable journey if you like exploring the intertwined areas. More often than not you’ll come across some type of barrier stopping your progress, but eventually after unlocking a new ability or defeating specific enemies you’ll be granted access to pass and progress onward. As I mentioned above, I simply wish there was some sort of journal or guideline to at least give hints of where you “should” be headed in case you’ve forgotten or put down the game for a while.

As for Anima’s visuals, it has a classic anime style to it that suits the source material, and a sharp looking cel-shaded feel that doesn’t look like it was made by only three people. Its art style is appealing to the eye and the spell effects during combat are quite impressive as well. The only note of contention is that the cutscenes don’t always look as slick or polished, which is usually the opposite issue in most games.

As for the audio, the music is quite well done and combat sounds great, but man, the voice acting at times can be outright cringe worthy. The dialogue is well written and is delivered without issue, but other times there are some terribly written lines that are just painful to listen to. Some jokes are quite funny, and I have to give special mention to any game that has a “Reading Rainbow” reference in song form, but many other times the jokes simply didn’t work as intended.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect with Anima: Gate of Memories, as some indie games, or even blockbusters for that matter, can really be a hit or miss. Luckily I’m able to report that Anima is worthy of a recommendation. It’s not without its faults though, but as an overall package it has a solid foundation of gameplay mechanics that should keep you entertained for a while. If you love RPG’s with a mix of hack and slash combat, then give Anima: Gate of Memories a look and join The Bearer and Ergo as they fight back the darkness.

Suggestions: Please add some form of guideline of where to head next, even if it's a subtle clue or talking to a NPC. Trying to remember where you wanted to go after putting the game down for a while leads to wandering aimlessly.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Super Night Riders

I generally know not to judge a book, or game, by its cover, but sometimes it’s hard not to. Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised, as the gameplay is much better than its projected visuals, and other times, well, your initial judgments are right. Super Night riders fell into this trap for me, as it’s simply not a pretty game to look at, which is forgivable if the gameplay more than makes up for it, but is that the case here? Let’s find out.

Sega AM2 was the undeniable king of racers in the mid 80’s, bringing us such classics as OutRun and Hang-On that still hold up to this day. Instead of a traditional style of racer these games didn't focus on coming in first place as your goal was to reach the end before the time ran out instead, which was a completely different type of challenge.

Playing games from this genre brings back a flood of memories of going to the arcade as a kid and dumping a handful of quarters into OutRun until I was completely out of money. If you’re a fan of the genre like myself, you’ll feel right at home with Super Night Riders, but just know that this title is nowhere near the classics in terms of quality or gameplay.

The genre isn’t known for having any sophisticated stories to tell, in fact, they usually don’t have any sort of story at all. Super Night Riders is no different, so it’s hard to fault it for that. The only issue I found was that the official description of the game states that “You are Alice, a beautiful and talented motorcyclist known as the red rider”, but it does absolutely nothing to further this notion and make it intriguing.

Just like the classics, Super Night Riders utilizes an art style that looks like it could have released back in the 90’s, and while that’s fine for what it is, it looks very basic in many ways. Alice, for example, looks like a Mii character gone wrong and the animations are extremely basic at best. I understand that it’s not trying to be more, but it simply doesn’t have any of the charm that the classics possess. Given the repetitive nature of the genre, somehow Super Night Riders has managed to design itself to the point of dull with its predictable AI layout (which I’ll delve into shortly).

There are two modes within, Course and Stage. Course is where you race through 6 different areas successively while Stage is locked to a single area, but you race the sections at different times of day. With a total of 36 stages (6 areas x 6 times of day) you’ll see all of the backdrops in just a few playthroughs, though they don’t differ at all aside from the difficulty of night racing. Your only goal is to beat the clock and make it to the finish line of the 6th leg.

The only hazards Alice needs to watch for are veering off course and other riders on the road. There’s no animations for crashing, so all that happens when you rear-end an opponent is you simply come to a complete stop and lose precious time. You’ll learn very quickly that if you crash more than two times it’s virtually impossible to make it to the finish, as you’re given very little extra time even if you have a perfect run.

As mentioned above, the AI is predictable to the point that there’s actually a pattern instead of a true AI. While you can steer anywhere on the road, there’s essentially only 5 lanes that the AI stick to: the outer left, left, middle, right, and outer right. For the first hour I was simply guessing at where the bikers would appear on the road, relying on my reflexes to avoid them, but I eventually learned the pattern that is used, making it completely predictable and nullifying any skill needed to avoid them aside from the sloppy controls.

Opponents always come in the same repeated pattern, and there’s only three groups of these bikers, so needless to say it’s a shame that it’s not randomized or at least has more patterns. Regardless of stage or area, it’s always the same: Two in the left lanes, one in the middle, two on the right, repeat. That’s it. So while it’s anticipated, the loose controls make it more difficult than it should be to avoid them (or go off the track), especially when you know where the bikers will be.

Because you’re given just the right amount of time to reach the checkpoints, save for maybe a crash or two, you need virtually flawless runs if you want to progress to all 6 stages, but this is very difficult with the loose controls. If you lean into a turn slightly before you instinctively want to, your motorcycle’s wheels will grip as if they were made out of glue, allowing you to lightly feather off the throttle to adjust and avoid rear-ending opponents. Other times though, and more often than not, you’ll constantly be skidding, making it near impossible to stay on the track and avoid other bikers without slowing down too much to correct your turning. This leads to a lost stage because you’ve wasted too much time trying to correct your steering.

It simply feels as though that you have to worry about concentrating on the controls rather than relying on your skill. You’re also going to have to use all of your concentration when it comes to the absolutely terrible night stages. The street lights emit light that is so bright and flashing (since you’re constantly speeding at 315 km/h) that it’s near impossible to not only see the oncoming bikers (even though you know the pattern), but the curve of the road to prepare to pre-lean into the corner.

For some reason, there is also random framerate issues that occur which cause you to crash almost without fail. This tends to happen when you cross from one stage leg into another, causing a prolonged stutter when the game tries to transition from one setting to the next. Given that you’re constantly steering and avoiding adversaries, you’re almost guaranteed to crash when this happens. If this only happened once or twice I would have written it off as a random glitch, but it’s happened enough times to worth mentioning.

If you’ve somehow managed to survive and make it through all 6 sets of stages, you’ll be challenged with a final challenge, completing all 36 stages in one single race, complete with the same and painful time restrictions. This is simply for people that have a glutton for punishment and achievement hunting.

I love that Super Night Riders is a homage to a dead genre and that it tries to replicate what others have done before, but for a new generation, unfortunately it just doesn’t have the same charm that the classics possess. If it was only a few bucks I would say it would be a decent way to pass some time, but the asking price is $9.99 CAD which I feel is a bit too much for what is offered. If you’re an old school fan of the genre, like myself, pick it up when it’s on sale for about half price, otherwise I would hold off, as there’s simply not enough content or refinement to justify the current asking price.

Overall Score: 3.0 / 10 Mystery Castle

To some, puzzle games may fall into a niche category, which can be true, but to others, they can be just as memorable as some of the biggest and most popular titles as well. I fall into the latter, where I have some great gaming memories that come from some of the best classic puzzle games. For instance, my favorite puzzle game of all time is an old NES classic, Adventures of Lolo, which my current review of a game called Mystery Castle really reminds me of in certain aspects.

Most puzzle games have something unique about them that makes them stand out against the competition in the genre, whether it be the teleportation aspect of Portal or the time powers of Braid. Some simply rely on their charm and clever-yet-challenging puzzles to carry its own weight. While Mystery Castle may not have a special mechanic that makes it stand out brightly against the competition, what it does have is a more tried and true approach to the genre, crafting some very cunning and challenging puzzles that will be sure to stump even the most veteran players. Sticking to the more tried and true path isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the gameplay works well and the puzzle difficulty is refined, both of which Mystery Castle possesses.

Most puzzle games simply focus on gameplay and forgo even attempting to try and tell a compelling story. Mystery Castle attempts to remedy this by adding a narrative that follows a stocky wizard who must explore different castles, each of which has over 30 floors to complete, before liberating each one from the boss that has overtaken it. Even though the hero doesn’t have any real magic, he is still the one that the residents of the castles ask for help, presumably since there’s no one else that can take on this task.

Sure, it’s a weak premise for a story, but at least there’s an attempt, and the humorous writing makes it passable. Given that I was fully expecting no story at all, it’s a welcome addition, and the amount of fat jokes from the people he’s trying to help is at times worth a chuckle or two. If you’ve ever wanted to play a puzzle game that had cheesy fat jokes in it, Mystery Castle is your dream come true.

Each of the 180 levels, save for the bosses, has you collecting 5 objects (snowflakes, parchments, diamonds, etc) before the exit door will open allowing you to progress to the next stage. The first handful of levels are incredibly easy and will have you thinking that you will complete the game in no time, but new mechanics are eventually introduced and the intricacy of the puzzles starts to become more and more complex, surely to stump the best puzzle solvers out there for some time.

Puzzles begin with simply having to push (not pull though, and yes, there’s a reason that’s explained) crates to unblock pathways and fill bottomless gaps, but soon you’ll have to also contend with floors that break away after one or two steps, monsters, keys, teleports, bombs, lava, ice, and more. Each of the castles has its own theme and presents its own challenges that are unique to itself, always sure to keep you on your toes just as you start to figure out the basic puzzle designs.

Runestone Games has done a great job at introducing each type of obstacle, be it an item or an enemy, and slowly ramps up the difficulty and complexity without hitting too many walls of difficulty out of nowhere. Mystery Castle is all about trial and error, and you’ll experience many stages where you’ll need to repeat it many times because of a simple mistake or poorly planned movement, but the pride you get when that “a-hah!” moment happens is fantastic as you make your way to the exit door.

Another thing about Mystery Castle is that it is very cheeky about is giving you either extra items (bombs, crates, etc.) or an ‘obvious’ path that you should take, when in reality these are ploys to fool you or make you overthink the solutions. So many times I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with the ‘extra’ crates or keys when they were actually simply there to distract or fool me into thinking a specific way (usually completely wrong). Most puzzle games give you only what you need to solve the stages, so once you come to the realization that Mystery Castle doesn’t follow this rule on purpose, you’ll figure things out much quicker.

Once you get a dozen or so levels into each castle you’ll find that each stage seemingly has a simple solution; that is until you get to the final step or object you need to collect, and you come to the realization that you’re stuck and need to restart. Some floors will require you to not only think two or three steps ahead, but way more than that if you don’t want to have to restart after becoming unable to complete it due to poor planning or a misstep. A quick tap of the ‘Y’ button zooms the screen out, allowing you to see the whole floor and strategize with an overview.

There are also some stages that not only require you to find the proper solution, but you have to time your movements correctly as well. These stages aren’t frequent, but they bring another layer of difficulty that forces you to think in other ways, even after you’ve figured out the puzzle aspect of the level. These levels can be tricky given the occasional stiff controls of our hero. Many times I walked into lava or fell into a pit due to the controls when I didn’t mean to at all because I was trying to rush to the exit. I love that there are also boss stages in a puzzle game, requiring you to use three bombs (it’s a videogame, of course it’s three) on said boss to recapture the castle.

Although I found that I enjoyed Mystery Castle, there was one issue that continually reoccured after every stage. When you complete a floor you’re taken back to the level select screen, but instead of defaulting to to the next floor, it stays on the one you just completed. I accidentally selected the same stage more than a few times forcing me to quit out and choose the proper one. Not a deal breaker by any means, just an annoyance that occurs after every stage. This would be alleviated if there was an option to simply go to the next stage after completing one, as that’s the norm for game design.

Mystery Castle is a very friendly looking and colorful experience. The character designs are fun and cartoony but the stages themselves all look familiar to one another for the most part. I get that they should all share the same theme given you’re making your way up a castle, but there’s no distinction between the floors aesthetically. As for the audio, there’s no voice acting for the dialogue, and while the music is suitable, it’s forgettable.

As mentioned above, Mystery Castle doesn’t necessarily do anything crazy or unique to separate itself from others in the genre, but what Runestone Games did perfectly was recapture that nostalgic feel of the older puzzle games, much like my beloved Adventures of Lolo. With 180 levels to solve, some will be completed in moments while others will have you stumped and turning to YouTube for a walkthrough, if you’re like me, to simply get to the next stage. Mystery Castle tends to follow specific patterns for level solutions, but it takes some time to figure out the tricks they use, and even then, you’re always thrown new obstacles to deal with to keep things fresh. Plus, who doesn’t want to laugh at a few fat wizard jokes while solving puzzles, right?

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Paranautical Activity

This review took quite some time for me to write. To be honest, it took a long time to even begin, as I had to find the right way to describe my time with Paranautical Activity without sounding too unfairly harsh or critical even though my pro and con list that I kept track of while playing was heavily filled on one side and not the other. If you were to only look at the cover art for the game, you would most likely never guess that Paranautical Activity is a fast paced first person shooter that resembles some sort of crazy Minecraft mod. If the original Doom or Wolfenstein had a messed up offspring with Minecraft, Paranautical Activity would be the result. Is this the offspring that should be locked away in the basement or allowed outside to see the light of day?

Normally I would begin to describe the game’s story and plot, detailing the beginning and main narrative to give you a vague idea of what to expect. Sadly I’m unable to do so here, as there is no campaign included. The main menu simply offers you a Classic Mode to begin with (harder difficulties are unlocked later on), throwing you into the action with no explanation as to who, what, or why. I was at least expecting that quick and cheesy slideshow storyboard style of narrative to give some context to what you’re doing and why, but alas, nothing of the sort is included.

Speaking of the main menu, the very first thing you’re going to notice is that this Xbox One version is clearly a quick, and dare I say lazy, port of the PC version as you need to move a cursor on the screen to select your menu options, as opposed to using the D-pad like in every other standardized console game. When the very first thing that runs through your mind when starting a new game is “what the hell?”, it doesn’t bode well. Paranautical Activity makes no attempt at introducing itself to you in any way, even lacking a tutorial or any sort of explanation of how to play. It’s akin to a stranger coming up to you and start talking about their life, and they didn’t even introduce themselves, shake your hand, or say hello. That’s how awkward this feels from the very beginning moments.

Visually, Paranautical will no doubt draw parallels with Minecraft simply because of its 3D block style, but instead of being bright and cheery, its palette is very dark and drab. It has a retro vibe to it, but because the overall game itself is so dark, enemies get easily lost within the rooms, blending into the bland darkness. Everything is simply so dark, so grey and so black that it’s hard to appreciate many of the enemies uniqueness, especially the bosses, even more so because you’re constantly having to move and strafe to survive.

After you awkwardly choose Classic Mode from the main menu, you’re then given the options of different weapon loadouts to choose from. Each weapon has their own strength and weakness, and even though you’re given a couple of options I didn’t really enjoy any of the starting weapons at all. The best ones need to be bought or found as you progress through the game; that is until you die, which I’ll get into shortly. There’s a crossbow, shotgun, sickle, and a grenade launcher for the base weapon choices. Each comes with an accompanying secondary ‘super’ weapon as well, of which I didn’t really like any of them either, as they all have very limited ammo and don’t feel as powerful as they should. Why a katana requires ammo as a super weapon is beyond me, simply accept it carry on.

Once you figure out the basic controls on your own, you rise in an elevator onto the first floor of eight. Each floor is randomly generated, not just in layout but enemies and bosses as well. Most rooms are monster rooms that need to be cleared before the adjacent doors unlock, much like classic Legend of Zelda dungeons, but if you’re lucky you’ll come across special weapon rooms where you can spend your stash of coins from downed enemies. Once you finally find the red door, which indicates a boss room, make sure you’re ready. Defeating the boss allows you to take an elevator up to the next floor; rinse and repeat.

Oh, did I mention what happens if you chose the wrong weapon for that boss and die? Time to start from scratch. Yup, all those coins and upgrades you earned are gone and you’re back to the first floor with just your starting weapon. I’m all for a good challenge, but only when it’s fair. This doesn’t feel fair at the best of times. You have so little health on the first few floors that you’ll be lucky to survive long enough to get a health boost or better weapon.

While I enjoy that floor layouts are completely random on each playthrough, the complete randomness of the enemies becomes quite frustrating because of their imbalance. Some enemies are quite easy and weak, while others are much more powerful or can move faster than you, almost always guaranteeing your death (I hate those land sharks with a passion). This leads to some easy runs where you’ll beat a few floors no problem, but you'll then hit a massive spike in difficulty in a single room (not even always a boss room either) resulting in your death and having to start all over. The next 10 times you might not even make it past the first floor. This complete randomness made me want to play less rather than try to overcome it. Paranautical Activity’s difficulty is completely random instead of a finely tuned experience, say when compared to another difficult game, albeit in a different genre, Dark Souls III.

There are two higher difficulties to unlock, but to reach them is near impossible given how challenging it is to defeat all 8 floors on 'normal' Classic Mode, and given the frustration I’ve been having with it I really wonder what others may think. Very few times I was even able to save up enough coins to purchase one of the better items before dying and having to start over from scratch each and every time.

As for the audio, it simply sounds as if it’s there, just doing what it needs to. There’s nothing special about the weapon’s ‘pew-pew’ auditory sounds, though I do have to say the standout surprise is the decent dubstep soundtrack that is included in the game. The music blasts as you make your way through each room and floor, making a great companion for the relentless and nonstop action.

Even though the Paranautical Activity boasts about its procedurally generated rooms and enemies, it all feels and looks the same save for the bosses. You’ll constantly circle strafe, attempting to clear the enemies before they can shoot or run into you, hoping you don’t die and have to restart. Sure, there may be those few out there who have no issues with the constant challenge, but I’m clearly on the other side of the fence on this one. The constant restarting from scratch deterred me from playing rather than wanting to overcome the challenges, especially when they are completely randomized. It simply feels unrewarding for throwing yourself at it, unless you truly want to unlock the harder difficulty modes and achievement hunt.

I really wanted to like Paranautical Activity, as there’s always a time and place for a mindless shooter, but it’s simply too unforgiving to keep your attention. Menu issues, lack of story, and difficulty aside, it feels like the Xbox One port was almost an afterthought and done on a whim, resulting in a forgettable experience.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Adam's Venture: Origins

It was my sworn duty that I had to review Adam’s Venture: Origins given that I share the same name as the protagonist. Originally released on PC in episodic form starting back in 2009, all three episodes were eventually compiled in a collection titled Adam’s Venture: Chronicles back in 2015. Now a year later, it’s been reimagined and 'HD-ified' for current gen systems. It also boasts new title too; Adam’s Venture: Origins (simply referred to as Origins from here on).

Origins is a puzzle game at heart, but it also employs a sense of adventure by drawing from such inspirations as Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. That being said, you use your brains over brawn, as there’s actually no combat employed within Origins at all, so you’ll need to make sure you bring your thinking cap with you, as some of the puzzles can be a challenge.

Set in the 1920’s, you play as the adventurer Adam, discovering ancient ruins and in the search of ancient relics while also figuring out what the evil Clairvaux Corporation is up to. Accompanied by your sidekick Evelyn, you must use your wits to find solutions to puzzles blocking your path at every turn, which is ironic given how dense he comes across with his terrible dialogue and cringe worthy one-liners.

For a puzzle based game there is a story included within that’s a little heftier than what I was expecting, but it’s not written very well, and since you’re constantly being whisked from area to area, it’s a little difficult to follow aside from the ‘stop the evil guy from taking over the world’ trope. The story takes a backseat to the puzzle solving, and even though it tries to engage you with interesting locales and adventuring gameplay, it all feels too familiar if you’re an Indiana Jones fan.

