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Reviews
Mutant Football League: Dynasty Edition

I’m not one for traditional sports games. Sure, I dabble in a few here and there, but for the most part I simply don’t enjoy or play them all that much, save for a very select few. One of these sports games that I’ve actually spent countless hours playing is actually an old Genesis title that I still own a copy of to this day, and that game is Mutant League Football.

Originally released in 1993, I’ve spent countless hours with this unique take on Football over the years, so when it was announced that it was going to finally receive a spiritual successor with Mutant Football League (MFL), I was more than excited. For the unaware, what makes MFL so unique is that it is not licensed by the NFL at all, and instead it is more of a parody, where your players are monsters, skeletons, ogres, robots, werewolves and more.

Simply re-skinning players as monsters is only the beginning, this is the MFL after all. Obviously you want to outscore your opponents, but what makes the MFL stand out among other Football titles is that you can also dismember, and even kill, your opponents. Not happy how things are playing out? Bribe the ref. Want to cause massive carnage, equip some chainsaws and slice through the opposing team. Carnage is what MFL is all about, and it’s a blast, even after more than two decades.

Mutant Football League actually released just over a year ago, but now the Dynasty Edition is upon us. While yes, this is essentially a Game of the Year edition, with all of the released DLC included, the new additions are actually quite plentiful, adding much more varied gameplay to the overall experience.

The biggest addition is the inclusion of the brand new Dynasty Mode (hence the title). This is essentially your season/career mode where you take a fledgling team of nobody’s and work towards making them MFL champions. You’ll play many games throughout the season, but you also get to be the GM and Coach of the team, making decisions on who to cut, trade and sign on, in hopes of creating that championship team.

It’s not so simple though, as just like real life teams, you’ll have salary caps, injuries, free agents and more. Do you invest a big chunk of your budget to sign on a legendary player in hopes he’ll bring glory to the team, or spread out your resources evenly? You’re also even able to edit your playbook to suit your preferred play style and cater to your strengths and weaknesses.

There’s also two main add-on DLC’s included with the Dynasty Edition. At first I thought it was simply two themed teams that were added, but there’s actually a little more to it than that. The first is the Demonic Legion Pack. This includes a new monster type, winged demons, that help them make higher leaps, perfectly suited for receivers. Two new teams are also added: The Full Metal Mayhem and Cracksumskull Juglars, both of which are awesome to play as with their insanely high skill rating, and both of which also come with their own home arena for some new scenery. Also included are two new Dirty Tricks, both of which are really interesting and unique, but more on what those are shortly.

The second included DLC is the Werewolf Rampage Pack. I’m sure you can guess what species these include. The Karcass City Creeps and New Gorleans Zombies are the two teams added, along with their own respective arenas as well. This DLC pack also adds two new Dirty Tricks as well. So, while these may seem like small DLC additions of simple teams, they do add some varied gameplay, scenery and strategy.

MFL is a 7-on-7 Football game with blood, gore, swearing, puns and awesomeness. While it’s a true spiritual successor to the original Genesis title, its over the top gameplay also resembles the classic NFL Blitz from back in the day. While you could play MFL as a traditional Football title, there are much better, and entertaining, ways to win games, namely, destroying and killing off enough of the enemy team so that they cannot compete.

Dirty Tricks are special plays where you can pull of unique, sometimes only usable once, actions that will decimate the other team. You can electrify yourself, use the ball as a bomb, equip weapons, rewind time and more. These plays are like crazy audibles, meant to mangle and kill the other team, and are a blast to use. You can even bribe the ref if you want a play to go your way and skirt the rules a bit. This is what makes MFL so unique and entertaining, and you can also attack players after the whistle is blown; just be careful though, as excessive attacking won’t always be tolerated.

Another aspect you’ll need to be very weary of is the arenas and playfield itself. Each arena is themed after its own team, but the playfield will be littered with mines, lava pits, monsters and many more deadly obstacles. This is another element you’ll have to factor into your strategies and each series of downs you make.

Hands down though, the best feature about MFL is that developers, Digital Dreams Entertainment, chose the absolute best commentator available, of all time: Tim Kitzrow. You may not know the name, but I guarantee you know his famous lines from NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, like “Boomshakalaka” and “He’s on fire!”. I simply wanted to play more games to hear his hilarious commentary and play by play announcements. There’s no better in the business and MFL is a better game for including him so prominently.

Humor is also a huge part of the MFL charm. Not only just the commentary, but the players will also have small quips and sayings after big plays, usually taunting the other team or grabbing in some off-color fashion that is absolutely hilarious. And if you’re an NFL fan, you’ll most likely appreciate the parody on specific team and player names as well, as there are some interesting takes on using monster themes for each NFL team that is parodied.

Mutant League Football is honestly one of my favorite classic childhood games, and seeing its spiritual successor on a current generation console is a real treat for fans like myself that don’t usually play traditional sports titles. It’s not going to be for everyone obviously, but for someone looking for a much less serious and self-aware approach to a Football, Mutant Football League: Dynasty Edition is a great diversion, full of blood, broken bones, violence and hilarity. Now, I’m hoping that the follow-up to their original Mutant League Hockey game is next on the list, as that’s what us Canadians really care about.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. Mutant Football League: Dynasty Edition is available at North American retail in addition to digital**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 WWE 2K19

It’s been quite some time since I’ve sat down and watched some WWE wrestling, so long in fact that SmackDown used to be on Thursday nights. I can’t remember when I stopped watching, or exactly why, as I used to be quite a dedicated fan, watching every week, every pay-per-view and even still to this day own a handful of shirts and merchandise. I know it’s been a long time though, as when I started up WWE 2K19, I wasn’t familiar with much of the roster. I know the legends, the guys that have been around for quite some time, but not many of the newer guys, NXT, or others. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy playing the games, as I used to own every yearly iteration back when I used to watch religiously.

So grabbing WWE 2K19 was going to be my first baby step back into the WWE universe, not just the games, but the programming as well. The last WWE games I actually played and owned was 2K15, as I’m a diehard Hulkamaniac, but have skipped the iterations following, until now. Skipping a few years and jumping into WWE 2K19, I knew there would be some drastic changes and improvements, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this varied, robust and impressive (at times).

So you’re a WWE fan no doubt, else why would you be reading this review, so I’ll first delve into what’s new with 2K19 over the previous years’ installment, though it’s a lot, and while I can’t cover every single detail, it should give you an idea about how much effort has gone into make this year’s edition the most robust yet, with more options and modes than I knew what to do with.

While MyCareer isn’t new by any means, it does have a lot of new features that really surprised me. The first thing I noticed was that this career mode is now fully voiced. Not just your wrestler that you design from the ground up, but even some WWE superstars lend their voices to the experience as well, making it much more interesting and believable. Sure, the story itself is your typical narrative about a new wrestler to the biz, starting out in the local indie scene and hoping to one day be a WWE Hall of Famer, but that’s fine, and I actually really enjoyed the slow progression.

What is new though is how you actually progress stat and skill wise. As you wrestle and win matches, you’ll earn MyPlayer Skill Points, which can then be used in a much more visual skill tree now. No more simple sliders to put a point into, as now there’s a three way branching tree for you to customize your wrestler just how you want. Broken into Attack, Body and Defense trees, putting skills into one will unlock new stats, abilities and skills the further you go up each. There are even ranks that you can reach once you put enough points into a tree, all the way from Rookie to Hall of Famer. Taking a page from Call of Duty, you’re also able to Prestige should you desire, allowing for even more options to be customized the further you progress for the truly hardcore. For someone that really enjoys creating and playing with their own wrestlers, there’s more than enough content here to keep you busy for quite some time (probably until 2K20).

Creating your wrestler has also been streamlined, as you can now choose one of five base fighting styles: Striker, Technician, Powerhouse, Giant, and Cruiser. Obviously, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s up to you how you want your base, then allowing you to further customize your looks, movesets and more. The only major downfall to this new mode is that there’s a lack of choosing to be a female wrestler. Not a deal breaker by any means, but I’m sure there’s an audience out there that would really enjoy seeing this implemented in future sequels.

Of course, a 2K game wouldn’t be complete without its loot packs, provided in different tiers of cards you can purchase with in game currency, or of course, real world cash, should you desire. Simply playing enough will earn you a decent amount of currency to purchase individual parts, clothing, moves, styles or a ton of other options, if there’s really that one thing you want, but it’s pricey and a long grind this way. Luckily, items you don’t like or want can be scrapped, refunding you a small amount of currency, though it’s completely random what you’re going to get in each type of pack.

Showcase makes a return, focusing on Daniel Bryan’s WWE career path. You begin with the story of his WWE introduction, through to his “YES!” era, all the way to his Championship gold. Between each match you’ll have pre-recorded video of him telling the story of what happened and why, and then you get to recreate those pivotal matches yourself. You’ll get to experience the highlights with actual footage, as well as in-game recreations of specific situations.

During these matches, you’re meant to recreate the match as it happened in real life. For example, you’ve always got an objective in the top left that you need to accomplish before moving onto the next. Sometimes this is simply damaging your opponent in the ring, sometimes it’s a little more specific, but complete enough of these and you’ll trigger cutscenes from some of his most iconic moments. My only complaint about this objective system tied to the matches is that they don’t trigger auto saves at all. So when you’re 20 minutes deep into a match and end up losing, you need to start from the beginning all over again unfortunately. I wasn’t watching much during his time in WWE (I knew about his YES! though), so I really enjoyed this mode, as I got to see his career path from start to present.

A completely new mode addition to 2K19 is Towers. This pits a specific superstar in a gauntlet-like style of matches back to back, challenging you to survive them all in one go. Here you’ll not only have to survive back to back matches, but also win with specific stipulations or match types. Each tower has a different theme to it and is uniquely challenging in its own right. It’s a fun little diversion and addition if you’re looking for a challenge, as the really difficult ones don’t even let you regenerate health between matches either.

While the onscreen wrestlers are still set to eight, it’s said that it’s much smoother this year, keeping a more constant framerate, which I would agree with. Not once did I notice any slowdown or framerate issues, though loading menus and changing character options takes forever still. Commentary has over 15,000 new lines, though there are still times where transitions feel a little awkward or don’t apply as well as they should, and when you’re wrestling in the indie circuit, you’re going to hear the same terrible lines over and over again.

Tons of new mode additions for 5-8 player matches have been added, and a Women’s Royal Rumble, but some of the biggest changes are with the Steel Cage and Hell in a Cell matches themselves. Now you’re able to fight each other on the Steel Cage while climbing and will have to perform a small minigame when trying to escape or open the door.

I never realized that the Cell in the games was actually a bit larger than their actual counterpart in real life, so this has been scaled down slightly to be much more realistic. I thought it felt a little more cramped when fighting outside the ring and within the confines of the Cell walls, and this would be why. Now, with enough damage from regular moves, you’ll be able to break through the Cell walls and even climb all four sides. Just like the cage, you’ll also now be able to fight while climbing the massive structure as well. There’s also more panels on the roof of the Cell that can be broken, sending superstars hurdling through, also able to be broken with enough damage from standard moves.

Also new is a few Money in the Bank changes, for the better. My favorite is the ability to now design and customize your own briefcase to match any wrestler you desire. You’re also able to determine when you want to cash in before, during or after a match, which can make for some exciting events to unfold.

While reversals are still a staple to shifting momentum your way, with precision timing needed, there’s now a Payback system in place to help further this. Taking a lot of damage and losing, unable to turn the tide of a match? Then this system is for you. The more damage you take, the quicker your Payback meter will fill, allowing you to utilize some unique abilities to get out of specific situations if you’re repeatedly on the losing side. You’re also able to choose these abilities from a handful to suit your wrestler or playstyle as well.

While there are even more new additions and changes, these were the most important that stood out to me while playing across dozens of matches and modes. With a roster boasting over 200, anyone that’s up to date with current WWE will surely find the majority of their favorites. For someone that’s been out of the loop for at least a good decade, it’s great that many staples and legends are included as well, and if they aren’t, it’s almost a guarantee that someone has made them and posted it online for you to download.

Visually, everything looks vastly improved overall from the last time I’ve played. Sure, it’s been a couple games since then, but it’s still impressive... most of the time. Certain superstars and intros looks absolutely identical and realistic to their real life counterparts, like HHH, whereas Ronda Rousey’s character looks really off. The majority of wrestlers look fantastic, as do the animations for the most part, but there’s still a little ‘jankyness’ to some of the animation transitions. I’ve also had the ropes do some very odd things when limbs get caught between them, wobbling like a soundwave.

While I found most of the controls simple enough to pick up and play, there’s a lot of thinking involved when you want to do something specific, like holding two buttons to drag someone onto a table, or figuring out how to drop a weapon before the referee notices. Strike and Grapple controls are vastly unchanged, but maybe because I’m not playing this every year like most, it was hard to acclimate to the controls and learn specific timings for reversals.

It may not be enough to make me tune into RAW and SmackDown every week once again, but I am enjoying my time in the squared circle after such a long hiatus. There’s no shortage of modes to enjoy and fans should be content with the additions and changes in 2K19. I’ll definitely be checking out 2K20 next year to see what more improvements have been made on top of these, as this is a great step in the right direction. For the non-fan, sure, it’s not going to convert them, but that doesn’t mean there’s still not a good time to be had baw gawd.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Spyro Reignited Trilogy

In 1998, Playstation had a platforming hit on their hands with the release of Spyro the Dragon, even if it wasn’t completely apparent at the time. It spawned numerous sequels and Spyro even became the mascot for the super popular Skylanders series that is currenly on hiatus. While I grew up with the series, I was never really big into them at the time. Luckily, Toys For Bob is bringing back the original games with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, for fans of old, and those who are new to the franchise.

Included in this trilogy is the original classic, Spyro the Dragon, as well as Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage and Spyro: Year of the Dragon, each of which was great in their own rights at the time, but now they have been remastered. I know I know, yet another remaster right? That seems to be what a ton of games are doing lately. Some are lazy ports with some minor improvements, while others, like Spyro Reignited Trilogy, are true remasters, almost to a fault. If you’re a Spyro buff, you’ll be happy to know that this trilogy is much more than a simple HD port, but rebuilt from the ground up, yet preserving the classic gameplay, mechanics and even design, to what made it so great in the first place.

In the original Spyro, the purple dragon we've come to know is the only one that can save his fellow dragons that have been turned into crystal statues by Gnasty Gnorc. Of course Spyro has his trusty friend, Sparx the Dragonfly, to aid him along the way. The original game in the series was the first time we got to experience the adorable Spyro, and was two decades ago. In the sequel, Ripto’s Rage, Spyro must help save the land of Avalar from the evil sorcerer. Lastly, in Year of the Dragon, Spyro is up against Rhynoc and an evil sorceress, challenged with saving all of the valuable Dragon Eggs. While narrative wasn’t its strongest suit, the gameplay is what really shined and made Spyro a household name during the time.

So let’s get to what you’re probably wondering the most: "What’s new?". Well, a lot actually. Nostalgia is a funny thing, as it can help you remember memories far different than they actually were. Looking back at old Spyro gameplay on the original PlayStation, it simply isn’t pretty to look at. Yes, at the time it was amazing, but my nostalgia sure did remember something quite different. No more hard edges, blocky characters and bland textures. The remaster is truly a remaster.

Obviously there’s little technical limitations these days with current consoles compared to two decades ago, so Toys For Bob was able to put the much deserved love into the project to make all the games included in this package look the way it was always meant to. Not only is the game in HD and plays super smoothly, but it appears every single character, even minor ones and background characters, and the environment they are in, has been completely redesigned, but yet it feels familiar. The art direction looks like a high quality animated cartoon you’d see on TV or Netflix these days; the production value is quite amazing honestly.

Every level has been remastered as well. Gone are the bland flat green color for grass, as there’s now foliage, grass blades, flowers, light rays and tons of small little details added to make it a much more believable and gripping world to enjoy. My only wish is that there was a way to switch to classic graphics on the fly, much like the Halo remaster, so that you could truly appreciate the work that’s gone into this impressive remaster. Seriously, watch some gameplay videos of the classic 1998 version and the Reignited Trilogy version and you will be blown away.

Now, to get this out of the way, there’s a little controversy at the moment if you purchase the retail disc version. The original Spyro game is on the disc, but 2 and 3 need an update for them to be playable, which is quite a big download. This to me isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s an obtrusive and odd decision that is sure to, and already has, displeased some fans.

Even more impressive than the visual upgrades is how Toys For Bob left the original gameplay, mechanics, placements and everything else virtually intact. If you are able to play the original games with your eyes closed from memorization, you could probably do the same here. Even Spyro’s signature dash, side roll and flame moves are intact, if not more stylish. So, to say this is a faithful recreation for the fans is a gross understatement. In today’s graphical standards, I was more than impressed. Gameplay was super fluid and looks absolutely stunning with bright and colorful visuals.

That being said, staying absolutely faithful to the original games is almost a fault in its own right though. Especially in the original Spyro, where you’re given nearly zero guidance as to what you’re supposed to do, how or why. There’s an option to turn on a handy minimap, which helps a great deal, but it’s set to off as a default oddly. I also suggest playing though the games in order, as you can see how much Insomniac improved on each title in terms of level design, mechanics and gameplay. Ripto’s Rage finally got rid of the terrible drowning in a tablespoon of water, allowing Spyro to actually swim. Year of the Dragon was even more impressive, as mini-games like Skateboarding and Hockey were introduced as side activities.

I played Spyro alongside my 6 year old daughter who loves to game as well. She has no problems playing games after a little time with them, as she can play 3D platformers like Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2 without any assistance from myself. She was really enjoying Spyro (and subsequently now wants all of the Spyro merchandise and toys she sees; thanks Activision and Toys For Bob!) but eventually hit a steep curve of difficulty. As we progressed through the games, she needed my help more and more for certain tricky sections. I’ll admit, the games start out very simple at first, but there were a few parts that even I had to attempt numerous times to pass. It’s hard to fault Toys For Bob for this, as they are simply keeping the original Spyro experiences the way they were designed, but some minor tweaking of the difficulty for the younger audience would have been welcomed.

Toying with people’s fond memories and nostalgia is a tricky situation to be in. Do you try and stay faithful to the source material but change it to your own style, only to have the masses hate it, ala Michael Bay’s Transformers, or do you stay absolutely true to the source, recreating a classic experience for a new audience, faults included? Toys For Bob has gone with the latter, recreating the classic Spyro experience I enjoyed in my day. No matter how you choose to remaster a title, people will always wish that something was changed or kept the same, and I feel Toys For Bob has found that sweet spot of not messing with something that isn’t broken, even if a few mechanics could have been improved slightly.

More than a simple coat of paint, the Spyro Reignited Trilogy brings back a wave of nostalgia, seemingly improving my fond memories of the classic purple dragon. Now a new generation, like my daughter, can enjoy Spyro, and Toys For Bob should be commended for creating this remaster with the proper love and care that Spyro deserved for original fans, and they have truly outdone themselves.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption

Since Dark Souls (I guess technically Demon’s Souls) came onto the scene, there’s been no shortage of others trying to replicate its success. For those uninitiated, the Dark Souls franchise that is a series of brutally difficult action adventure games that has amassed quite a following of players who really gravitate towards the challenging gameplay and unique combat mechanics. Like any successful title, there’s always other games that release afterwards that are inspired and have their own twist on a proven formula. The newest Souls-inspired title comes from a small indie developer with an appropriate studio name, Another Indie.

I know what you’re thinking, an indie’s take on one of the most brutal and popular genres will most likely not hold a flame to the source material. I’d be lying if that wasn’t my initial reaction as well, but Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption does just enough differently, changes a few main core mechanics, and makes some design choices where it actually is its own unique experience, and not simply a rip-off that touts “inspired by...”.

So, what makes Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption differentiate from its inspiration? You know how exciting the boss fights in Dark Souls are, challenging you over and over until you learn their mechanics? What if you’re not that great at the genre, like myself, and don’t always get to experience every uniquely crafted boss sequence because of the need for hours of leveling and exploring required to do before reaching them? Sacrifice for Redemption has streamlined this and is essentially a boss rush mode. That’s right, no vast world to explore and navigate. No need to level up and gain new abilities. Simply fight boss after boss, each with increased difficulty. It sounds a little shallow being explained, but it works for what it’s trying to accomplish, and in relation to the narrative.

You are Adam (maybe I’m a bit bias because of his name), guilty of some major sin, but you have also lost your memory, so you’re unsure of what you’ve done. You’re on a quest of redemption, to solve what you’ve sinned and restore your memory. There’s more to it than that, but given that the overall gameplay isn’t terribly long (not including deaths and restarts), I’ll leave it to you to find out the conclusion. Needless to say, once the credits roll, the overall narrative makes sense and I quite enjoyed it even though it’ll be viewed by some as a shallow boss rush battler.

In most games, the first option you’re usually given is to choose your character or customize them somehow; not here though. Oddly enough, your first decision will be if you want to utilize a freely rotating camera or a fixed angled camera. As a newbie to the game, I chose fixed, but some may want to use the free camera instead, out of habit. Given you’ll want to be locked onto the bosses nearly the majority of the time, I was fine with my choice.

You’ll face-off against eight distinctly unique bosses, with the first seven based on the deadly sins. After a brief tutorial about the controls, which feel natural, you’re set in a small hub area where you can pick and choose what boss to fight, in whatever order you wish, though with a twist. You see, before each boss fight, you’ll need to sacrifice something of yourself. At first it’s simply a chunk of health you lose access to, but as you progress, your damage and defense will suffer, you’ll have less items to use, or you'll even lose the ability to heal yourself. This means the game becomes more challenging as you progress, regardless of what boss order you decide to go with.

As I began, I hated that I was becoming weaker as I progressed, instead of stronger, but this is Sacrifice of Redemption's subtle way of telling you to get better as you progress. So, while the bosses don’t inherently become “harder”, the setbacks you are given make a huge difference, especially if it’s a boss that you’re having trouble with initially. Some are obviously more trickier than others, but like any game, once you’ve figured out their mechanics and patterns, it’s simply having the patience to strike when appropriate.

Consider this a warning: "Be ready to die a lot". I swear I must have tried a certain boss a hundred times before finally besting it, but the gratification of finally doing so is immense. In a way I really appreciated that the game forces you to become better with each new debuff you inherit, as it doesn’t go away after beating a boss. But on the other hand, I really enjoy becoming more powerful as I progress through a title at the same time. You’re also able to freely leave a battle and attempt another boss if you’re simply becoming too frustrated and need a change; something I did a handful of times.

Combat in Sacrifice for Redemption is quite challenging. You’re able to use a sword and shield combo or a large two handed sword, based on your preference. You can also use a handful of other items like spears, fire bombs, health potions and more. Just like Dark Souls, you have an endurance bar that dictates how much you can swing your weapon, run, or dodge roll before having to take a moment to rest and let the action bar replenish.

Now, I’m not good at the Souls games in any way; terribly bad you might say, but I do enjoy them still, even with constant frustration from repeatedly dying. Combat is fair, yet challenging. Not once did I die to something unfair, as it was a result of poor judgement or impatience on my part, or unknowing what to expect from the boss. Eventually I enjoyed being forced to become better, rather than being given a toolbox of new skills and abilities to rely on and learn.

Where Sacrifice of Redemption shines is its bosses, obviously. Each one is completely unique and distinct, matching their respective sin in an interesting way. Each boss has its own pattern for attacks and abilities, something you’ll need to learn by trial and error, but each feels like its own hand crafted experience. Simply knowing how to beat one will have no bearing on the next. I don’t want to spoil any of these experiences, but nearly every single one was memorable in its own way.

I don’t normally delve into achievements for a review, but I really enjoyed the ones this game, as there were a handful for each boss. Some were comedic, others were skill based, while others based on a lack of skill, like one you earn from dying from a first attack. For being an indie game, you never know what to expect visually, but I was actually quite impressed with how Sacrifice for Redemption looked and performed. It clearly has that Souls-like style to it, but coming from such a small studio, I was quite impressed, especially with the boss designs and animations.

Even with its very short length, Dark Souls vets will find some entertainment here with its unique bosses and increasingly difficult gameplay. If you’ve been shy to try the genre because of its difficulty, this may be a good first step into it, as you’re not weighed down by hours of gameplay and exploration, and simply get to experience the best portions back to back, even if that does make for a slightly shallow experience with little payoff.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Time Carnage

If I told you there was a game in which its main premise was shooting wave of zombies, dinosaurs, monsters and robots across time, and with tons of different types of weapons, would that sound exciting? Traveling through time and shooting dinosaurs with flamethrowers, snipers and rifles sounded fantastic on paper. That’s about where the fun will end though, as it sounds like a great idea, but the execution is anything but. I don’t like to start out reviews with a negative tone, but when there’s very little redeeming qualities, it’s difficult to look for the few positives with such a generic and bland shooter.

While there is technically a campaign, something you’ll want to play through first for unlocks, don’t expect any semblance of a narrative though. I’m sure there’s a reason to why, and how, you’re travelling through time to shoot waves of enemies, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. There’s some slight hints in the tooltips, but there’s no traditional “story” included in any way, shape or form.

Campaign is basic as it gets, going through 4 separate time periods, each consisting of 4 levels that each have you trying to survive 5 waves of enemies for said time period. The only real differences between the time periods is the enemies and beackdrop. Sure, fighting dinosaurs will place you in more jungle-like areas, and robots in a futuristic setting, but all in all, there’s not much difference between them aside from re-skins. Simply survive 5 waves, which should only takes you 5-8 minutes, do that 4 times to beat a time period, and do that 4 times to complete the campaign. I’ll let you do the math, but campaign mode isn’t really built for longevity.

So while Time Carnage is a survival wave shooter at its core, there’s a unique, and arguably terrible, reloading mechanic that makes it stand out amongst others. Also setting it apart from others is the pedestal that you’re encased in and unable to move from. Essentially you’re standing inside a very small bubble shield that enemies are unable to penetrate, yet are trying to whittle down the shield with every hit. This shield will absorb damage, but with ongoing waves of enemies, you’ll need to be quick to dispatch them before your shield is depleted, or else you lose. That’s about it in a nutshell. You’re unable to move really, aside from a foot in any direction within your pedestal area, so you’ll simply need to move your aimer and look in each direction. No strafing for you.

As you complete levels in campaign, you’ll unlock new weapons to use whenever you wish, eventually having access to over 20. Before each level you’ll get to choose 4 weapons to bring with you to help survive the waves of enemies. Problem is, that there’s no real reason to be strategic with your weapon choices for the most part. You’re allowed to pick the same weapon for all 4 slots (2 for each hand), so while I usually picked two really slow and powerful guns for one hand, and two rapid firing for the right, you can simply choose the most powerful weapon for all slots and rotate them in and out that way (more on that shortly).

I believe the intended design was to be strategic with your weapon choices, but when you’re not given any restrictions, why wouldn’t you simply choose the best you have at all times? Weapons have no real weight to them either, so even sniper rifles and bigger guns feel and sound like toys. Worse yet, you’ll have to deal with a cash register sound every time you make a headshot, not just a kill.

Time Carnage’s most unique mechanic lies is within its reload system. It’s touted as “Shoot, drop, switch, repeat!”, and it is just that. The reason you choose two weapons for each hand is that you’re unable to manually reload your guns. That’s right, you can’t manually reload your ammo. Instead, when you swap for your other weapon on the same hand, the unused one gets placed on your pedestal and starts to automatically reload slowly. So you need to dock your weapons to reload them, thus using your backup weapon instead as it does so. It’s an interesting idea, but I still can’t figure out the why. I get that I’m stuck in this small confined shield and unable to move, but that about sums up the combat.

Depending on which era you’re currently in, you’ll shoot hundreds of zombies, monsters, robots or even dinosaurs. Each level has its own unique location, but there’s nothing noteworthy or special about any of them for the most part. While I personally enjoyed the robot era simply for its neon light backdrops, you’ll find that enemies tend to blend into the background quite often, resulting in a lot of unnecessary damage taken because you're unable to see them before it's too late.

Each waves becomes progressively more difficult as you progress, each adding a new slightly more challenging enemy or simply more of them at once. By wave 5 you’ll see all of the types of enemies, from the standard grunts all the way to the massive T-Rex, Ogre, or Tank-like bot. The bigger enemies will obviously do more damage and absorb more, but they are usually slower, making them easier to deal with. The real frustration comes from the smallest enemies; the dogs, flies, bugs and spiders. These ******* are small, quick and incredibly difficult to shoot (mostly due to the controls) and cause me the most grief in every level. Even with the FOV set to max, you’re unable to see enemies coming from certain directions at times, so you’ll constantly get hit, unaware where from.

If you sat down and plowed through the campaign, looking for something else to do, there are two more modes for you to work towards; Arcade and Challenge. Arcade is simply creating a custom game however you like; choosing your enemies, weapons and setting. Nothing special, but you can select enemies from all the eras should you desire, and even perks that you’ve unlocked that can alter gameplay in unique ways.

Challenge mode is a little more interesting, as it gives you a specific criteria to try and complete. Maybe it’s shooting the annoying flying enemies with a bow and arrow, or trying to stay alive as long as you can with a rubber duck gun (don’t ask, though it was my favorite weapon). The challenge mode should keep your interest a little while longer, as it’s going to force you to play in a specific, and usually quite challenging, way that you normally wouldn’t.

Time Carnage was designed with VR in mind, and given that this isn’t the VR version, but instead the standard console edition, it’s simply not the same experience. Would VR save this game from its terrible controls and poor design? I doubt it, but it would be slightly improved. The reloading mechanics sounds like an interesting idea, but doesn’t translate very well. Sure, it’s functional, I guess, but again, I don’t understand why I can’t simply reload my weapons like normal.

Gameplay is very repetitive, and I’ll be surprised if it’s able to keep your attention for any length of time. The campaign is painful to get through, but luckily you only need to do so once for the unlocks before moving onto Challenge Mode instead. Even so, that won’t last you long unless you want to try and beat your high scores. I wanted to enjoy shooting waves of dinosaurs, but I wasn’t in any way with the weak gunplay, terrible controls and an onset of boredom. Great premise, but no real execution to a simple idea.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Assassin’s Creed has always had a good base formula: Fight the bad guys (Templars), assassinate their leader, and save the world by solving a much broader scope of mystery. That is essentially the magic mix for the Assassin's Creed titles in a nutshell. Of course there’s much more to it than that, with almost each game being set in its own era, but with a ‘real world’ counterpart to tie them all together in the same Assassin’s vs Templar.

The franchise as a whole has always done an exceptional job at portraying the era and setting that the specific game is placed in, from the Third Crusade in the original game to last years Egypt. The newest game, Assassin's Creed Odyssey is set in Greece during the Spartan era. While I’ve never been to Greece, especially hundreds of years ago, I imagine this is as near perfect a representation you could find anywhere else that conveys the land and time so accurately. You’re surrounded by gorgeous scenery, bustling cities, farms, mountains and more, all which I wish I could visit in real life. Spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe some of the gorgeous vistas you’ll see along your journey.

If you played last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins you’ll have a rough idea of the framework used for Odyssey. Origins was a big change for the series, allowing you to access a massive landscape and giving you the ability to freely explore it however you wish. There were also other drastic changes for the series. Well, Odyssey takes this template and expands upon it tenfold. If you thought Origins was a daunting task to get through, Odyssey puts it to shame, as now you also have the seas to sail in Greece.

Overwhelming is a word I keep coming back to when I’m describing Odyssey to friends and other people. There’s so much to do that it can be daunting at times, even figuring out where to begin, but yet the game allows you to play however you wish. For example, I was about 20 hours in before I even really started to push the main story quests onward, as I was so focused on trying to complete every quest I came along and uncover each question mark on the map as I passed by it.

I know every new big AAA game that releases always boasts about how large their world is and how there’s so much to do, but kudos to Ubisoft, as there’s an overwhelmingly abundance of things for you to complete in Odyssey, should you desire to. So romance those men and women that allow it, hunt animals for pelts, try to become the biggest and baddest mercenary of the lands, hunt cultists, become a threat on the seas, or do a million other things if you wish, it’s completely up to you how you want to play.

Set in the ancient Greece just after the infamous Spartan era led by Leonidas, you begin by choosing to play as Kassandra or Alexios, a choice that cannot be undone or changed along the way, so don’t expect it to be like Syndicate where you could freely switch between the two main characters in that game. You are a descendant of Leonidas, armed with the end of his legendary spear. This is important, as this replaces your typical hidden blade that previous assassins have used in the franchises other titles. Choosing either character isn’t simply just a visual change either, as some events will unfold differently or you will be given different options during your adventure.

Regardless of your character choice, you fill the role of a Misthios; essentially a mercenary. You are given the option to fight alongside or against the Spartans or Athenians, but your main goal is a narrative that involves family and a nefarious plot that must be stopped. I honestly don’t want to give much more away, as the main story is actually quite good, and spoilers would only dampen some of the reveals and excitement I had going through it blind my first time. Your journey will begin small in scope, but like any good Assassin’s Creed, will eventually unravel into a wondrous tale of intrigue, deceit, revenge and mystery.

Greece is a beautiful landscape, and it’s actually quite difficult to fathom how large the land is, as your training area is quite large, but as you zoom out to see the world, you will notice that it’s quite a small island in comparison to the surrounding lands. As you make your way to Athens and beyond you’ll start to get an idea for how populated and how much work went into making this virtual ancient Greece a living and breathing world, filled with numerous things to do.

Like Origins, areas and quests are level gated. While you’re welcome to try them at any level, I found that trying to combat enemies that are 2-3 levels higher than yourself is a death wish for the most part, and that’s not even including the mercenaries (more on that shortly). What I loved about Origins was going back to previous areas and slaughtering everything in my way like an unstoppable force once I gained a few levels. This isn’t really an option in Odyssey, as enemies and areas level up alongside you. While I’ve come to terms with this and have altered my gameplay around it, I really wish it was an option instead of a forced default.

Another early choice you’ll need to make is if you want to play on Guided or Exploration Mode, both of which drastically alter how you’ll experience Odyssey. Guided Mode is very traditional, where you’re given a quest and an icon appears on your map and HUD to indicate where you should be heading or where your target is, just like in previous games.

New however is Exploration Mode, seemingly how the developers suggest you should play. Here, you’ll be given a quest but won’t be given a direct marker of where you should go. Instead, you’ll need to find clues to figure out where your target or objective is. For example, if the person gives you a quest telling you that they last saw some bandits by a waterfall, you’ll need to speak around and ask people about bandits, or where a waterfall is. You’ll have a certain amount of clues needed before being given the direct marker, so it adds a lot more to the exploration of the world, making you pay attention more and interact with the game's environment and NPCs more deeply. While I prefer the Guided Mode, my buddy swears by Exploration and loves having to figure out where he needs to go next, so it’s a preference.

Combat feels somewhat similar to Origins, yet abilities have been changed, for the better, and it allows for many more types of playstyles. Combat isn’t necessarily harder, but you’ll need to dodge and parry more often rather than going in swinging wildly. Perform a perfect dodge or parry and time will slow, allowing you to get some heavy hits in on the enemies.

Skills and abilities are broken into three separate categories: Hunter, Warrior and Assassin lines. Each time you level up you’re able to spend an ability point on any skill from either of the trees, though some are story or level locked for progression. These separate skill trees allow you to build a Misthios to suit exactly how you want to play.

Hunter abilities focus on your bow skills, allowing you to do massive damage with headshots, shoot multiple arrows, or even concussive arrows to stun enemies. The Warrior line of skills is your brawler, allowing you to take and deal more damage, break shields and even perform the iconic Spartan Kick to enemies. I preferred to play like a traditional Assassin’s Creed game and went down the Assassin’s line mostly, though I supplemented abilities from across all three skill trees. I’m able to do massive damage from hidden areas, apply poison to my blade and even completely disappear if needed.

Your gear plays a large part into your skills too, as each weapon and piece of armor will have an amount of Hunter, Warrior or Assassin damage on it, along with other bonuses or even massively useful set pieces for the best gear. Much like the system from Origins, every item will have a required level and vary in quality from common, blue, purple or even gold quality. You’ll need to keep your gear updated as you level though, given that enemies scale with you, so make sure to visit a blacksmith and upgrade your best pieces to be in line with your current level. This of course takes many materials, things you’ll find along the way doing quests and hunting, like stone, pelts, wood and more. Once you get to about level 30 or so, the requirements for gear upgrades becomes massive, again, adding to the overwhelming feeling, knowing you may have to grind for a bit to gather the supplies.

Then comes the quests. This is where I became overwhelmed quite quickly. In the beginning you’re given a handful of simple and easy quests in progression, and once you’re released into the world, BOOM. You’re going to have so many quests that you won’t know where to start. I myself always try and go from closest to furthest, but you are given a bunch of quests that will also last you until the end of the game as well, giving something to always work towards. While you’re not forced to do any side quests if you don’t wish, keep in mind that areas are heavily level gated, so if you don’t, you’re going to be very underpowered as you progress through the story. There are daily quests, and other quests as well, that will reward you with a special currency that can be saved up and exchanged for some of the best legendary gear available.

Many games boast the choices you make change the world around you, and sure there are some that live up to that claim, but Odyssey does this very well, and naturally. For the first time in the series, you’re actually given dialogue choices. Sometimes these are superficial choices, but they are choices nonetheless. For example, me and my friend did the same quest but chose completely different options, and both choices played out drastically different. He stopped a plague from spreading whereas I did not, and it’s changed other things in the world because of it. It’s not always clear what impact your choices will have, but they can be radically different based on your decisions.

About a couple dozen hours into Odyssey, I started to notice a trend with many of the side quests. Many will simply be fetch quests, ‘go kill this guy’ or investigate an area, but they alter enough to avoid becoming stale, and given that I’m rewarded with money, gear and experience, I opt to always do them regardless. There are also numerous romance options, and while nowhere near as involved as say Mass Effect, you’re not limited to one person or pairing, so sleep around if you wish, virtually speaking, even if it is mostly meaningless (but that’s half the fun, right?).

Origins utilized Phylakes as badass bounty hunters that would hunt you down and try to kill you. While a cool idea, it always frustrated me as they were extremely challenging and relentless. This has been improved in Odyssey, replaced with Mercenaries. If you kill too many highly ranked people, or cause too much of a ruckus or murder, your wanted bounty level will rise, causing these randomly generated mercenary hunters to track you down. These are essentially mini-bosses that can be a great challenge and give you some fantastic gear if beaten.

As your bounty level rises (think wanted star levels from Grand Theft Auto), more and more menacing bounty hunters will start to track you down. What makes this mechanic so interesting though is that they can appear all over the world and at any moment. So, it doesn’t matter that you’re in the middle of a story quest, dispatching enemies, as they show up randomly, or even in pairs. You are able to pay off your bounty if you wish to be left alone, but that cost rises steadily, so it’s up to you how you want to deal with these baddies.

Eventually you’ll unlock a Cultist menu, showcasing special targets that relate to the main story and unlock some of the best gear and set pieces. You won’t simply know where all of these cultists are though, and will need to do some investigative work to uncover their identities before they can be marked on the map.

To add even more things to do in Odyssey, Conquests play a large part in ‘freeing’ a specific region or area. These are epic clashes with Spartans versus Athenians where you choose which side you wish to fight for. To unlock these battles you’ll need to lower the regions control by clearing out forts, burning supplies and killing specific targets before they are available. These battles have a heavy 'For Honor' vibe to it (another Ubisoft title for those who may not know), as you need to lower the enemies’ count in battle, facing off against numerous enemies and captains at once.

Lastly, a series favorite, ship battles, make a return. This is not only how you’ll traverse from island to island, but you are able to openly engage in naval warfare should you desire. While the core gameplay is mostly familiar, you are now able to not only upgrade your ship, but you can also recruit lieutenants to your crew (instead of assassinating them), which will help in ship battles. Your lieutenants are even able to be summoned on land (if you purchase that ability) to distract and fight for you for short period of time. There are naval quests for you to take on if that’s what you wish to focus on as well, so there’s a ton of options for you to play however you desire.

Odyssey still has the core Assassin’s Creed gameplay to it, and while I play it that style, you’re able to play in a completely different way should you desire. You can decide to play as a Hunter/Warrior hybrid if you want and it actually feels like playing a Witcher title at times. Yes, quests eventually become slightly repetitive, but they are completely optional and you can play them however and whenever you desire. While I almost constantly feel overwhelmed with how much there is to always do, it goes to show how much content has been included, only adding to the value and replayability.

During my first week of playing, I was hard crashing and freezing at least once or twice a day, which obviously became very frustrating. It seems this has been fixed with the latest patch, but it happened enough in the beginning to be noteworthy. There are a ton of smaller bugs riddled throughout, though nothing I’ve personally experienced that’s game breaking, though a friend of mine had one of his main quests glitch out on him pretty badly at one point.

Even with a few hiccups, Odyssey is one of the best Assassin’s Creed games to date. It allows you to play it nearly however you want, doesn’t intrude too often with the ‘real world’ segments (even though I quite enjoy that aspect), and it is simply a better product overall than previous entries. While Black Flag may still be my favorite in the series for its pirate setting, and Ezio as my favorite protagonist, Odyssey tops my list for overall experience with all of its additions and improvements. If you enjoyed Origins, Odyssey is a vastly improved version, and if you’ve fallen out of love with Assassin’s Creed over the years, this is the one to reel you back in with an overwhelming amount of stuff to do however you wish.

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Fishing Sim World

There really isn’t a wide breadth of options for dedicated fishing games on console if you’re really into the sport, which is a shame, as I tend to always gravitate towards fishing if it’s included in game, even as a simple side activity with little reward. Truth be told, I can count the times I’ve actually gone fishing in real life on a single hand, but even though I’m not an avid angler in real life, I do enjoy my virtual line and reel whenever possible.

Dovetail Games aims to remedy this isolated problem on console with their newest release, Fishing Sim World. Aiming at being a realistic fishing simulator, you’ll travel to many bodies of water and use dozens of pieces of equipment to start your angling career off on the right foot. So does Fishing Sim World tick all the right boxes to get you hooked? Let’s dive in.

From the opening, you’ll be able to create your character, male or female, and slightly alter how they look and what they wear. There’s really not a lot of options available, or that look great, but at least you’re able to somewhat customize a fisherman, or woman, to suit your preferences. I will say, the blandness of the visuals is apparent from the get-go, as the characters and animations themselves are far from impressive by any means.

Next up I would suggest heading to the tutorial area, as that’s going to be how you learn how to begin your fishing career off on the right foot. This was the first disappointment I had though, as instead of an in-depth tutorial that shows you and gets you to practice all the intricacies of the fishing life, you’re instead simply given a list of tutorial videos to watch and hopefully remember. There’s a handful of videos, going over each topic, from casting, reeling in, tackle box and equipment and more, but for a game that’s boasting about being a realistic simulator, some hands on practice would have been a far better option instead of this back seat approach.

You’re able to then choose where you’d like to fish from a handful of different areas and lakes, aiming to catch more than a dozen different types of fish along the way, and do to so, you’re going to need a multitude of different equipment types, from lures, bait and rods, depending on what you’re aiming to catch. Do you prefer to hit the lakes in Florida, New York, France, Germany, Austria or the UK? It’s completely up to you, and of course, each area houses different species of fish. To navigate these large lakes you’re going to need a vessel, and as it just happens, you have access to a boat, allowing you to search and scour for your favorite fishing spots with your on-board fish sonar and GPS.

Fishing won’t work without the right equipment, and included is a number of items for your tackle box from a number of officially licensed brands such as Bass Cat Boats, Delkim, Rat-L-Trap, Duckett Fishing, Korda and Mainline Baits. While I’m not an avid fisherman myself, I can only assume that the licensed gear is an accurate depiction of its real life counterparts and works similarly.

What I love the most about fishing is that you can simply do it at your own pace and relax. Sometimes I need to unwind from the everyday shooters and racers, and want something different to reset my gaming state. This is where Fishing Sim World excels, as you’re not forced to catch a certain amount or imposed with strict time limits (unless in a tournament), allowing me to freely fish at my own pace and speed however I wish.

So you’ve boated all around your chosen lake and found a spot that seems full of fish with some great natural beauty to it to relax to. Now this is where your patience will be tested. Fishing is tricky, as you’re simply left to chance, depending on the fish, how hungry they are, if they’ll bite and more. Sometimes you’ll find a spot where you’ll constantly get bites nonstop, whereas other areas I’ve had no luck with a single bite for over 15 minutes. This of course is partly due to the fisher’s skill of setting the line and reeling it in in a specific way in order to tantalize the fish into biting.

You’ve given two different options for casting and using your reel. A more realistic version labeled ‘Total Cast Control’ and a simpler easier option. The easy option simply has you aiming and then holding down the power button on your cast until you hit the percentage you want (100% being the maximum distance), whereas Total Cast Control is much more involved and will require a bit of practice to get used to. It takes a bit of a learning curve to get the hang of, but you can cast much more precisely and is more involved if you take the time to learn its intricacies.

Fish won’t simply bite just because you cast your lure into the water though. This is where your skill as a fisherman comes into play, as you need to make your lure maneuver in a specific way to entice the fish into thinking it’s real food. There are different types of lure movements you can use, depending on the specific lure and the type of fish you’re trying to attract. You can constantly reel in, stop and go or make twitch movements. Each have its own purpose and is indicated if you’re doing it properly by the color of its icon in the water (green for good and red for poor).

Your line is on the water and you’ve finally got a bite! Indicated by a large “!”, you’ll need to snag the hook into the fish’s mouth quickly if you want to keep it attached without it breaking free. This is called the strike, and the quality of your strike will depend on the movement and timing of your rod snap from when the bite happens. This takes a little getting used to, but it’s always exciting to see that lure dunk into the water as your rod bends.

As the fish fights you, you’ll need to fight back in moderation. Your fishing line is set for a specific weight limit and tension, so if you fight too hard against the fish, your line could snap. This is where the cat and mouse game begins of letting the fish tire itself out before you reel it in. If the fish is swimming away to the left, you’ll want to maneuver your rod to the right as you reel it in slowly, keeping an eye on the tension meter. When the fish takes a break, that’s when you want to reel in as fast as you can, before it fights back and tries to swim away some more. It’s always satisfying to reel in a huge catch that was a back and forth battle.

Progression is based on your earned Tackle Points, TP for short, and this is what you earn for catching each fish. Earn enough TP and you’ll be able to spend it on new gear, clothing and more equipment, based on your fishing preferences or style. It’s a basic as a progression system comes, but at least there’s a reason to continue catching other than for the love of the sport itself.

Should you have other avid fishing friends online, you’re able to play together in 4 player multiplayer and even begin a live tournament to see who the best fisherman is by comparing catches. Depending on the tournament you choose, you’re not simply ranked on who catches the biggest or heaviest fish, but sometimes the amount caught, combined length or combined weight. These add some variety to the gameplay and simply catching one huge monster trophy fish won’t always net you the win in every case.

While the world itself is very bland and uninspiring, it’s still somewhat calming, being in the middle of a lake by yourself, waiting for a bite. The sunlight and reflections on the water look decent, but for a game that absolutely revolves around being in and around the water, I was hoping for more in the visuals. Of course I wasn’t expecting it to hit the realistic water standards set in Sea of Thieves, and you can see a small bit of transparency in the water when the fish near the surface, but everything else simply looks average and bland at best.

There’s really no music included either, and while I get that as a design decision, as you’re supposed to be on the water alone, quiet and calm, when you don’t get a bite for over ten minutes, the downtime can become boring. Maybe that’s because I’m not an avid fisher in real life and simply ‘don’t get it’, but never the less, I still had fun when the fish were biting and I caught a new personal best bass.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Immortal: Unchained

Darks Souls, and games like it, have a huge following. I’m not great at these types of games, as the ‘tough as nails’ genre isn’t really for me, but I have forced myself to sit through the Souls games to try and become better and see what all the fuss is about. While I’ve yet to finish one to completion, the genre intrigues me, as the hardcore RPG will punish you harshly for your mistakes, but once you learn how to overcome those obstacles, you become much more proficient and start to enjoy it more.

Dark Souls, clearly the inspiration behind Toadman Interactive’s newest entry, Immortal: Unchained, is the leader and king of the genre, but Immortal is attempting to usurp the throne with some drastic, and questionable, changes to the proven formula. While yes, Immortal: Unchained is Dark Souls-like and is just as hardcore, it’s extremely challenging for different reasons.

The question is that if Immortal: Unchained has emulated what Souls does so well, but changes it up enough to be unique in its own right. Well, it certainly changes up the formula in a drastic way, as it’s primarily ranged base weaponry instead of melee, but it doesn’t seem to ‘click’ as well with some of its other design choices. At first I thought I was falling into the typical “git gud” trap where I simply wasn’t learning from my mistakes, but after my time with Immortal, I’m convinced “It’s not me, it’s you”.

You are labeled an ultimate weapon who’s been imprisoned for a millennia but is unleashed to stop a catastrophic event that’s about to unfold. Not only is the world in danger, but all of the universe, and it’s only you that is able to prevent that from happening. That would be the extremely scaled down synopsis of the main plot, but there is a lot more lore thrust at you that makes the overall narrative quite convoluted and confusing at times. A lot of information is thrown at you at once during cutscenes, and if you’re not paying attention, much of the intricacies will fly over your head, leaving you confused.

As you begin your journey, you’ll need to create your character, choosing their looks and then which class you want to play as. Classes range from Tracker, Vandal, Raider, Wanderer, Marksman and Mercenary, each with their own specific strengths and play styles. More or less, your class will determine what weapons you ‘should’ be using, as they will be more proficient with them, though you’re able to completely customize your stats as you level up, allowing you to utilize other weapons with their specific requirements.

If you want to use shotguns for example, you’ll probably want to pick the class that is more geared towards that play style, as Immortal tends to give you more loot items early on that are suited for your specific class. By the time you make it to the first boss fight, you’re going to know quite quickly if that class is suited for you or not. I had to reach the first boss three times before settling on a class that was more suited to how I wanted to play. As you gain levels, you’ll also earn the ability to equip aspects. Each class has one they begin with (most do anyways) and then you’ll be able to select more at specific levels, such as a weapon damage increase and other passive bonuses of your choosing. You can use these to enhance your playstyle or help a struggling aspect, it’s up to you.

To say that Dark Souls was an inspiration for Immortal: Unchained would be an understatement. Sure it changes things up with being primarily ranged weapon based with guns, but you’ve got your typical stamina bar for running and dodging, health syringes are your Estus Flasks and instead of Bonfires you have Obelisks. While I don’t knock them for essentially copying the same formula, the changes they did make are quite questionable once you start to getting a few hours into it.

Killing enemies and opening chests will earn you scrap (currency). This is the currency you’ll use to upgrade your character and weapons. Prepare to hoard it though, as each time you do so, the successive level up will cost slightly more and more each time. Being able to upgrade your weapons is a great feature, though it’s hard to do so with the requirements needed for each tier, so prepare for a grind. It wouldn’t be a hardcore experience without many cheap deaths. Just like Souls, when you die you’re going to leave all your gathered scrap on your corpse. Should you go back and retrieve it, great, but if you die again, it’s lost forever.

This is where obelisks come into play, as they are used as your save points, how to change your loadouts, refill your ammo and upgrade your character. Yes, when you run out of ammo, you’ll need to use an obelisk, which in turn resets all of the enemies, meaning you’ll need to use ammo again to defeat them. See where this design starts to falter? The same goes for wanting to change weapons. If you just picked up a sweet new gun or want to upgrade one you’re using, you’ll need to visit an obelisk, which aren’t generally placed conveniently along the path you need to go, and spent your scrap to upgrade skills and weapons. Same goes for leveling up, as you’ll need to use these points, respawning all the enemies, causing a lot of unneeded backtracking and killing.

This is where the main change to ranged combat comes into play. Yes you have a melee weapon, but it’s generally only used as a last resort when you run out of ammo and can’t find an obelisk to refill. This ranged based combat forces you to play Immortal drastically different from others in the genre. You can either manually aim at enemies, targeting head or limbs, or use the lock on for easier aiming. The problem is there’s pros and cons to both.

You see, sure using lock on is great and easy when it decides to lock onto the guy you actually want to fire at, but you’re unable to freely aim at head and limbs this way. Sometimes you’ll want to free fire, as shooting an arm can make the enemy drop their weapon, or blowing their leg off will stagger them for a short period. While that’s great and promotes strategic gunfire, your ammo is so limited that I chose to mostly use the lock on to avoid missing any shots so that I didn’t have to backtrack to an obelisk to refill my ammo. It doesn’t help that the manual aiming simply doesn’t feel right, as I wasted a lot of shots trying to aim properly, and reloading takes forever at the default rate before upgrades.

With combat being ranged based, you’d think that you’d be given some sort of shield or defensive mechanics to counter enemies’ attacks. Nope. You’re simply given a dodge that uses your stamina. When you’re being surrounded and have to avoid incoming fire from enemies, it can be chaotic at best to figure out where and when to dodge, especially since there’s no hit markers of which side you’re being shot from.

And don’t get me started on some of the enemies. I know games like this are supposed to be difficult, and in the beginning it’s manageable, but later on you start to face off against grunts that will rush at you and explode, and worse, teleporting enemies. These bastards break your lock on and can warp in nearly any direction and distance, so when you’re fighting multiples, along with other types of enemies, prepare for some great frustration. Sure, enemies have weak glowing spots on their backs that can use massive damage, but good luck actually getting behind them when being flanked from all sides from teleporting enemies.

What I did enjoy were the numerous boss fights. Sure, they utilized basic attack patterns with obvious tells for the most part, but their challenge level was just about spot on for the most part, that is until you get to the ones that spawn more enemies and other crazy attacks. Prepare to die on these fights though, as one wrong move and you’ll earn a cheap death. The first boss, for example, has a tell when he’s about to rush directly at you, prompting you to dodge out of the way. Fail to do so and you’ll be knocked down and stunned for a moment, where he’ll most likely follow-up with a ground pound, killing you in the process. Expect many cheap moves like this and simply try and circle around to their backs and shoot the weak spots.

Dark Souls was so popular, not simply because of its daunting challenge and difficulty, but its balanced and fair gameplay once you learned from your mistakes. That doesn’t really exist here as prominently with the major change to ranged combat. Sure it has the difficulty, but it’s lacking the soul and fun for the most part. This immortal should have stayed chained.

Overall Score: 4.5 / 10 Phantom Doctrine

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which I believe is true, but what happens when you’re trying to imitate one of the most beloved games in a genre, yet can’t quite capture the essence that makes it unique and special? That’s somewhat what we have here with CreativeForge Games’ newest title, Phantom Doctrine; a top down 3D turn based tactical game that has borrowed very heavily from games like XCOM. They’ve brought some great ideas, some of which I hope Firaxis takes note of and ‘borrows’ back, but it’s hard to compare to one of the best in the genre, even if it’s decent in its own right.

Instead of an alien assault and saving planet Earth, the narrative behind Phantom Doctrine is that it is set within the Cold War in the early 80's, with the CIA versus the KGB in a battle of information, spies and assaults at its height of tension. You never know who you can trust and you begin to question everything. An agent has been missing for a week and returns unexpectedly; do you interrogate him out of paranoia or take him at his word? You risk having your informant lay dormant in an enemy filled country; do you have them lay low and risk being caught, or try and find out more information about a conspiracy? These are just some questions you’ll need to ask yourself as you progress in the campaign.

You lead The Cabal, a secret organization that’s tasked with stopping a global conspiracy. Of course, you’ll need to do so in the shadows with covert ops, spies, interrogations, highly classified documents and more. But you’ll also need to be swift and decisive, as there’s a more sinister plot at stake that could mean doomsday if you don’t act quickly. The campaign is said to have 40+ hours of gameplay included, which sounds about right if you’re counting the multiple playthroughs if you want to see everything.

You see, you’re able to choose from the CIA or the KGB, altering gameplay somewhat, along with a second playthrough that will be needed to experience the fuller narrative with the campaign. Why some lore and other things are locked behind the extended playthrough, I’m not sure, but finding out I would need to play through it all again just to see everything was a letdown in someway. Sure, you’re given more of a reason to spend more time with the game, which is never a bad thing, but for someone like myself, who has limited gaming time, asking me to go through again just to see some new content was disappointing.

If you’ve never played a XCOM game or any XCOM-like titles before, it’s a turn based strategy game where you play on a grid-like system, moving your team as you try to defeat enemies in turns. Things become much more involved, but it’s all about strategy; how to place your team behind cover, disguise yourself, how to flank enemies, and in the case of Phantom Doctrine, how to be as stealthy as possible for as long as possible, as going hot and loud has some dire consequences.

Even though the XCOM influence is heavy at times, the whole 80’s espionage theme and stealth focus makes for a great change from the standard that has been set before it. While the bulk of your gameplay will undoubtedly be focused within stealth missions and firefights, there’s almost as much to do outside of these missions, which oddly enough, I found myself enjoying more than the traditional gameplay.

Regardless of choosing CIA or KGB, you’ll have a home base that you’ll do all of your investigative work, interrogation, brain washing, hiring new agents, forging money and more. You earn limited money over time, so you need to choose wisely what upgrades to spend towards, but you’ll also need to budget for hiring new agents, technology upgrades, extra slots for infirmary, DNA upgrades, forging documents and a whole lot more. This part will take a bit of time to get used to, as the tutorial for the base operations is not explained very well, barely at all even, which is what frustrated me greatly early on. Once I got the hang of how everything worked and was intertwined, it became much more strategic.

Your base is where you will have access to a world map. It is here where you’ll be able to fly your agents out to many counties and states, having them investigate leads, scout for headquarters when the enemy finds out your HQ location and more. Certain opportunities will arise where you’ll be able to send in agents to gather extra intel, or even thwart your opponent's plans entirely. Sometimes the extra intel will make a huge difference before going into an assault mission, as you’ll know where the computer to shut off the cameras and alarms is located beforehand.

This is where you need to balance your time and money for gathering your own intel and using counterintelligence as well. Agents will level up when completing missions, able to craft new items like weaponry, gadgets and earn new abilities. Something that doesn’t make sense to me though is why I need to spend so much money on weapons and such. You work for the top intelligence agency in the world but have to simply use a pistol because you don’t have enough funds for something else? Oh, and I found out the hard way that there IS a doomsday clock in play, much like XCOM, so don’t sit back and dawdle too much or else you’ll find the forced game over once the enemy carries out its own plot without much resistance.

Now, we get to my favorite gameplay mechanic about Phantom Doctrine; the Investigation Board. As you gain clues from your agents and informants, you’ll have to piece them together on a classic corkboard, tying string from the clues that match together until you have all the clues needed and make a logical connection about your target. Some clues appear as a classified document, where you need to click the button over certain words you may think are clues, until you find them all.

For example, you found a clue and one of the key words you found was “Tredwell”. Now with your other clues, you’ll need to see if that same keyword exists, and if so, tie a string between the two, as there’s a logical connection. You do this until all of the clues piece together and point you to your mystery target. It may be basic, but putting together these clues was the most enjoyment I had from the whole gameplay experience. The classic corkboard has a very retro vibe to it and it is something you’ve seen on TV a million times before. Bravo, and I hope other games implement something similar, as this was quite unique.

And now we come to combat within missions. Ideally you’ll never need to experience combat, as you want to be stealthy in the shadows, ducking in and out before you’re even noticed, but that’s not what’s going to happen a good portion of the time. When, not if, you get spotted by a guard, enemy, or even civilian when in a restricted zone, an alert appears and every enemy will know exactly where you are, with reinforcements coming non-stop. Yes, a game about stealth punishes you for being in combat so harshly that it becomes harder the longer the match plays out.

When you’re able to stay in stealth, avoiding guard’s paths and line of sight, it can be exhilarating, but more than once I found that these “hand crafted” missions had flaws in them. One mission, for example, had me needing to neutralize a target, but there was absolutely no way to get into his second floor room without being seen by a civilian or camera. Of course I had to go hot, and that’s where I learned about the endless waves of enemies that will come until you’re able to extract. Given that some missions force the combat as well, prepare for a lot of frustrations, for numerous reasons.

One of the biggest complaints I had about XCOM was its combat randomness. This is where you’re literally standing beside an enemy and miss a shot, or an enemy is shooting you from within a building as you’re behind cover and still picks you off. This is frustratingly present here as well. I can’t count the times that I had been on the square next to an enemy, only to graze or miss completely. Yes, there is an awareness stat that helps with this and avoidance, but it’s ridiculous in situations like this.

The AI is very challenging and is able to snipe you with a pistol from an unreal distance, even if objects and walls are in the way. One mission had me lose an agent because I was in cover on a staircase heading up to the extraction zone, yet the enemy below me, with zero line of sight, was able to headshot me without any issue. Overwatch is an option to guard your position while waiting for an enemy turn to play out, but with limited movement and action moves per turn, it’s going to take a lot of getting used to through trial and error to see what works and doesn’t. Also, pro tip, reloading your gun takes an action. Something I too found out the hard way; R.I.P. Agent Cortana. Luckily there is an auto save after every move, so you’re able to reload any save if you messed up badly with a wrong decision and want a re-do.

I simply found the assault portion of combat very unbalanced and incredibly challenging when you have an attack chopper shooting a mini-gun at you for every turn you’re in sight. The new Breach ability was a cool addition to the traditional gameplay, allowing for a more assault orientated run should you choose. Additionally, some missions also have side objectives you can complete for bonuses should you want to challenge yourself. There is a multiplayer option if you and a friend wants to challenge each other head on with some 1v1 , but even after a week of playing the game, and trying to find a match each time, I was unable to find a single game to join. I even hosted games, hoping someone would join, yet not a single person did. So don’t expect much of an online community to be playing this. From my experience, expect to bring your own friend if you really want to play online.

Phantom Doctrine has a lot of potential. While the combat didn’t really jive with me personally, the whole CIA cloak and dagger theme suits the gameplay and genre quite well. Oddly enough, I quite enjoyed the other aspects to the gameplay much more, particularly the base management and connecting clues together on an old school pinup board. Frustration will surely kick in at the beginning, as you’re barely taught any of the non-combat mechanics, but once you figure it out on your own, it can be quite strategic, even if it’ll be in the shadows when compared to certain other mega hits in the genre.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Shikhondo - Soul Eater

I don’t like to brag, but I’m quite skilled at playing shmup (shoot-em-up) bullet hell titles, such as Ikargua, Deathsmiles and Radiant Silvergun, and dozens of others. These are the games where you pilot some sort of ship or character, and the screen is practically filled with enemy bullets, requiring some intense concentration and dexterity to avoid them. There are dozens of bullet hell shmups out there, but very few have done something supremely refined or uniquely enough to stand amongst the greats in the genre.

Shikhondo – Soul Eater is a Korean bullet hell shmup that is surely unique in its own way, one that doesn’t have you piloting a space ship as most, but instead, you use one of two girls, set in an Asian mythology backdrop, something completely unique and it's unlike anything that I have before. Even though the game is short in length, there’s lots of difficulty levels to try your hand at and an online leaderboard to work towards bragging rights.

Like most shmups, the story in Shikhondo – Soul Eater is paper thin, revolving around a demon army, known as the Yokai, who have escaped from Limbo and are stealing souls across the world. You must defeat these enemies and free all of the souls. Not having a strong narrative is par for the course in this genre, which is passable, as you play these for the gameplay more than anything else, which is true here as well.

You begin by choosing one of two young women, each of which have their own attack types. The ‘Grim Reaper’ utilizes a spread shot as her default attack, but you can focus the shot to be more condensed and powerful. The other option, simply called ‘The Girl’, shoots straight forward, but has two orbs that not only use homing shots , but can be utilized in a way that they can float near enemies and shoot at them more directly as well. Each of two 'women' play differently and needs separate strategies. For my playstyle, I enjoyed using ‘The Girl’ much more simply for her orbs.

You dodge and shoot across five separate levels, each of which will fill the screen with countless bullets. Each level also ends in a boss fight that will challenge all of your skills. I must say, having played lots of shmups and bullet hells, Shikhondo utilizes one of the most unique bullet patterns I’ve seen in quite some time. Most bullet hells simply put tons of bullets on the screen going in a straight line, but here, there’s tons of patterns and rhythms you’ll need to contend with, and of course, they will overlap at times for added difficulty.

