Total Reviews: 360
Average Overall Score Given: 7.37917 / 10
Total Forum Posts: 14151

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 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 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 Hard mode. Just be sure you don’t rely on it too greatly, or else you won’t have any bombs left when it really matters, namely against bosses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Sublevel Zero Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 A Pixel Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Chime Sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Vaccine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Typoman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Vertical Drop Heroes HD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 iO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Halo Wars 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Uncanny Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 6.2 / 10 Sun and Moon, The

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Kill the Bad Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Metrico+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Nevermind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Crypt of the Serpent King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 4.3 / 10 Feist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Castle Invasion: Throne Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Wick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While at its core you’re simply running away from anything that spawns in front of you, riding out a clock full of jump scares, Wick still does the job at being creepy. Some playthroughs I had no problem surviving or becoming scared, while others made me jump every few minutes. Again, yes I know I’m a wimp, but Wick does a great job of immersing you into a lonely and terrifying forest, knowing you’re being hunted at every moment. While it won’t command many hours of gameplay, it’s a fun little divergence if you’re looking for something different, or even better, something to stream and show how much of a wimp you are to your Twitch followers.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Bombing Busters

Some of my fondest memories in gaming are those of when I was playing Bomberman with a group of 3 or 4 friends on the SNES with a multitap, a peripheral that allowed up to 5 players to play simultaneously on supported games. Back in those days, getting more than 2 players in a game was something special, as it required a separate hardware purchase for the small handful of games that actually supported it. We may take it for granted these days, but getting together in the same room with a group of friends to play game on the same screen made for some great gaming memories that I’m glad I remember.

So, why the Bomberman reference? Well, Bombing Busters for the Xbox One is clearly inspired by that classic multiplayer game, and I’d even go as far to say it’s a straight up clone. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so developers Sanuk Games must have absolutely adored Bomberman, because that’s essentially the same experience you’re getting here, and not that that’s a bad thing, and it even tries adding a few new features to make it stand out. But does it escape the shadow of one of the classics?

You play as a simple robot, created by Dr. Wallow for one reason: To use your bomb capabilities to destroy alien worlds and take over the galaxy. It sounds more nefarious than it really is, but I guess when you look at it, you are blowing up any lifeforms you come across. Thankfully, Dr. Wallow has a sense of humor, as does Bombing Busters as a whole, and you’ll hear a lot of one liners throughout, some of which are quite comical.

If you’ve never played Bomberman before, shame on you, it’s a classic. The general gameplay revolves around placing bombs through a grid-like map. Some barriers can be blown up while others can’t. You’re allotted 5 minutes per stage to clear out all of the enemies, and blowing up the blockages will net you a multitude of different power-ups to make your bomb-focused life much easier.

The most common power-ups will increase your bomb length, the amount of bombs you can place at once, and speed increases. You’ll randomly find other power-ups that allow you to kick bombs, throw them, set them off remotely whenever you desire, and even walk through them as if they don’t exist. I know, you’ve played Bomberman before and this all sounds familiar, and it is, but what starts to set Bombing Busters apart is the enemies and sheer difficulty compared to the classic.

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve played this type of game, but Bombing Busters has quite a spike in difficulty even during the first handful of stages. Starting enemies are dumb and slow, but they will eventually do everything they can to avoid your bombs, even knowing to hide around the pillars that can’t be destroyed. This forces you to search for some power-ups and think of some other strategies given that you only have 5 minutes per level. Eventually enemies will try to hunt you down and even spit projectiles at you.

There are 5 worlds and each one consists of 5 stages, with a big boss to battle at the end of each world. These bosses are no joke, and even the first boss took me easily a hundred or so tries to defeat. You’re given a specific set of power-ups and their attacks change during the battles. The bosses vary and they become more and more challenging as you get to their respective worlds. Just be ready to die multiple times when attempting them, but luckily you’re able to skip ahead to the next world if the bosses are simply too much for you at the time.

As for how it looks, Bombing Busters essentially an updated Bomberman. The artwork is clean and each world has its own theme to it, sadly the level layouts are all the same rectangular grids though with no variety aside from the enemies on the screen. On one world you’ll blow up icicles, and then the next world will be bushes or rocks, that’s really the only variety aside from the backdrops. As for the audio, there’s a generic tune that simply repeats, so turn on your own music and enjoy some bomb busting to your favorite tunes instead.

Two things I really enjoyed was that every time you die and have to restart the level the layout of where the blocks and enemies are changes, so there’s no memorizing specific levels as it’s always different. Oddly enough, I also really enjoyed the tips that are displayed during the loading screens, as they are usually witty and hilarious. For example, here’s my favorite one: "Pro Tip: Read the Pro Tips." Small touches like this give Bombing Busters a little heart and make it feel like not so much of a clone.

What would a game like this be without multiplayer, and like I said earlier, I’ve made some great memories with friends in the past, gathering together around a single screen, but times have changed. Online multiplayer is more prevalent and is really the only way I manage to game with my friends anymore, so I was saddened to see that only local multiplayer was included. Granted, if you have the capabilities (and friend count) to support a gaming night at your house, Bombing Busters is a fun way to host some 4 player mayhem, and no multitap purchase is needed anymore.

If you grew up with Bomberman, and love the gameplay, Bombing Busters is an easy sell, especially for its cheap asking price and interesting gameplay elements such as the very challenging boss levels and a sense of humor. While it may be a very heavily inspired title, that doesn’t take away from its fun and frantic gameplay, even if the difficulty is much higher than I expected and many may see it as only a substitute for the classic it draws inspiration from.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Nebulous

I love me some puzzle games, and if it’s physics based, even better. Sometimes I grow tiresome of the same shooters and “big” games out there and I simply want to unwind by challenging my mind instead. Enter Nebulous, created by Namazu Studios. With a simple setup and premise, Nebulous will throw one puzzle at you after another, as fast as you can solve them. Be warned though, some of the puzzles become quite challenging, and simply understanding everything you need to do in succession is only half of the solution, as you’ll still need to actually solve it afterwards.

The story begins as Dash Johnson is minding his own business during a routine spacewalk, when suddenly he gets sucked into a black hole of some sort. This black hole warps him to some far distant region in space where he’s now powerless to do anything and has to rely on you, the player, to get him home back safely somehow. To do so you’ll need to ensure that he gets from point A to point B, but only with the specific tools you’re given in each puzzle, all of which are physics and gravity based.

You play as some sort of God figure, placing and moving pieces so that Dash can be guided to the next checkpoint, thus moving onto the next puzzle. You’ll need to pay special attention to the direction of gravity, momentum, and the tools at your disposal to guide him safely, albeit with many bumps and bruises along the way, hopefully finding a way home in the end. But Dash has a sense of humor and will mock you when you mess up, sometimes a little too much, though some of the lines are worth a good chuckle.

Even though you’re in space, the playfield takes place in a cube-like structure. Think of the sides of dice, but only a singular one. Early Levels are somewhat easy, only having you playing on a single face of that cube, but eventually the sides will link together as you solve up to 5 different sides for a single level. For example, if Dash falls into a yellow wormhole he’ll come out the other end, which is usually on a completely different side of the cube. In this playspace you need to make it to a different colored wormhole, which will bring you to yet another side to solve. Eventually it becomes incredibly challenging even to simply figure out where Dash will exit once he enters one of the worm holes.

The first thing that came to mind when playing Nebulous was that this game would be amazing in VR, and oddly enough, it was designed with that in mind, but alas the Xbox One version has no support for this. On each puzzle you are given specific items that you can place wherever you like, such as conveyor belts, rocks, blocks, gravity fields, and other things. You’ll want to note which way the gravity is ‘flowing’ on each play field too, as it’s always from top down in the beginning, but it can be any direction in the later stages making for some “why didn’t I see that before” moments.

Whenever you think you’ve placed your items in a way to guide Dash to the exit, you'll let him out of his box and watch him fall and bounce, hopefully to the end. And when, not should, you make a mistake, you can instantly cancel his freefall and move any pieces you wish before trying again. Also, when you fail, Dash will let you know about it, not pulling any punches about your intelligence, or a lack of such.

A good puzzle game needs a steady difficulty curve, one that teaches you as you go and allows you to learn and adapt to the new mechanics that are introduced. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here as you’ll be randomly thrown new objects without any idea how they work. There’s one stage where switches are introduced, and it took me a good half hour to figure out why I couldn’t beat the stage, only to learn I needed Dash to fly over the switches in a specific order first. My problem was that I thought they were mines, so I avoided them until I became frustrated at why I wasn’t able to figure it out.

Once you learn a new mechanic you would think that things become easier with your newfound knowledge, but wow, Nebulous doesn’t like to hold anything back, and the challenge just increases exponentially as you progress. Factor in that you’ll eventually be playing stages on 5 different 'cube walls', it can become overwhelming quite quickly if you’re new to the genre. The addition of a fast forward is very welcome, so that you don’t have to wait and watch Dash bump and fall over again for the twentieth try.

As Nebulous a physics based game you can simply 'brute force' your way to a solution if you want, trying a specific placement of items, see how Dash reacts, then adjust over and over, but the levels rank you with a star system, and if you use a lot of time and attempts, you won’t receive many stars. Granted, these stars aren’t tied to any progress, but getting more than a single star on levels requires some serious problem solving skills along with incredibly fast thinking.

Sure the premise is silly (gravity in space?), but Dash’s constant insults make what could have made a very dull puzzle game into a somewhat interesting one. There’s barely any audio, playing into the space theme I assume, so prepare for a very tranquil experience, that is as long as you can hold your rage back during the umpteenth attempt at a level. Nebulous is hard, quite challenging in fact, that you may want to break your controller at times. While it never feels unfair, it does a great job at making you feel stupid, which actually is half of its charm. Overall it's not a bad game, just be prepared for a challenge as you need to really think many of the included puzzles through.

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Gas Guzzlers Extreme

Truth be told, for how long I’ve been doing game reviews, I can generally get a good sense of how I’m going to enjoy it even before playing it after watching and reading up on it. Sometimes I’m dead on and know I’m not going to enjoy a game, and other times I’m taken completely by surprise. Case in point, I initially thought Gas Guzzlers Extreme was going to be a play once and be done with it type of game, but alas, it took me by surprise and I ended up enjoying much more than I initially thought I would. While it has its shortcomings, it brought me back to the days of playing arcade combat racers that paved the way like Carmageddon and Twisted Metal.

For fans of the arcade style of racing, Gas Guzzlers Extreme may not be the most known out there, but it has a lot of potential fun behind the wheel. You won’t be worrying about realistic physics, but instead trying to blow your opponents up so you can be first across the finish line, or the last one left in the race. Vehicular combat isn’t anything new, but Gas Guzzlers Extreme tries to do it with a sense of humor, poking fun at itself in a Duke Nukem or hilarious Arnold parody voice, which I’ll explain shortly.

Career mode is where you’ll be spending the bulk of your racing time, revolving around you earning point sin events to eventually becoming the top earner on the leaderboard. There are multiple types of races and events to participate in, some of which will earn you more or less points based on your standings at the end of each. The more dangerous the events, especially the ones with weaponry, the more points potential you can earn, whereas standard races are less risky, but you earn less rewards as well.

It takes a while to earn enough points to make your way to the top of the leaderboards which then grants you access to the final tournament, consisting of one of each type of event. Win those and you earn your reward for that whole tournament, moving onto the next and unlocking new rewards and events. Given that you can choose the type of event you want to participate in every time, the career doesn’t feel very structured, as you simply need to grind out enough races until you reach the needed points to try and win the cup. This causes repetition to kick in, and while there are the odd special events that pop up here and there, I didn’t really enjoy most of these one-off events like capture the flag, but at least there’s an attempt to break up the monotony.

I was surprised at how well the game controlled. Sometimes with smaller name racers the steering mechanics can be all over the place, usually more frustrating than fun, but that’s not the case here with Gas Guzzlers Extreme. Don’t expect any type of simulation racing, but the cars handle well, can be upgraded, and you’ll unlock better cars to purchase the further you progress.

You’ll earn money for not only winning, but destroying opponents, smashing objects, and even squishing chickens. There are even random subquests in each event for you to try and complete for a chance at earning even more money, like destroying a certain amount of enemies with mines or making sure a certain racer doesn’t place in the top 3. As you start winning events you’ll unlock new car decals, parts, and even cars for purchase, and eventually you’ll have so much money in the bank that you won’t have any issues affording any upgrades or new cars after a few hours of play. Start winning enough races in a row and sponsors will want you to race for them, giving your car a special paint job and letting you earn even more bonus money. Once you start losing though, no one will want you to represent them and you’ll be back on your own.

You’ll become very familiar with the tracks, not only because you’ll be racing on them numerous times repeatedly, but because there’s only a handful of them. After a dozen races or so on the same track, it can become a little tiresome, but this is also how you learn the best shortcuts in each map. There are different themed tracks, some more confined while others are a little more open, but you’ll be more focused on destroying your opponents and trying to make it to the finish line rather than taking in the sights.

Speaking of your opponents, the AI does a decent job at playing at your skill level. While it does seem like there’s a bit of unfair rubber-banding at times, the AI can sometimes be very ruthless, trying to ram into you at every opportunity or gunning right for you. The constant adjusting of the AI means that no race is a shoe-in and it always feel frantic, even on the easiest setting. To win races you’ll need plenty of nitro, and to earn it you either need to grab the power-ups littered throughout the track or by destroying objects and eliminating your opponents.

Given that this is a combat racer, what kind would it be without an arsenal full of deadly weaponry? You can equip shoguns, machine guns, and even rocket launchers based on your preference. Each has pro’s and con’s, and some can even shoot backwards if you tend to always be in the lead. Ammo needs to be refilled which is done by collecting the appropriate power-up during the races, or purchasing a refill in the garage between events. As you race you’ll pick up other special one-time use items like shields, mines, smoke clouds, and more. I wish the game had an introductory tutorial that explained everything though, as it took a few races to figure out what icons meant what and how to use your items properly. To be honest, I still don’t know how to tell when I’m close to out of ammo for my main weapon, so it shows that it’s not always explained very well.

Gas Guzzlers Extreme really sets itself apart from others in the genre with its humor though. Sure a manchild like myself can’t stop but giggle at the announcer with a terrible Arnold voice doing terrible one-liners, but it’s funny and something you don’t see in this type of genre often. Sure the lines get repeated after a while, but it’s still entertaining none the less. Also, you’ll notice that the AI opponent’s names are terrible puns, like Lou Briccant, Otto Mobile, and Alotta Fagina among others, but someone immature as myself will get a chuckle out of them.

Normally this is where I would talk about multiplayer, and while its PC release included it, it’s sorely lacking from the Xbox One edition for some reason. Given that the career mode does become repetitive and mundane after a half dozen hours, multiplayer could have added more value and longevity, but it’s nowhere to be found unfortunately, which is a huge mark against it.