Given that Origins is a puzzle game at its core, expect to be constantly impeded from progressing with puzzles, one after another. Sometimes they are placed quite cleverly and are intricate, while other times you’re simply looking for gas cans to fill a car blocking your path. Puzzle solving is continuous, aside from the odd stretch of platforming or mine cart riding. Even the very first obstacle you face as you begin Adam’s journey has you finding a specific book in a library, but of course nothing comes easy for you. You’ll have to rearrange portraits, solve a ladder puzzle, and complete a few more obtuse steps to reach your goal. It’s puzzles like this that simply feel like they are there as additional padding for game length rather than clever and intricate design.

Add to this that your adventure is painfully linear, there’s no branching paths to explore and you can’t progress to the next section without solving the current puzzle that’s in your way. Even though there’s a few small nooks and crannies that look like they should be explored, there’s absolutely no need to, as there’s no extra collectibles or anything to search for during your play time; something that would have been welcomed to add replayability.

Even though the game is completely linear, the lack of direction can be quite frustrating at times. You always have an objective listed at the top of your screen but more times than not it’s painfully vague and doesn’t give you any hints of what to do exactly, or even how to do it. Some puzzles are clever and make sense, while others are obtuse and have you scratching your head looking for not just the solution, but how to even figure out the result.

While puzzle solving is the center point of Origins, the other aspect of gameplay is some Indy-style platforming action with your grappling hook that allows you to swing easily from area to area or pull down pillars and objects in your way. You need not worry about enemies though as there’s absolutely no combat during your adventure. There are a few sections where you need to avoid patrolling guards, and these are some of the worst parts of the game, as there’s no stealth mechanics in place or easy way to see a guards path, so it’s trial and error for the most part.

If you’ve previously played Adam’s Venture you'll notice a few changes. First and foremost, it utilizes a whole new graphics engine, which is noticeable when you see the old visuals compared to new ones. Even with the new engine and coat of fresh paint it still looks quite dated. Some areas of the game look great, but many of the models, and especially the animations, are quite mediocre at best. Coupled with terrible pop-in issues and screen tearing, it’s hard to appreciate the hard work that was done to make things look better when other issues take you out of the immersive experience. You'll also notice that the three separate episodes now flow together in one somewhat cohesive storyline. Finally, the grappling hook allows for some new platforming challenges including some inadvertent ones like the loose and sloppy controls when needing precision.

I quite enjoyed the challenge of most of the puzzles I faced, as they weren’t terribly difficult save for a few in the latter half of the game that simply require brute strength guessing, but solving these ones gives you a sense of accomplishment. Most puzzles have logical solutions as soon as you figure out the required pattern or exactly how to do so.

On the down side, Adam’s journey only lasts a few short hours, fluctuating based on how clever you are at puzzle solving. You’ll finish it in a sitting or two if you try, and because there’s no collectibles or anything to do once you’ve completed the story, there’s absolutely no real reason to go back and play through again aside from cleaning up one or two optional secret achievements. If the journey had more freedom of exploration and side objectives to do it would feel like more of a complete experience, especially given the current price tag.

The worst offender affecting the game though is no doubt the terrible dialogue and even worse voice acting. The script simply isn’t well written and instead of Adam’s character being a lovable protagonist that I wanted to see save the day, I didn’t feel all that bad for him when he fell to his death for the tenth time, due to the loose controls, because of his terrible dialogue and one-liners that are poorly written and acted even worse.

At times it feels like Adam's Venture: Origins is simply trying to do too many things without focusing on making one of them truly great. It's as if it’s trying too hard to be an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider adventure game whle also being a puzzle classic like Broken Sword, but it excels at neither. It does have a certain charm to it combined with a bit of nostalgia, and I’m glad I played through it until the credits, but I wish there was simply some more focus to the puzzles, as that’s why fans will ultimately purchase the game. Even though it may not fully be worth the price of entry at this moment of writing, any puzzle game fan is sure to find some entertainment within, as long as you can handle a terrible sense of humor and bland action gameplay that is included.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Active Soccer 2 DX

I’ll freely admit that I’m not the biggest soccer (or football, depending on which side of the water you come from) fan out there, but I do occasionally dabble in the odd game of FIFA if friends call for it. Heck, my best friend and I used to play Winning Eleven every night back in the PS2 days, so I’m no stranger to the soccer game offerings. Every year, gamers have the two options for their "footy" fix, that being EA’s FIFA or Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), and that’s been about it for quite a few years now.

Many gamers either prefer FIFA’s realism or the slightly more arcade style of PES, but there’s hasn’t been a soccer game in recent memory that simply tried to bring a fun experience without taking itself too serious or having to be licensed. Active Soccer 2 DX tries to remedy this by bringing a previously mobile only title over to the console for Xbox fans wanting something different. Do they succeed? Well, it is different, that’s for sure, I’m just unsure if it’s for the right reasons.

The first thing you’re going to notice when starting up Active Soccer 2 DX is the peculiar theme song that plays in the main menu. That being said, it’s oddly catchy and it eventually grew on me as time went by. Because Active Soccer 2 DX is an unlicensed soccer game, don’t expect to see any ‘real’ teams or player names, but in their place are slightly different spelling variations or phonetic changes to get around this expensive addition.

Played from a top down perspective, you’re able to change the camera angle along with other customizations such as weather, color of the ball, team kit colors, difficulty, and more. It’s obviously missing many options like AI settings and more in-depth choices, but there’s enough here to allow you to somewhat play the style of game you want.

There’s a tutorial included if you wish to learn the basics, but the game is simple enough that it really comes down to a few button presses. Passing is done with ‘A’, long passes ‘B’, ‘X’ is to shoot’ and ‘Y’ gives your player a short burst of speed. I do wish that the buttons were re-mappable though, as using trigger to sprint would have been much more intuitive and natural. While you’ll find the sprint helpful at first, you’ll quickly realize that once you have the ball, the opposing team’s defenders somehow channel the superhero "The Flash" as they can make it back to their designated spots at more than twice the speed you can, regardless if you sprint or have a head start.

This is where the wrinkles start to show. Shooting seems to have issues at times as you’ll more often than not completely miss the goal for no apparent reason, even with an easy and open shot. I found that if you’re running straight up the middle and shoot right towards the goal, it will probably veer to the side for some inexplicable reason, unable to correct its course with any kind of aftertouch.

As you play more matches you’ll start to run into issues with its penalty system, as you can essentially roll over other players and steal the ball without any recourse or fouls called unless you purposely slide tackle. Keep in mind though, this can happen to you as the AI team can do this. The same goes for sliding tackles, as you might get a foul or card even though you legitimately won the ball in legal fashion. Maybe this is a way to simulate ‘bad refereeing’, but it’s no less frustrating when it happens unfairly against you.

If you’re a soccer purist you should be warned that there is seemingly no adhering to offside rules either, as I’m pretty sure my fair share of goals have come from me being in prime position simply waiting for the ball while offside. It’s not a deal breaker for a simple title like this, but don’t go in expecting any type of simulation rules.

There’s an included career mode that’s surprisingly in-depth, as you’ll need to manage trades, players, injuries, and more, something that is akin to the sim-sports game Football Manager, though this version is obviously nowhere near as detailed. You’ll need to keep your team’s popularity up too, which can be quite difficult if not playing on the Easy setting. Easy still has its frustrations related to the issues cited above, but even a novice like me was able to score one or two goals a match usually.

As you'd expect in a soccer game, you’re going to have to constantly pass the ball to teammates in attempt to score, as you’ll most likely never really get a chance to run straight through the defense, again, because of their sudden super-human boost in speed when defending. The AI can also avoid your tackles with ease at times and run circles around your defense should they deem it fit at the time.

One of the biggest issues I had throughout the game wasn’t even during gameplay, but the menus. They are very clunky and basic, and navigation with the control stick is obscenely over sensitive, causing you to constantly miss your intended choice no matter how light or hard you move the stick. Some buttons also require non-logical stick movement too, feeling almost like a puzzle on how to pick a certain option. This feels sloppy and lacking in testing as you need to navigate the menu before and after every single game.

Given that this game was originally a mobile title you’ll know what to expect from its visuals. For what it offers it’s fine and suits the job, but it’s very basic and has no frills whatsoever. The same can be said for the audio, as there are the occasional crowd chants and cheers, but there are very few and what is offered becomes repetitive quite quickly.

I appreciate what Active Soccer 2 DX is trying to accomplish by bringing a soccer game that is basic and focuses on fun rather than hardcore simulation, but it’s very rough around the edges. Glitchy player animations (especially once a team scores), finicky menus, and a lack of adhering to basic soccer rules makes it a tough sell, especially at its asking price of $14.99. If it was more in the $5 range it would be a no brainer for a simple pick up and play match here and there kinda game, but at this price, you’ll want to wait for a sale.

Overall Score: 3.2 / 10 Dark Souls III

When you ask someone about the Dark Souls games it’s almost a guarantee that the game’s difficulty is one of the first talking points, as it should be, because it simply wouldn’t be the same game without the brutal challenge. Now in its third iteration, Dark Souls looks to bring fans back to an unforgiving world, playing into its strengths and attempting to improve what many disliked about the previous installment.

Dark Souls places you in a world and allows you to explore and learn about it all on your own, with little to no help at all. You’re given no clues on what to do, where to go, or how to do it. Oddly enough, this is what Dark Souls does best, as you’re rewarded for your perseverance, determination, and sticking with it regardless of the frustration it causes.

Truth be told, I’m absolutely terrible at the Dark Souls games. I barely got a few bosses into the first game before giving up, which caused me to essentially skip part 2 all together. I simply didn’t have the patience for the game at the time and became frustrated very easily with the numerous deaths. I understood what I was getting into, I just didn’t give it the time needed to understand it very well or to become better.

I remedied this while playing Dark Souls III. I’m still not that great, but I’m much better than I previously was, as I spent the time necessary to learn the small intricacies that makes Dark Souls stand out against the competition. I’ve gone from blaming the game of being ‘cheap’ and ‘unfair’ to realizing that every death was completely my fault. It’s quite liberating to be honest, to go from being ‘scared’ of the game mechanics and fearing death, to accepting the challenge and learning what I did wrong. Eventually I was able to take down bosses after a few attempts without being hit and this instills great pride and accomplishment. It really is how Dark Souls III succeeds if you let it and endure.

You are the Ashen One, tasked with freeing the Realm of Lothric from a looming destruction, but the only way to do this is to destroy the Lords of Cinder. Normally I would go into more depth about the plot and narrative, but a problem the series has had since the beginning is its weakness in storytelling. Sure it has a great backdrop and memorable characters, but from a narrative standpoint, much of it is lost in weak dialogue and item descriptions, rather than telling the narrative in a grand fashion through cinematics. Other than a few minor points, it’s difficult to grasp what’s going on and why. I was hoping Dark Souls III would remedy this ongoing shortcoming, but it still focuses on tone rather than storytelling.

It would have been quite easy for FromSoftware to simply add some new enemies, bosses, areas, and call it a day, but they’ve taken the time to address fan complaints from the previous game while also adding new and welcome gameplay changes. Don’t fret longtime fans, as it’s still a Souls game that you’ve come to love over the years.

You’ll still need to be cautious, as death can come from any enemy should you let your guard down. You’re able to cater to your playstyle, allowing sword, shield, and staff combinations. There’s even a new skill system that allows you to use an alternative attack with your weapons and magic, allowing for further battle strategies and new ways to play. This weapon skill is the equivalent to an ‘ultra-ability’ and can even give you a buff. Of course the core gameplay itself is vastly unchanged, but the new classes and small tweaks are a welcome addition for returning players and newcomers to the series.

The games environments are absolutely gorgeous, which is an odd sentiment considering how darkly and grim the setting is. Level design is brilliant in some areas, as there are multiple pathways that branch out, always leaving you unsure of which way you should go. Some areas are very wide in scope, while others are more vertical in nature, though almost every area seems to have intricate secrets hidden within and interlinking pathways that allow for easy access should you take the time to discover them.

Bonfires still act as checkpoints and teleport locations. Here is where you rest, refilling your Estus Flasks and recovering your health, but if you do you 'rest' here you also respawn all the enemies. The ease of fast travel allows you to return to any specific area once uncovered and you’ll be making use of this quite often to return back to the Firelink Shrine to level up, upgrade your gear and more; your home base if you will.

Aside from the world itself, the bosses are the shining star of Dark Souls III. These usually monstrous beasts range in design and mechanics from simple (even for someone with my skill set) to incredibly huge and unrelenting. Some bosses are simply about learning their attack patterns, which sometimes takes a few deaths to figure out to best them, while others are much more intricate and unique. Most bosses usually have two phases in some way, as to keep you on your toes and constantly challenge you while keeping the situation tense.

Dark Souls III is great at letting you learn an enemy type just enough so that you feel confident battling them in any situation, but then it pulls the rug out from under you by changing things up in unexpected ways, always forcing you to stay alert and expect anything. Many of my deaths were from underestimating a simple enemy I’ve fought numerous times before. Patience and uncertainty is required to progress no matter how confident you feel.

While for the most part I found the overall difficulty to be slightly easier than previous Souls games, that doesn’t mean it’s simple by any means. The game's lock-on system is meant to help you, which at times it does to be fair, but many times it was also more of a hindrance and caused me many lost souls. Numerous times it will lock onto the wrong intended target, refuse to lock, or unlock for whatever reason. When locked on, be weary of close quarter areas and corners though, as the camera doesn’t always play nice and can easily cause a death that really wasn’t “your” fault. These issues didn’t happen frequently, but just enough to cause unneeded frustration.

It’s near impossible to discuss Dark Souls III without delving into its difficulty. You’re going to die a lot, and you simply need to accept that. As I mentioned earlier, it feels as though the difficulty curve is slightly more forgiving than its predecessors, which makes Dark Souls III a good entry point for new-comers to the series. Regardless, you’re going to struggle in certain areas, but once you understand that the game itself isn’t unfair (for the most part) and you take the time to learn and understand what it has to offer, you’ll start to enjoy it much more for what it is and not hate it for what it does.

Many mechanics and items aren’t explained in some lengthy tutorial for you to slog through, meaning you need to take the time and experiment to figure out what certain items do or even how to use them. Case in point, I spent an hour trying to figure out how to correctly use the Embers that bosses dropped and a few NPC’s sold, since it’s not explained anywhere within the game itself. Embers are comparable to the original game’s Humanity, boosting your HP, but also playing a vital role for the online features. Embers are used for the multiplayer component, allowing you to play with random people or friends by allowing password-only games. Be prepared though, as doing so also opens your world up to invading players as well.

While the world is built with incredible detail and precision, taking on a tone of its own, it’s accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack. The mood is set by faint music that’s fitting to your current setting, even more so during boss battles when it blares something more appropriate to your current situation.

Dark Souls III isn’t without its flaws, as it still lacks great storytelling and not teaching you its intricacies seems more of an arbitrary way to ‘up’ its difficulty. I by no means would like an easy mode included, but there’s no harm in at least explaining items and mechanics in more detail if it’s wanted by the player.

Risk vs reward is the delicate balance that’s in constant sway. You risk by going to new areas and fighting unseen enemies, and the reward is more than simple loot, as you not only progress further into the game, but in skill as well. I’m feel like I am still learning what it has to offer, as I’m still constantly put out of my comfort zone, but I’m accepting of that and slowly becoming better because of it. If you’re new to the series, begin here, as the opening areas aren’t nearly as brutal and confusing as previous games, and if you’re a returning fan, know that FromSoftware still has the magic touch at creating an incredibly atmospheric game.

Praise the Sun!

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Letter Quest: Grimm's Journey Remastered

Grimm and Rose are the cutest and most cuddle worthy grim reapers you'll probably ever see, and they need your linguistic skills to help them defeat monsters, trolls, ghosts, and more. To be honest, I'm not usually into the 'casual' type of games, but Letter Quest: Grimm's Journey Remastered has me wanting to constantly play 'just one more level' with my wife. Letter Quest embodies the notion that not all games need a massive budget with lifelike graphics to be fun, and with its addictive and simple gameplay, this game works.

Most likely at some point you've played one of the notable word games out there: Scrabble, Words with Friends, or Boggle among others. Letter Quest plays upon these premises but adds a charming visual style, numerous challenges, and an oddly addictive RPG element to the gameplay that keeps you hooked and coming back for more, even if in short spurts.

Grimm's titular journey tells a story about him wanting to find the nearest pizza place to grab a slice. Along the way he is confronted by monsters and ghouls and must use his vocabulary to defeat them and get one step closer to the much desired pizza. While the bulk of the game is locked behind the Story Mode, don't expect much more story than what's above. Not that a strong narrative is why you'll be playing a game like this, and there's virtually no dialogue of any sort, but it's still cute and wacky enough to give you a slight smile while you enjoy yourself.

Letter Quest features turn based 'combat', oodles of upgrades to customize Grimm and Rose, adorable visuals, and a great soundtrack to boot. The core gameplay consists of spelling words with the random letters that you're given during your turn which will deal damage to your current enemy based on word length and difficulty. You progress through each dungeon as if it's a side-scroller, making progress as you defeat each enemy to reach a gem stash at the end of each stage, unlocking the next level.

You're given a set of fifteen random letters and must make your words out of what you have. Just like Scrabble, each letter has a different value which corresponds to how much damage they add to the total word value. Just like other words games, the longer and more difficult your created words are, the better off you'll be. Eventually random letters will gain bonuses such as granting you buffs, heals, and other helpful aids to survive and complete the stage.

When you ultimately take on the hard mode stages and other challenges, monsters will sometimes gain special abilities or they will only be able to be defeated in a specific manner. For example, they might not take damage unless it's a four letter word, or ends in the letter 'S'. Sometimes they'll take double damage if you use multiple vowels, and it's these modifiers that really can challenge you, leading to some refreshing attempts.

After you submit your word and damage the monster, it's then their turn to attack you without the need to spell any words. So it not only becomes a game of having to come up with longer words to deal out more damage, but to also survive each dungeon without reaching zero health on, or else you'll need to retry.

As you defeat enemies and clear stages you earn gems as you go. These can be used to upgrade Grimm's abilities and purchase items to use during gameplay. At first there are very few items to buy and upgrade, but as you progress, it's actually quite surprising how much customization you can actually do with Grimm, building him to suit your play style. Maybe you want to play defensively, or have health regenerate with enemy kills, it's completely up to you. You're also able to replay levels to farm for gems should you wish, or focus on the side quests to earn a larger chunk of currency at a time.

If you're lucky, you'll come across stages that will have a treasure chest for you to open, if you can guess the word, Hangman/Wheel of Fortune style, with a specific amount of letters to guessed (though these amount of guesses and rewards can be upgraded with gems if that's something you want to focus on). It's a nice change of pace and the rewards are worth your time to try and guess correctly.

If you're a strong linguist and manage to complete the story mode, you've only just begun Grimm's journey, as each of the stages has four optional challenges that earn you stars (and gems) as you complete them. There's even an endless mode that's been included in this Remastered version, allowing you to see how long you can continue playing and survive until you run out of health. It's a fun diversion once you've completed all of the stages and challenges (which will take quite some time) though I wish the gems you earned in Endless carried over into Story Mode.

Letter Quest's visuals are simple yet very clean and pleasing to the eye. The UI is simple and never becomes too cluttered or confusing. You're even able to unlock different skins for the letter tiles, which is funny when you read the descriptions and realize they mimic how tiles look in other word based games, like Scrabble and Words With Friends.