Boss fights are exciting and quite challenging. The bullet patterns that these screen filling bosses employ will take a large amount of memorization and skill to overcome, and each will take place in two separate waves. Defeat the first form of each boss and you’ll then need to contend with its second, and more powerful, form. Persevere and win and you’ll get to choose from an extra Soul Attack (bomb) or an extra life (butterly). Both of which are equally useful, so it’s up to you to choose which would suit your play style better.

For a shmup, the hit detection is quite forgiving (on easy mode), and what I really found interesting is that you can actually see your character’s hit box as indicated by a small glowing blue orb in the middle of her body. That is all you need to worry about, and focus on, in order to not touch any enemy projectiles. It takes some getting used to, but you’ll eventually get a feel for it over time, but don’t get cocky, as you’ll most likely breeze through the first half of the game, but he second portion will have you most likely relying on infinite continues.

Another unique mechanic that I really enjoyed once I got used to it was the Soul Gage system. You shoot by holding down the ‘A’ button, but using the Right Trigger allows you to use your characters unique ability, focused shot for Grim Reaper or sending your orbs to attack enemies with The Girl. Now, when you hold down Right Trigger, you move much slower, maybe half speed, and in a bullet hell, being able to maneuver quickly is paramount. This is where a lot of skill comes into play, as sometimes you want that fine minute movement, but there’s also another reason to do so.

When you’re using your ability and moving slow, bullets you get close to and graze will fill a meter, which is indicated with a circle around your chosen character. Once this circle is full, as a result of ‘near misses’of a bunch of bullets, you can use the Left Trigger to activate your Soul Collect mode. Here your firepower is increased substantially and you’ll do massive damage to enemies and bosses for a short while. So, it’s a risk versus reward mechanic of utilizing your ability to charge your meter to then unleash when needed. It’s very tricky to pull off in the heat of battle, but worth the risk once you have the skills to do so when required.

While Arcade Mode is the standard gameplay, there are a few others modes to try out as well, including Boss rush, Hardcore, Custom Game and even local co-op. There are a handful of difficulty modes that are selectable, from Easy to Extreme, with the harder options giving a higher multiplier bonus for score attack. Hardcore gives you a single life, so good luck trying to complete it without any continues. Boss Rush will have you going head to head against all five bosses back to back, a great way to practice and improve your skills if you’re looking to improve your global score as well as achievement hunting for beating the game without any continues. And of course, local co-op is also available if you have a skilled friend to play alongside you.

Visually, Shikhondo is beautiful, as it’s all seemingly hand drawn and has a very distinct Asian style to it. It’ll take some getting used to, as enemies blow up into souls and automatically get sucked into you when defeated, but you’ll learn to separate the chaos the more you play. Bullets seem frantic and impossible at first, but you’ll start to learn their unique patterns, and at times they can be quite beautiful to simply watch. My only complaint is that it’s near impossible to watch your hit box orb during mass chaos, and so much of avoiding projectiles has to rely more on a feel than direct visual avoidance.

As for the audio, there’s not much here aside from the typical ‘pew pew’ sounds and explosions. I for one quite enjoyed the soundtrack though, as it was filled with a light electronic undertone, unique for each level, but given there’s only five levels, you’ll eventually grow tired of the same songs if you repeatedly play to improve your scores. There’s not much longevity to Shikhondo – Soul Eater with its short five levels unless you want to work on harder difficulties, and you could easily see it all in a single sitting or weekend, but it was an entertaining experience, one that I’m glad to have experienced.

It’s a little pricey at $13.99 for its short length, but for those that want to get the most out of it, there are enough modes included along with an online leaderboard to constantly strive towards climbing. With a distinct art style and near beautiful bullet patterns, there’s a lot of challenge included here for true shmup bullet hell fans, like myself, and it is a game that shouldn’t be overlooked, even if it won’t make many top 10 lists for the genre.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Splash Blast Panic

I don’t have many friends over often, you know, with real life commitments and busy lives always getting in the way, but when I do, I have my go-to for multiplayer party games. Depending on the friends, it’ll either be a racing, fighting, board game or like many, a Smash Bros title or something similar. Splash Blast Panic aims to take what people loved about Smash Bros and make it their own with some small twists on the gameplay.

Aimed to be family and kid friendly, instead of throwing fists and fighting in a traditional sense, you instead use water pistols and jetpacks to defeat one another in battle. That’s right, you’ll be flying around the screen with an unlimited jetpack, shooting one another with blasts from water based weaponry, attempting to knock one another completely out of the screen. Like any good party game, you’re going to have fun doing so, but probably ruin some friendships along the way.

There’s no real arching narrative at all, I mean, sure, there’s some menacing figure that appears and you battle it the end of Arcade mode, but aside from that, Splash Blast Panic is simply a multiplayer affair for up to 4 friends simultaneously. Clearly influenced by Smash Bros, the overall goal is to push your enemies so far outside the edges of the screen to make them lose a life. While there’s no real life bar that you need to deplete first, you could win quite quickly with some great placed shots or take quite some time to knock them out.

You maneuver on your jetpack with the Left Stick, able to quickly fly around in any direction, though the controls are very floaty and you’ll constantly skirt the boundaries off screen, only to overcompensate and come shooting back the opposite direction. You’ll eventually become accustomed to the loose controls, though if you manage to get one of the specific power-ups, you’ll fly around with perfect precision control, something I wish as the norm.

Shooting your water based weapons is done with the Right Stick. Simply aim in the direction you want to shoot and you’ll start to fire. You’ll need to reload after a short while, automatically done by simply not shooting, and the opening burst of your weapon is how you get the greatest push against your opponents. So part of the strategy is to know when to not simply keep firing, thus shooting weaker, and when to reload and wait for the perfect aim to blast them further. It took me quite some time to learn this, but once I did I was performing much better with quicker knockouts. Of course, this is something veterans will worry about more, as my kid was content with just flying and shooting all over the place simply having fun.

To make things even more interesting, each individual level has its own environmental hazards you’ll need to watch out for as well. Some have swinging scales that tip when stood on, heavy wind gusts that can blow you off the screen, a giant slot machine that can spawn fireballs or platforms and more. It adds some variety to the levels and can make combat even more chaotic with so much going on.

While it’s meant to be played as a multiplayer title, even in team based matches or a free for all, there is some gameplay if you’re playing solo as well, including fighting against bots, something I didn’t really expect, as usually the multiplayer focus is forced in games like this. That being said, playing alone will not last long and be quite boring after a handful of times going through versus or arcade. Where Splash Blast Panic really shines is having friends over, cheering, yelling and swearing at each other the whole time, especially after a few adult beverages.

To add even more variety to the gameplay, random offensive and defensive power-ups will fall from the top of the screen every so often. Manage to pick it up in time and you’ll have an extra powerful weapon for a short duration or a defensive buff. There’s only a handful of different weapons to pick up, and some are much more powerful and useful than others, but picking the right one up at the most opportune time can shift the outcome in your favor quite quickly. The same goes for each character’s individual special that can be utilized once their meter is full, unleashing a devastating attack if you can learn how to use it properly. Again, I found some of these specials way more powerful than others, but it’s all about learning whom suits your playstyle best.

If you have a group of friends that come over often, then Splash Blast Panic will get its money’s worth easily if you’re a fan of Smash Bros-like gameplay. While the loose controls take some getting used to, and it’ll seem like pure chaos at first, there is some fun to be had with the right group of friends. Even though it’s geared towards a younger audience with its water based weaponry, and it won’t have much longevity for myself, my six year old has been asking to play it every so often, which is a great sign for that audience.

“Easy to learn, hard to master” may be cliché, but it fits Splash Blast Panic’s gameplay nicely. With a lot of practice, some 2v2 competitive matches would be a riot, though having friends and family simply join in and see what happens in a free for all match is just as exciting. Longevity and value will solely depend on how many friends and family you have to constantly play with. Gather some friends and get ready for some water splashing panic to ensue.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Train Sim World

I’ve ridden a train once in my life. I was a kid going to some summer camp thing, and while I don’t really remember much from the camp itself, I do remember the train ride there and back more vividly. I remember sitting in the window seat, staring out the glass, seeing the world go by with the clicky-clack of the train constantly vibrating the seats. I also had a few train sets as a kid, nothing extravagant, but it was always fun to setup and watch them circle around the track for hours. Yes, I’m showing my age, but that’s what kids did with toys back before the internet and videogames were commonplace.

Regardless if you’re a train enthusiast or simply appreciate trains for what they are, Train Sim World by Dovetail Games will allow you to be a train engineer, allowing you to experience what it would be like to operate a locomotive barreling down the tracks, having to pick up passengers and making stops. The “sim” in Train Sim World’s title is completely accurate as well, as you’ll be sitting in the engineer seat with dozens of levers, knobs, dials and more in front of you, just as you would in real life if you were so lucky.

Don’t let that deter you though, as you’re taught the basics of getting your train moving and stopping, though there’s a lot of in-depth gameplay here should you want to dive in even further. Luckily it’s accessible for people like me that don’t know the real differences between electric and diesel trains, yet deep enough for the enthusiasts that want to experience different trains and railway systems, looking for that niche to be filled on console finally.

While there’s no traditional campaign or story, you simply fill in the role of an engineer, playing scenario to scenario which simply consists of stopping at specific train stations, letting your commuters on and off your train before moving onto the next stop. Rinse and repeat. So while there’s no narrative, the main experience comes from being able to control these massive trains in a realistic setting. You have to adhere to certain pickup schedules though, as commuters have places to be, so get used to those train controls as you don’t want passengers to be late!

Not only will you be operating the train, but you’re able to freely walk around the train, stations or even sit in a passenger seat and enjoy the ride itself. Some trains don’t have all of its operating panels sitting right in front of you either, meaning you’ll need to walk back a cabin or so to sometimes flip a switch or two, adding to the authenticity. While I’ve never been in the engineer’s cabin of a train before, I can only assume that it’s extremely authentic, as there are panels and lights everywhere, a complex system for hauling a few hundred tons of machinery.

As far as I’m aware, I don’t believe there’s been a train sim on console like this before, not this in-depth and realistic, especially played in first person. You’ll be able to try your locomotive skills across three different countries with different types of trains. While they all generally control similarly for movement, they handle, sound and look very distinct in their own ways.

Each train type has its own tutorial that’s easy to follow along, with markers placed exactly on every button and lever that you’ll need to interact with. My only complaint is that once you go into the scenarios, you don’t get any more hints or tips pop up, so if you forget that you need to charge the battery for 5 seconds, or that the parking brake is engaged before moving, and can’t figure out why you aren’t accelerating, there’s no help to be had. The learning curve does take getting used to, and there’s dozens of buttons and switches you CAN press, though I’ve found no need other than using the basics to get moving.

There were numerous times I would accidentally press a button, engaging the emergency brakes, throttling into reverse or some other beginner mistake, causing my train to stop in its tracks, literally. I wasn’t able to figure out how to get the train moving again without a lot of trial and error. Depending on your locomotive, sometimes you need to reset the gears to neutral, or let things recharge before accelerating. Once you’ve run into this problem a handful of times and overcome it, you’ll know exactly how to deal with it; simply part of its tricky learning curve.

Certain routes will allow you to nearly drive seamlessly from point A to point B, though other tracks or stations are much more crowded, requiring much more monitoring on your speeds and stops. While stations may only be a few minutes apart, fully expect each scenario to take about an hour or so to play from start to finish, meaning this isn’t much of a quick play kind of game. This is also a simulator, so don’t expect any calming soundtrack or anything of the matter, as there’s actually no music at all, so make sure to load up Spotify for your own sanity if you’re going to play out some scenarios.

Included are three different countries you’ll get to experience, each with their own trains. Travel in the Amtrak ACS-64 from New York or the GP38-2 YN3, Britain’s crowded railways on the Class 66 DBS, Class 166 GWG or the Class 48 GWG, or rapid transit in Germany with its BR1442-6 Talent 2. Each train is wonderfully detailed and completely unique. Again, I can’t speak for the authenticity, but I would guess it’s extremely accurate from my guesses.

You’re able to choose certain weather effects you want to ride in and can even explore stations as you make your stops, something you’ll want to do if you’re an achievement hunter and want to find all of the hidden collectibles. While the trains are incredibly detailed (some trains even a small first class section), the rest of the world is grossly underpopulated, uninspired and bland. Stations should be bustling with passengers and commotion, but you’re able to count the people in the distance. The same goes for the outside world that you pass by, as you won’t notice any people walking, cars driving and planes in the sky to indicate that the world is actually alive in any way. Even passengers in the train are lifeless and don’t do anything other than sit there.

As for the audio, the narrating voice over for the tutorials is very pleasant, but I do wish there was more, as there’s simply no other audio in the game aside from the train’s sound that it makes from the engine and button presses. The diesel exhaust spewing locomotives sound gritty and heavy as they start up their speed, whereas the electric train hums are much quieter and doesn’t have as much noise pollution.

You’re able to choose from a variety of camera angles, inside and out, giving you a different view when you’re in a for a long 40 minute haul. I have had the camera ‘break’ on more than one occasion though, as I was using the outside angle to watch my train, but as it went into a tunnel it somehow detatched from its default spot and allowed me to maneuver anywhere inside or outside the train, forcing me to change the camera angle again to fix it. There’s also a few performance issues, as running down the cabin while your train is going full speed causes some major laggy framerate issues, depending on where you’re at.

If you’re not a train enthusiast and don’t know the difference between a ACS-64 and a Class 166 GWG, I highly suggest watching some videos or gameplay of Train Sim World before jumping both feet in. While I’m not a big train fan by any means, I can appreciate what Train Sim World is trying to accomplish here with its authenticity, as I wasn’t previously aware the impact a 0.5% grade in upward slope could do for a train’s momentum before playing.

Train Sim World fills a niche for a specific audience, and while that won’t be for everyone, myself included, for the people that’s always wanted to drive a BR1442-6 Talent 2, there’s no better options out there on console currently. Some may find it incredibly boring, as I did in the beginning, but there’s a lot to do and accomplish here if you can learn the intricacies of being a train engineer in this realistic depiction.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Defenders of Ekron - Definitive Edition

Whenever there’s a new shmup (shoot-em-up) released, I always jump on the opportunity to try them out, as it’s been one of my favorite genres since I can remember. Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition is the latest entry into the genre on Xbox One. We’ve all played a shmup before, so what makes this one so different? Well, it actually has some unique ideas that make it stand out, which took me by surprise. Of course you’ll be shooting in all 360 degrees, but you’ll also be exploring, analyzing enemies, solving puzzles, changing combat modes and more. While I applaud the innovation of adding elements like these into the genre, as it all works mechanically, I have to note that they don't blend cohesively well at all times, like mixing two drinks that shouldn’t be together.

You fill the role of Ekeas, an eager cadet who’s been training, as long as he can remember, to pilot one of the coveted Anakim mechs. These mechs have special abilities that allow them to absorb nearby energy and convert it into their own special abilities called Isvara. Something is wrong though, and Ekeas isn’t able to use his Isvara ability for some unknown reason, so he’s thrust into an experimental program instead as they try and figure out why.

Of course this revelation happens at the worst opportune time, as the fleet is attacked by the Renegades, a group of previous members focused on starting a civil war for their own reasons. While the story isn’t anything unique, and you’ll see the ‘twists’ coming a mile away, I appreciate that developer In Vitro Games has at least tried to focus on adding a comprehensive story to a shmup, even if it is a bit long winded and dialogue heavy at times, all across 10 individual missions.

At its core, Defenders of Ekron is a top down twin stick shooter. Most levels will follow the typical ‘shoot everything until it dies’ design, but there are some exploration and puzzle sections later on to change and freshen up the gameplay. Problem is, I’m not sure if these really fit or blend together well. I play shmups because I want to shoot and blast everything while trying to avoid a screen seemingly full of bullets. These sections really slow down the gameplay to a crawl, and while some will enjoy the change, I wasn’t as fond of these sections nearly as much.

You’ll not only have to shoot enemies, but analyze them, explore, use your shield tactically, as well as upgrade your mech whenever possible to keep going. Every boss is super-sized, usually filling the whole screen and having multiple segments to destroy, which I quite enjoyed, even if they weren’t terribly challenging. This Definitive Edition has included some improvements, mostly consisting of more balanced gameplay and an entertaining vertical 2D 8-bit version of the game, titled Invaders of Ekron. Also included is a Boss Rush mode, allowing you to tackle 13 bosses in a row should you desire.

Your mech has different modes that can be utilized depending on the situation. You’re able to traverse in much greater speed, but you will be unable to fire without transforming back, or scan enemies to get a readout about their weakness, but again, you won’t be able to shoot when utilizing this skill too. While they aren’t needed, they do add some depth to the gameplay, but since it’s unneeded for the most part, there’s generally no reason to do so unless forced.

Shooting is far more involved than your regular shmup. Sure, you could hold the Right Trigger down, but you have a meter that acts as an ammo/heat display, so you’ll eventually have to stop firing for a short while to recharge. This slows down the gunfire quite a bit, as you have to pick and choose your shots or recharge whenever able. More than just your regular bullets utilize this meter though, as your homing bombs do as well.

The Left Trigger allows you to lock onto enemies that your cursor is over, hurling a bomb from where you that is locked on, but this also uses your blaster meter. Problems arise when using these, as your cursor becomes independent from your movement and have to hover over each enemy to lock on (or analyze). Doing so in the heat of battle is near impossible and confusing, and it caused me to not even bother unless needed for a puzzle or specific enemy.

You also have access to a shield. In most shmups you have a bomb that can clear the whole screen and its bullets, but instead, here you have the ability to use a bubble shield whenever you like, protecting you from regular bullet damage. I thought this was amazing at first, as when you’re in a bad area where you WILL get hit, you can simply shield out of it and fly somewhere else. The only issue is that this uses your blaster meter as well, so if you’re low on ammo and try to bubble, you won’t be able to until you recharge. The shield will drain your meter quickly as well, so you can only use it sparingly.

There are tutorial-like missions that you can play, gradually teaching you the aspects of certain gameplay elements and how to overcome them. Some of these are straight up skill based, such as having to defeat enemies in certain ways, and others are much more interesting, like puzzles that require ricochet shots or shields to get by. They begin interesting and simple enough, but they eventually ramp up the difficulty to 11, especially if you want to earn gold medals, forcing you to be near perfect with your new abilities.

There is one mechanic I really do enjoy though, and I hope other games take note. Enemies will drop energy when destroyed, so you naturally will collect this. Fill your energy bar and you’ll earn a skill point. Fill the bar many times and you’ll have many skill points to upgrade your mech after a level should you wish. What’s really interesting though is the option to utilize that hard earned energy to restore your health if you desire.

Do you keep getting hit on a boss and don’t want to fail the level and restart? You can use a bar of energy to refill your health if you think that will help, though you’ll have less skill points to spend afterwards. It’s a risk versus reward done in a very clever way. At one point I had 6 skill points saved up, fought the boss and had to heal so much I walked away with only a single skill leveled up as the battle that had just occurred required many health regenerations. It’s clever and it works to help with those sections that are just a pain.

I absolutely love shmups, and while Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition is completely serviceable as one, it didn’t do much to excite me, even with some new interesting mechanics and a rarely found narrative focus in a schmup. I applaud the risk of trying something new, but the blending of different mechanics doesn’t always work as well as I would have hoped. While not terribly long, $12.99 is a little steep for what you get, but worth checking out on a sale if you’re in desperate need for a new twin stick shooter shmup.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Shenmue I & II

As I write this, I’m currently staring at my Dreamcast copy of Shenmue. You see, I’ve owned it for many years, along with my Dreamcast, yet I never really got around to playing it after all this time for some reason or another. I’ve seen lots of videos about it, I know its impact that it had on the game industry and of course I know about the infamous sailor’s meme’s. I’m finally checking Shenmue I & II off my 'shame-to-have-never-played' list after all these years.

For its time, Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed, and funny enough, for how revered it is by all the people that played it back in 1999, it never really sold all that well, which is probably why Shenmue III took nearly two decades to get off the ground and out of development hell. Do some research and you’ll see how the Shenmue development is an intriguing tale, and I can’t even imagine the fans that have been waiting since 2001 for some closure, waiting feverishly for Shenmue III.

I’ve heard so much about Shenmue over the years. How amazing and revolutionary its gameplay was, how broad in scope the adventure became, and all of the minute details that really made it unlike anything else at the time. Yu Suzuki is the main man behind the vision, having developed one of the most ambitious titles ever created at the time. There was a realistic time mechanic is place, stores had opening and closing times, every NPC could be talked to, arcade games could be played, there were collectable figures, drawers could be opened and items inspected and rotated. Sure, these days that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in 1999 this was absolutely mind blowing for Dreamcast owners.

Here we are, nearly two decades later, and a new generation will get to experience Shenmue is all of its glory, as well as allowing fans of the Dreamcast original a chance to relive their nostalgia. Shenmue tells a simple story about revenge. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a highschool student that witnesses his father’s murder by the hands of Lan Di. Lan Di steals a mysterious item called the Dragon Mirror for some unknown reason and Ryo vows to extract his revenge. The story is quite lengthy and interesting, so I don’t want to give much more away, but it’s the real reason to continue playing to see how it plays out. Sure, it’s a simple revenge story, but there’s more to it as you progress the narrative across both games.

What I didn’t expect was how slow the narrative plays out. The story is strong, but the game forces things to a crawl at certain instances, to the point where I’d estimate nearly half the game play time is ‘wasted’ with side stuff to do or waiting for a certain time of day. I love great narratives as well as characters that have depth and are interesting, and while Shenmue has this, the gameplay mechanics arbitrarily lengthen the gameplay to a crawl more than I expected. Case in point, there’s a section where you need to get a job for five days driving a forklift. I get that it’s slow by design, but there are times where it’s excruciating to get the willpower to get through another day.

Before walking simulators were a genre on its own, I think Shenmue could be categorized as one at certain points. It is more of a detective game more than anything else, and to find out the information you’re after, you’re going to have to walk around the town, asking people what they know, trying to find clues and piece together what to do next. Any NPC you encounter can be talked to, though the majority of the wandering ones are simply there to liven up the city and offer no real value or information.

Any relevant clues you come across get written down in Ryo’s journal, giving you hints such as where you have to go next or whom you should talk to. This way you don’t forget where or when you’re supposed to be next when you come back to playing. The biggest challenge you’re going to face though is simply controlling Ryo. Keep in mind that this game is from 1999 when control schemes weren’t as fleshed out as they are today. Remember in Resident Evil where up meant forward regardless of which way you were facing? That’s right, horrible tank-like controls are here and are absolutely terrible in every way, as I can’t even add up the amount of time I accidentally turned the wrong way or ran into a wall. Ryo can run forward with Right Trigger, but it will take some getting used to for taking corners.

So, you’ve played Shenmue nearly two decades ago and want to know what’s been improved for this collection re-release? Sadly, not all that much. The graphics have been slightly improved to HD quality, yet oddly enough cutscenes are still in 4:3 ratio. Japanese audio is included should you wish and the UI has been updated slightly. Aside from that, you’re going to have to deal with the ugly models, textures, and horrific voice acting. Consider Shenmue I & II simply a port with some very minor improvements, though being able to import your save data from the first game into the second and transfer over some items is welcome.

Sure, the 1080p upgrade is welcome, and I wasn’t hoping for a full remaster, but wow, the majority of the textures are outright ugly. Keep in mind that in 1999 this was revolutionary and absolutely mind blowing, but after all these years, it has not aged well at all. While loading is virtually nonexistent anymore, a welcome change, there’s a ton of bugs that I constantly struggled with. At least half a dozen times I somehow had my cutscenes messed up where it would use some far off default camera, making it too hard to see anything that’s going on, yet I was still able hear the dialogue. Another time I somehow had the camera stuck in first person view when controlling Ryo, which ended up with a game restart having to be implemented to fix.

In Shenmue, nearly everything is interactive. See a dresser, open its drawers and maybe find something pertaining to your quest. While in the beginning I was checking every interactive object I could find, there’s only a handful that are actually needed. When you do find an object, Ryo will hold in in his hand and you can rotate it around and inspect it. You’ll see how mechanic and stiff the animations are during this, but again, you have to remember that for its time there was nothing else like it. You’ll spend tons of time going to stores and checking items, just because. Seeing items close up is also where you’ll notice the low resolution textures, as even magazine covers and labels are completely illegible. Even main store names outside, the ones that are in English, will have you squinting to try and figure out what it’s supposed to say, hoping it’s the place you meant to go.

Time. This was my biggest frustration in the first Shenmue, more so than even the controls, visuals or voice acting. Particular events only take place at certain times of day. Stores have open and closing hours, like in real life, so much of your time is going to be waiting. If you need to meet someone at 6PM, you need to fill your day with activities to pass time, or simply wait it out. This causes such a slowdown of gameplay that it became incredibly frustrating, to the point where I didn’t want to sit and play for any prolonged length of time. Sure, there are tons of extra events you can do, mini-games and other things, but eventually these become tiresome as well. While Shenmue II fixed some of this, it’s absolutely painful to deal with in the original.

To pass time by, you’ll want to entertain yourself with mini-games and collectables. For those old enough to remember, there’s even an arcade to go visit and play a handful of games, including a few classic SEGA titles. These help distract you from the time sink for the first while, but after so many plays, it becomes somewhat boring quite quickly, so make sure to get some games of darts in, gambling or an arm wrestling match or two, simply to experience all of what Shenmue has to offer before it becomes mundane.

While not the first to use them, Shenmue is generally regarded as the game that really fathered the QTE’s (quick time events) in videogames in the current form that we’re used to. These are when you see a button or stick prompt on the screen during a cutscene, adding an element of interactivity that would normally be a linear watching experience. I personally enjoy QTE’s in games, whereas I know some loathe them and regard them as lazy development. They are not overly used here and make sense when they are added, so you need to pay attention during cutscenes just in case you get a prompt. Again, for 1999, this was an amazing feature, one that Yu Suzuki is generally regarded to as creating in its current form. Luckily if you fail, you’ll simply restart that cutscene again, hopefully having memorized the proper sequence to complete it.

Periodically Ryo will need to defend himself, as searching for the killer of his father will only get him deep into the underbelly of street gangs. Given that Yu Suzuki was part of SEGA’s AM2 development house, known for the fantastic Virtua Fighter series, naturally some of those mechanics were also introduced into Shenmue with its fighting sequences. When Ryo has to fight, you’ll be pulling off moves, much like in Virtua Fighter, with punches, kicks, throws and dodges. There’s many moves for you to learn as master (by practicing), and while it works in theory, some of the enemies are so cheap that you’ll sometimes have to resort to button spamming and praying you’re going to survive.

Simple attacks are done with a single button press, but you’ll learn more powerful and complex moves that require longer inputs, again, just like Virtua Fighter. Even if you master the moves, performing them while being attacked by 5 enemies is a whole other story. The input seems very laggy, so trying to utilize the more advanced moves never really worked out for me, especially during a 70 man battle in the first game and its boss fights.

Reviewing this Shenmue package was something I was very excited for. I’d finally get to experience one of the most iconic games from the Dreamcast era for myself, seeing what the big deal was. It was very difficult to review though, as I had to constantly keep in mind as if I was playing it in 1999 versus 2018. In 1999 I can see why it was such a big deal, as it introduced so many mechanics, a truly narrative driven and in-depth experience, something not really seen at the time. In today’s terms though, it would get ripped apart for those same reasons.

Playing Shenmue in 2018, I rarely enjoyed myself aside from the narrative. I was constantly frustrated with time management, terrible controls and absolutely atrocious voice acting. If I had played this in 1999, my nostalgia would have me grinning from ear to ear, so I understand the difference nearly two decades can make on a game.

Sadly Shenmue has not aged well, and given that Shenmue I & II is more or less simply a straight port, albeit with some minor improvements, it was almost torture at times to sit through. If I ever play a game again where I need to get a job as a forklift driver, it’ll be too soon. That being said, I can completely appreciate and respect it for what it is and the era that it released in. New players to the series, like myself, will find it hard to overlook its extremely rough edges, but original fans should fall right back in love with it. I hope that new players to the series can overcome its issues and experience and appreciate it for what it was back in 1999.

My score isn’t solely based on Shenmue’s experience from 1999, nor simply as a 2018 title, but instead, a mixture of both. It’s ugly to look at, the voice acting will make you cringe, it has a ton of issues and frustrations, but it’s a very unique experience, one that I’m glad to have finally enjoyed after all this time, even if it has not aged very well at all.

Shenmue has a very important part in videogame history, as a whole, for numerous reasons, which is why I wish it got some updated polish and improvements that it rightfully deserved. Given the series' turmoil history though, we should be happy we’ve at least gotten this port. If you want to experience a game unlike any other, and can keep an open mind about when it was originally released, you’ll start to appreciate it for what it was at the time, and in the present it is almost like a time capsule directly back to 1999.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Frost

I usually really enjoy card based deck building games. Something about the strategic element of thinking numerous moves ahead, or how to plan accordingly, generally comes naturally to me. There’s always going to be a random-like element to a card game for the most part, even with a game like Solitaire, where you have no idea what the next face down card that you will put in your hand will be, and how you must adapt. But what do you do when the odds are so unfairly stacked against you that it’s seemingly impossible to win most of the time? That’s where Frost comes in, a card based title that boasts a narrative reasoning behind its premise.

A frozen world is being engulfed by an approaching deadly winter storm, and your group must flee in search of refuge. Where you live is the only safe place you’re aware of, but the storm is constantly approaching behind you, and the journey won’t be an easy one. You’ll cross paths with many dangers, not only limited to wolves and other people, but managing your resources and hunger also.

So how does Frost implement this narrative into a deck building game? In some ways, very cleverly, but in terms of the execution, very frustratingly. The Frost is indicated by a counter in the top left of the screen, and at the end of every turn, the dial either counts downwards (closer), or upwards if you’ve managed to move forward on your journey. You’re going to need a certain set of cards to clear each step of the journey though, and with the Frost constantly within reach, and a seemingly unfair set of winning conditions, you’ll become quite frustrated before ever reaching the refuge for the first time.

Most cards games are simple in premise, so they are easy to pick up and play, but they require time and practice to master. Frost requires time and practice, but it is absolutely not a simple game to pick up and play; that is, if you actually want to win. You’ll need to think very strategically, not just to win, but to even stay ahead of the Frost that is a constant reminder of your impending doom. You’ll need to clear twenty or so areas to make it to the refuge, but you’ll soon see why this is incredibly more challenging than it first appears to be.

You’ll be given a preset deck of cards in the beginning, with food, wood, survivors and despair cards. These are your resources, and while small, must be managed essentially perfectly, and need to hope that the randomness doesn’t play against you too harshly, though it will. To clear an area and move ahead, you’ll need to ‘feed’ the area card the resources is desires, such as a certain amount of survivors, wood or food, by handing in these cards. There are also idea cards where you can trade a certain amount of one resource for another, or more appropriately, a chance at another, so long term strategic thinking is an absolute must. This won’t become apparent either in your first few dozen games until things start to make sense, even after completing the tutorial.

The Frost is constantly moving towards you, and at the end of every turn, it will either get closer or further way, depending on if you cleared the area or not. If you fulfilled that area’s required resources and choose to move ahead, the Frost counter, which maxes at eight moves, will move upwards, indicating you’re further away from the Frost. If you don’t have the resource cards to fulfill the requirements for the area and exhausted the cards in a hand, the Frost counter ticks down, killing you once it reaches zero. You’re going to waste a lot of turns on moves where it seems you’re unable to win, and in some cases, is actually impossible to do so.

Moving your cursor around and menu management is a pain. You navigate by clicking up and over rather than using a free range cursor. So when you want to click on a card at the top of the screen, you need to constantly press up and over. It’s not very user friendly, and the menus are even more frustrating, as you’ll need to navigate to the “X” to close the menu instead of simply pressing “B” for back.

Some actions have hotkeys linked to buttons, like End Turn is Right Trigger, and Move Ahead (when you clear an area) is Right Bumper, but there’s another design flaw here. When I clear an area I want to move ahead to the next, thus bumping up the Frost Counter and progressing. The problem is both options are there for you, including 'End Turn', which makes your frost counter tick down closer to death. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve accidentally hit Right Trigger to end my turn instead of Right Bumper to proceed. There really should be no reason End Turn should be an option if I’ve fulfilled the area requirements, or at least warn the player, as I’ve lost a handful of games due to this.

You’ll start off with access to only basic cards in the beginning, but the more you play, the more you’ll unlock. At first I thought it was a great idea to play as much as possible to unlock all the different cards, hoping it would make finding the refuge much easier. In fact, it did the complete opposite. You see, cards you’ve unlocked will randomly be thrown into your game, even if you’re a beginner playing on Easy mode.

For example, I unlocked a higher tier enemy card that required three spears to kill (if I don’t want to take health damage), and because decks are built randomly, I was lucky enough to have this card given to me in the first area. You don’t start with spear cards to ‘fight back’ enemies in your opening hand, as you need to trade resources for those, so I started off on a losing battle because I have this card unlocked permanently in my deck now. There are a few dozen cards to unlock, but like I said, the game becomes more difficult as you unlock them, which to me seems like backwards design.

At the top of the play field you’ll see Idea Cards pop up each turn. These are where you can exchange resources for others. If you’re completely out of wood, hopefully you’ll see an Idea Card where you can trade a food and survivors for some wood. This is where the resource management comes into play. You always have a counter of your resources in your deck, though it’s randomized what cards you’re given per hand of five, including the junk despair cards that are simply unusable.

You won’t progress far if you don’t start trading these resources for others, so you have to not only think very strategically, but hope that the randomness is on your side for once. Happen to get a handful of despair cards that you are unable to do anything with? You’re going to have to waste a turn, thus ticking down the Frost counter, to just refresh the cards in your current hand. It’s a constant battle of watching the Frost counter, hoping you have the right resources and trying to battle any enemy cards that get placed as well. To say it’s a continuous and unfair battle is an understatement.

If you’re short on the right resources needed to progress, you can also send out your survivors in your hand to scavenge, hopefully bringing back exactly what you’re looking for. They can bring back food, wood, other survivors, worthless despair cards, or even die, so it’s a gamble of how badly you want to risk sending them. Lose the required survivors and the game will tell you it’s basically unwinnable, causing you to lose and start anew once again.

So, not only do you have to satisfy the current area’s resource requirements to move on, you’ll also be given a random event in every area as well. With any luck it’s a simple trade opportunity, like an idea card, but now and then you’ll come across wolves or enemies that will attack you. At first, wolves are manageable, once you figure out to trade for the spears AND hope you get that card in your hand before moving on, but eventually you’ll have to battle harder enemies. Some will take two or three spears to kill, and others will even attack you at every turn, not just at the end of moving on from the area if not defeated.

If you don’t kill the enemy you’ll take damage when you move onto the next area. You only begin with four health, so you can either take the damage yourself or sacrifice one of your survivor cards in your hand, if you’re lucky enough to draw one that is. When you unlock the higher tier cards, there will be ways to replenish health if needed, but these are usually quite costly, and again, simply another resource you’re going to have to balance and manage.

Once you’ve finally got luck on your side, and you manage to finally make it to the refuge, there’s no grand scene that plays out or anything that feels rewarding. It took me a dozen or two games to get my first ‘win’, but when you do finally do so, Custom and Endless modes will unlock. Custom Games allow you to build any game with certain win parameters and Endless Games is self-explanatory. You’ll also unlock Scenarios as you play, with each one having its own twist to the game, such as not having to worry about Frost, or having some special abilities available. These are entertaining for a change of pace, and offer some varied gameplay.

For a game that’s very minimalistic with hand drawn art, it’s odd that there are some performance issues, even on an Xbox One X. Certain motions, like dealing your hand a new card, or changing areas, tend to lag out a bit, only worsened if you’re trying to hit the buttons needed before the game is ready to do so. This is by no means a deal breaker, but something worth noting.

The biggest frustration for me though was its difficulty. Even on Easy Mode, you’re going to lose dozens of times before you just happen to get a decent loadout of cards that tend to go your way. You’re constantly pressured to move ahead and progress, but are given minimal resources to do so, which in turn takes you longer to do.

Great games are supposed to ease you into the experience, to build your confidence and strategy building skills before hitting a steep difficulty curve. Frost does nearly the opposite, simply throwing you in, causing you to lose a lot of games before getting close to the refuge and losing again because of a bad hand. Frost is unforgiving, and worse yet, seemingly more based on luck than skill, which is a shame, as it has a ton of potential otherwise.

Overall Score: 4.5 / 10 Danger Zone 2

I can’t believe it’s been a full decade without a new Burnout game. Burnout Paradise, while great, was missing the uber popular Crash Mode from the previous titles where I spent countless hours playing over the years. It’s been a decade and I’m craving more Burnout for its crashing excitement. While not the exact same thing, Danger Zone 2 is essentially a spiritual successor, and since EA isn’t giving us our fix of Burnout in the last decade, so it’s what we’ll have to enjoy in the meantime.

If you stripped Burnout’s Crash Mode from some of its previous games, Danger Zone 2 would essentially be the result, though not as detailed or polished. If you’ve yet to experience the wonder of Burnout and its Crash Mode, let me explain. You fundamentally hurling your vehicle down an open stretch of highway into a busy intersection, seeing how much destruction and mayhem you can cause. Oh, and your car can also blow up, sending others flying into traffic and causing more damage, and all of this is tallied in a figurative dollar amount. While there’s no story present in any way, shape or form, that’s ok in a game like this that can be fun to just cause vehicular destruction.

While the crashing itself is physics based, the physics used are certainly exaggerated, as rear ending a car, or slamming it from the side, will send it flying forward at a speed and angle that shouldn’t be possible. Your goal is to create as much chaos as possible with the traffic driving on the roads, tallying the biggest dollar score possible with every crash, flip and explosion. Most ‘tracks’ will have a stretch of highway for you to either avoid, or start your crashing early, before reaching the goal area where the major accidents are to take place.

If you sit down and play Danger Zone 2 in lengthy spurts, you’re going to notice that every level looks and feels virtually the same. Sure, some have longer road run ups, or ramps, but every highway and background looks essentially the same with very little variance between them. Some variance of backdrop would have been welcomed, or weather changes of some sort, but all 23 challenges (yes, 23) will all blend together and play nearly the same throughout.

Hit a car on the run up at just the right angle and you’ll be able to check it, launching it forward without crashing yourself. I wasn’t able to really tell if the vehicle you’re given really makes a difference for the car hitting and distance, though I found I was crashing a lot less when I was using the larger semi. Even better, flatbeds moving supercars, or trucks delivering pipes, will cause even more damage and havoc if checked, especially into oncoming traffic. Seeing cars flying into the air and smashing a ton of others will always put a smile on your face when the sparks start to fly.

With only 23 levels to play in, there’s very little content included unless you really enjoy chasing high scores and leaderboards. To get the coveted in-game Platinum medals, you’re going to need to not only cause some mass destruction in the danger zone, but also complete the run up objectives for bonus cash. These objectives range from simple ‘Hit X amount of cars’, ‘Boost combo X times’, ‘Use Slow-mo camera off every ramp’ and more. These aren’t necessary to complete levels and attain a bronze, but will be if you want to Platinum each level you'll have to complete them too.

Each level gives you a predetermined vehicle (semi, taxi, truck, F1 car, etc.) and layout. Almost like a puzzle game, you need to figure out the best path and way to cause the most damage to get those coveted Platinum medals. The issue is that once you’re plunked into a new level, you’re basically going to have to fail a few dry runs to learn the traffic patterns and bonus pickups to plot the best course of action. Doing the most damage to other vehicles is paramount, but placing yourself in range of other bonus money pickups and smashbreakers can be just as equally important.

What’s a Smashbreaker you ask? This is where you’re able to blow up your car on command, after a certain criteria of smashed cars is obtained. This will cause a massive sonic boom around you, pushing cars all around, exploding them and hopefully launching them into others, causing bigger jams and more destruction. One of the major things I noticed in the first few crashes though is that the camera is permanently fixed on your car only. So you’re causing all this destruction and chaos, but won’t see much of it, as it happens elsewhere, further away from you. Burnout was great at swooping the camera around to show you where the accidents were happening, but that’s missing here. You’ll hear a lot of crashes and screeching tires, but won’t see much of it for the most part.

When you use your Smashbreaker, you’re able to subtly maneuver and glide your car a short distance. This is paramount, as to get the other powerups and extra Smashbreaker tokens, you’ll need to make sure you’re placed somewhat nearby, as you can’t really glide that far during the slow motion sequence. There’s nothing more frustrating than being inches away from another Smashbreaker powerup (which lets the countdown timer go longer) but you're unable to get it, ending your run.

Enhanced for Xbox One X with 4K support or 60 frames a second at 1080p, it looks smooth and pretty. Granted, the models and textures aren’t anything mind blowing, but there’s just enough paint scratching and sparks with particle effects to make it look great. What is missing though is the soundtrack. It took me about an hour to notice it, but there’s absolutely no music in the game. All you’ll hear is your engine and crashing, that’s literally it. Sure you can put some Spotify on in the background, but it’s a very odd omission to have, be it due to rights or costs.

Danger Zone 2 isn’t a terrible game by any means, but it is bare bone and almost devoid of any personality. It’s a fun distraction in short bursts if you really like climbing leaderboards, but there’s no longevity. There’s no soundtrack, no multiplayer, no replays and the menu system looks as tacked on as it gets. At $10 I could see it being a hard sell, but fun for those of us that miss the classic Burnout days, but the problem is, it’s being sold for double that. $20 for a single game mode from a classic just isn’t enough when it doesn’t even match its quality and personality. That, and there’s no Kenny Loggins.

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 MOTHERGUNSHIP

I love bullet hell shooters. You know the kind, where you need near god-like dexterity and reaction time to avoid an onslaught of bullets and enemies. Most games like this aren’t usually in first person view, like a standard FPS, so MOTHERGUSHIP was something completely new to me. Essentially a bullet hell FPS, MOTHERGUNSHIP adds some interesting ideas that makes it unique and fun to play, such as randomly generated stages and a crafting system where you actually build the guns you want to use. Yes, you build your guns to suit your playstyle; not simply customization either, actual crafting.

You are a member of the resistance, fighting back against an enemy robotic invasion, come to destroy earth in the search for information and data. Sure, it’s a trope we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the story really takes a backdrop to the gameplay. You’ll need to shoot and fire your way through thousands of killer robots to make your way to the MOTHERGUNSHIP and save Earth, but doing so won’t be so easy, so prepare for a fight with your own creations of weaponry. Characters speak over comms, and although interacting with them would have been favorable, they are written and acted quite well, and there are even some moments of hilarity and witty jokes.

While the core premise is simple, destroying everything on your path as you make your way each step closer to the final confrontation, how you do so with the guns you craft will be where most of your entertainment lies. Each level is procedurally generated, so the experience stays relatively fresh throughout. Gameplay is very quick paced, maybe not to the twitch levels of Quake, but certain stages and boss fights will require you to be very nimble with the shooting and dodging.

You begin with being able to triple jump, not only to allow you to reach ledges and heights, but to avoid the near endless projectiles constantly coming your way. Enemies will drop health, coins and pickups, such as extra jumps that last that series of stages, and with enough, you can seemingly almost fly at certain points.

MOTHERGUNSHIP’s real bread and butter though is its crafting mechanic for its weaponry. Using three different categories of parts, connectors, barrels and caps, you can create a weapon that you’ve always wanted to utilize in a shooter before. Personalization and customization is much more than a simple paint scheme and an attachment or two. Have you ever wanted to shoot saw blades with a gatling gun? Or a 10 barrel shotgun that also launches spiked balls? The choice is yours when you craft your weapons, given the parts that you have on hand anyways.

You have two hands, so you’re able to create two weapons for dual firepower. A barrel is basically the type of standard weapon, such as rocket launcher, shotgun, pistol, etc., and can be equipped on its own if you wish. Attach it to a connector though, and that’s where things start to become interesting. A '3-connector' for example allows you to place 3 separate barrels, or caps, to each of its sockets. So, if you want one weapon to shoot rockets and shotgun shells at the same time, so be it.

There is a catch though, or else everyone would simply place the most powerful barrels on a single gun and one-shot everything. The more powerful weapons, like a rocket launcher for example, takes more energy per shot, whereas typical weapon types use less. Also, the barrels must physically fit on the connectors if you want to attach multiples. So yes, you can make completely crazy weapons, but the more powerful they are, the more energy it takes to shoot. Do you want a triple rocket launcher that can kill nearly anything in one hit but takes forever to reload, or something that constantly fires, albeit weaker shots? This is where part of your playstyle comes into play, and once you get a hang of which enemies are more annoying than others, you’ll probably cater your weaponry choices accordingly.

Caps are small little attachments that essentially act as mods. These can increase a weapon’s stats, giving it more damage, faster rate of fire, bouncing ammo and more. Again, these caps need to physically fit on the connectors with the barrels, so it becomes a metagame of making everything fit just right if you want to use larger pieces. Eventually you’ll start to earn higher tier parts as well, something that, I found, became even more addictive. Simple grey parts are what you’ll begin with, eventually working towards the most powerful purple and yellow pieces to craft with.

It will take you a few hours to really learn the ins and outs of each barrel type, mods, and what works best together. Given that you’re restricted to a certain amount of parts you can bring with you into a ship, it’ll simply take time to 'trial and error' what works best for you. Sometimes things go your way and you find a combination that works great, and other times you’re lobbing bouncing spiked balls at a ton of flying enemies, which isn’t so efficient. Since the levels are procedurally generated, you’ll never really know what you’ll be up against either.

Each level is an alien ship you are invading, clearing room to room until you usually face some sort of boss or simply make it to the end and hit the destruct button. Not only will you have to face off against dozens of enemies in the levels, but also a ton of environmental hazards and turrets that can’t be destroyed, almost acting as a deadly wall to avoid. Some rooms are very basic and minimalistic, whereas others are much more vertical and have more jump pads to navigate around.

Before you enter one of the doorways to clear the next room, you’ll notice its threat level. This is basically the difficulty of that room, with each subsequent room becoming more challenging as you progress. Rooms can only be exited once every enemy is killed, and while some have a single exit doorway, others may have multiple exits, or a quick pit stop where you can purchase and craft your guns once again. Some rooms are designated as challenge rooms, earning you a bonus if you can survive X amount of seconds, kill X amount of enemies in a certain time, don’t use your left weapon and more mini objectives. These earn you a bonus and makes you try and play a different way for a short period.

Enemies randomly drop coins, and when you reach a safe upgrade room after it’s all clear, you’ll be given a random set of parts and health that you can spend these coins on. Happy with the weapons you’ve made this time around? Then save them for when they are needed. If you only have enough parts to craft one weapon, then spend those coins and make a second, or buy a better part to swap out the piece you’re unhappy with. It’s an interesting way to change up the shooting gameplay mid stage, allowing you to improve or purchase some much needed health replenishment.

The real excitement comes in the end of a final room marked with a red skull, indicating a boss fight is next. These bosses are easily the highlight of the gunplay and design. Not simply a large enemy with some powerful guns, these bosses fill the whole room and will require a lot of firepower to take down. I won’t spoil any of these experiences, but they are why I kept on playing and wanting to progress, even more so than earning new gun parts.

You’ll earn experience throughout your bullet blasting adventure as well, which can be used to upgrade your suit that you fight within. You can improve a myriad of stats, like health, jumps and more. These upgrades end up costing more and more, but are a good way to supplement your play style and preference, even if it is a bit basic and feels tacked on.

Given that you’re fighting a robotic horde in their ships, the tonality is very metallic and inorganic. Gameplay is fast and frantic, and while it all looks decent, there’s nothing that will ‘wow’ you, maybe aside from the cool bosses. There I some minor hiccups now and then when things get really chaotic, and there’s a weird lag when each room door is loading before it allows you in. As for the audio, it is also on par, with weapons sounding powerful and booming and the characters voiced very well. The musical score fits the style of gameplay but is unmemorable in the long run.

At first MOTHERGUNSHIP wasn’t really doing much for me. I enjoyed the gun crafting and seeing what absurd weapons I could come up with, but the gameplay is the same mini treadmill repeated over and over of clearing room after room of enemies. That being said, it grew on me after a handful of hours, but it felt like a lonely experience. Luckily the developers have addressed this with the newest patch to include cooperative gameplay with a friend. Now two friends can take on the MOTHERGUNSHIP together, adding more chaos and fun. The best part? When one of you die, you turn into a turret on the other player's shoulder, so no waiting around for them to hopefully finish the level to respawn. This co-op patch has added a ton of additional excitement to the title, though I wish there was a lobby system to join random players, as it's only your friend list currently that can be invited.

MOTHERGUNSHIP is a crazy frantic bullet hell FPS, a first of its kind experience for me. Crafting weapons and seeing how they perform is fun, even if it’s trial and error. I wish that there was more upgrades in relation to leveling up, but even so, I enjoyed my time with it. Boss fights are what kept me going from ship to ship and the humorous writing along the way helped balance the experience. It may be a little shallow aside from its shooting mechanics, but sometimes you just need to turn your brain off and shoot an onslaught of robots to relax.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 No Man’s Sky

To say that No Man’s Sky was a hyped launch when it was released on the PS4 two years ago would be an understatement. Excitement for the game was high and it was one of the most hyped games I’ve seen in quite some time, which is even more impressive given it wasn’t a AAA known brand IP. Then the launch happened. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was probably one of the most disastrous launches in recent memory, resulting in near exile for the development team and a less than favorable appeal for the title to say the least.

Previously, No Man’s Sky was not available on Xbox One, that is, until the game's latest update, titled NEXT. Essentially fulfilling their promises from the launch two years prior, the NEXT update surely improved the game dramatically from its initial incarnation, to the point where I’m actually having spurts of fun with it. Yes, the fun comes in spurts, because the rest of your time is filled with frustration and resource management.

Part Minecraft, part ARK, part exploration, No Man’s Sky literally dumps you into a galaxy that is beyond the scope of comprehension, as its sheer size is near as infinite, as it is a procedurally generated universe. Because of this design, you’ll be able to travel the cosmos and explore planets that no one has ever seen before, and discover flora and lifeforms that may never be seen again. Better yet, when you make these discoveries, you’re able to rename them to nearly anything you like, profanity excluded. If you come across my planet, called Buttsville, you’ll know it’s mine, and that I’m a grown child at heart.

No Man’s Sky is essentially an amazingly vast universe that is a giant sandbox for you to explore and play in however you wish. With all of the updates since launch, the experience has become much better and robust, but it’s been a long arduous road. While there is technically a narrative and story to experience, it’s by no means the focal point, and more of some slight guidance. You’re looking to reach the center of the universe and uncover long dormant mysteries. Of course there’s a little more to it, but that’s one of your main ‘goals’ if you’re looking to follow a narrative. Now, I won't spoil anything, but be very wary of doing so, as there is a consequence when you do reach the 'end' that you are given no warning about. I'll simply leave it at that, but I know that I wasn't very happy with the outcome.

How you want to play is completely up to you. Choose between different modes that suit your playstyle, from a casual experience on Normal, slightly more challenging Survival mode, a hardcore Permadeath mode or even a relaxing Creative mode where you can explore and build freely without costs. I made the mistake of starting off on Survival, and because you’re simply thrown into the world with very little help at the beginning, I found that I wasn’t enjoying myself from the very start, so I decided to start a game on Normal and during my playtime for this review I have now been enjoying it much more, especially after the steep learning curve in the 'be-free-to-explore-the-galaxy-as-you-see-fit'.

If you want to simply mine for materials on the surface of a planet, do so to your heart’s desire. Do you want to fly through space dogfighting pirates and blasting asteroid belts? Do so if you wish. Hell, do you want to travel from system to system, planet to planet, to find that perfect atmosphere and build roots for a home base? Again, it’s up to you. With essentially infinite planets and systems to explore, you’ll always have new things to do and new areas to discover. It’s exciting to see new planets and life forms that have never been discovered before, staking your claim as the first to experience and witness them. Of course, doing so with HDR10 and 4K support looks amazing if you have an Xbox One X to play on as well.

Depending on your luck, your initial impressions will happen within the first few moments of being dropped into this vast world. You’re placed on a random planet, and with my amazing luck on my first Survival game save, it also happened to be in a poisonous atmosphere. So, here I am, 10 seconds into the game, slowly dying and unsure why or what to do. You’re given small quests in the beginning, acting as a sort of tutorial, but very little is explained from the opening moments, so if you’re like me, you’ll become increasingly frustrated without being taught the proper knowledge. Sure, you can read through dozens of text sections in the help area of the menus, but it’s a slog to get through and won’t make much sense without much trial and error by experimentation.

This is one of No Man’s Sky’s biggest faults, as the smallest things aren’t taught to you in a simple and effective way. After playing for an hour or two, and having to quit out, it was then that I realized that even how to save my game wasn’t really taught to me, as you need to enter your ship (once repaired) and exit to create a manual save. I obviously didn’t do this, or know to, before quitting, so I had to start over again. Lesson learned; and its many situations and mistakes like this that you’ll encounter during your adventure where you’ll do the most learning of what, and not, to do.

In a game so vast, with this scope, a helpful menu system would have been a blessing. Instead, it’s a disaster that takes many different button presses to do the simplest tasks. If you want to take a quick glance at how many of a certain material you have on hand between your exosuit and starship inventories, you’re actually unable to do so and need to do the math yourself. Want to have a button to automatically organize your limited inventory space? Not currently an option to do so. For a game that’s so much about exploring and resource gathering and management, you’re not given many tools to make it a simple job to do so, which is one of my constant frustrations, made worse by the fact that you’re given so few inventory slots early on, leaving you with little room to work with.

Regardless of how you decide to play No Man’s Sky, its core is all about managing your resources, which is where a lot of your play time will take place, including using your mining tool destroy plants, rocks and other items on the planet’s surface to harvest the materials you require. This is where a large part of the grind comes in, as nearly everything you need to do, or craft, requires a handful of other materials. To collect these resources you’ll need to fire your mining beam at rocks, plants and other objects, and doing so will break them up and place them in your inventory. Flora, for example, nets you Carbon, which you will need for many recipes and craftable items, and also to refill your mining beam. So, it’s a constant hamster wheel of gathering materials to use them for crafting, to gather more.

I love exploring space and flying anywhere I desire, but to do so efficiently, you need fuel. To get fuel, you guessed it, more mining for materials. If you want to focus on making money and selling wares across galaxies for profit, you’ll need special fuel to jump from galaxy to galaxy, so no matter how you want to play, you’re always going to have to devote some time to mining for some time. If you’re a Minecraft fan, and desire to play in that style, then you’ll be in heaven, with endless worlds to explore and gather from.

The majority of planets are quite barren. Granted, I fully appreciate the tech and sheer work it must have been to even create the experience along with trillions and trillions of worlds, but every single one I’ve been to are all essentially the same vast barren landscape. Sure, each will have its own flora, animals and resources to gather, but if you’ve been to one planet, you’ve been to the majority of them. Some are more friendly, toxic or dangerous, but they all seem similar in experience.

Using your scanner allows you to see special materials or points of interest on your HUD in range, such as special nutrient rich flora or others that can simply be picked up. At night these also tend to glow quite brightly in the distance, so they are easy to spot from afar. You also able to use your visor to show you hidden areas or special points of interests that you can then tag and make your way to. This visor view will only show you points that are somewhat close, but there’s always something of interest within walking distance, that is, if you have the resources to unearth it.

Yes, you will need to dig into the planet’s crust to unearth many other materials and secrets. Once you have the ability to terraform with your mining gun, you’ll be able to dig holes anywhere you see fit. Need to get out of a dangerous storm that’s depleting your shields? Dig a hole underground and get out of the storm to regenerate your shields. More often than not, dig down a few dozen feet and you’ll most likely find an underground cave, rich with deposits and materials to harvest. High value materials, like copper, gold and other deposits, can only be mined with the terraformer, which of course uses more valuable resources to power, thus begins the constant cycle once again.

So, you’ve found a planet you like that doesn’t have too harsh an environment, has great resources and you want to call it home. That’s where the base building comes in. If you have the materials (again, there’s the catch), you can easily build floors, walls, roofs and other pieces quite simply. Almost done in a Fortnight style of snapping pieces together quickly, you can build nearly anything you can think of, from a simple box with door, to an elaborate base with a unit producing farm. As you progress, you’ll learn blueprints that allow you to craft new machines and decorations for your base, if you decide to play that way and focus on that of course.

You begin with very limited inventory space in your exosuit and starship, but as you earn more credits, quest and explore, you’ll be able to upgrade and purchase new pieces, allowing for more abilities, upgrades and precious inventory space. How you upgrade is also completely up to you, so if you find yourself on harsh environmental planets, you can upgrade your radiation shields, or health if you desire. There are limited upgrade slots per piece available though, so you need to carefully weigh what you want to slot and where. In terrible design, you can also install these upgrades into regular inventory slots instead of dedicated upgrade slots, making you waste precious space and unable to reverse the mistake. You can probably guess where I installed my first upgrade slots.

Leaving the atmosphere and into space is a wonder to behold, especially since there’s no loading screens at any point. Delving into the vast darkness feels great every time, as you are going warp speed through asteroid belts to your next destination. I’ve spent hours freely shooting asteroids for precious materials, though be warned, you’re going to at some point, run into deadly space pirates. A warning signal will appear and if you answer in time and you’ll be able to barter or pay them off to not attack you, but since credits are so sparse in the beginning, you’ll be attacked without much choice. You’ll usually face against two or three ships, and it’s basically the last man standing. During battle you’re unable to use your warp drive to escape, so you’re better off fighting and trying to defeat them; it most likely won’t go your way the first few times though, until you get a hang of the controls.

With the latest update, NEXT, multiplayer has finally been included, allowing you to play alongside three of your friends at a time. Given that this was a promise from the initial launch, and a source of much of the drama, having it included has been a long time coming. So what does playing cooperatively with your friends do differently? Well, really not that much. You can see each other and trade materials and items back and forth, but there’s nothing very co-op focused to do. Need a ton of copper for building something? Have your friends come with you and do so much quicker, or fight alongside each other in space against some pirates.

It’s easy enough to join friends through the main menu, which will put you in their galaxy and within range, but the targets and markers tend to bug out quite often when playing together and be inaccurate. I wish there were more benefits for playing together, and maybe there is that I’ve yet to discover, but from my experience in doing so, the only real reason to play cooperatively is to not be so lonely in the universe. From what I can tell, there’s also no simple way to find random players and join them either, I guess unless you randomly happen upon another player in the vast universe and communicate that way.

I’ve had such an odd time with my experience with No Man’s Sky. One minute I’m really enjoying my time, especially once I figure out a blueprint, defeat some space pirates or manage to find a motherload of valuable deposits. The next time however, I feel like shutting the game off out of frustration because I can’t figure out how to do something, craft an item or I am dying to space pirates again. It’s an odd rollercoaster of enjoyment to frustration, repeated over and over. I’m finding at times it’s very hard to focus on one single thing, as 10 other processes or materials are needed to do almost anything. The universe is so vast that there’s almost too much to do, becoming overwhelming at times, even more so once you work on your factions and can undergo quests. Regardless of how you want to play, you’ll constantly be drawn into the endless grind that repeats infinitum. Even so, I’m finding new things to do, craft and explore, even after dozens and dozens of hours.

The small grand moments of wonder and realization can be breathtaking, but they are too far and few between. Granted, that’s with how I played, so it may be completely different for you. The majority of your time will be simply managing your materials and meters, then spending time gathering materials to do what you intended to do an hour ago, only to find out you need another type of material to do a different step of the process. It’s odd to have such a rollercoaster of highs and lows of excitement and frustration, even after learning so much and adapting to its faults. That being said, I’m still exploring the galaxy with the free time I have and realizing four hours have passed and I've missed my bedtime by a long shot due to wanting to explore just one more thing.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Tempest 4000

I was lucky to be born early enough to see, and experience, the birth of gaming. While the likes of Pong and such were slightly before I was born, Tempest actually released the year I was born, so I remember experiencing it at a young age at some point. If you’re unfamiliar with Tempest, it’s a very old school ‘tube shooter’ that utilizes the classic vortex style of graphics. Watch some classic 80’s movies and you’ll most likely recognize those classic Atari visuals.

Normally I wouldn’t dive too deeply into a game’s history for a review, but there’s a reason that related directly to this newest release, Tempest 4000, so bear with me. Originally designed by Dave Theurer, Tempest was very unique and impressive for its time, gaining quite a following over the years. A decade later, game developer Jeff Minter released a sequel, Tempest 2000, for the Atari Jaguar. Do some research and you’ll see how that console turned out, yet Tempest 2000 was still one of the best games released on it.

Roughly another decade later, in 2015, Minter released a game titled TxK for the Vita, with plans to release on PC and other platforms. The problem was that TxK was essentially a ripoff of Tempest, and not even slightly, it was Tempest, even with the iconic claw ship that the player controls. Sure, you could get into a discussion about how he designed Tempest 2000 a decade prior, but in the end Atari wasn’t happy and stopped any further sales of his TxK title, which people seemed to enjoy.

Here we are three years later, and Tempest 4000 is now available from none other than Minter and Atari working together. This was kind of surprising, given the things he had to say about Atari at the time of the lawsuit, but here we are. This isn’t meant to be an in depth history lesson on Atari or Tempest, but having done some research after playing Tempest 4000, I’m convinced this is simply a ‘remaster’ of his TxK, with Atari’s blessing.

That may or may not be the case, but if you take the time to watch some videos of each game you’ll notice very few differences. That being said, those who really enjoyed TxK, or classic Tempest games, now have a new title to play. For the rest that aren’t as nostalgic or who may appreciate the ‘classics’, it’s not going to make much sense for what you’re looking at, what you’re supposed to do, and how much they priced it at.

You control the Claw, a ship that, well, looks like a claw. You’re on one end of a geometric plane shooting at the enemies on the far end before they can reach your side. Your main goal is surviving wave after wave of enemies and earning the highest score you can, but if you’re unfamiliar with Tempest, you’re going to be utterly confused from the opening moments. You need to destroy every enemy before moving onto the next stage, but that won’t be so easy with dozens of enemies to kill at once and sloppy controls.

You need to keep in mind the technology available back in the early 80’s when Tempest was designed, and here we are, nearly four decades later, and Tempest 4000 still plays essentially the same, albeit with much more visual flair yet the same vortex-like graphics at its core. The play field you navigate from side to side is called a web, and your claw ship can move back and forth across it, shooting down specific lanes towards enemies when lined up. Each level has a different web shape, which can dramatically change the flow of the gameplay, especially when you have intersecting points and have to remember which way left or right will move your ship.

You’ll begin by choosing between the three different modes, which aren’t really explained very well in terms of the differences between them. Classic, Pure and Survival will all play the same save for the amount of lives given and the ability to continue from your last reached level or not. Survival mode nets you 10 lives to see how far you can reach before losing them all, whereas Pure mode gives you three lives and the inability to continue.

When power-ups appear, you’ll need to catch them with your ship if you want the bonuses. These are seemingly randomized, upgrading you with the ability to jump, faster bullets, laser beams and more, though they only last for that specific level. Every level you’re also given one bomb, allowing you to clear the screen of enemies and gain a 2x multiplier on the ones destroyed. This is also a free pass when an enemy has grabbed onto you and is about to kill you by dragging you to the back of the web.

As you clear a level and move onto the next, you’re given a small minigame that lasts a few seconds. Here, you need to traverse your ball of light through some rings to earn a ton of extra bonus points. This is all well and good, but there’s no real indication of where you are in this black void of space. I thought I was in the middle of the rings, but apparently I wasn’t, resulting in missing out on a ton of points. There’s nothing to aid with your relation to the rings and why you aren’t scoring. Granted, it only last a few seconds, so it’s not too big a deal, but it doesn’t feel very well thought out or intuitive.

The biggest issue I have with Tempest 4000 isn’t its abstract premise or retro graphics, but the controls. To say that controlling your claw feels ‘slipperly’ would be an understatement. You don’t have any precise movement unless you move incredibly slow, which won’t work for this game given how quickly you need maneuver from side to side of the webs to destroy approaching enemies. It feels as though you’re moving on ice, so stopping at the exact lane you want is nearly impossible in the thick of battle. Many times I’ve lost lives due to sliding past how far I actually intended to move because of this.