As I said before, I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I was about to start Gas Guzzlers Extreme, but I enjoyed it much more than I initially expected. It has flaws, like a missing online multiplayer component, but it’s a fun way to spend a half hour or hour here and there. Playing for hours at a time will become tiresome, but it’s a great title to play in some downtime. While it’s not going to go down in the history books in the genre amongst the greats like Twisted Metal and Carmageddon, it’s immature and over the top, which is what you sometimes want in a combat racer once in a while, much like your favorite fast food that you know you shouldn’t eat, but you enjoy when you do.

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Slain: Back from Hell

That’s it, I’m tapping out. I’m not normally one to give up so easily on difficult games, but man, Slain: Back From Hell is punishingly difficult. Originally a PC release, Slain has been improved from its initial poor reception, fixed, re-tweaked, and improved upon and now released on Xbox One. So do all these improvements make for a much better game? Yes, but with a caveat; it’s still frustratingly difficult, almost to the point of being unfair.

I grew up with old school Nintendo games, known for their brutal difficulty, but when I was a kid back then I didn’t mind the challenge of playing over and over. Now that I’m older and have specific tastes, I find the very challenging games frustrate me when it feels unfair. Dark Souls, known for its difficulty, at least does a great job of teaching you from your mistakes. Slain on the other hand just makes you bash your head against the wall until you figure out how to beat a specific section, enemy, or boss.

What is Slain: Back from Hell? Well, if your favorite heavy metal band and Castlevania had a baby, Slain would be the result. Inspired by classic metal music and artwork, along with traditional side scrolling gameplay, Slain has some of the best retro pixel artwork I’ve seen in quite some time, along with an original metal soundtrack that completely fits the mood and setting perfectly.

You play as the hero Bathoryn, awoken from a deep slumber by a spirit, informed that the land weeps and that he must destroy foul demons that have awoken. Thus begins your journey of vanquishing thousands of demons that stand in your path.

If you haven't played the original release on PC, Slain is essentially a take on Castlevania, a sidescroller with a heavy metal soundtrack and gothic theme. The first thing you should know is that Slain is incredibly difficult, so if you’re hoping for an easy playthrough, or completing it at all, you might want to look elsewhere. Even though there wasn’t enough checkpoints in the original release, there are definitely more in Back From Hell, but it’s still punishingly difficult.

You’ll be fighting against skeletons, rats, demons, ghosts, and more along your journey. Bathoryn himself is a muscular long haired dude that wields a giant two handed sword and head bangs whenever he defeats a massive boss, all while a heavy metal soundtrack plays in the background, recorded by Curt Victor Bryant of Celtic Front fame.

Gameplay will bring you back to the glory days of Nintendo and Genesis games akin to Castlevania and Altered Beast where there isn’t many button commands to memorize, but mastering them will take dedication and skill. While there’s not much variety in your attacks, the combat can feel satisfying when the game isn’t trying to be unfair. When you die, and you will die hundreds of times, you simply have to figure out what works and what doesn’t, hoping to learn from your mistakes. There’s absolutely no hand holding here aside from telling you the basic controls, after that you’re left on your own to survive and fight your way through hell.

Rapid presses of the attack button allow you to perform a combo, and holding it can charge up a special attack that can be devastating when released, but you need to master the timing, as it cancels if held too long and you’re unable to move when charging as well. You’re able to block attacks to reduce damage, and if you master the timing, you can actually parry enemies, opening them for a critical attack. Bathoryn also has the ability to use magic, shooting enemies from afar, but only in short amounts, as your mana bar is quite small. He is also able to dodge backwards with a tap of the Left Bumper, but it takes getting used to, as it’s only a leap backwards, so you have to be aware of which direction you’re facing when using it.

I found relying on blocking wasn’t advised, as you still take damage, and eventually there are too many enemies coming at you that you’re going to get hurt regardless. Many enemies also shoot projectiles at you, and while you can reflect them back with a perfectly timed sword attack, these returned volleys do very little damage. Sometimes the controls work flawlessly, and other times it felt as if there was a slight delay, as I wouldn’t counter back the projectile and get hit instead. Once you start to have enemies surround you, along with flying enemies above, it becomes quite overwhelming and feels truly unfair at times, resulting in much frustration.

I wish there was an option to upgrade your health and abilities. Later on you gain access to different elemental weapons, but there’s no way to upgrade anything else, which seems like a missed opportunity. Access to different spells, or being able to boost health, would have been welcomed. I know Slain is tailored for a certain experience, but it’s simply much too difficult, and when you eventually get to the point of wanting to throw your controller out the window as you don’t want to continue playing much afterwards, well you get my point. This review actually took longer than expected because I needed a day to relax and reset my frustrations a handful of times when I got stuck on the same section for over an hour at a time.

Oh, and if you’re an achievement hunter, you’re going to have a really bad time with Slain trying to unlock them all. Some of them are incredibly challenging, like defeating specific bosses in under 30 seconds and/or without getting hit, but for the truly sadistic, there’s even an achievement for completing Slain without losing a single life; something I’d love to see.

While I have some issues with Slain, the graphics and audio are absolutely impressive and impeccable. Everything to do with the visuals are retro styled that hark back to the classic 8 and 16-bit days. The pixel work is among the best I’ve seen, as even the rain and minor details look great. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the minor details, and it shows. Even the animations are varied, and your sword looks truly bad ass once you get the on-fire version of it. There are even CRT options for those that want to relive the old days where the TV screens had those faint horizontal lines across it.

Even better is Slain’s audio. Composed by metal guitarist Curt Victor Bryant, all of the audio is unique, metal inspired, and will have you wanting to start head banging. Obviously if metal isn’t your genre of choice, it’s not going to appeal to you, but it’s amazingly well done and fits the tonality of Slain absolutely perfectly. They’ve managed to find a way to make it noticeable enough to be front and center, but not overpowering at the same time

Even though I was incredibly frustrated with Slain at times, even avoiding it for a day at a time by throwing my arms in the air and proclaiming that “I give up”, I kept coming back to it to see if I could get Bathoryn to the next checkpoint. Bit be forewarned, even with all of its improvements over the initial release, it’s still much too difficult, in my opinion, to the point of wanting to constantly give up on it. Just like how you got used to seeing “You Died” in Dark Souls, get used to seeing the “Slain” screen, hundreds of times.

If you have a huge amount of patience and love self-punishment when gaming, then you’re going to have hours upon hours of fun with Slain: Back From Hell. If you’re like me though, you’ll appreciate what it does well with its amazing visuals and audio, and retro feel, but completing the game is whole other question. It’s easily recommended if you enjoy frustratingly difficult games and a challenge, but it can feel unfair a lot of the time that many will give up and stop playing. That being said, raise up those metal horns and grow out your hair, you’ve got some head banging to do.

Suggestions: A difficulty option, or many more checkpoints.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Dishonored 2

I feel I need to get this out of the way right off the bat: I never played the first Dishonored. I had every intention to, as I bought it on release, yet it’s still on my shelf sealed, most likely to never get touched with my amassing backlog of games. I’ve read tons of reviews of the original, from critics’ praises to friend’s asking me to play their GOTY choice, unfortunately I just simply never got around to it for one reason or another. That being said, I went into Dishonored 2 with a completely fresh point of view, without any love or hate bias. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect other than a stealth-like game with some supernatural abilities thrown in, and after playing I can say that I’m glad I got to experience it.

Dishonored was kind of a surprise when it released 2012. A new IP sometimes has a hard time of reaching an audience, but Arkane Studios did just that and now the franchise has quite the following. It a game known for its story, interesting characters, striking artwork, first person combat, and a stealthy based gameplay that allows you to tackle missions almost as you see fit with your supernatural powers. It won many Game of the Year awards, so it was only inevitable that people would get to experience more of Corvo’s legacy.

15 years have passed since the conclusion of the first game, but now a new threat looms and disturbs the peace that Emily Kaldwin has ruled with in the years after the assassination of her mother. There is a "Crown Killer" on the loose, framing Corvo and Emily making it look as if it’s them eliminating their enemies. Once again a coup plays out in the throne room, forcing Corvo and his daughter Emily to solve who’s behind the attack and get their revenge.

The attack is led by a woman named Delilah Copperspoon, claiming to be the true rightful heir to the throne. If you’ve managed to play the “Brigmore Witches” DLC for the first game, then this name will ring a bell, though if you have not like myself, then you’ll be left trying to put the pieces together until the narrative does so. With massive mechanical solders at her side, she attacks, turning one one of the two protagonists into stone (the one you don’t choose to play as). That’s right, you can choose to dawn Corvo’s Royal Protector mask once again or have a new and different viewpoint by playing as Emily throughout this adventure in the hopes to save the other. Whomever you’ve chosen must flee from Dunwall and travel to the southern region of Karnaca to figure out how to stop Delilah.

Even though Dishonored 2 was designed with a stealth base at its core, you can play it exactly how you want, just like the first game. I chose a violent and chaotic playthrough with Corvo on my first go, utilizing stealth to simply get the drop on my enemies or anyone who stood in my way. There’s a lot of challenge here for those that want it, as there are achievements tied to not killing anyone, playing the game without being seen by anyone, and more that will allow you to experiment in other ways and play outside your comfort zone. Having your supernatural powers plays a huge factor into your play style as well, depending on what skills you want to focus on and upgrade, and there’s even a decision early on in the game to play without being imbued with any powers at all, allowing for a completely different Dishonored experience.

While the first person combat and stealth does take some getting used to, enough good things can’t be said about the game's amazing level design. There are 9 core missions to play through, each lasting an hour or two based on your skill and style, but there’s also a handful of optional side quests that can pad some more hours into your playtime. Each area and level feels unique and distinct from everywhere else. Given that most missions have multiple ways to complete its main objective, this allows for some freedom and choice of how you want to tackle each mission. Given that I was playing a high chaos and straight forward aggressive style, I killed everyone I could, but there are other options that will require some thinking of how to complete it without an assassination.

The world is littered with papers to read and conversations to eavesdrop on, usually giving you more insight into people’s actions, and even possibly giving you safe combinations and/or hints of how to complete a mission differently. Even though the core progression is linear, how to get from point A to point B is almost completely up to you. The levels stand out, especially the mission “A Crack in the Slab” that has you utilizing an object to not only peer into the past, but travel between the past and present time. This time travel mechanic is utilized in a very compelling and unique way which I really enjoyed and will remember for some time. Can’t get past a blocked path of rubble? Go into the past where the mansion was inhabited and unbroken, but guarded heavily, allowing you to stealthily pass without obstruction. Another mission has you attempting to reach your foe, but his castle constantly shifts and transforms based on which levers you pull. The level design is some of the best I’ve experienced in recent memory.

Instead of leveling up via killing enemies, since complete stealth is an option, you are instead on the search for hidden bonecharms and runes scattered throughout the world which encourages exploration. Runes are collected and can be spent on unlocking new abilities or empowering your favorites even further. Corvo’s Blink ability is the most recognizable, allowing you to essentially blink from one area to another instantly in any direction. You can spend your runes on collecting many different abilities like pausing time, being able to utilize a wind blast, summoning rats, or you can simply upgrade the skills you tend to rely on often to make them more powerful.

While many of the upgrades seem like they cater to a very specific playstyle, that’s great news if that’s how you happen to play or desire to. While many abilities cross over regardless if you choose Corvo or Emily, they both have a few specific character only abilities, allowing for a unique playthrough. Emily has some really interesting abilities, such as being able to Shadow Walk, essentially allowing her to move undetected for a short period of time. She can also summon a doppelganger, allowing for an easy distraction as you slip your way past some guards. The Domino ability is without a doubt the most unique and fun to play with. This ability allows you to link 2 (and eventually up to 4 if upgraded) characters fates together, meaning if they are linked and you kill one, the other instantly dies as well. You can just start to see where the fun in this ability comes.

Emily plays very differently from Corvo, which is a great way to encourage multiple playthroughs, not just including their own unique perspective and dialogue. The voice acting quality from both the main protagonists is fantastic and very believable, my only complaint is that you’re stuck with your chosen character for the complete game. I would have liked to have been able to switch between the two or have varying missions rather than relying on two complete playthroughs at a bare minimum.

Even though I never got around to playing the first game, even just reading about it it’s easy to tell that Dishonored 2 improves on many facets and improves in many ways. Being able to play how you want, not just with navigation of the areas, but how you complete a mission as well, is one of Dishonored 2’s greatest strengths. One of its faults though is that it doesn’t do a good job at explaining the previous game and lore very well, so newcomers to the series, like myself, are lost until near the conclusion. While it tries to explain some things, it’s not done with much detail, which resulted in me having to learn more about its backstory and characters via Wikipedia rather than the game itself. For those returning to the world of Dishonored though this obviously won't be an issue.

Dishonored 2 has a solid foundation to build from, and it’s improved in many ways, allowing for new and unique ways to play as Corvo once again, or as his daughter Emily. While the freeform gameplay and level design is easily the highlights of Dishonored 2, the storytelling does need some work, especially to ease newcomers into the events that transpired previously so they don’t feel lost in the narrative. At the end of the day Dishonored 2 is a memorable experience that encourages exploration and experimentation, something not many developers can pull off well, but Arkane Studios has managed to do so.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Farming Simulator 17

While many gamers might scoff and laugh at a game revolving around farming, there’s no denying that it has a following, even if it is niche, or else there wouldn’t be this many iterations. Sure, many of us aren’t cut out to be natural born farmers, but if there’s one game that might start training you for such a career, Farming Simulator 17 would definitely be it.

Cards on the table; I’ve never played one of the Farming Simulators before, but to be completely honest, I’ve always wanted to give one a try out of curiosity. Normally I don’t find mundane tasks in games too boring, but Farming Simulator 17 surely will put you to the test of boredom as it did for me. Farming in real life is incredibly difficult, time consuming, and tedious, and this is a simulation of that, so the same descriptions apply even in game form. Given that Giants Software has the market essentially cornered in this genre, they could easily put out a slightly refined version every year and still do fine, but they’ve been adding new features in each iteration and trying to improve, which is great to see.

Sometimes you simply need a break from shooting things, racing cars, saving the world/princess, or solving puzzles. Farming Simulator 17 is an obvious choice if you’re looking for something relaxing and peaceful even though it is incredibly in-depth, allowing you to make it as easy or as difficult as you want. Games are meant to be an escape and entertaining, and while I got to virtually live the life of a farmer, it made me realize how boring that could be.

As you begin your farming career (allowing for 3 different save slots) you begin by choosing a male or female character, then you get the dramatic choice of the color to your flannel shirt. There are 3 difficulties to choose from: Easy, Medium, and Hard. When on Easy things are much simpler, as you won’t have to worry about your crops withering and dying, whereas on Hard, you’ll have to be much more meticulous, even having to refill the gas in all of your machines, or else your crops will wither and die. Being as this is my first go at the series, I naturally chose Easy, and even so, found myself at times overwhelmed with how much needs to be micromanaged.