The difficulty for Letter Quest will solely depend on your vocabulary, but if you're a fan of the genre and played similar games before, you'll most likely succeed without issue. The more challenging levels will require you to 'grind' for a little while and have some upgrades equipped, but once you do it makes the gameplay much more enjoyable and interesting. I quite enjoyed the RPG elements, as I found that they were driving me to obtain more gems and continue playing more-so than simply getting to the next level.

While the genre itself may lead you to dismiss it due to being a casual type of game, but if you give it a chance you'll get sucked right in by its charm and appeal. My wife, who is a non gamer, gravitated towards this game and wanted to constantly help me figure out longer lettered words, as it's meant for people like her who simply play Facebook style games. Soon the "one more level" moment turned into over an hour.

Letter Quest: Grimm's Journey Remastered is one of those games you can keep installed on your Xbox One's HDD and jump back into without needing to remember any complicated controls or what to do next. It's incredibly easy to recommend at it's price point as you'll get hours worth of enjoyment alongside Grimm, provided you have an abundant jargon as your arsenal.

Suggestions: A local multiplayer mode would have gone a long way so that the wife and I could challenge and battle one another in some sort.

Overall Score: 8.6 / 10 Organic Panic

You'd think I'd learn my lesson by now, as for all the years I've been reviewing games I still occasionally find myself pre-judging a game before I even play it. I'll be honest, I did this a little bit with Organic Panic. Not that I wrote it off, as I go into any game review with a fresh and unbiased mindset, but I know I most likely wouldn't have given it the time of day and check it out if I didn't receive it otherwise. It's times like this that I'm glad that I'm sometimes wrong, as I genuinely had a fun time with Organic Panic once I allowed myself to enjoy it.

If I had to describe its core gameplay, it would be part puzzle game, part platformer, and part destruction. From still screenshots you might think it's a game akin to that of any of the Worms games, but there's more to it than that. It's a crazy little game where you play as vegetables battling against the evil meats and cheese. I'm not making this up.

Organic Panic tells its story via comic book page slideshows. The narrative revolves around the evil Meats and Cheeses, led by mastermind Baby Cheese, hunting down the good natured Fruits and Vegetables in attempt to take over the world. It's up to Cherry, Carrot, Kiwi, and others to stop them once and for all. Again, I'm not making this up.

While the story is told through the pun-filled comic pages, as it's obviously a backdrop to frame the gameplay, it is at least a somewhat interesting tale that pushes you to complete more stages. While you are able to quickly skip the story pages, you might want to spend the few quick moments to go through them if you want to laugh at the terrible "dad-quality" jokes contained within.

Powered by the DAFT Engine (Destructible and Fluid Technology), you'll be using physics to solve a majority of the puzzles contained within. Sometimes that means destroying pillars to cause a crash, melting ice, starting fires, or drowning some meat foes. With over 200 single player levels you'll have to eventually start to think 'outside the box' to solve some of these cleverly designed stages in ways that don't always seem apparent at first.

Each of the 12 chapters are broken up into multiple stages. These stages start out quite simple and are quick to solve, but as you progress they become much more involved and more difficult. You start the game as Cherry, who's able to shoot dirt once you've collected enough power-up gems. This dirt can harm enemies, but it can also allow you to cut through certain materials as well, allowing for multiple ways to complete stages. You then unlock Kiwi, who is able to shoot water (again, once you've collected the power-up gems) and swim underwater. Carrot can climb any surface while also being able to shoot fireballs. Many of the early stages will have you simply controlling one character per stage, but eventually you'll have to control multiple characters in a single stage to solve how to escape.

If you're like me you'll gravitate to trying to kill all of the enemies with your abilities, but eventually you'll reach stages where this is very difficult, either by design or not, and you'll have to rely on other abilities to allow you to progress. Carrot is decent at defeating foes, but Cherry has a very small health pool, so it's difficult to engage in battle depending on who you're controlling.

The main goal of each level is to simply reach the exit portal. Of course there is always some type of obstacle in your way, be it a handful of enemies, an elaborate physics based puzzle, or the portal is far out of normal reach. This is where you'll have to use the varying abilities of each character, sometimes altering the stages to reach a previously inaccessible area. Maybe you'll need to cut through a support beam to send something collapsing below to use as a ramp, or blow a whole in an overlying water reservoir to flood the area below. Stages with these types of solutions are among the most enjoyable by far.

While your main goal is to always reach the exit portal, there are secondary objectives to complete should you want a challenge. To get the best ranking you need to collect the hidden gem, kill all of the enemies, and reach the portal. I eventually reached a point where simply getting to the exit was enough of a challenge, so those of you who want to really push yourself will have your work cut out for you as you try to finish the rest of the gold star checklist.

I do wish some of the levels had a different requirement for obtaining gold, such as being time based or solving a stage in specific way (like drowning all enemies for example). Given that the majority of the stages will last a minute or two (once you've figured out a solution), there wasn't many of those 'ah hah!" moments when you finally figure something out. That's not to say it's not satisfying, I just wish there were more alternative ways to complete stages in more creative ways. Truth be told, I found myself stuck more than a few times, and I had to walk away more times than I expected too just to cool down and think.

For those able to play with friends on the couch, there is also a multiplayer mode that allows for some versus chaos and co-op puzzle solving, depending on your mood. There are even options for 3 and 4 players as well should you have a few friends over who want to have a good time helping you out or who want to destroy each other. It's a shame that the Xbox One version doesn't have the same level creation and sharing that the PC counterpart does, as I believe that would have added some longevity to the game overall.

While killing meats and cheese in the beginning was fun, you learn quickly that shooting your way out of a situation rarely goes in your favor, meaning you'll have to use your wits instead. Figuring out a way to defeat enemies and solve a stage by using physics is oddly satisfying, as causing a flood to drown cheese is more entertaining than trying to shoot them with fireballs as a carrot.

Despite its kooky and out there concept, Organic Panic has a surprising amount of appeal and at least twice the amount of stages I was expecting. Sure it has some flaws, like very inaccurate aiming leading to some frustration now and then, but it's still charming and has hours of content within. I think we can all agree that the moral of the story here is to make sure to eat your fruits and vegetables, or else the meat and cheese will become a super power and take over the world. Let's make food great again!

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Gryphon Knight Epic

In today's world it seems that even if a game is successful with a Kickstarter campaign that it's not always a guarantee it will see the light of day or be what was initially promised. Cyber Rhino Studios, developer of Gryphon Knight Epic, asked for a modest amount of funds for their fundraising campaign, and they were successful, and they have also delivered on their promises, one of which now includes a console version of the game on Xbox One.

Given my age, I grew up on now-retro games and shoot 'em ups, or schmups as they are so fondly referred to, so mashing the two worlds together should be a no-brainer and gamers like me should enjoy it. Normally shmups have you piloting a spaceship or aircraft of some sorts, but Gryphon Knight Epic went in a completely different and unique direction. You play as Sir Oliver, not to be confused with his clearly inspired long lost cousin, Sir Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins, who rides upon his trusted Gryphon, Aquila. Essentially a medieval shmup, you're going to enjoy yourself if you're a Mega Man fan, as it pulls many design elements straight out of its' page.

I was honestly expecting a completely throwaway story that relied on the overused 'save the princess' trope, but I was pleasantly surprised when this wasn't the case. Gryphon Knight Epic begins with brave knight Sir Oliver and his friends defeating a monstrous dragon, saving the land, and taking home a massive haul of loot. Normally this is how most game narratives end, but Gryphon Knight Epic has a sense of humor, and as time passes, Sir Oliver begins to get bored of all of this peace and prosperity. He's even got a little husband-belly to show for how easy life has been since the dragon was defeated.

While all his friends looted fancy new weapons from the dragon horde, he was left with a simple amulet, but he was content with his takeaway as he got to go home to his loving princess. As it turns out, the weapons his friends took were cursed, turning them into evil versions of their normally good natured selves, and the only cure happens to be Sir Oliver's amulet. It's a straightforward and amusing little story that's a welcome backdrop for this type of adventure.

As mentioned above, Gryphon Knight Epic borrows design elements from the classic Mega Man titles, down to the choice of which world/boss you want to tackle in any order, and obtaining their weapon after besting the boss in combat. And just like the Mega Man games, having certain weapons for certain battles will make things much easier, but it is not necessary.

Each stage's setting is tied to the specific cursed friend you're trying to save, and you'll also find varied enemies, unique bosses, and multiple difficulty levels. The boss battles were easily the highlight as they usually filled the screen with their size and scope, and each one needs to be tackled in a completely different way. For example, one boss battle has you essentially solving a puzzle while dodging attacks before being able to damage the boss himself. The variety of the stages and bosses keeps the game fresh throughout, even post credits when you continue playing to grind for coins and upgrades.

Like any shmup, the core gameplay is classic 2D side-scrolling where you need to avoid enemies and projectiles at all costs. Luckily, Sir Oliver has armor and carries potions (if you remembered to purchase them), so you can take a few hits unlike most shmup one-hit-deaths. Enemies will come from many directions, even behind you, so you'll need to have some quick reflexes and utilize all the tools in your arsenal to survive, especially on the harder difficulties.

The stages auto scroll, moving at a particular speed, so you need to make sure you compensate accordingly and be alert. You're also able to freely turn around, facing either left or right, and shoot in said direction at enemies. The problem with this though is that it will also set the auto scrolling to go in the direction your facing. So instead of simply being able to 'turn around' and shoot something behind you, it will reverse the whole flow of the gameplay until you turn back around and go the other way. It's an interesting mechanic, but did cause me quite a few deaths due to the sudden jarring of momentum switch, even more so when you need to change directions many times in a short period.

Gryphon Knight Epic pushes you to master your reflexes and abilities quite quickly. There are a few stages and sections that spike in difficulty, but nothing that seems terribly unfair once you learn the patterns (except that elephant boss, I'll never play that level again). Earning the stage bosses weapons not only earns you a sweet new secondary weapon that essentially uses a refilling 'mana' bar to shoot, but it really varies the combat, making it somewhat strategic when choosing what weapon to use in which circumstance. You can change your weapons with a simple button press, along with what squire (essentially a sidekick that grants you a passive bonus such as extra shooting, shields, etc) on the fly, allowing you to change your strategy quite quickly.

You earn coins for defeating enemies, bosses, finding secrets, and more, and this currency is used to upgrade your weapons, upgrade your squires, buy potions and other items. The top upgrades for most items are extremely pricey and will take some serious grinding if you want to max out everything out. Luckily there are difficulty choices in each level to keep things challenging as you become more powerful.

The biggest complaint I have pertains to the issue of Sir Oliver's hitbox. The hitbox is essentially an invisible square around the player character, when it makes contact with an enemy or projectile this is and is what registers you as being 'hit'. The hitbox for Sir Oliver seems larger than it should, especially on his top half. If any part of him touches a projectile, even the very tip of his helmet, you'll take damage. He's quite a large character in relation to screen size already, and during hectic boss fights it's near impossible to not get damaged in some way because of this slight 'unfairness'.

The sprite based art style is very well done, and with each level varying drastically in scenery and backdrop, it contains a lot of small details that any retro fan, including myself, will appreciate. The same goes for the music, as it sets a tone and vibe that is fitting for the scenery, gameplay, and genre.

Speaking of gameplay, it is simple yet challenging as you want it to be based on what weapons you choose (if you even choose to use them). If you're in my age range, you'll no doubt enjoy its classic retro style as memories of Mega Man flood back. There are plenty of secrets to find, exploration to be had (which I can't remember a decent shmup having), and just enough humor to keep everything light hearted, even if the script isn't always the best.

For those that care, there's a healthy amount of achievements given just for progressing through the game, and even more to hunt that will take some time and challenge you greatly. Fans of retro style games and/or shmups should enjoy their time with Gryphon Knight Epic; I know I did.

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Beyond Eyes

I'm a sucker for artistic and stylistic games, so it seemed a given that Beyond Eyes would be right up my alley due to its extremely vibrant and gorgeous water colour art-style. As I learned though, you need substance to go alongside with style to create a cohesive and entertaining experience. That being said, I didn't dislike my time with Beyond Eyes, as it's severely short game length (a little under two hours) didn't necessarily allow me too; however, it didn't leave a lasting impression on me either.

Beyond Eyes revolves around a young girl named Rae, whom after a tragic fireworks accident has lost her sight when she was younger. One day when playing alone outside her home in the garden, a stray cat comes along and they become friends. She names the cat Nani and looks forward to seeing him each day in the yard as a highlight to her daily routine. He keeps her company and feeling safe. As days go by Nani seems to visit less frequency, to the point of not showing up anymore.

This of course upsets Rae and she sets out in search of her lost companion. You would think that a plot revolving around a blind girl looking for her lost cat is a sure way to hook players into an emotional journey of hope and happiness, but it seems as if they were trying too hard, and as a result I didn't really feel that much for Rae's plight at all. Maybe that makes me heartless? That being said, maybe, just maybe I did want to find Nani as Rae wandered the landscape in search of him.

I expected a tearjerker given the subject matter, but the conclusion simply felt anti-climactic, bordering on disappointing. I believe part of the problem was the almost complete lack of narrative. There are occasional story tidbits that appear on screen, but it's so barebones to the point of only usually being a sentence long. The result is that you don't really care about Rae or feel emotionally connected to her the way you should to a blind girl looking for her lost cat. There are moments where some great instrumental music kicks in to help convey a certain feeling, but the music happens so rarely that the majority of your gameplay is slowly wandering in silence.

The artistic style Beyond Eyes utilizes is absolutely gorgeous, as if the world was painted as a watercolor portrait on a bleach white canvas. Given that Rae is blind, it's a beautiful way to convey that you're seeing how she envisions the world in her head. Everything is so vibrant and colorful which represents Rae's current feelings and mood. When she becomes frightened by loud and sudden noises the world becomes much darker with black and grey tones, representing her fear and nervousness.

To replicate how Rae 'sees' the world, you're only shown the environment directly around your vicinity as you walk forward. She knows the areas she goes through, so once you've been somewhere it stays colored, as if it's logged into her memory. Areas you have not explored yet are pure white, a blank canvas so to speak.

Every so often Rae will sense that Nani is nearby and can essentially see where he was, or thinks he may be. As you walk towards this area you are usually stopped by a wall or obstacle of some sort as it gets colored one you get close. Since Rae navigates mostly by her hearing, sometimes objects in the distance can be seen, such as a passing vehicle, bird, or barking dog.

The biggest complaint I think most players will have with Beyond Eyes is the speed Rae walks, which is incredibly slow. Now I understand that she's a blind girl and would be very cautious when exploring the outside world, especially on her own, but as an enjoyable gaming experience it's anything but. If you're able to empathize with Rae and understand her situation it may make it slightly more bearable, but it simply becomes frustrating regardless of understanding her situation or not.

There was something special though that I'll always remember about my time playing Beyond Eyes. My 3 year old daughter was sitting on the couch alongside me. Normally her attention span is a minute or two of whatever I'm playing at the time; however, she sat through over an hour of Beyond Eyes. What was really special though was how it opened up the conversation of blindness, sadness, and more. She was wondering why Rae was so sad, so I explained that we had to find Nani, but she can't see. It was a nice little moment that I shared with my daughter that I have Beyond Eyes to thank for it.

For how much of a serious tone the game is conveying, I have some serious outstanding questions: Why didn't the parents sue the fireworks company? Where are her parents this whole time? She wanders quite a far distance from her home and not a single person offers to help a blind girl clearly lost and scared. Lastly, what town does this take place in, as there's numerous dogs off-leash with no owner in sight causing a ruckus for blind girls.

In all seriousness, I didn't love the game, but I understand what it was trying to convey, which I can appreciate. As I said, it will have a special memory for me due to the interaction it gave my daughter and I. Strictly as an entertaining game though, even if you thoroughly enjoy it start to finish, once it's done there's no reason to play again aside from cleaning up some missed achievements and in the end it doesn't contain that much fun regardless of its good intentions and brilliant artistic style.

Overall Score: 5.1 / 10 Quantum Break

In today's landscape it's incredibly risky to develop new IP, which is why we always have a slew of sequels, prequels, spin-off's, and HD remakes. There are a handful of studios that I would have no problem trusting to deliver a solid and memorable experience while introducing a new IP; Remedy Games is one of those studios, and they've done just that.

Best known as the studio that brought the critically acclaimed Max Payne and Alan Wake, they can now add Quantum Break to their impressive resume. It's been a long wait since its first reveal in 2013 and much has changed since that first glimpse. For starters, the characters have been recast with true actors, many of which will be instantly recognizable as Remedy has decided to use their actual faces and performances within Quantum Break. Shawn Ashmore of X-Men fame is the main hero and two of the antagonists are portrayed by Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) and Lance Reddick (Fringe and The Wire). If you are a LOST or Lord of the Rings fan you'll also be happy to know Dominic Monaghan plays a large role within the intricate story of Quantum Break.

Not only has the cast changed, but when comparing the original launch trailer to the final gameplay, it seems the scale and production value has also increased, resulting in a much more impressive and immersive experience. Quantum Break is one of the games that seems to be pushing the capabilities of the Xbox One, in a good way, not simply with its visuals, but also in how it tells the narrative.

Storytelling is one of the most difficult aspects of any media format, but even more so with video games, as you need to create a compelling gameplay experience while also telling a story worthy of keeping a player interested, resulting in them wanting to move forward to experience it. Very few game studios do this well, even less do it in a compelling way. Remedy has already proven that they are master storytellers in the past, but Quantum Break brings their art to a whole new level that few studios ever reach.

Quantum Break is part action game and part enticing live action TV show, both of which are brought to life with the prominent and remarkable cast, all of which elevate an already intriguing and complex story to another level with realism and phenomenal acting. Quantum Break opens with protagonist Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore) meeting with his good friend Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen) at his research facility as he's about to make a world changing discovery, and he wants Jack to be a part of it.

Now normally I would delve a little more into the main plot, but Quantum Break is all about its complex story, and the less you know the better. Let's just say things don't go according to plan, time travel gets involved, and suddenly the room is swarmed with Monarch security guards while Jack needs to save his brother Will (Dominic Monaghan).

The few hints about the story that's been revealed in the trailers and sneak peeks only scratch the surface, and once the relationship change between Jack and Paul begins to play out, and more importantly why, the story starts to become very intriguing, while twists and turns keep you on your toes as you become unsure what's coming next. Jack and Paul start to discover that they are able to control aspects of time manipulation, and while Jack uses his powers for good, Paul Serene and Monarch Solutions have other conflicting plans.

Given that Quantum Break has no multiplayer aspect to it it's imperative that replayability is a factor so that the game's value is there with your purchase. Luckily Remedy has done this and has included a few clever ways to warrant more than one playthroughs to see everything that is possible, not just within the gameplay, but even the TV show segments as well.

At its core, Quantum Break is a shooter, almost akin to Max Payne, though many mechanics have evolved. You can see what Remedy has learned and improved upon from their previous games. There are even a handful of platforming sections where Jack will need to reach a certain area not normally accessible, and he must use his time manipulation powers to do so successfully.

Some sections have you rewinding time to reveal a platform that has not yet fallen, or you may momentarily stop time in a small area allowing you to cross a seemingly floating object that's 'stuck in time'. While puzzles are scattered sparingly throughout the game, figuring out how to solve these sections can be fun, though I wish there were more of them, as a time-stopped world is visually appealing, and I also wish they were a little more involved aside from figuring out which specific ability you need to use to progress.

You should also be aware that cover can be destroyed, so you need to learn to not stay in one place for too long while utilizing Jack's powers to overcome each encounter. Since the game uses an auto-cover system as opposed to needing a button press like most other cover-based games, so it will take a little getting used to. Once you're used to it though, as well as the different time altering abilities Jack possess, cover will be sparingly used as you'll be zipping quickly from one enemy to the next, freezing Monarch guards in place, and more.