Tempest 4000 still looks like the classic Tempest that I grew up with, but with an upgrade to the colors and background visuals. Given that nearly everything is presented in that classic wireframe style of art, it’s not pretty to look at in the traditional sense, but those that are my age or older should enjoy the nostalgia of growing up with titles like this in the arcade. Shapes and colors will constantly splash across the screen in bright neon, and it will take some time to figure out what you’re exactly looking at, but it is beautiful in its own way, even if it looks like randomness at times.

The highlight for me was the retro soundtrack. While the game sounds are very basic and repetitive, the techno inspired soundtrack was bumping on each level, oddly fitting for the graphics and gameplay, and I really appreciated that I could listen to each individual song buried in the credits menu.

Even though Tempest 4000 boasts a title that implies it’s in the future and is a sequel, very little has changed since Tempest 2000 for the most part. This is more of a refinement than an overhaul, and given that it seems like a ‘remaster’ of TxK from a few years ago, you may have already experienced Tempest 4000 in some form or another. I can appreciate the retro style of gameplay and graphics and don’t really hold the retro-ness against it, as it simply is what it is, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t having as much fun with it as I used to 30 years ago.

Diehard Tempest fans will no doubt really enjoy it for its abstractness, colorful and psychedelic visuals, and beat inducing soundtrack, but if you’re not part of my generation and grew up with titles like this, I don’t feel there’s going to be much appeal or appreciation for games like Tempest 4000.

The final issue I have, and something that is the biggest hurdle Tempest 4000 has to overcome, is its ridiculously overpriced cost of entry. I was absolutely in shock that Atari is charging $29.99 CAD for this. At half the price it would still be a hard sell, but at nearly half the price of a full retail game? There’s very little chance that I can recommend it simply because of its price. If it was regularly $10 or so, that would be a different story, but for a game that only permeates fun in short bursts, unless you’re the specific target audience and diehard fan, it’s difficult to recommend otherwise until there’s a serious sale or price drop.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Bomber Crew

When you think of a war game, you most likely think of Call of Duty or Battlefield, or maybe a flight combat or RTS, but probably nothing like Bomber Crew has crossed your mind. Developer Runner Duck Games has done some great work here, not only designing a bomber flight crew based game, but a highly addictive and adorable looking one at that. Don’t let the cartoonish visuals fool you, Bomber Crew requires a ton of strategy and quick reflexes if you want to not only win, but manage to not lose your whole crew as well.

While there is a campaign, it mainly consists of bite sized missions that you choose before taking on the critical mission and progressing the difficulty. There’s no real overarching narrative that takes place other than pushing back the enemy, as it’s loosely set in the WWII era without any specific theater of war backdrop. Essentially it’s setup as a bunch of small bombing missions that you choose the order of, progressively becoming more challenging and rewarding.

I’m absolutely terrible at micromanaging and having to multitask with many different things at once, which is most likely why I shy away from MOBA’s and RTS style games, so when began my bombing career had me manage a ton of things and crew all at once, I was a little overwhelmed at first. Battles become very chaotic, hectic and intense, and you’re never able to simply focus on one single crew member or task, as each person and system need to be worked in tandem to achieve victory.

I was very overwhelmed in the beginning, as there’s a lot of button combinations that you need to do, depending on what you want to accomplish, and there is very little downtime, as you need to constantly be doing something with your crew, being it targeting locations or enemies, repairing your plane, healing your crew, or putting out fires. After about an hour though, the controls began to make sense and I wasn’t having to think about how I wanted to execute what I was trying to do. Once you stop struggling with the controls, or what you should be doing, the game becomes enjoyable and addictive.

There’s a little bit of a learning curve in the beginning, not just with the controls, but the proper way to use your crew and how to react when things don’t go quite your way. One early mission I lost a couple of my crew, which introduced me to the permanent death mechanics. From that point on I was much more careful and strategic in my combat choices and priorities.

Bomber Crew gives you a crew that takes to the skies to bomb specific targets. Each member of the crew has their own role and specialization, but should things go wrong, anyone can jump in and fill anothers' shoes, albeit nowhere near as efficiently. It’s your job to make sure they are given orders and carry them out, all while trying to succeed in your mission and bring them home safely for the next bombing run.

At its core, Bomber Crew is really a management game. You don’t technically fly the plane in a traditional sense, though you can give your pilot orders to soar at specific altitudes or take evasive measures when needed. Your gunners will shoot down any enemy targets you spot, the engineer will repair damage when necessary, and of course, the man of the hour, your bomber, will be the one dropping the heavy payloads onto the marked areas when in range and your reticle is over the target.

There’s much more to it than that though, as you’ll have to manage your fuel, refill ammo when empty, make repairs when taking damage, and heal your crew back to health if they become wounded. Just like in real life, sometimes things simply don’t go your way, and moments after takeoff maybe the hydraulics stop working, so you’ll need to send the engineer to fix them quickly. Doing one task at a time is no problem, but when you’re getting shot at by a dozen planes in the midst of a flak barrage with a dreaded enemy Ace pilot on your tail, it becomes frantic quite quickly.

Every crew is equally important in their own right. Even losing one teammate can spell disaster for your mission and crew. Moments after takeoff you’re going to constantly have enemy pilots after you, AA guns firing your way, and other dangers. It won’t make a lot of sense in the beginning what you should focus on and how to prioritize things to become victorious, but it does come in time if you stick with it, and is quite rewarding.

Your navigator will spot directional points, and if you focus on those for a few moments, your pilot will take that as your next waypoint and fly in that direction. It takes some getting used to, as you’re not directly controlling the flight of the plane, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. The same goes for enemy pilots, as your crew manning the radar will sense enemies in the vicinity, and you’ll need to hover over their blip for a moment to have them targetable by your gunners. Failure to do so will result in your gunners being essentially blind and unable to shoot at anything. Sadly, you’re unable to choose one specific target to fire at, but your crew will become better over time, learning new usable abilities and becoming much better at their roles.

That is, until they die, and it is not if, but more of a when. You’re able to purchase improved gear for each individual crew member, adding to important stats wherever you deem fit, hopefully to help them survive missions. You’re able to customize each person’s look and name, so have fun naming them after family and friends, which will help you care about them a little bit more. As they complete missions and level up, you’ll unlock special abilities and even subclasses, so it becomes imperative to try and keep them alive for as many missions as possible. When they die, you’ll have to recruit a basic crew again, without any abilities, so do everything in your power to save them when needed. A nice touch is that the main menu has a memorial to honor all of those that have perished in previous missions.

Completing the short and low risk missions as often as possible will allow you to earn some easy money, which in turn will go towards upgrading your bomber plane. Not only can you customize the paintjob of your plane, but even upgrade its parts. This is where you’ll start to see the grind, as parts are quite expensive, but absolutely necessary. In the beginning I was getting damaged quite a bit in missions, so I focused on upgrading my planes armor, but with that comes an added weight, eventually hitting my weight cap. So, then I needed to upgrade my engines to allow a higher weight allowance, but that dropped down my armor, so there’s a balance you’ll need to figure out as you progress.

Do you want way better turrets, well, be prepared to add a ton of weight, or you may want add some extra med packs and fire extinguishers just in case, also adding weight some weight. It’s all about figuring out what works best with your playstyle until you earn enough intel, another type of unlock currency, to gain access to the top tier parts. I do wish there were more bombers and planes though, something that I hope gets addressed in a future patch or sequel.

Missions range from low, medium to high risk, as well as length. Shorter and easier missions don’t have as much of a payday, but there is less of a chance to lose your crew if things go sideways. I grinded the easiest missions I could for a while just to earn enough cash to upgrade my bomber enough so that I wasn’t being shot down so easily. Every now and then you’ll notice that there’s an Ace Pilot that is inescapable in your missions. These act as minibosses, on top of your regular bombing objectives, and will take some serious upgrades to take head on. At any point you can take on the critical mission, which when completed, will essentially progresses you to the next difficulty stage of missions and bigger paydays.

Challenge Mode also awaits you when you grow tired of the grind. This mode puts your crew into a bomber, tackling nonstop waves of enemies and objectives to see how long you can survive. The best part is that there’s no consequence to failing in this mode, so experiment with loadouts add see how a different playstyle works for you. Since it is nonstop waves of challenges, you’ll need to navigate to the floating gasoline pickups to refuel, wrenches to repair your bomber, or health pickups to restore your crew. It’s an interesting change, but I preferred the campaign simply for the progression you make customizing your bomber and crew.

The biggest downfall is how the menus are laid out and control. You need to use the bumpers to change the main categories, then again once you’re in the menu you want, but you’ll constantly hit the wrong button or back out, something I catch myself doing even after many hours invested. For as much I enjoy my time with Bomber Crew, it does become quite a grind if you’re wanting to reach the top tier of upgrades and gear.

Even with the grind that hits at later levels, I kept telling myself to do just one more mission. It’s a little intimidating and overwhelming at first, but stick with it for an hour or two and you’ll start to make sense of the complexity and chaos, resulting in a lot of enjoyment when missions start to go the way you expected. Don’t be like me and initially judge it by its cartoonish visual style, as there’s some serious strategy involved with each bombing run to ensure your crew survives.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 War Thunder

It’s no secret that if you wanted to have online tank battles against a healthy community on console, World of Tanks is where you’ve gone ever since the last generation. Gaijin Entertainment wasn’t satisfied having only PC fans enjoy their competitive title though, so now they’ve brought it to Xbox One players while also including cross platform play. War Thunder is much more than tanks though, as not only do you fight in armored vehicles, but you’ll take the skies in planes and also across the seas in naval combat as well. To say that War Thunder is an all-encompassing battle simulator is an understatement.

Better yet, it’s free to play. Well, it will be, but currently in Early Access, you’ll need to pony up for one of the packages if you don’t want to wait until its full release. Since cross play is included against PC players, you’ll have plenty of opponents, and teammates, to play against and alongside (though this can be turned off if you wish to only play with console players). World of Tanks may have had a huge head start on console, but the experience War Thunder delivers is quite a different one altogether.

Much like the competition, War Thunder is pegged as an online military battle game, so don’t expect any sort of traditional, or any really, campaign or narrative. So while you’re simply playing in online matches, the vehicles are from the World War II and Cold War era, and since there’s more than just tanks, but planes and navy fleet as well, there’s a ton of historical weaponry for you to choose from based on your fleet preference.

If you have an Xbox One X, the first thing you’re going to notice is its great visuals. Enhanced for Xbox One X, War Thunder supports 4K resolution for those that can make use of it. Even without a 4K TV myself, everything looks very crisp and sharp in the heat of battle. Exterior damage will show visually, and certain mechanical problems will arise when you become damaged, jamming your tracks, turret, flaps along with another multitude of issues, so damage isn’t just visual, and adds a whole layer of realism. The audio is equally as impressive, as the cannons from each tank sound varied (and I assume authentic), engines can be heard straining going up a hill or dive-bombing in your plane and even the tracks from a tank have a lot of subtle sounds that feed into the immersion.

As soon as you begin your War Thunder experience, you’ll probably run into the same problem I had: being utterly lost and confused with the menus and what to do. It’s clear that this console version was a port of its PC counterpart, so much in fact that you need to move the ‘mouse’ around with your Left Stick and use the Right Trigger, not the standard ‘A’, to select anything. Pressing ‘A’ does do certain things though, so it took me quite some time to figure out that the Right Trigger was meant to emulate the Left Click of a mouse. Confused yet? I haven’t even delved into the menus confusion.

The fact that even this isn’t explained is only the beginning. There’s a lot of menus you’ll need to navigate; a LOT, and it’s not explained at any time where to find things, what they mean or how to do what you want. If you were a previous World of Tanks player, you’ll have somewhat of an idea, as it’s the same premise and layout for leveling your tanks and vehicles, dumping research points into them so that you can move up in tiers, but if you’re fresh into the genre or casual, you’re going to struggle from the opening moments, leading to some early unneeded frustration.

Every tank, plane and boat will handle differently, and there’s a massive amount of button combinations you’ll need to master if you want to become proficient, again, that really isn’t taught to you well. For example, if you want to use your binoculars to spot enemies from afar, there’s a button combination to even do so. Or you’ve put a plane into your lineup and don’t know why it doesn’t let you fly one ever in a tank match? That’s because someone needs to call in air support, which you need to then do another button combination to even take part of this quick air run against the enemies.

My favorite part though has to be when you land a good shot on an enemy, as a small window will pop up showing an X-Ray view of not only where it hit them, but the penetration angles inside against the crew as well. This helps you see where you hit if it ricocheted and bounced off, so that you can adjust your angle, decide to flank or change your ammo type. And yes, there are multiple types of ammo for different situations, something you’ll need to decide on how much to bring into each battle. After dozens of battles, I now know how much ammo I average in a match, so I decide to not bring as much, as it leaves you more susceptible to blowing up and explosions if you’re carrying tons and tons of ammunition.

Up to 32 players can play in a match, and you’re given the option to choose to play cross-network with PC players. This has pros can cons, as matchmaking is usually under a minute with cross play enabled, but substantially longer without. Also, when you’re just starting out and not well versed in warfare, I’ve found that portions of the PC community isn’t very friendly to you as a newbie console player, not that that’s any fault of the game itself.

There’s a healthy amount of maps that you’ll be randomly put into, each of which will require very different strategy and teamwork, from snowy hillsides, to heavily populated residential buildings and barren deserts. I did find though, just like its competitor, is that it’s not uncommon to be placed in a match that’s not balanced very well. Even one person having a tier or two higher of a tank can make a massive difference in a battle, as does player rankings for the experience factor.

The main differences will be depending on where, and how, you decide to play. There’s essentially two modes you can choose from: Arcade, which is just that, quickly played matches, enemies being spotted and other assists. Or, Realistic, which is a whole other ballgame and experience in itself. Realistic doesn’t have any guidance, enemies will kill you without you having a clue from where and teamwork is absolutely essential. I think of Realistic Mode as a racing game without any of the assists turned on in ranked competition, then getting the crap kicked out of you because you don’t know how to play properly. It’s no joke, and will require dozens of hours of dedication if you want to play in this more simulation mode. I even have a friend that’s been playing non-stop since War Thunder has released, and even he is apprehensive about going into the Realistic matches.

Lastly, there is a fun Assault Battle mode which has you and a number of other players playing cooperatively against increasingly difficult waves of enemies that are trying to take your base. These can be very fun, but your lowly Tier 1 tanks will be wiped out quite quickly if that’s all you bring to the fight, so I suggest going in once you have a few tanks of different tiers ready to go.

While War Thunder is all about land, sea and air battles, its bread and butter really is with the ground warfare of tanks vs tanks. You’ll be able to grind to unlock dozens and dozens of tanks, from many different countries; from light, all the way up to heavy tank destroyers or AA guns. Just like its competition, there are also premium tanks, of which have to be bought with real money, but these are kitted out and upgraded and are amongst the best in the game. We were lucky enough to have been given the Elite Bundle for review, so we had access to some premium tanks as well as the premium currency to buy more, and upgrades, with.

There’s a healthy amount of aircraft to choose from as well; not as many as the tanks, but still a fair amount, ranging from standard gunfire to bombers. You’re able to freely choose if you want to play a tank or plane match, but the beta for naval battles is also included. It took some time to figure out how to play these, and even more for a match to populate, but it is there for those that are able to navigate the confusing menus. Currently there’s nowhere near the amount of naval ships to choose from compared to tanks and planes, but I can see these being added later quite easily.

You’ll begin with choosing between a handful of free beginner vehicles, eventually earning XP and able to upgrade them and purchase better ones. Research points are needed to unlock the next vehicle down the line you’ve chosen, which you earn through battle. Money, represented as Lions, is the main currency which you’ll need to hire new crew members for your tanks and aircraft, or to upgrade them to be more efficient. Of course, you’re constantly tempted with a quick unlock with the premium currency, Eagles, and the game will remind you at any chance that you should buy some, either to buy a fancy new premium tank, or upgrade your current one without having to grind as much.

And that’s where you’ll start to notice the grind. If you have your hearts set on a top tier tank, plane or ship, it’s going to take quite some time to earn it by simply playing. The ‘money sink’ is a very easy trap to fall into, especially if you want the better premium vehicles, of which some are only sold in bundles. This means that those with more disposable income will have a head start and easier time from the beginning, or have an insanely cool looking tank that they bought cosmetic items for with their premium currency.

Yes, it’s free to play (eventually), but you’re going to be outclassed with someone that can drop $50 on a super tank that comes fully kitted out. With multiple types of currency, it can become quite confusing on what you should use and when, again, something that’s not really explained all too well. As a newcomer, I know I was quite confused and frustrated trying to figure it out, so I can only imagine others that actually paid for access, only to find out you’re going to “have” to spend more money to be competitive, or dump hundreds of hours into it to be competitive at the higher tiers.

Given that War Thunder is in Early Access, and essentially a PC port, right down to its mouse controls, expect bugs to creep up now and then. I’ve had my ‘mouse’ become bugged and slow numerous times and the game crash at inopportune times, but I keep coming back, as getting a really good match in when you’re on point and making all your shots count is exciting. Yes, War Thunder is fun, but it’s a not just a mountain to climb for its learning curve, but more like a sheer cliff. While Arcade Battles are slightly easier to simply dive into, once you’ve figured out the menus, it can still be quite a hardcore experience, and that’s not even including the realistic mode.

The menu, currency confusion, being outclassed by pay-to-win players and lack of help is very off-putting in the beginning, but it does start to make sense if you can devote the time to learn it and stick with it. It’s not going to be for everyone, and I’d still wager it’s more catered towards the hardcore crowd, or those with disposable income, but War Thunder can be a deep and exciting game in the heat of battle. Once it’s free to play and out of Early Access, there’s no harm in giving it a shot, like your tank cannon.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Red Faction Guerrilla Re-Mars-tered

Volition, best known for developing the Saints Row titles, also had a hit last generation with its take on the Red Faction series with Red Faction: Guerilla. While it was a generally decent game, albeit with a bland story and setting, what really set it apart was its destructible environment and explosive gameplay. This is the remaster generation after all, so what better time to re-release a somewhat popular title for people that may have missed it, or want to revisit Mars once more. So the question is, is this remaster, cleverly titled Re-MARS-tered, the one we’ve been waiting for with tons of upgrades, additions and improvements? I wouldn’t go that far...

Red Faction: Guerilla tells a tale about Alec Mason and his brother, looking for a new life on Mars. Within the opening moments, you’re introduced to the oppressive Earth Defense Force (EDF) when they viciously kill your brother. This sets the pieces in motion for Alec to join the resistance and extract his revenge by taking out the EDF by any means necessary, usually resulting in mass destruction of their property. Alec now fights for liberation of Mars, and of course revenge, so it’s up to you to bring the fight to the EDF.

Ironically, I found the story missions to be the more boring and dull compared to the plethora of side quests available. So, while you’ll need to push through the campaign missions to progress the narrative, there’s plenty to do outside of that, and I actually found a handful of these other missions much more memorable, and more importantly, fun, than the campaign itself. One of the earlier quests, for example, has you barreling through tall EDF transmitters while being chased, or demolishing a ton of EDF buildings with a combat walker. It’s an exhilarating mission that was more entertaining than a bulk of the story missions, and there are a handful of these.

Set in an open world, you have freedom to tackle missions however you like, or simply be destructive and destroy every building you see should you wish. Played in third person, there is a shooting aspect to it as well, as you’ll need to engage EDF forces at nearly every turn, but the true gameplay comes from its physics based destruction mechanics. You’ll need to work on faction missions to progress, unlocking more help and more missions for you to work on. Luckily, you’re able to tackle missions in any order you desire, or do none and simply just destroy stuff, but it’s cool seeing more resistance members joining in the fight against the EDF the better your faction becomes in an area.

So, you’ve already played Guerilla before and simply want to know what’s new in the Re-MARS-tered edition? Essentially, it’s just a shiny coat of paint on top of the same experience from nearly a decade ago. Improved shadows, textures, lighting, and of course, 4K support. Having seen side-by-side videos of the original vs Re-MARS-tered, it indeed looks sharper and cleaner, but visually it still has that dated 360 look overall, especially with the pre-rendered cutscenes.

Obviously the visuals were the main focus of this release, but the small amount of DLC that was offered post launch is also included here. Aside from that, there are no fixes or extra content of any kind included. There’s a quick prequel mission that you have access to, or those wanting a little more lore, but once completed there’s no reason to play it again. Wrecking Crew mode on the other hand is nearly worth the price of admission alone, where you’ll challenged with causing as much destruction as possible within a time limit and specific weapons.

Given that nearly a decade ago, it was super impressive that Guerilla looked and performed as well as it did, I was really hoping to be seriously wow’d with this remaster, and while the 4K inclusion is always welcome, it brought along with it some performance issues. Slowdown isn’t uncommon when things get truly chaotic and explosions are happening everywhere, even on an Xbox One X in performance mode, which was quite disappointing. Camera issues are still a constant frustration, especially in chaotic demolition of buildings.

Which brings us to the real reason to even play and experience Guerilla; its physics based destruction. This is the bread and butter of this game. Not only can you destroy buildings and objects, but it’s extremely entertaining to do so. There’s nothing quite like knocking out the support and structural beams of a building and seeing it topple in grand fashion, killing some EDF in the process. Need to quickly ambush some EDF inside a building? Blow a hole through it, or drive into it directly.

Even all these years later, the environmental destruction is still some of the best in gaming. Other games have destruction as well, but usually not to this level, or they have restrictions on how much a building can be destroyed. There’s simply nothing quite like placing a few strategic remote charges after swinging my sledgehammer at a building’s corners, and watch it come crashing down.

Destroying isn’t just for fun and entertainment though, as this is how you will collect scrap, Guerilla’s form of currency. You’ll also earn scrap from completing missions, and then use it to purchase upgrades. The problem though is that you don’t earn much scrap per mission, or even for demolishing large buildings, so there comes a point where you’ll need to seriously grind to get the upgrades later on.

I remember dropping a few hours into the multiplayer back in the day when the original game was still new. It wasn’t great by any means, but the destruction mechanics added another layer of strategy onto your run of the mill shooter gameplay at least. I was hoping for a few fun hours once again with this version, but it seems those fans have long moved on, as it took an incredibly painful amount of time to even find a match. Of the two matches I was able to eventually find, and participate in, not a single one had players that didn’t drop out during the match. Even though Guerilla supports up to 16 players online, matches won’t start until 4 are present, and simply finding 3 others took an exorbitant amount of time.

If you’re looking for a deep and interesting story with fleshed out characters and great driving and shooting mechanics, look elsewhere. If you’re simply looking to demolish some EDF buildings for the resistance, and blow a ton of stuff up, then you’ve come to the right place. Red Faction: Guerilla Re-MARS-tered is a fun distraction if you want to turn off your brain, but don’t let the title fool you, this is as shallow as a remaster comes, as it’s simply a new thin coat of paint on top of the same experience we had almost a decade ago. There’s no need to play again if you’ve already have, but it’s an entertaining experience to destroy everything in sight if you haven’t.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Insane Robots

I keep telling myself I would stop judging a book by its cover, well, a game by its cover, but I still find myself unknowingly doing it at times. When Insane Robots arrived to review, I checked out some of the screenshots and assumed it would just be another forgettable indie title that I wouldn’t even remember playing in a week. Luckily, I can admit my mistakes and be pleasantly surprised when I’m proven wrong. Don’t let insane Robots’ cute demeanor fool you, there’s some fantastic gameplay within for anyone yearning for a card battle type of game with some deep strategy and addictive gameplay.

Starting out as a basic robot named Franklin, you are sentenced to death for simply “asking questions”. By whom or what, that’s a different question that you’ll uncover during your journey. Any robot that is perceived to be malfunctioning is labeled as insane, forced to battle against other insane robots, hence the title. The plot is interesting enough and sets a decent framework as to why you’re battling other robots in an almost battle royale type of setting.

You’ll eventually learn about “The Kernal”, who is apparently the one behind all of this, so it’s up to you to battle your way as a sole survivor to take down this mysterious foe. Even though the story is paper thin, it’s not a problem, as the gameplay itself does more than enough to carry the rest of the experience on its shoulders. The campaign will take you a handful of hours, and there’s plenty of replay value, so the price of admission is well worth it.

I’ve dabbled in card battler games before, such as Hearthstone, Gwent and others, but they usually have a high barrier of entry, as they are usually quite deep and involved from the get-go, and can be quite intimidating to delve into head first. I expected the same with Insane Robots initially, but after a handful of hours, I kept wanting to do just one more tournament.

You traverse on a hexagonal grid, and as you explore the map you’ll come across money pickups, mini-quests and of course, other insane robots to fight. You are only able to move a certain amount of spaces per turn, as are the enemy robots, and as you land on another robot, you’ll begin a battle. You’ll also come across shops where you can buy upgrades, health replenishments, and more, to help outfit your robot into a powerhouse fighting machine of death, for a cost of course.

When you begin a battle, you’ll take turn-based moves where you’re going to need to plan out the best strategy with the hand you are given. Even though I’ve labelled it a card battler, I guess technically it deals you chips, you know, to match the robot aesthetic. Your deck will be randomized every time, so there’s no need to build that ‘perfect deck’, which is great, as it keeps the randomness and challenge ongoing. You’ll need to outfit your chips in a way that allows you to simply deplete the enemy’s health to zero to win. Sounds simple, but it becomes much more challenging and deeply strategic the further you progress.

Setting up your attack and defense numbers is simple at first, as you need to slot both attack or defense areas with a chip for it to take effect. The value of each chip is randomized as it goes into your deck, but there’s a smart system in place that allows you to bolster your stats, or deplete theirs. So, simply slot two attack chips into your robot and you’ll have the combined value usable as your offence. The same goes for defense, as you gain those bonus shield points if you slot two chips, gaining the combined total of both.

It costs energy to slot in chips though, and each turn you have a limited amount, so there’s a very important resource management in play that you need to be aware of at all times. At first it comes down to simple math, as you will damage the enemy with your attack number, as long as you have the resources to do so (it takes three energy to launch an attack) and your offence is of a higher value than their defense. So, it becomes a cat and mouse game of balancing keeping your offense and defense up, but also trying to whittle away your opponent’s health. These are where the hacking and other special chips come into play.

There’s a number of special chips that can instantly alter the outcome of a battle and have to be utilized in specific ways to be very powerful and useful. You begin with basic hack chips, allowing you to boost your attack or defense chips that are slotted, or decrease the enemy robot’s numbers. Swap chips allow you to do just that, swapping your chip with the corresponding enemy’s chip, to boost yours and decrease theirs. There are also lock cards, allowing you to lock a specific chip so it’s unhackable and can't be swapped by your enemy, or used to break their locked chips. You can see there’s a ton of strategy in play, depending on what your play style is more geared towards, and how you react to theirs.

Certain chips can also be combined with others, for an energy cost of course, allowing you to combine a weak card with another to boost it to full power, or make an uber hack, etc. Again, when the best time to create the super cards, place them, attack, or stack up on defense, all depends on the situation and battle. There’s a surprising amount of depth given there’s only 20+ different chips.

When you finally defeat your enemy you’ll gain money, which can then be used to buy upgrades and other items to enhance your robot. Each battle allows you to earn a certain amount of cash, based on how your battle played out, and you can earn another larger bonus at the end of the tournament when every robot is defeated if you’re victorious. Some of the upgrades are permanent and extremely useful, like a lower cost on certain chips, maximum health and more, so it’s worthwhile grinding for some money simply for the upgrades. Factor in that you can unlock a bunch of different robots, each with their own perks, and there’s a ton of value and replayability within.

Other than Campaign, there is Quick Battle, simply placing you against a certain enemy, each becoming progressively harder, but it’s with a default robot, not the one you’ve powered up through your campaign spoils. There is also local co-op battle, as well as online, which I was excited to try out. Sadly, every single time I’ve attempted, I’ve haven't been able to find a successful match, not even once. So, while it’s great that online battles are included, unless you have a friend that also purchases the game, good luck finding a match. I’m not sure if it’s a server issue, or simply a lack of people playing online at the time though, but luckily the campaign is broad enough to keep your interest for quite some time.

Visually, Insane Robots is quite colorful and has a great comic based art style to the robots, making them extremely adorable. Each robot looks completely unique and has its own personality, each of which includes their own smack talk during battles as well. The soundtrack is just as good colorful, adding some beats to each battle, upping the intensity.

My only real complaints are the lack of community playing online, as described above, and the overly heavy loading screens. The loading screens don’t take long, but they happen quite frequently, but they can also basically be skipped, so I’m not sure why they are even included at all.

Insane Robots is an amazing example of how to ease players into a genre without demanding too much of a learning curve, yet also being deep enough to satisfy the players that want to strategize at a much higher level. A bunch of smaller ideas come together to make a great experience, one you’d be insane to pass by.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Eventide 3: Legacy of Legends

I can’t even count the number of Artifex Mundi titles I’ve played and reviewed on the Xbox One so far, nearly every title I believe. Even after a handful of games that differ slightly from one another, I still find myself enjoying my time with them, as it’s a calming getaway from the regular shooters, RPG’s and racers that I normally indulge in. The standard formula hasn’t changed much in nearly all of their titles, except for the previous release of Grim Legends 3, which was a big step up in production value, so I was hoping that would be the norm going forward with their newest releases.

It seems that’s not the case though, as Eventide 3: Legacy of Legends feels much like the standard type of Artifex Mundi HOG (hidden object game) rather than a step forward. Not that that’s a bad thing, I just had some high hopes for something new and impressive, as it all feels very predictable when you’ve played nearly a dozen of the same type of game, especially from a single developer.

I believe it was last year Eventide 2 was released, and the original, Eventide: Slavic Fable, the year before it, so it’s been a yearly endeavor for me within this beautiful and colorful world. The Eventide series resolves around a celebrated botanist named Mary. Following the events of Eventide 2, you’ll finally have a conclusion to the overall narrative. Mary’s brother, John, is kidnapped by a mysterious creature, so she sets off with her sharp mind, and potion concocting abilities to save him and stop a sinister plot.

Yes, it’s another ‘someone is kidnapped’ tale, but the story themselves have never been its strong suit, as it’s all about the puzzle gameplay in a genre like this. Mary isn’t alone though, as she’ll befriend a magical creature, known as Aitvar, which I would best describe as a huge owl-like creature. It’s a good thing too, as you’ll need to periodically call upon him to ride his back to fly to the floating isles where you need to be. It’s a fantasy setting and that plays into its surroundings, beautifully hand drawn and full of color.

If you’re not like me and haven’t played every single Artifex Mundi game to date, their HOG games essentially have you exploring scenes for items and objects which can then be used to uncover other items, which in turn allows you to solve a puzzle and progress. Sure, that’s a horrible simplification, but that is its' core gameplay cycle for the most part. There’s plenty of scenes to explore, dozens of puzzles to solve, and tons of great artwork to soak in. So if you’ve played any of their titles before, you’ll know exactly what to expect, almost to a fault.

For those new to the genre, or a casual fan, you’re able to choose Normal difficulty. Here you’ll have access to a hint system, giving you clues of where to go next, or you can even completely bypass a puzzle if you’re absolutely stuck and need to rely on it. Expert mode is also available for the more tenured puzzle solvers that don’t require any hints (and want every achievement). Sadly though, there’s no epilogue like in some of their titles, so once you hit the credits after a couple hours, your journey simply ends, as there’s not much replay value aside from lingering achievements. Also not included this time, like in previous titles of theirs, there are no alternative games to play instead of the HOG puzzles, something I quite enjoyed in the past.

Returning from Grim Legends 3 is the Rune Battle minigame. Here you’re tasked with winning three rune battles against your enemy. They will be a number of runes on the AI's attack, and you must choose the runes on your side that don’t match any of theirs. Choose correctly and you’ll win the round, and you need to win three rounds to defeat them. It’s not as in depth or as challenging as it was in their other title, so it does feel a little tacked on, but it was one of my favorite new features in their games, so I’m also glad to see it return, even if it’s not quite the same.

The difficulty curve of the puzzles themselves is fairly decent, though there were a few more challenging puzzles, like color matching, rotating puzzles and more. The HOG games themselves obviously return, where you have a shopping list of items, and you need to find them hidden within the scene. Some are quite obvious and stand out, whereas others will have you spamming the ‘A’ button as you move the cursor around, swearing it doesn’t exist until you happen upon it accidentally. The puzzles themselves are more catered to novices of the genre, which is fine, but there’s enough different types of puzzles to keep you interested, regardless of skill.

A staple in the series, and all of their titles really, is the beautiful hand drawn artwork. While the animations are quite rough and basic, the backgrounds are incredibly gorgeous and always a pleasure to take in while you’re searching for your next item or puzzle. I was hoping that the bump in art and production would return from the last Grim Legends 3, but it seems Eventide 3 follows the older traditional template of design instead.

Sadly, the cringe-worthy voice acting returns once again, Artifex Mundi’s achilles heel. Almost all of the voiced lines aren’t acted very well, nor are believable at all. Luckily, the gameplay is what you come for, not the story or voice acting. You don’t need to have played the previous two Eventide’s to know what’s going on, as it’s a completely self-contained story within itself, though obviously you’ll get a little more out of it if you’ve played the previous two.

Artifex Mundi are the leaders in this specific niche genre, and while this latest game is not their best offering, it’s still worth a recommendation, as the formula is simple and a great escape for a few hours. The fact that I’ve not grown tired of their games after about a dozen or so speaks volumes for their gameplay, as there’s no better offerings on the console within the genre.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Anima: Gate of Memories - The Nameless Chronicles

I reviewed the previous Anima: Gate of Memories game back when it was released, and was impressed for what it did given the small development team. Sure it had its flaws, as the voice acting wasn’t great and I was constantly lost, but it had an interesting artistic style and a half decent story if you were able to follow along. When I found out there was a sequel coming, I was intrigued, as I had a decent outing the last time I was in the Anima world, hoping they would address some of the issues I had and looking forward to some more lore of its interesting world and characters.

This sequel, The Nameless Chronicles, actually takes place alongside the original game, except instead of playing as The Bearer and Ergo once again, you’re actually in control of Nameless, someone you’ll remember quite well if you’ve played the original. While Nameless was portrayed as the antagonist in the original game, seeing his story from his point of view gives you a very different perspective and reasoning to his actions.

Eons ago, Nameless, along with others, sealed away a demon that could destroy the world, Baal, and has uncovered a plot about a group planning on releasing him from his prison. Given that this takes place parallel to Gate of Memories, you’re going to run into some familiar faces, like The Bearer and Ergo, and if you’ve played the first, you’ll get to relive some of the battles they had, but from Nameless’ perspective this time. That being said, expect the same outcomes from their run in’s the first time, though there’s much more to Nameless’ tale than these few encounters.

Much like Gates of Memories, the narrative in The Nameless Chronicles is interesting and quite involved, but you really need to give your full attention to it or you risk being confused and lost as to who, what and why. The overall narrative has the same framework as before, but the deeper and more intimate tale of Nameless’ immortality, along with being helped by a mysterious spirit known as Unknown (yeah, they aren’t the greatest at naming characters), made for an interesting saga the more that was uncovered. That being said, I still found The Bearer and Ergo a much more compelling tale, probably because of the personality clashes between the two characters.

Because The Nameless Chronicles takes place alongside the first game, you’ll eventually have a sense of déjà-vu if you’ve played the the previous title, as you’ll start to notice reused assets. The worst part of the original, the puppet mansion, returns for another go as well, and while it makes sense from a narrative point of view, it hasn’t gotten any better. Your main hub is now The Nexus of Memories, a small area where you’ll routinely travel back to when you complete a main section, or become lost and don’t know where to go.

This was my biggest gripe with the first game as well, that you have no guide or marker to direct you where to go next. Sometimes you’re in an area that’s very linear, but other times you’ll be wandering aimlessly from area to area, trying to figure out where to go. Again, like the first game, this had me frustrated at times, as there’s no real quest journal or clear indication of where you should be heading next.

While combat will make for the bulk of the experience, there are a few puzzle elements that take place as well. Some were done quite well, others were much more subtle, but I enjoyed the odd break from the mind-numbing combat now and then, I just wish there were more of these segments. In combat you have access to a lock-on targeting system, but it’s fairly wonky, and at times, more of a hindrance than a help, especially with enemies that constantly move and teleport, whipping your camera all around.

In general, combat is nearly identical to the first game, without the character swapping of course. Nameless prefers to get up close and personal with his sword, though you do have access to a ranged shot as well, something you’ll need to heavily rely on in certain battles. You have light and heavy attacks, an uppercut where you can start an air juggle, and more, but I found it near impossible to string together more than a few simple hits before being interrupted.

Much of the combat strategy is also utilizing your meter that also allows you to become much more powerful for attacks, but slowing you down in the process. This energy regenerates slowly, and some enemies’ defenses won’t break without these more powerful hits. You’ll also find new weapons along your journey, offering better stats and damage for different play styles, but even by the end, I felt no more powerful than I did in the beginning for the most part.

You will also need to heavily rely on dodging, again, represented by another stamina bar you’ll need to manage during fights. You can specialize in either close range melee or long range attacks, but there’s no real fusion between the two. Sure it’ll look cool as you dash in, hit once or twice, dash back and shoot from afar, but there’s no system in place to encourage this. Keep in mind, if you’re using the lock-on system, you’ll constantly get spun around from warping enemies, opening yourself up to attacks when fighting a group at once.

Maybe it’s just been awhile since I played the first, but I found the combat in The Nameless Chronicles to be much more challenging than the previous game. You’re kind of eased into the mechanics, but even the tutorial is a miniboss fight to show you the ropes. Even generic enemies can easily overwhelm you in numbers if you’re not careful (or using lock-on). Boss fights are quite challenging, not because of the telegraph moves are difficult to notice or avoid, but because they last forever. Even after numerous weapon and skill upgrades, I never felt more powerful, seemingly doing only a minor increase of damage, and when you are fighting a boss and minions simultaneously, it’s actually quite challenging.

Luckily health refills when killing enemies, but you’ll always need to be on your toes. The large scale boss fights are quite enjoyable though, with two being quite memorable. I won’t spoil anything, but I really enjoyed the mechanics for the final confrontation, even though it meant I had to slog through all of the previous hours.

Killing enemies will also earn you XP which you can then use to level up your skills and abilities. Nearly identical to the first game, you can spend your skill points however you wish, bolstering your favorite skills or choosing others to round out your abilities. Luckily this time you only play as Nameless, so the skill tree is much simpler this time around. When you choose to unlock a new skill, you’ll also earn passive bonuses that are linked between the two, so sometimes I was choosing a new ability more-so for the passive bonus, like extra health, rather than the skill itself. A small issue I had with the first game returns here as well, as the skill tree is done with diagonal lines, so you can’t simply press down to see the skill below it, you have to follow the skill path line. While not a deal breaker, it makes it more cumbersome and a chore than it needs to be.

Visually, not much has changed from the first title, that I can tell anyways. It still has that anime inspired artistic style to it, which suits the source material. I get that a small team can only do so much, but it does look quite dated at this point, even if you enjoy the art direction. There’s sometimes a distinct clash though, as many areas will be dark and grey, while others are very bright, vibrant and uses great lighting and effects. The soundtrack is pleasant enough, but again, the voice acting is very hit or miss, depending on the character.

If you’re a fan of the lore and Anima series, then The Nameless Chronicles is a no-brainer and an easy sell. If you’re looking for challenging combat with some RPG elements, you could do worse. It has a very interesting story if you can follow along, more-so if you’ve played the first, but is simply bogged down by its constant and repetitive combat that does little to excite.

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 NieR:Automata BECOME AS GODS Edition

Last year in 2017, NieR:Automata released for PS4 and PC to much critical success. Sadly for Xbox One owners though, many were unable to enjoy this completely unique and exciting title, but good things come to those that wait, and now NieR: Automata has finally arrived for Xbox fans to also see what the big deal has been this past year. With PlatinumGames behind the development, and visionary director Yoko Taro directing, NieR:Automata BECOME AS GODS Edition has not only been bundled with its previously released DLC as a single package, but some massive graphical improvements have been included for those playing on an Xbox One X, such as 4K resolution and HDR lighting.

I somehow managed to avoid spoilers of any kind when it came to NieR, and I’m grateful that I managed to, as the campaign and narrative were incredibly exciting, engaging and one of Automata’s best aspects. Set far into the future, mankind has been driven from their home, overdriven by invading machine lifeform. The world is in near ruin after the invasion, so androids were created for the sole purpose of taking it back. Part of the YoRHa squad, androids 2B and 9S are the ones tasked with succeeding this near impossible mission.

While it may seem like a typical “save the world” type of backdrop for story framing, there’s a lot more to uncover as you progress, something I don’t want to spoil in any way. It begins simply as an ‘us’ vs ‘them’, but there’s more to it than what’s on the surface, something you’ll uncover from separate narrative angles with 2B and 9S along the way. There are some pretty important “woah” moments where your jaw may be on the floor, especially at a couple of the endings.

Oh, you noticed I mentioned multiple endings? To really understand the whole story, Automata will need to be played through multiple times, and for good reason. Bear with me, as I’m usually not one for multiple playthroughs with games due to weaning interest and simple lack of time, but you need to invest the time into Automata if you want the full experience from it.

Described as “routes”, you begin the game playing as solely 2B, and completing her story is labeled ‘Route A’. Once the credits roll you can then start up Route B which has you playing as 9S’s point of view. While some major events will cross over, this isn’t simply playing the same game again with a slightly different character, quite the opposite actually. 9S’ campaign intermingles with 2B’s, allowing you to see what took place from a completely different area or perspective, all encased in a very clever way, but also with some interesting changes.

Normally I wouldn’t bother with second, or third playthroughs, but you’re allowed to carry forward the progress you’ve made in levels, experience and more, making it much more rewarding rather than simply starting over from scratch. These Routes are also more than a simple New Game+ mode as well, as they are essential to the overall narrative. You’ll encounter new enemies, mechanics, plots and more, so it’s absolutely necessary to stick with it. Yes there are multiple endings, but don’t consider the campaign truly complete until you’ve done so after at least Route C. I won’t say anything more, simply trust me.

With no loading times, aside from fast travel, the world is expansive and seamless. The post-apocalyptic setting gives an eerie backdrop, devoid of any human life, with visuals that look fantastic on the Xbox One X. Automata's gameplay was something I really wasn’t expecting, even from the opening segment. While the majority of your gameplay is a 3rd person hack and slash, what took me by surprise was not only the subtle shift to 2D sidescrolling platform run & gunning sets, but parts where you’re piloting a ship and essentially playing a top down bullet hell shooter for certain segments as well. These aren’t simple one-off sections as well, as some bosses are fought with your swords on foot, and others in your ship. There’s new mechanics introduced in Routes B and C as well, but I won’t avoid spoiling much else.

While the story is a linear tale, there are handful of sidequests that are optional to undertake, should you want to spend more time in the fascinating world. These sidequests are done quite well, giving you special rewards or lore. Many even have quite a bit of humor, something I didn’t expect from a heavy machine based narrative. There’s a handful of sidequests I highly suggest doing, as they make the overall experience much more rich, but I’ll leave that up to you.

So what’s new with this BECOME AS GODS Edition you ask? The very uniquely named 3C3C1D119440927 DLC included adds new outfits for the main characters, skins for your Pod and more. The costumes are obtained through some arena battles that unlock as you progress and are quite challenging, even on the easiest setting. This allows you to have another goal to work towards, even after multiple playthroughs. This DLC is welcome, but certainly catered towards the player that’s going to grind for levels and chips long after the final Route is finished.

Combat is very fun and addictive, and with the chip system in place, you can customize your character’s abilities to suit your playstyle. 2B has access to two weapons and her Pod, whereas 9S can only use one melee weapon at a time. Weapons range from light and quick swords, to big slow heavy hitters, again, based on your preferred play style. Luckily the controls are customizable, as I found the default layout to not be so intuitive, so I have ‘X’ and ‘Y’ for my light and heavy melee attacks, Right Trigger for my Pod and plane mode shooting and Right Bumper for my dodge.

Attacks feel, and sound, powerful, and dodging an enemy attack will give you a slight moment of slow motion, adding to the coolness factor of it all. Like most PlatinumGames titles, the combat is very addictive, smooth and rewarding once you take the time to learn its intricacies. Once you have a grasp on combat and learn that there’s no limited or stamina meter for dodging, something you’ll need to heavily rely on, it all feels and looks so satisfying and stylish.

2B and 9S have a floating Pod that follows them around, used as a form of communication with HQ, but also an aid in battle. These pods will not only help you safely float through the air from tall heights, but can be outfitted with different weaponry. Laying down on the Right Trigger will have your Pod shoot an endless stream of bullets forwards, or towards your locked on target. You can purchase other abilities for your Pod to equip later on when you save up enough credits, each of which are unique and worth experimenting with.

Chips are how you’ll customize 2B and 9S, not just their combat abilities, but also regenerative, hacking and even running speed options. This is the main RPG element to Automata, and once you wrap your head around how the system works, with the cap of slotting chips, it becomes quite interesting to build the perfect set of ability improvements to suit your style of play.

Chips have ranks of +1 and so on, and the higher versions of a chip have a higher cost to equip. You start with a low cap of chip values you can have equipped at one time, but eventually can upgrade the cap to use more. The better the chip the much higher a cost it will have to slot it, so it depends on if you want to be specialized in a few abilities, or decent in a variety; this is where your customization comes in to cater to your gameplay. If you need more cap to equip an awesome new chip, you can unslot the chip that shows map, damage numbers, quest markers, HUD and more. Given the context that you’re an android, it’s a very clever system.

Combat can be quite difficult to get the hang of, so rather than having a very difficult barrier of entry, the easier modes allow you to equip “Auto Mode” chips that will automatically attack, shoot and even dodge for you if you equip them. I found these quite helpful in the beginning when I was getting my bearings around all of the mechanics and systems in place, as there’s not much help tutorial wise aside from the opening basics.

Should you die, well, more when you die, you’ll learn about Automata’s death mechanics in place. Much like Dark Souls, when you die, you lose your stuff, or in this instance, your upgrade chips. To get them back you’ll have to make it back to your body without dying again, and while this amy seems harsh, it felt purposeful here, as deaths weren’t generally unfair, and more a lack of skill. On the flip side, when you die, you leave a corpse for others to find (if you decided to play connected to the server).

Now, also somewhat like Dark Souls, when you find corpses on the ground, which means that a player has died there, usually indicating a challenging fight ahead. You have two options when you happen upon a corpse; resurrect it to have it fight alongside you, or loot some of its gear and credits. While you can only resurrect one player at a time to fight alongside you, essentially think of corpses you find as mini treasure chests, granting you free loot for every one you find. One boss battle in particular, the floor was just littered with corpses, so I resurrected one to distract the boss as I went on a looting spree.

Visually the world looks amazing, as the post-apocalyptic setting feels very realistic without a human presence, and the finer details look superb in high definition. Even more impressive though is the audio and soundtrack. The voice acting is perfect across the board, but the musical score is absolutely amazing. Each boss fight, each area and event has its own distinct sound and feel to it, completely suiting the mood it trying to convey visually. This is one of those soundtracks I’m going to go buy separately.

NieR:Automata is a stunning action RPG that I’m incredibly excited that I got to experience. There’s plenty to uncover, all with a deeper meaning if you stick with it through to the multiple endings. Many games get forgotten once completed, as I’m glad to have played many, but very few stick with me for quite some time, and even less that I euphorically have to recommend experiencing. NieR:Automata is one of those must have games, as it’s completely unique and unlike anything else I’ve ever played. Thank you to those directly responsible for bringing this amazing gem to the Xbox One for more fans to enjoy, as I probably would have never gotten to experience it otherwise.

Overall Score: 9.8 / 10 Slime-san: Superslime Edition

I generally don’t like to compare games to others, as each is unique in its own right, but sometimes the comparison is simply the easiest way to describe it, or it's so heavily influenced by the source material that it’s near impossible to not compare directly. This is the case with Slime-san: Superslime Edition, as you can tell that it’s been heavily inspired by the classic, and challenging platformer, Super Meat Boy. There’s been plenty of games trying to replicate its success, but nothing really captured what made it truly special, so when something similar releases, I’m understandably a little skeptical. Truth be told, I really wasn’t expecting much from Slime-San before starting it up, and you’d think that after years of reviewing games, I’d learn to not judge a game by its cover. This is one of those instances where I’m glad I was wrong, as Slime-san completely took me by surprise.

Not only does Slime-san hide its greatness behind its simplified visuals, the gameplay is so spot on and perfect that I have no qualms comparing it directly to Super Meat Boy for its quality of gameplay. Are you a fan of super challenging gameplay, speed running and want a massive amount of gameplay and replay value? Slime-san has you covered in spades. Don’t let its confusing and simple graphics fool you like it did me, give Slime-san a shot and you’ll be greatly rewarded with a fun and lengthy experience that simply gets it right.

Included in this Superslime Edition is 3 separate campaigns, each of which are unique and entertaining in its own way. The core campaign, Mama’s Madness, revolves around your slime being swallowed by a massive worm, and you need to get out by platforming your way back up its stomach and out its mouth. Beware the deadly stomach acid that will creep up on you during levels though. The Blackbird’s Kraken campaign is a similar tale, but this time you’re swallowed by a huge kraken, so again, you much jump and platform your way out before it’s too late.

More unique is the Sheeple’s Sequel campaign. In this tale, Sheeple comes to realize he’s simply an NPC in a video game, so he decides to re-code himself as the villain and challenge you in much more challenging ways than simple platform jumping. In total there are a couple hundred levels, almost feeling like too many at times, not even including all the extra bonuses, New Game+ and the handful of exclusive levels included in this wonderful edition. The best part is that the bulk of the content is not gated behind progress, so you’re welcome to jump between campaigns freely without having to slog through hundreds of levels before trying out the newer content.

You play a small slime, hence the title, and you’re tasked with progressing from level to level in an attempt to escape the giant animal that has eaten you. You’ll need to not only jump, but dash, swim and more, but with accuracy and speed. Each level has 4 smaller segments that should only take you roughly 10 seconds or so to complete, but that’s quite a stretch, as it will take a lot of time and practice to become that proficient, but it does eventually click, resulting in not having to think so much about what you want to do and simply doing it by reaction alone.

Part of Slime-san’s charm is its simplicity, not just in its gameplay, but the visuals as well, but this design choice has a purpose other than aesthetics. White lines and platforms is regular ground that you can walk (do slimes walk or slide?) on, red are traps and enemies and should be avoided, and lastly, green, which can be used as a surface to pass through or interact with. While this color scheme seemed natural to me (green good, red bad), you’re freely welcome to change the colors to whatever works better for you including a number of colorblind options.

While it might sound like a simple premise with only a couple moves to worry about, it’s anything but. Levels become increasingly more difficult and complex, but Slime-san does an excellent job with its learning curve, slowly introducing new enemies and mechanics at a steady pace, as to not completely frustrate you suddenly with a sudden difficulty spike. That’s not to say you won’t be challenged, and you will die a lot, but I found I never really became overly frustrated, especially with the levels being broken down into four smaller bite sized sections. While there is a timer always present, it can be ignored until you have the confidence at working towards those faster times and collecting the bonus coins and apples along the way.

So you’ve played the original Slime-san and wondering what’s new in this Superslime Edition? Essentially it’s a GOTY edition with all of the campaigns included along with some bonus content, including 10 exclusive levels where you get to play Grandpa-san himself. Honestly, there’s almost too much content here, and will take you quite a while to get through it all, so the value is easily there for the price.

Controls in a platforming game need to be on point, or else you become frustrated from unfair deaths. I certainly became frustrated at times, but it wasn’t because of the controls, it was simply due to not having the skill needed to do what I needed to complete the level yet, something that I gained in time. I never had an unfair death, and every time I did die, was because of my miscalculation or mistake, not the game.

You move your slime with the Left Stick, jump with A, dash with X or phase through green blocks with Left Trigger. The bonus with phasing is that it also slows down the gameplay, so in really hectic situations you can slow things down slightly and be a bit more accurate. Luckily, you’re also able to completely remap your buttons however you wish should a different control scheme suit you better. Different slimes and characters will have different abilities, so even if you can’t get the hang of it, there may be a different playstyle that suits you better, or if you want a bigger challenge. Again, the amount of options and content offered, even small, is staggering.

Levels begin basic, slowly introducing more elements, obstacles and enemies. Eventually some puzzle elements get introduced and need to be tackled as well as speed. It can, and does, become overwhelming eventually, but that’s the beauty of having the other campaigns not gated at all, as I can switch to any other one at any time should I become bored or stuck. Sheeple’s Sequel for example is much more puzzle based than the other campaigns, having you touch every specific block before the exit opens. I wasn’t great at these levels, so I decided to play the other campaigns more, but the freedom to switch back and forth on a whim was a brilliant design decision, as I probably would have shelved the game long ago if not.

When you want a break from the seemingly never ending levels of the campaign, you can leisurely explore the large hub city where you can spend the apples and coins you may have collected along the way. These areas are filled with NPCs to talk to, many of which are hilarious and unique. More than a few times I found myself laughing at their writing, names or situation, so kudos to the writer for all these characters. You’re able to shop for many different types of items, ranging from background art, sketches, cosmetic items for your slime, new characters (with unique abilities) and even some mini games and arcade titles.

I thought this hub world was going to be a thing I just visited once, but I kept going back once I had a handful of apples to spend (there are different items to collect based on the campaign you’re playing). There are hidden areas to uncover and a bunch of unique mini games, including a purposely terrible rip-off of Superman 64. I’m not even joking. You’re also able to purchase different shaders to have as a filter for the game, one of which is literally the red and black Virtual Boy style. Tons of little details like this is what gives Slime-san so much charm. If you manage to uncover some secret areas in the regular levels, you’ll come across some rare coins which can then be spent on arcade games that mimic a Mario Kart, Doom and more.

The retro graphics simply work well for this type of gameplay, and the varied options are a welcome addition for those that want to customize their experience. The soundtrack is filled with some fantastic chiptune music that keeps the energy high and matches the tonality of the gameplay. The music is very catchy and doesn’t simply devolve into a boring loop like some games rely on.

For how much I really appreciate the plethora of content and the options given, oddly enough that was also my main gripe with Slime-san as well. Campaigns are almost too big and can drag on and on. Because of this, I found myself getting a little bored at times, and while the campaign switching and bonus games help with that a bit, it’s hard to see the end in sight when there’s hundreds of levels to get through.

Slime-san: Superslime Edition is hilarious, perfectly tuned and has an astonishing amount of content, more than enough to keep you going for quite some time. Don’t let the simplistic graphics fool you like it did me initially, as the gameplay is near perfect and can suit nearly any play style or preference. Even after a dozen hours or so, I’ve still a long way to go and much to master. For its price, the value and replayability is enormous and near unbeatable.

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 ZAMB! Redux

There’s no shortage of tower defense games available, so to stand out amongst the crowd you need to do something different or unique to catch those who enjoy the genre's attention. Sometimes this involves a specific gameplay mechanic, or in the case of Zamb! Redux, mashing up two genres together, specifically Tower Defense and Twin Stick Shooters. It’s true, this combination has been done before, but is there enough uniqueness and fun within to make a worthwhile purchase? Kind of...

Originally released on PC back in 2014 as Zamb! Biomutant Extermination, improvements have been made, rebalancing has been done, and of course, it has been brought for a new audience, those who play their games on console. The game is an interesting mashup that includes local couch co-op, a necessity if you want to have any longevity with its mediocre gameplay.

The game's heroes, Cye and Chrome, are tasked with taking down an evil genius’ biomutants. I’d like to report more about the story but that’s really the only framework given. We don’t learn anything more about the characters or enemy, and while a strong narrative would have been appreciated, there usually isn’t strong ones included for this genre; case in point.

Gameplay is pretty basic, as you control one character while a friend can locally control the other, or if you don't have a friend over, then the AI will control the other. You use your weapons to shoot, or punch through, waves of enemies while also building turrets and using special abilities for maximum damage. Waves of enemies will pour out along set paths after hacking into one of the placed reactors. Killing enemies levels you up, earning you skill points for upgrades that I’ll delve into shortly.

More importantly, mixing and matching combos and elements will cause massive damage, coming in handy when things become a little hectic. This comes in handy as enemies will drop gems quicker, which in turn can be used to build your turrets or use your special abilities, depending on whom you’re playing as and prefer. Each reactor will set off a handful of waves, becoming marginally more difficult each time, and you win the match by activating all reactors and killing every enemy before moving onto the next, and ever so slightly, different map and going through the same motions all over again.

If enemies manage to destroy all reactors, or kill both of your team members, then you lose the match and must restart. The difficulty is set fairly low, so don’t expect much punishment aside from some dullness. When playing alone, you’re able to swap between Cye and Chrome on the fly should you want to swap for their abilities. Obviously playing co-op would make this much easier, as your AI partner will simply follow you around and attack whatever is in its vicinity, as you’re unable to send them to guard or attack specific points separately.

Levels are setup almost like an arena, with the reactors placed in specific spots and the enemy spawning nearby. Unfortunately there is not much variation in the levels, as nothing, other than the boss fights, stood out from one another. Most stages will have barrels littered around that can also be thrown for massive damage, though as I found out the hard way, you can instantly kill yourself and partner if you are too close to the explosion. Because of the lack of stage variety, once you find a strategy that works, you can essentially do the same thing throughout your whole campaign. That being said, there are bonus objectives to strive for should you desire to work towards more stars.

Cye is a brawler who can use his fist-like swords to get up and close with the enemies. Chrome on the other hand, uses a blaster from afar, so they both play fundamentally different. Cye uses the collected gems to activate one time use abilities, like lightning sparks or setting traps, whereas Chrome uses the collected currency for placing turrets of many different types. Cye has to get close, so will usually take more damage, but he doesn’t feel all that much more powerful, whereas Chrome shoots for practically no damage but moves equally as slow.

Given that turrets will last permanently, as long as they aren’t destroyed (and they don’t have much health), I found they were a much better overall investment since you’re constantly struggling for gems to craft more turrets or use special powers. There’s a whole combo system in place to do big damage to enemies, but I found it was hard to time these correctly, and only a handful of enemies really require it in the later stages.

You’re only able to bring 3 types of turrets and abilities into each stage attempt, and you’ll have plenty to choose from as you unlock more. There are numerous types of turrets, from standard firepower to freeze rays, poison, healing and more, so there’s a healthy amount to cater to your specific playstyle or preferences. I do wish that turret placements had more strategy associated with them though, as I’ve tried to setup a tactical placement of turrets, only to have it not really matter much in the end. There are a few spots where, if a turret is placed, it will get a bonus to its range, damage or life, but these specified spots aren’t usually ideal.

Earning skill points from leveling up will allow you to spend them however you choose. You can upgrade each power a variety of different ways, or even the life, range or damage output of every single turret you’ve currently unlocked. While I did like this addition, it feels like quite a grind if you really want to max out all your abilities and turrets.

Graphically speaking, the game's visuals are passable. You'll find that the art style has a comic book vibe to it. Sometimes the camera is a little frustrating, hiding you behind a pillar or object, but the levels are so small that it won’t matter too much in the end. The audio is nothing special to write about either, as it’s just some bland beat looped indefinitely.

There’s a few boss stages that change things up, which I enjoyed, but they were too far and few between the monotony of the regular stages that have little variety. While I did like the leveling system, and being able to improve each type of ability and turret in many ways, it will take some serious grinding to upgrade everything, which normally wouldn’t be much of an issue if the core gameplay is fun and made you want to continue playing.

In my opinion, the regular $20 price tag is simply too high, and would still be a hard sell at about half of that. Given the lack of stage variety and basic gameplay, it’s mediocre at best, borderline boring at times, slightly improved if you have a partner to play with at home. It really comes down to if you want to play a new tower defense game, and if you do, enter into this one with caution.

Overall Score: 4.8 / 10 Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn

The 90’s was a weird time with its trends, and on the gaming side it seemed like nearly every sports pro athlete was getting their own video game at the time. One of the most memorable ones from that era was Shaq Fu. Sadly it wasn’t remembered for how great it was though, as it’s usually on many 'worst games' lists of all times. It revolved around putting uber popular basketball player Shaquille O’Neal into a fighting game, and history wrote itself from that point on.

A few years ago a crowdfunding campaign began to bring Shaq Fu back with a complete reboot. This was no simple or small request either, as its goal was near a staggering half million dollars. Surprisingly though, the goal was surpassed, so the wait for the release on console began. It would be a long wait, but the time has finally come, as Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is now available in an attempt to clear its sullied name. I’ll admit, given its pedigree, I was fully ready to write it off from the beginning, but it is much better than its predecessor, though that bar wasn’t set very high.

The story has an abandoned baby, Shaq, being found in the village of Hunglow in China, taken in by his master, Ye-Ye. Shaq was always teased for his size compared to all the other children and he became a lowly rickshaw driver, but Ye-Ye knew he had something special within him, so he taught him the way of martial arts. Shaq’s village comes under attack, and with his master’s last words, he warns him of an evil being that has been progressively trying to dumb down the population for years. Shaq’s mission from that point is to kill these demons who just happen to disguise themselves as famous celebrities. Yes, you heard me right, Shaq is required to kill some celebraties that you might just know.

I wish I could come up with crazy stories like this, but I can’t make this stuff up, as this is actually the game's plot. You’ll travel across the globe to find these celebrities in an effort to put a stop to these evil forces across six different stages. A complete run through should last you roughly 2-3 hours or so, and once you’ve completed the campaign you most likely won't find a reason to play again, unless you care about increasing your scores.

Once you reach the main menu, you’re greeted with a new rap jam from the man himself, Shaq, boasting about himself of course. As corny and as dumb as the jingle is, it’s catchy, and sets the tone when going forward with its grossly juvenile humor. For its gameplay, the core mechanics are based on your typical beat-em-up, with shades of classic Final Fight, you control Shaq as he beats up near endless hordes of enemies, varying from fascists all the way to whips on Wall Street.

Like most typical games in the genre, you have light and heavy attacks and a dash attack that can stun enemies. Your light attacks will be the bulk of your damage throughout, but charge your meter enough and you can unleash Shaq’s size 22 boots into enemies for more damage. Now and then you’ll perform a stylish finisher, slowing down time and zooming in on the enemies being defeated, but I’m not sure what the criteria on making this happen is, as it just seemed to occur at random. My favorite though is when you smash an enemy so hard that they fly into the screen, seemingly cracking it in the process, something I adored from the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade games and Battletoads.

Littered throughout the stages you’ll also find weapons you can pick up, like barrels, signposts, and more, that are quite powerful, but they also break after a few hits. Every couple of levels you’ll also get to transform into Big Diesel (another 90’s Shaq reference) or, get this, a cactus. Yes, Shaq turns into a cactus and shoots hundreds of needles at enemies. Again, I can’t make this up. Funny enough, these sections were fun since you are completely overpowered and simply need to defeat a certain amount of enemies before moving on.

Design throughout the game doesn’t really vary. You’ll simply have to defeat a handful of waves of enemies, walk forward a new scene, repeat numerous times until you beat the boss and you then move onto the next stage. Certain enemies require specific strategies, as one type will counter attack you if you try and use your heavy attack, or you will come across a lawyer who will shoot pages at you, requiring you to throw them back at him. The waves never really stop and you simply need to slog through until the end. Enemies and objects drop coins, something I was hoping to buy new abilities or movies with, but it’s simply for points, which I don’t see a reason to care about in a game like this.

The basics are all present, as combos seem natural, but after three hours of spamming the same buttons it does become a bit repetitive. Enemies and objects will drop health orbs to replenish your life, and in typical Shaq fashion, pick up an Icy-Hot and you’ll have a 100% heal to full. Again, an obscure reference that 90’s kids or Shaq fans will only know.

Boss battles happen at the end of each stage after hundreds of enemies have been beat down. These are the demons you must defeat to progress, but they are disguised to everyone else as a celebrity. You’ll have to defeat Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and more. Each boss level has its own tone and style to it, and while it’s interesting to have celebrity bosses, it’s very pop culture and won’t be relevant forever (is Paris Hilton still relevant?).