As you begin career mode are introduced to a short, but necessary tutorial. It will only teach you the very basics of moving around and doing a few of the beginning tasks, and once complete you’re thrown into the world with no other direction given. The main menu hosts a handful of other tutorials, which I highly suggest doing, as it will give you more practice for the other jobs you’ll be needing to perform later on in your farming career. There really isn’t enough tutelage before sending you off on your own, as there’s things I’m still learning hours into the game, usually by accident or out of necessity.

Since Simulator is in the game title, there’s a wide array of mechanics that help it live up to its name. There’s a button, or combination of button presses, to do almost literally everything when it comes to your heavy machinery. There’s a button to turn on your headlights, the safety flashing lights, opening vents, unfolding equipment, and virtually any other flip or switch you would need to operate your machinery. It’s incredibly in-depth, but that means it’s also terribly confusing. Even after using a specific machine for an hour straight I found myself still pressing the wrong buttons or rotating the right analog stick the incorrect way. Given that there’s so much you can do with some of the equipment, I don’t see how it could be made any simpler on a controller, but it’s not intuitive by any means.

There’s so much to do that you’ll most likely find yourself overwhelmed at first. You only begin with two or three farms, but even that is a lot to throw at you in the beginning until your inner farmer starts to shine through and you get a handle on the tasks you’ll need to perform. As you drive around the town you’ll come across other farms that you can buy or you can help other farmers by doing some tasks for them, which they’ll pay you for your efforts. So, in the beginning it’s a good idea to help the other farmers and earn some extra cash to get you started.

Farming in real life is a multi-step process, so farming in the game is also the same. You’ll need to learn how to use a chainsaw, tractors, trucks, plows, sowers, fertilizers, and more. Given that each machine has its own uses and intricacies, it’ll take time to learn how to use each efficiently, and more importantly, properly. You can even turn on the radio while in your machinery, changing the stations to your preferred music choice, though all very generic and country centric. You’ll be cultivating wheat, potatoes, chopping wood, and even raising animals and/or livestock, all with the goal of creating a farming empire and boosting your bank roll.

Farming Simulator 17 tries to be as true to actual farming as it can be, so don’t expect to simply plant some seeds, wait a few moments, then gather and sell them. It’s much more involved than that, as you’ll need to clear your farming area, plow it, plant the seeds, and even fertilize them at each stage if you want the biggest yields. Eventually you will own livestock which is a whole other challenge, as you’ll need to make sure your animals have water, food, a place to rest, and more. While you simply begin with wheat, you can have up to almost a dozen different types of crops across over 20 fields once you have the bankroll to do so.

Once you’ve managed to harvest your crops you can either store them in your silo or sell them directly to the local businesses. As time passes, the demand for certain produce will fluctuate, just like a real economy. So if you manage to sell your wheat when the demand and price is high, you’ll earn much more mullah for your bankroll. Earning more money allows you to either pay off your bank loan or invest into more equipment to expand your operation. Oddly enough, as it may sound boring, it’s also compelling, as I kept driving back a load of grain, almost constantly, once I had a handful of machines doing their thing.

No one person can farm their land on their own, especially once you own multiple land areas and crops. This is where hiring help comes in. With a simple button press, you can hire someone to complete the job that’s right in front of them should you wish. This will obviously eat into your money earnings, as they need to get paid, but paying multiple people a wage to get many things done at once can pay off. Sadly, the most time consuming and boring task, transporting your harvest gains to and from the store, is not something you can hire someone for, so get used to driving the same path many times over. Hiring assistants will be a necessity, especially on the harder difficulties where you need to harvest in a specific amount of time before the crops die.

Something I didn’t expect was the inclusion of mods. While there’s not a huge amount, you can download new tractors, fertilizers, buildings, and more. Adding them to your game is simple and only takes one button press, but so far it’s strictly meant to add new objects into your world, not crazy configurations like other games with mods allow.

If you have a friend that also has the game, you can farm together. Actually, up to 6 of you at once can play together online. Interestingly, this simply uses the host’s career game save, so multiplayer can make things incredibly easier, or if you allow random people online to join, could be a complete disaster as they destroy your farm. This is probably why I was always denied joining random people’s farms online, as I too would be nervous that they would be wasting my resources and destroying all of my hard work. But having up to 6 friends together also means that you can do some silly things together, like tractor racing or seeing who can crash the hardest off some hills. Not the intended purpose, but it will most likely happen.

Graphically, Farming Simulator 17 looks better than previous iterations, but that’s not to say that it looks great. The farming equipment looks spot on and it is very detailed, but some of the world, not so much. There’s a massive amount of pop in, and things you see in the distance aren’t rendered properly until up close, so while you may see an empty farm from far away, and drive towards it, you realize as you get close that it’s actually ready to farm or harvest instead, because of the pop-in. There’s also a ton of clipping and weird issues. Driving through a huge field of crops will show them clipping through your truck, and the physics feel ‘off’, especially when you get one of your forklift forks stuck in a fence and start flipping the vehicle back and forth like a windshield wiper.

More annoying is the audio though, as there’s very little music selection aside from typical country twang, but the biggest offender is that the engines for the vehicles are deafeningly loud. When the camera is close all you hear is the loud whirl and rumble of the engine, and you are unable to hear anything else. Worse yet is that there are no options in the game anywhere to mute music or game sounds, so you’re stuck with it the whole time. This makes party chatting with friends near impossible if you’re doing the farming instead of hiring help, as you won’t be able to hear them very well.

Farming Simulator 17 is exactly as the title suggests: a deep and robust farming simulator. If you’re purely looking for an entertaining game, this might not be the one for you. If I was to score the game solely on its farming simulation capabilities, then it would receive a very high score, because that’s what it excels at doing. From a game standpoint though, where I look at gameplay mechanics, and most importantly fun, this is where it falters. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had within, as I laughed till my sides hurt at times when I was doing things I ‘shouldn’t’ have been, such as jumping tractors, going off-roading with a trailer full of livestock, or trying to run over pedestrians in my slow and dangerous farm equipment (sadly you’re unable to).

To be completely honest, even though I’ve kind of laughed at the series in the past, once playing I came to realize how involved and deep this series truly is as a simulator. It’s very daunting, even from the beginning, and you’re not given much help aside from a much too short tutorial. It’s incredibly complex and takes a lot of time to learn all of its intricacies and controls. The biggest problem it has is that most of the tasks are dull. Yes, farming is not a glamorous job, so there’s not much they could have done to change that, and while some will find a serene-like quality to its laid back gameplay, others like myself find it mundane and tedious.

Make no mistake, Farming Simulator 17 is incredibly in-depth as a simulator, almost to the point of being too complicated, but as a game it’s simply not all that entertaining, unless of course you’re all about that farming life. That’s not to say I didn’t find some enjoyment in my time with it, but it was when I was doing things unintended. At the end of the day if you’re looking for an authentic farming simulator, there’s no better out there, but the amount of fun you’re going to have is based on how much fun you find in actually farming.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 One Hundred Ways

The ID@Xbox program has been wonderful at giving developers and small studios alike an outlet to bring their games to a new audience, and of course gamers get a slew of new games to play that were previously exclusive to PC, mobile, or other platforms. Sometimes this works beautifully as console gamers get to experience games that wouldn’t have been possible before, but other times the market can get flooded with titles that don’t really suit the console experience. Where does One Hundred Ways fall in this spectrum? Let’s find out.

One Hundred Ways is a puzzle game at heart, devoid of any real story, as you’re simply tasked with solving puzzles that range from incredibly simplistic to frustratingly difficult. There’s a marble that will start rolling down a ramp when you start, and you’re tasked with placing specific objects on a grid so that the marble can reach each level’s end goal. Oddly enough, there’s well over one hundred levels, so the name is a little confusing, but alas, expect many levels including some that can be completed in more than one way.

At the beginning of each level there’s a cute little robot that generally tries to give you some advice for the challenge ahead of you. Sometimes his advice is helpful, while other times his text is garbled (purposely), making some of these ‘intros’ feel completely useless. The hints don’t generally tell you what to specifically do as they are more of a generic “think of a different way to solve this one!” kind of clue. Not helpful at all.

Now, I completely understand that Sunlight Games isn’t a natively English speaking developer, but it looks really unprofessional when the game has numerous spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and misworded sentences. Sometimes letters aren’t capitalized, or spaces are missing, but it’s clear that there’s been little to no priority at localization for English speaking gamers.

You learn the game’s mechanics in the early stages, slowly learning about each type of object and how they interact with your rolling ball. There’s essentially only a handful of items and objects, but they are used over and over during the 100+ levels. A great puzzle game gives you the tools you need to solve each puzzle quickly if you’re up to the task, but in One Hundred Ways you’re forced to slog through its confusing menu system and watch in agony as you wait for the level to finish completing without the use of a fast forward.

You are given objects such as teleport pads, speed ramps, bounce pads, redirection launchers, rubber fences, and more. Your ball will roll in a direct line at a set and constant speed, which is where object placement is critical to get it from point A to B. While initially One Hundred Ways looks like a physics based puzzler, it’s really not, as your ball will roll forever if unobstructed and allowed to keep going. The beginning 50 levels or so weren't much of a challenge, especially if you think logically and just reverse engineer the solution, starting at the finish point. Eventually you’ll become stumped as there’s seemingly no smooth difficulty curve; you’ll simply hit a brick wall of challenges after completing other levels without issue.

Given that you’re simply staring at a grid for hours, going from puzzle to puzzle, you’d hope that there would be a varied soundtrack to help pass the time, either with some upbeat tracks or some relaxing tunes to set the mood. Unfortunately that is not the case here as there’s only a single song during the whole time you play across every single level. Making things worse, there’s absolutely zero audio when you’re on the world map selection (choosing which stages to play), making for a very disjointed experience. Do yourself a favor and load up some of your own music, as you’re going to not want to hear the solitary tune from One Hundred Ways after a handful of levels ever again.

It may seem like I’m simply only pointing out the negatives, but there are so many that needs to be mentioned. For example, there’s no way to rotate the map, so when you’re on a puzzle that’s very crowded with numerous tubes, cranes, and other objects, you can’t easily see which tile your placing your object on or the direction you’re intending for your jumper objects. There’s also no speed up or fast forward option. So, if you know you’ve solved the puzzle you need to wait until the ball slowly runs the course from start to finish.

Some of the pieces you’re given are also complete guesswork on how fast they will speed up your ball or how far it will launch it, simply leaving you to waste time experimenting rather than strategizing. Some puzzles also seem like they need to be solved ‘wrong’, such as launching backwards over the starting ramp, instead of a clear path elsewhere. Maybe this is part of the intended design, but you’re not given any information to figure it out and are left to just experiment with what works and doesn’t.

It’s obvious that One Hundred Ways was built for a mobile device or a PC with a mouse, as the control scheme is incredibly frustrating with a controller. Even after more than a handful of hours with the game I was constantly pressing the wrong buttons, or hoping that the camera would magically start to follow the ball when it was in motion. The grid system isn’t very responsive either, and placing an object from your inventory takes more button presses than it should.

I’m all for small developers and studios having opportunities for their games to be brought to as many gamers as possible, but there’s an effort that needs to be taken to make sure that it’s a right fit for that audience. One Hundred Ways is a serviceable game, but it’s meant to be played in very short bursts on the go, not for hours on end enduring a repeated song while trying to relax on your couch with a controller. Don’t go in hoping for a Marble Madness physics puzzle game like I was either as you'll be disappointed. I’m normally head over heels for puzzle games, but there’s simply too much against One Hundred Ways to earn a heartfelt recommendation at its current price point and jarring issues.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour

I may have already been a teenager when Duke Nukem 3D originally released in 1996, but that didn’t stop the immature child in me from giggling at every one-liner Duke had to say throughout his adventure to save Earth. I remember staying up late at night, going through the levels again and again, trying to unearth just one more secret that I had not found. Duke Nukem 3D has been ported to virtually every playable device so far, and it was only a matter of time before it came to current consoles. While it may not be the all-encompassing package some would hope for, there is a lot of new features and content contained within to entice you, even if you’ve played the game for the past 20 years like myself.

Given that the game is 20 years old, there’s a good chance you’ve most likely played it in some form during the past 2 decades. If you have not somehow managed to do so, all you need to know is that Duke Nukem has balls of steel when it comes time to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and he’s all outta gum. It’s a good thing Duke released many years ago when it did, as it would be met with even more scrutiny than it did back then in today’s politically correct world.

So what’s exactly new with this 20th Anniversary Edition? The first thing you’re going to notice is the graphic upgrade. Now this is nowhere near a remake or HD version, and it’s not trying to be, but it does look better when compared to its original release. Taking a cue from the Halo Anniversary playbook, you can toggle the original and the new “True3D Rendering” graphics instantly with a tap on the D-Pad. Keep expectation in check, as it still looks like it’s from the mid 90’s, but it’s definitely more ‘cleaner’ albeit a subtle improvement.

New music has made its way into this release, and the iconic theme song is intact, but the real treat is newly recorded one-liners from Jon St. John, the voice of the titular hero. Also, in the audio department is an inclusion of a commentary that can be toggled on or off. Finding icons scattered throughout the levels will allow you to get a behind the scenes viewpoint from original developers. My only gripe with this is that there are a ton in the first few levels, and very few afterwards, with many levels having none at all.

Lastly is the selling point that will get most long time Duke fans excited: A brand new episode of retro levels created by the original designers Allen Blum III and Richard “Levelord” Gray. These handful of new levels feel as though they belong, almost as if they were found on the cutting room floor and put back into the game where they were supposed to be in the first place.

I was very pleased to find out that when Duke dies, there’s a rewind feature that allows you to rewind to ANY point in the level and start again from there. How many times have you wished you’d done something different before you died? Well, this can help you remedy that, giving you a second chance, or as many as you need to complete the level.

While primitive compared to current games, it’s been a few years since I played Duke 3D, and I was shocked at how good the level design was for a game this old. I obviously view the game much different than I did when I was in high school, trying to make sure my grandparents didn’t hear or see what I was playing, but I was really impressed with how well it holds up, not visually or with its simple gameplay, but just the world design as a whole.

Sadly the 20th Anniversary Edition doesn’t include the numerous expansion packs from previous editions. While it’s not billed as a comprehensive Duke Nukem 3D experience, it would have been nice to include given the age of the game. Granted, the new episode does help take away some of that sting, and there is a lot of extra bonuses included.

My favorite feature had to be the inclusion of classic cheats. Back in the day, pre-internet, you had to know someone who knew the cheat codes or wait for the latest gaming magazine to print them to try them out. Many games had cheats unlike today, so it’s a great throwback feature to include. The best part is that it doesn’t disable achievements like in most other games that include the feature.