Jack can't take much damage, so learning how to chain your abilities from one to the next takes practice, but it will pay off in the end during some of the larger gun battles. Each of Jack's abilities has their own internal cooldown period, so learning how long each ability takes to refresh will play an integral role in your strategy during battle, especially when you want to start using them in succession. Once you get a hold of the abilities and their timers, Jack becomes a force to be reckoned with, even against the most difficult Monarch employees.

The only complaint I have about the core shooting mechanics can feels a bit "meh". Shooting even an LMG doesn't feel like it has any 'oomph' or weight to it, though that being said, the combat satisfaction comes from combining the shooting with Jack's abilities. I found that your time abilities are never overpowered, even when upgraded (which is done by collecting hidden secrets), ensuring combat never becomes trivial. You'll find that when you use your most powerful abilities, while helpful, you can be left open to damage as you wait for the cooldown.

As for the gameplay visuals, it seems like a miracle Remedy got Quantum Break to look as good as it does on the Xbox One version, and I'm sure the PC counterpart will up it a notch even further. When the world around Jack stands still, you can see every bullet, fragment, and more in a highly stylized 'stutter' from any angle. There is a lot of effects and visuals going on all at once, and being able to stop time, literally walking around such things as explosions, shattered glass, and bodies flying through the air, without nary a hitch of problems, is pretty impressive.

While Quantum Break would have no problem standing on its own with the core gameplay, what truly makes Quantum Break stand out among other games is the inclusion of its 'TV show'. When word of a Quantum Break TV show was first announced, there was very little details given, so many people formulated their own ideas of what it would be. The majority, myself included, initially thought that this meant there would be a companion TV show to go alongside the game at launch, much like how Defiance attempted to do (and failed miserably). Luckily this isn't the case. Maybe the term itself, "TV show" is the wrong term, as it seems to add confusion until you realize that these live action segments simply replace what would normally be a cutscene in the game. But this is Remedy we're talking about, so of course they have to innovate it somehow and include a twist on something as simple as 'live action cutscenes'.

As you complete the main acts of the game as Jack, you'll then play a brief 'Junction' before moving onto the next Act. What makes these Junctions so compelling is that you actually play as the lead antagonist, Paul Serene, and you are forced to make some difficult decisions which alter events in the game, and TV show, going forward. These sections are very intriguing, as you may be torn what to choose based on who you wish to side with at any given time. Some story details are minor changes, while others are quite drastic, compelling you to play through again just to see the other outcomes.

After the brief Junction is played, and your choice(s) are made, you are then treated to a roughly 30 minute TV episode that plays out based on your previous choice(s). At first it's a little odd having the live action 'cutscenes', but they filmed, acted, and shot so well that I wish Quantum Break was a real TV show on cable that I could tune into every week. As a whole, it's a very streamlined experience, though the fantastic storytelling and acting obviously plays a major role in this success.

Interestingly, these TV episodes are not contained on the disc/digital version itself, and are streamed as you watch them. For most people that are connected this is no big deal, for those that aren't though, you will be missing out somewhat. Luckily, there is an download option, albeit a massive 76GB one, should you want to have the episodes on your hard drive or plan on being offline in the future. While you won't be missing anything absolutely integral by skipping or not being able to stream the TV show, you will miss out on a mass amount of subplot, extremely interesting story elements, and some amazing acting from everyone involved.

I'm a big fan of Easter eggs, and Quantum Break is full of them. If you're a big Remedy fan, you'll be grinning from ear to ear when you happen upon some of the better ones. And if you happen to be a huge Microsoft fan, you'll be happy to know that everyone in this story uses a Lumia phone and Surface. If you pre-ordered the game digitally through the Xbox Store, you'll also get the PC version for Windows 10 as well, free of charge. This is a big deal, as it's showing Microsoft's commitment once again for PC gaming and showcasing that you'll be able to use cross-platform saves as well. Play on Xbox One and pick back up where you left off on PC, and vice versa.

Quantum Break is a unique experience, blending a great game with a great story and character development alongside a TV show. Mastermind Sam Lake and the team at Remedy have raided the bar once again, showcasing their ability to blend immersive and compelling storytelling alongside fun and diverse gaming mechanics. The technology behind the scenes is incredible, as even the in-game cutscenes showcase the smallest facial movements which sometimes tells much more than just a line of dialogue.

I truly believe Remedy has something special on its hands with Quantum Break. While some might see its focus on a single player only experience a negative, the other side to that argument is that this is one of the best single player experiences you'll have to date because of the focused precision of delivering a smart and compelling narrative with enough reasons to play through at least twice, if not more. I do hope that we get some form of DLC in the future just so I can spend more time within Quantum Break's time shattered world.

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 Fruit Ninja Kinect 2

It’s that time again to slice and dice some flying fruit by flailing your arms about and getting some use out of your Kinect. You may recognize the Fruit Ninja title from its incredibly popular mobile game version that released a short 5 years ago and is on almost any platform out there. In 2011, Halfbrick released a Kinect version for the Xbox 360 and was surprisingly decent and one of the few games in Kinect’s life cycle that worked well.

For those that have never played Fruit Ninja before, the general premise is that you’re a ninja with a strong detest for fruit, as you need to slice and dice any that pop up on the screen. For its mobile iterations, you simply swiped the screen to cut them in half, but with the Kinect versions, you use your arms as swords and will slice the flying fruit tossed up the screen. Fruit Ninja Kinect 2 improves upon what the Xbox 360 version introduced, granted, we have a much more powerful and accurate Kinect this time around with Xbox One. You need to be efficient with your chops by eliminating many different fruits in multiples of three to gain a higher score and multiplier bonuses, and the new Kinect gives you much more accuracy to do so.

If you played the game previously, the staple modes of Arcade, Zen, and Classic return once again, almost unchanged, but there are some new additions for veterans. There’s four new interesting modes that add some depth to the simple gameplay, a leveling system, a much improved multiplayer mode, and smaller tweaks that feel more of a refinement than an evolution. Festival is where the new modes are contained and introduce some new gameplay elements to the series. Here you’ll have to not only eliminate any fruit you see as per normal, but each game will have its own objective such as avoiding shurikens, spotlights, not letting bamboo seeds hit the ground and grow, or even gives you the ability to throw knives at targets.

My favorite of these new modes was easily the throwing darts, as wooden boards will randomly appear and your goal is to throw darts as them as fast as possible, hopefully pinning some fruit to them in the process for big point gains. The other mode where you are tasked with destroying bamboo seeds is an interesting diversion, as if they fall they instantly sprout bamboo shoots that need to be cut down since you’re unable to see or slice any fruit that flow behind them. The new modes are very straightforward, as is the game as whole, but that makes it very accessible for players of any age or skill able to play and enjoy themselves.

Almost every mode lets you work towards the encompassing leveling system that gives you small objectives to strive for, and once you complete these you’ll net a medal. Collect three medals and you’ll rank up and gain a new title, all the way up to level 30. To earn the medals you’ll have to do anything from slicing a certain number of fruit, ending a level with a specific score, slicing a specific number of specified fruit, and many more. Most are quite simple to do either over time or if you solely focus on the objective itself, but there are a few that are much more challenging and will take a few attempts. The new ranking system does add a little more incentive to continue playing over time, but leaderboards and the multiplayer are what will keep you coming back for more (unless you truly are a ninja who despises fruit).

Multiplayer has a bigger focus this time around, most likely due to the better hardware, and actually allows for up to four people to play together, well, kind of. Four players are supported but only two at a time will actually be able to play, allowing for quick tag-ins to swap players. There are two modes for multiplayer, the first being a more traditional head to head, seeing who can chop the most fruit but with power-ups that can be used to make the opponents gameplay much more difficult. The second is a bit more whacky and will have you slicing fruit as per the norm, but also randomly having to do goofy poses among other objectives. It’s basic, but that’s part of the allure and I can see it being entertaining with a group of friends over, especially those that aren’t the biggest gamers.

I really only have two complained about Fruit Ninja Kinect 2. The first being the way you’re supposed to pause the game. In theory you’re supposed to put your hands together and bow, just like you would show someone respect, but I’ve never gotten this to work no matter how many times I tried. Many times I wanted to pause because of my toddler running in front of me but I could never get it to execute, even once. Not a deal breaker, but an odd Kinect issue, especially when the rest of the game controlled just fine. Lastly, as a whole, Fruit Ninja Kinect 2 feels incredibly hollow as a gaming experience. Sure there’s a leveling system in play that you can work towards, but if you don’t have friends to play with regularly, it feels as if there’s little replay value once you’ve unlocked most of the items with the currency you earn through playing.

That being said, it is fun in short bursts. It’s a great game if you simply have a quick 10 or 20 minutes to kill, or kids that need to burn off some energy. The game is so simple in its premise that there really is little to no learning curve, as even my non-gaming wife was able to play instantly without having to ask any questions.

Is Fruit Ninja Kinect 2 a reason to go rush out to the store and grab a Kinect if you don’t have one already? No. It is a fun game though if you do already have one and have been wanting a game to have for it or something to play for friends coming over. It’s not as embarrassing inducing as a dance game, so non gamers will likely have a better chance at giving it a shot if others are playing it as well. The core game is virtually unchanged, but it is improved and a better experience overall. No matter your age or gaming abilities, you’ll be able to channel all of your ninja prowess and chop mountains of fruit all in the name of fun.

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 ScreamRide

People are going to compare ScreamRide closely with RollerCoaster Tycoon simply because of the nature of its subject matter, but ScreamRide is its completely own game and takes things much further than simply a theme park simulator. It’s clear that it’s a spiritual successor though. If RollerCoaster Tycoon and Boom Blox had a kid together, ScreamRide would most likely be the result. As long as you go into ScreamRide knowing that it’s not a theme park management game. But instead focuses on gameplay through its different modes, you’ll most likely enjoy your time with it. It should be noted though that this review is specifically for the Xbox One version, as there are some minor differences (and price tag differences) which I’ll outline later below.

For a game based around creating, riding, and even destroying roller coasters, you wouldn’t expect that the game would have a storyline to it, but ScreamRide attempts to do so, but without much focus. The whole idea is that the ScreamWorks company is studying how to bring new extreme levels of entertainment to the masses by developing and testing rides that would in no way ever exist in the real world. It’s all about creating adrenaline rushes and your job is to help ScreamWorks craft rides that will excite the biggest of extreme rider fans. I applaud them for trying to at least add some resemblance of story or motivation of why you’re subjecting yourself to these crazy rides but it’s not going to keep you interested in any way, even when you unlock the new areas to experiment in, six in total.

So if ScreamRide isn’t a theme park simulator, then what is it you ask? Well, it depends on which of the three modes you decide on playing. There’s ScreamRider, Demolition, and Engineer, each of which is drastically different and are essentially their own games within each mode. Let’s start off with ScreamRider. This mode puts you into the cabin of a premade coaster and your goal is to not only finish the track but gain a high score doing so by tilting the coaster on its sides, hitting turbo boosts at the right time, and more. You want to give the riders a crazy experience, so try and lean the coaster on two wheels when taking bends but without crashing or coming off the rails.

Certain pieces of track that glow blue will fill your turbo meter if you can press the ‘X’ button right at the end of that specific piece of track. The closer you press the button to the end of the track, the more your turbo is filled, and if you can perfect combo turbo sections together you’ll get some very much needed score increases and more turbo to allow you to finish the track quicker. There will also be tracks that will have sections where the cabin actually comes off the rails and jumps a gap. You need to again press ‘X’ just before landing to get a bonus and some of your turbo meter filled. The more accurate you are the bigger the bonus.

The majority of what you’ll be doing though is leaning your riders to one side of the other to get the coaster on two wheels. This not only gains you bonus points, and the longer you are on two wheels the bigger the bonus, but there will eventually be sections where you’ll need to lean to either side to avoid obstacles. Most of the time these will be signs that are placed on the track, so you need to lean to the opposite side to avoid derailing, but there will also be certain courses where one side of the track itself is missing, so you need to lean on the correct side to keep the cabin moving forward towards the finish line. The game teaches you all of the new mechanics in a slow and steady pace and by the later levels you’ll have no problem leaning for bonus points and out of necessity.

If you were a fan of Boom Blox for the Wii many years ago, you’ll definitely be spending a lot of time in Demolition Mode. The whole goal in this mode is to see how much destruction you can cause and rack up the points, much like Burnout’s crash mode. Most stages are setup Angry Birds style, where your riders are placed into a capsule and your job is to set the power level, aim, and launch to destroy as much as you can. Why? It’s always fun to see stuff blow up right?

You toss one cabin at a time and as you progress through the different stages, you’ll unlock new types of cabins, each with their own abilities to cause mayhem (again, much like Angry Birds). The standard ball cabin doesn’t do anything special, but you’ll eventually get cabins that can blast apart into three sections, can be controlled much easier midair, a sticky bomb cabin that can explode whenever you like, among others. The launch arm is aimed usually towards a cluster of buildings and your job is try try and create as much havoc as possible with the set amount of throws you’re given, so you need to be on the lookout for weak spots in structures, exploding barrels, and other items that might not always be the most obvious choice for destruction.

There are a few stages where instead of these cabins being tossed, there will be a small section of roller coaster track setup for you to launch off of, with the same goals in mind. The coasters you get to use all have their own abilities such as being able to fire a booster rocket, deploy wings to glide much further and accurately, or explode. Just like the cabins you’re given, you have a preset amount of launches and specific coasters that can be used each attempt. It will take a lot of trial and error to figure out the best aim and power combination, which structures to aim for first, and which cabins to use in which order among other factors, but once you get the hang of it and see massive destruction, it’ll keep bringing a smile to your face.

The final mode in the campaign is the Engineer Mode. Here is where you’re usually given a portion of a track already made and you need to finish it or follow its objectives to earn a high score or medals. Sounds easy but it was by far the most difficult mode in the game for me to progress in. Stages will start out easy and have you simply finishing the track with certain objectives like using a preset amount of track, reaching a specific speed, or having the cabin fly off the track a certain distance. What makes it difficult is that you’re only given access to specific pieces of track, so you need to be very creative in how you tackle the challenges.

Once you complete your track, or simply want to see if something will work, you can quickly hop into the cabin and watch how it does, but keep in mind you don’t actually control the riders this time like in ScreamRider mode, so you’ll need to be mindful on your sharp corners and speeds or else you’ll eject riders or even derail the coaster itself. There is a S.I.N. tracker in the bottom corner that tracks everything the riders are feeling at any given point (Scream, Intensity, and Nausea), so you can use this to gauge what’s working and what isn’t based on your current goals.

It’s best to think of this mode almost as a puzzle game, and there’s not always going to be a single solution. How I solve one of these objectives might be completely different from you, but you’re always given a preset amount of track length and pieces, so it’s up to you to figure out how to do so. I found some of the preset restrictions to be very difficult, but like any good puzzle game, once you figure out a solution, it’s very gratifying. There’s even a button press to auto-complete your track for you, making the game try to attach the track ends in the shortest route possible. Given that you also have skybox limits, this isn’t always an easy solution.

So while those three modes make up the campaign (six worlds, each with 3 to 4 stages each), you’ll most likely finish them up quite quickly. There are extra challenges for you to try and gain more medals, which you’ll eventually need to do as there’s a medal count restriction on unlocking each world, but I’ve spent hours simply trying to complete the bonus objectives. Some are quite easy, such as stay on two wheels for a certain amount of time (ScreamRider mode), destroy 6 bill board signs (Demolition), or reach a certain speed (Engineer), but you’ll come across some of these bonus objectives that are quite difficult, such as doing the above but while also reaching a specific overall score (which is usually quite high). So there is some replayability here for players that are wanting to complete everything.

Lastly, there’s an Editor mode, and once you get the hang of it (it’s much like Engineer mode for controls), this is where you’re given the ultimate freedom to not only create the roller coaster you’ve always dreamt of, but you can also create the backdrop and structures of your park as well. This mode is how the developers created the campaign levels itself, so you’re given a very powerful toolset if you have the imagination and patience. You obtain new track pieces and other items for completing campaign levels, so even if you want to solely play the Editor mode, make sure you unlock those special pieces beforehand.

You can simply start by making some flat ground if you simply want to create a coaster as fast as possible, but for those with much more time, patience, and imagination, you can create a truly unique experience complete with buildings and more. You create the scenery with blocks, Minecraft style, but you can change brush sizes and even paint on different textures to make some unique artworks as well that your coaster can ride around or even through. There is a limit of how many pieces total can be placed in the world, and unless you’re going to make some very intricate structures to go along with the coaster itself, it’s more than enough for the average project.

Once you decide what type of coaster you want to make, you’ve given access to every pieces you’ve obtained so far and can create whatever you wish. If you want to have your track go as high as it can and then have a massive drop, you can do so. It’s quite simple to control and any pieces that will collide when placed will highlight in red and not allow you to place it. You’re given many different types and pieces of track and can even easily rotate and put a twist on them to add some more extremeness to your creation. Once you’re coaster is complete you can tweak a bunch of other settings such as a single lap or multiple if you want to have players ride a marathon based on how long your coaster is. Being able to quickly jump in and test your rides allows you to tweak and edit along the way and there is already some amazing creations put up for download from other players.

This is where we come to the Level Center. Exclusive to the Xbox One version (sorry 360 players), this allows you to upload your creations, but also to browse others content. Most will search he finish levels for awesome new tracks to test and play, but there’s even a Blueprint option that allows you to save a specific structure or ride that others can use in their levels as well. Maybe you’re really good at creating the park itself and buildings with your Minecraft skills but can’t make an exciting coaster; this is where you would download the blueprint of someone’s ride and be able to place it within your level.

The longevity of ScreamRide is simply going to come down to its user generated content since the campaign levels themselves can be completely quite quickly. While I only got to review the Xbox One version, the fact that the 360 version doesn’t have the Level Center is a downfall. To be fair, the 360 version is $10 less at launch ($29.99), while the Xbox One version is $39.99, but it’s odd seeing a price disparity between the versions, even with this single mode being the main difference (aside from graphics obviously).

There are some very major framerate issues, specifically in the Demolition mode or when many things start to become destroyed at once, and while it doesn’t’ affect gameplay itself, it happens quite often and frequent enough to simply ignore. While I do like the cartoonish art style ScreamRide uses, the audio is a completely different story. You’re going to hear the same one liners and screams on a constant basis. I actually got quite tired of ScreamRider modes simply because the announcer always has to say “Perfect” or “Good” every time you fill your turbo on the glowing blue track pieces and it becomes quite old hearing it every single attempt multiple times.

I enjoyed ScreamRide more than I thought I initially would, but once I was done with the campaign levels and progressed as far as I could in each of the three main modes, it almost felt like I was done with it. To be fair, the general public hasn’t gotten the game until now so there hasn’t been many user created levels for me to enjoy (I don’t have the time or imagination to make anything amazing) but I’m sure there will be more than enough once more players get their hands on it. That being said, the lifeline and longevity of ScreamRide is solely going to be in the community and created levels, so it will all come down to that factor. It might flourish or it might not, time will tell.

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Dying Light

It seems that the zombie genre is still alive and thriving as Techland, best known for Dead Island, now brings us another zombie apocalypse survival game, but with some drastic changes to the formula they previously created in their past game. While Dying Light may still have the generic checklist that a zombie survival game seems to cater to, they’ve made some changes to ensure that it doesn’t simply feel like the same game all over again; at least I believe that was their intention. If you were a Dead Island fan, you’ll most likely enjoy Dying Light, as it does have a lot of parallels, but the new mechanics implemented may be hit or miss depending on what you’re looking for in this specific genre.