The humor contained within is very awkward at times. It starts out light hearted but silly, like Kim Kardashian turning into a large floating butt that farts gas to hit you, and the voice acting is terrible, but it has that “so bad, it’s good” vibe to it. There is even numerous fourth wall breaks, a la Deadpool, but with shallow and corny jokes. What took me by surprise was how insensitive the humor eventually becomes, cracking insults at overweight people, gays, and the use terrible Chinese accents. I’m no prude by any means, and make terrible jokes when I shouldn’t, but this game almost feels like they were desperately trying to be edgy, but it can come across borderline racist at times. I’m not one to get offended, but others most likely will, so just a forewarning.

20 bucks for a 3-ish hour campaign is asking a bit much, especially when it’s repetitive, short, and has little to no replay value. I fully expected Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn to be a complete disaster, and while it has faults, it’s competent, but yet mediocre at best. Even though it’s not completely terrible like its predecessor, Shaq needs to be remembered for his ball skills, not voice “acting” and games. Icy-Hot won’t save you from this one.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Lichtspeer: Double Speer Edition

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a game described as an “ancient Germanic future”, but here we are with Lichtspeer: Double Speer Edition, a small indie game developed by two people that has a basic premise, but challenging gameplay. If I had to simply describe its gameplay in one simple sentence, it would be something along the lines of "A lightspear throwing experience where you face near endless hordes of enemies".

You are given power by the gods, well, a god who is kind of bored actually and they simply want to see what happens when you’re given the power of the Lichtspeer, a spear that automatically regenerates, giving you an endless supply of this weapon. And you’ll need this endless supply too, as you’re going to have a violent road ahead of you (in a light hearted way though), trying to impale everything that rushes towards you such as zombies, ice giants, sorcerers, walruses and more.

It’s up to you to please the gods for their amusement, but one mistake and you’ll perish, having to restart at the beginning of the stage. I wish there was more to report regarding the narrative, but that’s literally it. While there’s a framework built as to why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re playing Lichtspeer for its gameplay, not its' story.

Each stage is broken into a handful of waves, each becoming progressively more difficult and adding some type of new enemy or obstacle to keep you on your toes and test your aiming abilities. Most stages will have you in the bottom left corner, standing in place, chucking your endless spears at the oncoming enemies. Think Angry Birds, as you need to hold your power button and aim, factoring in angle and drop. In the beginning this will be easy, but eventually different types of enemies need to be prioritized, as some will walk slowly, some others run, and some even slide down a chute into your face. Aim, shoot, kill and repeat, that’s your objective and what you’ll be doing the whole time, with many deaths peppered in between.

If your accuracy and aim is on point you’ll be able to pull off headshots, and these are basically one hit kills, which again, in the beginning isn’t difficult, but the action will become much more frantic later on, resulting in difficulty of have the time to pull off multiple headshots in a row. Headshots raise your combo meter, allowing for some crazy high scores, but things become so crazy later on that you’ll be more occupied with trying to stay alive rather than aim perfectly. One touch from an enemy and you’re back at the beginning of the stage to try all over again, unless you’re on a boss, then luckily it starts you there again.

In the beginning it’s a little jarring to aim exactly where you want, as you need to hold down a button to power your shot, but you also will need to aim up and down for the exact arc you desire. Eventually you do become more proficient, not having to think as much for angle and distance, but that’s also when you start getting more and more difficult enemies, such as flying animals, jumping fish and more, that require very skilled shots. Other enemies, like the giants, take two hits if you don’t land a headshot, causing more commotion. When there’s multiple types of enemies on screen simultaneously, that’s where quick thinking and strategy comes into play. By the end, it’s almost borderline unfair and calls for near perfection.

To help with this, you earn LSD for completing stages. Calm down, this is simply the currency you earn for your performance in the levels, not the hallucinogenic drug. The higher the score the more you earn, and this LSD can be spent on purchasing new skills or upgrading your favorites. There’s a surprising amount of abilities to be unlocked, though only a handful are truly useful and worthwhile. This encourages replaying levels numerous times to earn currency, which can make subsequent runs that much easier. I do wish there were more useful abilities, maybe even passive bonuses, instead of having a choice of a dozen skills.

The available abilities will refresh over time and should be used when in a tight pinch. These types of sections are usually the challenging, but refreshing, boss fights. Each stage is broken into 5 level sections, and at the end of each second stage is a boss fight that will require some quick thinking and precision. Eventually bosses become quite challenging, and since you’re stationary and unable to move, throwing your spear into a small pink block will allow you to teleport to other footholds on the playfield. Combine this with shooting down projectiles and other enemies and you’ll find that you can become overwhelmed quite quickly.

If you find yourself not doing well, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a 2-player local co-op mode available, for those times you really need some help. The second player gets to play as the main character’s pet (I believe it’s his pet anyway), throwing their own spears wherever they like for double the firepower. Having online support would have helped with longevity, as I don’t really have friends over much, and this wouldn’t be my first choice of a party game if I did.

What I did enjoy was the soundtrack and audio. It has a heavy techno vibe with good beats which suited the visuals quite well, changing based on the levels you’re playing. Headshots sound satisfying, making you want to achieve more of them. And for those wanting more, there’s even a Rage Quit mode, seeing how far you can go in a single life. Not for me by any means, but a great inclusion for those that enjoy difficulty.

Within minutes I was reminded of playing those old pocket tank-like games from my youth, Scorched Earth and Scorched Tanks, as the premise is somewhat similar, keeping you rooted in place and you angle your shots at enemies. While the controls may be clumsy, seemingly better suited for a mouse or touch controls, you do eventually become used to it but you will still suffer cheap and unfair deaths, quite often in the later stages.

The biggest offender in what affects this games overall experience is its repetitiveness. Sure new enemies are introduced often, but the one hit death mechanic can become quite frustrating. Having a dozen near useless abilities doesn’t help either when you learn which few overpowered ones to save up for instead. Unless you are longing for those Scorched Tank days from way back when, you may want to 'spear' clear until a decent sale.

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 Earth Atlantis

As anyone who reads my reviews should know, shoot-em-ups (Shmups) are one of my favorite genres, and always have been. From the days of R-type, 1942, Raiden, Gradius, and my personal favorite of all time, Ikragua, I’ve always been drawn to the genre and became quite skilled at them as time has passed. So, anytime a new shmup is released, my interest is instantaneously piqued. Enter Earth Atlantis, developed by Pixel Perfex. It is a shmup that has you piloting a submarine, instead of the typical space or aircraft, set under a waterworld-like backdrop. What makes Earth Atlantis stand out right away is its unique artistic style, a choice that is equally refreshing yet somewhat frustrating.

“The Great Climate Shift” has hit the planet, leaving 96% of the Earth’s surface covered in water. Machines have adapted to this new paradigm shift of humanity’s downfall and have filled the endless ocean with marine machine hybrids. You, a “Hunter”, are now tasked with taking down the worst of the worst machines, but it won’t be easy, as you’ll have to fight against mechanical fish, squids, crabs, sharks and more. It’s a really interesting premise, but don’t expect a much more in-depth storyline aside from what's told in the beginning, but at least it gives a decent framework for your motivation and reasoning.

While the core gameplay is like any typical shmup, shooting down near endless enemies while trying to survive, it also has a Metroidvania-like map setup, allowing you to explore open pathways and caverns in the ocean depths. Interestingly, there’s also a monster hunting aspect to the gameplay, as your main goal is to reach every accessible boss and destroy them. Doing so will obviously not be as easy as you might assume, as you’ll have a ton of exploration to perform, with many dead ends, and tons of enemies to get through to progress.

One of the most unique aspects Earth Atlantis utilizes is its da Vinci style of sketch art style. The whole game looks as if you’re playing on an old parchment from the 15th century, which is something I’ve not seen before and quite enjoyed, but that was until it was more of a detriment later on. Let me explain.

Given that the bulk of the game has the same visual style of aged parchment, there’s not much variation in the hues, and it is devoid of all other colors for the most part. Where you start to run into issues with this visual style is that many of the enemies’ projectiles later on are pure white and easily blend into the lighter background. During boss fights you’ll take a handful of hits, given it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish all of the bullets from the background when things become incredibly hectic. While I applaud the unique visuals, there’s absolutely no variation, so over time it actually becomes a little dull.

You only have access to the first submarine at the start, with three others that you can unlock should you be lucky enough to randomly happen upon one of the other pirates. Destroy these pirate submarines and you’ll gain access to their sub, though this really isn’t explained all too well in the beginning. Each ship has varying stats and shot types, suiting different playstyles and situations. As you defeat enemies you’ll find random power-ups, such as rockets, electricity, homing missiles and more, adding to your arsenal.

The beginner sub simply shoots forwards and backwards, with more bullets added to your shots as you collect power-ups. The other ships have different shot types, such as one that shoots in a near 360 degrees around him, but less concentrated, while another one has a spread shot in front and back, and another one emits a super concentrated lasers on both sides. Even though it says the ships have different stats, I didn’t seem to notice much of a difference between them, and I made my choice based on a sub's maximum shot power and type.

What’s not explained from the beginning is how the minimap in the top left corner works. You’re dumped into the water world and you need to figure out what to do and where to go. The map will show you where the boss you need to defeat is located, but because the actual level layout isn’t on the map, you won’t know the exact path to get to where you want to go without trial and error. Sure, it has the Metroidvania-like map, but it is missing the most important part, showing how the levels are actually laid out. If the map was actually more useful, I wouldn’t have had as much frustration as I did given how often you need to backtrack. A proper execution of the map mechanic would have made for a much friendlier experience, as I wasted a lot of time trying to find the right path, only to hit a dead end and have to double back and try another section a long way.

There’s also no progression in terms of becoming more powerful. Sure you’ll find power-ups that increase your damage output and shots, but you can also lose them by getting hit by certain enemies and bosses. When you finally find the right path and are presented with a boss fight, these are exciting at first, but eventually you are forced to re-fight them again later on, albeit a more powerful and annoying version with new attack patterns.

There’s more than twenty bosses to fight, even some that more event based, such as having to kill 45 of a specific enemy, but you don’t really get much from defeating these foes aside from the map updating showing you where the next one is located, vaguely of course. There’s a handful of bosses, some more unique than others, each with their own attack types and patterns that will challenge you. Some bosses will open up a new pathway to use as a shortcut between main sections, but again, it’s not labeled on your map, so you better have a good memory.

This is how the progression of Earth Atlantis unravels: You search and search for the right way to the boss, littered with enemies, defeat them and try to find the next boss, and repeat until your map is clear of boss icons. There is another mode that unlocks when you finally manage to defeat all of the bosses, and you’ll most likely have unlocked all the ships by then. Once I was done, I didn’t have much desire to continue on again with a higher difficulty.

While I applaud the unique setting for a shmup and its interesting art style, you’ll take many hits because of how projectiles blend into the background chaos. After a couple hours, it becomes very frustrating to have to kill a boss on one side of the map, then have to traverse to the complete opposite side, essentially blind, unless you have a photographic memory. Ideally, killing bosses would ‘unlock’ a new pathway to a new area and grant you access further into the ocean depths with harder enemies, but you’ll constantly be motoring from the easy beginning side all the way to the more difficult with each boss kill.

After the final boss was completed, I had my fill. It’s not that Earth Atlantis was a bad shmup, it was simply kind of dull. The majority of your time will be trying to find your way to the boss located on the map without any indication that you’re going the right way or not. You'll also be restarting from checkpoints because of the later bosses that are quite annoying to fight. If you’re dying for a new shmup to kill a few hours you could do worse, but I’d wait for a sale before entering the depths of Earth Atlantis.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Gorogoa

Every so often you come across a game that it stands out amongst the crowd for various reasons and is memorable long after the credits roll. To say the puzzle genre is crowded would be an understatement, so to be noticed in the genre you need to be different in some way. Sometimes right from the beginning you know a game is going to be special, like when you rewound time the first time in Braid, or you went through a portal in Portal or you fought against the Flood for the first time in Halo. While I don’t think Gorogoa will go down in the history books as one of the greatest of all time, it sure does stand out in a crowded genre with its unique look, style and gameplay.

More importantly, this curious little puzzle game is a one man show, created by Jason Roberts, first shown as a demo in 2012. Released late last year for PC, it’s now arrived on console for puzzler fans to enjoy. Hand drawn and made as a labor of love, Gorogoa will be in the back of my mind for quite some time, even if it has its own quirks and issues along the way.

Framed with a story, Gorogoa uses no dialogue or text, as it is simply animated and static images that are used to convey the narrative instead. It’s almost done in an abstract way, as a boy sees a fantastic creature in the beginning and sets out to collect five different colored fruits. I understood it as an offering of some sorts, but that’s what happens when a story is told in an abstract way, everyone will have their own interpretation of what they think it all means. While you may not understand much of what’s going on, or why, this is the gateway to the unique gameplay, having you click and move pieces across panels as you try and solve what you’re actually tasked with in the first place.

Your ‘play field’ is four square panels in the arrangement of a window pattern. Gorogoa opens with its beautifully drawn artwork in one of the panels, though you can move that particular one to any of the others should you wish. Some objects are interactive and others you can actually separate from the main panel. Eventually you’ll have four panels open at all times, each one allowing you to explore its own environment, delve deeper within it, or even combine them of sorts if you place them correctly adjacent to one another. Other times you’ll need to combine certain panels with others to create a new one, which can then be explored or separated even further.

It’s a really interesting gameplay mechanic that requires some getting used to. So many of the puzzles are cleverly created that I wish there was some sort of tutorial included. You’re simply dropped into this world and left to figure out not only what you’re supposed to do, but how. There’s a friendly ‘ping’ that happens when you click on a non-interactive section on a panel, giving you an audio and visual clue of what you’re able interact with, though there’s no other hint system in place, requiring a lot of trial and error.

You’ll need to think creatively to solve Gorogoa’s sometimes complex puzzles. Detaching a panel may give you an outline with a cutout that you need to match with another panel, or you may be able to zoom into a panel multiple times to rotate an object, etc. You truly need to think out of the box and the gameplay needs to be experienced for you to fully understand. It’s an interesting system that makes all of the panels share the same world and design, but at the same time they are different and isolated in worlds of their own. There’s literally depth in every panel you can play with, sometimes even having to scroll to the side to see other events unfold.

Great puzzle games reward you with those “ah-hah” moments when you finally solve a puzzle that you’ve been stuck on for what seems like ages. Gorogoa does this in spades, as you’ll surely get stuck at some point, but then you will feel a sent of great relief, and feel like a genius, once you solve it. Eventually the puzzles become very complex and intricate, though they still feel natural with a controller. Oddly enough, for my anyways, the middle part of the game was incredibly difficult when compared to the easier final section, something I didn’t expect.

Obviously your puzzle skills will determine your playtime from beginning to end, but I was able to complete it in a single sitting without much issue. I’d expect most people to complete it in roughly 2–3 hours, but there’s even an achievement for speedrunning it in under 30 minutes. Speaking of game length, even though it’s a little light on length, there is an interesting unlockable once you finish. You can actually play through the 2012 E3 demo, adding a little extra play time, but more interestingly, you can see some of the same puzzles and how far the game has evolved over the years and ideas matured.

The color pallet is beautifully hand drawn with many vibrant colors, and it has a kind of watercolor style to it. While the animations are basic, it has beauty and charm to it, especially when panels are paired together to work in unison. The audio is very light hearted and places a great backdrop for the journey before you, seemingly calming you even with your frustration when you become stuck.

While Gorogoa is an amazing experience, it’s a very brief one with little to no replay unless you’re chasing the few achievements you missed the first time through, or you may really want to experience it again afterwards with a better grasp of its mechanics. As a puzzle game, it’s unique, interesting and absolutely gorgeous. It’s obvious that Gorogoa was a labor of love, and it shows. Mechanically it’s ingenious and what it lacks in length, it makes up in quality. Quality over quantity is the perfect slogan for this unique puzzler that I’ll remember for quite sometime.

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Grim Legends 3: The Dark City

Artifex Mundi has carved out quite the niche genre for themselves on console in the past year or so. They specialize in hidden object games (HOGs) with a heavy emphasis on puzzles. Most of their catalogue utilize a fantasy backdrop, have decent stories, and some beautiful artwork. The original Grim Legends was actually my first foray into the HOG genre by Artifex Mundi, and I’ve been hooked since. I used to think games like this were a waste of time, but as I’ve gotten older, I tend to really enjoy these types of games more now, as everyone needs a break from the typical shooters and racers now and then.

I really enjoyed the first Grim Legends, whereas the second was not quite as polished, especially with its atrocious voice acting, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this third installment. Truth be told, it’s as if Artifex Mundi has a cookie cutter template for their games, although they do vary now and then, but they all follow the same suit with some minor tweaks. I fully expected to go through another typical HOG adventure, and while the setting and mood always changes, the artwork, animation and voice acting are usually always very similar regardless of which title you’re playing from their library. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they’ve been working on improving their ‘template’ in a big way.

You’re thrust into the role of a monster huntress, a member of The Order, a special and high ranking group of people whose sole purpose is to protect the world from evil forces. There’s a powerful artifact that keeps a horrifying monster in another dimension safely away from others. Of course, evil forces want to steal the artifact and unleash the Koshmaar monster upon the world, so it’s up to you and your mentor to track down the person responsible, and of course, save the world. I only wish that there was an effort to give some backstory to the two previous games, as this is the third chapter in the series.

You are taken away to the mysterious land of Lichtenheim, with a tale that will keep your interest for as long as it lasts, and even though I was able to complete the game in a single sitting, I still enjoyed myself throughout. When you do complete the main narrative, there’s a short-but-sweet bonus epilogue that rounds out the abrupt ending, giving a little more playtime and a handful of puzzles.

As per any title in Artifex Mundi's catalog, you progress from scene to scene, looking for items to gather and use to move further along, unlock items and find more puzzles to solve. You’ll be solving a variety of puzzles, completing mini-games, and of course the HOG’s as well. While not new to their games, there was certainly a lot more focus on combinable items from your inventory. Certain items will have a “+” located in the top left corner of the item, indicating you have another item that can merge with it, creating a completely new item for you to use that you’ll need. While I didn’t mind this, Grim Legends 3 seems to rely on it much more than any of their other titles I’ve played to date.

While I was able to complete Casual mode in a single sitting, there is an Expert mode available as well for those looking for more of a challenge. Those wanting to really get their money’s worth can also search each scene for a ton of hidden collectable items, something that is great for the completionists. Given that this is a puzzle game at its heart though, the majority of your time will be searching for items and engaging in puzzle solving.

There’s a handful of puzzles you’ll solve throughout your adventure, though I didn’t find very many of them very challenging. If you aren’t proficient at puzzles though, there is a hint system in place that can also automatically solve said puzzle for you should you become completely stuck. There’s a variety of puzzles to keep things interesting, such as its own take on Sudoku, some alchemy mixing, tile swapping, HOG’s and more.

New to the series is the entertaining Rune Battles. These act almost like a boss battle of sorts where you and your enemy have an energy shield braced on one another for combat. You’re tasked with choosing a symbol on your playfield that doesn’t match any of theirs. Choose correctly and you win that round, win 3 rounds and you defeat them. These are quite easy early on, but eventually you’ll have multiple symbols on both sides as they rotate and move, making things more challenging.

This new addition to the game didn’t go unnoticed and I quite enjoyed them. After completing the Rune Battle you can then remove your opponents mask and dine into their Memory Mirror, almost like saving their soul in a sense. This mini game has you moving panes of stained glass to correctly match the story being told. Again, I really enjoyed this new addition.

As I mentioned above, nearly all of Artifex Mundi games have a very similar visual art style to them, slightly varying based on its setting and backdrop. One thing that always bugged me was the paper doll-like animation they utilized, as it was quite basic, albeit pretty. What took me by complete surprise in this latest entry though was the new animation added to Grim Legends 3: The Dark City, as it seems they’ve upped their game by adding actual cutscenes in certain plot points. To be quite honest, it actually looks quite good, so kudos for trying to improve their experiences.

As well, the voice acting was never great, and sometimes, like in the case of Grim Legends 2, downright terrible. It seems they’ve taken this ongoing criticism to heart and have vastly improved their voice acting quality. While not perfect by any means, it wasn’t as laughable as in previous titles, so again, I’m glad they are trying to improve the quality of their games.

With all of the drastic improvements made to their formula, this was the most enjoyment I had from an Artifex Mundi title yet. They relish in having their own style, puzzles and pretty much go unchallenged in the genre. If more improvements, like the ones included here, continue to advance, I’ll be even more excited for all of their releases. While still a short affair and not too challenging, I had a great relaxing few hours solving puzzles, Rune Battling and saving the world.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Drive on Moscow

I expected a RISK-like experience when I chose to review Drive on Moscow, but what I got was something drastically different and much more in-depth than I anticipated. You don’t really see a lot of games like Drive on Moscow on console, the kind whose physical board game contains a few hundred pieces and requires a solid day and a half to complete. Designed by Ted Raicer, creator of the popular Paths of Glory board game, this digital historical war game is surely to fulfill a very small niche market, as it’s not a common genre found on console.

Created by developers that also brought us Battle of the Bulge, you are tasked with leading an offensive strike on the Soviet capital during a pivotal battle in World War II, or trying to defend your motherland as the Soviets. Drive on Moscow is a historically accurate representation of this specific battle and time period, to the point of being very unbalanced, as that’s how the war was. You are the commander, organizing and directing troops across the campaign, crafting strategies and planning counterattacks against your enemies. You’ll not only need to battle the opposing faction, but the harsh weather and terrain as well.

I’ll be honest, at first I was beyond overwhelmed. If you’re not used to extremely detailed and intricate war based board games, or a massive history buff, it’s a lot to take in at once. Visually, it’s represented much like a classic board game, complete with little tiles representing your units and area zones outlined with borders. I don’t want to say that the gameplay is dry, but the only real animation presented are your unit tiles being shifted around during movement choices. Even battles play out as simple gunfire from tile to tile instead of a grand visualization of war.

There are only four scenarios to experience, though you are able to play each one on both sides of the front should you wish. Granted, the offering is quite small, but keep in mind that there is a very specific battle that is being depicted here, so it’s to be expected. This particular moment in history was quite pivotal, and it seems that historical accuracy was chosen over gameplay, which is fine, as long as you prepare for that beforehand. Could changes and tweaks have been made to make these scenarios more fun and balanced? Absolutely, but that’s not what happened in the war, so expect some lopsided battles and near impossible odds.

There is a tutorial that teaches you the basics, but even after completing it twice, I was still quite confused at just how in-depth and intricate your strategies need to be to stand a chance. Even after a handful of full matches, I was only starting to understand how the mechanics and scoring systems worked. You should fully expect to lose your first few matches, especially depending on which scenario you are playing, as you need to keep in mind that some sides are much more overpowered, as that’s how certain battles historically were.

The singular map is divided into sections, not quite hexagons like most board games, but more sectors or zones, much like towns or cities. Branded the ‘impulse based’ turn system, the moves play out turn based, but there’s much more to it than that. During each turn you can choose any region and command all of the troops in it to attack, flee or occupy other nearby zones. Movement allotment and range is based on troop types such as front line soldiers, tanks, convoys, airborne, cavalry and more, as well as connected railways, bridges and roads, so there’s plenty of strategy in play at all times.

Moves take time, and certain scenarios have a maximum amount of time to be played out, yet each move can cost a different amount of time. For example, moving your foot troops may forward the clock ahead a couple hours or half a day. So, a large part of your strategy needs to be looking ahead to the move ‘schedule’, as timing is almost as important as the moves themselves. This will take a long time to get the hang of, as it did for me. Once a unit has been moved they are unable to be commanded again until the end of the movement phase (usually 72 hours).

Even the easiest AI setting will be no pushover, as they are tailored for each side of the battles for specific scenarios. Again, don’t expect to win your first handful of games, but once you start to piece together all of the mechanics, and truly start to develop some sound strategies, victory tastes oh so sweet. Even though there’s only a handful of scenarios, playing both factions feels almost almost completely different games. Having to defend Moscow from an onslaught of enemies is drastically different in gameplay than trying to strategize how to break through the defenses.

The controls will take some getting used to, luckily though you’re able to back out and cancel moves before finally committing to your choice. It doesn’t feel natural or fluid with a controller, as even picking specific map areas can be tricky at times. For those that always dream of “what if’s”, especially in a historical setting, Drive on Moscow is perfectly suited for those types of people, as it allows you to try and change the outcome of history, even if the stakes are very much against you.

If you’re a fan of strategy games like RISK, then Drive on Moscow takes that depth to a whole new level, focusing on micromanagement and preplanning. History buffs should truly enjoy the accuracy depicted within, and those that can’t afford the very expensive physical board games will be happy to only pay a fraction of the price to enjoy similar gameplay.

Drive on Moscow is very unfriendly towards new players if you’re not willing to put in the time to learn all of its strategic intricacies, though if you put in the time and really plan ahead, there’s some great historical gameplay to be had within, even if it looks extremely bland and uninviting. Sure, it’s going to only satisfy a very specific niche, but those fans will most likely really enjoy this theatre of war.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Through the Woods

It’s not uncommon these days for a small studio of just a few people to turn to Kickstarter to help fund a portion of their vision. They detail what the game is about and why they need the help, and if they can sell their vision to likeminded gamers, then it becomes funded and the wait for a release begins. This is what happened with developer Antagonist and their successfully backed game, Through the Woods.

Having released in 2016 on PC, Through the Woods has seemingly made the travel through said woods and has finally released on console. Before starting to play, I checked out the trailers and initial pitch and thought I was going to be in for a horror based experience, as a background of an empty forest with the protagonist set aside essentially writes the horror for itself. Instead though, not many scares were had, and instead, a more story based adventure took place, albeit with some minor horror elements, but not at all what I initially expected.

At its narrative core, Through the Woods tells a tale about how far a mother would go to save her son. Inspired by Norwegian folk tales, the adventure begins with the mother, Karen, recalling events of what exactly happened to her and her son, Espen. When asked where her son was, this is the beginning of her tale.

She recalls her and her son retreating to the wilderness for the weekend, but when Epsen wants to play, Karen is much too tired from her pile of work. You can tell there’s some tenseness in their relationship, events happen and eventually Espen is missing. Finding small traces of her son’s whereabouts, she explores and delves deeper and deeper into the seemingly empty forest nearby. Expect to feel lonely and afraid, as being alone in the woods can be frightening on its own, but factor in that you’re searching for your lost son with mysterious forces seemingly all around you, and the setting is a grim one.

Your only real tool you’ll have access to in your search for Espen will be your flashlight. Luckily it seems to have endless batteries, but eventually you’re going to prefer the darkness as your friend, as using the light to see easier will also bring you unwanted attention at times. And yes, I’m being vague on purpose, as the adventure is quite short in length, as I finished it in a single sitting in roughly 2 hours or so, so any spoiler really detracts from the overall experience.

Just like in real life, when you can’t see well, your other sense become heightened, and you’ll be hearing not only the wind whistling softly through the dense thickness of trees and foliage, but also what may lurk within the shadows.

Left Trigger will allow you to sneak slowly and unheard when needed and the Right allows you to run when needed to escape or simply traverse along the lengthy paths quicker. There’s no attack option, simply because there’s no combat. If you manage to run into, erm, an enemy, you’ll simply die outright and have to try again. While this creates a ‘run or hide’ tenseness in certain moments, this is also part of the problem of having dull gameplay.

The majority of your gameplay will be running from point A to B with only a few slightly off the beat paths to find a hidden collectable, but for the most part, Through the Woods is mainly a walking (well jogging I guess) simulator as there’s no combat or puzzles to solve along your journey. Having nothing else to essentially do along the way really also cuts down the horror element. Sure, there’s one or two spots that are a bit tense (again, purposely being ambiguous), but don’t expect any jump scares.

This was a little bit of a letdown, as exploring the woods at night by yourself is a perfect and natural backdrop for a frightening tale. That being said, I was always compelled to journey on and find Espen, as I wanted to find out what happened, and being a parent myself, I know I would continue on as well, regardless of the danger. While it may not have the fights or excitement, it managed to keep my attention with its slowly unfolding dialogue as I proceeded to search the woods.


I would normally detail the visuals before the audio, but the audio here is much more important for this tale. Given that you’re nearly always in the dark in the thickness of the woods, you’ll rely on audio clues around you in place of visual clues. You’ll hear things in the woods, unsure if it’s a natural animal, or something else entirely. Certain creatures react to you differently, sometimes chasing if they see you, some being blind but can hear you, among others, so you’ll learn what’s nearby with their auditory queues.

The ambient sound, wind in trees and minor noises brings more tension than anything else, and the soundtrack is quite decent when there’s a section of exploration and the backdrop of music. It’s a shame that the voice acting on the other hand is near atrocious for mostly everyone else. It’s not the worst I’ve heard, but far from even average. In a horror-like game, you need to believe their performances or else the whole experience simply falls flat. I wasn’t convinced for a second that Karen was in agony trying to find her lost son, and Espen surely didn’t sound convincing either.

Visually, everything is a mixed bag as well. The forest backdrop looks decent, though I guess it’s hard to tell when you’re almost always in the darkness. Most textures look passible, but certain pieces, even the skybox at times, looks terrible. I took a screenshot of me looking into the sky, and the sun simply looked like a white circle. The same went for night time, where the stars looked like an MS paint drawing with square dots littered throughout. While the villages you come across are decent, the animations clearly need a lot of work. Every movement feels janky and very robotic, and if you look at Karen’s face as she’s talking, she looks like an animatronic more than a mother in deep distress.

I can see the appeal for Through the Woods, as it does something a little different, but the 2 or so hour length coupled with the dull gameplay will be sure to be a disappointment to some. Despite its list of flaws, I was compelled to see it to the end, and to be honest, I think the ending will stick with me for quite some time.

Even though trailers may suggest a horror experience set in the lonely woods at night, it’s not exactly that. Its substory is its real strength, but is hidden behind hidden optional collectables littered throughout the woods. It does have a tense and eerie atmosphere, but lacks depth and interesting gameplay more than anything else.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Ys Origin

I knew the Ys series has been around for a while, but I didn’t realize it debuted over thirty years ago in 1987. I’m normally very well versed on my JPRG’s, but for some reason or another I’ve never actually gotten around to playing a Ys title before, despite owning a handful of them. Now that developer DotEmu has decided to bring the series to Xbox Fans for the first time, I dove in head first with the newest release, Ys Origin. While this title was released for PC back in 2006, then on Steam in 2012, it’s now making its console debut with a few bonuses for Xbox fans who may want to jump into the series.

Taking place 700 years prior to the first Ys title, Origin serves as a prequel, so no prior knowledge of the series is necessary, though Ys fans with keen eyes will notice some fan service. The world is at peace until one day an invasion of demons wreaks havoc on the lands, constructing a massive tower, aptly named the Devil’s Tower. The land of Ys is ruled by twin goddesses, Feena and Reah, but they mysteriously go missing once the invasion begins, so naturally, it’s up to you to find the goddesses, restore order in the land and destroy the demons plaguing your home. Of course nothing is simple, and the search party gets separated from the Holy army, thus leaving you on your journey, one which begins at the base of the Devil’s Tower.

You’ll begin by choosing your difficulty level, ranging from Easy, Normal to Nightmare, then you will choose between two characters to play as, Yunica or Hugo, each of which has their own complete playstyles and abilities. Yunica is a young and eager apprentice knight that is unable to use magic of any kind, so she uses her large axe to attack and has quick mobility. Hugo on the other hand is the magic user, shooting magic from afar, but he is much slower. Both play vastly different and their stories are separate, even if they result in the same end point. This promotes multiple playthroughs and allows you to see a different point of view, which is always welcome.

The majority of your gameplay involves exploring the tower’s many levels and floors, searching for levers, items, and whatnot, while encountering hordes of enemies along your journey. Actually, you’re whole adventure takes place in the tower, which I thought was just going to be the beginning area, but alas, you’re stuck inside the almost never ending tower for your adventure.

I was initially disappointed about this, but your environments will change while inside the different sections of the tower, so while it may not be a large overworld map you’re exploring, the scenery does alter, even if it does all take place indoors. You’ll come across water based floors, fire and more, as any typical RPG would employ.

You’re going to need to find keys to open doors, find switches to move platforms, and even search for hidden secrets. While the general layout of the floors isn't terribly confusing, there’s no map system included, so it is possible to get lost if your memory isn’t sharp. I wish this wasn’t the case, as it seems like an oversight, nevertheless, rooms will respawn full of enemies every time you zone out and go back in, so it is possible to grind some levels and experience should you wish.

Speaking of combat, it’s pretty basic and plays more like a hack and slash than a traditional turn based JRPG, as you simply maneuver and attack, something I didn’t expect but really enjoyed. Controls were spot on, attacks felt powerful and it’s always fun to see an enemy explode into EXP gems, items, SP and more. As expected, enemies in the beginning will pose little threat, but as you progress further up the tower, things becomes much trickier, especially when it comes to the bosses.

When you come across a Goddess statue, they will not only serve as save points, but also teleportation spots and where you’ll spend your gathered SP. There are upgrades that will improve your equipped armor and weapons, run speed, abilities, resistances and more. It’s an interesting change of pace from the norm and really forces you to grind quite a bit if you want the highest tier of upgrades. Luckily rooms fully respawn when you re-enter them, so it’s a matter of finding the most efficient spots to grind in, which I highly suggest, as bosses will surely challenge you with their interesting and unique battles.

When you do make your way through the six hour or so campaign, you are treated to some new game modes that unlock, all of which add some replayability and longevity to the game. Time Attack is pretty self-explanatory, challenging you against the clock. Arena Mode will have you facing waves of various enemies from the different floors, unlocking new arenas as you progress. What’s really cool are the two Xbox One exclusive additions: Blood option, which was previously a hidden PC setting, and Speedrun Mode. Speedrun is more than just the time attack, as the dialogue can be skipped, you can’t use save points, and certain glitches were intentionally left in for those that want to utilize them for quicker runs.

Visually, Ys Origin is absolutely gorgeous. To be honest, I was worried it was going to have that 'mobile remake' style of visuals that updated remakes have been getting lately. These aren't as pleasing as classic traditional sprites, but that’s not the case here. Even though all of the environments are set indoors, the variety in the visuals is quite decent and looks pleasant. Backdrops, enemies and characters are all drawn wonderfully. The audio is just as good, and even though I wish it was voice acted instead of text bubbles, the music is very fitting to the mood of the floor you’re exploring.

I really only have one negative to point out throughout my experience, that being that it’s very difficult to tell where you are on the Z-axis when trying to fight enemies, bosses and crossing platforms. While using shadows helps one to figure out where one's placement is, having to run up the back of a boss is quite difficult simply because you aren’t easily able to tell where you are in relation. Not a deal breaker by any means, but something that I was occasionally running into.

At $20, Ys Origin is priced perfectly with the amount of value you get within, allowing for multiple character playthroughs and unlockables to be discovered. The story and characters are interesting, the gameplay is solid, boss fights are interesting and memorable, it looks beautiful, and the gameplay is fantastic. Fans of the series will enjoy seeing some backstory while new fans, like myself, now have an entry point to start from, bringing them into the series.

Overall Score: 8.6 / 10 Laser League

Developers Roll7, best known for OlliOlli, have released their newest game, Laser League, hoping to break into the sports genre with tons of lasers and a colorful Tron-like artistic style. Maybe it’s due to being an 80’s child, but I instinctively find myself always gravitating towards games with a vibrant neon Tron-like style. Like most sports games of this nature on gaming consoles, you’ll catch on really quickly to the core mechanics, but you will need to spend some time to learn its intricacies and strategies to win consistently.

The year is 2150 and the hottest sport is Laser League, where you fight for control of nodes that spawn deadly lasers of color, attempting to not only defeat, but destroy your competition to win. This is the future though, so obviously everything is bright, vibrant, neon and of course, lightning fast. You’ll surely need to use your reflexes, master fakes, and strategically choose your classes and power-up use timing if you want to be victorious across the handful of arenas.

Like most sports, there are different types of players, categorized into classes. While they may not have positions like in traditional sports, each one is completely unique and has their own special abilities, making half the strategy choosing the correct classes to outplay your opponents. The six classes are as follows:

Blade – Able to utilize a short range attack to eliminate the competition.

Smash – Equips a shield that can short-range dash into enemies, knocking them backwards and briefly stunning, hopefully into the moving lasers.

Ghost – Allows a brief moment of invulnerability, allowing you to phase through a laser to escape or revive a teammate when needed.

Thief – This class has an ability that allows you to steal an active enemy node away from the competition.

Shock – This class has an ability to produce a small area of effect that will briefly disable (stun) enemies

And lastly Snipe – This class allows you to drop a marker, which produces a line between it and wherever you are, allowing you to teleport to it, subsequently eliminating any enemies if the path if timed correctly.

Surely, some people will gravitate towards specific classes, as they cater to certain playstyles, but over the course of playing dozens of matches, I found most players online tend to stick with Smash, as the knockback is simply too good to pass up, especially when you learn its range and timing, both offensive and defensively. I’m hoping some balancing tweaks will come in the future that will make choosing the other classes more enticing. Not only do you have a choice of class, but modifiers as well, to help augment your playstyle, either to help improve your class or make up for your shortcomings.

During a match, you’ll not only have to keep track of everything from players to lasers constantly changing and moving, but power-ups will also appear on the playfield randomly. These can be game changers and sway the match in your favor, but it can also sway against you if the enemy uses them at the appropriate time. With over a dozen different power-ups, you’ll want to learn the icons, as grabbing the power-up that swaps all laser colors, especially if you’re in the lead, can be more of a detriment. There are over a dozen power-ups that will wildly change the field for a short time, such as swapping laser nodes, cancelling all active ones, reversing laser directions, pausing lasers and many more.

Another skill you’re going to have to master quickly if you want to rack up the wins, is the wall wrap. This allows you to evade or attack by quickly warping from one side of the arena to the other. Simply walk into the left wall and you’ll appear on the right side. Run upwards and you’ll appear on the bottom. You’ll need to master this if you want any hope of winning, as it’s usually the only way to avoid the laser grids and opposing team.

When you’re playing 2v2 or 3v3 and a teammate gets eliminated, there will be an icon on the ground indicating where they died. If you manage to run over the icon, they can be revived, though this becomes very tricky when avoiding lasers and enemies alike. A good team will have each other’s backs, making reviving a priority whenever possible.

There’s a level-up/progression system, and it is based on how well you do certain things such as winning matches, etc. There’s also a ton of character customization items you can unlock as well, allowing you to tweak your character to your liking. It does take a while to unlock many of the pieces, but this will help with the longevity if you want to have all of the unlockable items.

Local competitive play is available, and so is online 2v2 and 3v3 matches. While a multiplayer only game will live or die by its community numbers, Roll7 did something smart and included bots for when players can’t be found to fill matches. I’d say about half my matches played were against someone with AI substitutions, and the rest were matches full human controlled players. It seems as there’s not much of a matchmaking system behind the scenes though, as numerous times a group of us low level players were pitted against much higher ranked players, rather than evening out the teams. Maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but that was my online experience while reviewing this game.

Laser League is very easy to understand and pickup, but like most great titles, it will take time and patience to master. There’s a lot more to the gameplay than simply avoiding lasers, even though that may be your first impression, as there’s a surprisingly deep strategy that needs to be employed to pull off those wins, along with lightning quick reflexes. Laser League is fresh, new and exciting, and even though it emanates an obvious Tron vibe with its visuals, I applaud its innovativeness and accessibility for those looking for something different than what’s offered now in the competitive landscape.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Phantom Trigger

I’ve never heard the term or genre Neon Slasher before, but that’s what Phantom Trigger is marketed as, so expect plenty of hack and slash gameplay coupled with a vibrant neon color palette of pixel art. If you’ve played Hyper Light Drifter in the past, you’ll have a moment of déjà vu, as the gameplay is very similar on the surface.

You’re introduced to Stan, a normal middle class man leading an ordinary life, which is until he runs into some severe health issues. Given that his condition is likely fatal, Stan chooses to opt for an experimental treatment rather than a grossly expensive surgery. The majority of the gameplay has you controlling The Outsider, set in a mysterious and brightly neon world, with the vague connection between the two people and the worlds.

There’s clearly a connection between the two, with small snippets of story told through flashbacks, which was my favorite trait about Phantom Trigger, as there were some interesting reveals and twists. Slowly things will come together and make sense, but you won’t really know what’s happening, or why, until the very end.

A hack and slash at its core, Phantom Trigger relies heavily on its combat to keep you interested, the problem being that it’s simply not that enjoyable to begin with, as there’s a lack of variety. Each level has you searching around a wide area for paths to explore, with every corner infested by a variety of enemies, all whom are trying to stop and defeat you. You’ll find checkpoints randomly across the level, serving as respawn points when you inevitably die.

In certain spots you will find yourself locked into a small play area where you won’t be allowed to progress until every enemy is defeated, which usually occurs after a handful of waves. These aren’t terribly difficult, but they happen so frequently, and your checkpoints are so far and few in between, that you’ll have to attempt sections repeatedly due to dying.

It doesn’t help that there’s no tutorial, as I didn’t know that I had different types of attacks or that combos were a thing, as you need to rely on them heavily throughout the 6-hour or so adventure. A great example of this shortcoming is when I came across the first puzzle. Four pillars appeared of different colors, popping up at different intervals. I kept hitting them but I was doing something wrong, and when I did so, enemies would spawn. After about 20 minutes I was unable to figure out what I was doing wrong after repeated fails and deaths.

As it turns out, The Outsider actually has 3 separate weapons and attacks, conveniently color coded as well. A blue quick slashing ice sword, heavy fire knuckles, and a green whip that allows you to pull in enemies. If this was taught to me beforehand, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time on the color based ‘Simon Says’ puzzle, as all I needed to do was match my specific weapons to the pillars in order.

You also have a quick dash that allows you to briefly teleport in the direction you aim, allowing you to phase through attacks, avoid enemies and traverse levels quicker. Combine all of these elements and you have the basics of the combat system, yet for some reason though, even after hours of gameplay, it didn't feel natural. Individual weapons don’t have combos, but combined attacks in three hit sequences, and you’ll perform combos, something you’ll need to almost exclusively rely on to reach the credits.

There’s only a handful of combos in the game, but there’s clearly one or two that are superior, so eventually the combat devolves into spamming the same button combinations until you win, or die and try again. The combos are all about timing, as is the rest of combat, though most enemies are repeated throughout the game and take a lot of damage to defeat. There are boss fights to spice things up a bit, though most of these aren’t anything special and simply have you attacking it along with waves of endless enemies.

With the never ending bombardment of enemies thrown at you, I expected there to be an interesting progression system, something that would improve your abilities or made you stronger. Alas, that isn’t the case here. Your weapons will naturally level up the more you use them, but you don’t ever become stronger with their attacks. Instead, certain combos require your weapons to be at a specific level, so that’s really the only progression you’ll make. It was disappointing to not have your weapons become stronger over time, forcing you to rely on the combo attacks solely for the majority of your damage.

For those that enjoy streaming, there’s some built in Mixer integration, which I hope catches on with more games. Should you have an audience to stream to, your spectators can decide to give you more health, upgrade your weapons, or of course spawn enemies. Given that this is the internet, expect to have many more enemies spawned if you do decide to stream with the Mixer integration turned on.

While the combat was repetitive and I felt somewhat let down, the art style is very aesthetically pleasing. The neon isn’t terribly 'in-your-face', nor does it look like it’s ripped straight from the 80’s, but it’s colorful, bright and vibrant at the same time. While the level design lacks variety, the pixel art is wonderfully done and flows naturally. Audio is on the same level, as each attack, especially the fire punch, sounds distinct, unique and powerful. This is all wrapped with a great electronic soundtrack that fits the mood and visual style of Phantom Trigger perfectly.

While Phantom Trigger looks attractive and very inviting, the lack of any meaningful progression and repetitive combat throughout really hinders its enjoyment. Priced at $18.99 (CAD), your enjoyment is going to solely be based on how much you find on repeating the same combos over and over fun or not. After the first few hours, I wasn’t enjoying the gameplay much aside from knowing that I was close to another story segment, something I did enjoy.

If you’re looking for a new weekend game to play and be done with, check out Phantom Trigger when it’s on sale. At $10 I could see this doing much better, but as it stands right now, it’s an alright game that simply lacks motivational power to entice you to continue on.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Runestone Keeper

I enjoy my dungeon crawlers and my roguelike games, both of which combined isn’t necessarily uncommon, but I have not quite experienced something quite like Runestone Keeper before. Runestone Keeper seems to blend a dungeon crawler with some roguelike mechanics, but the gameplay is more akin to that of a board game of sorts. I’ll admit, I was a little turned off when playing in the beginning, but as I put some time into it, and learned the inner workings that isn’t directly taught to you via a tutorial, I started to enjoy it much more and simply took it for what it is.

Don’t go in expecting some grand narrative. Actually, there’s no story here really at all, as your first selectable class is simply named “Guy” with no real reasoning for your quest other than progressing further in the dungeon. You’ll have a brief tutorial that teaches you the basic mechanics but many of the ‘deep down’ mechanics you’ll simply need to learn for yourself.

The general concept of the game is to explore dungeon levels, defeating monsters, and progressing as far as you can before ultimately succumbing to death, resulting in having to start all over from the first floor. You view the dungeon from above, in a grid-like format, controlling a cursor and choosing which tile to click and uncover what may lie on it. Only one tile is viewable from the beginning of each floor, so you need to click any adjacent tiles to uncover them, almost like the fog in a RTS title. Each tile you click has a chance at being something beneficial, an enemy, an item, or other surprises that are completely randomly generated every time you play. And of course, a good dungeon crawler wouldn’t be complete with every floor becoming much more dangerous than the last, and that’s no different here.

Given that every tile is randomly determined when it loads, and you don’t know what is on each tile until you click on it, so randomness will either work for you, or usually, very much against you. Traps are plentiful, hurting you and decreasing your health pool when you uncover one, and special items can be acquired and used when needed, again, completely dependent on the randomly generated floors. You may find special shrines that allow you to pray to Gods for special buffs, though be prepared to uncover many enemies on the tiles at the most inopportune times.

All you need to progress floors to find the exit, some simply need to be clicked, while others will require a key that a certain enemy is holding. While you can quickly jump floors with some luck, you may want to explore nearly every tile per floor, as you’ll need to kill enemies to level up, making each following floor easier to handle. Simply rushing through floors will not end well for you when enemies can easily take you out without sufficient levels and equipment.

So, by that description above, it may sound like you’re simply clicking on boxes to uncover what’s underneath, and at its core this is true, but once you start making it to double digits, you’re going to have to be very strategic in every move you make, taking into account your health, soul points, mana, items, and more. If you’re lucky, you’ll uncover hearts that can be used to replenish your health, as permadeath occurs once you reach zero.

Every time you uncover a tile, you earn a soul point, which you use for items that have a soul cost to them, as do other abilities and bonuses you can uncover on floors as well. You’re only able to hold three items at a time, so many times you’ll need to weigh which is better suited for your playstyle and current situation. Once you start taking all of these into account, as well as your mana to use powerful character based abilities, there’s actually a decent amount of strategy and depth involved in the gameplay.

Monsters are varied, and even though they only appear as icons on the tiles, they can be quite formidable. Their icon will show their attack, health, and shield stats, so much of the strategy is figuring out who to attack, when and with what. To do so efficiently, you’ll need gear and equipment to do so. Enemies can drop gear, which is also randomized, though you can also spend your precious gold on upgrades in the random stores you happen across as well. You’ll start with a basic sword and armor, but eventually you’ll come across other gear pieces with varied stats that can make a world of difference in your survival.

There are two sets of weapons you can have as well, and while it may not seem like there’s much point at first, you’ll eventually come across deadly ranged enemies that will attack you each time you click a tile, and if you are numerous tiles away before you get into sword attack range, you’re going to die very quickly, hence the need for a bow or staff so you can attack from a distance.

Like any good RPG, Runestone Keeper also implements a leveling system that allows you to choose from an increase to your specific stats that not only makes you more powerful, but it allows you to equip higher level gear and items as well. This is where part of your playstyle will come into play, as you can increase your damage every time you level, or decide to gain more health with heart pickups instead. I suggest trying to stick to a specific stat or style, as having rounded out stats never really worked out well for me for the most part.

When you die, you will lose all of your gear and progress, and the only persisting item you’ll keep is the gold you earn from each playthrough. This accumulates and can be used for numerous different bonuses, making each subsequent playthroughs slightly easier. The smartest use for your gold though is to save up and use for permanent passive upgrades, like extra gold and XP per kill, among others, though you need to back out to the main menu to purchase these. As well, any of the Runestones you find will also persist through death, along with Gods you’ve unlocked by preying at their alters. For a nominal gold fee you can also start a run with certain items pre-purchased, though you’ll always be at the mercy of the randomness.

It’s taken quite a few hours of grinding for nominal amounts of gold to save up for the passive bonuses, but now that I’ve got a grasp on the deeper mechanics and have devised some of my strategies, I last much longer than I used to, nearly always reaching double digits in regards to the dungeon floors. The randomness can result in your death very quickly or it can be incredibly lucky with tons of heart pickups, there’s no telling how a run will go beforehand. This may frustrate some, but you always earn some gold at the end, so it’s a matter of sticking with it long enough to save up for some bigger upgrades and bonuses.

It’s clear that Runestone Keeper was originally built for PCs overseas, as some translation issues have slipped through the QA process (e.g. - I’ve been told to use space bar) and doesn’t always read fluently in English. By no means is it a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable and awkward. It’s simplistic in nature, but there is some depth and strategy needed to be consistent and successful, and that’s only if luck is on your side. If you put in the time to slowly progress, you’ll enjoy your dungeon crawling experience, even when you’re dying every few floors, it’s just a shame that the majority of your success is out of your hands and relies on pure luck.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Pure Farming 2018

I reviewed my first farming simulator last year, fully expecting for it to be a waste of time and skeptical that it could be fun, initially scoffing at the idea, and the genre, but I came away kind of surprised with how in-depth it really was, and more importantly, how much work farmers put in. I was really surprised with how popular the farm sim genre is after being exposed to it, as I didn’t expect it to be with how niche it is. Previously, there really has only been one main game in the genre that releases every few years, on console anyway, but developer Ice Flame is looking to break into the market with their inaugural offering, Pure Farming 2018.

Sure, farming sims may only appeal to a small market, but the fans who play them are very passionate about what they do, and don’t, like from their farming games. Pure Farming 2018 seems to have done their research, adding some very interesting features not found elsewhere, yet somehow also missing some big ones, like multiplayer and mods.

If you’re not a farmer, or a farming game enthusiast, it’s hard to find the appeal of any farming titles, as you need to work hard for any pay off, just like real farming. If ploughing a field for 45 minutes before sowing and watering for another 45 doesn’t sound appealing to you, then there’s not much these games will do to make it exciting, but if cultivating your own crops and selling them in other markets for huge profits sounds fun, you’ll most likely enjoy Pure Farming 2018 for what they’ve added to the genre, hopefully resulting in the competition stepping up their game as well.

Surprisingly enough, there is actually a campaign with a story attached to Pure Farming 2018. It won’t win any awards, as it’s simply a tale of your grandfather passing and leaving the farm to you, along with the debt that comes with said land. So, it’s up to you to save the family farm and turn it around into a profit. I appreciated that at least there was some type of narrative involved aside from the simple objective of making money, as there’s a reason behind doing what you need to do. So, you strap on your boots, put on your hat and overalls and start your journey to becoming a farmer that would make your grandfather proud.

To turn a profit, you’ll need to plant seeds, cultivate crops, raise livestock, run errands and drive heavy farming machinery. One thing I found very challenging about the other farm sims was just how in-depth they were, as you needed to turn the engine on, hit the lights, rotate your equipment, turn it on and more, and doing so with a controller only was quite challenging and unintuitive. Pure Farming 2018 doesn’t go as in-depth per se, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as good of a simulator either, it simply does things differently, allowing you to focus on other aspects and separating itself from the competition.

My First Farm mode is actually the campaign/tutorial, guiding you step by step on how to move around, how to drive and how to use equipment, and of course, harvesting your crops properly. Even though you’re generally given step by step instructions of how to perform your task at hand, it’s not done well enough, periodically keeping you confused and frustrated as to why what you’re supposed to do isn’t working. Some instructions are vague, eventually not giving you every single step in the process, leaving you to search the old tutorial tips or struggling to remember what you needed to do hours ago the first time.

Luckily, as a modern farmer you have your trusty tablet on hand at all times. This is where you’ll get your emails (tips and tutorial), statistics, view marketplace to buy new equipment for delivery and resources, taking another loan from the bank (if needed), hiring extra help and even launch your drone should you want to fly around the farm to get an aerial point of view. What I really enjoyed was how beginner friendly many of the options (and tablet menus) were, so newcomers shouldn’t be too intimidated once you’ve learned the ropes and general controls.

You have the choice of three different modes to play: My First Farm, which is the starting tutorial and campaign as described above, Free Farming, where you can choose the continent you want to farm on and even your starting cash flow (up to $5 million), or Farming Challenges that have you focusing on specific objectives to be successful. Free Farming is suggested for more experienced players, as there’s no hand-holding in any way, allowing you to freely farm however you choose. The nearly unlimited budget (should you chose) is a great way to test out new equipment and farm types. Farming Challenges will surely put your farming skills to the test, as they are objective based with very specific gear and goals.

As I mentioned above, you can choose a mode that allows you to pick where you will farm. That’s right, Pure Farming 2018 allows you the option to choose which continent to play on. You’re able to choose from areas such as Italy, Japan, Colombia, and of course the biggest map of all by a large margin, Montana, USA (and Germany if you buy the DLC). I didn’t think that having different areas would be a big deal aside from aesthetics and a varied backdrop, but I was surprised to see that each area has their own specific crop types that you can only farm there. For example, in Japan you can have rice farms and in others, hemp and olives. It was really interesting to see the different types of agriculture based on the various countries. You can even then farm crops in one country and sell to another for massive profits.

Farming isn’t possible without the proper equipment, and there’s plenty available for you to choose from, each with their own costs and stats. There are actual manufacturers included, such as Gregoire, Zetor, Mitsubishi and more. Granted, the selection is nowhere near the amount that other titles in the genre offer, but for someone like me, it was more than enough to offer varied options of how to cultivate my crops.

While you can obviously harvest wheat and potatoes, Pure Farming 2018 includes many more options based on what kind of crops you want to grow. Chickens, cows, rabbits, apples, help, rice, olives, greenhouses, cabbage, peppers and even green energy such as solar and wind, among others. There’s quite a large selection, some of which are only accessible on certain continents, so there’s plenty of gameplay should you desire it. Factor in that a large plot of land can take well over an hour to properly plow, seed and water, and you’ll start to get an idea of how much work farmers actually go through.

There’s really only two glaring omissions from Pure Farming 2018: no mods and no multiplayer. Mods allow for much more gameplay to be released by the community, and multiplayer would sure make the grind much more bearable with a friend or two. I’ve put in some hours into my crops, but it does grow tiresome after a while when doing it alone. Having a friend that could help me, or at least keep me company, would be much more preferable.

What I really enjoyed about Pure Farming 2018 is that it’s much more accessible than some of the others in the genre. Granted, the tutorial doesn’t do a good enough job, but I did eventually figure out what I had to do and how through trial and error. It’s still a simulator, but it feels much easier to do minor things overall, allowing you to focus on more farming aspects. It may not be the prettiest game out there, and it has its technical issues, but fans of the genre will most likely overlook these and enjoy their time cultivating their hard work.

Farming is hard work and takes time, and it’s no different here. You’re going to have to put in the hours to have a large, successful and profitable farm, but if you’re willing to do so, you’ll enjoy all that there is to do in Pure Farming 2018 that the competition simply doesn’t offer. If mod support and multiplayer are included in the hopeful sequel, there will be some serious farm sim competition in the genre.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Tiles

I’m always down for a good puzzle game. On one hand they can be very relaxing and a change of pace from typical shooters, racers and action games, on the other, difficulty can easily turn to frustration if something just doesn’t click. At first look, Tiles, created by lone man developer Romans I XVI Gaming, looks incredibly simplistic, and it is, but don’t let that lure you into a false sense of security, as you’ll eventually hit a brick wall of difficulty, or your fingers will become too tired to continue, one of which will come surely first.

As for Tiles’ presentation, don’t expect much in the visual department, as it's as minimalistic as it gets. Puzzles play out in a grid-like layout on top of a black background; that’s it. On a positive note, that means there’s absolutely no distractions, as you’re simply focused on the puzzle placed in front of you, nothing else. While catchy, the lopped music does tire over time, especially if you’re attempting to play for any length of time. There's also no attempt of a real tutorial, you’re simply thrown into a level and set out to figure everything out for yourself, so it can be a little confusing at first.

Your starting point is always on a green tile and your goal is to reach the red tile, but only after you’ve crossed every single blue tile on the screen first. Levels will start off easy, of course, then promptly ramp up in difficulty. If you think you can simply rush to the red tile to end the level before clearing each blue one, you’ll promptly be restarted and need to try again, so there’s some forward thinking needed to figure out the quickest and most optimal path. Oh, and blue tiles fall and disappear after a few moments, so you need to constantly be moving quickly and with purpose.

The biggest part of your strategy is not only figuring out the pathway to the exit while hitting every blue tile beforehand, but also timing your moves when you have to navigate with tiles that disappear quickly. The later stages are so elaborate that it will take some time to figure out the proper path, though the hardest part will be having the finger dexterity to actually do so in time accurately.

This is where the real difficulty for Tiles comes into play. The speed which you need to navigate stages becomes so incredibly fast that the majority of the time you die is because you’ve accidentally stepped one tile over too many into the abyss, prompting your level to reset. While I’d like to think I have pretty decent reflexes, as I’ve been gaming for over thirty years, the main problem with Tiles is that it forces you to use the D-Pad, and not the Thumbsticks, to maneuver your white tile around the level. Also, you can’t simply hold a direction, so when you’re plotting along a level with 50+ blue tiles to touch, along with others to avoid, you need to press the D-Pad every single time to move in the direction you want.

If the controller D-Pad’s were better, then maybe this wouldn’t be such as issue, but no matter what controller I tested it with, be it an original, Razer or an Elite, the D-Pad simply restricts your movement from being as nimble and quick as your mind wants to play. Tiles is also a Play Anywhere title, I also loaded it up on my PC to test it out, and it has the same problem, as you’re unable to simply hold the direction you want to move and are forced to tap the direction every single time, even on a keyboard.

Should you have someone in the household that you’d like to test your finger dexterity against, then you’ll be happy to know that Tiles also supports competitive multiplayer, seeing who can complete levels the quickest. I do appreciate how it’s simply drop in and out if someone wants to give it a shot without having to back out all the way to the main menu.

The main ‘campaign’ is filled with 90 levels, which, good luck if you’re able to complete them all, as I was unable to. If you do manage to somehow find a way to complete the dozens of levels, or simply get stuck and unable to progress, you’ll be happy to know that there’s much more content for you to enjoy, nearly an endless amount actually. Included is a level creator and sharing capability, so you have thousands of user generated stages at your (sore) fingertips. The level editor itself is very simplistic to use and figure out, choosing the grid size you want and then placing the different colors of tiles you want exactly where you choose. All you need to remember is what each color of tile does.

Blue: All of these must be stepped on before reaching the end red tile. If it’s the lighter shade of blue, it will need to be stepped on twice before disappearing.

Yellow: This tile falls at a predetermined time once the level has begun, even if you’ve stepped on it or not.

Orange: This tile constantly falls and reappears at set intervals.

Purple: A safe tile that never falls and allows you to ‘catch your breath’, well, rest your fingers, before continuing on.

Green: This is your starting tile. This needs to always be placed.

Red: The exit/goal to the stage once all blue tiles have been touched.

Keep these tiles properties in mind and you’ll be making some truly unique creations in no time. What surprised me was that since this is a Play Anywhere title, you can sort levels created by PC or Xbox players, so there’s tons of interesting creations for you to test your skills on. The user generated levels are very challenging and creative, as many players have even designed pixel style drawings that integrate into their levels in a clever way.

While Tiles is very basic in premise, the puzzle aspect of solving the proper pathway is quite entertaining. What isn’t as polished though is the forced D-Pad integration, as it’s quite difficult to do the moves you want to do in rapid succession because of it. Roughly 9 out of every 10 deaths were because I pressed the D-Pad too many times in a direction trying to keep up my pace, or accidentally pressing a wrong direction due to its imprecision. The later levels require your reflexes and speed to be near perfect, and trying to do so with the D-Pad alone is where the majority of the difficulty stems from.

Played in small doses, Tiles is a fun time waster if you’ve only got a short time to play something and don’t want to get too involved. You can plug away at the campaign levels or test out your finger dexterity with thousands of user created levels should you choose. Levels become quite involved and tricky to solve, and at some point your fingers will most likely tire because of the need to mash the D-Pad for every single move. If you’re looking for a fun puzzler for around $5 with near endless levels, Tiles has you covered, just prepare for a challenging and bland experience that will have your fingers begging for a break afterword.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Fear Effect Sedna

I still have both original Fear Effect games on disc for the original Playstation in my collection, so to say that I was excited to hear that Fear Effect would be making its return after 17 long years is an understatement. I have fond memories of the original games, as it was one of the first to really make use of the cel-shaded art style and had a Resident Evil-esque vibe to it. Interestingly, Fear Effect Sedna was actually funded via a Kickstarter campaign and developed by Sushee with a little over $100,000 being raised, so clearly there were others like me that yearned to see the series return.

While the iconic cel-shaded visuals are intact, the gameplay has completely done a 180, as Sedna is played as an isometric shooter, puzzler and stealth game. If that alone is making you raise an eyebrow because you’re an old school fan of the series like myself, you better sit down and prepare yourself, as that’s not all that’s changed. Luckily the iconic characters like Hana and Rain return, among others, and the story itself is decent, even if the writing and delivery itself is quite weak. I was more than excited to see Fear Effect was back, and I wanted to love it, I really did, but it wasn’t even the major gameplay change to isometric that turned me off, it was nearly everything else. There are parts that simply aren’t fun and don’t work well, but in general, it’s mediocre at best.

Taking place after the first game (as Part 2 was a prequel), Sedna follows Hana and Rain once again, delving into more of their backstory as they’re hired for another heist. Just like the previous games, a simple job turns into something much more heinous as there’s an underlying supernatural element to it all as well. The story is interesting enough to keep you intrigued and wanting to see what happens next, but it doesn’t seem to flow well. A few times I was left confused of what I was doing, and more importantly, why. It doesn’t help that the writing is subpar, but the voice acting is even worse, making it difficult to relate and believe the characters that I’ve known for many years.

Just like its predecessors, Sedna too utilizes a fear meter. When your fear rises you’ll take more damage, but you also receive a buff that boosts your outgoing damage as well, so it’s a tradeoff. In theory this works, trying to force you into a stealthy type of gameplay, but the AI is so bad that you’re unable to do so, constantly resulting in firefights, frustration and restarts.

Much of the time you’ll be in control of two or more characters at the same time, with the others simply following you and providing extra firepower when you get noticed. When your companion doesn’t take cover and dies, you become more fearful, thus taking more damage, yet your damage output increase doesn’t seem to make up for it in any way.

This is where the tactical portion of the game comes into play. Well, where they try and force you to use it until you realize it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. This allows you to pause time and plan your attack. While the world is paused, you can choose any of your characters and maneuver them where you like, leaving a breadcrumb trail. You can also then choose any actions like shooting at enemies or using their special abilities. Next you’ll switch to your other character and move them to where you want them to go and what actions to take. While in this mode it’s essentially recording your actions, and when you come out of the tactical mode it will automatically recreate everything you just did automatically.

This at first seemed like a really interesting concept, but almost from the first fight on I saw two glaring flaws. First, you don’t know where the enemies are going to go or be, so you’re making these plans by guessing. Second, the AI doesn’t care that you’re hiding behind cover and will simply walk up to you and start shooting you in the face nearly every time. At this point it simply turns into a gunfight and the last man (or woman) standing wins. Nearly every gunfight turned out this way, and I stopped using the tactical mode for the most part due to it. It’s virtually impossible to avoid being seen when trying to be stealthy, always resulting in either a game over or a mass shootout.