Multiplayer is included but every time I tried to find a game, I was unable to. I’m sure the player base isn’t huge, but even after days of trying, I’ve yet to experience it unfortunately. There’s also a weird delay when weapon switching worth noting. Nothing that’s a deal breaker, but it takes an odd amount of time to swap weapons, something you sometimes need to do quickly on the fly when the situation arises.

If you’ve never played Duke Nukem 3D before, the 20th Anniversary Edition is easily a 'recommend' given the slightly cleaner graphics, new hilarious one-liners, and a fitting new episode made by the people that know the game best more than anyone else. That being said, for a game that’s two decades old, the $19.99 price tag does seem a bit steep, even for us longtime Duke fans that have bought the game multiple times before. Now, who wants some?

Overall Score: 6.9 / 10 Mantis Burn Racing

I’ve always had an affinity for top down racers ever since the classic NES game Micro Machines. That leads me to Mantis Burn Racing, my latest review. While it tends to take itself a bit more seriously than a typical toy car racing game, it manages to break away from the pack of poor to mediocre top down racers with its tight controls, expansive career mode, upgrades, as well simple and fun gameplay. There’s enough content here to appease hardcore racers, yet easy enough to delve into for casual players to enjoy themselves a simple race at a time.

The bulk of your gameplay will be in the career mode. Here you’ll find a variety of different race types, ranging from standard races, elimination, and point based races. Instead of your standard ‘come in first’, which you do want to do, you are able to earn up to 6 gears per event; 3 for winning, and 3 others for completing side objectives. These side objectives can vary from things like drifting a certain distance, getting a certain amount of air, destroying a number of objects, beating a specific lap time and more.

These side objectives are a neat way of earning your progress and something that I really prefer, since you can still earn some gears even if you don’t come in first place. This also challenges you to try something different during your races that you may not regularly attempt. The final events in a season are locked by a set number of gears that you need to access the final race. You generally shouldn’t have to grind for the gears to unlock them, but there’s actually quite a few seasons to be played, all the way up to a Pro level for those that really want to sink some time into the game.

Most race events are your basic 'must-come-in-first-place' variety, but there’s generally a good selection of others to keep things interesting. Knockout races add some frantic gameplay making sure you’re not in last place on each lap or else you’re eliminated. Time trials generally gives you 2 or 3 laps to make your best time, and beating the par time determines your placing. There’s even an interesting mode that awards you points for the better position you’re in during the race, with the winner being the first to earn 10,000 points. All of these will earn you rewards as you go, and can even be replayed to grind for XP or try and get those secondary objectives for the gears if you desire.

There are essentially two environments you’ll be racing in: city and desert, but 90% of the time will be in the desert. The tracks are somewhat varied, each with their own layouts of twists, turns, and jumps, but most of the time you’ll be racing the same handful of tracks, sometimes in reverse. There are one or two interesting tracks, but honestly, the variety is lacking, and racing the same desert map over again can become a little dull a few career seasons in.

Mantis Burn Racing incorporates the use of 3 different types of vehicles: Light, Medium, and Heavy. Light vehicles are like buggies, very fast and quick turners. Heavy vehicles are very slow yet can burst through barricades for secret shortcuts. Lastly, medium vehicles are right in the middle for performance. Most events will lock you to a specific type of class, but there are a handful of open races which allow you to choose your favorite (or most upgraded) vehicle.

I was quite surprised with how well the game’s controls were. I’m so used to decent racers, particularly top down racers, being brought down by terrible controls, so I guess I just expected it. Mantis Burn Racing handles great, and while it will take a few races to get the hang of, it’s very basic to learn, yet it has some intricacies for those that really want to improve their lap times. Even once you get the hang of drifting, the controls are very tight, and crashes feel like they were completely your fault for trying to drift too close to that inside barrier. A minor complaint I do have is that since you’re constantly switching vehicle types so it’s hard to get really used to one of them since you’re never stuck with a specific type for more than a race or two generally.

As you progress in events and earn upgrades, you put these upgrades into slots on your vehicle. These upgrades range from better tires, suspension, engines, and more. Your starting cars have 3 upgrade slots, and once full you can pay to upgrade it to a better version with more upgrade slots. It’s a smart way to continually improve your vehicles and customize them however you wish. Keep in mind though, you have 3 different types of vehicles, and if you constantly upgrade a certain class, the other ones will start to fall behind, making it much more difficult when you’re stuck with them for specific events.

I generally don’t expect smaller indie titles to include an online multiplayer, but again, Mantis Burn Racing surprised me by including it. There is local and online co-op, and the host can designate which types of vehicles, race, map, and even enable or disable upgrades. This means you can bring your career mode’s cars online and test them out against others, which is a great feature. While there weren’t a large amount of people playing, but I was able to find a match every time I tried to play online, which speaks volumes compared to other smaller titles’ online communities.

My biggest complaint is the terribly long loading times that take place before and after every race, even if you mess up and need to restart an event. The gameplay is smooth throughout, and the graphics are serviceable, but the prolonged loading times really damper the experience if you’re playing for any prolonged amount of time.

As I said before, I love top down racers, and Mantis Burn Racing does a great job at being accessible for casual racers, yet it has enough features and a full bodied career mode for those that want to dive in deeper. It has a surprising amount of depth, and I kept wanting to race ‘just one more race’ every time I played. Sure the track repetition becomes stale at times, and the loading times are frustrating, but if you take it for what it is, a simple and fun toy car racer with some depth, then you’re bound to have at the least a few hours of fun.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 HoPiKo

When I first saw screenshots for HoPiKo I had no idea what I was looking at. If you do the same, I bet you’ll have the same reaction. As for playing it, it’ll take a few minutes to acclimate yourself into its gameplay, but once you do, you’ll discover one of the more unique ‘platform-like’ games out there. Are you into retro inspired, challenging, and speed run centric gameplay encased with a soundtrack created 100% on an original Game Boy? Then HoPiKo is for you! Have no idea what I’m talking about? Read on.

So technically there is a story to HoPiKo, but it’s just as abstract and off the wall as its frantic gameplay. There’s an evil Nanobyte virus on the look out and it is attempting to destroy gaming as a whole. It’s up to you to save your HoPiKo brothers (think of them more like a species than a family) and save gaming for everyone. Confused yet? Yeah, I don’t totally get it either, but you have come for the platform-like gameplay, not the narrative.

Like with any good platformer, the gameplay and mechanics are what will keep you playing, coming back for more after every repeated death. HoPiKo actually plays very uniquely, in the sense that you only use the Right Stick and Right Bumper; that’s it, you completely ignore the left half of the controller. There’s a few very brilliant reasons for this. While in virtually every game you use the Left Stick for movement, it’s the Right Stick that you’ve become precise with over the years playing shooters, platformers, and other games. Because of this, you can instinctively aim much more precisely with the Right Stick, which is why this default control scheme that has been chosen. It’s a simple idea but makes absolute sense, though you can change it if you desire (but you’d be wrong to do so).

So, why is it a game that is described as platformer-like? Well, normally in a platformer game you have to run and jump from spot to spot, but in HoPiKo you simply launch yourself in your desired direction with a flick of the Right Stick or tapping the Right Bumper. Controls are very simple to get the hang of, but the real learning curve comes from simply figuring out what you need to do and the best way to do it once you figure out the different types of platforms.

There are a handful of worlds to complete, separated into 10 ‘areas’ with 5 missions each. The catch? You need to complete all 5 in a row without dying to continue on. Normally I would become frustrated with something like this, as you’ll die on stage 4 or 5 a million times, only to be sent back to the first stage, but playing levels in a single order wouldn’t be nearly as challenging or rewarding.

Things in the beginning start out simple, as you are only focused on aiming in a direct line to the next platform without missing. As expected, the further you progress int the game the more the challenge starts to ramp up, slowly introducing different types of platforms, lasers, and even enemies that chase you. These are introduced slowly, allowing you to figure them out and the best way to quickly recognize them since the gameplay is so fast paced.

While there’s technically no time limit, you will die if you stay on a platform for too long, plus you won’t earn the bonuses for completing levels that have a bonus for time finished. Finish a world completely and you’ll unlock a Speed Run and Hardcore Mode, along with new music tracks. Speed Run Mode is pretty self-explanatory, keeping track of your time as you try to go through all the levels. Hardcore Mode is a whole other beast though. If you thought the regular gameplay was difficult, doing 5 levels at a time, this mode challenges you to beat all 50 in a row. Die and you’re right back to stage 1. I’ve still yet to accomplish doing this, even on World 1, but it allows for more gameplay for those that want a real challenge.

HoPiKo’s visuals are really unique. It’s basic at its core, but the gameplay is so fast and frantic that it’s hard to take it all in at times. It’s minimalistic in design, but it's also confusing to figure out what’s going on until you learn its obstacles and they become second nature. The real standout though is its brilliant soundtrack, all of which was composed on an original Game Boy. Unlocking new tracks is awesome, as every track is catchy, has its own vibe to it, and is super retro, fitting the look and style of the game.

There’s the odd bug here and there, as I’ve died many times seemingly for no reason (seriously, it’s not some excuse). I do wish there was either a countdown timer or that the levels didn’t ‘start’ until I made my first move, as the later stages force you to begin the moment it starts, or you’ll die. You constantly feel frantic and pressured, even once you become more skillful and go back to old levels to better your results.

If you’re a fan of games like Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV, where brutal difficulty is your thing, and you can resist throwing your controller out the window in a fit of rage from dying a hundred times in a row, then you’ll absolutely love HoPiKo. Put the time in and you will become better. I thought there were levels I would never complete, but here I am, passing stages that I previously thought unbeatable, and then I get stuck once again, seemingly forever, but I know I’ll go back trying to best it once again. HoPiKo has amazing level design that feels constantly varied and a level of challenge that makes you want to try just one more time, even though you told yourself that fifty tries ago.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 XCOM 2

Firaxis, best known for their Civilization and XCOM titles, has finally graced console gamers with the release of XCOM 2. While it originally released on PC over six months ago, seemingly as a PC exclusive, it has finally made its way to the Xbox One for fans that prefer to relax on the couch with a controller in their hands. XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the Xbox 360 was a fantastic showing of what Firaxis could do with the strategy genre on last-gen, so I was quite excited to see what improvements would be made for its long awaited sequel on the Xbox One. Depending on which ending you got in Enemy Unknown, the cannon storyline in XCOM 2 continues 20 years after the war was lost. A terrifying alien regime, the Advent, has been ruling over humanity for the past two decades and a resistance is beginning to arise to free mankind from their clutches. The story focuses on the rebellion taking the fight to the aliens, as opposed to defending like the previous game, and this carries over to the gameplay.

Instead of simply holding back the enemy, you are now tasked with sabotage, intelligence interceptions, and actually pushing the front lines forward. While there is an overarching storyline, it’s nothing substantial enough to care about, and you won’t form any real bonds with any of the characters unless you name your soldiers to match your real life friends and family and they happen to die in virtual combat.

XCOM 2 plays almost exactly like its predecessor(s), albeit with a laundry list of improvements and changes. It’s still a turn based strategy game at its core, focusing on squad based tactics and building up your human resistance against the aliens. If you were a fan of Enemy Unknown you’re going to fall in love all over again as XCOM 2 vastly improves on almost every facet of gameplay, adding many more options, and subsequently, much more difficulty as well. If you’re not a big fan of strategy games, then obviously XCOM 2 may not be on your radar, and believe me, I used to not be a big fan of strategy titles before, but Firaxis is the best in the business when it comes to the genre and they prove it big time with XCOM 2.

Once of the biggest changes you’ll notice almost instantly is the mission structure and variety. There were only a handful of different mission types in the previous XCOM, but this has been improved upon in XCOM 2. Now you’ll be assaulting bases, attempting to destroy or protect valuable targets, rescuing civilians, and even saving VIP’s. The biggest catch is that a bulk of these missions are timed, not with an actual time limit, but with moves instead. Because of the hectic pace, you can no longer simply rely on hanging back, going into overwatch, and waiting for enemies to fall into your line of fire. Now you need to be aggressive on the assault, making for some very risky, and much needed, new strategies to be employed.

Since most missions are timed now you can’t always dictate the terms of combat any longer, which can be frustrating and uncomfortable at first, especially if you have became accustomed to tried and true tactics from Enemy Within, but it’s also where a big majority of the satisfaction comes from when you finally complete a mission, regardless of the casualties. Even if you manage to protect your best soldiers until the endgame, they are never completely safe from danger, as you’ll need to almost always put yourself in danger to progress against the aggressive time crunch. At first I didn’t really enjoy the forceful nature of the missions, but I began to warm up to it, adapted my strategy, and learned from my fatal mistakes.

Since the mission objectives vary wildly the campaign seems to breeze right by, and even if you’re not playing a true ‘ironman playthrough’ without reloading saves, the maps are procedurally generated every time, so even if you do reload a previous save to prevent your best soldiers from dying in combat, replaying a mission won’t always be the same, forcing you to constantly adapt. Sometimes you’ll need to know when to cut your losses and call for an emergency extraction rather than having your whole team perish. These moments are very tense yet thrilling, as I didn’t want to rely on previous game saves to reload, so I eventually started to accept whatever outcomes my battles had. Doing so made XCOM 2 that much more intense and exhilarating, especially when you absolutely need a low percentage success rate shot to succeed, or else you die.

Not only does XCOM 2 dictate the pace you need to play at, this also is true for the campaign missions as well. There’s no simple grinding missions to beef up your soldiers that would allow you to take on the campaign once you’re overpowered, as there’s a constant "Avatar Project" that you witness slowly progressing on the world map. If the meter fills it means impending doom, so you need to complete specific campaign based objectives and missions to hold back the aliens progress in this mysterious project, as failure to do so means absolute doom for mankind.

If you’re an XCOM fan, you’ll feel right at home with this game's combat mechanics. You’ll still be given two actions a turn, allowing you to hunker down, go into overwatch, or shoot any enemies within distance. There are some great additions though, the most obvious of which are the slight variance of the classes and the much more defined branching skill trees. Each class can choose to specialize in a distinct path that’s meant to be played a specific way, but you can also mix and match skills as they level up in ranks to suit your play style and squad setups.

You’ll also notice that a stealth mechanic has been implemented, allowing you to begin most missions concealed against the enemy. This allows you to take a few moves to setup an ambush if you wish, or even bypass combat all together if you’re clever (and lucky) enough to not get spotted by wandering patrols. On non-timed missions I would take my time to set up a perfect ambush, luring packs of enemies into my squad’s wall of overwatch retaliation. Given that a bulk of the missions are timed though, it’s tough to use this strategy often, as you really need to play quite aggressively if you want to succeed. It’s a great idea, and works well in the right situations, but it needs to be fleshed out a little more in a hopeful sequel.