The most drastic and notable change is no doubt the implantation of a parkour element similar of that to Mirror’s Edge. You’ll be running, jumping, and climbing all over the fictional city of Harran to escape hordes of zombies and to get from one point to another. Another drastic change is the serious tone of the game as opposed to the wacky and over the top vibe that Dead Island had. I don’t believe Dead Island was meant to be taken too seriously, whereas Dying Light tries to encase its story in a dramatic and serious manner. It’s a shame that the writing, acting, and other numerous issues prevent Dying Light from reaching that level of quality and seriousness that would have been a welcome change, but more on that shortly.

You play as Kyle Crane, (voiced by Roger Craig Smith, best known for the voices of Ezio and Sonic) a secret operative sent to the infected and quarantined city of Harran to find out what’s going on and more importantly, recover an incredibly important file that your bosses want back. Even only after a few missions in you’ll most likely determine the outcome and what’s coming next with the predictable conspiracies as I was foreseeing everything that was going to happen next well before it plays out. In cliché fashion, Crane will have to decide to either complete his missions or help the survivors within the infected city, though you have no actual choice and are taken for the ride instead of being given the choice to help either side.

The story feels as it’s there to guide you from one area to the next as opposed to a truly interesting narrative that you want to see the outcome of as soon as possible. The terrible lip syncing and reused character models may have played a part in my distain for the story, but there really was only a single or two unpredictable moment that occurred by the time the credits rolled. The voice work by Roger Craig Smith is done well, as there’s only so much you can do with mediocre writing, but the support cast either tended to be cliché or not really that engaging in comparison. Even after a dozen hours there really wasn’t a character I was very attached to or cared about all that much.

Dying Light is set in an open world urban environment that is littered and filled with infected, making it extremely dangerous for anyone to get around; This is where Crane’s parkour skills come into play and makes him the best man for the job to help the trapped citizens throughout the city while also trying to complete his mission. Being that you play in first person, it will feel very familiar to Mirror’s Edge at times when you’re constantly climbing ledges, jumping gaps, and scaling buildings. Let it be known, it will take some time to get used to the default controls, and even after a dozen hours into the game, I was still sometimes hitting the incorrect buttons. The reason for this is that the jump and climb button is actually the RB bumper, not the typical ‘A’ button, but for good reason. You need to keep your momentum going as you leap and climb, and doing so with the ‘A’ button would be impossible since you would have to take your thumb off the right stick while holding the controller, so I get it, but it does feel unnatural regardless of how many hours you play Dying Light for due to conditioning over many years of gaming.

In the beginning Crane has very limited stamina and will only be able to run in short bursts and swing weapons a few times before needing a quick breather, but as you progress and level up, you’ll eventually be able to scale buildings and cover distances very quickly, but with one caveat; when the game decides that it wants to work. At certain points I was running through hordes of zombies and chaining together my parkour movements like the game intended, but other times it simply will not work so smoothly, causing you to either fall and take damage or refusing to grab certain ledges and a swift death coming shortly after because of it. When you need to climb of the very tall towers, this is where the flakey controls will almost guarantee you an unfair death. Not only is it not always clear what you can grab onto for proper ledges, but it will sometimes overshoot your intended ledge or refuse to grab on and result in you plummeting for a swift death. That being said, when the controls work, it’s a fantastic feeling to vault over a zombie’s head onto a ledge and make quick work leaping gaps between building roofs. With all of the movement abilities you’re given I understand why they would want you to always run from point to point in missions, but having a fast travel, even if it was just to the main safe area of the game, would have been very welcomed.

To combat the zombies that will constantly be between you and your objective you’ll be using melee weapons for the majority of the game. You don’t receive guns and ammo until later in the game and when you do there’s usually not enough ammo given to make it viable versus having another high damage and durable melee weapon outside some of the harder sections and bosses. You’ll begin with only access to crude planks of wood, pipes, and the sorts, but eventually you’ll find much better weapons that will be worth your precious and limited upgrades. Yes, you can craft and upgrade weapons too! By completing missions, side quests, bosses, exploring, and more, you’ll find parts, blueprints, and upgrades, so it’s worth your time exploring so that you can make your favorite weapon into a massive damage dealing stick of death versus zombies. While it’s fun to add fire, electricity, and other mods to your weapons, it’s also completely unnecessary and you can easily reach and complete the game without ever doing so or purchasing the higher tier weapons from vendors.

Since you’ll constantly be looting zombies, trash cans, and more, you’ll come across many useful items, but even more not to helpful items that you’ll have to take the time to sift through as your backpack only has a limited amount of room before you need to clear room for newer and better items. As you progress in the game you’ll be able to upgrade your backpack slots, but even maxed out, I had to take some time to organize and go through it every so often. It would have been nice to have the inventory management a little more streamlined and user friendly so that it didn’t take up so much time on a constant basis.

As you play through Dying Light, traversing, looting, and fighting zombies, you’ll gain experience points for every action you do that is split into three separate categories: Survivor, Agility, and Power. The Survivor category is your generic experience for completing missions, clearing safe zones, finding supply drops, and more and relates to your basic character level. You gain Agility experience for all of your parkour abilities such as running, jumping, climbing, and more, so this will fill over time no matter what you’re doing. Lastly, Power experience is for fighting zombies and setting traps, another thing that will fill on its own as you progress through the game, so there’s not usually a need to solely trying to focus on getting experience in one category. That being said, make sure you get the grappling hook as soon as you’re able to as it’s a complete game changer and renders all traversal in the game almost void of any challenge once obtaining.

One of the biggest catches that Dying Light utilizes is the dynamic day and night cycle that actually makes a massive difference in how you’ll play. During the day there really isn’t all that much of a challenge but once nightfall hits, you better get ready for a completely difference experience. When it is night time, zombies become incredibly fast and dangerous and will easily be able to keep up with you as you spring and try and outrun them. A few hits with your best weapon probably isn’t going to do that much either, so you need to be prepared to run and find a safe house as soon as possible. You’re given a few tools to help combat them, but until much later in the game it’s best to try and escape, as these super zombies are absolutely terrifying.

Dying Light excels at creating a tension when you know you’re being chased by one of these volatile zombies and simply trying to get someone safe as soon as possible. You can even press the ‘Y’ button to look behind you as you’re sprinting, much like looking in your rear view mirror, if you want an even more terrifying experience seeing how close they are to attacking you. I was legitimately scared when night hit, especially in the specific missions that force you to play during nightfall. The risk versus reward payoff is quite good though, as you gain double experience points for participating at night, so since you’re confident in your abilities, I actually suggest to not always avoid night for some easy leveling up.

I felt very tense playing alone, but luckily up to four people can all play together which makes things much easier. You’ll need to play the hour long introduction before you’re allowed to play cooperatively with your friends, but once you do, you won’t want to play alone again. Playing coop with friends speeds up the pacing dramatically, even more so if one of your friends is a higher level. For example, if I join your game, and since all of my skills are in the mid-teens, I’ll have a lot more abilities such as the grapple hook to get around much quicker. Even better, once one player in the game reaches the objective, it prompts a ‘teleport now’ for the remaining players allowing for some pseudo quick travel. It can cheapen the experience of the game as a whole if you’re simply being teleported from point to point, but it’s not forced if you don’t want to use it and earn that experience on your own.

One thing worth noting is that the game’s multiplayer co-op is asymmetrical, meaning even though I’m joining your game when you just started, I’ll still get my own experience, but all of the quests are based on the host of the game. You’ll all get experience and credit for completing quests and loot is individual per person, so make sure the host in your group of friends is the one that wants to progress their story closest to the beginning. You’re also able to create challenges with your friends, such as who can kill the most zombies in a set time, get to a checkpoint the fastest, and more, but keep in mind the game doesn’t scale based on how many players are together, and me with my grappling hook will always win the race competitions versus you who doesn’t have it yet.

There is even a competitive multiplayer mode aptly named Be The Zombie mode. Here you get to play an incredibly powerful zombie and can invade other players’ games. You can use your tentacle to quickly zip around and reach the survivor players and are tasked with taking them out. This is usually quite easy as the zombie in its current state is grossly overpowered and only is a challenge if you’re in someone’s game that has 3 or 4 players. It’s worth noting that the game’s default setting is to allow anyone to invade your game, so you might want to turn this setting off or to only friends if you want to make progress without being killed quite often. If you like having that extra pressure and challenge, set it to frequent and good luck.

Dying Light does do a few things quite well, namely your acrobatic skills when you chain together moves and you keep unstoppable (again, when it works). Also, even being as powerful as I am in the game post credits, night still legitimately scares me with the volatile zombies that can easily make quick work of me if I’m not careful. Night time scares me in a game; that’s impressive.

I did have a lot of complaints that seemed to keep piling up by the time I was done playing though. When the parkour controls work proper it’s great, but more often than not I always had issues with Crane either not grabbing the ledge that he should have or misjudging my footing since it’s in first person and missing my jump completely. This is mostly true during the final sequence of the game, which I don’t want to spoil, but I’ll just say that I almost gave up on the game completely when I died for my hundredth time due to controls not always doing what I wanted them to. Combat is quite basic, and while there are some nifty upgrades you can get later on, it’s never really challenging outside of a massive crowd of zombies or at night. As mentioned above, the characters are generally lifeless and you won’t make any connection to them with the very predictable story. You’ll see the twists coming a mile away and the texture pop in that happens quite frequent will take you out of the immersion.

Dying Light is full of great ideas, and even though it’s in the tired zombie genre, it does enough to distinguish itself from other similar games. I highly suggest playing with friends if at all possible, as it made the experience much more tolerable and entertaining. Some of the best experiences I had was simply exploring and fighting packs of zombies as a group with friends, and while Dying Light isn’t doing anything terribly innovative, it will most likely keep you coming back for more with its RPG-like progression and tons of side quests that will surely take a good chunk of time to complete fully.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 The Crew

When The Crew was announced, it seems like Ubisoft had some extremely ambitious goals. It was touted as an online MMO-esque racer were you can your friends could drive from one coast of the United States to the other freely. Did they deliver on their promise? Well, technically, as you can hop onto the persistent world with your friends and drive from Seattle to Miami if you want, but it’s obviously not a 1:1 scale of the whole country. There’s actually only a handful of cities depicted, and if you’re a native of these, you’ll notice some things are slightly different than its real life counterparts as well. That being said, the world does feel substantial and you’ll notice as you cross from one state to the next as the typical backgrounds will reflect the actual locations.

Aside from the one or two exceptions, racing games aren’t generally known for their engaging stories, and while The Crew tries to make you care about its main plot and characters, you simply won’t, which is a shame given that Troy Baker voices the protagonist Alex Taylor. The central plot focuses on Alex’s older brother, the leader of the 5-10 gang, who is murdered which you are framed for and get sent to jail for 5 years. Once you get out the only thing you care about is revenge and you start figuring a way to do so. The 5-10’s have been taken over and is led by a notorious dude with the title of V-8 (his officers have ranks of V-6, V-4, and so on) and it’s up to Alex to avenge his brother and take the 5-10’s back. You’re tasked with making your way up the ranks and you’ll have a friend within the FBI to help you along the way.

The plot is predictable and you’ll see everything coming a mile away, and in all honesty, it simply dragged on for way too long over the course of sixty plus missions. The cutscenes look decent, but the dialogue and writing is flat, along with the bulk of everything you’re told will simply be done over the radio when you’re driving as opposed to specific cutscenes. Even if you’re free roaming, you’ll constantly get reminded that you should be doing something else in relation to the story and can become quite tiresome hearing the same lines repeatedly.

As for missions in the campaign, there’s really only a handful of different types, but sadly the two worst types keep getting repeated and are extremely frustrating. These missions are the takedown and police pursuit missions, and I get that they are meant to bookend an exciting chapter, but the frustration from these will simply infuriate you rather than motivate you to move forward. Police pursuits is self-explanatory and has you trying to evade the police’s radius, much like any other game, but getting stopped from hitting random traffic can only be forgiven so many times. Cops seem to spawn out of thin air and if you have a helicopter chasing you, be prepared for a lengthy chase that always tends to drag on with unfair and unbalanced cops that seem to have the ability to catch up to you and ram you whenever they feel like.

Even worse is the Takedown missions. After a single one of the missions I dreaded them every time they were next on the list to progress the campaign further. These missions have you chasing a target who is on a set path that you need to ram a few times to stop his vehicle. Problem is it can be completely broken at times. Because they race on a scripted path, you’ll fail numerous times and have to simply learn where to cut corners or gain some ground to inflict the needed hits to take them down. When you actually do hit them though, you’ll be lucky if it actually registers and does damage. Also, don’t be so happy when you ram them head on or into a wall, as it’s all based on the number of hits they need to be stopped, not the damage done in a percentage form, it’s silly and frustrating.

When you go through the campaign missions make sure to do so with a friend, as it will take much of the frustration away, as doing these particular missions with numerous players makes it much easier. Teaming up with a crew almost makes the game too easy though, as the mission will complete as long as one of the crew finishes in first or completes the objective. So that means you can have your friend that’s really good at the game essentially finish it for you as long as you play together simply because you’re in the same crew.

Impressively, the game map is quite huge and there’s no loading at all when you’re driving, even from one coast to the next. Given that The Crew is set in an online persistent world, you do need to be online to play, even if you want to play alone, and this has some issues which I’ll get into shortly. The idea is that you can simply invite other racers and friends nearby to join your crew and race together either in missions, skills, or simply exploring the open road.

If you don’t feel like replaying one of the frustrating campaign missions, you can test your abilities in any of the hundreds of mini-games called skills scattered throughout almost every road across the country. Once you drive through them they trigger and you’ll need to either slalom, speed, hill climb, land a jump, or other specific tasks in a set area. Doing so earns you XP, money, and car parts and they can be repeated as many times as you like to either earn a better medal or to simply grind for levels or money. Since you’re always connected, you’ll constantly be updating the leaderboards and can easily see how you compare against your friends at any of these skill tests.

Completing campaign missions or skills earns you car parts, and the better medal you earn, the better car part you’ll earn. The catch which isn’t explained at all and I learned the hard way is that when you complete a skill challenge and earn a car part, it’s only for the car you’re currently in. If you eventually start swapping between multiple vehicles, you’re going to have to do some skill grinding to earn better car parts (and thus raiding your car’s individual level). I was excited to finally be able to use my Dodge Viper only to find out it was a much lower level than my starter car because I’ve not earned any parts while in the Viper. You’ll hit random difficulty spikes that will require you to grind for better parts just so you can progress, so it can become quite a chore if you have multiple cars.

Once you begin the game you’ll be given an initial choice of a handful of cars, but be warned, you’ll be living in this vehicle for quite some time. As you gain levels you’ll eventually be able to unlock new specs for your cars (street, raid, dirt, performance, etc) and your initial car can be switched to any of the specs once unlocked where bought cars are usually only able to be changed into certain specs, usually two or so. As you earn cash you can eventually buy new cars or visual upgrades for your cars, but even when I was in the final stages of the campaign, I never had enough money to blindly waste on cars of overly expensive vinyl decorations. Part of this is become of the Crew Credits system that is built in, essentially microtransactions. Would you like to purchase this car for in-game money you’ve earned or simply pay a few bucks for Crew Credits and have it now? You don’t earn cash enough for it to be your main viable source, so it feels as if the Crew Credits system was favored highly instead. There are even perks that you can spend points on, but if you want to, you can purchase more perks with Crew Credits; it’s disappointing as there’s no way to do this without opening your wallet. Joining one of the games factions will earn you some Crew Credits, but once they are gone be prepared to shell out more real cash to get more.

Speaking of factions, most missions takes you maybe five to ten minutes to complete, but faction races are a whole other beast in itself. These online races can be simple objectives, but some of these races last well over two hours. TWO HOURS. Prey you don’t lose connection to the game servers while doing so or it’s all for naught. Sitting in last place for over an hour isn’t all that fun.

Speaking of losing connection to the game servers, be prepared to have that happen (at least as of this writing) numerous times. Since you are forced to be online to play, the moment you lose a connection to their servers, of your fault or theirs, you’re booted back out to the main menu and lose any progress you’ve made in whatever mission you were racing in. Now imagine working on a Takedown mission being repeated over and over, you finally take him down and just before it goes to save, the game crashes to the main menu. I’ve had this happen numerous times and I can’t even tell you the amount of anger that I was filled with. I’ve also had the game randomly disconnect me from my Crew, have me unable to send them invites even though we’re in party chat talking, and other issues that are connection related.

I have no issue with a game needing me to be online to play when it’s needed, but I don’t see any reason it’s needed with The Crew. I get that the idea is to place you with people nearby, but the game doesn’t automatically populate your races with others nearby or fill your crew. You have to do everything manually, and I’ve tried inviting session players to hundreds of different missions, only to never have anyone accept, not once. Maybe they aren’t getting invites, as I’ve never received a non-friend invite to any race either, so possibly it’s a server issue. That being said, for an online only racer, it feels incredibly isolated aside from seeing the odd person drive by here and there.

While I was initially enjoying the game, the more I saw its missions structure, odd design choices (why can’t I use unused parts I’ve earned for other cars I own), and microtransactions, my enjoyment kept fading the more I played. Even playing with friends I was hitting random difficulty spikes that just felt completely unfair with the highly unbalanced AI. I did enjoy having hundreds of the skill challenges all throughout the country, but they are quick and is a lot of repetition. Almost without fail it takes me three or four tries to load the game from the main menu, as I don’t get a response from the server almost every time. I’m sure this is just a hiccup at launch, but it’s a huge issue when it’s an online only game. Almost every car and spec feels way too slippery and the in-game sounds and engines feel completely flat.

If you have a group of friends that are all picking up the game and are willing to play together, you’ll probably enjoy The Crew much more, but if you don’t or simply are wanting to play alone, it becomes very tedious and challenging for the wrong reasons. The Crew has a lot of great aspiring ideas but feels like it’s constantly falling short, especially in the dull campaign that drags on way too long, and that’s not even factoring in the aggravation of constant server issues I’ve had every day since playing.

Overall Score: 5.8 / 10 Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions

On paper, Geometry Wars sounds incredibly boring: ‘shoot various shapes for points’. As it turns out, it was an incredibly fun, addictive, and extremely challenging game when it released on Xbox 360 back in 2005. Since then it’s had a sequel, which improved many things, but now we have the third game in the series, created by a completely new team since the original no longer exists. If you’re unaware what Geometry Wars is, Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions (referred to as Dimensions from here on) is a twin stick shooter (left stick moves your ship and the right controls the direction you fire) that has you shooting various geometric shapes (enemies) with the goal of survival and high score.

It sounds basic in premise because it is, but it’s incredibly challenging when you have an overwhelming amount of enemies on the screen and multiple factors that you need to keep a keen eye on while trying to survive. Shoot a shape and it will leave behind a gem behind that can be gathered to add to your multiplier, allowing you to reach higher scores in the end. The more gems you collect the quicker your multiplier will raise, but doing so usually has its own dangers and you’ll need to constantly weigh the risk vs reward. Do so properly though and you’ll quickly see your score shoot from a measly few thousand into the millions.

While your primary goal may simply be to shoot anything that moves, survival plays just as large a part, if not more, especially when the screen becomes incredibly crowded and busy with bright flashing colors and trance-like music. Every type of enemy shape has its own characteristics of how they behave and react to your player controlled ship. Green cubes for example will constantly chase you but will try and move the opposite way that you’re shooting (think of a Boo ghost from Mario), purple squares when shot break into smaller pieces of themselves, and blue diamonds will slowly chase you wherever you go, so knowing your enemies patterns plays a huge part of your constantly evolving strategy to survive. On their own, none of them are too menacing or challenging, but when every type is coming at you from every direction (and some that simply float around without a care about your movements), it can and will become seemingly impossible to not die at times.