Stealth is a big element to the gameplay, and in some sections it’s forced, but if you even get one pixel into their cone if sight, the alarms go off and you get detected. I simply ended up shooting in real time, using my abilities and rolls to try and survive each encounter, healing myself afterwards when possible. Even though you can instantly kill enemies if undetected, it was never reliable as it should have been.

Every so often you’ll get thrown a few puzzles to change things up, though I found most of these frustrating as well. Even the first wire cutting puzzles took me a while to figure out, resulting in many game over screens and restarts. I did enjoy that the puzzles varied, though it may just be because it took me away from the awful combat for a few minutes each time.

Not all is gloom and doom though, as Sushee nailed that Fear Effect look that makes it unique and stand out. The visuals are striking and bright, and it’s great to see some old friends once again in HD after all these years. As for audio, the soundtrack itself is great and fits the setting, but the voice over work is terrible, almost across the board. There’s no realism to the performances, though that’s partly due to the poor writing as well. Rarely do the characters sound believable, making it difficult to care about their development or emotions.

I can deal with the drastic change to isometric gameplay, but there are so many other design decisions that don’t feel like they meld together very well. Puzzles can be frustrating, level design is basic and combat is terrible, though only second to the voice acting. I wanted to enjoy Fear Effect Sedna, I truly did, as I’m a longtime fan of the series, but even as a fan, it’s hard to recommend.

Overall, Fear Effect Sedna felt very underwhelming and mediocre at best. I’ve been searching for reasons to recommend it, but coming up with almost none. On the bright side, the developer is working on a remake of the original game, so there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for the series, sadly Sedna is going to be its black spot though. Goodbye Fear Effect, you had a great run back on the PS1.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was probably one of my favorite games on Xbox 360, and I’d probably put it in my top 10 or so games ever. I also really enjoyed DmC: Devil May Cry more than I expected. What does this have to do with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? Well, all of them are made by the same developer, Ninja Theory (they also created Heavenly Sword), so they have quite a pedigree when it comes to quality titles. Somehow I missed that Hellblade released last summer for PC and PS4, as I’m usually up to date on my favorite developers, yet somehow this slipped by me. Here we are, almost a year later, and Hellblade finally makes it way to Xbox One for more gamers to enjoy. In a way I’m glad I waited, as it’s been enhanced for Xbox One X in a substantial way, and given that I’m using an X, I got to enjoy it the way it was designed to be.

I didn’t realize how critically acclaimed Hellblade was before it landed in my lap, and after seeing the credits roll, it deserves every single accolade it has received, and more. With a tale that revolves around mental illness, exploring it in a way that truly makes sense and is incredibly eye opening, Hellblade is fascinating from start to finish.

With a backdrop in the Viking era, a Celtic warrior named Senua is on a dangerous mission alone to the gates of Hellheim to save the soul of her dead lover. From the very beginning of her journey, Senua’s tale is dark and disturbing, and not just from her surroundings and situation, but the internal battle that is happening within her mind; it is one that is even darker. There’s a larger, over encompassing story arc in play here as well, about where she needs to go and explore, and more importantly, why, but the most interesting experiences comes from what Senua thinks she is experiencing.

Each step of the way, Senua will battle her psychological condition, which makes it difficult to distinguish what is real and what isn’t. This explains all of the voices she hears in her head, which will act as a guide for you as you progress, warning you of danger, or what subtle clues to find. You’ll constantly guess if Senua is actually experiencing what you’re playing, or if it’s an intricate hallucination her mind is playing on her. Keep in mind, because of the era this takes place in, it wasn’t diagnosed as a disorder, but instead, people thought they were cursed, which adds so much more context into her battle.

Ninja Theory actually worked in collaboration with a team of neuroscientists to recreate what having psychotic breakdown (psychosis) is actually like, and has done so in a respectful, yet frightening manner. You can’t imagine what it would be like to live with a blurred line between fiction and reality, but you can get a sense of it for the eight or so hours you play Hellblade, and it’s terrifying to imagine if that was your day to day reality. Even though the gameplay is very linear in fashion, the story is told in a very unique and compelling way due to Senua’s condition, one that I can empathize with.

Gameplay is very linear, but it works for the setting and narrative path. As you explore the areas, you’ll come across pillars with some runes plastered on them, allowing you to focus your mind’s eye, giving you some lore, told as a story, as a reward. These are not mandatory in any way, but they further flesh out the world and its surroundings with a story to tell.

The first thing you’re going to notice is how absolutely stunning the visuals are, borderline photorealistic at times. This allows you to be immersed into Hellblade’s world. I routinely caught myself stopping to simply look at the scenery and take it all in. To help further the believability of this world, there’s absolutely no user interface or HUD at any point in Senua’s journey to remind you that this is a game, and it’s better for it in every way. Even animations are incredibly fluid, as she will gracefully sidestep and backpedal if moved in that direction. Her dreads flow naturally against her body in relation to her movement, and her face, I swear at times, is that of a real actress. The believability in Senua’s facial movements is so unreal it kept taking me by surprise that it’s not a real person but all in-game visuals.

There will be times where Senua will have to fight to protect herself against opponents, be they human or demon. While the combat is very basic, it works and is simple for the most part. You have light and heavy attacks along with some melee attacks, and you will also find the ability to dodge and block. When you enter a combat section, Senua will automatically pull out her sword initializing the combat sequence, and the sequence will end after you kill a few waves of enemies. They start off easy in the beginning, but they become quite challenging, especially the bosses, near the end of Senua's tale.

What I didn’t expect is the inclusion of permadeath should you 'meet-your-demise' too many times. Senua seems infected by some sort of blackness, and every time you die, it spreads further across her body, eventually killing her if it engulfs her. When you start to fight three enemies or more, simultaneously, you’ll need to listen for audio queues to block and dodge correctly, though you do have a focus you can sporadically use to slow down time in essence, helping you to defeat them easily.

The other major portion of Hellblade is how it handles its included puzzle elements. You’ll constantly come across doors that are locked by some sort of dark magic with runic symbols etched across them. The only way to unlock these doors is to find and match the same symbol somewhere in the environment nearby. For example, if the door has a cross symbol as its barrier, you need to find something in the environment that makes that exact shape. This is very clever, as the solution may be looking for a dead tree standing tall in front of you, with a branch from another in the background, and when you look at it at just the right angle, it forms the symbol you’re looking for.

The first few puzzles will surely stump you, though once you figure out what to generally look for, it becomes easier in time. Sure, this puzzle element is repeated throughout, but it’s still a clever way to do so. Other puzzles will have you walking through portals that seem to distort time, allowing you to explore your area, but in a different time. For example, going through a certain portal may cause you to go back to the past where the rubble that was previously blocking your path has now returned to its former glory of a functioning staircase. Again, it’s a very clever mechanic that also feeds into her psychosis condition.

If you’ve ever needed a game to use as an excuse to get an Xbox One X, as an upgrade from your original or S, Hellblade is one hell of a valid reason to justify doing so. On the X, there’s are three separate game modes for you to choose from, based on your preference, and they are resolution, visuals or framerate. If you choose Enhanced Visuals, the world is much more full and lively with added foliage, fog, improved shadows and other effects. If you have a 4K display, then you’ll want High Resolution mode, as the game is displayed in 4K at 30fps. I chose High Framerate, as I don’t have a 4K display, but playing at a smooth 60fps was an absolute treat, making movement even more fluid, including combat. If I was to actively search for flaws, there are some minor texture pop-in and some clipping in a few spots, but that’s me actively looking for minor faults. Given how amazing the overall package looks, arguably the best on the console to date, it gets a pass.

I’m normally not a huge audio guy, as I’m partially deaf in one ear, but you are prompted at the very beginning that it’s suggested to play with headphones on for immersive 3D audio. Sure, if you have an insane audio setup at home then you may not need to rely on headphones, but trust me, you’ll want to play with a good pair if you don’t have true 7.1 sound setup at home, as the audio is hands down, the best I’ve ever experienced in a game to date.

Normally for audio I tend to focus on the soundtrack and voice acting, but there’s so much more here in Hellblade. When it simply comes to environmental sounds, I’ve never heard anything so realistic before. The thunder in the background actually made me believe it was outside my apartment, as it was raining that night. Footsteps are subtle but noticeable, as are the crackles of passing by a fire.

The voice acting is on a whole other level, and probably one of, if not the, best performances I’ve ever experienced in any media before. Melina Juergens puts on a performance unlike any other, and given the fact she had to do multiple personalities for the voices in her head that you constantly hear as well, it’s an absolutely stunning performance. Not just her, but every voice actor involved is perfectly portrayed and completely believable. Do yourself a favor and use the best headphones you have access to, as Hellblade has easily the best audio design I’ve ever experienced before.

After experiencing Hellblade, it may shock you to learn that not only is Ninja Theory not a huge ‘AAA’ developer, but the price is also half that of a new release, making it an absolute must purchase. While some may not be fond of the simplistic combat, puzzle elements or linearity, I feel they were absolutely suited for this specific narrative. Enslaved is one of my favorite games ever, also created by them, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is easily their crowning achievement in every way.

You may think you know what it’s like to hear voices in your head, but Hellblade will allow you to experience it in a very raw and frightening manner, yet also being respectful to the mental illness, shedding light on the disorder. It just happens to also be an amazing game at the same time, again, with the best audio design I’ve ever experienced before, something Ninja Theory should be commended for in every way. I constantly felt fearful and tense, yet determined to help Senua along her journey, and even though the credits have rolled, Senua’s Sacrifice will stick with me for quite some time. Xbox owners may have had to wait to experience Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but as they say, good things come to those who wait, and this is without a doubt already on my Game of the Year contender list.

Overall Score: 9.8 / 10 TERA

While there are a handful available, consoles generally don’t have a wide selection of MMORPG’s to choose from, for numerous reasons. One such game is TERA. It was released on PC back in 2012, but here we are, 6 years later, finally able to explore the world of Arborea on consoles. So, while TERA is old in terms of an MMO in age, it’s brand new for the Xbox One, and given the updates the game has received over the years, and the unique console friendly gameplay, I was more than excited to get back into the world I left so many years ago on PC. Oh, and it’s also free to play.

As the case with nearly any MMO, you’ll have an endless amount of quests to complete as you level up, become more powerful, and earn new skills and abilities as you progress through your journey. As typical to most in the genre, you’ll be able to create your character to your liking, first choosing a race and then a class. It should be noted that not all races have access to each class, and even further, some classes are not only forced to a race, but also the sex as well. For example, if you want to be a brawler, as of writing this review, you are forced to play as a female version. This will get changed in the future with an upcoming patch, but more on that later. There are some interesting races, like the Popori that resemble animals or the Elin which is a small dainty looking type of race.

What separates TERA from most other MMO’s is its ‘True Action Combat’. Instead of queuing up a bunch of skills and auto attacking, you have to fight in real time, almost like a hack and slash. You’ll need to avoid or block attack from enemies and bosses while using your abilities to deal damage and stay alive. During massive boss fights, it doesn’t feel like a typical MMO at all, but more like a Platinum developed game or Capcom's Devil May Cry of sorts, as you need to be on your game, constantly maneuvering and countering boss abilities with your own. The transition from keyboard and mouse feels natural for the most part, when it comes to the combat portion anyway.

I wasn’t new to TERA, but it’s been quite some time since I played, so I was surprised with how much things have changed over the years. Controls are as you’d expect, with movement and camera tied to the sticks, and all of your abilities on the face buttons, bumpers and triggers. Holding the Left Bumper will also allow you to use the abilities set in another bank of menus, all of which can be customized to your preference of course. It’s awkward at first, but once you’ve spent some time with it, it becomes second nature.

I decided I wanted to play a tank for my group of friends, the class that stands in front of the enemies and takes all the damage. I made an adorable Popori cat looking creature and fell in love with being able to hold my shield up and block nearly any damage that came my way. Of course to balance this I don’t do nearly the damage other classes do, but I enjoyed it and stuck with it. My blocking drains an endurance gauge, and to refill it in combat I need to use my abilities that take mana. To refill my mana I need to use my standard weapon attack, so there’s a lot of thought that goes into a good damage rotation, as I needed to constantly think of each of my bars. There are a number of classes, each unique in their own way with their own specific purpose, so make sure you experiment and find the classes that speaks to your playstyle best.

Every MMO values different types of play. Some value questing, while others cater to dungeons and grinding. TERA seems to implement a value on each of these, as you’ll be questing and exploring dungeons throughout your TERA career. Quests will guide you from zone to zone in a progressive path, though once you learn that dungeon runs and PvP earn you a vast more amount of experience (XP) and rewards, there’s no real point to do much questing aside from some basic rewards and story reasons. You’ll be constantly upgrading your weapons and gear, becoming more powerful, and when you reach endgame, you’ll be grinding hard if you want to improve your gear to +9 and +12, each of which takes serious dedication. The only downside to this setup is that you’re so hastily rushed through levels that you don’t get to experience much of the world itself, as it’s simply not time efficient to do so.

Dungeons are where the fun of TERA really begins to shine, as does the difficulty, because this is where you’ll start to see that combat is very much skill (and gear) based more than just mashing some buttons. TERA utilizes the classic holy trinity for party makeups: Tank, Healer and DPS, and this rule-set will have to be followed when matchmaking for dungeons as well. The earlier dungeons will introduce you to some of the boss mechanics that you’ll encounter later on, as many bosses are reused throughout the higher level dungeons, but they become more difficult and they get added abilities to their arsenal every time you encounter them, especially once you reach the Hard Mode's top tier.

Dungeons are very diverse, though they usually have you fighting a gauntlet of bosses with trash mobs to clear in between. Some of the boss fights become incredibly technical, forcing you to pay attention to not only their attack patterns, but other events that can happen, like electrified water that covers half of the usable area, or rush attacks from adds that need to be killed before they reach the boss. Sure, once you learn the mechanics it becomes much simpler, but there’s also a gear check that takes place before you even enter a dungeon. Each dungeon requires you to be in a very specific level range, but also be above a specific gear score or else you won’t be able to queue up for runs. When you do die, you’re able to be resurrected by the healer if able, but you can also spend some of your hard earned gold to resurrect yourself in a pinch as well, which becomes quite costly later on.

Gear is not only granted to you via quests and drops, but you’ll also have access to Avatar Weapons every handful of levels. When you reach a specific level, you’ll start to see bosses drop relic shards, which when you collect enough, will unlock your best in slot weapon for that level range. Since levels come so quickly, you’ll constantly be upgrading, though you’re going to want to enchant those weapons as soon as possible. When specific tiered items are acquired from enemy drops, you can upgrade your gear to +9, adding many more stats and enhancements. The hardest part to enchanting is simply getting all of the materials you need to do so, and once you reach endgame, you can bring your gear to +12 with much more expensive materials. This is the treadmill you’ll constantly be working towards as you farm dungeons and missions for materials.

If PvP is more of your thing, then you’ll be happy to know that there are PvP servers, though you can only participate when you’ve reached max level, and there are also PvP events that anyone can queue up for. There’s a standard Team Deathmatch that’s included, but very few people seem to play this mode simply because the rewards for the other mode is vastly inflated, and sadly, one of the best ways to level. Kumas Royale is one of the most odd, and worst, PvP modes I’ve ever played in any game, yet rewards you immensely if you’ve able to win a match doing so.

Kumas Royale replaces your character with a default fat baby monster wearing a diaper and pacifier. Yes, you read that right. Everyone has the same static abilities and there’s a singular boss Kumas on each team. The goal to this mode is to damage the other team’s boss, and the boss who has the most amount of health at the end of each five minute round wins. This is where the problems begin for this mode, as whoever gets to the enemy's boss first gets to control them, for better or worse. Bosses have a bunch of abilities, but if you try and play offensively and use them, you’re going to lose, guaranteed.

You see, the goal of everyone on the team, save for the boss, is to try and damage the enemy boss, and once their health is lower than yours, you simply play defense, blocking and killing all of the other players trying to damage your boss. The problem is the abilities you have are terribly inaccurate and you move at an incredibly slow pace with no way to speed up. This is only part of the frustration though, as many players seemingly don’t know how to properly play and will lose matches seemingly from the get go by trying to play offensively with the boss and taking tons of damage.

I can handle losing matches, it's no big deal, but the problem with that is how the rewards are set up. You get some massive XP boosts and rewards for winning, making it totally worth the 10-15 minute matches (best of 3), but the problem is that should you lose, you get nothing. Not even half the amount of XP or rewards; absolutely nothing. You can imagine how losing a few matches in a row and getting nothing for it after a few hours can become frustrating. If the gameplay itself was fun it could be overlooked, but it’s not in any way at all.

Now given that TERA is free to play, there has to be a way for them to make money right? Well of course, and this is where the cash shop for EMP comes into play, as does Elite Status. There are many items in the TERA shop that you can buy with EMP, their own currency, which of course you purchase with real money. The majority of these are cosmetic costumes, mounts and other items, but you can also purchase extra bank slots, character slots and more should you wish. Can you get by without buying any EMP? Of course you can, but you won’t look as good doing so.

Elite Status on the other hand is also completely voluntary, though there are enough bonuses that make it completely worth it. Elite Status is $15 a month, as per most pay-to-play MMO’s, but gives you a ton of bonuses like 100% extra XP and gold, loot boxes you can open every day, and even the ability to teleport instantly to any main city or town. Normally you’d have to spend gold on a Pegasus flight or 'teleportal', so this makes it completely worth it. You also get to do double the amount of dungeons a day, so to me, someone that’s sinking many hours into it a day, is well worth it. Yes, you're capped with how many dungeons you can do in a day, but Elite status lets you double that.

Lastly, there are also Founder Packs currently on sale (but it’s not been said for how long). These range from from $30 (the pack we were given for review) all the way up to $150. Each one has their own special items and bonuses like Elite or specific amounts of EMP. While I don’t see the items offered as pay to win, you can purchase high end fashion items and sell them on the broker for in-game gold. To me, it feels they hit a great balance of time saving items, and of course cool fashion pieces, without reaching the dreaded pay-to-win that plagues other MMOs. TERA is completely playable as free to play, but if you want to save some gold and time, look into what’s offered with EMP and Elite.

Now, this is where things get a little tricky, as TERA is many years old on PC, but new on console. The console version is not up to date as the PC version is, and by most of the community’s guess, roughly a year or two behind on major patches and additions. Some of these exclusions are apparent, as we console players don’t have access to certain classes yet, like the Ninja, Valkyrie, Gunner and female Brawler. There’s also no ETA of when we can expect these additions that many players are yearning for. There’s always going to be a disparity between PC and console, and I’m hoping that we’re given a roadmap soon of what, and more importantly, when we can expect more up to date content.

I’ve truly enjoyed my time with TERA for the most part, but man, this was not ready for a full release yet. TERA is riddled with bugs, atrocious performance, multiple crashes and a slew of other issues, yet I keep finding myself logging on every night to run some dungeons with my friends. Luckily I have an Xbox One X, so I’ve not had to deal with the multitude of crashes and hard locks that many of my friends are experiencing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see my fair share of performance hits. Certain areas and fights will cause framerates to dip into single digits, menus can become laggy and there’s a ton of bugs you can read about if you visit the official forums.

TERA has some massive issues, but it is playable, for the most part. When it’s working well, your group is making progress in a dungeon and everyone is playing their specific role, I could play for hours. That being said, when someone in the party keeps crashing to the Home Screen, forcing your group to wait before pulling a boss, it can become quite frustrating. There’s a ton of design flaws, yet the foundation is there to be a great MMO that feels natural on a console. While the launch is a bit rocky, I’m able to play with my friends every night as we go farm some dungeons to make the high end gear, allowing us to then attempt the Hard Mode dungeons and endgame raids. This is what keeps me playing.

Technical issues aside, TERA is a blast to play with friends if you have a perfect group composition to run endless dungeons. The combat is fast, exciting and skill based, so you better know your stuff and practice as much as possible. That being said, the bugs and flaws also can’t be completely ignored, as it’s rampant and incredibly unoptimized. If the developers had great communication with the community and at least appeased players by engaging in conversation of what to expect and when, for fixes and content additions, then it wouldn’t feel like they did the launch and forgot about us. At the same time, it’s completely free to play and you can play without spending a single dime should you wish to wait until it runs better and has more of the PC's content. For now I’ll be sticking with my Lancer, running with my friends through some dungeons and having a blast nightly, until we’re forced to wait for them to log back in from their crash.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Story Goes On, The

Roguelike games tend to all have that one thing in common; permadeath. Normally I find this frustrating, as you lose your progress each time you die, though the ones I do enjoy though do have some sort of progression that persists through death so that all of your hard work wasn’t for nothing. This leads me to my review of The Story Goes On, which is a game that will have you (and a friend should you choose) exploring randomly generated worlds, searching for the elusive boss key which allows you access to fighting that world’s leader.

At its core, The Story Goes On is a top down hack and slash title, but with roguelike qualities. There’s a scarecrow that loves talking in puns, and it’s a very light hearted affair that doesn’t take itself too seriously. You start off with access to only one character, Aiden, a kid who is equipped with a sword and hookshot that allows him to traverse quickly, much like a dash.

Levels are randomly generated, filling each section with enemies that you kill for loot, coins, and keys. If you’re lucky you’ll find special upgrades that increase your speed, damage, attack, and other abilities, making survival that much easier. You’ll also find a slew of items and loot, some of which need a key to open treasure boxes to obtain, of which you’ll find plenty of during your adventure.

Played in a top down view, you control your character like any other twin stick shooter. The left stick is used for movement and the right stick is used to aim. The triggers and bumpers are how you attack and use your items and abilities, so it comes as second nature pretty quickly. A friendly scarecrow will walk you through the basics during a tutorial of sorts, as you’ll begin incredibly slow and weak. As you start adventuring further, and gathering upgrades, you’ll become quite proficient in combat, becoming quite a hero in the process.

Much like a typical Zelda map, you move from room to room, with each one only unlocking after all of the monsters are killed. You'll be searching for a boss key, which unlocks their lair. The map in the upper right is very helpful, as it will show the room layouts and a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been, so you know where you may want to explore next. The more enemies you kill, the more potential coins and keys you can find, so it’s not always a good idea to make a mad dash for the boss if you haven't fully explored every room, as those upgrade are going to come in handy very shortly once you die.

While it’s not hard to find the boss keys or their doors, the fights themselves are quite entertaining. There’s a handful of bosses, which are randomized as well, so every time you get to the first boss after dying and restarting, it will most likely be a different boss than the previous run. This helps with the monotony, though they are never too terribly challenging. Most bosses are simple hack and slash fights, but there are a few that are a little more unique and interesting. I quite liked the snow boss that was essentially a 'cup and ball' game, having to keep an eye on the quick moving igloos and choosing which of the three you think he’s hiding under. Choose wrong and an enemy will attack, choose right and you get a few moments to attack him before repeating the game again, but much quicker.

Oh, I should mention that you will die, but not because of the difficulty, as it’s actually quite casual in that aspect, but it will be more due to simple mistakes, or even boredom to be honest. The bosses aren’t even all that challenging, as it’s just pattern recognition. After every boss you’ll fall into a black hole where the scarecrow greets you once again, offering you a handful of choices of items to buy, ranging from weapons, hearts, keys and even a random item that could benefit or hinder you. When you die, you start at the beginning again, though there are certain upgrades that stay with you and persist through death, making each subsequent run through slightly easier, and eventually you'll become quite powerful. This is the hook that kept me playing, even though I was dying now and then, at least all of my progress wasn’t completely wiped.

There’s a surprising amount of humor contained within the game as well. The scarecrow uses silly puns that would make dad jokes proud, and even some of the items and their descriptions got a chuckle out of me. The randomness can work for or against you as well. Some run throughs will become incredibly easy, based on the random loot and weapons you get, while other times you might not get anything that suits your playstyle, causing you to die much sooner. With over 50 different items, each run will feel different given the random placement of the levels themselves, bosses and loot.

The first few runs, even with the deaths I experienced, was entertaining, but eventually the monotony began to set in. After a few hours you’ll probably have had your fill, unless you’re hunting for achievements, or specifically enjoy the random aspect to everything. As for the visuals, the game has a storybook feel to it, but it’s quite basic, even if it is colorful. That being said, some of the stages are quite dark and it can be hard to see the room doors, so it’s hard to appreciate some of the work that’s gone into it. As for the audio, I really appreciated how the soundtrack sped up and became more exciting if there’s lots going on, adding to the experience.

What I found as I played, was that I ended up dying from simple mistakes, and not out of sheer difficulty, especially once my character was more powerful. The hardest part about The Story Goes On is battling the tediousness, and sometimes the randomness. While the randomness adds a little longevity to the title, it can also go against you at times too, so it goes both ways.

For being a roguelike game, I enjoyed how The Story Goes On kept certain aspects of your progress, not being too harsh with its penalties. The core gameplay is decent, though not terribly exciting. It has some interesting ideas but definitely won’t wow you out of the gate. That being said, for $8.00 you could do a lot worse with games that offer a lot less.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Bridge Constructor Portal

There’s no denying that Portal is going to stand the test of time and forever be on many top gaming lists well into the future. It’s got such a fan base behind it and has become synonymous with puzzle games. You could seemingly attach its premise to almost any other game and strike gold. Well, someone has already thought of this, mashing up Portal and Bridge Constructor, aptly titled Bridge Constructor Portal. I know for myself, if GLaDOS is included, count me in. Luckily that’s the case here!

Bridge Constructor on its own was an entertaining game, but once you attach a huge license with unique gameplay like Portal, it takes it to a whole new level. Not only must you create structurally sound bridges, platforms and ramps, but now you’re going to have to manage with propulsion gel, turrets, and of course, portals. Simple triangles and engineering won’t be enough to complete your objectives, so bring your thinking hat, because the puzzles here are going to take some serious thinking.

Once again, you find yourself in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, though this time instead of being one of the test subjects, you’re instead a manager of sorts, in charge of ensuring that your subjects get their forklifts to their destinations in each level, though doing so will take some craft bridge engineering skills to complete. You need to make sure your test subjects arrive safe, and to do so it will test all of your portal and bridge crafting abilities.

While the story itself is your standard GLaDOS affair about testing subjects, for science of course, the bridge making aspect does add a neat twist to it. Gameplay is on a 2D playing field, but don’t let that fool you, as each test chamber comes increasingly more difficult and challenging as you progress. While Bridge Constructor Portal may not be narrative heavy, it makes up for it in charm and challenge. It may only be sparse, but the fact that Ellen McLain is once again reprising her role as the iconic GLaDOS brings that extra authenticity, really making it feel like it truly belongs in the Portal universe.

What Bridge Constructor Portal does great is that it blends both games together, nearly seamlessly, forcing you to not only focus on your bridge and platform making abilities, but factoring physics from portals, placing companion cubes on switches, disabling turrets and more. Not only must you factor in all of this, but you also need to make sure your forklift vehicle, on its own set path, makes it out of each test chamber safely. Easier said than done.

Each test chamber has an entrance that your forklift will automatically drive forwards from, as if the gas pedal is stuck, and you’re simply tasked with making sure it gets to the exit tube to reach the next test chamber. Problem is there’s always a gap or some other obstacles in your way that makes that simple objective much more difficult. Your only tools at your disposal are planks (and supports) and support cables. You’re only able to attach to specific nodes, so that’s where the challenge comes in, as you’re restricted with specific points already laid out for you.

Planks can only reach a certain distance, though you can place as many as you wish without limit, so it’s not really a factor. Support cables seemingly don’t have the same restriction, but again, you’re only able to attach to certain nodes. Where the challenge comes in is with the bridge creation itself, as you can’t simply lay out a line of flat planks, as it needs support, like real bridges. This is where triangles become your best friend, as they are the strongest shape you can use to create the support needed to keep your bridge up.

When you’re placing your planks, you’re going to want to angle them and distance them exactly the way you think will work best, the problem is though that getting that perfect angle or length isn’t always as easy or fluid as it should be. You can zoom in, quite close actually, to make absolutely perfect placements, but this requires some getting used to when making fine adjustments. While you’re about to place a plank, it will show you if you’re able to attach to any other points within distance, which allows you to make decisions on how many joints you’ll need for what you’re trying to build.

I found on quite early that the bulk of your gameplay will be trial and error. You’ll have this grand idea for a platform or bridge, create it, only to find out it can’t handle its own weight and buckle, or some other oversight. You’ll see stress points on specific supports and joints if it’s about to break as it turns red, and the smallest change can make a huge difference in not only keeping your structure upright and together, but making sure your test subject makes it to the goal. Luckily there’s no limit to how many pieces you can place, so you can try and make something elaborate, though I found early on that the simpler, the better. Luckily there’s a helpful guide in the menus that will show you the best ways to create supports, and even suspended bridges should you require some tips and best practices.

So you’ve finally built your structure and your forklift has made it to the exit; awesome! Well, that’s only half the challenge, as you can move onto the next test chamber, or you could challenge yourself to send a convoy of vehicles to the exit in succession. Sometimes it’s only 3, other times up to 10 or so. But you’ve already built your bridges and figured out the solution, so what’s so difficult you ask? Well, many of your structures will probably work for about one vehicle, as its weight adds stress to the joints, as I’ve had many fall apart after one or two forklifts cross them. You also need to factor in that vehicles may be crisscrossing in air or on ramps, so some carnage can occur if not setup just right.

Levels start out very basic and quickly ramp up in difficulty, and I mean quicker than landing on some propulsion gel. You simply start getting from A to B, then working with portals, throwing in turrets that shoot on sight, companion cubes for switches and more. Anything you did in Portal will also be included here for the most part. Trial and error is luckily not too difficult to tweak your platforms, as you can make minor adjustments with the press of a button, or completely delete it all and start over from the drawing board if something simply isn’t working.

You’ll be challenged with 60 levels, of which I’m still working on trying to complete, as the difficulty randomly spikes quite harshly. You’ll need to navigate multiple portals pathways, and while it’s not frustrating as some other puzzle games, expect to spend quite a lot of time on a single level trying to figure out the perfect placements and angles for all your platforms. The main issue I found was that the majority of my ‘play’ was the platform creation, not so much the puzzle solving itself. I put more time into trying to perfect my planks and figuring out how to keep them stable, more than solving what I need to do for the test chamber itself.

I was kind of surprised that more materials don’t come into your disposal as you progress. Planks and cables is all you need, so it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make those work for what you’re trying to do so you can get from point A to point B in a very convoluted way. Whoever came up with the idea of mashing up the two games is genius, as it simply works. The bulk of the gameplay is still Bridge Constructor, but the whole Portal element and backdrop adds a whole new aspect to the gameplay.

Sure, having something with more narrative and GLaDOS would have been welcomed, but like most puzzle games, I accept it for what it is, and you’ll get what you want out of it if you’re a fan of the genre. It would have been easy to simply throw a Portal paintjob on top of the base game itself, but they’ve gone beyond, adding many of the core mechanics from Portal and implemented them in clever ways, especially since this is played in 2D. Bridge Constructor Portal feels as though it belongs in the actual Portal universe, and that’s no small feat, even with its high difficulty. Now if you’ll excuse me, I was promised cake.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition

If you’ve read any my previous reviews, you’ll know that I’m an avid fan of shmups (shoot em ups). These are the games with a ship of somesort that flies, usually vertically, avoiding a barrage of bullets on-screen while collecting power-ups. There are some classics in the genre that others are inevitably compared against, such amazing games like Raiden, Gradius, and my personal favorite of all time, Ikargua. There’s no shortage of games in the genre, so to stand out you need to do something special if you want to get noticed. So, the question remains, does the one-man developed Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition have that distinct mechanic or design to become noticed? Well, there are some color matching that takes place, making it somewhat unique.

Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition (simply referred to as Overdriven in this review) starts out completely normal, with you choosing one of two ships, unaware of what the differences are. Well, it turns out that one ship’s fire pattern is a spread shot while the other is much more narrow and focused. So, you will want to take that into account when deciding which ship will better suit your playstyle. The stages slowly scroll upwards as you navigate the enemies, traps, and of course bullets. Much like nearly every other shmup, there are collectibles for you to gather (gold stars) to earn points and power-ups to grab to make your weapons stronger and faster.

You have a dedicated button to change your lasers to different colors, such as red, blue, green or yellow, which is the unique and interesting mechanic of Overdriven. While there’s no difference on what color your weapons are when shooting them, you’ll occasionally come across colored orbs blocking your path. Some are permanently a specific color, while others can be changed with your colored fire. The trick is to notice which one is the permanent orb and then match the attach orbs to that same color, as they will only disappear when three of the same color are touching.

Most of the time these simply block off (Editors Note: See what we did there?) a secret artifact to pick up, but sometimes it will also open an easier path as it allows you to avoid the bullets coming at you. It’s an interesting idea, one that took me by surprise, but there’s only a few sections in the whole game that this mechanic is relevant, plus trying to do so when the screen is full of enemies and bullets is quite a challenge.

Aside from this interesting color mechanic, everything else in Overdriven plays like your standard shmup for the most part. The Left Stick controls your ship and the ‘A’ button is used for your regular shots, though using the ‘X’ button allows your ship to go into 'Overdrive'. What this does is replace your regular shots with an incredibly focused and condensed laser that does much more damage, but the catch here is that you move incredibly slowly. Your health is also reduced to 20%, so it’s a risk vs. reward move, as it makes you incredibly vulnerable when being used. Stop using 'Overdrive' and your health will regenerate. Finally, the ‘B’ button will let you use your bombs, clearing the screen of all bullets and doing massive damage.

While I really like the classic 1-hit death in shmups, as it promotes perfection and skill, it was refreshing to have something different in Overdriven. Instead of the standard one bullet kill, you have a health bar, so it’s a little more forgiving. There are also health packs that can be collected from destroying specific enemies, refilling your health gauge, as well as collecting extra lives, so while it may seem much easier because of this, don’t let that fool you, you’ll still die plenty of times.

When you do die, you’ll respawn with only your basic weapons and without all the power ups, so you need to really be careful when you die. Don't worry though, power ups aren’t usually uncommon and you’ll have decent firepower after a short while. Should you lose all your lives, you’ll be given the option to restart the stage again, though you can choose to select any unlocked level as well, which is great as you don't have to start all the way back form level one.

What took me by surprise was the multiplayer offering. Two players isn’t uncommon for shmups, but four players is., but surprisingly Overdriven allows up to 4-players to play together locally (yes, sadly no online multiplayer support), turning the chaos up to 11. I’m unable to tell if there are more enemies with more players, but even with two players the general chaos on the screen was doubled. There’s already a lot of visual stimulation playing alone, so adding more friends only ups the commotion on the screen at once.

Once you’ve bested the final boss and completed the story mode, there’s plenty of more mode offerings for you to check out, not including the multiple difficulty levels. Arcade mode is simply the Story Mode but with the ability to continue when you lose all your lives, and Manic Mode is the same as the Story Mode, but much more difficult. There’s a handful of challenges awaiting you as well, each tied to a specific achievement, like killing a certain boss under a specific time, beating a level under 6 minutes, or not getting hit. There’s only a handful of them but they are fun challenges for a distraction.

Although I was disappointed with the number of times you get to use the color mechanics, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a ton of mini-levels that focus solely on this mechanic in Color Reflex mode. Here there’s no enemies, just lots of colored orbs blocking your path to the exit, so you need to constantly swap colors and clear a path for your ship to get through. The beginning levels start easy, but eventually it does become more challenging. The mode I really enjoyed though was The Line. Here you have to stop never ending enemies from reaching, well, a line at the bottom of the screen. Chaos ensues when you have dozens of enemies on screen, each shooting multiple bullets, while also keeping an eye on how close each enemy is getting to the line.

The visuals are very basic and there’s only a handful of enemies you’ll face, though it’s hard to look at much when you’re constantly avoiding bullets while your screen scrolls upwards, and there are stars, that clutter the screen, that are there for you to gather. The overall level design is pretty bland and basic but it does the job for a schmup. Finally, the audio is decent and fits the mood of the gameplay and genre, though nothing really stands out.

Leaderboards for most modes is a welcome addition, especially for those that want to claim bragging rights. Normally for a game like this with a price tag of over $10 (currently $10.29 CAD) it would be a hard sell, but, I love the genre, and even though I’ve finished what I want with this game, there’s a lot of content within for those that want to get more value out of it. Multiple difficulties, lots of extra modes, 4-player local co-op, and, one of the better points, it’s also an Xbox Play Anywhere title, so the value for the price is certainly here. It’s just a shame that the main color changing mechanic didn’t have a bigger spotlight, as it could have made Overdriven Reloaded: Special Edition stand out more in a crowded genre.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Guilt Battle Arena

There will always be a market for local co-op games, as there’s nothing quite like having a group of friends over and playing a game together, usually complete with taunting and swearing amongst your buddies. Developer Invincible Cat, a one man crew, has come up with what they believe to be the next indie party game hit that you’ll want to gather your friend over for, titled Guilt Battle Arena. There’s no shortage of indie games, nor party titles, so the question remains that if this one is worth the price of admission and what the longevity is.

With a cute and quirky ensemble of characters that resemble something straight out of Castle Crashers, you’ll be able to play amongst family and friends in some frantic local couch multiplayer, cooperatively and competitively. While I don’t do the whole having friends over to play couch co-op anymore for the most part, when the rare occasion does occur, we have the typical go-to titles, so does Guilt Battle Arena have enough to earn a spot into my coveted party game rotation? Well, kind of, for about 15 minutes anyways.

While there’s no real story per-se, there’s something about your characters being a part of the GUILT patrol, tasked with battling against Dreadful Judge’s evil henchmen. That’s really about it, as narrative isn’t a focus here at all, as it’s simply a drop in and play multiplayer game for the most part. Guilt Battle Arena’s sole focus is as a multiplayer party game, and it doesn’t attempt to do anything more. There’s actually no real campaign at all, though I guess you could call the cooperative mode its campaign, but it only consists of a handful of levels that will take about 10 minutes to run through once. So if you’re looking for something with a lot of substance, start looking elsewhere.

Played in 2D, there are two main mechanics that you’ll have to get the hang of to become successful and earn up to three stars on each stage. First, you’re constantly in motion the direction you are facing, and while you can move back and forth from left to right freely, there’s no real stopping in the small playfield, so this will take some getting used to. Secondly, you have one bullet for your gun, which you’ll need to pick up and gather each time you want to fire it. This odd design decision actually adds an odd level of strategy, making you think quickly on what needs to be fired at first before retrieving your bullet and shooting again, weighing when it's safe to do so.

These premises are very simple, almost to a fault, but they work. While I don’t necessarily enjoy the constant motion and movement, you become accustomed to it quite quickly. There will be enemies that approach from both sides, on the ground and in the air, so you’ve got to constantly be moving to not only avoid getting hit and losing one of your three lives, but to pick up your bullet once shot as well. You’re able to dash by double tapping the stick in the direction you want, and you can also quickly dive down, though you cannot butt stomp enemies like a certain mustached plumber. Actually, it took some time to figure out, but you don’t actually take damage from enemies unless you are hit by their weapons, not their bodies, so this is another layer of strategy on determining what to attack first once you realize the hitboxes.

The foundation and controls are simple, yet it’s not clear how you earn 3 stars on certain levels. I’ve lasted a long time during a few of the stages, only to be granted a 2 star rating, so I’m not sure if there are certain other conditions that need to be met to earn those elusive third stars or not. The more you play though, the more characters you’ll unlock in addition to the initial 10 selectable. These are simply skins and don’t have any advantage or one another, but there’s something cute about a cat cop that made me smile. With over 30 characters to unlock, there’s at least something to works towards, though you just aren’t explicitly told how to do so, but I’d assume star accumulation.

You’ve essentially got two different mode choices; 1-2 player co-op or 2-4 player versus. That’s it. Cooperative has no friendly fire, seeing how many enemies you and a friend can defeat before someone loses their three lives. That’s right, if one person loses all of their hearts, then its game over for both players, so the better player can’t really carry the other person. This made it really difficult to play with my 5 year old daughter, as she was drawn to the game for its bright and colorful visuals, but we constantly had a game over after about 30 seconds every time. I do wish there was some way to bring back a friend, but alas, expect many quick game overs if you’re playing with a less skilled person alongside.

Versus mode is where things really get frantic, especially if you have 4 players all fighting against one another. You’re able to choose the different stages, each of which has a special modifier on it, like missiles coming at you, chickens to avoid, cannonballs and more. There are also some other toggles you can enable should you desire, like more bullets, jetpacks, invisibility and more. While these add some unpredictability and variety, they aren’t anything really special and might give you a few more matches of entertainment before you move on.

I initially thought Guilt Battle Arena was made by the Castle Crasher developers, as the art style is eerily similar, though I guess as the saying goes, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". It's very cute and colorful, which is probably why my daughter gravitated towards it and wanted to join in playing as soon as she saw it. The audio is very fitting, with cute sound effects to match the cartoonish style for every gunshot and attack.

While Guilt Battle Arena makes for a fun distraction, there’s simply not enough content included to justify its staying power, rotating into party game night, mostly due to its price. If it was priced at about $5 then it would be a different story, as I’d have no problem dropping that for a quirky party game now and then, but it’s listed at $13. Sadly, the price tag is too high for what’s offered.

That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s very simple and you’ll mostly likely had all of your enjoyment out of it in the first hour or two. If I wasn’t reviewing it, I would have uninstalled it long before I did, as it really felt like a ‘play once’ type of game, and when that content only lasts you an hour or two, you can see where the issue about its pricing comes in. Guilt Battle Arena has a neat premise but there’s simply no longevity to its gameplay.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Xenon Valkyrie+

Normally I’m not into rogue-lite games, you know the genre, the ones where permadeath is a real thing and the difficulty is usually astronomical. With that being said, there are a few that reward you just enough to tease you into continue playing, even after your thousandth death. While I enjoy playing the newest games with their current-gen graphic fidelity, there’s always a warm spot in my heart for retro inspired games, as that's what I grew up with, much like Xenon Valkyrie+.

Originally a VITA game, console owners now get a chance to see if the wait has been worth it to wet their rogue-lite appetite. One of the big questions I had, and think a lot of people may also have, is how a game that was on Sony's portable gaming maching would transer over to the bigger consoles and on a TV.

Your home planet comes under attack from a mysterious moon that has an evil witch buried deep inside of it, so naturally you and your team take it upon themselves to save the world from imminent doom. It’s nothing terribly exciting or involved, though these types of games you generally don’t play for the story anyways.

Rogue-lite games usually frustrate me. They are generally very difficult, by design, but require you to retry numerous times to learn allowing you to hopefully get further on each attempt. This premise sets you up for failure and asks you to stick through it, as usually you need to begin at the very start without any progress saved, and that’s no different for Xenon Valkyrie+. I can appreciate that there’s an audience for these types of games, and the great ones have some sort of progression that persists through death to keep you strung along, constantly working towards a bigger goal, even if you have to constantly restart from the beginning. While Xenon Valkyrie+ does somewhat have this in place, it’s wasn’t enough, or substantial enough, to keep my interest in the long term.

You begin by choosing one of three characters, each with their own look and special ability. Unfortunately, these abilities aren’t taught to you, nor are the general controls, so you’ll be left to figure them out on your own. It wasn’t until an hour or two in that I actually figured out I had a gun, which would have been helpful to know from the beginning. Each character has a sword, gun, grenades and an ability, and each character has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Renna’s special ability is a radar that will ping special points and enemies on the mini map. Eloen has a bomb she can plant every so often and Nue has a super jump, allowing him to get into much higher areas. Each character has a different attack, a different defense and different vitality stats, so it’s a matter of choosing whom suits your playstyle best.

Every time you begin your journey, usually after a death, you'll discover that the levels are procedurally created, so the map changes each time you play, placing the goal and enemies in various locations. You’ll always begin at the top of a level, trying to make your way downwards to the randomly placed teleporter to move onto the next stage. You have the ability to wall jump too, allowing you to traverse back up if you find yourself at a dead end. Killing enemies will earn you experience points that helps to level you up and grant talent points. Destroying caches nets you gold to spend too. Killing every enemy you see takes time, but the talent points earned will make the rest of your run that much easier.

In between stages if you manage to make it to the teleporter, you’ll be whisked away to a little area where you can spend your hard earned talent points and gold. With your points you can increase stats like health, damage or defense. With your gold you can purchase upgrades, ammo refills and more. Just be prepared to lose it all when you inevitably die, because it will happen over and over. Everything you earn gets wiped when you die and you start all over in a completely randomized level layout with none of the upgrades you've purchased.

While you’ll generally progress slightly further and further each time, especially as you become more comfortable with the game and its mechanics, there’s not enough that persists through death to keep it exciting and enticing you to continue playing. If you manage to defeat any of the bosses, who feel overpowered, and somewhat unfair given that for some reason it disables your gun use, you’ll earn a random amount of Teamerite currency. This is a special currency that persists through death and can be used to unlock super weapons and other goodies. I don’t want to spoil these, should you actually make it this far, but even after unlocking a weapon it was underwhelming and not enough to keep my interest for many more subsequent runs.

There’s a few other issues too that, with a few tweaks, could make this a much more enjoyable game. If you manage to defeat one of the larger enemies in a level you’ll be granted a key (or choose the character that always starts with one) which can be used for unlocking a super powerful weapon, or a minor upgrade. This is where randomness comes in, as there’s times where I’ve been given a weapon that does massive damage and kills anything in one hit, while other times it actually feels like more of a downgrade. You should always feel as though you’re becoming more powerful, and when permadeath is a constant, being given a weapon that is worse then what you're currently wielding is like kicking you while you’re down.

It took me quite some time to figure out that I could use the Right Stick to slightly move the camera in different directions, which came in very handy since you have to constantly drop down from ledges, unable to see if there are any traps or enemies below you. The amount of times I lost health and died, because of this exact problem, is way too often. Again, this is where the randomness rears its ugly head.

If you enjoy brutally hard rogue-lite games, then Xenon Valkyrie+ will surely have something for you, as the same goes for those gamers who are speedrunners, since there’s a timer always on the screen, teasing you with how short you lived on each run. More often than not, I felt like I died due to unfair randomness rather than my skill and abilities, and I kept wishing that some of my progress persisted through death, but alas, I was stuck restarting often, becoming increasingly frustrated each time. in the end, this game is somewhat good in short bursts as Xenon Valkyrie+ scratches an itch, but it lacks long term appeal due to its randomized difficulty.

Overall Score: 5.8 / 10 SWORD ART ONLINE: FATAL BULLET

I’ve never been that much into anime in general, but there are a few that I really enjoy, and Sword Art Online (SAO) is one of those special few. I am also a massive fan of MMO’s, so naturally I gravitated towards an anime that revolved around one as well. I fell in love with the main characters, especially protagonists Kirito and Asuna, so I’ve been craving to have more adventures in the SAO universe, yet I have passed on playing the previous games based on this world. But not any more.

Revolving around the second season of the anime, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet takes place in the VR MMO world of Gun Gale Online. For those not familiar with the anime, Fatal Bullet’s backdrop takes place in an online MMO that users play in VR for hyper realistic experiences, though some mysterious deaths started taking place in online world of Gun Gale, and out, which the show’s protagonists investigate. What’s very interesting, and caught me by surprise, is that I fully expected to be playing as the main cast from the show, but it’s actually quite the opposite.

While you’ll have plenty of interaction and cameos from your favorite show characters, you actually play as a completely new character that you create and customize. So, instead of playing as the immensely powerful Kirito, you’re a newcomer to the online world of Gun Gale, which is a slick way to introduce you into the world and the gameplay mechanics. Your best childhood friend is the one that introduced you to Gun Gale Online, and VR MMO’s, which serves as the clever tutorial. Shortly after you start you become separated from your friend by chance, only to stumble upon one of the rarest items in the game that even the best players haven’t found yet.

While you might assume the item in question is a super rare and powerful gun, given that the world is based in a 3rd person shooter, you actually come into possession of an extremely rare and powerful AI that everyone wants. It is an ArFA-sys that you can customize how you wish, one that people will try to steal for themselves throughout your journey. Your luck at finding such a prize so early in your Gun Gale Online career catches the attention of Kirito and gang, which is how you’re introduced to the Sword Art Online characters.

What I really enjoyed about the story is that it wasn’t the stereotypical trope of the world ending, with you as the only savior that can do something about it. Even more so, I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it as much as I did since I didn’t get to actually play as my favorite characters from the show, but you do get to recruit them into your party and fight alongside them, so it’s an acceptable trade off. There are twists and turns to be found during your adventure that keep you interested, and I was very impressed that they didn’t simply rehash the season and that they created something unique that fits in naturally into the universe.

You begin your adventure by first creating your character, and while it’s not the most in-depth character creator I’ve ever seen, there’s enough choices for height, face, legs and more to fine-tune your male or female look and make them look like they belong in the Sword Art Online universe. You are then thrown into the world in a clever tutorial that has your best friend showing the ropes of how to interact and play in the online world of Gun Gale and the basic combat mechanics.

You primarily explore and run though indoor dungeons, though there are few larger outer world areas that you will traverse to get from place to place and unlock fast travel waypoints. Oddly, the majority of your gameplay will be indoors in cramped bland looking virtual dungeons filled with enemies. These areas are essentially connected rooms and corridors that do allow for a bit of exploration as you make your way to the eventual boss room, which you must defeat to continue on. Aside from the standard enemies you face, these areas feel very desolate and bland, which is kind of a shame, as it’s not like the online world of Gun Gale from the show at all, as you simply clear room after room. That being said, the boss fights are frantic and fun, forcing you to create a well-rounded group of different abilities.

I fully expected this game to feel like a standard 3rd person shooter, but it has a few tweaks to it that I really enjoy and that sets it apart from others. One of the more prevalent things you’ll most likely notice is that there’s absolutely no aim assist when looking down your weapon's sights. This makes it very difficult to shoot at exactly what you’re trying to, especially given that enemies have weak spots that can be exploited for massive damage. Instead, there’s an aiming assist when firing from the hip if you enable it. This allows for much more run-and-gun gameplay, and even though you won’t aim for the weak spots, it’s more than enough to help you get by most enemies. In the beginning I naturally tried to always aim down the sights, but as I played more, the hip fire aim assist became very handy and I found that I rarely tried and manually aim. It takes some getting used to, but I really enjoy it now that I’ve learned its mechanics and limitations.

You begin with some dodge and roll abilities, allowing you to escape fire quickly, but as you progress, and level up, there are a handful of other abilities you can purchase to help you settle into a specific type of roll, even a support one with healing bullets should you wish. While the classes could be more fleshed out and varied, it’s intriguing given the possibilities that you can combine, making for some unique classes and playstyles. You’re also given a grapple hook of sorts in the beginning, which is necessary to scale certain ledges and pull down aerial enemies.

Given that Fatal Bullet takes place in the online online world of Gun Gale, you can fully expect to have access to a slew of different weapons to support whatever play style you want, such as sniper rifles, SMGs, assault rifles, LMG’s, and more. You’ll earn tons of weapons and armor throughout your journey, with big upgrades coming every so often. You’re also able to improve items if you can gather enough of the proper materials, so there’s a hefty RPG system in place that I didn’t expect to be as robust as it really is. The customization is a welcome addition as I was always on the search for rare or better gear, then wanting to improve it, watching my damage and abilities improve. Interestingly, weapons have stat requirements, so the best weapons will require you to dump your skill points into such as strength, dexterity, etc.

Even though Fatal Bullet takes place in a fake MMO, there is an actual online component to play with other players, cooperatively or competitively. While the modes themselves don’t have a lot of depth, as you’re mostly just fighting a boss with, or against, other players, the fact that it’s included for some extra gameplay, to tackle with friends once you’re done, the campaign is a plus.

I absolutely love the source material, so while I love being able to hang out with my favorite characters, I was surprised how much I enjoyed actually playing my own character alongside them. I honestly expected a pretty bland shooter, yet I was surprised with the depth, length, and progression of the game. While fans will get the most out of it, it doesn’t alienate newcomers to the universe either. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of action packed within, from start to finish, and I think you will too.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Kerbal Space Program Enhanced Edition

I remember first watching someone play Kerbal Space Program (KSP) on PC back when it was released, being intrigued by the sheer freedom given to the player to create essentially any type of spaceship they wanted, complete with cute little green men. The PC version had quite a following after its release, leaving console players wishing they could experience the same spaceship building antics. While it did release on console 2 years ago, it was a buggy and unoptimized mess. Here we are once again, but this time with the Enhanced Edition, promising some much needed improvements for console players hoping to have an improved PC-like experience.

It seems this Enhanced Edition has been remade from the ground up to utilize the consoles much better, addressing the numerous issues from the first release, yet it’s still far from perfect. While it is an improvement over the initial version, it’s still galaxies away from the PC version in terms of controls and ease of use. With a sudden interest in space travel again thanks to SpaceX, Kerbal Space Program: Enhanced Edition might just scratch that itch, as long as you’re willing to put in a substantial amount of time to learn its metric ton of features and controls.

While there’s no real storyline per-se, you are in control of the grand Kerbal Space Program, hence the title. Kerbals are little green aliens that are determined to create all sorts of spaceships, allowing them to explore the galaxy and perform science experiments. While you won’t need a degree in astrophysics and rocket science, there’s so much packed here that I’m sure that if you did understand every nuance, you’d also be impressed. Your Kerbal Space Center is your headquarters, based on the planet Kerbin, naturally, and you’ll be creating spaceships, rovers and nearly anything else your mind can come up with. If it flies or not is a whole other story, and if you want it to land again afterwards, you better be prepared to sink in some serious hours to learn all of the minute intricacies with mass experimentation.

The core game is unchanged, allowing you to focus on whatever aspect you desire, though I found the ship building, and launching (though usually after many failed attempts), the most entertaining. When you create a multi stage rocket with numerous fuel tanks, engines, wings and other highly technological parts, you’ll feel like an absolute genius that should be working for NASA, though, that is until you try launching and have it either explode or crash moments from liftoff, bringing your ego back down to earth. Once you do start to figure things out, slog through the unfriendly tutorial and eventually make it into outer space, it’s quite a thrill to see your adjustments finally succeed.

Tutorials are generally included to teach you the core mechanics of the game, easing you into the experience and make the learning curve much smoother. While KSP does have a quite lengthy tutorial, and it’s absolutely vital if you want to learn how to even maneuver the camera properly, the learning curve is absolutely insane. Even with the improvements included in this Enhanced Edition, the ease of use for newcomers to the game is so difficult and unintuitive that it’s actually a deterrent.

While I’m not a fan of difficult games usually, certain ones like Dark Souls for example is difficult by design, forcing you to learn from your mistakes and punish you for them, encouraging you to play more and learn. The same can’t be said with KSP, as it’s difficult, though not by design and simply due to a terribly poor job of teaching you how to play properly. There’s a ton of tutorials to go through that will take you step by step of learning the basics, and eventually the more advanced mechanics as well, but when I got stuck on the very first tutorial, that says a lot about its design.

Tutorials are done via pop-ups that need to be read and understood, explaining how to maneuver the camera, go to the menu of items, sub-menus, radial menus and more. Once you complete the step it asks you to perform you need to press RB+A to get back to the tutorial screen and then confirm. If you’ve done the step correctly it will move onto the next dialogue to explain what to do, but if you’ve not, the menu will sit there, leaving you confused as to why you can’t progress in the tutorial. Yes, you become confused and can get stuck on a step in a tutorial. I literally had to quit of the first tutorial numerous times because my cursor become stuck, as I wasn’t sure of the button combination to cancel out of what I was currently doing, or get rid of a misplaced piece. Get used to random and very awkward button presses and combinations, as there’s a handful of them that you’ll need to know to become a KSP master.

I’m totally on board when it comes to difficulty, forcing you to experiment and fail, but that shouldn’t apply to the tutorial and base controls. Even hours in I was struggling with the controls, having to purposely think of what I was trying to do and then remembering how exactly to accomplish going so. The PC version wasn’t as painful for its controls, as you have a keyboard and mouse, but the controller mapping is so incredibly unintuitive and unfriendly that it was making me not want to play as much as I should have. If I wasn’t reviewing KSP, I probably would have given up a long time ago due to this constant unwinnable battle.

If you manage to grasp the controls, the numerous tutorials will start you off with the basics, like creating a very simple rocket, all the way to learning how to make multi-staged boosters, how to land on the Mun (Kerbin’s moon) and even orbiting the solar system for science experiments. Many of these tutorials also assume you just understand why you need to change the fuel levels in certain fuel cells, or why certain wings are better for aerodynamics, and while it does try and explain them briefly, it again doesn’t do a good job of teaching and guiding you. Many times I simply followed the tutorial instructions, unsure why exactly without understanding.

While spaceship building was the feature I enjoyed the most, there’s a ton of other things you can focus on too should you wish, such as taking control of your whole staff, learning complex creations, landing on the Mun, research science experiments, using an orbit to slingshot deeper into space and more. There’s a large navigation ball, or NavBall, on the screen that will help you navigate space in 3D, directing you to your targets as you focus on other aspects of space travel.

In addition to the lengthy tutorials, there are different modes that can be played based on your preference. Sandbox mode was my favorite, as it simply puts you in the game with every item and technology unlocked, allowing you to create whatever you desire without having to worry about a budget. This mode was great for simply experimenting with each type of part, what they do and how they affect your ship. With unlimited funds, you can simply try and test anything you can think of in this mode, as I found it a great place to learn what worked for me and what didn’t. Scenarios are also available, essentially mini missions that task you with a very specific objective, such as landing on the Mun or orbiting a specific planet.

Science mode is almost like a career-lite mode, as you’re simply tasked with conducting specific experiments without having to worry about any money restrictions or other distractions. Doing this research will earn you points to spend into a development tree, thus unlocking new features. It’s a good segway mode before diving head first into the deep end of Career Mode.

Career mode is the all-encompassing mode for KSP, requiring you to run all aspects like building, upgrades, funding, staffing and more. You’ll need to take on missions and experiments to earn points that allow you to boost your headquarters, allowing for more features to be unlocked. I was quickly lost in Career mode, overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work you need to do and keep on top of. You’re going to have to sink a ton of hours into KSP to even attempt to perform well in career mode, but the option is there for those that enjoy that aspect and want a challenge.

I really do appreciate what KSP does and offers, as there’s no other experience like it. If you’re patient enough, can deal with the unintuitive and non-friendly controls, have a ton of time and patience, then there’s a ton of value here for you. There’s a ton of problems with this poor PC port, yet there’s still a certain charm to it. I’m not sure if it’s the dumb lemming-like grins on the Kerbal’s faces when I’m spinning them in space at crazy G-forces I can’t even fathom, or seeing their screams as I know I’m about to crash my poorly designed ship, but either way, I keep coming back to try a crafting a different type of ship and experiment with other parts. Sure the walls of text aren’t the best tutorial, isn’t user friendly, and the controls will take days to get the hang of, but there’s no denying the level of simulation KSP can achieve, I just wish this Enhanced Edition was even more enhanced and much more user and controller friendly.

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament

Being a Westerner, I’ve never heard of the Xuan Yuan Sword series before, though not to the fault of the developer, as they’ve never released them over here before. Finding out that there’s been over a dozen games in the series already, much like the Final Fantasy series, I was actually quite shocked. It seems the series even bleeds into other media as well, so the name has some weight behind it overseas. Softstar Entertainment Inc has decided that the time is right to bring the series over to this side of the waters, but given its heavily Chinese influence, it’s a risky move. While I’ve got a laundry list of issues with Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament, it’s an odd JRPG, and I keep finding myself going back to it regardless of the concerns I have.

A great RPG’s backbone is usually its story, and I wasn’t sure what to initially expect from The Gate of Firmament, but as I put the hours in, I found myself interested throughout. Like most RPG’s, the main narrative starts off incredibly slow, and small in scope, but as you progress and unearth more events, the scale and urgency of your journey will become more and more important. You begin as a normal village boy that’s simply trying to protect his home village, but like most RPG’s, you fall into some extreme circumstances which will have you turn into a hero by the time the credits roll.

The Gate of Firmament is more than just a subtitle, as it’s the actual gateway between our mortal world and something else. In ancient times, the divine Jade Emperor opened the gates of heaven, allowing mortals into his world to gain power, but only if they agreed to help find his missing daughter. Of course, someone took advantage of this, causing evil to invade the land of mortals.

The story is actually quiet decent, as long as you have the patience to read along if you’re not proficient in native mandarin. There is no English dubbing, just captioning. You start off as Sikong, a quiet young man from a small remote village, eventually recruiting others along your journey, all with their own backstory that you’ll explore along the way. I enjoyed the overall narrative, and the relationships between each character, but you’ll need to enjoy a very traditional Chinese setting to really appreciate it.

As you explore the world, you’ll be in certain areas rather than one massive seamless world. It’s a little jarring at first, but reach one of the end areas of any specific level and you can then fast travel to any of the areas you’ve previously uncovered. Each new area will give you a marker that you'll attempt to reach, which will most likely trigger a cutscene to watch. Get used to this, as there are a lot of cutscenes throughout the game, many more than I was expecting. The main storyline scenes will play out like a movie, whereas the minor scenes are rendered in game.

As you explore each area the map will be greyed out until you traverse down each path, revealing any branching routes or hidden treasure chests. Enemies wonder the areas as well, and you can choose to avoid or engage in combat, though I suggest battling as much as possible early on to gain some very important levels and skill points. As you run around, and if you are quick enough, you can actually preemptively attack monsters to gain an advantage in battle. Depending on which character you are actively controlling, you’ll get a different bonus for the battle, such as enemies starting with lower health, bonus treasure, or beginning with them stunned for a short time.

Combat is in real time and uses a global cool-down for ability usage. When you use an ability you’ll need to wait a short period of time before using another. You have two varying attacks that don’t take any mana, eventually allowing you to create different combos with different effects as you level up and unlock them. For example, spamming ‘A’ is your basic attack, but ‘A’->‘B’ will do a different combo, usually with some sort of bonus damage or effect. As you spend skill points that you earn by leveling up, you can also train in magical abilities, that do either damage, heal, or buff your team. These abilities can be used at any time when the cooldown timer has reset as well, so you need to pick carefully what ability, melee, or item you want to use, including healing or mana items.

Once you have your full team of 4 characters, you can swap to any one of them freely in battle with the d-pad, allowing you to take control of their attacks and abilities individually should you wish. Eventually you’ll unlock formations, somewhat like the Paragon system from Final Fantasy XIII. These stances will give your team extra damage or resists, and can be customized who will get what applicable bonuses per stance. It’s not terribly in depth, but it’s more than I was expecting, and once you learn to start relying on the elemental bonuses, it can change the battle outcome in your favor quickly. The majority of the game you’ll breeze through for combat, but bosses can be brutally difficult if you’ve not leveled up appropriately and have a ton of healing items.

A problem you’ll start to notice once you have a full team is that the AI is absolutely terrible. When in control of one of the characters, the AI will automatically use the other characters, but it does so terribly. There’s almost no logic in what abilities they decide to use, as they will cast a spell over and over, or use potions when not needed, draining your supply. They will even buff you and the rest of the team when battles are about done, and make other poor decisions that make absolutely no sense. The lack of monster variety doesn’t help matters either, as you’ll see the same variation of animals and weird faced baskets throughout your journey as you go from area to area.

There’s a lot of other mechanics included that surprised me, each of which are unique and blend well together with one another. Crafting, for example, works quite well once you figure out how to do it. Say you loot a steel staff, it would have regular stats for damage, but if you craft a steel staff instead, the damage output and other stats would be vastly greater than the one you found, or even bought. To craft you’ll need to hunt enemies for materials and search for treasure chests, but you’ll also need to purchase recipes at the merchants to learn how to craft the different items.

Speaking of chests, some are your standard click and open, but there are also higher level chests that require a quick puzzle for you to solve in order to open it. Oddly enough, the puzzles revolve around words and spelling the word with a missing letter. So you’ll be shown a word with a missing letter, like _UGGAGE for example, then given a row of 4 different letters, and you need to choose the right letter across 4 different words to successfully open the chest. It’s an odd mini-game that isn’t challenging, especially when you have words like LOCK or BUG for example, and completely unnecessary if English is your native language.