Many of your strategies will come from failure and losing your best fighters. Once you learn how specific enemy types behave, you can start to learn the best tactics to use against them while keeping your soldiers safe. After a dozen hours I finally found a perfect balance of classes and abilities that, most of the time, were unstoppable, but that’s where XCOM 2 is brilliant, as it will throw a new enemy type at you or simply have you miss a shot with 95% success rate, completely turning the tide of battle and causing you to react. It goes the other way as well, as praying that a 20% chance attack will land, and it does, feels overwhelmingly amazing. XCOM 2 is meant to be played through multiple times, as the first time or two will simply be a learning experience, and from there on you can really fine tune your best course of action against the Advent with your ideal builds.

The overworld meta-game has also been improved, as you’ll be tasked with connecting communication relays and liberating different countries from the aliens to bolster the resistance. You’ll need to expand and upgrade your base as well, allowing you to choose the best course of action. This specifically where it will take a full playthrough, or two, to figure out the best build paths (without looking online of course) as there’s no branching trees to see the best paths and the outcomes until it’s actually completed. I found this blind guessing a little frustrating, as I didn’t know if spending a massive amount of time researching something would be worth it in the end, as you’re not given much description of the result, making you unable to plan multiple steps ahead or the best way to min-max your playthrough.

You have limited resources and time, so you will constantly be making complex and difficult decisions on the fly. Do you prioritize a mass amount of time to research advanced weaponry or do you spend that time on multiple smaller projects instead? It’s completely up to you, but it’s a constant battle of resources and time, with an always looming thread close by to keep you pressured and moving at a brisker pace than you may like to at first.

There is also a multiplayer component included that allows you to take on another player with a custom squad of your own. You’re even able to control Advent forces in this mode, which is really cool, especially the more costly forces. Each unit has a predetermined value attached, and you can only spend a set amount to make up a squad, so it’s a balancing act of utilizing less but more powerful, or more but less effective. I’d love to give a more in depth analysis of XCOM 2’s multiplayer offerings, but multiple times I’ve sat at the menu, both in ranked and quick match, unable to find a game, even while sitting for well over a half hour. I assume it’s simply a small pool of players taking their squads online rather than any server issues, but it was unfortunate I wasn’t able to find a single game to play every time I attempted to.

For all the praise I’ve given XCOM 2 so far, there are a laundry list of bugs that constantly hampered my experience, even many hours in. First is the massive technical issues. The loading times are long and often, the camera angles don’t always work as intended, making for difficult strategizing, and the clipping at times is laughable when you see a character shoot directly through a wall or object. Aiming grenades seems to be a chore in concentration and feels very loose compared to the standard shooting. There was one instance where I was unable to hit the enemies in front of me, not because of a lack of skill or the randomness of missing shots, but the game didn’t think they were where they appeared on my screen. I was only able to complete that mission by staying in overwatch and waiting for them to move into ‘view’.

From beginning to end, you’ll constantly be challenged with XCOM 2. It’s difficulty is unforgiving if you’re not careful, and since death is permanent you can lose your best soldiers at any given time in any given mission quite quickly. I thought the original XCOM was fantastic, but it’s rare for a sequel to be better in almost every aspect that the previous game feels vastly inferior in hindsight. If you even remotely enjoyed the previous XCOM games you need to play XCOM 2, as it has a wealth of replayability, deep strategy, and impressive character building, even if it does force you to play overly aggressive. I’m not sure why they waited so long to bring XCOM 2 to console, or at least announce it at the PC launch, because even with its hiccups it’s an amazing gaming experience for any strategy game fan.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Emily Wants To Play

Unlike most young kids, I was allowed to watch horror and thriller movies from a very young age, and because of this, I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Scary movies are easily my favorite genre, and I can watch the goriest or most psychologically scary movie there is and not flinch. Well, when it comes to scary games though, I’m absolutely the complete opposite. I’m not really sure why, though most likely because I’m in control rather than watching a linear experience, but I don’t do well with scary games regardless of my movie tastes. So who else better to review Emily Wants to Play; probably one of the most dread inducing titles I’ve played to date.

I grew up with the Silent Hill's and Resident Evil's, and while those were scary at the time since I was young, these days there aren't very many horror games aside from a few breakout titles like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender. Originally released on PC, Emily Wants to Play is now here for console gamers to see if they have the courage to survive until morning while being hunted down by demonic and possessed dolls.

While some scoff at jump scares because they’re viewed as a lazy way to scare someone, they’re also a very effective way to make a player uneasy and tense, simply waiting for the next moment to happen. Emily Wants to Play uses this classic horror tool to inspire dread, almost to a fault, as that’s almost the only scare tactic it utilizes throughout. That being said, I wasn’t unable to complete the game after multiple attempts and hours; not solely because of the difficulty, but because I couldn’t handle another scare again without taking a prolonged break to relax my nerves.

While a vastly overused trope, Emily Wants to Play begins with you as a pizza guy making a simple delivery. The door is ajar, so naturally you go inside to find someone to give them their order. The place looks like it’s been ransacked, and just as you take a step inside the door slams shut and locks behind you seemingly on its own. The place is a mess, the windows are boarded up, and the lights are flickering; the perfect setup for numerous horror flicks.

Played in first person, your goal is to simply survive until morning, but that isn’t going to be easy by any means once Emily’s dolls start to try and kill you. As you wander around the house, you’ll notice doors opening and closing on their own, as do the flickering lights, adding to the already very creepy atmosphere. You start to notice notes left around the place such as “Don’t look at her”, and “Run away”; foreboding to say the least. Then you’ll come across the dolls, but you’ll wish you hadn’t, because once the clock strikes midnight, that’s where you need to start to survive.

As for the controls, it’s very basic. Sprinting is done by holding in the Left Stick, interacting with objects is the B button, and Left Bumper for your flashlight (should you be lucky enough to find one). That’s it. Sounds simple, and it is, but you’re going to need not only quick reflexes to survive the night, but nerves of steel. The sprinting doesn't seem all that necessary and is a little cumbersome to do so while holding in the stick.

Once midnight rolls around, you’ll start to hear footsteps and laughter coming from random areas in the house. Things start ‘simple’ with only 1 doll trying to kill you, but eventually you’ll have to deal with 3 at once before Emily herself joins in the 'fun'. Given that I have no problem with horror movies, I thought Emily Wants to Play would be no big deal. I was so wrong. It plays like a walking simulator, but the way that the mood is conveyed, with absolutely no music in the background, almost makes it scarier. As soon as you hear one of the dolls, you know you’re about to confront one of them, which gets your blood pumping and controller firmly clenched.

So how do you survive the night? Well, it all depends on which doll is currently chasing you. For example, the first doll you come across will laugh when she is near, and once you turn around she will be there staring at you, completely still. Even though you may have found a note earlier that says to “Don’t look at her”, you need to do the complete opposite to not get killed by Kiki the doll. Eventually she will poof and disappear instantly, allowing you to explore the house further if you’re brave enough, that is, until you hear her once again trying to get you.

There are other dolls that will join the killing fray as the night goes on, and you simply need to learn how to survive against them when they appear. It may sound simple, and in premise it is, but when you fail using the proper tactic to survive, the jump scare you get is no joke. Kiki for example lunges at your face, either just as your turn around to try to flick the light switch back on that was mysteriously turned off, shrieking as she does so.

Luckily the checkpoint system is generous and starts you back at the latest hour you’ve reached during your night in the house. Given that you just got scared though, your nerves become more on edge the more you play. Leaving a room makes you apprehensive, but you know you have to do so to survive some of the dolls attacks. It’s a simple way to instill fear, but it works.

If you’re good at the game and don’t scare easily, it’s easily beatable in under an hour, as you simply need to ride out the clock to survive, but to get to that point will take a lot of courage and many deaths. The graphics are very basic and the lighting is nowhere realistic looking, but even so, the game has a particular sense of dread surrounding it no matter what room you go into, even more so once you hear one of the dolls nearby.

I wish I could finish the game, but I can’t. Even playing in the daytime with the lights on and people home, I can only play for short periods of time before needing to take a break to calm my nerves. Yes, some of you are going to call me a wimp, and that’s fine, but it should show effective Emily Wants to Play is at creating a sense of terror. Sure its shtick is simply utilizing jump scares, but when it works, why change?

With its very cheap price point, Emily Wants to Play is a great title to get this month given the Halloween spirit, and even better to stream on Twitch for the amusement of others if you scare easily, just like me. While some won’t find it terrifying, or even scary, others just might need to play with the lights on or in the daytime with someone else in the room. Sure, the game could benefit from some improvements, but if you’re simply looking for a creepy atmosphere with the potential to truly scare some of your friends that come over, Emily Wants to Play is sure to get your heart racing. and you most likely won't want to be be near any dolls afterwards for quite some time.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Eventide: Slavic Fable

I’m really glad that developer Artifex Mundi has decided to publish their games on the Xbox One, as they have a huge catalogue of hidden object games (HOG’s) that they are in the process of bringing to console gamers. I didn’t know that I would enjoy these types of games as much as I do until I gave them a fair chance, but I’m glad I did, as I get to sit back and enjoy a few hours of stress free gaming. Eventide: Slavic Fable is the third game from Artifex Mundi that I’ve now played, and I figured that I would grow tiresome of the same gameplay mechanics by now, but I haven't. I seem to enjoy them more with every new title that comes our way, but the question remains: "Can they keep the quality continuous and prevent staleness from setting in?" Let’s find out.

Eventide places you in the role of Mary, a botanist who receives a letter from her grandmother one day out of the blue inviting her to visit and save a rare plant. Mary doesn't get many letters from her anymore, so she knows it’s serious and decides to make a visit. As you arrive you’re attacked by a massive bat-looking creature, only to find that your grandmother is then kidnapped in front of your eyes. To get her back you’ll need to befriend the creatures of Slavic origins in attempt to save her.

I won’t delve much more into the story, as it’s not terribly long, but it has just enough narrative to string you along from puzzle to puzzle while managing to stay fairly interesting. Some of the characters you come across are cute, while others are simply there to lengthen gameplay with odd quests, like fixing someone’s bathroom pipe so they can shower. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting better at these types of games or not, but the overall journey felt much shorter compared to the last two titles of theirs I’ve reviewed, as I completed it in a single sitting without any troubles at all on normal mode.

If you haven't played an Artifex Mundi HOG based puzzle titles before, it essentially revolves around finding an item which allows you to open an object to obtain another item that you’ll need to solve the next puzzle. Rinse and repeat. On paper it sounds basic and shallow, but there’s many scenes to explore, with bonus collectible items to find along the way as well. Sometimes you’ll simply need to find a certain item while other times you’ll have to solve a convoluted puzzle or you’ll be given a shopping list of items to find in a crowded and messy scene before being granted access to progress further.

Normal mode gives you an option to use a hint if you become stuck, and it can either point you in the right direction to go (though the map shows you what areas you have puzzles to complete) or it blatantly shows you what you need to click next. Expert mode takes away much of the hint system and doesn’t have items glow, making for a bigger challenge, especially if it’s your first time playing. I found that I didn’t need to rely on the hint system even once during my playthrough, but it’s a welcome addition for those that might need it so they don't become frustrated. Oddly enough, Eventide doesn’t include an alternate game to play like the previous games that they have released on the Xbox One, where you could play dominoes or mahjong.

For veterans of Artifex Mundi’s titles, you can expect more of the same. Eventide follows the same template, almost to a fault, as you’re only given the items you’ll need just before you need them. What is new though are the two sets of collectibles hidden throughout. Keep an eye out for Bestiary Cards, as these will unlock background lore of each of the creatures in Eventide in the bonus section of the main menu. They are strictly optional to find and aren’t part of the core game, but it was interesting to read more lore about creatures that crossed my path once I found them. There are also Ethereal Flowers that glow and can be collected, but these don’t serve any purpose aside from unlocking achievements.

Just like their previous titles, the artwork is great as always, though I suspect this might be one of their earlier games, simply because the animation didn’t look as smooth or as sharp as the previous titles that I reviewed. Following suit is the average soundtrack and simply “ok” voice acting. Usually the voice acting is passable, but it didn’t seem to be nearly as believable in Eventide. I’m not sure if it’s the writing or different actors, but it difference from past games was noticeable.

Just like their previous games released on the Xbox One, developer Artifex Mundi's Eventide: Slavic Fable is a great ‘filler’ game when you grow tired of the glut of AAA titles or simply need a break and want to try something different. The dev-team has nailed the formula, almost to the point where each game seems to use a default template but they edit it with new characters and vary the puzzles slightly. Even so, I’ve yet to grow tired of the tried and true gameplay formula. If you are looking for a casual game to play or just want something to relax while playing, look at Eventide: Slavic Fable, or any of their other HOG titles; there’s no better developer currently bringing this genre to consoles.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Gears of War 4

There’s only a handful of franchises that seemingly define a console or generation of gaming, and Gears of War is easily one of those franchises. Just shy of its 10 year anniversary, Gears of War has been pulling in fans ever since 2006 and it crafted one of the most iconic series that helped Xbox 360 reach the fan base that it did. Gears of War 3 was released way back in 2011 and fans have been waiting half a decade for a proper sequel ever since, and now that time has come with the impending release of Gears of War 4. Sure, there was Gears of War: Judgement in 2013, but it wasn’t the true sequel everyone was waiting for. Now, with a new studio behind the series, The Coalition, can the this true sequel live up to what Epic Games and Cliffy B. created a decade ago?

Even after all these years the gameplay and visuals of the older Gear of War titles still hold up, but the current generation hardware can do much more than the Xbox 360, and Gears of War 4 really proves this point, along with other agendas Microsoft is pushing like the very welcomed Xbox One/PC crossplay. The visual fidelity of Gears 4 is nothing short of amazing on the Xbox One, and if you have beefy enough PC rig to handle it, you can hit 4K resolution with this Play Anywhere title.

Crossplay allows gamers on their Xbox One to play with with those playing on PC in a variety of modes. You'll find that the majority of the multiplayer modes are available except for the competitive versus mode. It should be noted that Gears 4 is also a Play Anywhere title, meaning that when you buy it digitally you automatically own the Xbox One and PC version (for Windows 10). I’ve recently just upgraded my PC and this feature is a fantastic bonus to have, not even including the expanded player base that will help keep the game community alive longer.

I always strive to avoid any spoilers in my reviews, especially when it comes to a story campaign, so the only details I’ll divulge is from what’s been shown previously before launch. That being said, the story is much broader, grand in scope, and very involved. I just don’t want to spoil anything if at all possible. If you’ve avoided the most recent trailers, especially with a huge reveal, then you might want to skip ahead a paragraph or two to be safe.

Set 25 years after the events of Gears 3, a new Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) is formed, automated robots replace many solders in dangerous roles, and cities that were devastated in the locust war are starting to heal. The new COG are forcing people to live in specific areas in attempt to keep them safe, but it’s viewed as oppression by some, causing a new “Outsider” faction to form, and there is a very tense relationship between COG and this Outsider faction.