Dimensions now includes an Adventure Mode that has you playing through 50 preset challenges in order, each with a set par time or score to earn up to three stars. While many games with this mechanic allows you to breeze along from level to level, eventually you’ll become blocked by the boss stages that will require you to replay some levels to earn two or three stars to make sure you have the set amount to challenge these gate keeps of the challenges further ahead. While that may not sound interesting for some, every level plays very different from the others and isn’t simply playing small variations of the same level over and over. While most levels will simply have you striving to reach a certain high score, there are other types of challenges included that take from the previous games’ newly added modes such as Pacifism, Waves, King, and more. There are even some newly tweaked modes that were quite challenging to learn, and I don’t want to spoil them, but you’ll need to learn to strategize your Geometry Wars play in drastically different ways.

While most will find the new Adventure Mode the big new feature, the newly added 3D maps are just as revitalizing to the series, if not more. Geometry Wars was always played top down on a 2D plane, but in Dimensions it’s been taken to a whole new level and certain stages are played on a 3D geometric shape instead, allowing you to stay on any of its edges as you traverse around its edges (or none if it’s a sphere). While your ship looks as if it’s always in the middle of the screen, the shape will rotate based on how you control your ship, but even for the Geometry Wars veterans like myself, it does take quite a lot of getting used to. I used to be incredibly good at Geometry Wars, usually among the top names on my friends’ leaderboards, but these new 3D maps make me feel like I’ve never played the game before. When things become incredibly hectic, it can be very difficult to see the enemies coming, especially if it’s around the corner of a cube for example. There are some subtle touches that are designed to help you with issues like this, like small ripple effects on the playing field, but again, when there are hundreds of enemies on the screen at once, that’s not usually what you’re focused on. Blind corners are almost always met with death and can feel unfair at times, but just like the first two games, you need to adapt a new strategy to handle this new mechanic.

Dimensions’ 3D levels eventually do become to feel natural, you simply acclimate your play style to survive. The boss battles though, I’m still getting used to these, but find them incredibly challenging yet refreshing. After a handful of levels in Adventure Mode you’ll be met with a boss stage that needs to be beaten to progress further. Each boss is essentially a supersized version of one of the basic shapes but also has some unique tricks and a much beefier health bar that needs to be depleted before time runs its course. Most will spawn waves of enemies when its weak spot is exposed (as it’s also moving around the map), and once it’s been attacked, it’s usually invincible for a short time as it and its minions chase you. In addition to this, some of the boss stages are set on 3D levels and that adds a whole other complexity to the mix.

Also new to the series is the inclusion of drones that unlock the further you progress in the game and based on how many stars you’ve unlocked. These drones are small little AI sidekicks that will vary from extra firepower to a small version of your ship that will go and magnetically collect any nearby gems enemies have dropped and you’ve yet to collect yourself. There are a handful of different drones and special powers that you can use to suit your play style or to help with specific types of matches. I did find it more distracting than helpful in the beginning, as you naturally want to shoot at anything you see on the screen, but you eventually learn to simply block it out and let the AI do its thing to help you.

For the fans of the series, Classic Mode has also been included and is essentially the bulk of Geometry Wars 2’s newly added modes all in one place. If the inclusion of drones and 3D maps is too much for you, this is the mode you’ll want to stick with until you feel more familiar with the newer mechanics. Also included is local and online modes that will have you competing against other players in head to head teams. To be completely honest, in all of the time I’ve tried playing online multiplayer, I was only able to connect to one working match, so I’m not sure if it’s simply been bad luck on my part, server issues, or low game population.

Just like how Geometry Wars 2 really evolved the game from its first iteration, Dimensions does it once again with the newly added 3D maps and Adventure Mode. While I wasn’t initially a fan of the star count bottleneck to advance further, it does make you go back and replay levels and learn them by repetition rather than trying to coast through the game simply getting single stars in each stage. If that wasn’t motivating enough, each stage also has a leaderboard, so you can see exactly where you stack up against your friends and the rest of the world. There’s an incredible amount of gameplay included within for such a simple game premise. Newcomers to the series can start out simple and slow with classic modes where veterans can jump right in and feel at home and start to learn the intricacies of the new mechanics that really make Dimensions feel like the best in the series.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures 2

Sure, Pong and Asteroids may get the nod as the first true video games, but when Pac-Man came about in 1980, that’s really when gaming started to become popular, and since then, Pac-Man has become synonymous with gaming as a whole. Since then Pac-Man has been in numerous games and spinoffs, but has never really captured his fame that he once had when gaming was in its infancy thirty five years ago, save for the exceptional Championship Edition DX that came out a few years ago of course. So does his newest adventure, The Ghostly Adventures 2, bring him back into limelight?

Based on the cartoon TV show with the same name, The Ghostly Adventures 2 is a tie-in to the show, so kids that know about the characters should enjoy themselves seeing familiar faces and locations. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s your typical spin that has Pac-Man as a young and cool version of his younger self that has to deal with the bad guy every week in some new wacky situation; typical fodder for a young audience cartoon.

What The Ghost Adventures 2 does right is capture the essence of the show, be it with the characters, locations, bright colors, and it also improves on the first game that released just a short year ago. The story follows that of Pac-Man and his friends trying to save PacWorld from a devilish plot by the evil Lord Betrayus. There really isn’t much more to the story, and you’ll easily finish the campaign in a weekend, or even one long sitting, as it only took me about six hours to reach the end credits.

The game is a platformer at its heart and you’ll be leaping from place to place, with different powers, all while chomping ghosts which is what Pac has does best for over thirty years. The game is completely 3D but the camera always has a set and fixed position. It may move and rotate when you reach new places or checkpoints, but you’re never able to freely move the camera to help with making proper jumps. Because of this fixed camera, prepare to lose many lives from missing your jump due to odd angles or simply not knowing where you’re about to land.

Making a return from the previous game, Pac can gain special powers by chomping down on some power berries he’ll find throughout the world. Based on which berry he eats, he’ll gain access to specific powers and also change his look to match said powers. As Fire Pac you’ll be able to throw fireballs at ghosts to stun them, melt ice, glide long distances, and cause hot air balloons to lift. Ice Pac allows you to freeze enemies in place, cause ghosts to turn into ice blocks and land on switches, or even freeze specific enemies to be used as platforms. Metal Pac lets you suck in ghosts, attach yourself to magnetic platforms, and orbit specific attach points to launch yourself in any direction. Chameleon Pac allows you to use his long tongue to eat ghosts and also gives you the ability to latch onto poles to swing elsewhere. Rubber Pac turns himself into a small ball that has the talent of being able to super jump and slide slowly down the sides of walls. Lastly, Pac can also turn into Granite Ball Pac by eating the appropriate power berry and this transforms him into a massive granite ball version of himself that can dash in any direction and also jump onto ghosts for big damage.

While the powers can be fun, and you’re only given the power berries you need to progress in a specific stage, they can be frustrating at the best of times as well. This happens the most with Metal Pac when you’re trying to attach or detach from magnetic surfaces. Keep in mind the camera is always fixed, but when it does shirt or rotate and you’re trying to do something at that moment, you’re almost always sure to die due to the camera not making it easy to orient yourself. The same goes for Granite Ball Pac, as you’ll roll of the edge numerous times because of the controls and camera shifting.

Just like in the show, Pac will get some help from his friends, Spiral and Cylindria, and there will even be a few sections during the campaign where you’ll get to use Spiral’s Cherry Copter and Cylindria’s Hoverboard. These dull stages play as simple on-rail shooters, but make for a slight distraction to the slew of regular stages where Pac is simply jumping around and eating ghosts.

In between levels, Pac is able to visit and explore Pacopolis Park and visit locations that fans of the show will recognize, like Sir C’s Lab, Maze High, and more. Aside from finding some collectable items and talking to a handful of characters, this free roam of sorts really doesn’t add anything to the game unless you want to take part in the unlocked challenges that open up as you progress further in the game. It’s really just an explorable menu system and doesn’t offer much else aside from a slight distraction.

Given that this game’s target audience is the younger crowd that most likely tunes into the show every week, you would assume that since it’s geared towards kids it would be a simplistic game for controls and mechanics, as to not alienate its target audience. When it comes to difficulty though, The Ghostly Adventures 2 is all over the place, as even I was losing multiple lives in certain sections due to mechanics and camera issues. It’s as if when creating the game, they were unsure who to make it for, and as a parent, be prepared to be asked to help if it’s for a younger child. The platforming can be quite difficult and the flawed mechanics can be very tough in specific sections.

That being said, dying isn’t much of a problem, as you amass many lives as you collect pellets and fruit pieces throughout your gameplay and I was never even close to losing all my lives; a much younger person though may not have as much luck. Even in the final stages, the difficulty seemed all over the place, as some sections I breezed through, and other parts I lost a handful of lives.

When you’ve completed the game and the credits have rolled, there’s little to no reason to continue playing other than trying to obtain gold medals in each level and trying to find every collectable. Given the mechanical issues, I don’t see many doing this unless you really are a completionist, enjoy obtaining high scores, or hunt for achievements.

The game can look great at times, as some of the worlds do give the illusion of being vast, but this is where it also runs into other problems. Sometimes there’s so much going on that the game really starts to slow down, almost to the point of slideshow-like frames, to the point where it affects your gameplay. The space levels are notorious for this and at times can be almost unplayable due to the horrendous slowdown.

The older generation of gamers like myself will appreciate the retro sounds and music placed into the game, and if you’ve played the original Pac-Man from over three decades ago, you’ll definitely partake in some flashbacks with the sound effects. All of this being said, The Ghostly Adventures 2 isn’t terrible, it’s just actually decent if you play it a few levels at a time instead of trying to finish it as quickly as possible. Keep in mind though that it’s going to be too difficult for the very young kids and the older ones will most likely rather play something else.

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Far Cry 4

Far Cry is known for allowing you to play in open worlds that are known to span across a massive island, or in the case of Far Cry 4, Kyrat in the Himalayan Mountains. Far Cry gives you complete freedom of how you want to play and what you want to do in its world, almost to the point of having too much to do. Not only is the Far Cry world you’re allows to play in massive, but the sheer number of activities and side quests for you to enjoy at your own pace is almost daunting at times. Even when you’ve set yourself to a path, you’ll easily become distracted with random diversions. If you were a fan of Far Cry 3, you’ll be pleased to know that Far Cry 4 is essentially bigger and better version that refines the Far Cry formula rather than reinvent it.

Pagan Min is the malicious dictator that rules over Kyrat and its people. You play as Ajay Ghale, a Kyrati native who was taken there and raised by his mother as a child. Ajay is on a journey to spread his mother’s ashes back in their homeland, though almost immediately after entering Kyrat his bus is ambushed and you come face to face with Pagan Min, who seems to know you quite well. Now placed in the middle of a civil war, Ajay escapes Pagan’s with some help of The Golden Path, the rebel group fighting back. As it turns out, The Golden Path was originally formed by Ajay’s parents, so he’s instantly treated as a rock star by the rebels, thinking they just found their savior.

The Golden Path is trying to overthrow the tyrannical Pagan Min and at specific points in the story you’ll be forced to side between the two bickering leaders of The Golden Path, Anita and Sabal. Once you choose a side, the other quest is locked out and will affect the outcome of specific events down the road, and has its own ending as well.

Oddly enough though, you only ever run into these main characters in the quests and not elsewhere in Kyrat, so aside from the few minute spurts of cutscenes, it’s hard to become attached to them. The same goes for Pagan himself as well, as you don’t really interact with him at all until the latter half of the game, which diminishes his character buildup. It’s a shame because he’s played so well and is a really interesting character, you simply don’t see enough of him throughout the campaign.

The basic mechanics of Far Cry 3 return unchanged here, as you’re still going to be looking for high ground to scope out the enemies with your binoculars which highlights them for easy tracking. That’s not to say you need to use your sniper gun and bow and arrows for a stealth approach, as running in with rocket launchers and an assault rifle is also a valid tactic as well depending on how you want to play. There are some new tricks in Ajay’s arsenal though that can prove useful when used properly. Ajay has a grappling hook that can be used to scale certain cliff faces, allowing you to reach a higher view to plan your route of attack. What makes the grappling hook so fun though is that you can actually use it for more than simply getting from the ground to the top (or vice versa), as you can also use it as an actual swing and leap off to reach other areas if the terrain allows. It’s fun to play with when you come to an area that allows for a lot of grappling freedom and can make for some daring escapes.

The basic mission structure varies throughout the campaign, but even more so with the side missions. One mission you’ll simply be saving someone, another you might be trying to prevent an opium plant farm from being burned down, next you’ll be in the Himalayan mountaintops searching for oxygen canisters, then you might even be launching an ATV off a cliff so you can open your wingsuit and fly into a plane. It’s completely unpredictable going from one mission to the next what you’ll be faced with, but this keeps it interesting and fresh throughout the campaign.

There’s plenty of side quests and objectives to do when you want to take a break from the campaign, almost to the point of being too much to do. A completionist is going to have their hands full, as there’s a massive amount of content within Kyrat for Ajay to take part of. There’s the standard save someone and fetch quests, but there’s a ton of other things to do as well, like liberating radio towers to unlock the fog from the map or even traveling to Shangri-La for some more supernatural expeditions that I don’t want to spoil, as they’re quite entertaining. There’s always something different to do if you get bored of doing the same thing over and over, so make sure to try all the different types of quests at least once.

As you earn XP from simply playing, you’ll unlock new skills and abilities that can be unlocked; even the ability to ride elephants (essentially tanks in Far Cry 4) which can lead to some hilarious moments. I do wish the skill tree was much deeper, as I eventually earned more than enough skill points that I was taking skills I didn’t care about at all.

Just like how the mission structure can be unpredictable, it’s truer when applied to how the world around you feels alive. You might be scouting an outpost, getting ready to make your attack, and you might all of a sudden get attacked by a tiger or bear, causing the enemies to take notice and mess up your whole plan of attack. But that’s not always a bad thing, as this unpredictability really did keep things interesting and you never get too complacent knowing that roaming guards or wildlife may be right around the corner. Oh, and eagles are the absolute worst, so be ready for those. When you do dispatch animals you come across, you can skin them to be used in crafting and take their meat to use as bait as well. You’ll never be forced to hunt for animals outright, but you’ll want to early on, as that’s how you’re going to upgrade your carrying capacity, holsters, and more.

Kyrat feels massive, and even when you find one of the new Gyrocopter that allows you to fly almost anywhere (it does have an altitude limit), it can still take some time to get from point A to point B. While the square mileage may be something similar to Rook Island from Far Cry 3, it simply feels larger in this game because of the verticality and the need to use switchbacks when traversing on ground vehicles. Regular cars and trucks may take some time to get used to given the default Halo-like controls of being controlled with the left stick, but this is for good reason. This is so that you can shoot from your vehicle while driving with ease.

There are some steep inclines and narrow paths that made vehicle travelling difficult but you are able to turn on an auto drive feature if you’d rather have a tour-like ride to your destination or don’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring out the right paths to get to your end point without going off a cliff. Once you clear out some outposts, some of them will permanently act as a fast travel point, making getting places around Kyrat much easier.

One of the biggest items in my ‘Pro’ list though is easily the quality of the voice acting. Normally the handful of main characters in games are voiced well but the minor ones usually suffer or simply aren’t as good. That wasn’t the case in Far Cry 4. Pagan Min is voiced amazingly and you really get the sense that he’s crazy and evil based on his performance. Ajay may not have a lot of lines throughout the campaign, but the few times you do hear him, it’s also believable. The same goes for the supporting cast, especially Longinus, who turned out to be my favorite character in the whole game the more missions I did for him.

If Far Cry 4 wasn’t crazy enough for you, you can now also invite a friend or stranger into your game for some co-op shenanigans and double the firepower. Having a second person definitely changes your strategy when taking over outposts and completing side missions, but is a welcome addition. There are some basic communication tools available if you or your partner doesn’t have a mic, but be prepared for someone to make a mistake when you’re trying to be stealthy.

Two things I found off with the co-op experience though. First, you need to choose if you want to play online from the main menu or not when loading your game. Even if you choose to play online, you won’t have anyone join unless you open it publicly afterwards or invite a friend. Also, if you happen to lose your connection to the Far Cry servers during gameplay when ‘online’, you’ll be booted back out to the main menu, even if you’re in the midst of an outpost liberation or don’t even have anyone currently in your ‘online’ game. Also adding a second player doesn’t scale the enemies or difficulty, so you may notice things become literally twice as easy unless you manually change the difficulty. Lastly, while you can play co-op with a friend, this applies to everything except the campaign missions. So you’re welcome to go around Kyrat and tag team all the side quests and objectives, but you’re going to have to play the campaign missions solo unfortunately. Whoever is the host will gain all the progress from quests and bell tower unlocking where the joining player’s main game is unaffected, though they do get the XP and unlocks earned while helping. Not perfect by any means, but playing co-op is quite fun and should be played.

If competitive multiplayer is more your thing, then you’ll be happy to know that it makes a return as well. This multiplayer is titled Battles of Kyrat and pits two factions against each other in various game modes for up to ten players. Much like the campaign, the multiplayer boasts large open world (with limitations) maps that feel almost too large at times. When half of your game time is simply traversing the map, it really hinders the flow of actual gameplay versus other players.

One faction is The Golden Path and if you’re on this team you’re much more armed than the opposing Rakshasa warriors that tote bow and arrows. To balance this, the tribal faction gets some interesting abilities, like being able to use invisibility, teleportation arrows, and more. The Rakshasa are much more fun to play as given their abilities, and much more frustrating to die against since they’re usually always invisible. It’s an interesting concept, but feels like it hasn’t been completely fleshed out and balanced yet. Having a deeper progression or skill tree unlocks would have breathed some more life into this mode for me in the long run, but with the return of the map editor, there are some really interesting player-made maps and objectives out there that you should be checking out.

At its heart this feels essentially like an improved Far Cry 3, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just don’t go in expecting a slew of new mechanics or major changes aside from the setting and characters obviously. I usually tend to finish a game and then once it is complete go after all of the remaining side objectives, but that just felt too daunting in Far Cry 4. There’s seriously a ton of stuff for you to enjoy, almost at every turn, but it felt like too much at times. There’s even an option to hide every type of marker from your map if you want to simply focus on the campaign or other objectives, because if you don’t, it becomes much too busy and even difficult to find certain objective markers in the confusion.

You’ll have so many objectives thrown at you that it feels distracting at times, especially if you want to simply get through the campaign. But that’s an issue I had, as the story never really picks up till near the end and really wasn’t all that interesting. This is probably due to the overused bickering of the two Golden Path leaders trope combined with the serious lack of screen time for the main villain that seems so interesting at the opening of the game.

All of that being said, if you’re looking for a game that can occupy you for many hours or really enjoy finding every hidden collectible and completing every sidequest, then Far Cry 4 is a very easy sell. If you’re like me and have always wanted to shoot down a helicopter from the back of an elephant, than look no further.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Assassin's Creed Rogue

I love Assassin’s Creed. Heck, I even enjoyed III once you got passed the tutorial that felt like it took ten hours. That being said, I didn’t know how to feel knowing that two Assassin’s Creed games were not only coming out in the same year, but the same day. Unity and Rogue, and to make things more confusing, Unity is for current gen only where Rogue is relegated to the last gen hardware of Xbox 360. If you’re simply reading this review to figure out which Assassin’s Creed to play first, I would highly suggest Rogue as it’s essentially the setup for Unity which takes place later in the timeline.