Interestingly, there’s a system in place once reach it you get an adorable pet boar that can be used to capture enemies in battle, which can then be used for a multitude of purposes. He carries a small urn on his back that, when the Right Stick is pressed, can attempt to capture a monster, much like throwing a pokeball. The captured monsters can be infused with one another to create stronger versions that you can you bring out in battle, or you can also use them to infuse weapons and equipment to level them up and make them stronger. It’s a very odd system at first, and one that isn’t explained very well, but once you learn its intricacies it becomes one of the more addictive parts of The Gates of Firmament.

The game's soundtrack is very lucid and beautiful, matching the scenery and setting, and even though I can’t speak Mandarin, the voice acting itself seems to be decent, at least if the emotions conveyed match the subtitles. That being said, the subtitles have clearly been done either in a rush or by an amateur, and they do not seem to have been proof-read, as the translation to English isn’t always accurate or how it would be natively spoken.

While I can forgive the fault of poor subtitles, the visuals are a whole other story. Plainly put, I was constantly reminded that The Gate of Firmament looked as if it belonged on the PS2 or original Xbox. Visually, you’re going to be blown away, specifically with how dated and ugly it is at times, which is a shame, as some of the backdrops of the areas are gorgeous, and the story encourages you to keep playing. It’s ugly to look at, simply put, and that’s before even factoring in the mass amount of texture glitches that stretch across the screen and the terrible object pop-in in the backgrounds. These distractions really take away from the experience, and even if you are able to ignore them for the most part, they last throughout and become very disrupting.

Even with the myriad of bugs there’s an odd and endearing quality that Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament possesses. Sure, the $25 asking price seems a bit high when you judge it on its looks alone, but there’s a surprising amount of gameplay held within, as long as you can stomach the lackluster visuals, poor translation and bugs. If you’ve been craving a new JRPG game to enjoy, there’s enough ‘meat on the bone’ here to keep you interested, even if there are better choices available. With some more QA time, and a better translation, this might have been a completely different, and even more enjoyable, experience. All the typical checkboxes have been marked to make for a decent experience, and there are a few mechanics included that I really enjoyed, but like a good B-movie, I enjoyed it for unintended reasons instead.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Monster Hunter: World

I’ve tried numerous times to get into the Monster Hunter games, but I have seemingly failed each time due to their lack of feeling accessible and friendly to new players. I always go in hoping that I’ll finally catch onto the allure, as it’s a very popular franchise, but it seemingly loses me quite quickly with every single iteration I try. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve gotten intrigued about Monster Hunter, so when Monster Hunter: World was revealed, my excitement began to peak again, hoping this would be the one to finally pull me in. It seems as if Capcom knew they needed to do something to bring in new players into the franchise, and in doing so, not have they only made an absolutely stunning experience, but it gained myself as a new fan, all without alienating the longtime players.

Welcome to Monster Hunter: World, where you play the role of a hunter, tasked with taking on veracious beasts within living and breathing lands full of flora, wildlife and danger. You can hunt on your own, or alongside three friends, and if you’re worried that Capcom has strayed from the tried and true Monster Hunter formula, fret not, as you’ll be hunting monsters to collect items to craft new gear to try and take on even more fearsome enemies.

You are a hunter, a Fifth Fleet member, who barely survives an attack from a massive beast, Zorah Magdaros, and you are landing in the town of Astera. This new town will be your main hub where you meet new characters as you hunt your way to find the path of destruction Zorah has left behind. The main narrative is interesting and conveys a much broader scope of the gameplay you’ll become accustomed to, which I really enjoyed. My only complaint about the campaign is that your character is the overused silent protagonist, simply nodding or being interrupted instead of being a voiced character.

Every monster you battle, no matter the size, feels like an epic boss fight, and while that first monster may have given you problems in the beginning, it pales in comparison to what you’ll need to defeat later ones as you progress. Each new area feels unique, not only because of its area (visuals and environment), but because of its inhabitants that you’ll be hunting as well. I was impressed with how the difficulty curve has been fixed, as I found the previous entries to be very challenging right off the get-go, which eventually turned me off, but it feels just right here. You progress through ranks of missions, with each subsequent quest becoming more and more challenging as you proceed in the campaign.

The first, and arguably most important, task you’ll be faced with is creating your character and customizing how they look. You’re given a healthy amount of options, and there are some creative ways to make your hunter look exactly how you want. Next, you’ll be customizing how your Palico looks, a sidekick that will aid you in battle, which just happens to be a large cat. These feline companions are absolutely adorable and will be a great partner for you as you are in battle. I won’t lie, I’ve become quite attached to my Palico with the dozens of hours we’ve hunted together.

You are introduced to the basics early on through a handful of tutorials. You’ll learn the core mechanics, but even after a the first dozen or so hours into Monster Hunter: World, I was still learning things that I wish were taught to me early on in a clear manner. Some things were very confusing. For example, as I’ve had to self-learn how to create my own ammo and traps, both of which play a big part into how I hunt my prey now.

One of the game’s greatest strengths though is how it naturally encourages exploration without giving you a quest telling you to where to go. The world is built in such a way that you want to explore every area, check out every climbable surface, and see what’s in those gloomy caves. Further enhancing this world is the fact that every area truly is an ecosystem that plays into one another. Plenty of flora and wildlife inhabit nearly every corner, and the large monster you’ll be hunting will even have a feeding ground and are territorial when others come into their nests. Much like previous games, each map you explore is sectioned into different areas, but now traveling between them is seamless, as it should be, as its one large area. No more loading screen between areas, and you’ll need to explore it all if you want to become a master hunter.

Movement is fluid and straightforward, as you can change direction quickly and smoothly, and when you're fighting a monster, you can dodge and dash to get out of the way. The graphics engine does a great job of not only showing the action, but letting you do all the required moves as well. Making the moves will drain your limited stamina gauge, and should you run out you’ll be prone and vulnerable for a few moments as you catch your breath. You can even climb quickly with your grappling hook, as the maps are very vertical as well, though this will also cause strain on your stamina.

You hunt with your weapons, and Monster Hunter: World gives you the option of 14 different ones to adapt to nearly any situation and playstyle. Weapons range from standard long swords, a sword and shield, a bowgun, lances, bows and arrows, massive claymores and even a huge blunt horn that can play songs and buff your party. Every weapon handles very differently and it will take you some time to find the weapon that suits you best, along with what fits in your group. I simply wasn’t feeling the first few weapons I tried, but I eventually found one that I was happy with and started to stick with it and upgraded it as I went along. The same goes for armor, as there’s a ton of different sets to craft and create, each with their own special properties, and they too will take a lot of getting used to. There’s no way you can simply button mash during gameplay as you’ll get wrecked by the monsters. Somewhat akin to Dark Souls, combat can be brutally difficult when facing monsters for the first time, so you best be cautious and don’t get too reckless, or you will pay for it. You can hack and slash, or even shoot, away at the monsters, but you’ll really want to focus on specific body parts, trying to uncover their weakness or manage to stagger them to cause more damage. You’ll notice that they have no health bars, and this is by design. Instead, you won’t know exactly when a monster is close to death, but there are visual indications, like the monster trying to limp away and flee, or its tail is broken off. This made the world feel more natural without the floating bars everywhere, and it lets you focus on the enemies attack patterns, rather than some HUD.

Killing the monster is only half of the battle though, as you’ll first need to track and hunt them before engaging in combat. Your hunter is equipped with a special vial of fireflies that help you navigate to nearby objects that can be interacted with, be it gatherable flora, pick-ups, or even monster tracks. This setup, again, makes the in-game world feel natural without having an arrow pointing you exactly where to go. Things don’t always go as planned though, as one time I was fighting my tracked monster, only to have a massive T-Rex come in and start to defend his territory. Do you stand back and let them fight and pick off the winner, or risk taking on both for double rewards? Natural occurrences like this really makes the world come alive and feel like you’re simply experiencing a part of it.

Interestingly, there’s also no traditional level-up system, instead you’ll simply need to craft your better gear by grinding out missions and foraging all you can which allows you to take on harder monsters, and thus the cycle continues. Quests are simple to understand, and your fireflies will generally direct you where to go when having to hunt and track down your specific monster. Before each mission be sure to stock up on supplies, ammo, potions, traps, and anything else you’ll need, but be sure to also leave room for your spoils. You can even purchase food beforehand which will give you invaluable buffs for your next hunt.

Tracking and hunting will get better in time, as you can essentially level up your tracking abilities per monster. The more footprints and claw marks you investigate, the more proficient you’ll become at knowing how that monster navigates the territory, and you can eventually become proficient enough to see where he is exactly on the map at any given time and where he will be heading next. Investigating also allows you to earn Research Points which then is used to unlock new items and quests.

Expeditions are almost like a mini-hunt, where sometimes you’ll be tasked with taking down a great monster, but you’ll be able to freely roam afterwards, allowing you to casually explore at your own pace instead of succumbing to the usual 50 minute timeline in hunts. This is a great feature of the game that allows you to work on your optional quests and bounties, explore, work on investigations, and more without a time limit to curb your progression.

Hunting monsters may be the main draw to the series, but I was floored with how in depth the crafting becomes as you progress. Every item or monster remain essentially has some sort of purpose, most of which is for crafting items, potions, ammo, traps, gear, and of course weapons. You can forge gear, based on the resources you’ve gathered and even upgrade weapons to keep up with the scaling difficulty of monsters. The cycle is quite simple: Kill monsters for items, use items to craft better gear, kill harder enemies and repeat.

You’ll have to farm monsters numerous times if you want to craft matching sets of gear, which is great when they have a bonus/buff for completing a set. If you’re constantly swapping weapons and armor, you’re going to struggle to keep up with the crafting components without having to constantly grind. You can even upgrade your Palico’s armor and weapon as well, though it's not as in depth, but it also takes from your resources, so it’s a matter of balancing of what to upgrade and when. Certain weapons and gear will also give you bonuses to elemental damage, which needs to be taken into account when fighting certain monsters, so the depth is massive. It’s an endless cycle, but it’s rewarding and exciting when you craft yourself that new upgrade.

While you can certainly play Monster Hunter: World solo, it really shines when you’re part of a team of four players who cooperatively take down a massive T-Rex. Bear in mind that as more players join, the difficulty and health pool of the monsters scale alongside to stay balanced. I sometimes found playing in a team more challenging, solely because in hunts you have three lives before the mission fails. If you’re playing co-op, those three lives are shared across your whole team. While playing with a group of friends that each pull their own weight is a fantastic experience, playing with random people online that aren’t as skilled and keep dying, causing you to fail, ends with frustration.

I find in general the pros for playing with other people outweigh the cons, as when I have friend join me, especially when they are able to not only do massive damage to a monster due to their gear, but they can also exploit weaknesses when the monster is distracted, allowing you to freely attack weak spots. Most weapons also become dull with lots of use and need to be sharpened, so playing with others allows you to quickly jet away and sharpen your weapon while they continue attacking.

Actually, the most frustrating portion of Mpnster Hunter: World is its online component, not playing together though, but actually getting it setup properly and joining. While the co-op is fantastic itself, there’s so many odd design decisions that make you jump through arbitrary hoops to even make it happen. For example, I’m playing a Hut mission and want you to join, but you’re actually not able to until I’ve watched the cutscene. Ok, no big deal, right? Well, not all cutscenes happen at the beginning of a mission, as some only play once you’ve managed to track down your target monster, which could take a while if you’re unable to find them easily.

After I finally watch the cutscene I then need to use an SOS Flare, signaling that I want people to help me in my mission, wait a good 5-10 minutes for my quest to be posted, then wait for people to join. It’s a convoluted way to get cooperative play working when it’s one of the main focuses of the game, and there’s usually some hoops you need to jump through to get it working, or find the exact lobby you want. There were some severe server issues at launch, like SOS flares not actually starting lobbies to be found, but it seems most of those issues have been fixed. It’s still asinine that I need to wait for people to watch a cutscene before I can join they hunt and have no simple drop in/out way of doing so.

Monster Hunter: World does an amazing job at simultaneously making you feel very powerful, yet keeping you always on your toes with dangerous foes that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Make sure you never feel over confident though, or else you’ll pay the price. The environment you play in is more than a simple man-made level, it really does feel like a living and breathing world that you’re experiencing.

Is Monster Hunter: World perfect? No, but its damn close. There’s some poor design choices, especially when it comes to cooperative play, but aside from that, you’re going to get lost in its world for dozens and dozens of hours. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it, and I really had to search to look for the negatives to complain about. It’s convoluted in its own ways, but it’s also incredibly deep, making for a robust RPG experience unlike any other. Find your favorite weapon, customize your adorable Palico and get hunting some voracious beasts in one of the better games that’s come out in quite some time. Monster Hunter: World needs to be explored and experienced.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China

For a long time I’ve been looking for a game to replace Crimson Skies as my favorite arcade air combat title. There have been numerous contenders over the years that have tried to do so, but none have even come close. It seems that developer ACE MADDOX is now the newest dev-team to try and put a game in this genre out for fans as they recently released Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China (FTSOC). There’s not many air combat game releases these days, so when one does come along, I get excited, as I want to experience air combat whenever possible.

Flying Tigers does something a little different though, although the game is set during the World War 2 era, it places you into the roll of pilot in many lesser known encounters from the war, rarely depicted anywhere else, specifically, the China-Burma-India theatre. I’m not a war buff by any means, but I know the talking points and battles, and everything included in FTSOC was completely new to me. Prepare to dogfight, man turrets, perfect bombing runs, land air strikes and more as you help defend China against Japan in these rarely seen battles.

You are a part of the American Volunteer Group, a little known squadron that fought alongside the Chinese troops in the war, helping with torpedo drops, night runs, bombing, dog-fighting and more. While I wasn’t aware of the specific battles included in the campaign beforehand, history buffs should be excited to experience specific missions like the Battle of the Salween Gorge, Invasion of Malaya, and raids on Rangoon, just to list a few. These missions are based on actual historic battles, so it’s quite interesting to see some of the missions that took place, and how chaotic and dangerous it really was.

I actually never knew there was an American Volunteer Group of pilots that helped within World War II, so it was fascinating to see this during the game and in a different context other than simply being a Air Force, Navy or Marine pilot. The campaign starts off simple with basic dogfights, but eventually you’ll need to fly close to the water to launch torpedoes, strafe ground targets with your guns and bombs, destroy search lights and Anti-Air turrets, and a whole lot more among the other missions.

While there’s a little variety in the campaign, I do wish it told the stories better. You’ve given a dossier to read before and after the missions, and there’s some brief cutscenes sprinkled in with some voiceover work, but nothing exciting or that will wow you. It comes across as very dry, and more than once I forgot what the point of my mission was, only to be reminded with the objective listed in the top left of my screen. Missions are simply given to you without much context, so nearly each one simply devolves into destroying all enemies, sometimes before they reach their intended target. There are a few exceptions to this rule, and I really enjoyed a mission where I needed to break up a Japanese bombing run by damaging each plane a specific amount, forcing them out of formation.

After a handful of missions you’ll realize that nearly every campaign stage has you shooting and destroying your targets before being able to progress. Yes, this is what the genre is about, but there’s not much excitement to it, even when you’re essentially using a new aircraft during each mission as well. Even though it’s repetitive, the campaign was fairly entertaining to play through at least once, even if it was a little on the short side, but luckily more modes have been added to attempt to keep your interest.

In terms of the game's modes, you have access to one's like Dogfight, Challenge and Free Flight. Dogfight is self-explanatory, as it focuses on the air combat portion. You choose any of the planes available, location, number of enemies and finally either Avenging Ace or Survival. Fighting against 10 enemies can get chaotic and will surely put your flight wings to the test. Survival is just that, seeing how long you can survive against endless enemies, adding a different type of gameplay to challenge yourself. Challenge mode is a handful of five specific missions with objectives, but the best part is that there’s a global leaderboard for these missions, so you best start practicing if you want to prove you’re the best pilot in the skies.

As for the flight controls themselves, it took me a little time to get used to them, and there’s an option for Arcade controls, making things a little simpler and accessible. Full control is where you can control the Pitch and Roll of your aircraft, so I advise you to start with Arcade controls to get a feel for the controls, but once you’ve got the basics down, you’re going to want to have full control if you want to become the best pilot out there. There’s also a few extra moves and mechanics you can utilize, such as using a slow-mo to shoot your enemies easier for a brief period of time, using the D-pad to loop and roll to avoid enemies, and even one where you use the Left and Right Bumpers to bank hard to try and flank your enemies. It’s not the most complex system out there, but it works, even though it did take me some time to stop using the right stick, as that controls your camera instead of your flaps and yaw, which I am used to.

With smaller titles like this, usually local multiplayer is present, but I was surprised to see that an online component was included, and on top of that, for up to 16 players in a match as well. There’s a handful of Online modes you can battle in, such as Team Dogfight, Rocket Battle, and even a Capture the Flag variant titled Flagbusters. Each player gets to pick their aircraft and test their skills against the rest of the world, so you better know what you’re doing before venturing into this foray.

That being said, there’s little to no community playing this online, as every time I try to find a match I had difficulty finding one. Luckily I had a friend with the game who was able to test it out with me, and once we were able to get into a match with 2 others. Unless you have a group of friends that all purchase this game, don’t expect any actual 16 player dogfights anytime soon. It’s a shame, as the potential to have Flying Tigers be a title to dabble in now and then for some online multiplayer loses its charm when there’s no one else to play online with.

Graphically, the planes look decent, as do the backdrops, but it's nothing that will blow you away. The same goes for the soundtrack, as it’s there and sets the tone with its orchestral tracks, but nothing memorable. One song that did stand out was one that plays during the credits, as it doesn’t seem to fit with the game at all. Not that I’m holding it against it, but it just seemed like a very odd decision to have a song play that doesn’t fit the rest of the tonality to the game itself.

Oddly enough, the game is rated M for mature, and this is mostly due to the racial slurs that are used when talking about the Japanese. Yes, this is accurate for the time period, so it’s not out of place, but there’s also a lot of other swearing during combat that I didn’t expect, causing me to mute it when my little one was nearby watching and listening.

If you’re craving an aerial combat title, as not many release these days, then Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China will certainly get you through a slow weekend with nothing else to play. The $18.99 CAD price tag isn’t completely out of the ballpark, but that’s as long as you know there’s essentially no community playing this online, which is why you would keep continuing to play after the brief campaign is completed. Flying Tigers is completely serviceable for what it offers, but don’t expect to be blown away, even if the premise of experiencing rarely depicted battles excites you.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Lost Grimoires 2: Shard of Mystery

If there’s one company that’s fulfilled a specific niche, Artifex Mundi sure has done so by bringing casual HOGs (hidden object games) to the Xbox One in droves. For about two years now they’ve been bringing their backlog, and some new titles, to the console, which I initially didn’t think would work well, but they seem to fit, as sitting on the couch with a controller in hand, solving some puzzles at a casual pace works. This time around we get the sequel to Lost Grimoires, aptly titled Lost Grimoires 2: Shard of Mystery. If you’ve previously played one of their titles then you’ll know exactly what to expect; a journey filled with mystery, fantasy adventure, twists and a whole bunch if puzzles to solve.

While technically a sequel to the first title, I failed to find many ties between the two, aside from the King that was in the first game and you playing another alchemist. The King’s alchemists crafted a Chasm Mirror, used to banish the evil witch Drosera into another dimension. The King’s health is starting to fail though, so he begins to prepare his son, Prince Fern, to take over the throne. On the day of his coronation he goes missing, and it’s up to you to find him and solve what has happened.

Like other titles in the genre, the story really isn’t the main showcase here, as it is filled with fantasy tropes and beautiful backgrounds for you to explore. Luckily you don’t need to have played the first game to make sense of this one, as the hook to these games is all about the gameplay and its puzzles.

Gameplay is much like any of the previous titles, as you’re searching scenes for items and clues that can be used elsewhere. You move your cursor around and you can point and click certain objects. Some will need to be solved to gather, such as needing a key for a lock, or a saw to cut planks of wood, but the theme stays true throughout until the credits roll. You’ll scour scenes, sometimes having hidden object games to sift through, or solve standard puzzles before allowing to you to progress.

The hidden object games were the highlight for me, as you’re either given a word list of items to find in a cluttered scene, or given simple silhouettes that you need to find the corresponding items for. Sure you could spam the button and move the cursor around, finding them with no effort, but trying to do it with no errors and purposely is much more rewarding. There’s a handful of different puzzle types you’ll encounter, though none of them will stump you for too long. Actually, I found Lost Grimoires 2 substantially easier than most of their other titles, though if you become truly stumped, you can use a hint that’s on a recharge timer to solve any puzzle, should the need arise.

Unlike most of their other games, there’s no alternative way to play a puzzle. In some of the titles, if you weren’t proficient, you were able to play some other type of mini game, like dominoes or something similar instead, but that is not present here. The same goes with the epilogue that many of their past titles have after completing the campaign, yet that is absent here too, so I’m not sure why some of the titles get certain treatment, yet not others.

One of the puzzles you’ll be solving regularly is when it comes to conjuring your alchemy ingredients. Once you have all three specific items needed to craft a recipe, you’re whisked away to a small game that resembles something like Bejeweled. Here you need to match 3 or more of an identical symbol to make the needed counter reach zero. Once you’ve done so successfully, the potion is made and you can continue on your journey. This mini game needs to be played every time you craft a new potion, and it becomes increasingly difficult as you progress. Well, I wouldn’t say difficult, as you simply need to make more combinations before you ‘win’. Again, these are not challenging at all, and not once did I have to reference a walkthrough to complete the adventure.

When you manage to complete the game, you can play an Expert difficulty level, though the only thing this really changes is that you don’t get any hints of where to go and the recharge for your hint timer is much longer. So, while it’s welcome to have a slightly more challenging experience, I wish the puzzles were more involved, as a single playthrough will easily be doable in a single sitting.

Casual puzzle fans should enjoy Lost Grimoires 2, as it’s a title you can sit down with and enjoy in short bursts if needed, and it isn’t overly challenging. For experts in the genre, you may want to look elsewhere if you’re looking for puzzles that are going to stump you, though luckily playing the first game isn’t a prerequisite to enjoy this one. While this isn’t Artifex Mundi’s strongest title in the catalogue, Lost Grimoires 2 is a fun distraction for $10 if you’re looking to relax and try out your alchemy skills on a lazy weekend.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Hello Neighbor

We’ve all had that neighbor at some point in our lives. You know, the weirdo that you wonder why they always have their their doors locked, windows closed and the drapes drawn, year round. What if you were a brave enough kid to sneak into their house and investigate the going-ons for yourself, only to find doors with multiple locks, further heightening your curiosity. That’s the premise of Hello Neighbor, though he won’t simply let you wonder around his house, so you better not get caught...or else.

My 5-year old actually knew about the game before I did, from the YouTube videos she watches, since then it seemed interesting. When I first saw Hello Neighbor myself, I was quite intrigued, as I can’t really think of a game with the same premise. Kids are curious creatures, and I know I always imaged what the inside of people’s houses looked like when I was growing up, so getting to act that out seemed like an interesting premise. Ideas are only half the equation though, and while it’s an intriguing backdrop, the execution is something completely different.

The core premise of Hello Neighbor is that you witness your next door neighbor seemingly grab someone and lock them in a closet from afar. You not quite sure if that’s what you actually saw, so being the juvenile you are, you decide to sneak into his house and investigate for yourself. That’s the hook for the most part. If I had to categorize it, I would say that this game falls into a blend of stealth, platforming, puzzle and slight horror genres.

Broken into three main acts, it’s simply you versus the AI neighbor. The game claims that the AI will learn from your actions and play style, thus making counter decisions to thwart your trespassing. But don’t let him catch you or else you’ll be subdued and locked away as well. There’s no real narrative, as there’s no dialogue, voice acting, or anything of the sort, it’s simply you with the gameplay, as you are left to determine what the meaning behind the abstract levels could symbolize, if you can even get to those points.

Developer Dynamic Pixels did a good job at creating a neighbor that appears to give off a creepy vibe, with his old man sweater right down to his mustache, he fits the part perfectly for the backdrop. As above, not only is there no real story in a traditional sense, but there’s no tutorial, map, arrows, or nothing at all to help guide you in your mission to quell your curiosity without getting caught. It’s a shame though, as the only real help your given is the control mapping on the pause screen. Aside from that you’re on your own to figure out not only how to do things, but why and where.

It’s odd though, as a game about trying to sneak into some creep’s house, there’s no real sneaking involved. Sure, there’s a button to crouch, and I assume make less noise, but you won’t make it far if you don’t constantly run from place to place inside the home. It seems the AI does get a little smarter the longer you play. He seemed to catch me in the same spots a few times when I would retry the same entry points, like a broken window or through the front door. Luckily there’s many ways to lure him where you want, like breaking a window and going the opposite way, turning off the power, etc.

Even though Hello Neighbor is broken into three Acts, I don’t think many will get past the first one. You need to find keys to unlock padlocks that restrict access to other areas of the house, and doing so is no easy feat. This isn’t because of the difficulty that’s been carefully crafted and designed, but more to do with struggling with the core gameplay mechanics when trying to do what you want, when you want.

Should you manage to struggle through the first Act, the second plays quite differently, as you'll find yourself locked in your neighbor's house and need to find an exit. I don’t want to spoil much else, as the gameplay from this point on isn’t as frustrating, but it’s a shame that you have to endure the opening bit to even try to make it here. The difficulty is a little off putting, not because I don’t like a challenge, but the unfairness and randomness is a huge burden.

You can tell when 'the neighbor' is nearby, as the visuals and audio change slightly to be more tense, but there’s no indicator of where he’s actually at in relation to you, if he’s actually seen you, or anything else to help guide you. If you’re outside the house and he’s on the other side of the wall, the game makes the same indicator as if he’s seen you and is making chase. Since the AI somewhat adapts, what worked in one attempt will be thwarted the next, so you need to constantly try new tactics.

Even if you didn’t have to constantly worry about being caught and locked up, Hello Neighbor would stay just as challenging due to the poor platforming that’s required to progress. Remember when I said Act One would probably be as far as many will make it? This is exactly why. For example, you’ll need to get on his roof, and there’s no way to do so, at least every time I’ve tried to do so, without stacking items on a bent shelf. The problem here is, even jumping to get to the top of the bent shelf is a challenge on its own with odd physics and some clipping. If you manage to get a box, or other item, to drop exactly where you want, you will need precision maneuvering, and almost an act of god, to make the jump you intend to make, though you’ll likely fall and probably get caught by the neighbor, forcing you to start all over again.

Controls aren’t any better either. Many times I had to press the interact button repeatedly for it to pick up and move an item, even though the reticule says I’m in range. Having to do this while being chased is near impossible, and that’s if you don’t happen to run into the handful of bugs I did in my playthrough. At one point I got stuck on some object I threw, tried to pick it up, only to be launched about a mile straight up in the air, falling to my death and restarting once again. Items will clip through walls and other objects, and the sound of it constantly jamming is enough to mute the game all together.

While the game is riddled with bugs, I will say that the artistic style used is quite refreshing. It has a cartoon-like stylization to it with a simplicity, though this also means it’s difficult to determine what items can be used or picked up at times without trial and error. Sure, bugs can be fixed in time with patches, and maybe a compass or map will be added, or even an indicator of where your abductor is in relation to you, but in its current state, Hello Neighbor is a nonsensical mess. Most times when I die I’m thrown back into the street to start all over, whereas other random times I’m locked in a room, having to run to the exit, then have to start over again. I just don’t get it.

If Hello Neighbor was in Game Preview, this would be a completely different conversation, as it would be in its early stages with promises of additions and fixes, but that’s not the case. Instead, you’re being asked to pay $30 for a game that not only doesn’t feel finished, and it is severely lacking not only polish, but more importantly, fun. Oddly enough, watching someone play Hello Neighbor on their stream is almost the exact opposite experience for some reason. Watching others play that know how to deal with the frustration and poor design is fascinating when you see how it’s intended to be played, rather than struggling against it.

There was a lot of hype behind Hello Neighbor, and I've even started seeing merch at stores to purchase, but at this point in time it hasn’t lived up to it yet, not even close. The ideas are there, as is the premise and backdrop, but the execution is severely lacking in the worst possible way. Sure, some fixes might make it a better experience, but there’s no way this should be a full release in its current state. With all this in mind, I say "Goodbye Neighbor".

Overall Score: 4.0 / 10 Hand of Fate 2

The first Hand of Fate really surprised me as I expected some sort of standard card based game, but I got anything but. Developed by Defiant Development, the anticipated sequel is now here, aptly titled Hand of Fate 2. Just like its predecessor, it may lure you in with its promise of card based mechanics, but there’s much more to it than that, including challenging combat and deck building strategy, but I hope you have luck on your side, as you’re going to need it throughout. Even though you might assume it’s a card based game, which it is, it plays much more like a classic tabletop game you’d bust out with friends more than anything else.

The memorable and mesmerizing dealer from the first game returns once again for the sequel, taking place a century after the previous game. Oddly enough, there’s no large overarching story, but instead there are 22 separate mini stories that act as levels themselves. It's here where you’ll be tasked with new objectives, meeting new characters and learning the evolving gameplay mechanics as you progress, all of which are very reminiscent of the first game.

If you haven't played before, you sit at a table in front of a very mysterious man that informs you is about to tell you a tale with his cards that are laid out on the table. You are represented by a small carved figurine, and you choose which pathway to take among the cards, each card revealing the story laid out in front of you as you progress. Some cards are helpful, coming in the form of shops or blessings, while others are traps, destined to make you fail your journey or resulting in you having to face ambushes of enemies trying to defeat you.

The stories that you are told are interesting, though mostly short, but some of them will take some time to complete given the secondary objectives you must do if you want to appropriately finish that particular story with a gold medal before moving onto the next. It’s a very interesting blend of RPG, card, and board game, as there’s not really much else like it that I’m aware of, done to this quality.

Cards are taken from your deck, which you specify for the most part, and your ultimate goal is to reach the end, usually ending with a battle against a challenging foe. As you progress, the objective becomes much more complicated, as you’ll need to earn enough fame, or find relics, etc., before making it to the end of each chapter. The cards are laid face down, so you don’t know which each one entails as you land on it, though the majority of them will have you facing battle or losing gold, health, or food supplies.

Certain cards allow you to make a dice roll to determine the outcome. Roll over a certain number and you’ll have success, fail and you’ll likely be thrown into combat against a group of thugs, thieves or worse, the new musketeers that can fire at you from afar. You’re given three dice and are allowed one re-roll of however many dice you choose.

Outcomes are also determined a few other ways, usually via a choice of 4 cards that are shuffled in front of you, but there’s no way to realistically follow a specific fail or success card to choose from, so it’s simply a game of chance. There’s also a ‘wheel spin’ of sorts, placing a number of cards in front of you and spinning them quickly, as you try and stop it on the card you want to choose. This takes practice to learn how much lead time you need to have in order to accurately choose the card you want, so this is even more chance based than skill as well. These little mini-games are fun, and even though I’ve had long stretches of wins, I've had even longer bouts of losses, in a row.

You’re also in possession of inventory cards than range from weapons, gear and accessories. These can be put into your deck to give you a leg up on the combat that you’ll face ahead. As you progress and clear missions, you’ll earn better gear, some of which is special, like a very high damage axe that requires you to have enough fame to wield it in each mission. To get fame you’ll need to explore the ‘map’ more and take your chances with landing on more cards, but this is where your resources come into play. You have cards for food, gold and health. Certain quests will ask you to decide whether to use some food cards to feed the poor, or maybe hand over some gold to avoid a battle, but if you don’t have enough resources, you’re going to suffer.

Sometimes luck is on your side and you’ll have an abundance of food, which at a camp, is usable at any time between card movements, and it can be converted into health, which you no doubt may have lost during your last combat or had bad luck on a game of chance with the cards. When not at camp you’ll be traversing a mountain, losing health almost every step of the way, so it’s a balance of how many cards you want to land on and turn over, hopefully gaining a reward, versus simply staying alive and making to the end this time around which seems more challenging than before.

You can attack, parry, dodge and bash, along with use specials and finishing moves with the triggers. Battles are short, as you are usually up against a handful of enemies, but they will challenge you as different types of enemies start to get mixed together. Combat itself is much like the type that the Batman games perfected, with colored icons above enemies’ heads displayed before they are about to make their attack, allowing you to dodge, counter or bash appropriately. The challenge comes when you’re surrounded, with later foes who are quite quick, testing your reflexes. While not as fluid as the Batman games, I started to do much better when I stopped button mashing, and instead, purposely hitting each button at specific times, sometimes waiting for a counter instead of constantly attacking.

Fill your combo meter and you’ll be able to utilize a special attack which varies based on which type of weapon you’re wielding at the time. These are very powerful and are a great reward encouraging you to try and keep your combo count up without getting hit. Certain zombie-like enemies will also have to have to be 'dispatched' with a finisher or else they may come back to life, so there is some prioritization of who to kill, and how, in some battles.

As you play more you’ll learn each enemy type’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, the stronger Viking-like enemies are very powerful, but slow, so you can easily counter or dodge away, whereas thieves are weak, but you need a much quicker reaction time to counter their attacks. Eventually you’ll be pit against a dozen or so enemies at a time, and it can become very satisfying when you’re able to do so without taking much damage.

Arguably the best addition to the series, and its combat mechanics, is the fact that you now get to take a companion into battle with you. As you progress through the campaign missions, you’ll meet, and recruit, new members into your party. While there’s only a handful to obtain, each of them add a completely different type of sidekick that will be best suited for different play styles, so you’ll need to play with, and experiment, to find out which suits you best.

Even though you choose your deck before starting attempting a challenge, the randomness of how they are laid out means that chance, or lady luck, plays a large part of your success or failure. Even though Hand of Fate 2 isn’t very narrative driven, which is ironic for a game where reading is involved between played cards, the gameplay is engaging and fun, even if it’s heavily luck based. I do wish that the dealer narrated all aspects of the reading parts though, as he has a wonderful and mesmerizing voice that calls your attention.

If you were a fan of the first Hand of Fate, the core formula hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s been refined as a whole. Some new additions, like companions, add some new exciting gameplay are to be found, but in the end, it’s essentially the same experience as before; slow progression and a feeling of repetitiveness now and then. Oddly there’s a lot of stutter and hitching during certain scenes and loading, though during gameplay it seems fine, even on an Xbox One X.

On one hand, the randomness adds in a factor of replayability, but on the other, the sheer randomness and luck involved with some of the elements can either be very rewarding or outright punishing. While it can become repetitive after a while, the decision to cut-up the campaign into mini stories is a great one, as you can sit down and do a challenge in a short amount of time if you don’t have much time to game in a single sitting. Even hours in, the gameplay is challenging and the randomness will constantly keep you on your toes, forcing you to weigh your options ahead of you. When all is considered, Hand of Fate 2 is still worth your time, so pull up a seat and get dealt in.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Oh My Godheads

It’s not very often these days, but when I do have friends over I always try and find a multiplayer friendly game to bust out for everyone to enjoy. While many people will always default to Mario Party or Jackbox type of games, Titutitech is banking on their newest game, Oh My Godheads, to become that go to couch multiplayer game.

A local only multiplayer game, Oh My Godheads pits up to four players against each other with silly characters and an even odder premise that is a unique take on capture the flag. You’re armed with weapons and explosive pies, and there seems to be a massive Godhead placed in the middle of the map. While it will take some time to learn how to play, the hilarity will ensue shortly after you figure the controls and premise out, though fully expect to some foul language to be thrown at each other based on how you and your friends are when you game together.

The game throws you straight into a match without any tutorial or explanation of what’s going on. This was a very jarring experience, as I had no idea what to do or what the giant Godhead on the map was for. There’s no story either, not even an attempt at one, so this needs to be looked at as simply a couch multiplayer experience and nothing else. While the gameplay isn’t confusing, and I was able to figure it out, some aspects I didn’t learn until I started to do the challenges later on, like being able to throw pies, use powerups, and dash attack. Once you know how to play with every tool available, the game completely changes, so it would have been nice know all of this from the beginning with some sort of tutorial to get you started off on the right foot.

Mayhem will ensue, and if you’re unable to gather three of your friends over for some rounds, then CPU players can be added should you really want to play. This experience of course is nowhere near as fun, but at least the option is there. You can even mix two players with two AI and decide teams, which is a nice touch.

Matches take place across 10 different locations, such as Japan, Cambodia, Mexico, Egypt and more, each with their own theme and hazards. There’s a handful of characters to choose from as well, complete with low polygon models, but they are purely cosmetic differences. Having some varying stats would have been interesting and allow you to focus on a specific playstyle. You’ll also have to utilize the 10 different Godheads, each of which has its own ability that, when held and utilized, completely alters the gameplay, sometimes in your benefit, sometimes to your downfall.

At its core, Oh My Godheads is a unique take on classic Capture the Flag, aptly titled Capture the Head, where teams of two must capture the Godhead and take it to their own base to score. The catch is that when you’re holding the godhead, you walk at a very slow speed and can’t attack. Oh, you don’t know what a Godhead is? Well, it’s literally the head of a God, but in statue form. You’re able to throw the Godhead if you want to try passing it to a teammate or simply throw it away from the enemy team. Do you let the other team capture the Godhead first so you can get a few moments to run with the Godhead after killing them, or focus more on the powerups littered throughout the stage to gain the upper hand?

The gameplay itself is quite basic, but it’s the Godheads’ powers that really make the gameplay interesting. Zeus’ head, for example, will unleash a wide area of lightning, blasting anyone in its radius, including you if you’re holding it. The Bastet Godhead turns things around and will literally reverse the controls on you if you’re holding it once it’s powered up. Skadi’s Godhead will freeze everyone in the vicinity for a short duration when charged, so it’s how you utilize these unique game changing elements to your advantage that will make you rise on top. These Godheads usually cause the most chaos in a match, usually resulting in some pretty loud laughter or choice words.

Aside from the basic Capture the Flag, there’s also King of the Head mode where the winner is the one that holds the Godhead for the longest amount of time. Because the Godhead charges up the more it’s held, it becomes strategic when to hold it and for how long. If these objective based modes aren’t to your liking, then there is also Headhunters, which is essentially Deathmatch for up to 4 players. This mode is chaotic and has you chasing and swinging your weapons at the opposite team. Also included is Last Man Standing, where you guessed it, the last man standing is the team that gets the point. I found that when I played with friends we focused more on the combat focused modes, but obviously that’s a preference, as your group of friends will vary.

If you want some practice and learn new skill sets, then Trials of the Gods is where you’ll want to head. These are a series of short challenges, which ironically is as close as you’re going to get to a tutorial. This sequence of trials is where I learned about my other abilities, like throwing my explosive pies, using powerups, as well as jump and dash attacks. If I knew this from the beginning I probably would have done much better from the get go. There’s a decent amount of challenges and some bonus unlockables are hidden behind progression in these.

I enjoyed the low polygon art style, and even though it looks basic it has a certain charm to it. I really wish some online component was included, as it’s rare for me to have friends over these days, and if you’re like me, the single player component doesn’t hold its weight when it comes to value. Sure, you can play versus AI or work on trial challenges, but the core game is meant to be enjoyed by friends locally on the couch.

The modes may be limited, and the graphics bare, but when you have friends over and enjoy slicing each other up and using giant foot powerups to stomp each other, Oh My Godheads can become quite fun. An introduction at the beginning would have been very beneficial, as there’s a decent amount of strategy involved once you know the whole move sets and abilities each Godhead can use, altering how the match plays out. If you regularly have friends over and are looking for a new game to play with them, Oh My Godheads is a decent option to go with, but with a price of $19.99, if you don’t fall into that exact category, the single player value simply isn’t there by a long shot given the shallow gameplay versus the CPU.

Overall Score: 6.2 / 10 Sky Force Reloaded

Infinite Dreams and Crunching Koalas know what they do best: shmups (shoot-em-ups). We enjoyed Sky Force Anniversary when we reviewed it last year, and this year they are back with Sky Force Reloaded, a completely re-imagined and vastly improved version of their previous game. Like any shmup, this is a vertically scrolling shooter that will challenge your skills, reflexes and patience to grind your way to the best upgrades.

It’s no secret that I’m very fond of the genre, especially classics like the brutally hard Ikargua or classic Raiden, so I wasn’t sure where Sky Force Reloaded would fit in amongst this crowd, especially being from a smaller indie studio, but man, was I blown away. Like any good shmup, you’re going to have to learn the levels, the enemies and the shooting patterns, hoping to reach the final boss before you die and start again. Sky Force Reloaded is all about fluidity and coming back stronger than ever each time you replay a level. It’s very easy to pick up, but the true challenge is there for those that seek it. Reloaded becomes incredibly difficult, but only for a matter of time, depending on how much you want to put into it, not only improving your skills and memorization of each level, but improving your ships as well.

Reloaded begins right away, as you pilot a fully upgraded ship, destroying anything in your path. You battle against a boss and inevitably lose, almost as if you woke up from a dream. This clever introduction to the game is a sneak peek at what the endgame can be like, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort into the game. It’s quite a shock going from a flying death machine to only having a peashooter, but that’s part of its charm to entice you, and I know it worked for me.

Normally, this is where I could delve into the story, and while there technically is one, it’s basically a throw away. Typically this would be a knock against a title, but let’s be honest, we play shmups for their addictive gameplay. I know I’m shooting the endless waves of bad guys, so adding fluff to a story I won’t care about is unneeded.

When I played my first few levels, I initially thought it was going to be yet another generic shmup, navigating the screen to avoid bullets, shooting anything that gets in your way, and picking up any power ups left floating around. While yes, it has all of these checklist items for a great shmup, it’s when you start to spend more time with the game and work on the included objectives that you realize how much more is under the hood for the gameplay and progression.

Destroyed enemies drop stars that you collect and use as currency to purchase specific upgrades. You'll find them amongst a wide selection of choices to suit your play style. Surprisingly, the difficulty curve is nearly perfect, with the first level or two being no problem to complete, but then it starts to ramp up as you unlock more levels. Each level begins on normal difficulty, and if you can beat all four challenges, which I’ll delve into shortly, you then unlock hard. Complete the objectives on hard and Insane unlocks, and so on. This is a clever way to add replayability without having to spend a fortune on level design. While some might scoff at having to replay the 15 levels repeatedly, and I thought this would be a huge negative, they’ve done it in such a way that it feels fair, and more importantly, fun, even when I’ve completed level 3 for the 100th time.

While collecting stars and beating the level is always your main goal, the four specific objectives is how you’re going to unlock the higher difficulties, which in turn allows you to earn more stars and upgrades. For example, a full clear on normal may net you 100 stars or so, and on hard maybe 300, and on insane over 1000, so the risk versus reward is finely balanced and you feel great being able to master those insane difficulty levels.

The four objectives across all levels and difficulties may not change, but completing them on Hard and Insane will surely test your skill. They are: 70% of enemies destroyed, 100% destroyed, 100% humans rescued and clear the stage without getting hit. Luckily you don’t need to complete them all at once, but the higher difficulties won’t unlock until all four are complete. This makes you replay the levels many times over, forcing you to memorize enemies and patterns, figuring out if you’re strong enough to attempt it now, or if you’ll need to go back to grind some more stars for upgrades to become tougher before attempting again.

I initially thought that I was going to hate the grind, having to reply levels over and over again to earn stars for upgrades, but Reloaded does something very smart, as each upgrade actually feels like it makes a difference. Every time I upgraded my weapons, or health, I seemed to make it further and further every attempt, becoming more powerful with each improvement. Normally most shmups are a one and done kind of affair, but after a week straight of playing, I still find myself going back to earn more stars and climb the leaderboards.

Each level varies in size with most ending with a massive boss that has numerous waves of attacks, though there is a level where your weapon is disabled, forcing you to do a pacify run, which is an interesting, and terrifying, change of pace. Each level becomes progressively harder, forcing you to spend the time to grind and craft a stronger ship. Once you’ve completed a level a handful of times, it becomes easier to memorize, but sometimes you’re simply just not able to shoot fast or hard enough to make it through easily.

Each upgrade adds more firepower, but there are a few other bonuses you can work towards if you want, like having a stronger magnet to pull in stars from afar, or boosting your health bar to take some more hits if needed. I highly suggest focusing on your offensive powers, as that’s what’s going to make your life much easier in the long run. There are many levels of upgrades to complete, with each subsequent installment becoming slightly more expensive. You can even boost how many slots of bombs, lasers or shields you want to employ if you prefer to play that way. The upgrades are very addictive, as being able to see your power increase only makes you want to grind more to become even more powerful than before, thus the cycle continues. As you become stronger, runs become easier, so the grind isn’t that bad once you’re used to it.

If the hook of constant upgrading wasn’t enough, there’s also a leaderboard for you to compete in and see how you hold up versus the competition. There’s a weekly tournament that takes place every weekend, adding an endless stage to see how long you can last, and even extra ship parts to collect, creating new ships with specific uses in mind if all pieces are collected. Play long enough and you’ll start earning tokens that will unlock technicians, whom add special bonuses to your gameplay.

Cards will also randomly appear throughout stages, and should you complete the stage alive, you then earn that card. There are blue cards that give you a specific bonus for 15 minutes of gameplay, and gold cards that are permanent bonuses. Even after dozens of hours of gameplay I’ve yet to collect every card, but it sure is exciting when I have a new permanent bonus, like starting every level with a bomb, etc. The blue cards are an interesting way to keep you continuing to play. For example, I got one in what was to be my last match of the night, then of course had to stay for the 15 minute duration to get the maximum bonuses.

Local co-op allows for 2-players to pilot separate ships, and while it’s fun, the lack of online multiplayer is really the only negative I can say about Reloaded. I get that couch co-op is fun, but it’s not really feasible for me these days, yet my friends who also have the game aren’t able to play with me online. The game allows you to see where your friends died in specific levels, and if you’re able to cover over their icon for a few moments, you’ll earn some bonus points. This is the same way you save the stranded humans, but as you hover over them for a short period of time, you'll just hope you don’t get shot down before their transfer to your ship is complete. The lack of online multiplayer doesn’t drag down the experience at all, it's just a disappointment.

I love shmups, they’re one of my favorite genres, but outside of a few of the greats, none really have longevity when it comes to replayability. This isn’t the case with Sky Force Reloaded at all. While it’s a grind to get the best upgrades, and the ship parts and cards are attained seemingly at random, I can’t put this game down. Even if I’ve only got 5 minutes, I’ll get a few runs in for some more stars, then realize two hours just went by.

Presentation wise, the visuals are great, with only some minor slowdown on the massive boss battles. The screen can also seem a little cluttered at times, when you have dozens of stars on the screen to gather, trying to discern the small enemy bullets, but the memorization comes in time. The audio is fitting as well, but there’s only so many times you can listen to the same down tempo beat before muting it and putting your own tunes on, since you’ll be replaying levels dozens of times.

Sky Force Reloaded never feels unfair, because when you die, you know it was your fault, prompting you to go back and grind some more stars for upgrades. While the grind is real and might turn some off, the reward for doing so is great. Prepare to sink many hours into this game if you want the pay off, but once you get there, it’s amazing. For a title that’s under $10 CAD, the amount of value within is outstanding. While it doesn’t surpass Ikaruga as my favorite shmup of all time, the fact that I had to think about it and compare it should speak volumes. I haven’t been this hooked and excited about a shmup in many years, and Sky Force Reloaded completely blew me away. If you’re a shmup fan at all, casual or hardcore, you need to have this one in your library without question.

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 8-bit Adventure Anthology: Volume One

Nostalgia is a funny thing, as it usually makes us remember things better than they actually were. Case in point, I remember Shadowgate for NES being one of my favorite games for the console growing up. If I only knew how much money my parents spent on renting me that game over the years, it would have been much cheaper to just buy it outright. But that was 30 years ago, so while I’m showing my age, I have so many fond memories of my NES and a handful of the titles that went along with it.

8-bit Adventure Anthology: Volume One consists of three classic adventure titles that all released on NES, but also on the Mac beforehand: Déjà vu (1985), Uninvited (1986), and my personal favorite from the genre, Shadowgate (1987). The question is, does nostalgia make us remember these games in a way that is much better than they actually were? I probably haven’t played Shadowgate in at least 20 years, so I was excited to see how it, along with the other games, actually were now that I’m older versus how I remember them.

Starting with the oldest of the titles, Déjà Vu takes place in 1941 Chicago where you wake up in a bathroom with absolutely no memory of who you are or what has happened. You find a wallet, trench coat and a gun, and that’s before you stumble across a dead body. You’ll uncover a tale about kidnapping and blackmail, all wrapped in a Noir-like setting.

Next up, Uninvited tells a more supernatural tale, where you wake up alone after a car crash, unsure of where your sister is as she has mysteriously vanished. But not all is right, as the car explodes as you exit, leaving you stranded in front of a creepy mansion. Inside is a seemingly abandoned house, yet there looms a presence that leaves you uneasy. You’ll come across ghosts and ghouls while you search for clues of what has happened to your missing sister.

Lastly is Shadowgate. Here you’re placed in a fantasy setting as the ‘Seed of Prophesy’, aiming to stop an evil Warlock who wants to destroy the world. This castle backdrop is much broader in scope compared to the other two titles in this anthology, with mazes and mysteries that has death at nearly every wrong turn. What makes this one drastically different from the others is its forced time limit, represented with your torches. You can collect torches along your adventure, but should the flame go out, it’s game over.

Regardless of which game you begin with, they all have very similar UI’s, something that will take some getting used to as it’s very archaic and not user friendly by any means. Keep in mind these games were released more than three decades ago and game design was very different back then. The screen is divided into boxes, each of which has a different purpose. The largest main box is your character’s view and where you’ll interact with the world. The bottom houses a list of commands, such as examine (or look, depending on which game), open, speak, hit, drop, use, take, etc. These are the commands you’ll become very familiar with during your adventures and will have to be used for nearly any action, as even doors need to be clicked on with ‘open’ before being allowed to pass through.

Movement is done differently as well, as even though you play in first person, movement is controlled with the ‘move’ command, then either clicking on the door or passage you want, or by clicking the available exits listed for that specific room on the mini-map at the bottom. The inventory management becomes tiresome, as you need to flip through pages of items you’ve collected, move the cursor over the command you wish to use, then click on the play screen of what you want to interact with. It takes some getting used to, especially with flipping to your spell page or address book (based on which game you’re playing), but the template and gameplay generally stays the same throughout, across all three titles.

The common theme amongst all three titles is that at its heart, you’re solving a mystery, thus, the gameplay is to solve puzzles. If you can’t open a door, try any keys you’ve collected, if there’s a mysterious hole, try inserting any of the small items you have. Most of this gameplay is trial and error, usually more error that leads to death, but that’s part of its charm. Some solutions are more obtuse than others, especially in Shadowgate, but there’s also lots of extra items you can pick up and take that have no bearing on the main story, so not every item you come across will be useful.

You will die a lot, and in an odd choice for achievements, each of them are related to the different deaths you’ll come across. There’s no achievements for completing each game, just dying, which I found a very odd decision, though you’ll most likely find many of them natural as you play through each game if you’re not using a walkthrough. Some deaths make sense, like using the gun on yourself in Déjà Vu, while others are simply a lesson learned, like how stealing a pot of gold or smashing the wrong mirror in a roomful of them. These games came from a time with zero hand holding, so you made notes and adjusted for the next play through. Luckily game saves have been implemented in this anthology should you run out of time to play, and when you do die, you simply get reverted to the previous room before your untimely death.

It’s unfair to judge these games with how they look and sound compared to today’s standards, as these are more than 30 years old. During the time though, these were impressive. Sure, they don’t look good today, but there’s still an appreciation I have for 8-bit graphics and sounds, which is done wonderfully here. The soundtrack is also very rudimentary, with only small repeated music loops, but again, I was whisked right back to my childhood once I heard the music for Shadowgate start up. The music is very basic, and will surely grate on some peoples nerves, but I find it endearing to a gaming age long gone.

While these games are straight ports, there were a few small additions that allow for different TV settings to replicate old style TV’s, further enhancing your nostalgia. You can turn on CRT lines, play in black and white, even play with visuals like those old tube type of TV’s that had the rounded corners, among others. You can even choose different aspect ratios should you desire, but there’s no gameplay change or additions aside from the option to freely save.

Games like these really show how different gaming was back then, showcasing how far we’ve come across all facets, such as visuals, audio, user interface, and hand holding. Games back then were brutally difficult and completing games like these required patience and experimentation. These are faithful ports, even with their flaws intact, though I wish there was some extras or bonus material to unlock, or at least something other than combining the 3 game roms into one package and calling it a day.

8-bit Adventure Anthology: Volume One is simply a port of three classic games from the mid 80’s, and for just a few bucks ($7.99) CAD, it’s a great way to see what games were like three decades ago when kids my age were growing up, dealing with brutally difficult games and zero assistance (unless we were able to find a strategy guide or gaming magazine with hints and walkthroughs). Even though they don’t age well, they bring me back 30 years, sitting in front of my tube TV for hours on end. I can’t wait to see what games are included with Volume Two.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 >observer_

I’m usually not one for the whole cyberpunk dystopian futuristic setting, but >observer_ (simply referred to as Observer from here on) was a compelling experience essentially from the very beginning. It really kicks it into high gear once you realize what the hook of the game is, and that is experiencing some truly unique and abstract visuals that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, not just in games, but even film. Created by Bloober Team, best known for the critically acclaimed Layers of Fear, there’s no preparing you for what you’re going to experience from a visual perspective with Observer.

You see, Observer is attempting to be a physiological horror game, and while there may only be a handful of jump scares, some of the abstract imagery could be classified as horror, and you can see the team’s progression as a game studio. Observer feels fresh, as if they were trying to do something new, and even though there’s a handful of issues, I kept having to play until the story came to a conclusion and the credits rolled.

Observer simply asks: "What would you do if your fears got hacked and used against you?" It’s an odd question, as I know what fears I have and what scares me, but what twisted things could possibly be in other people’s heads? Set in 2084, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a corporate funded ‘police’ unit whose sole function is to hack into suspects minds, and you are simply known as an Observer. This is achieved easily, as it seems nearly everyone has had some sort if cybernetic implants, making the Chrion Corporation a super power that runs nearly everything in this digital focused world.

There’s been a digital outbreak, simply known as the Nanophage, which brings the digital dependent civilization practically to its knees. Observers are meant to be used to investigate crimes, easily finding the truth, as you can’t hide information that’s in your mind when hacked; and they will use any evidence against you. It’s a scary vision of a world that could be.

Observer begins with Daniel sitting in his car, receiving a troubling call from his distant son with no real explanation before the call ends. He tracks down his son's whereabouts to rundown apartment building in the seedy part of the city. This building seems to house some nasty people, and as you investigate further, in search of your son, you’ll uncover some troubling situations, and people, who you’ll need to interact with. I don’t want to go much more into the narrative, as the story that unfolds is quite interesting, even if it only lasts around 6 hours or so.

You play in first person, and at its core I would best describe Observer as a puzzle/detective/exploration game. The majority of the gameplay in the beginning is based around searching the apartment complex for clues and investigating crime scenes. There’s the odd dialogue choices that you get to make when conversing with people, but they are minor. There’s no guns or weapons, as a good portion of your gameplay experience will be inside the minds of others.

Your overall mission is to find your missing son, but in these slums people don’t cooperate with Observers, so you won’t find much help, leaving you mostly on your own to solve the mystery, following the smallest leads and clues. There’s no overlay map in the game either, so you’ll routinely become lost, even when you find the apartment maps plastered on the wall. Luckily, you’ll eventually become accustomed to the apartment block’s layout, but it will take some time aimlessly wandering around until you feel comfortable navigating the multi-floor building. Nearly every door is locked with no means in, so if you’re lucky, you’ll have one of the neighbors answer the door via their telecom and actually talk to you. This reinforces the fear the citizens have of the Nanophage and also the feeling of isolation a world like this could become.

Eventually you’ll come across various crime scenes that need to be investigated, which brings in one of the main mechanics to Observer. To search the scene for clues, you’ll need to use your 3 different vision modes, each specializing in a function. The Right Bumper allows you to see cybernetic items, like implants, wires and anything else digital based. The Left Bumper is your Biogenic vision which allows you to examine biological material, namely blood, in search of clues.

To be honest, I got stuck in the very first room for a while, as there isn’t a lot of explanation to introduce you how to properly use your 3 vision modes. Once you get the hang of it, and know what to look for, you’ll feel like a digital version of Batman in no time, knowing what to seek out with glowing outlines of objects that can be scanned or interacted with. Using any of your different visions basically blurs everything else in your sight except the cybernetic or biogenic objects, based on which view your using. There’s also a night vision mode to navigate dimly lit areas, but there’s only one or two places throughout the campaign where you’ll need it briefly.

Scanning items, objects, clues and people is where you’ll put your case together, learning more about your objective or how to find out where to go next. There are even a few sidequests that you can partake in if you’re adept enough at finding and solving certain puzzles and clues. While this adds a little more length to the gameplay, they are completely optional. There’s even a mini retro game to play should you find all of the terminals hidden throughout.

Where things get weird is when you hack into someone’s mind. The main idea behind Observer is hacking into people’s subconscious, so you’ll experience imagery that you’ve never seen before. You’ll witness events of what’s happened in the past to that person, their fears, memories and more. Many of these sequences won’t make sense in the traditional sense, and there’s a lot of symbolism that takes place, but to say that these sections are ‘weird’ is putting it lightly.

If you’ve ever wondered what the subconscious looks like in visual form, I would suspect Observer does a great job at trying to visualize that concept. Some of it is extremely disturbing, horrifying and plain confusing, but it is one hell of an experience. There’s only a handful of these sequences, so I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that the level design, even though mostly linear, is very memorable and unique to anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Reality can be distorted in the mind, and that’s the case here as well. Sometimes you’ll have to solve a puzzle, some of which are done in a very clever way. For example, there’s an endless hallway that seems to repeat itself every time you walk through the door, but you’ll notice a TV off to the side shows a picture of a specific doorway, so you go that way. The next time you walk through the door it shows a different doorway, which is your clue to follow this ‘path’. Do so successfully and you’ll make your way out of the never ending hallway, fail and you’re doomed to be forever wandering aimlessly in someone’s mind.

Later in the game there are some hacking sections where you’re pursued by a creature, and while I completely understand why, due to the narrative, these sections were included, they were more tiresome than enjoyable. I always dreaded knowing that I had to avoid a hulking creature trying to find me and that these stealth sections simply aren’t fun. To say that these mind hack sections can disorientate you is an understatement; remember, there are no rules in someone’s mind, and you need to let go and accept that.

Visually, Observer is very impressive, even more so when you realize how small the team that developed it is. The world is completely believable, as you see the bright cyber influences at nearly every corner counteract with the dark and dingy real world. That being said, there are some framerate issues, even on the Xbox One X, quite frequently actually. Navigating from one area to another will almost always chug down the framerate into the low single digits, completely pulling you out of the immersion.

Sound design is worth noting as well, as the background ambiance completely fits the mood and backdrop, and some of the voice acting is done quite well. I say some though with regret. Daniel is voiced by the one and only Rutger Hauer, who has quite a film pedigree, so there’s no question to his acting ability, but there were quite a few times where the delivery of some lines felt completely flat. Acting and voice acting are completely different skillsets, and I’m not sure if the was going for the whole monotone style, but it didn’t seem fitting for some of the situations his character was in. That’s not to say it’s all bad, but it’s not perfect.

The framerate issues are probably the worst offender to negatively affect the game, but I’ve also had some minor bugs that were more frustrating than critical. For example, I’ve had the game outright crash on 3 separate occasions completely randomly, though I only lost 5 minutes or so of progress each time. Also, I had times where my UI became bugged, one time locking me into one of the vision modes, unable to switch or disable it, causing me to restart the game yet once again.

>observer_ is a very unique title, as it’s heavily narrative driven and contains some of the most visceral and unique imagery I’ve ever experienced in a game. Some of the mind sequences are quite horrifying and paint a light on a future that, in all honesty, isn’t really that far off from our reality. Even though it may be wrapped in a science fiction cyberpunk package, the experience within is a very dark one.

The gameplay elements may be basic and not exciting on their own, but it’s more about the journey you undertake rather than just reaching the end point. The level design is brilliant and some of the experiences are very memorable even though it has flaws. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and want to experience something completely unique and twisted, look no further than >observer_.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 N++

When Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360 was in its infancy, N+ was one of the first titles that I played and truly enjoyed that was from a small developer. Metanet Software originally created a game called N as a small Flash game, eventually sparking the sequel, N+, which was to become one of the better titles from the Xbox Live Arcade’s early days. Here we are many years later with another sequel, appropriately named N++ (pronounced N Plus Plus), and even though it may not have many huge changes to its core formula, it’s much bigger in scope and has enough replayability to last you quite some time. It’s been 10 years in the making, but N++ still has a minimalistic approach to its gameplay with stripped down visuals, focusing on fun while being incredibly challenging at the same time. Just like N+, N++ deserves just as much praise.

Even though there’s a single player component, there’s no real narrative, well, not really anyways. What is there is a very clever way to explain the game mechanics as if it’s part of a story and reason why you play the way you do. In fact, here’s a piece what is written in the game under the Story menu:

"You are a ninja. Your god-like speed, dexterity, jumping power, and reflexes are all the result of an amazingly fast metabolism; tragically, so is your natural lifetime of 1.5 minutes. It emphasizes pacifism, humility, and the need to traverse a series of 5 rooms before the end of your lifetime, a feat known only as 'beating an episode'".

If you’ve played N or N+ in the past you’ll feel right at home and know exactly what to do with little instruction. If not, the basic premise is that you need to use momentum to reach your goal, oh, and you’re a stick figure ninja that can run, wall jump, and more. The catch is that you only have a short amount of time to beat a set of 5 levels, and each set is called an episode. A ninja needs some serious skills to reach the goal, a TRUE ninja will do it fast and accurately, collecting dots along the way to increase ones time. If anything, N++ almost feels like a map pack to N+, as the formula is vastly unchanged, aside from some tweaks and small additions, but included is a massive amount of levels that will challenge you the whole way, over 4000 of them actually.

The learning curve for N++ feels just right, as you don’t hit a brick wall of difficulty out of nowhere. The game does will get very difficult much later in the game. New mechanics and enemies are slowly introduced, allowing you to become accustomed to them, then slowly ramping up the challenge as you progress. Even though the game can test your 'gaming skills', I never felt any kind of frustration that made me want to quit playing. Movement and momentum play a large part of the gameplay, and once you get a feel for the controls and start to maneuver your ninja where you want, it becomes a smooth experience.

It should be noted that every one of the 4000+ levels are completely hand crafted, no procedurally generated levels here, which means that each level has been painstakingly created and tested for a specific solution. It’s a puzzle game in a sense, as to solve each level you need to hit a switch to open the exit gate before proceeding to the next stage. Jumps, ramps, and enemies are placed with purpose, so if you can’t figure out how to complete a level, it’s not because of the design, but you just need to think harder, and try harder. Every single stage has a leaderboard too, so you can see how you stack up against everyone else online including your friends. These leaderboards even exist for yours, and everyone else’s, created levels, which is unheard of, especially for a smaller indie game like this. While N++ may have a very bare bones minimalistic visual look to it, there’s a slew of color pallets and schemes you can unlock as you progress to further customize your game should it start to become stale.

The 4000+ hand crafted levels are spread across a range of different modes such as Solo, Hardcore, Co-op and Race. There’s more than enough content here to keep you, and your friends, busy for quite some time.

The cooperative mode allows for local play for up to 4-players, and the levels are designed with multiple players in mind, some of which will require one or more players to actually sacrifice themselves to be completed. Only one ninja needs to make it to the entrance, so you’re all working together, but some will get glory, and others, well they will get electrocuted.

Next is the competitive mode, which is for up to 4-players as well, called Race. Here you are racing against one another to reach the exit the quickest. The ninja with the fastest reflexes will earn a bonus before moving onto the next stage.

Lastly, and for those that can truly best all that N++ has to offer, there is a hardcore mode. Here is where you will find the hardest challenges that will require some serious skill to not only complete, but to finish with a good time. The clock isn’t reset when you die, unlike in the normal mode, and gold adds time to your bar, but only after you reach the exit. Dying equals a game over, so you better get those reflexes ready for some serious challenge.