Many citizens are seemingly going missing, and COG naturally assume Outsiders are responsible. Given that the new protagonist, JD Fenix, son of the infamous Marcus from previous games, is the titular hero, we know that is most likely not the truth. JD is accompanied by Del and Kait, and when the autonomous robots, known as DeeBee’s, start attacking JD’s group, they must resort to finding his father for assistance. There’s much more to the story than this, but needless to say you’ll be facing a fearsome new enemy and unravel a whole new mystery when the locust were seemingly all destroyed decades ago. Campaign supports two player co-op, and even crossplay, so make sure to grab a friend and battle the enemies, regardless if they’re on console or PC.

If you haven't played a Gears of War title before, it’s a third person cover based shooter at its core. You’re expected to hide behind cover and shoot your enemies from seemingly safe protection, but Gears 4 implements new weaponry and tactics to counter enemies and players that think staying behind cover is safe. New weapons, like the Dropshot, fires a floating mine for as long as the trigger is held, drilling downwards and exploding when released. There are also cross-cover moves where you can pull an enemy from behind their cover, granting you a moment to execute them brutally. If you’re quick enough though, you can counter these moves, so there’s a few different strategies than can be utilized.

The core gameplay is largely unchanged aside from the new weapon additions and moves, and while it feels fresh, maybe because it’s been so long since a Gears game, it still feels familiar as well. There are a few levels where there’s a massive windstorm, forcing you to take cover while trying to progress. The wind is so strong and violent that certain weapons shots, like the Buzzkill, which launches massive buzz saw blades, will arc in the wind. These sections show how gorgeous Gears 4 can look and are very impressive set pieces which shows us something new the series.

Some vehicle sections return as well, which were the highlights of the whole campaign for me, making me want to replay them numerous times. If you’re a longtime Gears fan you’re going to be able to predict a lengthy gunfight a mile away, as there’s always seemingly a handful of waist high blocks conveniently placed between you and the approaching enemy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t get many surprise battles as the level layout makes it painfully obvious as to what’s about to go down. There are even a few sections where you’ll have to play a few waves of Horde to keep back oncoming waves of enemies to survive during the campaign, a welcomed change of pace.

While some will come to Gears 4 for its campaign and story, a vast majority will mostly likely return for its celebrated multiplayer, and it does not disappoint on its current-gen debut. Rankings and Re-Ups are present, ranging from bronze to diamond, as do dedicated servers and 60FPS, making for incredibly smooth gameplay. Now to be fair, I’ve only played a handful of matches given the small player pool before its release, but I didn't have a single issue.

Obviously there’s Matchmaking, but you can also setup private games as well if you simply want to play with some friends. LAN also makes a return, which I know some people will be ecstatic about, as does splitscreen play. And of course, crossplay is a huge bonus as well for playing with PC gamers. It should be noted that the crossplay doesn’t support versus matchmaking, for obvious keyboard and mouse versus controller issues, though at least you are able to crossplay in private matches should you desire to finally determine who actually is better among your friends on console or PC.

The new raking system is supposed to pair similar skilled players together in a better and fair manner, so a new player shouldn’t be matched up against someone who is much more experienced than you. Again, the player pool is so small as of the time of this writing that I’ve not been able to confirm how well this has been implemented, but that’s the theory behind the new rankings.

There are plenty of modes to play aside from the standard Team Deathmatch, some of which are a lot of fun and have their own twist. At launch there will be 10 maps, with the popular Gridlock being one of them, and while this may seem like a small number, The Coalition has promised new maps every month, both new and remastered ones. Now, before you sigh, thinking you’re going to have to purchase them, there’s great news: all DLC maps will be free for public play. They will rotate in and out of playlists, but they are purchasable if you’d like to own them for private and dedicated matches. Also, only the host will need to own the map, so it’s seems like a great trade off.

The reward system has changed quite drastically in Gears 4, as you now earn credits for all of your online games in Versus or Horde. These credits can then be used on Gear Packs in the store which unlock different items, XP boosts, bounties, horde skills, and even coveted weapon and character skins. Everything can be earned through gameplay itself, but you can disassemble duplicate cards and use them to craft new cards. It’s more involved than I was expecting, especially once you realize that cards are extremely important if you plan on delving into Horde mode, and will take a little time to war your head around.

Co-op Versus allows you to play with other players against bots, which is a great starting point to get the hang of the 60FPS multiplayer gameplay. Social Playlist is where you’ll head next when you’re confident in your skills to take on other players. There’s a handful of modes, of which I’ll just delve into the newer ones, as Team Deathmatch needs no real explanation. There is a Dodgeball, which may seem like an odd name, but its mechanic can make for some frantic gameplay. When you kill an enemy a teammate will respawn, so even though you might be the last one alive on your team, you always have a chance to turn it around by getting a teammate back into the game at any moment.

So far Arms Race is my favorite mode, as this is the Gears variant of “Gun Game”. Your team begins with a Boomshot and every 3 kills your weapon swaps, for the whole team, until you rotate through every single weapon in the game, each needing 3 kills. This mode is great for people wanting to learn the new weapons, as they do take some practice. My only complaint here is that your weapon automatically changes even if you’re charging up your Torque Bow or are in mid clip when shooting someone, which can ultimately lead to an unexpected death.

Escalation is Gears 4's attempt of getting rooted into eSports with this involved competitive mode. Escalation is a round based objective mode where there’s always 3 rings on the map at all times, one near each team's ‘home’ base and the third ring right in the middle of the map, equal distance from both teams. There are spawn flips aside from when rounds end, and you earn points for every second you hold the rings. Your team can try for a quick Domination victory by capturing all 3 rings at once if your gutsy enough. This is easier said than done though, as it takes time for the rings to neutralize and capture.

Everyone starts out with a default Lancer and Gnasher and there are no weapon pickups to begin the match, allowing for an equal start. If your team loses a round you’re granted a weapon that you can place on the battlefield in specific locations, but it can be obtained by either team during gameplay. So, while it may seem like placing a power weapon is a good idea, it could spell disaster if the other team gets it first or kills you and takes it. There’s actually a good amount of strategy that goes into placing the weapons, as you can use it to support your team, or simply block your opponents attempts.

Deaths in round 1 only last 10 seconds, but each subsequent round adds another 2 seconds, making an excruciating 20+ second respawn in the final rounds. Because of the chance of a domination victory, you better hope that your whole team doesn’t get killed simultaneously, or you could lose quite quickly in the later rounds. I can see this mode gaining a lot of traction and I’m excited to see some of the strategies that eSports pros will utilize in the future.

Lastly, Gears multiplayer wouldn’t be complete without the one mode that really put them on the map: Horde Mode. Dubbed Horde 3.0, it will initially feel familiar, but there’s a slew of new additions that easily make it the best version of Horde to date. Up to 5 players can play cooperatively against 50 waves of enemies, with each 10th wave being a boss battle of sorts. I don’t want to spoil some of the boss fights, but you better learn the intricacies of the mode before attempting Horde on the more challenging difficulties.

Not only are there new enemies to combat, but Horde now utilizes a class based system to encourage teamwork and revolves around a mobile fabricator ‘home base’ where you’ll spend earned money to build fortifications or weapons to help you survive. The fortifications that you build can be placed anywhere on the map and can also be moved whenever you desire, so you’re not stuck with a useless fence or turret if enemies are coming from another direction.

The fabricator acts as a pseudo home base, as defeated enemies will drop energy, and if brought back to the fabricator, it can be spent to build your fortifications. It’s indestructible, so there’s no need to guard it, but if it’s in a bad area, depositing your earned energy and spending it can be quite difficult. The fabricator can be used to build gates, turrets, decoys, weapon lockers, and more. Can’t find a specific power weapon to help you out? Spend the energy to build one! You can even revive downed teammates by returning their COG tags to the fabricator provided you have enough energy to do so. The only issue I foresee is when playing with random people that who want to cause havoc, as anyone can spend the earned credits or move the fabricator whenever they wish to anywhere on the map.

There are 5 classes for you to choose from in Horde mode and they can be individually leveled up, each of which is extremely useful in its own right. Finding a perfect balance of class makeup for your party will play a huge factor in how many waves you survive. The classes range from Scout, Soldier, Sniper, Heavy, and Engineer. Each of which has their own starting loadout and special abilities.

Soldiers are your basic damage dealers, and spawn with frag grenades. Scouts are your front-liners while Heavy’s deal massive damage and start with an explosive weapon. Snipers are self-explanatory and are meant to stay back and pick off enemies from afar. Engineers are meant to be responsible for fortifications as they’re the only one that can use the repair tool to prevent fortifications from being destroyed.

Even on the casual setting Horde was quite a challenge, and it will require a lot of teamwork and communication. Without it you’re going to have people wasting hard earned energy or not creating a cohesive group of varied classes. The card system comes into play and dictates what bonuses or skills you have going in, so learning how the card system works will only help you going forward, and will be essential when attempting Insane difficulty.

Gears wouldn’t be Gears without the ‘Seriously’ achievement. These achievements are for the most dedicated and hardcore Gears fan and usually entail putting an obscene amount of time into the game to earn. Seriously 4.0 is no different and will require you to learn almost all aspects of Gears 4. Here’s the rundown of what you’re going to master to earn this badge of honor which is no easy feat:

- Complete the Campaign on Insane Difficulty
- Get to Re-Up 10
- Earn all Ribbons at least once
- Earn a Rank Placement in each mode
- Get all 5 classes to Level 10
- Level any 5 Horde Skills to Level 5
- Complete all 10 ‘on-disc’ maps from Wave 1-50 (any difficulty)

I was enthralled with the Gears 4's campaign and enjoyed it from beginning to end. It’s full of mystery, character development, humor, and classic Gears gameplay. The memorable set pieces and vehicular sections are grand in scale and really stand out among the best moments of JD Fenix’s journey. Gears 4's color palette isn’t as drab and brown heavy as its predecessors, as it supports the new HDR lighting technology, which looks breathtaking (sadly I don’t have a TV that supports HDR) from what’s been shown.

While JD isn’t as rough as his dad, at least not yet, he is his father’s son, sharing some similar qualities, which makes him easy to accept as the series’ new protagonist. The new squad may not be as memorable or revered as Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole just yet, but they had a trilogy to build their characters, and Gears 4 is just the beginning of a new saga. I’m already anxiously waiting to see what’s in store for us fans in Gears 5. If you were nervous how the new studio was going to handle the Gears series, put those fears to rest, as The Coalition has delivered an experience that feels new yet familiar at the same time and worthy of the Gears of War title. Whether you’re coming for the campaign, competitive multiplayer, or Horde mode, Gears of War 4 has tremendous value and replayability and ushers in the new generation some change for the series.

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 Virginia

Normally once I see the credits roll after finishing a game I jump right into writing the review, as it’s fresh in my mind and I start to formulate what I want to convey. Virginia was a completely different experience gaming wise, and I actually needed to take a day or two to figure out what I had experienced, and how to explain it to you in such a way that it actually made sense.

Personally, I think part of what threw me off was that Virginia is more of an interactive movie experience than a traditional game. I don’t normally like to use the term “walking simulator”, as most people scoff at those types of games save for a few of the standouts, but that’s really the best description for its ‘gameplay’. It is a mystery tale that unfolds its layers in interesting ways, some that I’ve never experienced in a video game format before, mimicking filmography with its unique editing and storytelling.

Set in a first person view, Virginia tells a tale about protagonist Anne Tarver, a recent FBI graduate taking on her first case. It has a thriller tone and attempts to tell a story about a missing young boy that you need to investigate with your partner Maria. Now I don’t want to go into much more detail about the plot for a few reasons. The first being that Virginia is only 2 hours long. Yes, it’s very short, but that’s not necessarily a detriment, as its tale gets told in that amount of time, well... kind of.

Secondly, I have to be honest here and let you know that I’m still processing Virginia and trying to understand it. "But why?" you ask. Well, there’s zero dialogue in the game. None at all, so you only have subtle body language and facial cues to read when trying to understand what’s happening and why. This may sound like another detriment, but I honestly don’t think it would have been as impactful as it was if there was spoken or subtitled dialogue. I know, odd, but it seems to work here. You simply need to interpret people’s faces and actions to understand their thoughts and what they’re trying to get across.

It’s odd for such a narrative based story to be told with no dialogue or sounds aside from a brilliant soundtrack that tells almost as much as speaking would. Because of these choices I believe many people who will see the credits roll will all interpret the ending a little differently in their own way, which is brilliant. Akin to Fargo or True Detective, Virginia is an original experience full of drama and twists that you don’t see coming at all. It’s odd, and not a traditional ‘game’, but it’s a worthwhile narrative to experience.

As I mentioned above, Virginia is more of an interactive story than a traditional game. As for its gameplay, it’s simplistic, as you control Anne through a set of linear sequences, looking for items to interact with which will take you to the next scene. There are no no moral choices to be made or guns to fire, you’re simply going from point A to B while looking for objects to interact with that will let you progress. It’s basic at its core, but again, for some reason it simply seems to work in the setting. That’s not to say that you’re always walking down a corridor, as there are some small side areas to explore like other rooms while in a house, but it’s a very guided experience.

The game is odd in such that it is a mystery game, but it doesn’t have you solving any puzzles or piecing together any clues gameplay wise, as you’re simply along for the (short) ride, allowing you to attempt to figure out what events are unfolding before you and how they all piece together. What I initially found very jarring was how the scenes are edited from one to another. For example, I was walking down a hallway and I found a piece of paper that I was looking for and inspected it, next thing I know I’m in a car driving somewhere with my partner. There was no scene transition, no fade to black, nothing. This is how Virginia moves you from scene to scene, and it can be a little disorientating at first, especially when you are trying to figure out what’s going on without any dialogue.

Normally I wouldn’t dedicate a paragraph for achievements in a review, but they deserved to be mentioned here. There’s a handful of achievements, but there’s no point looking at the titles or descriptions, as neither will give you a clue of what needs to be done to earn it. Here’s a good example of the achievement and its description: Flea - Victories in space and time.

The vast majority of Xbox games tend to stick with achievement values that are multiples of 5, but since Virginia wants to be different in everything it does, that’s not the case here. Here’s a handful of the odd achievement values for you that you can unlock: 13, 23, 31, 32, 44, 49, and 68. The secret achievements are near impossible to attain without a walkthrough, and I’m not sure how some people even figured them out. Good luck to you achievement hunters out there, I know this will drive some of you crazy.

Virginia looks as if it’s dated, taken straight from some early 90’s CG, but the visuals feel stylized and purposeful rather than low budget. Vibrant coloring adds to the visuals too. The true standout to the whole presentation though is without a doubt the stunning soundtrack. I’m not normally much of an audio guy, but wow, Virginia’s soundtrack is something that needs to be experienced. Because of the lack of dialogue the audio is how you get the feeling and mood of the scene, and this is done to perfection with music.