When a franchise has a game release every single year, it can become stale quite quickly unless it innovates and brings new ideas to the table to keep the audience interested. Assassin’s Creed III started this by bringing naval warfare to the series, but last year’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is what really made the series fresh once again. Black Flag introduced many new mechanics and settings for the series, and now a year later, we have its direct sequel, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.

Rogue ties up all the loose ends from the previous two Assassin’s Creed games (III and Black Flag) and if you’re not up to date on your Assassin’s Creed timeline and want to play them in order, as it’s essentially its own trilogy, you’ll want to play Black Flag, Rogue, and then III to have events unfold sequentially. If you’ve played the previous games, Rogue contains a lot of really interesting perspectives, not only of what happens during its own game, but why certain things are the way they are in III. For example, you’ll find out exactly why Achilles has a limp in III.

I normally try and steer away from referencing other games in deep detail in reviews, but it’s near impossible for Rogue as it borrows immensely from its prequel, Black Flag. Does that mean Rogue is essentially a re-skin of Black Flag with a new story thrown overtop to mask its roots? It’s not a simple yes or no, as the story is nothing like any of the other Assassin’s Creed titles and actually gives a completely new perspective, not just with the new protagonist, but the Assassin and Templar conflict as a whole. Black Flag was fantastic mechanically and Rogue plays almost exactly the same, though it does have its own few nuances you’ll learn, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because the groundwork has already been laid and proven, it’s clear more time has been taken to craft an interesting story and adding a few tweaks to make the title better as a whole.

Even though Rogue is the third new protagonist in the America’s trilogy, the story of Shay Cormac is one that is like no other Assassin’s Creed game to date. Rogue starts years after Black Flag and centers around an assassin, Shay, during the Seven Years War. Right from the beginning you can tell that Shay isn’t one to always follow the rules blindly, even if direct orders from master assassins. I don’t want to give away too much about the story, but the whole premise is that for specific reasons, Shay turns his back on the brotherhood and fights against them, eventually becoming a Templar. If you’re a true Assassin’s Creed fan, this just blew your mind. Yes, you get to play an Assassin’s Creed game but as a Templar.

To be quite honest, at first I didn’t think I would enjoy it, as I’ve always wanted to be the noble assassin’s that are trying to save the world, but Rogue will let you peek behind the Templar curtains and possibly change your mind. It’s an odd feeling to kill assassins whenever possible after so many years of aiding them, but this turmoil, for Shay and as a player, is what made me really enjoy Rogue. Seeing the Templar side of specific conflicts really starts to open your eyes and Shay needs to deal with all of his emotions and betrayal to the brotherhood. I don’t want to spoil much more, but know that playing in this moral grey area was refreshing, even if the gameplay is vastly unchanged.

My only complaint with this new perspective, is that the confrontations you have with the other assassins that wronged you never really feels powerful enough. I was expecting some epic showdowns with my former masters, but aside from the final sequence, it simply plays out like any other mission you’d find in the game. For how strongly Shay feels, especially since switching allegiances, I simply expected more drama and turmoil when there was a confrontation, but it doesn’t really ever materialize in that respect.

Gameplay may be a clone of Black Flag, but the fundamentals are solid and if you enjoyed Black Flag for whatever reason, you’ll enjoy Rogue for similar reasons. That being said, if you didn’t like Black Flag, aside from the story change and a few new additions, it’s going to feel extremely familiar. Sailing the waters in our ship as a captain still plays a large role on Rogue, but the backdrops are different, as you’ll also be sailing in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic and have to deal with icebergs as well. There are plenty of small islands, coves, and other aspects to explore and uncover, so if you’re a completionist or put dozens of hours into Black Flag, you’ll be happy to know it’s just as expansive.

Ship combat returns as well (along with new sea shanties), though the story didn’t have as many of the strict restrictions on ship missions that Black Flag had. Controlling your vessel feels smoother this time around and there are even some new weapons for you to learn and take advantage of in Rogue. You’re ship, the Morrigan, can be upgraded and you’ll eventually get two new arsenal options such as being able to lay oil slicks behind your ship in a path and the new Puckle Guns which turned out to be my favorite. Much like the canons you can before but these now act as chain guns and can make quick work of smaller enemy ships when upgraded. You’ll still be boarding ships to steal their resources, repair your ship, add to your fleet for the mini-game, but now you’ll have to be aware of other ships that can board you as well. This took me by surprised the first time it happened but is a welcome feature, knowing that I’m not the only captain that knows how to take over enemy ships.

Combat on foot play the same mechanically, but Shay does have some new gadgets to work with, and will need to use as assassins are much harder prey than your standard soldier or Templar. You’ll need to your Eagle Vision quite often to see through objects and find the nearby assassin waiting to take you out. You’re given a visual and audible queue when one is nearby and it can be stressful to try and find them when you’re already hunting down another enemy. Shay has access to some new weaponry, most importantly, a grenade-like launcher that can disperse shrapnel, berserk, or sleeping bombs for an area attack rather than a single blow dart that we’re used to. I didn’t end up relying on it very often, but it most certainly made some sections quite easier, as getting a pack of guards to attack each other with one shot was amusing to watch.

Assassin’s Creed wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t have a link to the modern world outside of the Animus, and it’s no different in Rogue. Since this is a direct sequel to Black Flag, the ‘real world’ aspect is also unchanged and has you as another Abstergo Entertainment employee. The minigames needed to unlock the computers have changed, and can be a pain at times, but aside from that, you’re left wandering the exact same halls, so it’ll feel very familiar.

I really started to like Shay about the time he was starting to turn on his former brothers. He’s very brash and Edward-like in the beginning, but once I saw why he turned, and started becoming more bad ass, he’s definitely up there for one of my favorite assassins, er, Templars. I didn’t think that there would be any way rogue would be able to make me sympathize for the Templars, given what we’ve learned in every previous Assassin’s Creed game, but I have to hand it to the writers, as I am totally on board with Shay and his motives. I wish we saw more of his internal conflict of having to abandon everything he’s previously known and being a betrayer, but by the time the credits rolled, I want to learn more about Shay and will slightly question the brotherhood going forward.

Now, for all the great things I have to say about Rogue, I do have to delve into a few major and problematic issues I ran into in my twenty hour playthrough. Firstly, there’s a ton of small bugs such as constant clipping issues, many rocks and surfaces that look like they could be scaled, but can’t, and it still seems silly that Shay is camouflaged when he’s in a small field or bush that in no way would actually conceal him (this was much better on the Xbox One version of Black Flag, so it’s probably just a hardware limitation). Lastly, there’s a section at the end where you need to stay inconspicuous, and you see Shay lift up the bandana over his mouth like he does in the rest of the game once he’s a Templar, but in this section he isn’t wearing a bandana, so it looks completely silly and out of place. Not major issues, but lots of little ones.

I did have some severe problems though as my game progressed though that almost had me not able to complete it. Somehow, about 15 hours through the game, my game slightly froze and the audio was no longer in sync and would sporadically pop in and out. Not a big deal I initially thought, just another small glitch I thought would fix itself as I made it to the next section in the story. Sadly, it did not fix itself, but it progressively become much worse, almost to the point of unplayable. Eventually the game would freeze but the background audio would still be playing, but the game wasn’t really hard locked, as I could see the ocean water moving, but everything else was still.

I first thought it might be a hardware issue with my Xbox 360, but after testing other games I had no problems at all. When I was an hour from completing Rogue it was literally crashing on me every 30 seconds, and when you see how long it takes to go from dash to back in game, it became very frustrating after an hour of trying to progress. I even got “dirty disc error” messages even though it’s a digital game; that’s how bad it was crashing. I was actually on the final mission and was so frustrated with not being able to progress that I had to watch the ending cutscenes online. Eventually I tried again and again and slowly made progress from one checkpoint to the next, but playing in two minute bursts before crashing over and over was a sad way to end my Rogue gameplay. Now to be fair, I looked online and was unable to find anyone else with the same issues I had, both on forums and reviews, so I’m sure it was an isolated incident, but I have had to dock the overall score severely because of my technical problems with the game even though I think it has one of the strongest stories in the series.

As mentioned above, if you’re deciding between this and Unity for which to play first, start here, not only because it directly leads ties into Unity, but playing a sequel to Black Flag was immensely fun (disregarding my technical issues) even only after a year. Rogue’s story is fascinating and will truly open your eyes about the assassin and Templar conflict. Regardless of which side you fall upon after you complete Rogue, it will have you look at things differently in any other Assassin’s Creed games going forward.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Dragon Age: Inquisition

Yes, Dragon Age Inquisition is better than Dragon Age II. I know that was most likely your first question if you played the past two Dragon Age games, so if that’s all you came to find out, rest easy. Most people fell in love with Dragon Age Origins almost immediately for its epic storytelling, memorable characters, and fantastic RPG elements. Dragon Age II was clearly rushed out the door to cash in on its success and failed for numerous reasons. It simply didn’t have the same heart and polish we’ve come to expect from a BioWare title. They must have taken it to heart, as it seems they listened to what fans liked and disliked about both games and essentially provided the best of both worlds with Inquisition.

Inquisition is set once again in the land of Thedas, the same backdrop of the previous Dragon Age games, and starts off with a bang; literally. A massive explosion occurs, wiping out a massive amount of people, particularly some important political figures that were attempting to have a peace treaty formed between mages and Templars. Taking place after Dragon Age II’s events, the tensions between both factions are high, and when this magical explosion happens, you the player are the only sole survivor, as if you come out of it somehow. Now known as the Inquisitor, many questions surround your character, such as why were you the sole survivor, how was the blast caused, and why are there lingering portals left in the world allowing demons from the Fade to come through.

Not only have you survived, but a mark has been left on your body which you soon figure out that grants you the power to close these rifts and stop the demons from pouring through and taking over the land of men. Some people will perceive you as the savior, while others will accuse you of being responsible for what happened, since it’s convenient that you’re the sole survivor of the blast. With the two main factions of mages and Templars still locked in a political war, you and a handful of followers will begin an Inquisition to deal with the looming rift threat.

If you’ve previously played the past two Dragon Age games you’ll feel right at home with all the terminology, lore, characters, past events, and such, but if you’re coming into Inquisition completely fresh and having never played the past two titles, you might feel quite lost in the beginning. There’s no real recap of previous events aside from digging deep into the codex entries and reading up on it on your own. Even if you do know your Dragon Age well, you’re going to want to head over to dragonagekeep.com and link your Origin account. The reason for this is because Inquisition has no formal save import feature, but at this website, you can have it scan your previous achievements and such, then keep or change your actions to create a World State which will be used as base historical facts in Inquisition. Since Inquisition doesn’t recap the past two games well on its own, the website was actually a great stroll through my previous choices and I even got to ‘fix’ a couple choices I wish I made differently when I originally played the games so that it was the way I wanted when I started Inquisition.

As you begin Inquisition, you’ll be asked to create your character to suit how you want them to look, male or female. The character creator is quite in-depth and while you’ll have all the standard options, they’ve made it simpler to use with a graph that has sliders so you can customize your Inquisitor exactly how you want by being less monotonous. I highly suggest taking your time with the creation of your character, as you’ll easily be able to spend well over 100 hours in Inquisition, and you will kick yourself if you aren’t completely happy with how they look hours in.

You’ll also be choosing their gender, class, and race during the creation process, all of which will affect how you are perceived and treated in the game from various people. The core story will always stay the same regardless of your creation choices, but relationships, combat, and how the world reacts to you can vary wildly based on what you choose to be. Classes and combat vary from the up close and personal melee Warrior, the Rogue whom can be a stealthy backstabber or an archer, or even a glass-cannon Mage. Being a human won’t have much racism pointed your way, but choose to play as a Qunari and the world will react vary differently towards you. This allows for some interesting multiple playthroughs and gives you the opportunity to play and choose dialogue options differently based on how people speak and treat you.

The Inquisitor is going to need help closing the rifts left around the world, and that’s where your Inquisition comes into play. As you progress in the game you’ll recruit (should you choose to) a handful of followers that can be taken with you into exploration and combat. In typical Dragon Age fashion, these aren’t simply throwaway characters either, as each one has a deep back story and a personality that will make them truly unique in your band of saviors. Sure I had my personal favorite personalities (I had to keep Sera in my party for the comic relief), but there wasn’t really any I hated this time around and blatantly avoided like I did in Dragon Age II. A few of the standouts to me were the always intriguing Varric that returns from the previous game along with Cassandra. Iron Bull (which I didn’t know was voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.) is another awesome character that I almost always have in my party as well. There’s so much little banter and dialogue between party members as you’re exploring, that you’ll want to switch up your normal team composition just to hear everything you can.

You’re able to bring up to three other party members with you into combat and exploration, so while you’ll switch often, the ones sitting on the sidelines at times will still level up when the rest do as well. This also means that you’ll have to manage their inventory of weapons, armor, and accessories. This wouldn’t normally need mentioning, but the menu system makes this very cumbersome and is quite clumsy at the best of times. There are some bars at the bottom which will show you if the highlighted item’s stats are better or worse, but it doesn’t give all the deep details you might want to see without a few more button presses. So you’ll need to meticulously go to each character then down the list of weapons, armor, and accessories you have one by one.

Not only is that a pain, but it becomes even more of a hassle once you’re given access to crafting your own weapons and armor for your characters. As you explore the lands, you’ll need to hunt wildlife, pick flora, and mine minerals to get the materials you need to create the armor and weapons once you also find the patterns to do so. Certain armors and weapons also have slots that can be used to improve them even further, of which can be found or crafted as well. The crafting system itself works well, but it’s just really frustrating that you need to go in and out of menus constantly to do so. For example, I can never remember what my weapon I’m currently equipping is, so when I go to create a new one, there’s nothing to tell me if it’s better than what is equipped or not. Small annoyances like this make the inventory management something left to be desired, especially with how much loot you’ll be coming across.

While you’ll have an area you can initially explore and venture out to do whatever you wish, you’ll eventually need to head to your Inquisition’s War Table to access new quests and unlock new areas. Think of this as the galaxy map from Mass Effect, as it’s very similar mechanically. From here you can teleport to areas you’ve already uncovered and as you complete more quests and close rifts throughout, you’ll earn power, which subsequently allows you to open up more areas for exploration.

You’ll also be able to send your advisors (non-playable party members) to complete certain quests for you in real time. For example, maybe someone needs to be put in their place, so do you send a political message, a thief to assassinate, or a showing of your forces to get them to back down? Each choice may even be a “better” choice, and may complete quicker than one of the other options. I thought these time requirements would annoy me, but I generally never even thought about them when I was exploring until the message popped up saying they have returned from their journey. These missions continue even if you turn off your system, so get in the habit of choosing the longest timed quests before you quit playing for the night so that they are waiting for you the next day to be handed in.

Each of your party members will eventually open up to you if you pursue and engage them outside of forced situations, and this is a way to get some side quests, but the majority of your questing will be in the massive zones that open up for you as you progress. Each of these zones are truly massive and will have you exploring and finding new things hidden in many places. To put it into perspective, when I was in the first zone of the game, it took me roughly 10 hours or so to complete all of the quests within and I thought that was the main area of the game, only to find out it was a single zone. There are more to unlock and each one has a very different feel to them and encourages exploration and questing. I actually didn’t even start the main campaign until I was almost 20 hours into the game, that’s how expansive it can be if you want it to be.

New to the series is the ability to now jump. I thought this would help with exploration, and at times it might, but it eventually was more of a pain than I had hoped. Initially I thought that since I can now jump, that scaling a large mountain would now be something I would be able to do with ease. Not even close. Where there are a few parts you’ll need to jump if you want to access hidden collectables and quest items, the traversing on step hills is terrible and you won’t be able to bunny hop across the smallest slopes, leaving you travel long distances at times just to find a path to where you want to go instead.

Combat has evolved since you last played it, as it’s a blend of what was in both previous Dragon Age games. You can button mash and fight in real time if that’s how you want to play, but if you’re playing on the higher and much harder difficulty levels, you’ll want to employ the strategic camera that pulls back above the battle field, stopping time, and allowing you time to assess the situation and also send orders to each member accordingly. Once in this strategic mode, you can slowly inch forward time after they’ve been given commands to see how it’s going without having to react in real time if you wish. Keep in mind though, there’s no more heal spells in the game for your mages, but instead potions that can be used (and refilled at camps), so there’s no need for a dedicated healer any longer. Risk vs reward plays a much bigger part of combat this time around because of this drastic but workable change.

For the first time in the series, Dragon Age also now includes a multiplayer component, though it’s separate from the campaign and is standalone multiplayer co-op horde-like mode mixed with a dungeon crawl you’d find in an MMO. I was cautiously optimistic when I heard about this being included in Inquisition, as I was worried it might just be something tacked on to say they have multiplayer in their game. You begin by choosing one of twelve classes, each of which specializes in a specific play style and from there you team up with 3 other players to take on a dungeon.

Dungeons are segmented into 5 sections, of which you’ll need to clear in order to progress and becomes harder the further you delve into the dungeon. The dungeons are tuned for 4 players, as I’ve tried doing it solo when I was unable to find any matches, but it doesn’t seem to scale, as my support specialized mage got decimated quite quickly. A great inclusion though is the fact that all the treasures found during the match is shared among all the players, so there’s no need to worry about that greedy player that hogs all of the gold he finds as the rest of the group is fighting to survive. Also, while you’ll get all the XP for your own character during the mission, at the end you’ll also get a share of what every other player earned as well, so teaming up with some friends and becoming a formidable team will pay off quite well. While the multiplayer mode is a fun distraction, it doesn’t have the dialogue or story to accompany it to make it really memorable unless you form a fantastic group that works well together.

For all of the praises I’ve given the game, there were quite a few notes in my ‘con’ section while playing through. Multiple times I’ve had the game suddenly crash on me, forcing me to the Xbox One dashboard, though luckily I never lost too much progress as the game auto saves somewhat frequently when you’re exploring from area to area. There was a ton of small visual bugs that I encountered as well. Lots of items clip through one another, animations at times can look stiff, and I don’t even know how to describe the horse riding animation other than really ‘off’ and unpolished. Sure, these issues will most likely get fixed with a patch before or shortly after release, but when you’re putting close to 100 hours into a game, seeing the same issues over and over tend to break the immersion at times. Lastly, for being on current gen hardware, I was vastly unimpressed at times. Foliage and draw distance when exploring the zones is amazing, but there really isn’t that much detail on the characters themselves when not in dialogue choosing mode and it simply didn’t wow me aside from scenic viewpoints.

That being said, I’m really enjoying Inquisition. As I mentioned above, I played the first 20 hours and didn’t even touch the campaign for the most part; I was busy trying to find and complete every quest, collect every shard fragment, and solve the increasingly maddening star constellation puzzles. For the first 20 hours or so, I was honestly feeling underwhelmed, but it dawned on me that even though that’s how I was feeling, I kept wanting to load the game up and go back and explore more. Four hours pass and it doesn’t feel like it at all. As always, the voice acting and soundtrack is absolutely amazing, and once I hit a pivotal plot point, things became a lot more interesting. Like all Dragon Age games, the choices you make will shape how parts of the story will play out, and that’s what makes it the sequel that we wanted all along after Origins.

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Halo: The Master Chief Collection

It’s no secret that if Halo: Combat Evolved didn’t do so well on the original Xbox, then there obviously wouldn’t have been any sequels, but more importantly there most likely also wouldn’t even be an Xbox 360 or One today. Halo is synonymous with Xbox ever since it was released and now Halo: Master Chief Collection (called MCC from here on) is available on Xbox One and contains over a decade worth of Halo games on one compilation. MCC contains more than a decade worth of Halo content and with how much that actually entails, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with not only how polished and great all the content is within, but how much above and beyond 343 Studios has gone to make MCC something truly special and what other ‘HD Remakes’ will strive to be going forward.