If you’re the creative type, the fantastic Level Editor returns once again, allowing you to not only create any levels that you can imagine, but also share them online for anyone else to download and play. This essentially takes the massive 4000+ included levels to a whole new level, essentially giving you endless gameplay. Every single stage that has been created by users has a leaderboard associated with it as well, so you can see how you rank against everyone else, or how others fair on your creation.

I understand that indie games don’t usually include online multiplayer, and even though local co-op is supported, I kept wishing I could play with others online. Worst case, I wish that ghost downloads were possible from the leaderboard screen. I know this is more of a wishlist request, but it does feel that’s the one component that could have brought N++ to an even higher level. That being said, the soundtrack is a great mix of electronic artists and the gameplay is essentially refined to near perfectness.

N++ is incredibly challenging, but never unfair (not including the insane player made levels), as controls are very precise and everything simply works the way it should. It takes some serious skill to tackle the later stages and hardcore mode, but that comes in time. There’s absolutely no shortage of levels to play, as the amount of content is baffling, again, not even including the online creator level sharing capability. I’m glad that N++ is here and in my game library, as I felt right at home ninja jumping and sliding from the get go, as it caters to the gamers that want to sit down and play for hours, or the kind that only have 10 minutes to get a few levels in.

Overall Score: 8.9 / 10 Raiders of the Broken Planet

Raiders of the Broken Planet is an intriguing title. What, you haven't heard of it? That’s ok, neither had I until this fell into my lap to review. Developed by MercurySteam, best known for Clive Barker’s Jericho and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (along with its sequel), they are a small developer, but they have a solid pedigree, so it was my assumption that there was little concern about how Raiders of the Broken Planet would turn out. Well, I guess I should have been a little more cautious in my expectations.

In an interesting business model, you’re actually able to download the tutorial and first mission for free. This will give you taste of the gameplay. Should this entice you, it then offers new episodic content for purchase separately should you desire more time with it. Normally I would really be impressed with a pay model like this, as it’s not a simple demo of the best part, but it is the actual beginning of the game where your progress carries over should you purchase the episodes.

That being said, you’re going to absolutely need 3 to 4 friends to fully enjoy this title, as it’s heavily suggested you play online, as doing it with random people is an absolute nightmare if you can even find other players to begin with. Even if you manage to have the perfect group of friends, there’s a lot of design choices and mechanics that raise flags and concern, as you will struggle to figure out the most basic premises as well as what the handful of currencies entail and how to get them. Luckily for you I’ve put in more hours than I wanted to, but I believe I finally have a grasp on the game as a whole.

First, let’s begin with the narrative that takes place on a literal broken planet, dubbed, the Broken Planet. This planet has a massive crack in it and is split in half, but there’s a mysterious substance inside, Aleph, that everyone seems to covet. This substance has attracted many different factions, including your gang, the Raiders. When soldiers take Aleph, it turns them into super soldiers, so think of it like steroids mixed with Energon in a sense, so that’s why it’s so valuable. Of course the shady factions and bandits want it for nefarious reasons, trying to stockpile as much as possible.

Your group is led by Harec, and he only has a small team to thwart humans off of the Broken Planet and send them back to Earth. Harec and company are essentially trying to bring peace to this shattered world, but they meet mass resistance along the way. Each of The Raiders in this rag-tag group is an anti-hero in their own right, and each possess a very distinct personality (and gameplay).

As for the setting, the backdrop has a Mad Max/Borderlands feel to it, mixed with some Gears of War hulking brute archetypes and cover based gameplay. Sure, the story is a bit cliché, and these are overused tropes, but the characters are interesting, even if the voice acting is a little mismatched at times. It’s as if they had a checklist of accents they wanted in the game and they gave each character a different one just for the sake of being well rounded, so it’s a little odd at times, especially with the amount of swearing that comes out of their mouths. I’m not opposed to foul language by any means, but it just seems a little forced and out of place at times, making for a more intolerable character instead of one you want to rally behind. While the premise is interesting, there’s numerous issues in gameplay and design choices that drag this down further than it should.

The core gameplay is a cover based third person shooter where you can choose from a handful of different characters, each with their own weapons and abilities. I’d like to say gameplay is much like what you’d expect from Gear of War, given that much of your time will be behind cover, but don’t expect anything near that quality, as there are a lot of odd design decisions that bog down the experience, and the shooting mechanics even feel weak.

Missions task you with varying objectives, from holding off an attack, shooting down air support, planting bombs, and of course, boss fights. What I did enjoy was the varied objectives, as each mission feels distinctly different in its own right, but the endless respawning of grunts and enemies means you’re constantly having to move and work without much time to assess what to do next, so you should make sure to simply focus on your objective as best as possible. Playing solo on normal isn’t too challenging, though that depends on the mission, as some are very challenging to do alone. Play with people online and the number of enemies and difficulty will scale based on how many Raiders are in the match. While you can technically play Raiders of the Broken Planet offline and solo, it’s not the same experience, and you earn better rewards for playing with others.

Where Raiders begins to falter early on is in explaining its mechanics and objectives. For example, in the first mission you’re tasked with shutting down some reactors, but when you’re beside them you don’t have a prompt to do so, nor can you shoot them. Regular grunts are simply distractions and don’t pose much threat, but every so often, usually in phases, there will be more challenging enemies that are buffed from Aleph. What wasn’t explained very well, and had me scratching my head on what to do, was that you need to kill these elites to gain their Aleph, which is then used for the objectives, like shutting down the reactors.

Oh, you shot down the Elite and didn’t get any Aleph? That’s because you’re forced to melee them to absorb it. In a terrible design decision, this is also how you replenish your ammunition. Yes, shooting enemies in a cover based shooter won’t make enemies drop ammo, but instead, you’re obligated to run into melee range and defeat them that way, even if you’re a sniper. It wasn’t explained very well that I had to not only absorb Aleph from elites, but also melee to get it, so while I was doing that portion of the objective, I was confused why I was facing endless enemies over and over again.

Another core mechanic that the majority of gameplay is based upon is your character’s stress meter. Yes, giant hulking anti-heroes apparently become stressed from shooting, dodging, and even running. If your meter fills up past a certain point, enemies will be able to sense your heartbeat and zero in on your location. You can also see enemies through walls due to their heartbeat too, and this is important since there’s no map at all. Every so often you’ll see an enemy with a blue heartbeat, and they are weak but generally simply there to stop you from your objective. In the example above, the engineers simply try and cancel your objective meter from filling, which means you need to absorb more Aleph from an elite and start over. You can start to see how this becomes frustrating, especially if you’re playing solo and can’t cover each objective efficiently on your own.

As you progress through the campaign, you’ll unlock new characters. Most of these join Harec’s team through some sort of rescue mission, and while they are all unique and interesting, you can’t go back to older levels and use them on stages they weren’t meant for. It’s an odd decision, as focusing on a certain character’s abilities and customizing them seems almost a moot point if you’re not playing the missions they aren’t allowed to enter.

You’ve got different characters that use different such as snipers, shot guns, energy weapons and my personal favorite, a gatling gun. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses while filling in a specific style of gameplay for your squad. Players cannot choose the same character when online, so if you get stuck with someone you’ve never played before, or don’t enjoy, well too bad. There’s a real world money option should you want to purchase new characters, but after doing the math conversion, paying over $30 for character access is just atrocious.

This is another area that’s not explained at all, as you can upgrade your character in specific ways, but you’ll need to sift through and figure out what character points, faction points, gold, and coins do. There’s a card based system that determines what abilities your character currently uses, but I’ve still yet to figure out how to get new ones, or if it’s completely random. You can add more perks, but that costs character and faction points, a currency you earn for completing online missions. Yes, you don’t earn these from solo play, so if you’re not planning on playing online, well, good luck. So much here isn’t explained, and the only reason I took the time to try and figure it all out is because of trying to do this review justice; your average player won’t have a clue what to do or how.

This is where the multiplayer comes in. As noted above, you’re essentially forced to play online if you want to make any meaningful character progress. There’s an option in the top right menu to play solo or online, so of course I went online to be paired up with other Raiders. After sitting for literally 15 minutes I finally got a lobby match and hit ready. Well, it seems someone else didn’t press ready and when all four players don’t accept, it boots you back to the level select menu, only to start the search all over again. Yes, you’re going to be waiting a long time for a match, and praying that everyone is there and ready to go.

If you manage to find people attentive enough to start a match you’ll begin with four of you, working towards a common co-op goal. Since there’s more human players, the difficulty ramps up, which then makes apparent another terrible design choice: shared lives. Yes, you and your team share a set number of lives, so if you have even one person not pulling their weight, or simply not that good, your mission will be over real quick. Lives can replenish after a set time, but this is arduous and adds more unneeded difficulty since the challenge has been boosted to compensate for the amount of players.

Yay, you finally completed a match and get to see your rewards for completion! Wait, you have to choose what reward you want? Ok, so do you choose faction points, character points, or gold? Character points? Awesome, wait, others are choosing the same reward. So now instead of earning the 2000 character points that I chose, me and the other player both had to split it, each only taking 1000. Yes, you not only share lives, but the spoils at the end as well, regardless of performance. With a group of friends this shouldn’t be a big deal, but with random people, you can see where the frustration starts to come in, especially when you may have carried the team.

To top it all off, after each match you’ll notice that the team gets broken up and everyone gets put back into their own games. Yes, you get disconnected from the server every time you manage to complete a match. I hope you wrote down the gamertags of those other players, you know, since it takes a good 10 minutes or more to find a match, because you’ll need to search all over again once completed. Design choices like these simply baffle me and should not be present in a final state game.

If you’re unfortunate enough, you’ll begin your match online with a notice that a certain player is the antagonist. This turns the game into a 4v1 match, where the Raiders still need to complete their objectives, but there is also a real player on the enemy team to have to fight against. There’s absolutely no option anywhere to turn off this option, so any match you find will be open to those that choose to be an antagonist. The enemy antagonist plays solo alongside the grunts and other AI to try and prevent Raiders from completing their objectives. Because of the fundamental mechanics, like melee kills, antagonists can easily one-shot you and kill you with minimal problems. Factor in the shared lives for the Raiders and you can see how the game can turn into griefing other players. We had one match where the antagonist decided to quit, making us win the match instantly even though we were only half way through the mission, so if that’s a bug, I’m not sure.

For all of the poor design choices and mechanics listed above, I will say that I really enjoyed the art and visual style of the game. It has a gritty Mad Max-like tone to it, characters look strong and beefy, and the cutscenes have some amazing camera work. It’s a shame that the rest of the game comes with it and isn't explained in any way. With a team of four friends, each specializing in a certain character, I could see Raiders of the Broken Planet being a lot of fun, as you need constant communication.

Having tried the newest DLC campaign, Wardog Fury, this adds four more missions to compete in, allowing you to recruit new characters as well. When the core experience isn’t much fun, adding more missions doesn’t solve the inherent problems. Raiders of the Broken Planet needs a massive overhaul of many issues, the most important being that the player actually needs to know what and how to do what they are supposed to do. Sadly, even after completing missions online after the massive wait and restarts, there’s little to no sense of reward. I’ve done missions numerous times to work on my character points, but it’s a long grind if you want to earn everything.

Something that I will admit, I found myself continuing to try to find another match, but it’s just a shame that it takes literally 10 minutes or more to find one each time. I’m not sure if this is due to server issues or low player population, but it doesn’t matter, as not many will put in that amount of time doing nothing, especially when it doesn’t feel rewarding in the end.

There’s a ton of potential in Raiders of the Broken Planet, but it feels like a game that shouldn’t have been released without more QA testing and all of the campaigns available. There’s only so many times you can repeat the same four missions, eight if you buy the Wardog Fury DLC, unless you’re a true glutton for punishment or simply have an obscene amount of time to wait for matches to be found. Sadly, potential doesn’t equate to an enjoyable experience, as the game in its current state, even with the second campaign DLC, is nearly void of this completely.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Coma: Recut, The

While I’ve never been a huge fan of the overseas school based anime and manga, The Coma: Recut aims to change that by setting the stage for this horror game inside the hallways of Sehwa High, an updated, remastered if you will, version of the Korean cult hit The Coma: Cutting Class. Updated with new cutscenes, art, and animations, The Coma: Recut aims to lure you into its darkness with an interesting story and some fantastic ambience, but fails to fully engage with its tedious gameplay.

You play as Youngho, a high school student studying at Sehwa High who’s ready to take his exams. As he arrives to school there’s a scene unfolding, as it seems a fellow student has died. That’s not enough to cancel class though, so exams must still take place, as grades are everything. You’ll quickly meet his friends and the attractive teacher, whom he has a crush on. Youngho falls asleep in class though, and when he wakes he finds himself in some sort of alternate reality where it’s dark, creepy, and he’s also locked inside with no one else nearby.

As it turns out, he’s not alone, as he runs into his teacher, but she’s different, and she tries to slash him with a box cutter, so naturally he runs and hides for his life. This is the setting to The Coma: Recut, as you need to solve the mystery of what’s happening, where you are, and most importantly, why your teacher is hunting you and trying to kill you while trying to escape. It’s an interesting story, as you need to figure out all the what’s and why’s while being chased and hunted. Unfortunately, while the story has an interesting premise, the gameplay is a little bland.

Gameplay is very basic as you walk, and run, while being chased on a 2D plane. You can move left and right along the screen, enter doorways, and interact with certain objects. You’ll need to search the area for money, as you can purchase items from the vending machines. You will also need to keep an eye out for clues, as well as blackboards, which act as save points (it is a school after all).

You have a map that can be accessed at any time, showing exactly where you are on the school’s blueprint layout. This also allows you to pinpoint where you need to head to next. Usually this entails searching for clues to the story, a key, or password to access the next area or locked door. You have a backpack that can only hold a certain amount of items and also have a flashlight that can be used to light the surrounding area nearby, though that will also make you an easier target for the killer to find you.

The setting is very dark and creepy, with minor sound effects setting the tone perfectly. You know exactly when the teacher is nearby, as the music changes, adding a heavy tension tone. When this happens you can either run or hide, as you have no way to fight back at all. Most of the time you’re going to have to run, using your precious, and slowly regenerating, stamina. If you’re lucky enough to be near certain closets or stalls, you can hide in there and wait for her to pass, but the chances of being near one was usually not the case for me. Holding the Left Trigger will allow you to crouch and hide in the darkness, covering your mouth to not be heard, but I found this rarely ever worked for me, as the teacher would slash me nearly every time I tried to hide this way. Hiding like this also drains your stamina, so it’s limited how long you’re able to do so.

The fact that you’re unable to fight back in any way is what makes the tension so high, as you are forced to run and hide, knowing she’s likely right behind you. You can purchase snacks to refill your stamina and health should you find enough coins during your adventure, but again, you can only hold a limited amount of items. You do have an ability to roll out the way if she gets close, but this too uses stamina, almost too much, and I ended up rarely using it, as all of my stamina usually went to running as far as I possibly could. Manage to get away and you’re safe, but only until the next time she nears.

Your teacher isn’t the only threat though. As you progress, you’ll also need to deal with tentacle plants and corpses that attempt to stop you as well. Given that the majority of your gameplay is done in the darkness, it’s very difficult to notice these enemies, but that’s half of the strategy; do you risk being found by the teacher by using your flashlight so you can see, or be safer in the dark but unable to notice these other monsters?

I’m pretty much a wimp when it comes to scary games. The first couple times hearing that music change, and not knowing what direction the teacher is going to chase you from, is terrifying. That being said, this happens so often throughout the course of the game that its initial shock value wears off and becomes more of a hindrance than anything else. Yes you’re going to get hurt, but you’ll manage with the proper items, and there’s enough blackboards around the school that finding a save point is usually not an issue.

Visually, the art style resembles that of an illustrated manga, unique in depiction, but also hardly animated. The story segments play out like a comic book, with dialogue boxes, yet no voice acting. The lack of voice acting really brought me out of the experience, as it could have elevated an interesting story even further. As for the sound design though, it’s very impressive and sets a very atmospheric mood that always sounds creepy and dark. When that chase music kicks in, your hands clench a little harder and you become very tense, which proves the effectiveness of the audio.

I really enjoyed the overall story element, but the constant having to run and hide became tiresome, as it usually meant having to double back and hoping to remember where that last closet was to hide in. I wish there was some way you could fight back, but unkillable threats do add a certain tension and fear factor to the gameplay. It seems the teacher’s presence is random though, as sometimes after taking a staircase, she would be nearly right on top of me, unfairly mind you.

While you can complete the game in a single sitting if you really try to rush through, finding the clues and taking your time to explore, watching the narrative unfold is the hook to The Coma: Recut. Multiple endings add some replay value if you really want to get your money’s worth and enjoy the gameplay, and while I’m not usually big on the genre, I can appreciate what it does well, even if it has some flaws.

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 White Noise 2

I say this every time I have to review a scary game, but it bears worth repeating; I’m absolutely terrified of horror games. I don’t understand this fact though, as horror and gore movies don’t scare me one bit, but if I’m playing a scary game, I turn into a complete wuss. Yet I like these games, as the jump scares and a brooding setting always makes me very tense, usually resulting in a handful of obscenities being shouted out and the lights permanently on.

My newest horror game to check out was White Noise 2, a 4 vs 1 type game, much like Evolve, but in a much more confined and creepy setting. Creepy atmospheres in games really get me, so while yes, I fall victim to jump scares, the brooding atmosphere of being in the dark knowing something is hunting you, sets a certain tone, one that changes based on if you’re playing alone or with others.

There is an overall narrative, the basic premise being that as a paranormal investigator, you’re tasked with finding clues in a 'creepier-than-it-should-be' enclosed area along with your team. You’re only given flashlights to defend yourself, as the demons hunting you don’t like the light, and it is the only way to defend yourself. There are a handful of clues you must find in the form of audio tapes, each of which unravel a small portion of the story audibly as you continue your search while trying to survive. Stay together as a group though, as venturing off alone is surely to get you killed when there’s no one nearby to save you.

The gameplay of White Noise 2 involves 4 investigators versus 1 monster, hence the comparison to 2K's Evolve. As the human players, you need to not draw any attention to yourself, conserving your flashlight’s remaining battery power, all while fumbling in the dark with no map or general sense of where to go. If you become lost from your team you can shout to one another to highlight each person, but this will also highlight your position to the predatory monster as well. Should the monster catch one of your members, you have a short time to shine your flashlight at it to force it to release them, causing it to flee and search for your team once again.

The monster has a bunch of tools in its arsenal to help catch its prey though. It can disable investigators flashlights for a short period of time, place idols that will disorientate, and it can even teleport nearby. The default monster is very basic, but as you progress by leveling up and playing, you can unlock more monsters, each with their own unique abilities and play style to suit how you want to stalk your prey. Unlocking all the monsters, and playable characters, will take some dedication though, as leveling is a very slow process, at least with the matches I was able to play in, when I could find them.

The setup for gameplay is basic, but what I didn’t expect was that even if you get caught and killed by the monster, you’re not completely out of the game. You respawn as a ghost, able to help your teammates in other subtle ways, while also being able to destroy any idols placed. You are unable to see the monster, since you could easily chat via party chat and relay its location, but it’s a neat idea to keep players that have already died invested in the match and not simply waiting for it to be over. Should the monster capture every investigator though, it wins and the match is over.

There’s a handful of maps, and while they are each based in a different setting, it’s hard to appreciate them since you’re constantly fumbling around in the dark without a navigation map to reference. Luckily, you have an ability that you can use once in a while and it allows you 'ping' the nearest clue and show you what direction it is on your compass, but it’s very vague and only meant to point you in the general vicinity, not right towards it.

A neat addition is that when the match has ended, there’s a slate that shows the path that every player, and the monster, took during the match from beginning to end. What’s interesting about this is that even though I thought the confined area I was in was huge, I seemed to always loop around the same places many times while searching for my clues. This should be no surprise though, as the majority of your viewpoint is nearly pitch black.

Audio is done decently, aside from the voice acting. The general mood is very creepy and you’ll constantly hear small noises, making you wonder if that’s the monster behind you or not. There are some jump scares thrown in, even when the monster isn’t around you, which seems like a cheap tactic for fear, but hey, it worked on me numerous times.

There’s a major fault with White Noise 2 though, in that it absolutely needs to be played with others online. No, you’re not forced to, and you can play single player, but it’s a completely different experience, a terrible one that I feel some might base its gameplay on. I initially tried playing single player, which is the same game but, well, by yourself. Yes it’s a little creepier knowing that you’re alone, but it’s a bland experience that will likely result in being caught since you’re not given many tools to fend off monster attacks. To be honest, I initially wanted to give up only after a few matches of solo play.

I went to seek a match online to join random players and see if the experience would differ with others. Hooray, I found a lobby! I chose my character and flashlight (since I had only unlocked one at that point) and waited for other players to join, or the host to begin the match. Well, I stayed for about 20 minutes and no one joined and the host wasn’t responding in voice comms, so I left the lobby and searched for another. No matches found. Search again. No matches found. After about 15 minutes of no lobbies to join, I gave up for the night, figuring I would have better luck the next day.

Next day rolls around, I search for a game, and voila, I get put into a nearly full match. Everyone picked their character, and monster, and we waited for the host to start the match. Well, I guess he was away from the controller, as the match never began. This experience has been, I’d say, about 90% of what I go through when I try finding people online to play with. Eventually I found a match with a host that was there and we began our clue searching horrorfest.

Even with random players, White Noise 2 online is a great deal of fun. Even though the other players had no microphones to talk with me, we were able to communicate with one another, sticking together, trying to save one another when one of us got captured. Teamwork is required, and there are even puzzles to figure out, so communication is key. While this is somewhat possible with random strangers, with a group of friends, White Noise 2 has a lot of potential to be a lot of fun. It’s a shame that the requirements for that are so narrow though, as nearly every other experience I’ve had has been frustrating. From my time with the game over the past few days, there seems to be a very small community of players actively playing, making grouping up a harder task than it should be.

Though solo play wasn’t very exciting, finding a group of like-minded players online to play with made White Noise 2 feel like a completely different game. I can only imagine a group of 5 friends together, working as a team, how much better the experience would be. The premise may be simple, and there’s not much to see due to aimlessly wandering poorly lit hallways and rooms, but if you’re a fan of the 4 vs. 1 genre, and enjoy horror based games, White Noise 2 is worth checking out for these reasons alone.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2

Even just the thought of playing a new LEGO game makes me smile, and it’s hard not to, as who doesn’t love the brick pieces, unlocking whatever your imagination can conjure? We’ve seen a handful of franchises receive the unique LEGO treatment, adding a unique flair to whatever IP it attaches to. The LEGO games have always been charming, even though you may think they are simply meant for the younger audience. I still enjoy them to this day, maybe more so now that I get to play with my 5 year old daughter. The LEGO games are generally accessible by anyone, as they are simple to understand, yet they have a ton of content and unlockables to keep you playing long after you may, or may not, finish the main campaign.

The newest entry, LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2, will be sure to bring in some fans once again with all of the comic book entertainment out there these days. I went into this review with a different mindset as normal, as I wanted to have my daughter play alongside me and take note of her thoughts and enjoyment from it, maybe even more so than my own, as my viewpoint is greatly different. For me, LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2 does what every LEGO games does, checking the same boxes that make it a very similar game when compared to any of the previous one, for my daughter though, she really enjoyed being able to play as all of her favorite heroes, like Spider-Man, Thor, and countless others.

The Guardians of the Galaxy appear to be the main hero crew within the narrative, as they are called upon to help stop the ever powerful Kang. Kang is using time manipulation powers for nefarious reasons, so it’s up to Star Lord and his ragtag gang, as well as other superheroes, such as Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and dozens of others to save not only the day, but the universe. Each character, like in every other LEGO game, has their own abilities and powers, and you’ll need to utilize each one at specific points to progress further. While there is an overarching storyline to the game, which I don’t want to spoil, it’s nothing really memorable, though it does have its moments, as it’s constantly filled with humor for all ages.

The main hub of the game takes place in Chronopolis, which is where you’ll explore and head to new worlds to play separate levels and side missions. Some characters are better suited to flying or swinging around, making travel around the city much quicker, though you can unlock vehicles as you progress should you not want to always rely on Spider-Man or Star Lord to quickly get around.

You begin with only a handful of Marvel characters unlocked, but as you complete missions and progress further in the campaign, dozens more will unlock, many of which I’ve never even heard about, though to be fair, I’m not the biggest Marvel comic buff. Each character will be needed at specific points to either progress in the game or unearth hidden collectibles, a staple within the series that adds dozens of hours of gameplay should you want to unlock every character and bonus available.

At any time you can swap between the characters on screen by pressing ‘Y’, though if you’re playing the campaign missions you’re locked to a set team of heroes, whereas in free play you can switch to any character in the massive roster you’ve unlocked so far. Each new story mission will mash up a certain roster of characters that will have to work together, along with their powers, to progress past each puzzle and boss. With a ton of characters to unlock, you’re surely to find a favorite, but you’ll have to utilize many different ones should you want to put in the time to find every well-hidden collectible.

Combat is as simple as mashing the ‘X’ button, where the attacks vary depending on whom you are controlling. During certain situations you’ll see prompts to press ‘Y’, which will essentially perform a combo move with a nearby teammate, adding more damage and switching to the other character. It’s not a flawless gameplay mechanic though, as the opportunity window is a little narrow, sometimes having you simply switching characters rather than doing the combo attack. My daughter liked being able to “beat up the bad guys” with a single button, and while yes its basic, it’s a LEGO game, generally meant for a younger audience, so it’s completely acceptable to not have a deep mechanic in this game.

Visually speaking, this one looks like every other LEGO game released to date. There seems to be a little more polish, and loading times have improved over previous games, but it still looks like the same game I was playing last generation as well. For the audio, the voice actors did a great job overall, but it’s still odd not hearing the actual real life voice actors that I’ve associated those characters to. That’s not to say that they performed poorly, but the voices are definitely different from what fans will be used to, not that I expect every celebrity to revive their role for a LEGO game.

I don’t recall having any issues in relation to bugs or glitches in previous LEGO games I played, but I ran into two separate occasions where I essentially became stuck, causing me to restart the mission and retry. The biggest one I ran into was a boss fight against Enchantress. Here you need to utilize Dr. Strange’s time manipulation powers to progress, as he can fast forward or rewind time, a mechanic you’ll need to rely on many times throughout the campaign.

I was tasked with rewinding time to destroy an apple that was blocking my path, so I stood in the right place, used my powers, but nothing happened. I thought that I may have missed something, so I went searching across the whole level, destroying everything in sight, only to be halted from any progress. After about a half hour of trying everything I could think of I resorted to watching a walkthrough on YouTube to see what I missed. I didn’t miss anything, it’s just that the event wasn’t triggering when I was rewinding time, so I was forced to restart the level from the beginning in hopes that it would work the second time. I did so and it worked, but it was frustrating never the less. My daughter was a little frustrated as well, as we weren’t able to go in the door, which was the obvious next step.

What LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2 does really well is what all of the LEGO games do as it provides an entertaining adventure filled with nearly every franchise character you could think of, many of which you may not even know exist. You’ll be smashing bricks, collecting studs, fighting baddies and building objects throughout your adventure, the backbone of any LEGO game experience. For me though, this is more of the same, as it’s essentially the same game I’ve played for about a decade now, causing some fatigue to set in.

That being said, my daughter had a lot of fun with it, even if it’s a little too involved for a 5 year old to figure out its puzzles. She loved smashing LEGO bricks and collecting studs as her favorite characters. Due to my daughter’s enjoyment, I’ve bumped up the score a bit than what I would have given, as I’m experiencing it from a completely different viewpoint. For her, “getting all the LEGO people is so fun!”, so I’m going to stick with that as our final thought on the game.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition

I don’t play sports game much, if at all, except for the odd few exceptions. That leads me to this review as I took on the duties to check out Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition. I expected it to be a football-like game akin to something like Mutant League Football, but oh boy, I was way off base, as I never realized that Blood Bowl has actually been around since the mid 80’s; just over 30 years actually. I’ve never gotten into Games Workshop board games before either, and these people are known for their Warhammer IP, which is probably why I’ve never really been into their stores and noticed Blood Bowl as a board game before.

This is a digital age though, so naturally, Blood Bowl 2 has been adapted to video game form for gamers to get into. The game was developed by Cyanide Studios and was actually released back in 2015, but now the Legendary Edition has been released with a slew of added content to appease fans while hopefully garnering new ones. Blood Bowl 2 is essentially a mashup of the tabletop game Warhammer and American football, and while I expected the gameplay to perform like a Madden football game, it’s actually nothing like that at all, and more like a strategy game, akin to the board game version out there.

So, what’s been added with the Legendary Edition you ask? At a quick glance, you get the base game as well as the expansion and team pack, all of which adds a ton of content to the base game, and all of which is the content currently released. I initially thought the bulk of the DLC was simply cosmetic, as you’re getting 16 new races in total, but there’s also a ton of new features and modes that’s been included and improved upon since the core game's release.

The expansion (again, which is included) adds 8 new races to the roster: Ogres, Amazon, Halflings, Elven Union, Goblins, Vampires, Underworld Denizens and the Kislev Circus. There’s a new stadium, a new single player mode called Eternal League, a Challenge Mode, and for the first time ever you can create a team with a combination of different races, which adds a whole new level of entertainment and creative teams. Even though it’s based on a real world sport ideas (football), this video game plays nothing like it.

Believe it or not, there is a Story Mode to be found here, which revolves around a human team known as the Reikland Reavers. The team used to be legendary, but they are cellar dwellers now, so the club owner has called for a new coach to bring them back to their former glory, which is you the player. It’s a simple setup but it works, playing over the course of a dozen games or so. As far as I know, this is the same campaign that the base Blood Bowl 2 used as well, but it’s a great starting point to learn the basics and mechanics of Blood Bowl 2’s gameplay that becomes deeper the more you learn about it.

It does an alright job at teaching you the basics, though I would have liked a lot more explanations about certain movements and strategies. It took me a handful of lengthy games to get the hang of things and how to properly strategize given the mechanics. The first game or two are simple to win, as certain modifiers like rolling a die to successfully throw and catch a pass for example, is disabled, as it attempts to ease you into the deeper strategies. Eventually you’ll need to factor in your chances to run or throw while hoping you land those dice rolls in your favor. Yes, remember, this is a video game based on a tabletop game, so a large bulk of the strategy you come up with will also almost come down to chance with die rolls.

New for single player is the Eternal League, which is aptly titled, as getting through it is going to feel like an eternity itself. This mode has you playing as any team, even one you create should you wish, across all four seasons of the year. Each season has a number of events that attempt to change up the gameplay in different ways, and this will force you to adapt with new strategies. Since this campaign is much lengthier than the Story Mode, you’ll be able to improve your team’s players and skills, which will be needed to overcome the constant string of new challenges and teams.

Challenge Mode is also a new addition. In this mode you are given a specific objective or situation and you will need to solve it. It’s almost like a puzzle, as you’ll need to learn specific skills and strategies to figure out the solution. It’s a fun distraction when you don’t want to play a lengthy full game.

Even with the Story Mode's tutorial at the beginning, the game didn’t give me as much information as I hoped in an effort to really learn how to play properly and strategize. I was frustrated in the beginning, not really sure what I was doing or how to avoid constantly getting knocked down, but I kept with it, playing more and more matches, and eventually I started to get it, trying to form my own plays in the process to score.

Kind of like the classic game Mutant League Football, most teams are made up of monsters, orcs, ghouls and more. As this game is based on a board game, gameplay is turn based, allowing you to move each of your members in a set amount of actions per turn before giving the opponent their turn at attempting to score. Nearly every movement has a die roll attached its success or failure. While normal movement can be done without consequence for the most part, unless you’re in range of an opponent, you can tempt fate and roll the dice to attempt to move an extra few squares along the playing field grid.

The same goes for nearly every other action, as tackling or blocking is based on a chance die roll as well. Naturally, some teams and players have specific bonuses as a base or situation, so there’s a lot of strategy when deciding what team will play best into your strengths and play style. Giant hulking linebackers, for example, will have a bonus die when rolling to tackle, giving you an extra chance at succeeding in your roll.

This is Blood Bowl though, not standard football, so expect plenty of knock downs, injuries, and even deaths. I honestly expected a little more blood given the premise and setting, but it’s more just heavy hits rather than brutal attacks. Some teams are more proficient at running plays and dodging tackles, while others excel at the passing game, and some are simply best at trying to run over opponents, hurting them in the process. It took me some time to find my ideal team, but experimenting with each one was interesting as you get to see the different possibilities based on the styles of gameplay.

There’s also a slew of other additions and improvements in the Legendary Edition, like being able to create your own team with mixed races. This leads to some very unique team compositions, some of which are completely overpowered should you build it just right. Small things like being able to customize your cheerleaders is quirky, but fun, and creating tournaments among friends has a lot of potential to be a blast. My biggest complaint is that matches take quite some time to complete, so don’t expect a quick 5-10 minute match when you don’t have a lot of gaming time to commit.

Team management has some depth to it for those that want to truly customize their team to their liking, and while it may not be as deep as other sports manager games out there, it does the job considering its setting, even if it’s a little too much in the beginning. Visually, the game is best described as adequate, but nothing really stands out positively, as I was distracted by the poor lip syncing from the commentator ‘cutscenes’ and janky animations that transition abruptly.

Even when you create the perfect team and develop the best strategies, there’s always going to be a huge chance element to the gameplay that is completely unpredictable. It’s silly to see your player trip on an extended run because your die roll wasn’t good enough with an 80%+ chance to succeed. A large portion of the gameplay is being able to adapt and react to the times that these unfortunate die rolls tend to happen, which are usually more often than not.

If you’re looking for a traditional football video game you better look elsewhere, as this game plays more like a turn based strategy game than anything else, it just uses the football backdrop as its setup. Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition took some time to grow on me, and while I don’t see myself playing it much longer in the future, I definitely appreciate its strategic elements that require some unique tactics based on your opponents. If you’re already a Blood Bowl 2 owner and enjoyed it, the Legendary Edition is an easy sell with the 16 additional races alone, even if many of them require some serious skill to use properly. For those new to the genre, Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition is a great addition if you want to take the time and learn all of its intricacies and develop some strategies to become skillful in a strategy based game, just don’t let its football setting fool you into thinking it’s a regular sports game like I mistakenly did.

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 INK

Sometimes simplicity is key, as you don’t always need fancy graphics when pure gameplay is addictive and entertaining enough. INK is the newest indie platforming game to release, hoping to make a splash for fans of the genre with its minimalistic approach to game design. Don’t expect any type of story or deep game mechanics though, even though INK is as bare bones as it comes for simplicity, it’s still an entertaining platformer while the fun lasts.

INK begins as a ‘at your own pace’ type of platformer, but eventually you’ll be racing against an imaginary clock with enemies out to get you and moving obstacles that require near perfect navigation to complete. INK would be best described as a mash up of Splatoon and Super Meat Boy, though both in their most simplistic forms. The main object is to complete each of the 75 levels found in the game, and these levels become progressively more difficult. The catch is that you need to splat ink around to uncover the initial blank canvas of a level. It’s a clever mechanic, but one that I wish had a little more depth to it in the grand scheme of things.

INK begins with you as a simple white cube, seemingly floating on a blank screen. As you move and jump, ink splatters around you, landing on the previously invisible 2D landscape. Having multicolored ink touch the surface of the levels is how you’ll know where the platforms are and how to reach the exit of each stage. It sounds simple, and it is, in the beginning at least. You’ll spend time double jumping around and sliding down walls to paint the surfaces so that you know where to traverse to reach the exit. Given that levels are only maybe 30 to 60 seconds long, half your time in a level will be uncovering most of it with your ink, then finally reaching the end.

The premise stays the same throughout the entirety of the game, though obviously more challenges appear as you progress, like spikes and enemies. Luckily when you die, all of the ink that’s been splattered around the level stays, making each attempt easier now that you’re aware of your surroundings. This is a good thilng as you’re going to die a lot, from spikes, enemies, pits and more. It takes some time to get used to the gameplay, but even jumping out of bounds of the level on the sides, or even top, will kill you as well. Each death makes you explode with ink, thus covering the stage even more.

Once you stop worrying about death and trying to complete the level in one go, it becomes much easier. For example, on new levels I purposely jump and slide all around, even die on purpose, until the majority of the stage is covered in ink, allowing me to make a real attempt at completing it. This mechanic made me not worry about death, but instead use it to my advantage, uncovering the world with my mutlicolors.

The difficulty curve is fairly decent, but there are some random spikes (pun not intended) in the last half or so that require precision timing to avoid enemies and spikes. Levels begin incredibly easy, as you’ll blow through each one in about 30 seconds, if that, but eventually they become much more complicated, and you’ll spend a few deaths just painting the level. There’s only a handful of enemies, the most annoying being the triangles that shoot in a specific direction, requiring you time your jumps perfectly to avoid dying and restarting.

Many levels are crafted in a very smart way, especially when you’re dealing with moving platforms, shooting enemies and the need for exact timing. Progress enough and you’ll face one of the three bosses. I don’t want to give much away, as there are so few of them. I do wish there were more, as it was a great short term distraction from the standard gameplay. The bosses aren’t very difficult to beat, as you simply need to memorize their patterns and jump on them a number of times.

INK is simplistic in nature, but almost too simple to a fault. There’s an option timer you can toggle on to see how long your attempts are taking, but there’s no reason to, as there’s no leaderboard or bonuses for completing stages faster. There are hidden pickups that need to be inked to be seen before being collected, but this is only for those that are really trying to stretch the value of their purchase. Some sort of leaderboards would have been fun, being able to see ghosts of other players speed runs, but once you’re done all of the levels, there’s very little reason to replay, given that there’s no relation to how fast you complete levels.

The art style is very minimalistic, but the ever changing colors as you slide, jump, and splat on the platforms is quite beautiful, even if it’s basic at its core. It’s refreshing to play a game that simply relies on its gameplay, even if it’s basic in premise, rather than fancy graphics or any other distractions.

What stops INK from being truly great is that the controls are very slippery, so many of the precise movements will cause many deaths from trying to overcompensate your jumps and landings. If simplicity is your thing, and you enjoy platformers, you’ll have a great time with INK, even if it’s beatable in a short amount of time. Now get INK'ing everything you see and move onto the next level.

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 Assassin's Creed Origins

I'll admit it, I’ve been a massive Assassin’s Creed fan since its first inception a decade ago. Since then we’ve had numerous titles. Some of them have been absolutely amazing, such as Black Flag, which took us to the pirate era, and some no so great, such as Assassin’s Creed III. Even with its highs and lows, I've played and completed every yearly entry, but even for a massive fan like myself, series fatigue was starting to set in. Ubisoft decided to take a year long break from the scheduled annual release and put extra time into its next entry. So, here we are, essentially two years since the last main Assassin’s Creed title, hopeful that the extra time away would help refresh the series and bring it back to what it once was. With this in mind, I am happy to report that the extra development time has indeed done this, as Assassin's Creed Origins is one of the best, and most ambitious entries in the series yet.

The two main facets of the series that I’ve always looked most forward to, aside from the gameplay, is its historical setting, adding a fictional storyline that’s intertwined with factual events and characters, and the game’s ‘real world’ storyline about the evil Abstergo corporation. The Assassin’s Creed franchise as a whole weaves a tale about the eternal conflict of Templars versus Assassin’s, but Assassin’s Creed Origins does things a little different, as it goes back to its roots to show you the actual origin of the Brotherhood, a tale that’s previously not really been delved into in much detail. Taking place in about 50 BC, ancient Egypt is the newest backdrop for Assassin’s Creed, adding a completely new and unique landscape to parkour and explore, almost to the point of being too big, but more on that later.

Set long before the events of even the first Assassin’s Creed, you play as Bayek, a seemingly normal man that is consumed with a quest for revenge. Why is part of the mystery, so I won’t spoil much more about his motivation. Bayek is a Medjay, which is sort of the equivalent of a sheriff of today, but as he meets new personalities along his journey, such as Cleopatra and other historical figures, his authority rises as well.

As the narrative unfolds, he uncovers a huge corruption that engulfs the land of Egypt, and he is tasked with protecting the people and making things right in the world, along with satisfying his own vengeance as motivation. Expect to explore the vast world, or Origins, as if you can see it in the background you can most likely go there, even the massive pyramids in the distant horizon when you begin. You’ll uncover many secrets, help countless people, and witness the birth of the Creed. Even though sometimes you’re performing simple tasks, like helping local farmers or saving people from bandits, you still feel like you’re a Medjay making an actual difference. As for the ‘real world’ storyline, it’s finally been changed and is nothing like the previous games, which is completely refreshing, but I don’t want to spoil anything else related to this segment, as it’s a pretty big deal in the grand narrative.

If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed before you’ll feel right at home, for the most part, in relation to the parkour traversing. The main change is that you no longer need to hold the Right Trigger for high profile movement, as climbing is simply done with the ‘A-button’ and descending with the ‘B-button’. It’s intuitive, and the fluidity has been vastly improved, even since the last Assassin's Creed title. While not perfect, Bayek will mostly move where you want and how you want without much effort.

There are some vastly different mechanics to learn this time around, even for series veterans, such as the new RPG leveling system, Destiny-like loot, and a completely revamped combat system that takes some getting used to. Now you can customize your abilities, unlock skills from a large skill tree, loot legendary weapons and armor, and even use a crafting system that encourages you to explore and hunt off the main path quite often. There’s almost too much to do. My first dozen hours or so was simply learning the new mechanics, hunting animals and completing nearly non-stop side quests to gain experience. This isn’t simply just another re-skinned Assassin’s Creed.

Like the last few titles in the series, Origins follows the same structure, where you have a main objective, but also a slew of side quests to keep you busy. Whereas in previous games, side quests were completely optional, which they technically are here, but you’re going to want to focus on completing as many as possible simply for the great experience and rewards upon completion. Missions, main or side quests, have level suggestions, not requirements, and make sure you are within the appropriate levels to try and tackle them, as even a quest that is a level or two higher than you can become incredibly difficult, especially early on when you’re becoming accustomed to the mechanics and don’t have great gear sets. There’s actually so much side stuff to do that it’s almost overwhelming coupled with how large the world is you have to explore.

In previous Assassin’s Creed titles you were able to use Eagle Vision, a way to see though walls to track targets and objectives in the environment. Gone is the status quo, as you now have control of your pet eagle, Senu, whom you can control to get an aerial view of anywhere you want to from the air. There’s no limit to Senu's range either, that I’ve found anyways, and you can tag enemies you see to track them easily when sneaking and hunting as Bayek. Senu can fly nearly anywhere, and even hover in any spot for you to search the area for more targets and objectives. Your other animal companion comes in the form of a horse, or camel should you choose, which will help you quickly traverse the vast deserts if you don’t wish to fast travel. The best part about this is that you can have your mount automatically run to a waypoint for you, allowing you to bask in the absolutely stunning environments as you pass by.

Combat has been completely revamped and requires some learning to grasp its mechanics. In previous Assassin’s games, each enemy would essentially attack you one at a time, for the most part, allowing you to parry and attack with ease. This time around Bayek will get attacked from all angles by multiple enemies, or animals, at once. You’re now equipped with a light and heavy attack, shield defense, ranged attacks, dodge, and even an attack that can be unleashed for massive damage. There are multiple types of weapons, from spears, axes, swords, pikes and more, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Finding the right weapon for the situation you’re confronted with is half of the strategy of combat, as sometimes you’ll need a faster sword as opposed to a slow lumbering axe.

Levels of you and your foes play a huge factor into battles as you can see the level and health bars above each enemies’ head, allowing you to strategize the best route of attack. If an enemy is much higher than you, a red icon is placed above their head, and they should be avoided at all costs. The multiple types of bow and arrows play a huge factor in combat as well, as there are multiple types for different types of situations. You’re able to lock onto enemies, which makes attacking much easier, though in close quarters this can be a little clumsy with some wonky camera angles in the heat of battle. Luckily this isn’t the norm, but it does happen from time to time.

You’re an assassin though, so stealth is also an option, and usually encouraged, but this has changed in some ways as well. Previously, if you could assassinate someone it was an instant one hit kill, though now the level differences play a huge part on your damage, even from your iconic hidden blade. If you don’t level up your hidden blade’s damage, and you perform an assassination on a target, it may only take off a small chunk of their health, instead of the instant kill. This is usually only the case with targets much higher than you, but it’s quite the shock the first time it happens.

Then, there are the Phylakes. Once you progress into the story to a certain point, elite bounty hunters will be strolling the land in search of you. If your regular enemies manage to call for backup by lighting a bonfire once you’re noticed, expect these servants of death to be in your vicinity shortly after. These named enemies are no joke, as I’ve died multiple times by their hand. You’re given a large warning when they are near, so you're best to hide from view of any of them passing by unless you want a serious challenge, best suited until endgame when you’re a higher level and have some upgraded gear.

Speaking of gear, this is a whole new mechanic to the series as well, and one that I really enjoyed. As you kill enemies, loot bodies, chests, and complete quests, you are rewarded with level appropriate gear, varying in rarity from common to legendary. Yellow (legendary) gear is usually the best you can obtain, having extra passive bonuses to enhance Bayek in combat such as fire damage, damage reduction, poison on block, and much more. This tiered loot reward is addicting, as you’re almost always upgrading your gear from drops, though if you find a weapon or shield you really enjoy you can spend your hard earned money to upgrade them to be much better.

Because you’re constantly earning new weaponry, there’s little reason to upgrade your weapons until you are near the endgame with the best loot, though you’re able to do so whenever you wish. Gear you don’t want can be dismantled for components to craft and to improve your other items, like hidden blade damage, health and more.

There’s a ton of costumes Bayek can earn and purchase throughout his journey, though they are simply cosmetic and meant to suit your style. There are even skins that can be purchased for your mounts, offering a unique visual style for your ride, but this also plays into the included microtransactions that have since become the norm as of late. You can purchase Helix credits for real money, allowing you to purchase exclusive skins, gear, skill points and even time savers like crafting resources. Yes, these are optional and not forced, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted a few times to buy some crafting materials to save some time, though I didn’t.

The other massive change to the series is its RPG elements, allowing you to earn skill points as you level, spending them on the skills you want that cater to your play style. There are three separate trees you can spend points on, each focusing on different ways to play and abilities to boost your play style. You don’t start out with many abilities, but spend some time leveling and you can gain access to fire bombs, sleep and poison darts, combat upgrades, unique bow skills and many more. While the skill tree is basic, and nowhere near what you’d see in other RPG focused titles, it’s a welcome addition and I hope to see it improved on moving forward.

The extra year of development, along with the recent release of the Xbox One X, has brought some absolutely stunning visuals, especially with the enhanced patch that brings 4K Assassin’s Creed to fans. To say the world looks beautiful is putting it mildly. The large landscapes and backdrops may have that grey and brown overtone to it, but stop to look at the finer details and you’ll be more than impressed. Exploring the inner maze of a gargantuan pyramid with just your torch for light is captivating, or running through the wildlands with packs of hyenas or hippos ready to attack is also quite the sight to see.

Assassin’s Creed Origins is so large that it’s almost overwhelming at times. I tend to stay to the main path in most games, but I’ve easily spent hours doing side quests, hunting crocodiles, and exploring ruins for treasure. This may be the largest world to explore in the series yet, but it’s not all just about mass, as each area is filled with a living and breathing ecosystem. The cities and towns feel alive, not just simply populated, and traversing across the barren deserts offers a stark contrast.

If you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan like myself, and thirst for any new entry, Origins is an absolute no-brainer, as this is easily one of the best in the series. Mechanically there’s so much new here that the series once again feels fresh, and the world so large that there’s always something new to uncover and explore. If you’re new to the series, or haven’t played the last few ga,es, Origins is a great point to jump in, especially since the narrative takes place before others and sets up the subsequent games in the timeline. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that it is easily one of the best looking games on the market right now, not just for the series, but playing on an Xbox One X in 4K is amazing.

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 Jackbox Party Pack 4, The

It’s pretty rare for me to have a bunch of friends over and play some games, as everything is played online these days for the most part, but there’s always one exception to the rule. When I do manage to have a few guests over I try to get them to play any of the Jackbox Party Pack’s when they release. These are collections of smaller bite sized games that anyone in the room can play as they don't need a controller. They can simply use their phone, tablet, or portable computer.

Since you don’t need controllers to play, this removes nearly all barriers for someone to join in, making it a welcoming title for nearly everyone. You can play with anyone; friends, family, or strangers, but as I found out with the gathering of people I was hanging with recently, the experiences will wildly differ based on the audience and their sense of humor.

Every game of the 5 and a half included (yes, one counts as a half) requires 3 players minimum to start, with classic Fibbage being the only one that requires 2. If you don’t have people to come over and play on the couch with you, The Jackbox Party Pack 4 is online and streaming friendly, with a plethora of options to make this experience a better one, giving you a multitude of options. We had well over a dozen people playing during a gathering of friends, and usually every gathering we do for each new Jackbox Party Pack goes well into the night, but something felt different with this one, as it wasn’t uncommon for people opting to sit out for games instead of clamoring to join in as soon as possible.

So let’s go down the list of the 5 and a half included games.

Fibbage (2-8 players):

This is classic Fibbage, hosted as always by the lovable Cookie Masterson. You’re given 'fill-in-the-blank' type questions and need to choose the correct answers in a bed of lies created by every player. You get points for choosing the correct answer and for having other players choose your lie. You want to be clever with your lies, as you can easily win by having other players constantly choose them, even if you don’t know the correct answers. This is the same formula as the previous Fibbage games, but of course it has updated questions.

The half game included in The Jackbox Party Pack 4 is a slight variant on Fibbage, called Fibbage: Enough About You (3-8 players):

What makes Fibbage: Enough About You different than your standard Fibbage ruleset is that you aren’t tested on weird facts and news knowledge, but instead, how well you know your friends. You’ll be prompted to write one truth and one lie about yourself, seeing who knows you best and not at all. This is a great game if you have a group of friends that know each other, but if you’re in a setting with mostly strangers, or playing online, this just doesn’t really work as well as it could. I was playing with a dozen people I didn’t know as well as I could, so it essentially turned into 50-50 for my guesses of which facts were the truth, provided people were telling the truth when prompted to do so. The closer the friends, the better this mode will be, but if they are just acquaintances or strangers, as you might want avoid this mode.

Survive The Internet (3-8 players):

The basic premise of this mode is taking comments from other players out of context and twisting them into hilarious ways. At first you’ll be given a question to answer, something basic and innocent. Your answer is then anonymously given to another player, without knowing your question, and they are in charge of coming up with a question for that answer.

The funny part is how the answer is usually going to be taken completely out of context, so the mash up of answers and different questions causes some hilarity to ensue. After they are all shown, players vote on the most construed or hilarious pairing, and points given for votes. This quickly devolved into making the comments and questions as dirty as possible, at least with my group of people playing, and it became absolutely hilarious seeing the “fake” comments. The whole presentation will remind you of a Windows 3.1 desktop with some classic internet nostalgia like old AIM conversations and what not.

Monster Seeking Monster (3-7 players):

This is, without a doubt, the most unique and metagame like of the whole bunch. You’re tasked with messaging other monsters, trying to match up with them for a date, yet each monster has a hidden power that adds for some strategic thought. Truth be told, this game is quite fun, but it will take a few plays to really understand its intricacies. Every player is a unique monster hidden within a human body at the beginning. Your overall goal is to earn hearts by dating other monsters, but that only happens if they match with you too, somewhat like a limited Monster Tinder.

There are 6 rounds, and during each round you’re only allowed to send 4 text messages to any of the other players. With these 4 messages you want to try and secure that match with someone else. So, do you use all your written messages with one specific player, trying to win them over for a match, or play the field with only a single message or two with a hope of getting multiple matches.

After the messages are sent, each player then chooses who they want to date that night. If both players choose each other it’s a match, but if the hookup is only one sided, then it’s a rejection. The hilarious part is that the text messages between players are shown on screen for everyone to see before the reveal of match or rejection. This was quite funny, and as the night went on our messages started turning quite lewd and to the point. This will obviously vary based on your group of friends and the comfort between each other, but this unveiled an unforeseen awkwardness.

Dating for some people is very awkward, and since your messages to one another is shown on screen, you sometimes want to be funny or crude, or might waste messages with a simple “hi”. There were some couples playing, so it was a little awkward to send messages to someone’s partner, asking to match (my words may have been a little more forward than that), since their significant other is going to see everything that was written between you too. The game has the best of intentions, but this may cause some tension in the wrong setting, so beware.

To make sure that couples, or predetermined people, can’t simply keep matching, each Monster has a special ability that requires specific objectives to be met for bonus hearts, or to make others lose hearts. For example, the person who gets a vampire will essentially make anyone they match with a vampire, along with anyone that person subsequently dates as well, so this person will want to try and match with as many players as possible as they get a bonus half heart for each person they date. I even had a monster that would take a heart away from someone that rejected me, so I would flirt with one person, trying to get them to match with me while I chose someone else.

This is where a lot of strategy can come into the gameplay, as each round the top scoring player has their special power revealed for everyone to see, so there’s plenty of reasons to pick, or not pick, a certain player to match up with. With the right group of friends, like the one I was playing with, it was quite hilarious to see the dirty messages sent to one another only to be rejected for one reason or another. On the flip side, this may be a little embarrassing for some to play or raise some eyebrows. The rules are quite in depth once you try and factor in monster ability strategies rather than simply trying to match with the cute person in the room, even if it’s a ‘joke’.

Bracketeering (3-16 players):

This consists of voting on dumb arguments, but in a sports tournament bracket form. Every player is given the same question, such as name a movie, and each player replies with their own answer. Each answer is randomly paired with others in a tournament bracket. The first round may ask “What’s the greatest movie of all time?” and you would vote on the selections for each bracket. Once you move onto the next round, the winning answers will stay the same, but the question will change, such as “Which is the best movie to play in your house to scare a burglar out?” This completely changes the context of the answers and may have a completely different answer move ahead in the bracket.

You can change your vote during the countdown phase as much as you want, and the game updates in real time as votes are cast. While it’s funny to see answers going back and forth until the timer reaches zero, we had some major lag with a full 16 people playing, constantly changing their votes. It got to the point that the final 5 seconds left went to a standstill, taking well more than 10 seconds to complete as we thought the game was frozen. This game can be fun, but again, it’ll be based on the type of friends you have and how creative they are with their answers.

Civic Doodle (3-8 players):

Last up is Civic Doodle, essentially a new take on the previous Drawful. The backdrop is that you’re hired to paint a mural within the make believe city. Two players are given a mostly blank canvas to draw whatever they desire, with the winning drawing being the one most voted for at the end. The next two players will add onto that drawing and voting begins once again. The winning drawing continues to move forward, eventually becoming the final mural.

The final round has everyone drawing at the same time on their own canvas with a little more direction. Each time a winner is voted and everyone continues on from that drawing. This means by the end the drawing itself is usually a mess and indiscernible, but it has some moments of hilarity. My group in particular was quite fond of, well, phallic objects, so many of our murals probably wouldn’t be approved by the city if it was real.

For those wanting to stream online with random people, their Twitch/Mixer followers, or just friends, there’s a slew of options for you to take control of your game if you’re not going to have a bunch of people over at your place to play locally. The first player to join the game is the VIP, they are the one who decides when to start the game and can even censor input from others if required.

Anyone can generally participate, as the audience can support up to 10,000 players playing along with the host. Doing so is easy, just like local games, as you log onto jackbox.tv and put in the unique room code. If you plan on playing online while streaming, there’s an option for Extended Timers, allowing longer time to input answers and drawings, to compensate for the lag that Twitch broadcasts.

I’ve streamed one of the previous Jackbox Party Packs, and almost every time it would devolve into racist and lewd answers from anonymous players in the audience. There is a 'Require Twitch' option that can be enabled, forcing players to log into Jackbox.tv via their Twitch account. This takes away their anonymity, allowing you to see who’s being inappropriate, giving you options to boot the player.

My group of friends always enjoy when a new Jackbox Party Pack releases, but this one felt different. I really enjoyed Monster Seeking Monster, but it is a very heavy metagame that not everyone is going to understand, and simply use it to hit on other people at the party. There was some hilarity that ensued throughout the night, but there were also times where people simply didn’t want to join in as well, a first for our group.

We ran into more technical glitches in this pack than any other previous ones, with numerous people randomly getting booted from rooms, unable to rejoin, or simply not being able to join without multiple attempts. While I welcome the new games, someone actually suggested we play the previous Pack, which is a telling sign. The new games are decent additions, but the fun factor is going to completely depend on your group of friends and if they have like-minded humor as you.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Call of Duty: WWII

It’s been a few years since I truly cared about, or even really played, a Call of Duty title; since Black Ops II to be exact. I’m not sure why it fell off the radar for me, but the last three or so in the series simply didn’t connect with me. The series was, and still is, an absolute monster for sales though, as nearly every friend on my ‘friends list’ would be playing it at some point, though drastically less so in the last few releases. There was a time where a group of us would log on nightly at the exact same time and play Call of Duty until it was far too late to get up at a reasonable hour, every single night. I really miss those nights, playing classics like Gun Game mode on Nuke Town for the millionth time.

The World War II genre in games seemed to be over saturated at one point, but it’s been a few years now, so I was excited to see the Call of Duty franchise get back to its roots, to what defined the franchise over a decade ago. Three years in the making, by over 500 people, Call of Duty: WWII is finally upon us. I went in with zero expectations, as I wasn’t sure if Sledgehammer Games would bring back my excitement for the series that I once had years ago. Well, it looks like it’s time to get the squad back together, as Call of Duty: WWII is a brilliantly crafted cinematic experience with its campaign, an addictive multiplayer that will keep you up into the late hours of the morning, and an incredibly challenging and horror filled Zombies experience.

The game is essentially three different encounters, so I’ve broken each down into their own sections, as each is quite an in-depth and lengthy experience. First up, which is what I was looking most forward to: The Campaign.

The narrative focuses on the story about Ronald “Red” Daniels and the actions of his squad during 1944 to 1945 within the European theater of war. Daniels and his squad are part of the infamous US 1st Infantry Division. Your mission, so to speak, is to fight back the Reich as the Allied Forces start to gain a hold of more territory by taking it back from the Third Reich. Returning to its roots, the twelve-chapter campaign delivers a compelling narrative filled with unique and interesting characters as they fight their way into, and out of, seemingly impossible situations. You’ll visit many areas of war, from the D-Day beach storming of Normandy, which is an absolutely emotional journey to experience, to the liberation of Paris, and finally into Germany’s stronghold. Heroism isn’t a strong enough word to describe Red’s division by any means, but what Sledgehammer has done beautifully is craft a tale set within the actual confines of historical events. I was fully expecting the overused trope of ‘find and kill Hitler’ for the overall narrative, but it actually doesn’t go that way at all, instead focusing on a much smaller scoped tale, yet was absolutely instrumental in part of the Allies eventual victory in the war.

The chronicle feels much like you’re playing something straight out of Band of Brothers. You’re not a super soldier that will single handedly win the war, quite the opposite in fact, as developer Sledgehammer has opted to use a health pack system instead of regenerating health. At first I thought this was an odd decision, but after playing through the campaign in 8 or so hours, I completely understand the reasoning behind it. No regenerating health means that the gameplay slows down, you’re cautious about what you do, and each bullet that hits you feels like it truly matters. You’re able to hold onto a few health packs, using them when needed, but I’ll admit, I died quite a few times by simply from not realizing I was so low on health before getting hit one last time. Your health bar is always indicated on screen, but there’s no obvious red glow, or anything like that, to constantly remind you you’re low on health, so you need to get into the habit of monitoring it at all times. This is where your squad mates come into play. Each brother in your squad is a specialist with a unique ability that can be used every so often. One of those abilities is to toss you a med pack when available. The trick is to monitor when their abilities are ready so that you can use them as often as possible to maximize their effectiveness. You do need to be quite close to them to order them to assist you, but you’ll also eventually have their abilities to use too, like mortars, giving ammo and spotting all enemies in the vicinity. These abilities can be quite helpful when used and managed properly, so be sure to use them as often as possible.

Call of Duty is known to hire well-known actors, not just for their voices, but their appearance as well, and WWII is no different. There’s a handful of cast that is included, the most notable being Josh Duhamel (All my Children, Las Vegas, Battle Creek, 11.22.63 (TV Mini-Series)) for the campaign. Duhamel portrays your squad’s sergeant, and a large portion of the events that take place are focused in some way around his character. He’s a great actor and, needless to say, the voice acting from top to bottom was a huge standout. This helps you connect with your squad and the characters, and you actually start to care about your squad brothers, doing what you can to make sure you all go home alive after this war. As for the cutscenes, they look amazing, borderline realistic at times, and they are a visual treat to be rewarded with.

The campaign will take you across many countries, and even vary in different set pieces as you make your way to Germany. The opening mission is immensely intense, as you are tasked with storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. Not even the soldiers themselves knew what to expect and this gives you a small glimpse of the horrors of war as you are tasked with clearing the bunkers in the distance. There are segments where you’ll get to drive a vehicle in pursuit, and escape, and even though these are guided linear sections, they aren’t completely on rails, giving the player a sense of excitement and action you’d come to expect from a Call of Duty game.

I don’t want to give away too much of the campaign’s gameplay surprises, but one of the more memorable missions involved sniping from the top of a church before it becomes a target. There’s even another mission where you have to make your way to the sniper tower that has your squad pinned down. This is what Call of Duty: WWII does best, making nearly every mission feel unique, complete with a grand set piece that makes it memorable. One such mission was Collateral Damage, where you’re piloting a tank within a nearly destroyed city. You feel vastly overpowered, able to shoot anything down the narrow roads that gets in your way. That is, until you have to take on a tank that flanks you from behind, then two at once. This was interesting, because in most games tank missions are set in widely open fields, giving you plenty of space to circle around and flank, but in narrow streets with buildings all around, you feel suffocated, unable to maneuver how you want to in a dire situation. Another favorite mission is the infamous Battle of the Bulge, piloting one of the ‘boys in the sky’ to drive back forces before you need to hold off incoming tanks with airstrikes. Missions like these really tend to break up the standard shooting, giving you another view of the war from a different perspective.

Another mechanic that you’ll need to learn during a handful of the campaign missions is based around a stealth component. You’re given a silenced pistol and can melee from behind, but being spotted or heard will alert everyone in the vicinity, making the mission much more challenging. One such mission is Liberation in Paris, where you’re one of the females, posing as an undercover Nazi. What’s unique about this mission is that you’re given your documents to review about your cover story, as you’ll be questioned as you progress deeper within the compound, so you better know who you are and what your business so you can answer the questions asked. The last part of this mission involves trying to accomplish an objective from a stealth perspective. From nearly everyone else that played through the campaign at the review event we attended, all said the same thing, that when they broke stealth, either by purpose or accident, they had to finish the mission by shooting their way out. There’s an indicator for when a Nazi sees you, causing an alarm when it’s full, but since there’s no real map, it’s difficult to plan your best route without spending a long time watching for guard paths. I loved the whole campaign, except for the stealth sections.

I found that they were not as fun as one might hope, and I was unable to complete any of the missions without being caught for one reason or another, except for the one mission where you’re forced to complete it without being noticed, though that took many retries to do. The stealth moments provide a change of gameplay for sure, which some will enjoy, but there are many sections like this and, in my humble opinion, they are easily the low point of the campaign. One checkpoint seemed to auto save after I was detected, so when I died it reloaded and I was still under fire. You’re simply not given enough tools to make the stealth gameplay compelling or fun during these sections.

Authenticity was a huge pillar in creating Call of Duty: WWII, as Michael Condrey, Director of WWII stated, and they went across the globe to make sure they got to personally see some of the areas where battles took place and they even recruited a notable historian. This made for a more authentic and true to fact experience, many of which your average gamer won’t notice or appreciate, but war buffs certainly should. One example was how they had placed bunkers in one of the forest levels, yet when they went to the actual site, they realized that the doors weren’t placed in the right direction and they weren’t even in the right plane on the hills either, so they went back and made changes to represent what they saw making it a more authentic experience.

The next major component to World War II is its multiplayer mode.