Composed by Lyndon Holland, and performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, it is easily in my top 3 gaming soundtracks. It changes and responds to your actions and feels as though it’s telling you what the characters aren’t saying with words. Music becomes tense when you’re about to come across a shocking discovery and the mood can change almost instantly with a different tonality based on your actions. I can’t say enough great things about the soundtrack, as Virginia wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without it.

While some will scoff at Virginia for its ‘walking simulator’ mechanics and extremely short gameplay, there’s not a lot of games that have me thinking about the experience and wondering about it days after it’s complete. Sure, there are those gamers that will simply feel like it’s a 2 hour interactive cutscene, having you confused the whole way, but there should be those that see it as a unique experience as it is a journey surrounded in mystery, always having you guessing to what’s real or not, akin to a great episode of The X-Files. You’re not in control of anything in Virginia, and once you come to accept that, it’s a completely different experience. It’s not going to appeal to many, but for those of you that might understand it, you will find something truly unique that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Final Station, The

I had no idea what to expect when The Final Station arrived to review, as I initially assumed it was some sort of pseudo train-sim game given the few screenshots I saw. What I got though was something totally unexpected, unique, and contained impressive pixel artwork, though it does also have some flaws that seem more like oversights rather than massive design mistakes. So let’s get to it and see if it’s worth your time to reach the final station.

Setting place in a dystopian world, some cataclysmic event has happened, causing supplies to be scarce and society to break down. Sure, it’s a trope that we’ve seen a hundred times before, but it’s framed in an interesting way that places you as a train conductor, travelling from town to city, rescuing any survivors you can find while battling an unknown enemy.

There is a bit more to the story, but given that The Final Station only takes a handful of hours to complete, I really don’t want to give much else away in fear of spoiling its best parts. What I will say is that the narrative is only revealed if you take the time to explore and listen to peoples conversations and find papers laying about, but if you decide to not pay attention, you won’t have any context to why the world is the way it is and what has happened to everyone. Even though the storytelling is weak as a whole since the bulk of it is not mandatory, the ending was pretty powerful and iha still stuck with me, days later after completion.

Played as a 2D side scroller, you simply want to fulfill your job as a train engineer. Your character seems good hearted, as it’s as if he simply wants to do the right thing by helping anyone he can that he comes across during his travels. There are two main gameplay elements that you’ll participate in; exploration and travel. You need to explore seemingly deserted towns and areas to find supplies to help you continue your journey, then travel from station to station on your train, hopefully with other survivors that will reward you if you help them reach their destination. The general gameplay flow is train, explore, train, explore, and repeat until credits roll. It’s basic but the tension eventually builds, and once you get into the later stages and start piecing together what’s going on, it does become quite interesting.

You are forced to stop at each train station along the tracks due to special blockers being installed at each locale, ensuring you’re unable to leave until you find a special unlock code to undock your locomotive and continue on your journey. Sure it seems a little forced, but that’s how you’re guided to explore each town you stop at, unable to progress until you find said code. You’re going to want to explore as much as possible though anyways, looking for items to sell, resources like food and water, and of course, any other survivors.

The first few locations you stop at don’t seem too bad off, but soon you start to notice a military presence and a disturbing lack of other people. Taking the time to explore, reading computers and notes posted around, will start to give you a glimpse into what happened to everyone suddenly. Eventually you’ll come to towns that are seemingly completely deserted, but you’re still forced to search for the blocker unlock code to progress.

You’ll need to check every desk, closet, locker, and abandoned car to find food, health kits, ammunition, and more. Every item you find is useful, as it either has a monetary value which is used to purchase upgrades, ammo, and other items when you reach a major city, or the item can be used in crafting health packs or ammo for your travels. You’ll want to explore every area you can, as there are some hidden tunnels that will usually house survivors or an ammo cache, which will come in quite handy later on. Luckily there’s no escorting needed when you find a survivor, as they miraculously know how to get back to the train to wait for you to be done.

The other half of the main gameplay is when you’re travelling on your train from area to area. This isn’t a free ride, and you’ll need to work to keep your train on pace, repaired, and keeping an eye on injured survivors. If you manage to have a handful of survivors at a time, they’ll chat to one another, allowing you to get a further glimpse into the back story. Don’t stand around listening for too long though, as if you don’t keep up on repairs, your train will come to a halt until it’s fixed, which has disastrous consequences since you're constantly low on supplies.

Your train has three main areas for you to interact with, the first being the front of the train where you can craft items, check your map, and also communicate with other engineers. This is where you’ll use the items you've scavenged to craft more first aid kits and ammunition. You’re only able to craft on your train, so make sure you do as much as you can before you reach your destination.

The second area is where you’ll interact with numerous parts of the train that seem to be malfunctioning during every trip. There’s a handful of different devices that will malfunction or overheat, but you’ll only have to deal with one of them per train ride, seemingly randomized as far as I could tell. If you don’t take care of the overheating, the train comes to a stop, which puts the passenger’s health at risk, and will take you longer to reach your next destination. These minigames aren’t explained in any way, so you’ll need to be clever and figure them out quickly, but you’ll know you’ve done the right thing when levels start to cool and there’s a small checkmark, giving you a few moments to rest before having to do it again.

While dealing with the train issues, you also need to keep an eye on your passengers in the caboose. Standing beside them will show their continuously draining hunger and health meters, their profession, and how much money you’ll earn if they survive to their destination (usually a handful of stops). You have a dispensary of health and food, but it comes in very little supply, which is why exploring during the town levels is so crucial. In the beginning you’ll have enough food and medical supplies for a passenger or two, but what do you do when you have 5 or so at once and not enough to last to get to the next stop for everyone? Factor in you need to constantly be taking care of the train as well during these sections, and you can start to see the franticness that ensues each time.

So why do you need ammo and weapons if seemingly everyone is gone? Well, you’ll start to encounter black zombie-like creatures that will attack you on sight, so you need to either shoot or melee them until they go down. There’s only a handful of enemy types throughout the game, ranging from normal, small but quick, explosive, and armored types. Each have a slight variation of how to best defeat them, but once you’ve killed one and learn the best strategy, combat doesn’t become much challenge from that point onward.

At first you’ll have very little ammo, constantly barely scraping by with what you have, but eventually you’ll never run out, especially once you learn that melee attacks are the best way to conserving ammo. You’re able to be ‘cheap’ and attack from ladders and angles in which they can’t reach you, and once you learn these tricks, combat mostly becomes trivial and more of a nuisance.

While the enemies aren’t difficult on their own, you’re sometimes put against a pack of up to ten at once, which is where you’ll find yourself in trouble real quick if you aren’t smart on your strategy. Learning to headshot will save ammo, and shooting an explosive enemy saves you many more bullets as well. Some items can be picked up and thrown and should be used whenever available, as it’s an instant kill if used properly. Should you fall in battle, there’s a checkpoint system in place that’s very generous, usually only having you backtrack 5 to 10 seconds rather than repeating the whole level over again.

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Final Station in the first half, as the narrative isn’t told very well unless you take the time to read everything you come across. So some people may not ever truly figure out what’s going on or why. The bigger problem though is that the text font that was used is so incredibly small, that it’s very difficult to read easily, especially from afar on the couch. I’m sure the font was chosen to fit with the pixel art style, but it made reading every word a chore and sometimes guesswork. Another issue you’ll notice from the opening title screen is the odd decision to make the menu selections near impossible to distinguish what option you have selected or not. The menu is white, and your selection is an off-white, so it’s complete guesswork of what you’re choosing. A handful of times I almost lost my save file because I chose new game instead of continue, panicked, and reset the game to be sure. The issue continues while on the train as well, unable to determine your selection very easily, even more so during the crafting menu where is literally is a guess where the cursor is.

Lastly, the train sections themselves simply aren’t fun. While it only takes a few minutes to reach destinations, your time is spent running supplies to passengers, maintaining your train, and micromanaging everything. It really isn’t done well, or fun. Having to choose who to give your last med kit or food ration to seems like complete guesswork of whom to pick. Maintaining your train is trial and error since no instructions are ever explained. You can’t even stand beside the passengers for too long to read their dialogue since you need to bounce between train maintenance and supply rations which are off screen, not allowing you to see the dialogue boxes. The artwork is absolutely beautiful, and so is the music when there is some, but there’s very few instances where background music actually plays, leaving you with a mostly silent experience. I assume this is done on purpose to convey the atmosphere and mood, but it’s as if something is missing with no background music at all to piece it all together.

The Final Station is a unique and creative experience. While simple at its core and a mystery that unveils itself slowly, its gameplay mechanics are repetitive and dull. While not a bad game by any means, it simply starts to wear out its welcome when you have to deal with yet another train ride and a town to explore, all to find a piece of paper so you repeat the same experience again. I truly enjoyed the ending, which was a saving grace in my eyes, I just hope others will make it to the final station to experience it for themselves.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 King Oddball

Who knew that one day a game about flinging birds from a slingshot into buildings and pigs would become a massive success, spawning a near endless supply of other physics based puzzle games, all trying to capitalize on its success. While King Oddball does play differently, it utilizes some of the same concepts. The real question though is, does this one do enough differently to not fall into the Angry Birds clone stereotype, or will it be yet another physics puzzle game that gets forgotten? Let’s find out.

King Oddball won’t win any awards for its narrative, mainly because there really isn’t one included at all. You play as King Oddball, a giant floating head with an enormously long tongue that puts Gene Simmons to shame. You float in the sky, hurling rocks at your enemies, usually tanks, to try and destroy them all before you run out of boulders. That’s it. Honestly.

King Oddball is lucky, as the vast majority of his foes are simply stationary and don’t retaliate in any way. Apparently the military's idea of retaliation is hiding behind walls, under bridges, or in any flimsy buildings they can find. He has a single attack, and you only use a single button in the whole game, that’s how simplistic King Oddball can be. I say can because eventually levels will become quite challenging, as you’ve only a set number of boulders to hit every enemy.

Unlike having to aim and launch at the right time like other games, King Oddball will grab a boulder with his tongue then start to twist in place back and forth. Once you press the A button, that’s when he will release the rock, hurling it towards enemy tanks, choppers, and soldiers. Needless to say, the learning curve for the game is quite easy, but you will need to eventually master releasing the rock at just the right angle for it to bounce and hit multiple enemies at once.

Luckily for the King, if you manage to hit 3 enemies or more with a single rock, you’ll earn a bonus boulder, a tactic that is much needed in the latter stages with many enemies. As you progress, you’ll encounter different types of materials, all of which react differently when hit. Wood for example can be broken with a good hit, whereas stone walls can be broken, but take usually at least two hits to do so. You’ll also eventually encounter unbreakable objects, requiring you to think of an alternate way to lob your projectile at them since their hidden behind said wall.

The later stages become very difficult, as it seems as many stages only have one real solution to them. Eventually your throws need to be absolutely perfect or you will fail by running out of rocks. More often than not you’ll have one enemy left and one boulder to do so, only to miss by a slight bit, forcing you to replay the level once again. Most levels can be passed easily and with a single throw, but there are a handful that will have you stuck for quite some time, causing a lot of frustration.

At first you may think that King Oddball doesn’t offer much gameplay, as you can see how many stages are available on the world map, but you’d be wrong. There’s a large number of standard stages to complete, but you’ll also unlock a handful of separate bonus levels to challenge you as well. Some of these are interesting, having you lob grenades instead of rocks, something that I wish was incorporated into the main game itself rather than a bonus.

Unlike other physic puzzlers, King Oddball decides to do things a little bit differently; odd if you will (see what I did there?). Instead of having a 3 star rating on each stage then allowing you to replay them to earn a better rank, once a level is complete, that’s it, you can’t replay it. You’re also not ranked on how well you completed a level, based on how many rocks it took to do so aside from a message saying “great” or some variation of "good job". It’s an odd decision to design the game this way, as replaying levels is what gives games like this a lot of replayability. Granted, there’s a bonus section where you can replay some of the basic stages again, but it’s not the same as letting a friend try the same level once you finish it to see how they perform.

Instead of levels displayed in a linear form, there’s a world map that has you in a specific 4x4 grid, and once every stage in the grid is complete, you can then move onto the next grid of new levels until the whole map is unlocked. As for how it looks, it’s as if it’s been ripped right from a mobile game. Granted, a game like this doesn’t need anything special for visuals, but it stand out either. As for the audio, the music is decent at first, but it loops frequently and becomes very repetitive, so eventually you’re going to want to mute the audio, especially if you’re trying to complete all the levels or stuck on a specific one for quite some time.

While there are a large number of levels, many of them feel exactly the same. Very few stand out as memorable, as it’s usually slightly different enemy placement more than intriguing ‘puzzles’ that need to be solved. Something I kept asking myself while going through King Oddball was “Am I having fun?”, as if it wasn’t obvious, even to myself. My answer? Kind of. Maybe it’s simply because I never jumped aboard the Angry Birds train. Simply put, this would be fun on mobile, but as a console game, it’s not something you want to generally sit down and play for a few hours at a time, but instead, just a few quick minutes.

There’s a large number of levels and bonuses to play through, and if you were ever addicted to Angry Birds at some point, you’ll know exactly what to expect, even if at times it feels like you need more luck than skill. That being said, given its low price point, there is a decent amount of value contained within, even if the fun can be fleeting.

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Hue

Because there’s a huge amount of platforming puzzle titles out there, these days it’s becoming incredibly difficult for a specific game in the genre to stand out. With titles like Limbo, Braid, or Ori and the Blind Forest, new games have a tough time not being tagged as a clone or as one that is simply trying too hard to be one of the better known puzzle games. Many games in the genre either fall into the mediocre bucket or simply get passed by because of how many there are, but every now and again something special does come long, like recently released game called Hue, a title that utilizes unique gameplay and offers many challenges with its puzzle groundwork.

Living in a completely grey and monochrome world, you control Hue whom is looking for his lost mother. She was a scholar studying colors, and is now trapped in a new type of world, filled with many vibrant colors; something Hue’s world has never experienced. Hue happens to stumble upon colors during the search for his mother, learning slowly how to control and change the world’s color around him on a whim.

As you progress you’ll find letters from your mother, giving you hints of what happened to her as you search for why she is missing. The writing is great, but the voice acting is absolutely phenomenal. Even though Hue’s mom is the only narration in the game and it comes in spurts, it’s done perfectly in a calming and soothing motherly-like tone that brings comfort. The clever writing, while short, provokes thought and brings emotion into the narrative. Kudos to developers Fiddlesticks for nailing this part of Hue perfectly.

Hue’s core mechanics are based on being able to control different colors of the world once they are unlocked, which allows you to interact with the world in very unique ways, making for some challenging puzzles. The artwork is seemingly hand drawn, adding a great personal touch to the overall experience. The art style, while simplistic, brings a certain calmness to the drab pre-colored world.