MCC contains Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo 4, along with their respective multiplayer components as well. While some may note the omission of Halo Reach and Halo ODST, keep in mind the reasoning for that: this is the Master Chief Collection, and he was not the protagonists in those two titles. Given that these games are quite dated, I won’t go into details about the main campaigns, as you’ve most likely played them all already, multiple times if you’re like me. If you’re new to the series or never played the earlier games, make sure you play through the campaigns as Halo has an epic story and a huge amount of lore that’s been carefully crafted and wonderfully presented over the course of multiple games.

The MCC has an overlaying menu system that is cleverly done and makes finding what you want to do in the collection incredibly simple to do, such as playing a specific campaign or mission, a multiplayer match, Forge, or any other of the extras jam packed in this collection. You can simply jump in with default settings or customize your play through on campaign missions or multiplayer maps to your heart’s content.

So let’s delve into each of the campaigns and what’s offered, new, or changed since we’ve last played Halo. Let’s begin where it all started, with the original Halo: Combat Evolved. Released for the original Xbox in 2001, it got a remake on Xbox 360 for its tenth anniversary dubbed the Anniversary edition. The remastered edition had some amazing features, the most notable being able to switch between the original 2001 graphics and the new and updated graphic engine and audio ten years later. It was a great remaster and it was clear a lot of care and time were taken to make it something the true Halo fans would appreciate. Fast forward to now and the MCC brings us Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, essentially in its remastered 360 state (complete with the on the fly graphic switching) though with some improvements now that it’s on more powerful hardware.

Since the game was already remastered a few short years ago, nothing much has changed with it on Xbox One aside from the game running in 1080p 60fps. One small issue I had with the 360 release was that switching between the two graphic engines took about a second or two, with a slight delay every time you switched. Now on Xbox One, that delay is completely gone and you can spam the button to switch between old and new graphics with zero delay.

Next on the list is Halo 2, and given that this year is its tenth anniversary, it’s been given the same Anniversary treatment that Combat Evolved once got, but even more has been done to Halo 2 Anniversary that truly makes it the centerpiece of the MCC. With a single button press you can instantly switch between the classic and remastered graphic engine along with old and new audio as well. The audio has been remastered and shouldn’t be downplayed in any way. Just like Combat Evolved Anniversary in this collection, switching between the two graphic engines is instant when doing so.

While most will focus and notice the graphical difference at first, if you know your Halo 2, you’ll be amazed with what they’ve done with the audio. Not only has all of the weapon’s audio been completely redone, they sound so much better now and that they feel like they have more ‘punch’ to them simply because of the audio upgrades.

343 has gone even a step further and had every cutscene in Halo 2 remade and remastered from scratch. This isn’t a simple texture upgrade either; Blur Studios has remade every cutscene, almost an hour’s worth, with such detail and high fidelity, it actually rivals any new release title that is out right now and is breathtaking to see. These cutscenes have been reimagined, so some new angles are used, more characters are on screen, and more, but if you know your Halo 2, you’ll still recognize which scenes they are as well. Halo 2 Anniversary is clearly the gem of the whole collection, and it’s clear that a ton of work and love have gone into the remaster for its fans. You won’t be disappointed.

Halo 3 is the third addition to the MCC and while it hasn’t gotten the full Anniversary like the first two, it has gotten some upgrades though. Running at 1080p and 60fps and having improved lighting and effects, Halo 3 looks fantastic and was great to play through again with the albeit small improvements. Though I don’t want to downplay how great it looks at 60fps, as it is definitely a noticeable upgrade if you’ve played hundreds of hours of Halo before.

Last up is Halo 4 and it also has the slight upgrade of 1080p and 60fps as well as the lighting updates as well. It was quite surprising to see how well the game looked on Xbox One considering it is two years old and released on last-gen hardware. Sure it would have been great to see it have the full Anniversary treatment, but being only two years old, we’ve still got awhile to wait until we see that hopefully.

Playlist has its own section in the main menu and allows you to play a very specific set of campaign missions with special modifiers or follows a specific theme. For example, if you would like to simply play all of the Arbiter missions back to back, you can play that playlist and not have to go in and out of missions or menus. Maybe you want to simply play all of the boss missions back to back, or all of the Warthog levels, that’s what the playlists are for. Most playlists are sectioned into their own games, but there are cross-game playlists as well that will keep you busy for quite some time if you want to finish everything MCC has to offer.

Halo’s multiplayer completely changed and shaped the type of gamer that I am today. Before Halo, I never took the effort to coordinate with friends to do LAN parties, back before online gaming was what it is today. For Halo: Combat Evolved, myself and 15 friends actually coordinated with one another to go to one person’s house with our original Xbox’s and heavy CRT TV’s, and this happened quite often because of how good the multiplayer truly was. That’s how you used to play with friends on consoles before Xbox Live even existed. Fast forward to Halo 2, and that was the single game that made Xbox Live what it is today and completely changed how I chose to play multiplayer games going forward. What the MCC is doing though is giving you access to essentially every Halo map ever made, well over 100 maps across all four included games, including the DLC maps and even the PC exclusives. This is a huge deal and shouldn’t be taken lightly, as I don’t know any other games that can boast that, or even close.

In the Options menu section, that’s where you’ll customize your armor for each Halo multiplayer, controls (of which each Halo game can have its own control scheme, so you can play a specific Halo with Bumper Jumper controls if you want), set your Halo 4 weapon and equipment loadouts, and more. While players will be excited to remake their armor sets from previous Halo multiplayers, it should be known that armor sets are unlocked from the start without needing to unlock, but you also can’t mix and match the armor types either, so if you want to wear the Hayabusa helmet, you are forced to wear the rest of the matching armor as well. Not a deal breaker, but a little disappointing for the hardcore multiplayer fans that liked to look a very specific way.

So we know that all four Halo titles have their campaigns intact, but what about their multiplayer component since those are included as well? For Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary on 360, the multiplayer was technically there, but it was running the Reach engine, and felt ‘off’, as it wasn’t a true recreation of the original multiplayer that we fell in love with in 2001. For the MCC though, this has been remedied. Combat Evolved Anniversary on MCC brings back the true and original multiplayer mode from the game, including the exclusive PC maps, and now playable on Xbox Live for the first time. It was great to have the ice on Sidewinder be slippery once again, as it wasn’t on the 360 Anniversary edition.

Halo 2 returns in its true original state as well, but six of the multiplayer maps have been remade and re-imagined to look like it belongs in a modern game. The maps that have been remade are: Lockdown (Lockout), Zenith (Ascension), Stonetown (Zanzibar), Bloodline (Coagulation), Warlord (Warlock), and Shrine (Sanctuary). Plus, as a bonus, there’s now a Mongoose that has a weapon attached to its hood (and is incredibly fun to play), titled the Gungoose.

Forge makes its return in the MCC as well, and is an easy to use tool to either modify existing maps or create something completely new from scratch. Not only can you create maps, but you can change many details such as spawning rules, or even creating triggers to make unique events happen. While the original Forge rule sets exist for Halo 3 and 4, Halo 2 Anniversary now has a brand new Forge mode that is actually enhanced and even comes with three brand new blank skyboxes for you to create the map you’ve always wanted from complete scratch. Theater mode also returns in its original form for Halo 3 and 4 as well, but also is now compatible with Halo 2 Anniversary as well.

Under the Extras section, the MCC has some great additions that push the value of the compilation over the top. Halo: Nightfall is a new digital live action miniseries that is going to tell the story of ONI operatives and tie into Halo 5: Guardians, as the new character, Agent Locke, will be showcased. Think of it as the spiritual successor to Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and will run for five weeks. You’ll actually launch the new Halo Channel when you want to watch these episodes or find any Terminals in the game (of which the Halo 2 Anniversary terminals will give information that ties to Halo 5: Guardians).

The last notable extra to get excited for in the MCC is the addition of the Multiplayer Beta for Halo 5: Guardians that will launch December 29th, 2014. You’ll get three weeks of access to the beta that will have rotating content and give you an idea of what to expect from the new Arena experience for Guardians.

The value of the MCC is enormous; not only because you’re getting four games for the price of one, but there’s been so much extra fine tuning done to even the smallest details that true Halo fans are really going to notice and hopefully appreciate. For example, the majority of skulls are unlocked from the get go, but you can still search out and find the skulls for achievements as well. The same goes for armor sets, as you won’t need to grind the ranking system to unlock the higher level sets. Some items are locked that you’ll need to get achievements for or do other things, but the majority of everything is unlocked from the get go.

It’s amazing to see how far the Halo series has come when you play them back to back or switch between them. I have to admit, it’s a little weird at first to play some Halo 2, then go to 3 which came out after, but have 2 look better (simply because of the Anniversary treatment). Is the MCC perfect? No, as I did have some small gripes, but the fact that I can play the whole Halo saga on a single console now AND have the entire multiplayer community in one place and no longer segmented, is an amazing feat. Halo is one of the most important series in all of gaming and it surprised me how well they still hold up to this day when compared to newer titles.

The sheer amount of multiplayer maps that are are included within is simply staggering, but factor in the point that I’ll be playing unique Forge creations on top of the ranked multiplayer, I can see myself playing the MCC for quite some time. Halo fan are going to want this as these are simply the BEST versions of each of the Halo games, and for new comers to the series, this collection is the best way to get caught up. I feel completely comfortable recommending purchasing an Xbox One even if this is the only game you’ll be playing and I actually truly recommend doing so if you don’t have an Xbox One yet, as Halo: Master Chief Collection is the best way to experience one of the biggest and most important series in gaming ever. The Master Chief Collection is now the benchmark of what HD and remake versions should be compared to going forward, as this is the perfect example of how you update a game, but keep the core fan base not only happy, but thankful for the work they’ve done.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 The Walking Dead: Season One

The Walking Dead, originally released in five separate episodes on Xbox Live, is now also available on Xbox One as a download or disc as a compilation of said five episodes along with a bonus episode that tells a slightly different story afterwards. At first I wasn’t sure how well the episodic releases were going to work and affect my interest, as sometimes I just want to power through a game and complete it when I’m able to. After getting through all five, I can understand the episodic delivery method. Sure, waiting at a cliffhanger at the end of each episode for months wasn’t always fun, but that longing and eagerness to find out what’s going to happen plays so well into the story telling of The Walking Dead.

For those unaware of what The Walking Dead is, years ago Robert Kirkman created a graphic novel series named The Walking Dead, which focuses on an epidemic zombie outbreak. Since then the zombie genre has completely exploded in popularity even resulting in The Walking Dead being adapted to an insanely popular TV show and other media formats. For those fans already in the know, The Walking Dead game takes place in the same universe of Rick’s story (it begins while he’s still in a coma) and the graphic novels are canon, but this is a completely different story with completely new characters. If you know your Walking Dead characters (comic or TV show), you will run into a few familiar faces which is a great fan service, but keep in mind this is an alternate story focusing on other survivors.

These days it seems almost too easy to create something with zombies in it and it’ll instantly become a hit, but simply adding zombies to a story will only get you so far if that’s all you focus on. Just like the graphic novels and now TV show, The Walking Dead is incredibly engaging because of the way they truly get you to care about the characters and their outcomes. If you know your craft well enough you’ll create a story about people, desperation, and sacrifice while playing on every emotion available, which just also happens to have zombies in it. This is where Telltale’s The Walking Dead excels and shines beyond anything I ever expected. Telltale has focused on the characters and the human elements of the situations rather than making something strictly about zombies and trying to survive; sometimes survival is only part of the story, and that’s what The Walking Dead will show you. You’ll be given many difficult decisions to undertake and will completely affect others in your group and even their livelihood. One incredibly tough decision after another, you’ll need to do what you can to survive, but you’ll have the hardship of caring for others as well in a world where modern society crumbles and nowhere is seemingly safe for too long.

You are put into the shoes of Lee Everett, hailing from Macon Georgia and a former history professor at the University of Georgia before the outbreak. As the game begins you’re being hauled away from the city in a police car for being a convicted murder, though at first it’s unclear if you’re really a bad guy or not. Aside from the main points of detail, much of Lee’s background is quite vague, though done purposely so that you can fill in those gaps yourself during your travels throughout the five episodes. It’s odd, as Lee is a voiced character with his own quirks, personality, and emotions, but at the same time he’s who you choose him to be with all of the decisions you make throughout the game. If your personality is to be completely shut off to everyone Lee will reflect that. If you decide to be honest and open, that’s a possibility as well. By the time you’re done The Walking Dead you’ll see Lee as almost a reflection of yourself if you’re honest with yourself and choose the options you probably actually would in those impossible situations.

Early on Lee will stumble upon a little eight year old girl named Clementine (who you’ll get to know as Clem) who’s left alone at her home as the outbreak happened. While you’ll play as Lee the whole time, Clem will always be a constant in Lee’s story and even his (and your) decision making when impossible situations arise. I don’t want to delve any further into any of the story as it’s easily the highlight of the game, and if I spoiled anything I would not forgive myself, as I’m glad nothing was spoiled for me. I will say though, that the relationship that Lee and Clem form over time is something that you absolutely need to experience. It’s not often that a character is not only voice acted so well that it’s believable, but the smallest facial emotions that show only add to the believability of these and the rest of the character’s you’ll meet along the way. If you know The Walking Dead graphic novels or TV show, she’s much like Carl where she starts off as a simple kid but is forced to grow up much too quickly . Do you protect her by sheltering her from the evils in the world that you face or do you protect her by teaching her to protect herself in the harsh world they now live in? Decisions like this will be a constant and if it wasn’t for the flawless deliveries from the voice actors, it would not have been as gripping of a tale that it truly is.

You’ll meet a variety of survivors along your travels, some of which will stick around for the whole journey, where others will not make it as far as you might expect. You’ll constantly be making life and death choices, either direct or indirectly, and once you get a few episodes in, there are some seriously difficult choices that you’ll have to make and you might even question yourself as I did, wondering if that’s what you actually would do in that situation and if it was really the right thing to do. The choices you make carry weight and aren’t as simple as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; almost every choice seems to fall into that grey area. Quite often I had a logical reason for choosing what I did, but sometimes it’s not as simple as that and you need to choose the lesser of two evils and then justify it to yourself. From the very beginning you’re completely hooked by the tale that unfolds in front of Lee and it doesn’t let go of your attention until the credits roll in the final episode. You’ll experience tragedy, fear, relief, shock, anger, and almost any other emotion you can think of. The Walking Dead is a sad story that will weigh heavy on you even after you’re done playing. Lee and Clem won’t be forgotten for quite some time and I’ll be remembering them for years to come.

I may be painting The Walking Dead as simply a decision making game, and while that’s true to a point, and where the game carries its weight, it’s also an adventure game, though not probably what you might expect from Telltale Games. You’ll be able to move Lee around freely and there will be puzzles to solve but the real game mechanics is the ‘choose your own adventure’ style of gameplay. The left stick will control Lee’s movement and the right is a reticule that will show pop ups and interactions on it when hovered over appropriate objects, people, or zombies. In the later episodes there will be times where you’ll have to shoot walkers and having to line up your shots, and while these may feel a little out of place since these sequences are so few, it’s just another tool Telltale uses to catch you off guard and keep your attention.

As you interact with other survivors, dialogue choices will appear on screen, usually with timers so that you can’t sit and lull it over and over analyze. You’re given just a few seconds to read the responses and make your initial reaction to the circumstance at hand. You make your choice and the game moves on, no second chances are given. Every choice you make will adapt the story as you progress, and it’s completely possible to affect the outcome of others in the following episodes. Regardless of how you decide, your choices are going to add up over Lee’s journey and could add even more tension later on. You may not see the ramifications of some of your decisions right away, but there’s always a price to pay to keep balance in the world.

It’s odd, but the walkers don’t even always seem like the biggest threat to Lee and his group; sure they play a part in the overall tension and lack of safety, but the true tension comes from interacting with other people. Some people handle bad situations with stride while others don’t. You deal with fellow survivors, bandits, and walkers; how you decide to deal with each situation will sometimes show you something in yourself you may not have expected; I know it did with me. It can become a heavy burden, knowing that no matter what you do and choose, not everyone will survive, regardless of your intentions and best efforts.

After finishing The Walking Dead Season 1 it felt like Telltale tapped into almost every emotion possible throughout my story of Lee and Clementine. As I got half way through on my second game, making completely different decisions to see the different outcomes it became apparent that while you’re given many choices, the major core plot points are always going to be forced on you in some way. This isn’t a bad thing considering the level of writing and voice acting, but don’t expect a drastically different outcome for Lee and Clem at the end of it all the second time around; you’re still going from point A to B, but the journey in between may be slightly different. That being said, please play through it at least twice, as I found my second go a much tougher time, as I was TRYING to be a jerk instead of the selfless hero, but still found myself gravitating to my natural instincts even though I knew the outcome. Sure the critics will say it contains the “illusion of choice” since the outcome will essentially be the same, but it’s not always about the end, it’s about the journey, the relationships you build and emotions you experience with the choices you’re forced to make.

While some may not enjoy the controls or the ‘interactive story’ element, I believe it suited this story and game mechanics perfectly. The writing and acting is done to absolute perfection, the story truthfully moved me and there were even two specific moments where my jaw literally hung open as I whispered “oh my god” to myself. It’s very difficult for a game to get you so invested in its characters and story in such a short amount of time; Telltale has done this to perfection. Even the short lived characters are memorable and I replayed the game a second time just so I could visit with them once more.

I’ll come right out and say it; The Walking Dead made me cry. It’s been a very long time since a video game has been able to do that to me. The Walking Dead is perfectly paced, keeps you wanting to move forward but doesn’t give you time to fully process and deal with what heavy moral decisions you’ve made at the same time. Lee, Clementine, and Kenny are now some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever interacted with in a video game and they will be remembered for many years from here on.

If you’re previously played Season 1 on Xbox 360 or elsewhere, you’re well aware of the technical issues the game had. Frame issues, loading issues, and other small things, that didn’t break the game, but could take you out of the immersion at times. I was hoping that the jump to the new hardware would alleviate some of these problems, but alas, they only have been partially quelled. Frame rate issues still exists, but they are far less frequent, and when they do occur, it’s far less prominent and distracting than it used to be. Load times are improved and there’s no longer any late loads, but again, it’s vastly improved, but not completely fixed. Lastly, it seems as if they lighting has been greatly improved, as some scenes looked much sharper and realistic with ‘natural’ light filling the room or shining through the windows. Again, while not perfect or any major optimization, it’s improved from its previous versions and regardless of these technical issues, the story telling is so masterful that it can be overlooked and this is easily the best version of the game to date.

If you’ve never played the game before, you NEED to experience it, simple as that. I’m very particular with my words, and I don’t normally throw around “must” and “need”, but you must and need to play the Walking Dead Season 1. I’ve only given out a perfect score once before, coincidentally enough, for this same game on Xbox 360, and this one is improved, so scoring it was simple. I’ve never had a game engulf so many of my emotions so deeply before and show me how I really am as a person inside if I was actually playing out these scenarios. The Walking Dead Season 1 was, and still is, one of my favorite games of all time, and I’m so glad I get to finally play it on Xbox One.

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 The Walking Dead: Season Two

If you enjoy fantastic stories with characters you’ll actually care about, then I truly hope that you’ve played The Walking Dead by Telltale Games. Telltale has taken the iconic series and created their own stories and characters to play within the canon storyline that we know from the graphic novel and TV show. As I mentioned in my review for Season One of the game, it