I honestly expected a simple re-skin of previous Call of Duty multiplayer experiences, but playing it safe wasn’t good enough for Sledgehammer Games, as they’ve crafted a multiplayer that I have a feeling will bring friends back together for more online shenanigans. In nearly every multiplayer game you click on to play, you are put into a static lobby and as it populates and fills with enough players it will then begin each match. Post games are the same, as you wait around while all the work in the backend does what it needs to do before placing you in another. Turns out the developers realized that staring at a static room isn’t a fun experience, and so, Headquarters was born.

Headquarters is essentially the same idea of waiting in a lobby for the next match to begin, but now it’s a hub where 48 players can gather together in a virtual space when not in a match. Here you can run around in a compound-like area, able to interact with one another, competing in activities, picking up missions and more. Here is where you’ll open your supply drops or watch others open theirs, challenge others in quick 1 vs 1 standoffs, use the firing range and even test out the scorestreaks. That’s right, you can finally test out every scorestreak to see not only which ones you enjoy, but how to use them properly before wasting them in an online match. I didn’t think I would make much use of the 1 vs 1 challenges, but it’s quite fun, as it’s’ first to 3 kills with a short time limit. You’re given a list of 3 random weapons at the beginning, with each player able to veto one weapon, leaving the unchosen one as the weapon each player is forced to use. There are challenges that relate to the 1 vs 1 arena to, and I can see myself finally settling who is better amongst my friends. Headquarters may just simply be an interactive lobby when it comes down to it, but it’s incredibly smart and well done, as there were times where I wanted to simply hang around the HQ with others instead of jumping into a match right away.

The first thing you’re going to do is choose your division from five groups: Infantry, Airborne, Armored, Mountain and Expeditionary. These are essentially classes and you’ll be given a tutorial video of how each one plays into specific strengths. Depending on your preferred playstyle, each class will be better suited depending how you want to play. I started with Armored for example, as I always gravitate towards the LMG’s, whereas snipers will want the Airborne class. You can eventually unlock all the divisions, so you’re not permanently locked in by any means. While you don’t absolutely need to use the weapons that the class is meant to play, you do get specific perks that make it worthwhile. For example, I got a bipod for my LMG’s as an Armored class, not that another class couldn’t pick up my LMG when I die, or that I couldn’t pick up another class’s rifle, but I won’t be as proficient with it if I do. It’s a clever way to encourage you to stick with the weapon types each that class is most proficient in, which also allows you to level up specific weapons quicker when you’re not constantly switching weaponry.

As you level up by getting kills and winning matches, you’ll earn experience (XP) and credits. These credits can be used to unlock portions of weapons and outfits, and should you save up enough to purchase every piece, you’ll be granted some of the best weapons or coolest looking outfits (visual only) in the game. You’ll also earn Supply Drops from time to time which will net you anything from Common to Legendary emblems, weapons, emotes, XP bonuses and more. These are really exciting to open in the HQ, as other players can watch and see what you get from them as well.

You can expect many authentic World War II era guns, from LMG’s, Rifles, SMG’s, Shotguns, and more, each of which is better suited for one of the divisions. Each gun you use individually levels up as well, unlocking attachments as you go, helping work towards unlocking the camouflage and skins. You’re even able to prestige your weapons once they hit max level, adding things like your Clan Tag or Score Counter to the gun, but doing so will reset its progress and attachments to level 1, just like doing a regular prestige for your character (which yes, is included as well). You’ll also have equipment, such as common grenades, eventually unlocking smoke and stun grenades, mines, and other tools to help you in your multiplayer matches. There’s only a handful of this equipment to unlock, and I know it has to stay within the era range to be included, but there’s definitely not as much of a focus on it compared to previous Call of Duty titles.

Map selection was quite decent, with a handful of maps (with more to come as DLC in the future) that range from close quarter combat within a village, to a vast open field with a massive cannon parked on the railway in the middle. Combat is fast paced and grounded, though it didn’t take me long to figure out that mounted machine guns are incredibly deadly to unsuspecting enemies filing down an objective lane. One problem that always frustrated me with Call of Duty multiplayer was the constant flipping of spawns when players died, meaning you got shot in the back more often than not. Gladly, I didn’t find this to be the case nearly as much as previous titles. That’s not to say it’s nonexistent, but it’s surely not as prevalent.

War Mode is a completely new narrative driven experience to multiplayer that was assisted in its development by Raven Software, who has helped build Call of Duty components in the past as well. War Mode is a 6 vs 6 of Axis and Allies with a varying three tier objective. You could be tasked with destroying radios, blowing up artillery, stealing gas for your tanks that you just escorted, building a bridge and more. Each objective is an offense versus defense with a strict time limit, and you’re unable to move onto the next objective until you complete the previous one first, much like Rush Mode from the Battlefield series. Sure, at its core it’s simply objective attack versus defend, but the 6 vs 6 gameplay really makes it much more exciting, as I’ve lost a match with our escorted tank at 99% because of certain bottlenecks the defense created, and I had a great time even though I lost in the end. Communication and squad diversity will play huge roles for War Mode, as trying to build the bridge for your tank to cross without someone using smoke grenades was near impossible, as was trying to defend without a sniper or two.

If more traditional modes are to your liking, WWII has you covered as well. You’ve got your Team Death Match, Free For All, Domination, Hardpoint, Domination, Capture the Flag, Search and Destroy, and an odd one that I initially thought I wouldn’t enjoy as much, Gridiron. Mosh Pit is random fan favorite mode that rotates and I was glad to see Hardcore included as well, though there’s only Team Death Match, Domination, Search and Destroy and Free For All for Hardcore players like myself. You may notice that Gun Game is omitted, which was a surprise for a few of us at the event, and while it’s not out of the realm of possibility to have it included in future, it’s an odd mode to not be initially included as it’s quite popular.

Gridiron is 12 players fighting for the single ball on the map, attempting to score in their opponent’s zone at opposite ends of the map. Sure, it’s Call of Duty’s take on Halo’s Griffball, but man, there were some intense matches, with a few ending in a tie with double overtime. There’s a lot of strategy to Gridiron, as someone needs to carry the ball, unable to shoot when doing so, so you’ll need escorts and defenders, as you can toss the ball a fair distance. You’re also able to throw it out of bounds of the map, causing it to spawn in the default spot in the middle of the map. This was a viable strategy we used on defense many times, so I’m curious to see the strategies teams will come up with to be wildly successful, as communication is key once again.

Last up is the ever-popular Zombie’s Mode, though aptly titled Nazi Zombies here.

This is a horror story co-op based mode for Zombies fans. I’ll admit, and I’m not sure why, but ever since its first introduction many Call of Duty’s ago, the Zombie mode never struck a chord with me for whatever reason. I was really hoping something would be different here with Nazi Zombies, but even after a full day of playing it numerous times with different people, it still hasn’t stuck on me. That’s not to say that it’s not well done, as fans of the mode will appreciate the additions, but its core still feels plays and feels the same, albeit with a horror theme. There’s an overarching plot that takes place, centered around a team of four that is exploring a small village in Mittleburg, Germany, attempting to reclaim priceless stolen artwork back from the Third Reich. Something is not right though, as the undead start to attack, and as you make your way deeper into the village and uncover its secrets, the more nefarious a plot you discover to help you understand what’s going on and why.

If you’ve never played a Call of Duty Zombie’s mode before, it’s a 4-player cooperative mode that puts you against increasingly difficult waves of undead, but there’s more to it than a simple Horde-like mode, as there are many secrets to uncover if you want to not simply fight the undead forever. Just like the campaign, Nazi Zombies uses famous actors’ likeness and voice as well, as you’ll get to choose from Ving Rhames (Mission Impossible Series, Pulp Fiction, Con Air) and David Tennant (Jessica Jones, Doctor Who, The Escape Artist, Star Wars: The Clone Wars), just to name two. Sure, it doesn’t add anything to the gameplay per se, but when you have an awesome actor like Ving included, it’s really cool to experience it, more so if you’re a fan of them, though the only difference between each character is purely cosmetic, regardless of the class you choose.

Just like the regular multiplayer, you will earn Supply Drops for leveling up in this mode as well, earning you more gear and bonuses, eventually being able to truly customize your character to suit your playstyle. You’ll come across multiple types of zombies, some requiring some massive firepower to take out, so you better have some great communication and coordination with the rest of your team. You’re only given subtle hints of what you’re supposed to do, but not really how or where, so there’s a lot of experimentation that’s involved before you’re able to truly see how large the map is with the underground tunnels and secret pathways.

Killing zombies earns you currency, which can be spent on new weapons and other powers and upgrades, but you’ll also need to save that money for unlocking gates to progress forward as well. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into how your team plays, as each wave becomes increasingly more difficult, so sometimes it’s best to leave a few zombies alive while you run around, scrounging for supplies or trying to solve the next step of the overall mystery. Fans who love figuring this stuff out on their own will no doubt have a good time doing so, as for me, I wish a little more direction was given, as I had no clue what to do and constantly had pressure from the horde of zombies trying to kill me.

Call of Duty used to be the flagship title for World War II shooters, but it’s been quite a few years, almost a decade, since it started to transition to a more modern and futuristic setting instead. The timing for Call of Duty: WWII is perfect, as the World War II genre isn’t stale anymore and fidelity has come a long way, as playing in 4K was an amazing experience, unlike any other Call of Duty I’ve experienced before. The wheel may not have been reinvented, but what has been done here make me excited about playing Call of Duty once again. There’s something here for everyone, as it feels like almost three separate games based on what you prefer to play. Sledgehammer Games has become a great storyteller with their (mostly) exciting campaign, solid multiplayer that keeps you hooked as you level up and earn Supply Drops, and a Nazi Zombie mode that’s sure to have you and your friends scratching your heads trying to solve its mysteries. They could have played it safe, but they weren’t happy with the status quo, which is where Headquarters and War spawned from, a great multiplayer addition to the series, and one that I hope stays going forward. It’s time to get the squad back together and get back into some intense World War II action as Call of Duty is indeed back and this year’s entry is pretty much a ‘must play’ for fans of the series, and fans of video games alike.

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Dead Alliance

A few years ago it seemed nearly every game had some sort of zombies attached to it, but lately it seems if the zombie frenzy has calmed down a bit, as it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be. Everyone knows that to kill a zombie you need to bash its skull in or shoot it in the head. This way of dispatching zombies is found in Dead Alliance, the game being reviewed here, but there’s an interesting twist on the tried and true formula that makes up one of the main pillars of its gameplay. In Dead Alliance, you’re able to temporarily make the zed’s your ally, hunting your enemies and earning you kills. This really intrigued me, as I was expecting some really interesting core gameplay changes, being able to turn hordes of zombies against my enemies. What I got instead was a great idea wrapped in a poor package of disappointing gameplay and design.

This is where I would normally delve into the plot and campaign, starting with the single player, but Dead Alliance does something really interesting; they offer the single and multiplayer as separate purchases (though you can purchase a bundle of them together). I would normally applaud a forward thinking move like this, as it means that people that only truly care about multiplayer can simply purchase the section of game they want, with the ability to upgrade later on should they desire.

The core fault here though is that the single player offering is essentially useless. Given that Dead Alliance is a multiplayer team based game, the single player modes are essentially bot matches of the same core multiplayer game. There’s a horde-like mode to survive against endless waves of zombies, but the core single player experience is simply mimicking the multiplayer experience offline with bots. There’s no campaign, no plot, just bots if you want to play alone.

Trying to mimic huge successes like Halo and Call of Duty, Dead Alliance is putting all its eggs in one basket, hoping that gamers will flock to the game with its focus solely on the multiplayer experience. That would be well and good if the gameplay was balanced, if it had unique gameplay modes, and the gameplay was refined and the graphics looked good, but every one of these qualities is unfortunately missing here. What makes Dead Alliance stand out mechanically is that the map is constantly filled with zombies spread around the map, making your standard running and gunning a little more challenging than it normally would be in other shooters.

You would think that shooting zombies who are in your way would be the best tactic, but this is usually the worst thing you can do. Firing your weapon alerts zombies to your position, along with other players, so you can be swarmed quite quickly resulting in you having to try to shoot your way out of a bad situation. It’s a good thing you have a knife that can instantly one-hit-kill regular zombies, that is if the hit detection actually decides to work.

The better, and unique, solution here is getting swarms of zombies to join your side for a short period of time, hunting down your enemies, earning you score from kills. This is where your P.A.M. grenades come in, as zombies caught in its blast will temporarily fight for you and rush your enemies. There’s a handful of unique items and equipment you can use to focus on this style of gameplay should you wish, such as an L.R.A.D., which is essentially a noise making device. This will cause any zombies in the area to focus on it, either allowing you to pass a heavily infested chokepoint, or, if you’re clever, gathering a horde of them in one place before using your P.A.M. grenade.

This is the type of gameplay, which if it was executed well, could have made Dead Alliance really stand out amongst the others in the vastly overcrowded genre. Zombies that turn (see what I did there?) to your side will have a green highlight around them, and any enemies on the opposing team that have turned will highlight their temporary allies with a red outline. There’s a handful of equipment that is really interesting, such as a grenade that will only turn one zombie to your side, but it will be much more powerful than your standard zombie, with increased damage and health. All of these zMods make for some unique loadouts, but you’re going to have to grind for quite a while to unlock the top tier equipment, traps, attachments and perks.

There are three classes for you to play as: Light, Medium, and Heavy, all of which are completely stereotypical and standardized. There’s an option to make a custom class, choosing from your currently unlocked perks, weapons, attachments, zMods and score streaks, but the two default potions for each class they give you will have to be used if you actually want a chance at defeating other players and winning. The custom classes should only be delved into once you’ve unlocked every item and perk, which again, will take a long time to do so.

You’ll earn in-game cash and experience for finishing matches, with more being awarded for kills and wins obviously, but you’ll need to horde that cash if you want the best equipment, so prepare to repeatedly play the same maps and modes for quite some time. There is a decent progression system, but it’s nowhere near as refined or exciting as something like Call of Duty pulls off, constantly trickling upgrades to you to play with and become better.

You’ll are given the standard Team Death Match, Free For All, Capture the Flag, King of the hill and Attrition modes to select from. What caught me by surprise was the mode that melds FPS and MOBA together. This is set up exactly like a MOBA, with towers that need to be defeated in order for you to take over the enemies’ home base, with the minions being ‘friendly’ zombies that rush the towers. There’s even zombies that are literally called lane and jungle zombies, so there’s some interesting gameplay here for those that really want to delve into it, but you’ll need to suffer through the actual gameplay and myriad of problems to play it, or any mode for that matter.

If you’re unable to find a match online, as I was a handful of times, you can still play offline with bots, allowing you to earn experience and money, so you can grind easily this way if you don’t want the hassle of poor or laggy online gameplay to unlock all of your equipment.

Sadly, this is where I need to go through the laundry list of problems that I found with Dead Alliance that really drags down the whole experience, regardless of what mode or how much you try to enjoy its gameplay. Until you unlock the majority of the equipment and weapons, you’ll often find yourself overwhelmed with zombies, cornered without much of a way to fight back effectively. Even though the zombie AI is completely brain dead (maybe ironically by design), sometimes you can shoot your weapon and nearly everything in sight will start charging at you, other times you might shoot an LMG beside a pack and nothing will notice you (yes, this happened to me).

Presentation wise, many animations are either simply missing or poorly made. Zombies can attack you in close range seemingly without an animation showing them moving, while attacking with your melee knife isn’t a smooth experience, and if you try and vault over a hip-height ledge, you kind of simply slide and warp over it instead of seeing an awesome animation. This is very jarring, yet goes hand in hand with the incredibly low quality graphics that I would have expected to see last gen.

Hitboxes at times feel like they are completely broken, both for players and zombies alike. Many times I attempted to knife a zombie right in front of me, since that’s the best way to take them out, but more often than not nothing happened, the attack completely missing them. The same goes for players, as I’ll pump a clip of ammo into them, complete with a red cursor, yet they won’t go down. That’s also if you can manage to fight the poor controls. While I don’t advocate for mass auto aim on consoles, you become accustomed to it in every other shooter, but it’s not present here at all, so it takes quite some time to get used to it.

Sprinting seems to be completely random, as at times I'd seemingly run forever, while other times I'd be out of breath after a few moments. There’s no stamina meter displayed anywhere, so it’s difficult to judge how long you’ll be able to run away from players and zombies. Animations are probably one of the worst offenders, as the majority of them are very basic, or completely nonexistent, and it kind of takes away from the whole experience.

Just like Call of Duty, you can earn score streaks, many of which are tactical, such as radar for enemies and zombies, and there are even weapons you can deploy on certain parts of the map. The issue with this is that there’s no animation or indicator of such. You pick a zone of the map and someone will simply die if they are in range, so you can imagine how aggravating this is when it happens to you repeatedly, especially since score streaks aren’t challenging to obtain.

It’s a shame, as Dead Alliance has a really intriguing premise and idea behind it, as using hordes of zombies in your favor temporarily is kind of interesting and original, but there’s not enough emphasis to push that as its main focus. The MOBA-like gameplay is also really interesting, but not fully realized, as it nowhere does it teach you the mode and how to play properly.

With a myriad of issues, especially extremely outdated visuals and poor performance, sadly this is a very bland shooter with awful execution. Normally I don’t tend to focus on the negatives, but instead talk about what a game does well, but there’s simply not that much done well here aside from a neat idea with poor gameplay execution. At the end of the day, and like its enemies contained within, this game should stay dead like its zombies.

Overall Score: 3.0 / 10 Echoes of the Fey: The Fox's Trail

Many people enjoy massive open world games where they can explore to their hearts content with little direction of what to do and where to go. Then there are others, like myself, which enjoy simple and linear experiences now and then. Sometimes I want to sit on the couch and relax, not having to worry about shooting people online, racing against the pack of cars or futuristic vehicles, or solving mind bending puzzles. There’s a time and place for every type of game, and it seems Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail may have found a unique niche for a certain type of gamer.

Developed by Woodsy Studio, Echoes of the Fey is essentially a linear visual novel that you interact with, telling a story from point A to point B, though you are given some minor choices in between. Apparently this is only the first episode in a planned episodic series, which is obvious once you see the final dialogue that, when presented, sets up the next episode, whenever that may be.

Echoes of the Fey is incredibly rich in backstory and lore, to the point that you probably won’t have any idea what’s going on until you’re an hour or so into it. Doing my research, apparently there’s even a prequel episode that gives a little more backstory about the main protagonist, Sofya, which would have been a great inclusion in this release, as you’re simply thrown into the world of Oraz with a massive amount of information being hurled at you.

There was a war between humans and Leshin, an Elvin-like race, but it seems there is finally some peace in the land of Oraz, at least temporarily. Tensions are high and peace is clearly fragile at the moment when these two races are forced to interact with one another. You are Sofya, a human private investigator with a deep secret, working with her Leshin partner, Heremon. Together they are investigating the mysteries of their city, Vodotsk, when they are approached by a mysterious woman who asks them to search for her missing son, who she refuses to believe is dead.

During your investigation you’ll unearth many secrets throughout the pages and pages of dialogue that will eventually become a chore to read through. At certain points in conversations, you’ll be given dialogue options of what to respond with or how to react. I’m not sure if this changes the finality of the ending itself, as I believe it’s a set ending, but it gives you an illusion of gameplay. These dialogue options allow you to further interact with different characters, unearthing more information and exploring relationships with each character. It would have been helpful to have some sort of logbook to reference each character and Sofya’s direct relationship with them.

The overall story is much more involved and incredibly complex than what’s described above, but that’s the overall premise of the narrative for your motive and reasoning. There is so much dialogue and lore that you will most likely feel overwhelmed with all of the terminology, relationships, characters and more, I know I did. I can’t stress how dialogue heavy Echoes of the Fey is, which is normally a great feature, but I found it difficult to follow along at times. The fact that there are outside materials related to this story and characters should prove how in-depth the writing for the world of Oraz really is, and even though the graphics may appear amateur, the story is surprisingly a mature tale, even throwing some adult situations into the foray should you find them.

As for the gameplay, there really isn’t much, as this is more visual novel than “game”. Sure, you move Sofya across some 2D planes within the city, pressing ‘A’ when you want to enter one of the dozen or so buildings, but that’s really about all you’ll be doing when you’re not sifting through the pages and pages of dialogue. You are able to explore the few corners of the city of Vodotsk, though don’t expect to search for any collectables or secrets within. The core gameplay has you talking from one character to the next, trying to exhaust all the dialogue options with each person you come across, or simply hiding in the shadows in cat form.

Oh yes, Sofya can magically turn into a cat on demand, a secret that only her partner Heremon knows. He begs her to keep it from everyone else, as it will put her in grave danger if anyone found out about her powers. She’s a chirpy young woman though, not one to listen, and doing what she wants, so obviously she reckless and can wander around in cat form as well. Even though you have this power to shapeshift on demand, there’s only a handful of uses for it. Sometimes you’ll be able to only enter a building in cat form, sneaking through a window (via dialogue) so you can eavesdrop on the people inside. It feels as though this mechanic is simply thrown in and serves no real purpose in terms of gameplay.

There are a handful of sidequests that you can partake in should you wish, most of which are fetch quests and extended dialogue. These few quests add a little length to the game, but there’s no real reward for doing so unless you want more lore about the characters and world. Sure, you’ll earn a few coins here and there for doing so, allowing you to purchase a handful of items, like a wig or clothing dye, but these simply change Sofya’s cosmetic look ever so slightly.

I feel as though the developers knew that this was the story was extremely dialogue heavy, as there’s a button you can hold to fast forward dialogue boxes at an incredible pace should you desire. I didn’t expect a certain romantic path to be a viable option, but I guess I played my cards right, and low and behold, I found an extended scene with Sofya and partner in their underwear, with some very obvious clues as to what just occurred.

The more time you put into it, engrossing yourself into the lore, world and characters, the more you’ll get out of this game, just be prepared though, as it’s a lot of reading. To help combat this, there is some voice acting included, though I heavily want to point out “some”. For some reason certain sections of dialogue are completely voice acted, other parts with none, and some with just a few words. I don’t understand why the disconnect and inconsistency, and I highly believe that if the whole game was voiced, I wouldn’t have had such a hard time following along.

When you do have voiced dialogue, the voice acting fairly good for the most part, not what I expected from a smaller developer, which is why I was disappointed that the whole journey wasn't narrated. There were some other minor things that kind of bugged me, as some of the dialogue on screen were different words than what was being voiced, or one character spoke while the other was silent. Consistency, either way, would have helped with the immersion and believability. The animation for the characters when speaking is very limited, only having subtle movements and their mouths, which does not seem to be synced with their dialogue either.

Even though Echoes of the Fey only lasts a handful of hours, it felt a little too packed with lore at times. There’s so much dialogue included that it can be a slog to get through as you have so much to read, especially when sometimes it’s voiced for you and other times not. Given that the entry point has a low cost of $7.99, it’s worth a shot for those looking for a story with rich lore and backstory with the hopes of subsequent episodes in the future. If you’re big on reading fantasy novels then Sofya’s journey should intrigue you, but if you’re looking for interesting gameplay, or any gameplay for that matter, then you may want to skip this glorified visual novel.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 NASCAR Heat 2

I have to admit, I never found the appeal to watching NASCAR, aside from top 10 highlights, and of course the crashes. I completely understand the appeal to those who enjoy it, as well the complexity behind the sport, it’s just that it has never been my thing. I approached NASCAR Heat 2 with an open mind hoping to learn from my time with it. I did learn a bit about the sport from playing it, such as the plethora of actual real-life drivers, teams, and events. Even though I’m no expert on the matter, I do know that Nascar Heat 2 plays more like an arcade version of the sport than a simulation, despite its best efforts.

It’s no secret that Nascar has a huge following, as speedways are filled with fans every time I catch an see it on TV as I'm flipping channels on a lazy Sunday. While most will simply pass off the sport as ‘turning left’ repeatedly, there’s a lot of intricacies and strategy that goes into a race from a drivers perspective. You need to be mindful of your tires, cars around you, apexes and the angle of the banks of the turns, among other things. Developer Monster Games has attempted to improve on their last title, and in many respects they have, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough to sway people into the NASCAR world, especially given the grind the career becomes and the somewhat mediocre gameplay.

You’ll begin your career as a custom character, male or female, but don’t expect many options for face or body type. Now that I’m writing about it, you don’t ever really see your character from this point on, so I’m not sure why this is even an option aside from your portrait on a few menus. You also begin by designing your vehicle, including what stickers you want to plaster on it and where. Again, there are options here, and a handful of layers, but it’s basic overall, so don’t go in expecting Forza-like paint jobs or cool color schemes.

You begin as a nobody, obviously, and don’t even have a team to drive with, so your career begins racing a handful of Hot Seat races. These allow recruiters to see how well you drive, helping them to decide if they should offer you a spot on their team or not. Your first handful of races are not going to end well, so don’t expect the door to be knocked down with hordes of teams trying to sign you. Your goal is to do just well enough for a team to want to add you to their roster, thus your real career begins at that point.

You sign on the dotted line and you’re now an official driver in the Camping World Truck Series, revolving around driving trucks of course, not stock cars. Those come later; much later. You have the option to set races to full length or just a handful of laps depending on your preference and time constraints. This is a double edged sword, as fewer laps allows you to play more events, as the career mode is quite lengthy, but not doing full races will almost guarantee you’ll never finish in first, as you need a lot of laps to slowly inch your way up the pack.

You are given objectives over a set amount for races, like coming in better than 20th, placing in qualifiers and more. While it’s nice to complete these, there’s no real incentive to do so. Sure, you’re given a small amount of money for winning, but your bank roll literally has no use in this game, so I’m not sure why it’s even included, as you can’t spend it on anything.

You’ll eventually earn your way into the Xfinity Series, and even the coveted Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series should you not only prove yourself worthy, but manage to stick with the career mode grind long enough to do so. Becoming the overall champion will take dedication, as there’s a long length to the career, just not nearly as much substance though. There’s an attempt at trying to make things more interesting with a rivals system and short recorded messages from actual drivers, but it all comes off as a little bland in my opinion; however, I am sure true fans will enjoy this aspect.

You’d think that holding down the gas and tapping left now and then would be all it take to win, but the truth is you’re going to have to race a little dirty if you want to take advantage of the AI, which you will need to do at times as the AI can be downright unfair now and then. You’ll gain speed by drafting behind other drivers, though it’s very hard to slingshot past them, so you need to draft the car that’s two ahead of you if you want to make your way up the pack. That, or you could simply spin them out or push them into the wall with zero real consequences. That’s right, there’s no consequence for driving dirty. Sure, you’ll get the AI racers to hate you and try and take you out more often, but even then, feel free to drive as dirty as you wish.

It took me quite a few races to really get a grasp on the driving intricacies. The drafting mechanic is never really explained (but true fans will already know this tactic), and the moment you ease off the gas or hit the brakes, you almost instantly lose your position. I found that constantly keeping the accelerator pressed while tapping the brake slightly was the best option to keep up your engine revs and speed without slowing down too much. Of course, finding the optimal racing line plays a big part, as does the slope of the bank on turns, but be prepared for frustration until you learn how to keep your speed in the corners without crashing.

I’m glad the career is lengthy, but it felt almost daunting at times, as you aren’t really given a set end date for events ahead of time. I’m sure if you know how the sport works, and how it is scheduled, you’d have a better idea, but as someone that doesn’t know the sport too well, it simply felt like I kept racing for no real reason. If you’re content with racing over and over with no end goal, then you’ll feel right at home. It's not that I wanted some form of rubber banding, but one bad crash or rub and you practically lose all hopes of winning a race. The longer the races the more time you’ll have to move up, but it always felt like I was bounding around in the middle of the pack, never near the front.

There are 29 official tracks, and while that seems like a lot, they all feel very familiar aside from a few, like the infamous Eldora Speedway dirt track and road courses. Some tracks have tighter turns and higher banks, but they all are generally the same and don’t require much difference in racing strategy. The road tracks only tend to showcase the arcade-ness of the braking and controls, and while the dirt track is fun for a change, it feels like a completely different game when you’re constantly sliding and almost drifting when you’re not supposed to be.

There’s a number of other modes should you tire of career and want to attempt something different. Challenges is a mode that is quite interesting, especially for someone like myself that isn’t as very knowledgeable about the sport. Here you’re given a very specific task with a certain driver based on real life events that has taken place in NASCAR history. Finishing a race when you’re running out of gas, holding back a pack of racers, or coming from behind to win; these are just a few of the almost 30 challenges you can attempt. Your prize is a video showcase of what actually happened, complete with footage and interviews, something that I really appreciated as a non-fan, so I can imagine these would be quite cool for a real NASCAR fan to see (again).

There is a Championship mode should you want to jump right into a full season of the Camping World Truck series, Xfinity Series or Monster Energy series, being a part of the team that you choose. Essentially this is just career mode without the extra fluff, allowing you to focus on exactly what you want to play without having to grind your way to get there. Of course there’s also an option for Quick Play should you want to just jump in and start racing.

There is an online mode present, as well as a split screen mode for those times when you're sitting on the couch with a friend at home. In terms of the online mode, what caught me by surprise is the support for a full 40 players online in a single race. Granted, I’ve yet to find a lobby this packed, and after playing online with others, I would want no part of that disaster. Online is where you generally go to prove yourself, testing your skills against others online, rising up the leaderboards and playing with friends. Remember above when I mentioned there’s no consequence for driving dirty? The same applies here, so expect nearly every other human driver push, shove, and slam you into the wall to get past you. Given that there’s no reason not to drive dirty, every match I played ended up this way. Instead of proving your driving abilities, it degrades into who can cause the most havoc behind them. Sure, it’s fun with a friend or two, but the chances of you and 39 other people, friends and general public, all playing at the same time with a gentleman’s agreement to race proper most likely isn’t going to happen.

Lastly, given the point that we are in the life cycles of the consoles, I generally expect a racing game to look impressive, nowhere near Forza games of course, but racing games tend to generally take advantage of the hardware. Sadly this isn’t the case with NASCAR Heat 2. Sure, there’s some nice details, like the decals on the vehicles, but nothing here really impresses at all. Come to a complete stop and you’ll see some ugly looking textures and many jagged edges, which surprised me.

I do appreciate that a lot has been improved on from the last release, which should appease fans, but there’s simply too much grinding and blandness to the overall package for casual or non-NASCAR fans. I enjoyed the Challenges mode, almost using it as a NASCAR history lesson, but I‘m still baffled as to why I’m trying so hard to win money in career that has zero use, other than as a gauge of how much I’ve won to this point.

Fans of the sport will surely enjoy seeing their favorite teams and drivers, but there’s not much weight to that novelty here for the rest of us. I went into NASCAR Heat 2 with an open mind, hoping to be won over, and possibly even becoming a fan of the sport; neither of these really happened and I found that unfortunate. At the end of the day, NASCAR fans will find something to like here for sure, but for gamers as a whole, I'm not quite sure that this would fill their need for a racing game nor be an experience that would help them to understand, or even enjoy, what NASCAR may have to offer.

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Tricky Towers

Tetris is one of the most well-known games of all time. Its classic gameplay is as simplistic as it gets, and it has spawned countless iterations and knock offs, all trying to slightly modify the gameplay just enough for it to be different and fresh. Needless to say, when a Tetris-like game releases, I usually don’t take much notice, as we’ve seen it all before. That’s what shocked me about Tricky Towers though, it actually did change things up just enough to be interesting and capture my attention.

Tricky Towers is a byproduct of mashing up classic Tetris and Jenga. Jenga is all about building your tower as high as you can without it toppling while managing the constant fight against gravity. In Tricky Towers, instead of standard Jenga blocks you have the tetromino pieces we’ve come to expect from any Tetris game. The idea is very simple but it works, so not only are you trying to interlock tetromino pieces, but you also need to be mindful of the weight and placement of each piece, as gravity is a factor in your game.

Tricky Towers boasts itself as a multiplayer focused title, not something you see often in many smaller indie games, so it’s a very welcome addition. There is a single player component as well, should you want to relax and play at your own pace. The premise of Tricky Towers is simple: Build up your tower and try and topple your opponent’s, or challenge yourself in the puzzle mode, attempting to use every piece you're given without tipping your tower over.

Naturally, I started to play Tricky Towers simply as a Tetris clone, but there’s a few factors that differentiate itself as a simple knock off. The biggest mechanic you’ll need to become accustomed to is the movement of the pieces. In standard Tetris, each piece is made up of a formation of 1x1 blocks to create its shape, and when you move left or right, your pieces move 1 block exactly. Tricky Towers has half movements, so when you tap left on the D-Pad or the Left Stick, your piece will actually move half a block over. While this means you can make very precise and minor movements, you’re also going to make countless mistakes as you'll be slightly off when placing your pieces due to this. It’s not impossible to learn, but something you’ll constantly have to remember.

There’s a decent amount of gameplay to be had, even when playing solo, as the game has 50 increasingly difficult levels to tackle in Trial mode. There’s an endless mode to challenge you too, seeing how tall you can build your tower before it inevitably comes crashing down. Puzzle, Race, and Survival modes are the three included modes that will each offer a slightly different experience with widely different strategies. Single player is great if you’re just looking for a few minutes of gameplay, as completing a certain amount of levels will unlock the next tier of difficulty and more stages to complete.

Race mode is my personal favorite. This mode is simple in concept, as you simply need to beat your opponent to the finish line above. Different strategies are completely viable here; do you build slow and wide, making a sturdy base while slowly building upwards, or do you risk balancing pieces and soar towards the finish line, hoping your tower doesn’t come crashing down? Playing against the AI is one thing, but playing against another player makes it much more challenging and entertaining.

To make things more interesting there are power-ups that you’ll gain from reaching certain threshold heights. These power-ups give you an option of being helpful to yourself, or detrimental against your opponent, so you need to quickly weigh which option is better in that certain moment. Do you place an unmovable piece on your tower, creating an anchor-like base to build from, or do you use it against your opponent, causing one of his pieces grow 5 times in size, surely to make his tower crash. These moments are incredibly satisfying, especially once you see the chaos that ensues on your opponent’s tower.

There’s more than a dozen different powers to use, each of which have a very specific strategy. As you get near the finish line you'll find the match becomes very chaotic, as you not only need to build your tower high enough to reach the finish, you also need your tower to be stable enough to cross and stay up for more than 3 seconds. Do you take more time and build something structurally sound or risk it and hope that it’ll stand for a simple 3 seconds for the win? Using your power-ups at these times is a great way to start fights between friends!

Survival mode gives you a specific amount of bricks that need to be placed to win, but you only have three lives, which you lose each time a block falls into the abyss. The first few levels of Survival aren't too bad, as you’re not racing against an opponent, so you can be more deliberate with your placements, but eventually these stages become very challenging. Later levels eventually throw distractions at you, like smoke clouds that block your view, usually causing you to misplace your brick placement rather then putting it where you intended, or random pieces growing to 5 times the size, throwing off your perfect build. There are even Survival stages later on where every piece is locked, preventing you from any rotating, so there’s plenty of challenge to be had in this mode.

Puzzle Mode starts with a predefined platform, challenging you with placing every piece you’re given without any falling into the pit. Oh, but the most difficult thing about this mode is that there’s a laser above the platform, so every piece played must not fall and touch the laser, or you lose. You’ll need to figure out how to interlock each piece just perfectly to complete these levels, for as far as I can tell, there’s only one solution to each of these puzzle levels. They are designed quite well, and you feel a sense of satisfaction when you finally figure out the exact placement of each piece, but expect to be stumped on specific levels for quite some time before you figure out the solution.

Lastly, there’s Endless mode. Here you can attempt to build your tower forever, but every 15 seconds or so a new wave occurs, applying a modifier in attempt to make your tower come crashing down. Some of these modifiers will cause your blocks to fall incredibly fast, become huge pieces, lock the rotation and more. This mode is quite addictive, though a tough modifier will put your skills to the test.

All of the modes can be played across multiplayer as well, locally or online, which was a shock to see included. Up to 4 players can compete against one another, making for some chaotic gameplay. You’re able to choose your mode, difficulty, and number of rounds in a tournament. The only problem I found while playing online was that you have to completely back out to the main menu if you want to change the game mode or settings, prompting re-invites to all of your friends. Lastly, and somewhat unfortunately, there’s absolutely no one playing this online, as I’ve been unable to find a single random game every time I’ve tried, so unless you plan on playing local couch co-op, don’t expect there to be a community online playing.

I enjoyed seeing the online leaderboards, allowing one to see how they stack up against the competition. While the whole game is accessible, there are microtransactions in place in the form of skins for your pieces and character skins. Granted, these aren’t game changing, but it would have been nice to have been able to work towards these unlocks organically within the game itself.

Multiplayer is where Tricky Tower shines, causing some hilarity at the best of times, and anger directed towards your friends the other times. Sure, you’ll get frustrated now and then, as it’s sometimes hard to recover from a misplaced block, but that’s where the challenge comes for this game. Tricky Tower is quite 'tricky' to get the hang of, as it takes some time learning, and remembering, the ‘half’ moves the blocks make, and that these same blocks aren’t locked in place once they land. At the end of the day Tricky Towers can be an enjoyable experience, especially if you’re craving some Tetris-like gameplay with a unique twist.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 SEUM: Speedrunners From Hell

Speedrunning has become its own sector of gaming, even with games never intended to do so. There’s actually yearly charity events where gamers get together and speedrun through their favorite games as fast as they can for bragging rights (and charity). Look up nearly any game you can think of and there’s probably a speedrun for it on YouTube somewhere. There’s very few games that are actually based on speedrunning through it natively, but here we are with SEUM: Speedrunners from Hell, looking to change that.

It’s interesting to see a game that has speedrunning at its core, as usually it’s a byproduct of gamers eager to challenge themselves, so a game with a dedicated purpose of going through it as quick as possible should excel at it and have many features to showcase it above others then right? Well, mostly, in the case of SEUM. SEUM does as advertised, challenging you with completing levels back to back as fast as possible, constantly forcing you to be quicker and reacting with lightning fast reflexes. No matter how hard I try not to compare, SEUM constantly reminds me of Quake if it had a heavy metal backdrop and forced you to play as fast as possible, of course.

SEUM never takes itself too seriously, as its narrative is as silly as it comes. You’re Marty, a redneck, complete with trucker hat, relaxing at home with beers in hand. Suddenly his front door is smashed open and there before him stands the devil. Satan isn’t here for Marty though, he’s actually come to steal his beer. When Marty fights back his arm is ripped off, but before Satan can retreat with 6-pack in tow, Marty manages to cut off Satan’s arm in retaliation.

What would any respectable redneck do at this point? Obviously attach Satan’s arm to where yours previously was and follow him through hell to get your beer back! With demon arm now attached, Marty will run through hell to get his beer back, but you’re going to have to be incredibly quick and nimble with some crazy reflexes if you want that 6-pack back. As I said, it’s a crazy premise, but oddly enough it’s all that’s needed to make the gameplay meaning make some sense as to why you’re running through dozens of levels in hell.

Single Player mode is where you’ll likely start out, tasked with slogging through the dozens of levels, one by one, as they become increasingly difficult as quick as possible. To get through hell you’ll need to complete 10 levels before being able to use an elevator to go deeper into hell. Early levels will be very simple, only requiring minimal thought and skill, but eventually you’ll be retrying levels numerous times in effort to make the time limit.

Controls are very simple, as you can move with the sticks, jump with A, and Right Bumper for shooting fireballs from your demonic arm. Some levels will give you access to other abilities for said levels, such as anti-gravity, activated with the Right Trigger. Every level will have hazards all over, be it pits, spikes, blades and other dangers that you need to avoid. If you die, well, WHEN you die, you’ll need to restart from the beginning of that level and try again.

Your goal is to reach the blue portal at the end of each stage, though the real challenge comes in with the very strict time limits per stage that it has to be completed under. SEUM has speedrunning right in its title, so you better get used to going as fast as possible, as any mistake will be cause for a restart or quick death. Most levels will have you platforming from ledges to ledge, avoiding traps and pits, though some levels, especially the ‘boss’ stages that are more intricate and involved, requiring you to shoot fireballs at specific objects to unlock walkways or gates.

SEUM simply wouldn’t work if the controls weren’t on point, given that you have to be incredibly fast and accurate, thankfully this isn’t an issue for the most part, and any mis-shots or jumps are usually user error from overthinking or panic, not poor controls. You’re going to die, a lot, and retrying levels is simply part of the experience. I got into the habit of playing new levels a few times as slow as I could, just to memorize the exact pathways with what’s needed to be done before trying it at full speed. Luckily new powers are introduced at a decent rate, allowing you to learn them in progressively challenging levels to become accustomed with them, as you’ll need to link multiple abilities and movements together flawlessly to progress in the later stages.

Given that you’re playing in first person, there’s a sense of speed that, at times, can feel a little overwhelming at times. You’re constantly under pressure from the clock, and while you may simply be aiming for the par times to pass the stages, there are Uber times to beat if you’re truly a skilled speedrunner along with leaderboards.

The difficulty curve is pretty smooth overall, though there are a few levels that seemed to spike the challenge quite drastically out of nowhere. Sure, you’re going to become frustrated by replaying the same level a few dozen times, especially when many levels are well under 30 seconds long, even more so when you miss the par time by milliseconds, but the gratification comes from finally besting these levels and progressing.

Level design is quite clever, with stages becoming more intricate as you progress, offering new challenges, forcing you to think of how to make the smallest shortcuts to shave off precious time from your run. Leaderboards give you a great sense of how you compare to the best players in the community, though you’re going to need some serious skill and dedication if you hope to compete in any serious way. As much as you’d like to blame controls or poor design for failing for the hundredth time, it’s honestly just you, as I’ve not run into any unfairness, poor framerate or bugs to blame it on.

What would a game like this be without a matching heavy metal soundtrack to complete its setting? Audio is great, complete with metal riffs, though it would have been great to have some licensed classic metal music to go alongside. Visually nothing is going to impress, but given that levels only last from 10 to 30 seconds, and you’re moving as fast as possible, it’s not like you’ll have time to soak in the backdrops.

Should you manage to complete Single Player by some miracle, or simply need to take a break from a stage you’re stuck on forever, there are a few other modes included for you to become equally frustrated with, if not more so. Extended Play sounds as if these levels were originally a DLC pack of sorts, and these seem to have a slightly different feel to them when compared to Single Player. These levels are truly challenging and offer some slightly different gameplay.

Speedrun Mode is truly for the most dedicated, as you can retry sections and levels once mastered, aiming for the top speedrun spots on the leaderboard. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can even attempt to complete the entire game as fast as possible which will unlock an even more challenging mode. I don’t see many people being able to do so, but the challenge is there for those that dare.

Endless Mode is quite self-explanatory, as it’ll throw you into a randomized level that apparently never ends. I’d like to confirm this, but I’m lucky if I last 30 seconds in this mode. You see, there’s a grinder that chases behind you, constantly forcing you to move forwards as fast as possible, so there’s no time to sit and think of what to do next. This mode is great, but only after SEUM's gameplay becomes reactionary for you, as you won’t have any time to think; you simply need to instinctively react instead. This mode also has a leaderboard, so there’s more encouragement to stick with it, even after a few hundred attempts.

I really thought that SEUM was going to be a one-and-done for myself, but I find myself going back to it now and then to see if I can beat that level I was previously stuck on. Once you do conquer that level you thought was impossible, the gratification is satisfying. Given the first person view, at times it will be frustrating to not completely understand why you died, or thinking you jumped over a spike when you actually didn’t. It does have a learning curve to become proficient at its hectic gameplay, but you’ll eventually start to bypass obstacles without much thinking. When you chain together the perfect moves and barely scrape by the par time it feels very rewarding, more so if you manage to earn an Uber time.

I’m not usually one for very difficult or quick paced games, but SEUM is a solid representation of what speedrunners should be at its core. Gameplay is fast, challenging, fun, but more importantly, rewarding when you finally conquer that seemingly impossible level. Even though I’m not a competitive gamer by any means, SEUM’s leaderboards had me retrying levels many times to simply move up those rankings numerous times. If I had to search for complaints, I do wish there was a multiplayer mode, as going head to head with a friend online would have been a lot of fun. More so, I wish that I could download people’s ghosts from the leaderboards so I could watch how they somehow achieved their seemingly impossible times per level.

It’s going to take a lot of dedication and skill to get the most out of SEUM, but there’s a lot of content within for those willing to sink the time into speedrunning with the best of them. Sure at times it will become infuriating, and the narrative is silly at best, but as an overall package, SEUM more than delivers a true speedrunning experience. It’s not a matter of if you can complete the levels, it’s more if you can simply do it fast enough with its challenging-but-fair par times, constantly keeping you under pressure and forcing you to become a better player.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Cuphead

I grew up watching classic cartoons every Saturday morning. I not only loved what was new at the time in the 80’s, but I also enjoyed the classics that my grandma had which were on stacks of VHS tapes. Thanks to my grandma, I have very fond memories of old cartoons from around the 30’s era, such as Felix the Cat, original Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop and more. If you’re wondering why I’m referencing cartoons from nearly a century ago, it’s because the developers at Studio MDHR have essentially recreated the unique and distinct artwork and style from those classic cartoons.

Simply looking at Cuphead, I’m whisked back away to my childhood, waking up early to watch classic cartoons, popping in those VHS tapes I’d watched a million times. With that being said, there is no way around it, Cuphead will draw you in with its gorgeous visuals and art style. There is more here too, aside from pretty hand drawn graphics, as Cuphead has been a very long time coming for those of us anticipating it. There’s been a buzz for a few years about Cuphead, so I was cautiously optimistic, as I really didn’t want to be let down with something that I’ve been eagerly waiting to play this since I first saw it in 2014.

I’m happy to report that not only does Cuphead exceed expectations, but surpasses them in almost every way. A run and gun title at its core, with a boss rush mode, the graphics may look very friendly and inviting, but the gameplay is one of the most challenging, and rewarding, I’ve played in years. Cuphead isn’t just challenging though, it can be downright infuriating, yet I never wanted to completely give up, always coming back for more.

You’re going to have to have serious reflexes and think very quickly if you want to be able to progress through the numerous and wonderfully created stages and bosses. Prepare to have your patience tested though, as even the normal level of difficulty is sure to test your restraint in regards to wanting to throw your controller out the window. Even though this may sound like I didn’t enjoy my time with Cuphead, it was quite the opposite, and I encourage everyone to experience it simply for its creativity and beauty, even if the genre isn’t normally for you. It’s been a long wait, but it was certainly worth it.

Cuphead, along with his brother Mugman, live on Inkwell Isle. One fateful day they find themselves within the Devil’s Casino. Turns out they like to gamble, and they were on an insane streak. The Devil himself appears and makes them an offer that they can’t say no to: Win this next roll and double or winnings, lose and he gets their souls. Of course the brothers take the deal, and of course they lose the next roll. Now, they’re about to lose their souls to the Devil, but they manage to cut a deal with him, as they become essentially debt collectors for him. It’s a surprisingly dark premise given that the presentation is so light and welcoming. Few games have the charm that Cuphead possesses, and even less that can be simultaneously frustrating yet completely rewarding once you’ve put in the time to become proficient.

Not only is Cuphead, and all the game's characters, drawn wonderfully, but the world as a whole with its water colored and hand drawn backgrounds are too, and they all make for a complete package that’s easy on the eyes. Each world has its own theme, yet completely fits within Cuphead’s visual style regardless of the backdrop. Across all the levels, enemies aren’t recycled, so it’s obvious that a serious amount of time has been taken to make the exact game Studio MDHR wanted to create with crazy attention to the smallest details.

All of these beautiful visuals are capped off with an equally impressive soundtrack that also feels as if it was taken straight from the 1930’s as well. Not only does it have a vintage Jazz orchestral vibe to it, but it comes complete with the recognizable white noise of a record and scratches of the pin to further enhance the experience.

Cuphead is all about learning and memorizing attack patterns. Being able to recognize a slight visual clue as to what attack is coming next, then being able to react swiftly to avoid being hit, that’s Cuphead in a sense. Just like other challenging games, you’re going to have to learn from your many mistakes before you can become good enough to push onward. There’s no quick way around it, it’s simple trial and error, and Cuphead holds no punches with its difficulty. If you manage to complete Cuphead on Regular mode (there is a Simple mode for those wanting a slightly easier time, though this won’t unlock certain boss fights near the end) you’ll gain access to the Expert mode, which I can’t even fathom.

Level selection is done via an overworld map where you have some slight branching pathways allowing you to choose which level to attempt or what boss to challenge next. There’s the odd character littered throughout, usually offering a line or two of dialogue with some hints of how to progress.

Cuphead has the ability to parry certain attacks and projectiles coming at him, the catch is that they have to be specifically colored pink to do so. Parrying an attack not only allows you to avoid it from hitting your low health/point pool, but it will also give a small boost to your 'special' meter. There’s not many projectiles to parry during these fights, but doing so successfully can mean the difference between a death and restart as opposed to winning.

During certain levels, the run and gun stages to be exact, you’ll be able to earn a handful of coins if you’re able to collect them as you make your way to the end of the level. These coins become invaluable later on once you visit a shop, allowing you to purchase new weapons (fire modes) and other charm bonuses, such as an extra health for your health bar. There’s only a handful of different weapons, but each certainly has their time and place versus specific bosses. I’m partial to the homing shots that are weak but accurate, but there’s always a good time to use your spread shot as well. There’s no ‘right’ loadout, as you can complete the game with the standard shooter, though the different weapons allow you to cater to your playstyle.

There are essentially 3 types of levels you’ll play throughout your time with Cuphead, as you try and work your debt off. First are the run and gun levels. These are your standard platforming type of stages where you need to run left to right to reach the finish line. This is Cuphead though, and doing so isn't as simple as it sounds. There are no checkpoints, so when you ultimately die, you’ll need to replay the whole stage from the beginning. These stages are more for breaking up the monotony of boss fights and to collect precious coins for upgrades. While it’s good to have the regular boss battle combat broken up once and a while, these levels aren’t nearly as memorable, and they somewhat feel more like filler than anything else when compared to the amazingly crafted boss stages.

A handful of the boss fights will have Cuphead flying his trusty plane, allowing you to shoot forward and lob bombs. You can parry the pink projectiles in your plane as well, so make sure you keep an eye out. These stages, again, are not quite as good as the standard boss fights, but they are still enjoyable and incredibly challenging. In these stages, your powered up 'special' turns you into a bomb, allowing you to fly into any enemy you want for massive damage.

And finally, we have what Cuphead does best: Boss battles. The majority of Cupheads gameplay revolves around these boss fights. These are incredibly well designed and laid out that and it’s hard not to admire the artwork and thought that’s gone into every single one. These boss fights only last around 2 minutes or so, but that’s when you beat it, as the time I mention does not including the previous 20 minutes to an hour you’ve already spent repeatedly dying.

These boss fights are incredibly intricate and will go through certain phases once the boss is damaged enough. While you won’t see a health bar for the boss anywhere on the screen, you will see how far you progressed until its' demise, complete with phase markers. There are times where certain phases are chosen randomly, so there is some randomness to certain fights, which is both good and bad. Every time you manage to beat one of these huge bosses, you feel a huge sense of accomplishment, encouraging you to tackle the next one. I’m averaged about 2-3 bosses a night before calling it quits for the evening, though there’s no harm in playing for a prolonged amount of time either.

Cuphead has a brother, Mugman, so naturally this means that you can play local co-op with a friend on the couch (apparently online co-op is in the works, so here’s to hoping). You would assume that having twice the firepower would trivialize these fights, but honestly I found it even more chaotic and confusing with more happening on the screen at once. Should you or your friend die, you can bring them back to life by parrying their ghost before it floats off to the top of the screen.

I came away more than impressed with Cuphead, as it actually exceeded my expectations. Sure, there are a few things I could nitpick if I had to, like the lack of leaderboards, downloadable ghosts, or online play, but as a whole package, Cuphead more than delivers a unique experience, even if it is frustrating at times (by design).

There’s no doubt about it that Cuphead’s greatest strength is in its visual aesthetic. I simply want to smile whenever I see those retro 1930’s hand drawn graphics. Many times when I died I found it was because I was admiring something specific in the background, or the animations of the bosses. Cuphead looks, sounds and plays unique, and in the best ways possible. There’s nothing quite like it and I highly suggest you check it out, even if you’re normally not into very challenging games like myself.

Cuphead is going to be one of those games that many people recognize, even if they don't know its name or if they had played it or not, simply for its amazing artistic style; it’s that unique and should be applauded. It is one of those games that you can tell has been a labor of love, and by a very small team none the less, which makes it even more impressive. Stick with it and you’ll experience one of the most enjoyable titles in years, constantly challenging you but always a delight to play. I’m really hoping it does well, as I want a sequel one day, and hopefully by then I’ll have finally mastered Cuphead and bested every boss.

Overall Score: 9.7 / 10 Surf World Series

I’ve played two surf games in my whole life before receiving Surf World Series to review: T&C Surf Designs and California Games, both were classic NES titles. That shows you how few dedicated surf games are out there. There have been a few odd ones that have released over the years, but given that it’s such a niche sport and audience, I can see why it’s never hit mainstream. I’m sure the sport as a whole is huge in its own circles, and developers Climax Studios hopes to cash in on its sectioned popularity. I won’t pretend to know much, if anything, about surfing, and given that I’m not even able to swim, I’ve never pursued it much either, so I was curious to play the game and maybe even learn more about the sport.

Upon starting Surf World Series, you’re thrown into the tutorial mode, as you’re going to need to take some time to practice how to maneuver properly on a moving wave. The basic controls work fluidly, though it took me some time to get used to the design decision that pressing right on the stick moves my surfer to the right of the screen, not necessarily to their right (as you face the front of the surfer). You’ll learn how to paddle and get momentum to stand up on your board, move across, and up and down the waves, and of course you'll learn how to do awesome tricks once you catch some air off the crests. Training takes some getting used to but you’ll be fine until you need to link a certain amount of combos together (repeated tricks back to back reset your counter).

Once you grasp the controls, you begin the campaign, though don’t expect any sort of narrative about working your way up from an amateur to a pro, as it’s simply a series of 40+ quick events in succession across a small handle of event types. There’s essentially only three types of events you’ll compete in: survival, where you need to simply last without crashing into the wave, championship, which has you needing to break a specific score barrier to succeed, and battle, where your average score is taken over a set time. It sounds basic because it is, and survival is simply beating the boredom of the timer, as you can crash quite easily if you don't have a handle on the game controls.

You’re able to customize your surfer to your liking as well, though you’re only given a couple of choices to choose from, both male and female. You’re also able to change your outfit with a handful of options as well, choosing from different tops, bottoms or wetsuits. There are a decent amount of patterns to suit your style, and you’re also able to choose different colors and hues. The more you play and progress through the game the more different patterns for the clothing you unlock. It’s very minor, but at least there’s something for you to constantly work towards aside from the campaign progress.

For being a game based on, and in, water, I was hoping to see some amazing looking water systems with unique physics. Very few games have gotten water to look very realistic, even less has it interact in a realistic way as well. Unfortunately the water in Surf World Series looks and reacts mediocre at best. There isn’t much detail in the crests of the waves, or mist of the water, so it was a little disappointing considering it should have really been the showcase of a surf based game.

You’ll travel the world across different locales, though each of the counties don’t feel any different aside from the slightly different backdrops. Brazil, USA, Portugal, Australia and more are a few of the places you’ll surf at, but again, each looks exactly the same as the rest, so don’t expect varying scenery from one country to the next. Your camera viewpoint is constantly facing towards you, looking out to the sea, so it would have been nice to see other views of the closely approaching beach to change things up.

As a whole, there’s a constant surf vibe to the overall package. The menus have gorgeous sunsets and a warm pallet, looking like photos with filters you’d take on your phone. Musically, the game also has the whole surf vibe as well, with calming soft rock. It would have been nice to have some popular licensed music that I’d recognize, but even audibly there’s a warm feeling to the game as well.

The tutorial will give you the basics of how to perform tricks once in the air, but it will take some time to really grasp how to do it naturally, without having to think about it ahead of time. Essentially, you need to queue up your tricks ahead of time and you only have a short period before you launch off the lip of the wave, as it will automatically perform the trick based on the combination of buttons you press beforehand.

It’s a little odd that spins midair are performed with a pre-queued bumper press instead of rotating the stick, and perfect landings are based on a button press as well. You can add grabs to your tricks with button presses mid-air, but it adds a little more complexity, as you’re going to need some finger dexterity to string together tricks before the combo meter ends. I was quite good at doing complex tricks in Tony Hawk games, but doing them in Surf World Series seems much more complicated than it needs to be with the pre-loaded moves while having to avoid the crashing waves.

What really surprised me was that there’s an online mode for you to compete with your friends. After 2 days of trying I’ve been unable to find a single person playing online, so don’t expect to find much competition unless you have a friend that’s also going to pick it up. I applaud the effort made, but from what I can tell, there’s essentially no community playing this in any substantial way to be meaningful.

Surf World Series sets out what it intends to, as it’s a surfing game meant for fans of the sport. Is it going to have broad appeal to the masses that don’t surf? Probably not, as its counter intuitive controls tend to hold it back, even though the overall theme has the perfect surfer vibe to it. After an hour or two of gameplay, you’ll have experienced everything Surf World Series has to offer. There’s only a handful of achievements to be had and the career progression is about as bland as it comes. It may be a decent title for those specifically looking for a surfing game, but that’s a very narrow and niche market. If you’re not in that very precise demographic of the targeted player then there’s not much here for you aside from a slight distraction for a few hours of awkward controls.

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 KILLING FLOOR 2

I believe I’m in the minority, but I’ve never really enjoyed the Zombie mode from the Call of Duty series for a number of reasons, so I was a little weary about Killing Floor 2, as I assumed it would be very similar. Turns out my tepidness was unfounded, as Killing Floor 2 plays much more like a bloody version of Horde mode from Gears of War than anything else. It’s no secret that the zombie genre has been overdone in the past few years, so to stand out amongst the crowd is becoming increasingly difficult. I honestly expected to be let down with this game, if not just for the stigma of the genre, but I came away quite surprised, as I’ve put quite a few hours into it and keep going back for more, despite its flaws.

The original Killing Floor originally began as a mod for Unreal Tournament and became so successful that Tripwire Interactive was requested to create it as a standalone game. This was around the time of Left 4 Dead’s popularity, so it was a fine alternative. Having released on PC and Playstation 4 last year, Xbox owners were left out of the loop, but Xbox's time has finally come, complete with exclusive content and further graphical updates once the Xbox One X comes out later this year.

Killing Floor 2 is primarily a multiplayer focused affair. I guess technically there’s a story somewhere buried in the game’s lore or wiki, but you won’t find it anywhere within the game. Essentially zombies have taken over the world, an overused trope sure, and your team must survive the oncoming waves of nearly endless Zed’s. That’s about it for its narrative, which is fine in this circumstance, given that its focus is solely on being a multiplayer shooter. Would I have liked at least a little effort taken into some type of story to ties everything together, giving you a reason why? Sure, though most would have probably not paid much attention to it anyways, to get right into the combat.

Killing Floor 2 has three separate game modes: VS Survival, Weekly, and its main focus, Survival. Survival has up to 6 players cooperatively trying to survive 10 waves of enemies, culminating with a challenging boss fight at the end. VS Survival is 6 vs 6 teams of humans and monsters battling against each other if you want to scratch that PvP itch. Lastly is Weekly, which is a more challenging mode that changes every week, so it’s worth coming back and checking it out every so often.

Survival Mode is Killing Floor 2’s bread and butter, playing much like the coveted Horde mode from Gears of War. Usually these modes are a bonus from a larger scoped game, but this is what Killing Floor 2 has based the bulk of its gameplay on. I thought I would grow tired of the same gameplay repeated over and over, and to be fair, I did at times, but yet I kept coming back for more to either level up one of my classes or to try out a completely new one.

Early waves begin with only a handful of simple Zed’s to kill, with each wave becoming increasingly more difficult in terms of sheer numbers and harder enemies. There is only a handful of enemies you’ll encounter, so once you learn the best strategies to defeat them, you won’t have to worry about any crazy surprises from new enemies once you’ve seen them all. I do wish there was some more variety of enemies, but there are different types, such as bloaters, spitters, crawlers, brutes, witches and more Left 4 Dead-esque zombies.

What I enjoyed the most from Killing Floor 2 is its class system. There are 10 separate classes to choose from, much more than I expected, each of which are unique and feel balanced with their own strengths and weaknesses. A few of the classes feel very unique, and add strength to the overall party, but you’ll need to make sure you balance out your team to cover all the bases, as each class has specific strengths and weaknesses against certain enemy types. Personally I favor the Medic, being able to heal my teammates with darts and heal grenades, but many people seems to enjoy the Sharpshooter, Demolitions, Support, Pyro and others. It’s all about finding the class that suits your play style best and what works for a cohesive team composition.

The XP system is clever, as you earn XP for killing Zeds, obviously, but your class’ level is based on the weapon you’re using. As a medic I prefer using my Medic specific weapons, as this will level my Medic class, but at any time I can pick up a sniper and start to level my Sharpshooter, for example. So, even though I’m playing the Medic class, I can earn XP in any other class based on the weapon I’m using, though I won’t get to use my secondary abilities, like my healing, while using a weapon outside of my class.

As you gain XP you’ll level up, with every 5 levels allowing you to choose one of two perks for that particular class. These perks allow you to customize your class even further, being able to swap between them freely as you begin matches to better support your team. For example, as a medic I can choose to heal more and buff speed or I can choose more survivability for myself. These perks start to make a huge difference as you reach maximum level, as you’re rewarded for sticking with a class and becoming proficient with it.

As you complete each wave, you’ll be instructed with a visual indicator where the nearest Pod is. These Pods allow you to spend in-game cash, called dosh, you’ve earned from killing enemies and supporting your teammates. You spend your dosh on armor, ammo, and weapons of your liking. You can upgrade your simple pistol or buy much more powerful weaponry, but the most powerful weapons obviously cost more, forcing you to save more across waves. Luckily you’re even able to dish out your dosh to teammates should they be low on funds and in need of upgrade purchases. You only get a short amount of time to make your purchases, so you need to be quick with your choices. Luckily there’s an option for quick upgrades by holding ‘B’ if you want a suggested upgrade path with the amount of money you currently have.

On the final wave (wave 10) you’ll have to face off against one of two bosses, with some minor enemies sprinkled in to make the experience more chaotic. You’ll battle against the hulking Patriarch, a return from the first game, or against Dr. Hans Volter, a mad scientist that looks like a cross breed between Edward Scissor Hands, Freddy Krueger and Bane. Patriarch can absorb a mass amount of damage, turn invisible and tries to flee to regenerate. Dr. Volter can spew cluster bombs all around him, causing massive damage if you get caught within the explosions. Each boss can be lethal very quickly, requiring specific strategies to defeat. It’s a shame, and quite a detriment, that there’s only two bosses that you’ll ever encounter, as you’ll get a sense of repetition when it comes time to battle them once again.

Along with your class, you’re also able to choose your character skin and cosmetic items. There’s not much selection, but at least there’s something to choose from. You’re able to purchase packages of cosmetic clothing should you desire to stand out amongst the crowd, but there’s no way to earn currency from simply playing, so you’re going to need to open your wallet if you want to look special. The issue that irks me the most is that you’ll also earn chests that can be unlocked that contain weapon skins and other goodies, but there’s no way to earn these keys by simply playing the game. This forces you to purchase keys with real money if you want to open these chests and get the rewards. Granted, the rewards are cosmetic, but even a steep treadmill of grinding would have been an acceptable way to slowly earn keys without having to use microtransactions. Oh, and these keys are $2.50 a pop; no thanks.

While there is a single player mode for you to play should you lose your internet connection, or want to learn the maps, you essentially need to be connected at all times. There’s also no campaign of any sorts to speak of, so as long as you know that Killing Floor 2 is a multiplayer only focused shooter, you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into. The forceful key purchases only reinforce the view that many have of microtransactions, as there should have been some way to earn keys, even incredibly slowly, simply my playing. That being said, even though there are some faults to be found, and only two bosses included, I’m still enjoying my time within. Killing Floor 2 feels much more cooperative focused than other Horde-like games, contains a healthy amount of maps, and a large class selection that you’ll surely find a good fit for your playstyle. Faults aside, this isn't a that bad of a game at all, and worth a close look.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 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 Ha