Hue needs to pass from room to room, and area to area, to get closer to solving the mystery of his lost mother, but of course there are objects blocking his path. The only way for him to progress further is use his newfound ability to control the spectrum of colors, allowing him to change the background color. Objects in Hue are a variety of colors, so you must match, or purposely mismatch, the colors to move forward. For example, say there’s a red block is blocking your way, having Hue change the background color to red will make that block completely disappear, allowing you to pass since it’s blended into the background. It’s an incredibly simplistic mechanic, but is utilized in very clever ways.

All that’s needed to change the colors of the world is a simple flick of the Right Stick to the color wheel, landing on your desired color. In the beginning it’s quite simple, as you only need to switch between a single color or two, but by the end of Hue’s journey you’ll have up to 8 different colors to choose from, making for some frantic color switching. Since objects of specific colors can be hidden within the same background, you’ll need to frequently shift colors to reveal them, though that means other colored objects might become hidden in the process.

Hue does a fantastic job of slowly easing you into its mechanics, teaching you the basics as you slowly move onto harder puzzles before adding another color into the mix. The learning curve is very smooth and I never truly became frustrated until the massive difficulty spike right near the end. Fiddlesticks has also done an amazing job at making sure no two puzzles ever feel too similar. Sure, at its core you’re simply moving boxes, but the process to do so is varied and never feels repetitive.

As you play, using the color wheel becomes second nature, and eventually you’ll get to the point of memorizing where every color on the wheel selector is without having to think twice. This makes the gameplay become even more fluid, and factor this in with the intended slow motion that occurs when choosing your color, Hue simply feels great to play. Sure, in the beginning you’ll come across a few puzzles that seem literally impossible, but once you figure out that room’s ‘trick’, you know better for the next time you come across a similar type of obstacle. The only real restriction when choosing your color is that you can’t be standing ‘inside’ another colored object, as it would kill you if you make it appear from being previously blended into the background.

Many levels are simply trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. If you think logically, or try to solve it backwards (starting at the end point thinking how to solve each prior step), Hue plays right into your strengths. While it’s easy to distinguish the main colors of yellow, red, blue, and green, it can become a little tricky to determine if you need the dark blue or the purple at times, especially during frantic sections. The same goes with yellow and orange, which are beside each other on the color wheel. If this is an ongoing issue, or if you’re color blind, there’s an option to show symbols on all similar colored items, allowing a more visual representation of each shade.

The majority of achievements are gained simply by progressing through the game and watching the credits, with the only elusive one being for collecting all of the secret hidden beakers. The map menu displays how many you’ve found in each ‘section’ of the game, and you can continue playing after the credits roll, allowing completionists to continue on Hue’s journey a little longer.

As I said earlier, it takes a lot for a game in this genre to stand out among the vast selection of other games. Hue takes an incredibly simple premise and turns it into a unique, fun, and challenging game that I’m still thinking of days later. To be completely honest, Hue wasn’t on my radar at all, but I’m incredibly grateful it fell into my lap by chance, as I’m glad I got to experience it from beginning to finish. Hue easily stands out amongst the crowd, not just because of its interesting art style or its fun game mechanics, but because it’s a really creative game that tries, and succeeds, to not imitate other games, as it leaves you satisfied yet wanting more.

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Valley

Better known for the studio that brought gamers Slender: The Arrival, Blue Isle Studios has released their newest title on Xbox One, Valley. While it’s a somewhat short game, clocking in at just around 4 hours, Valley can be beautiful when at its best. While it may be short in length, there are times that it makes this up in beauty and fluidity, but only in small sections when perfect conditions and mechanics are in play. During the rest of the journey though it can be somewhat dull for reasons that I’ll delve into shortly.

Your journey begins with your character exploring a cave in the Canadian Rockies after crashing in a canoe. You emerge into another world that’s seemingly been long forgotten. Beauty is the first word that comes to mind, as you are surrounded by lush vegetation and trees, wildlife, and sunrays that envelop the whole land. You stumble across a crate that contains a metal exoskeleton titled the L.E.A.F. suit (Leap Effortlessly through Air Functionality). From this point on you can run at incredible speeds (at least downhill) and jump across chasms effortlessly. The L.E.A.F. suit also empowers you to manipulate life and death, introduced in a 50’s style projector movie, reminiscent of something you’d see in Bioshock.

As the story unfolds, you’re in search of the Lifeseed, a mysterious power source that is capable of unfathomable power. Interestingly, aside from some wildlife, the whole valley seems devoid of any sentient life, which is beautiful in some ways, but when you find scattered notes littered throughout the land, you come to understand there were people here before. But why are they gone and where did they go? That’s up to you to solve during your travels.

Given that the whole narrative is told through audio logs and notes, it’s hard to become invested into the characters and reasoning since you don’t ever interact with anyone directly. While the narrative isn’t told very well, since much of the lore won’t even be found unless you’re trying to actively seek it all, it is an intriguing story once you start to piece together the events of what previously happened, and why no one is left.

Once you dawn the L.E.A.F. suit your real journey begins, as you’re taught to constantly run, rarely slowing down from that point onward. You begin by running down a path, gaining speed as you go, before leaping across a cliff. Eventually you'll get the hang of the controls, allowing you to run between trees and other objects at a quick pace, which feels great when you’re at top speed. For how beautiful the world is, it feels as though you never get a chance to appreciate it since you’re constantly moving forward at a quick speed. You’ll learn new abilities as you progress, but movement and fluidity is a constant for the majority of Valley’s experience.

There are times where it’s as if some of the layout wasn’t planned ahead of time, and when you attempt to take corners quickly at top speed it simply doesn’t work as you’ll almost always hit something or slow down much more than intended. It’s as if you’re unable to keep up with your own momentum at times and there are even a handful of giant leaps you must take only to find yourself land awkwardly into a tree or hitting a rock, as if it was placed in the middle of your path on purpose. While you can slightly adjust your movement in mid-air, only to a small degree, there will be times where you’ll attempt to avoid landing in front of an object but you're unable to.

While the first bit of the game takes place in the beautiful outdoors with sprawling vistas, there’s a good chunk of the game that forces you indoors, hampering much of your quick movement. In these bunkers you’ll be traversing through vents and small walkways, but you generally never get the speed that you’ve become accustomed to up to this point. It is here that Valley loses a lot of its charm in these claustrophobic stages and tends to feel like a completely different, and dull, game.

There is one saving grace in these areas though, and it is a couple of sections where you get to run at an even faster than normal speed on some on-rail like areas. These sections, while far too few, are incredibly fun and exciting as you run at crazy speeds, having to jump across massive gaps off of broken bridges. Sadly, there’s only two of these sections in the whole game, arguably the coolest moments in all of Valley, and they left me wanting more.

Eventually you'll upgrade your L.E.A.F. suit allowing you to use a grapple hook on specific points, which opens up your momentum and fluidity in specific areas. While these hooks can be fun when used properly, and it feels almost like you’re Spider-Man swinging around, you need to make sure you let go at the right moment or you’ll lose all your momentum and fall. Near the later sections of the game you’ll also gain the ability to walk along metallic surfaces, which will have you walking sideways, or completely upside down, at times.

Your L.E.A.F. suit needs energy though, as that is what’s used to do almost everything from shooting, double jumps, grapple hooks, and more. You refill energy by collecting blue orbs scattered throughout the land, and there’s almost always enough nearby that you’ll ever be completely out of energy. While it’s interesting that you have the power to give or take life, it never feels fully realized, as you only really use it to power up devices, or to give/take life from trees or wildlife. Sure bringing a dead tree or fallen deer back to life is heartwarming the first few times, but after that there’s little reason to do so, unless you always want your suits energy to be full.

What’s really interesting about the energy of your L.E.A.F. suit though is that it’s all tied to your abilities and health, as well as to the “life” of the valley. Instead of having a set number of lives for when you fall into water (which “kills” you since the suit is so heavy) or a pit, you and the valley are tied together in some way (this is explained later in the game).

If you happen to die the valley brings you back to life, but at the expense of its own health, represented by a branch with leaves in the upper left corner near your own energy. Die too many times in a row and the valley will die, then it’s truly game over, but don’t concern yourself with this, as I was able to complete Valley without ever coming close to the valley fading away. This is because to refill the valley's health you simply have to give life back to dead trees, animals, and other objects, and since there’s always more than enough energy orbs around at all times, this is very easy to do.

The only issue I had with the energy sharing mechanic is that if you are using a lot of your energy to shoot the enemies you encounter, you’re also depleting your own life bar at the same time. For some reason dying tended to take random amounts of the valley’s life away whenever I did die, instead of a same preset amount every time. I don’t know if this is intended, or a bug, but it seemed that the amount of life the valley would lose whenever I drowned or fell to my death was not consistent.

Combat is present in Valley, and at first it’s simply against some glowing bee-like swarms that shoot at you, but eventually you’ll also face some ghost-like creatures, and that’s it; only two enemy types in the game, neither of which are challenging, and only take 2 or 3 shots to defeat. The combat sections are weak, and while many of them can be avoided by simply running past them it feels almost as an unnecessary addition. Strafing out of the way and returning fire is all it takes to defeat any enemy, and their slow projectiles are simple to avoid. Save for a boss fight near the end, there’s absolutely no variety to combat, and if you shoot them before they notice you you can easily defeat all enemies without them even reacting.

There are some secrets and collectibles to find throughout the game world, and doing so will net you some extra upgrades. There are certain doors that take a set number of acorns to open (yes, acorns), so while you’re supposed to always be running forward there are rewards for those that want to explore as well. There are even special medallions that can be found, but you won’t know what they are for until the near end of the game. While some might simply write Valley off as a walking (well, running) simulator, there’s some great beauty to be had, especially some of the overlooking landscapes where you can see the Northern Lights above. Running and jumping at full speed, or utilizing the hook properly, feels absolutely great, but for every few moment of fun you have, there’s another that either slows you down or forces you to traverse indoors instead.

For a game that centers on life and death, it’s odd that there’s virtually no life within its world that you actually care about. Because of this it’s hard to become truly invested in it, and the constant ‘stop and go’ doesn’t help when you’re trying to keep momentum and fluidity constant. While there are some reasons for some to play through more than once, and find all of the secrets, I found that I was content after seeing the credits roll. Regardless of all its shortcomings though, I’m glad I experienced Valley and got to explore its intriguing world. Even though the game hits a few bumps along the adventure, the final few sections of the game, save for the combat, are very much worth experiencing. At the end of the day you'll become accepting of its' shortcomings and realize that there is a decent game in this indie title.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Binaries

I was raised to not be a quitter. Sure this was more directed as life advice than my gaming career, but I try and follow that motto when playing games as well. Well, sorry mom, I quit. While most people would use Dark Souls or a specific shmup game to be a benchmark for challenging games, those people clearly haven’t had a chance to play Binaries yet. Binaries lures you into a false sense of security with its retro inspired visuals and basic looking gameplay. Man, I was so wrong. Simple in design, basic controls, but brutally difficult. I had Binaries pegged wrong all this time.

The core premise of Binaries is that you control two sprites at the exact same time, blue and orange, and you need to get them to their respective colored goal areas. That’s it. In the beginning it seems almost too simplistic, as both sprites are locked to the same movements at the same time; so when you move right, both move right, and when you jump, they both jump, and so on. Your basic introduction is simply there to lure you into a false sense of security, as things become much more difficult very quickly.

Some levels are basic, others you’ll finish by sheer luck, but most though, will have you resisting every urge you have to throw your controller right out the window. You will learn to hate spikes, as those can kill you if touched, forcing you to reset the level (automatically). Luckily there’s zero time for reloads, and levels are only supposed to last around 10 to 30 seconds, if you’re going by the benchmark times for ranks. Eventually you’ll have other objects to avoid, like turret fire, and other nasty tricks that you’ll start to call mean names to.

What I wish Binaries did better was increase the difficulty gradually and slowly, but there’s a certain point where it just skyrockets in its challenge, leaving you frustrated and confused about how to even tackle the level properly. Luckily progress isn’t a linear experience, as the world map shows every level as its own dot on the map, touching other dots. When you complete a level, any other dots (levels) that are physically connected open up to be played. So this allows you to play any unlocked levels in any order. Sometimes you’ll breeze through a seemingly harder challenge, while the ‘simpler’ ones will have you pulling your hair out. This was a smart idea by the devs, as if I was forced to complete levels in order without being able to progress, I would have given up long ago.

To get your two orbs to their respective finish lines sounds easy, yet it’s anything but. Some levels are one big open area, while others tie each orb to their own ‘track’. While there is a time limit for each level, it’s simply for bragging rights (and achievements), and as long as you make it to the goal, regardless of your time, you unlock any adjacent levels on the world map. Eventually levels also include 5 second time bonuses, when if collected, will reduce your overall time for that attempt. They aren’t necessary, but for those that love time attacks, you have your work cut out for you.

Easily the best part about Binaries though is its humor. The background of each level has messages that pop up from the devs, sometimes with a funny joke (or terrible pun), or simply making fun of themselves, like how a developer was fired for making a specific level too hard. Normally when I become frustrated with difficult games, I found myself not wanting to go back for more, but Binaries is somehow different. Even though I want to destroy my controller at times, I still want to try new levels, even after the hundredth time.

While visually Binaries looks terribly simple, it’s appealing to the eye, and the smooth and precise gameplay helps with that. As for the audio, it’s a good fit, and I noticed there’s even some relaxing ambient music, possibly in attempt to try and relax the player from maximum frustration.

I know when I’m defeated, and Binaries defeated me pretty bad. For those puzzle fanatics that are able to complete every level, not even including S ranks, my hats off to you. Puzzle games are supposed to challenge, and Binaries took that to heart, and possibly even a bit too far at times. It’s not an easy game by any means, but it’s well deserving of its price point.

Binaries contains an incredible challenge, complete with a massive learning curve, continuously increasing difficulty, and simplistic gameplay. If you want to know how many swear words you truly know, sit down with Binaries for a few hours, and you might even surprise yourself with some of the profanities that come out of your mouth. Oh, and also stock up on spare controllers, you’re going to need them if you want to get through all of the challenges.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Nightmares from the Deep 2: The Siren's Call

Artifex Mundi is arguably the best current developer of hidden object games (HOG’s) on consoles today. Sure, there aren’t many developers these days that dabble in the genre, especially on console, but Artifex Mundi have seemed to find their stride and are bringing their engaging and fun titles from PC and mobile to the Xbox One, with success. It wasn’t until I got to review their last title on Xbox One, Grim Legends, that I realized I really enjoyed the genre for its laid back gameplay, allowing me to relax, solve some puzzles, and enjoy its beautiful artwork.

While some might scoff at playing point and click adventures like this, if you’ve played any of their titles before, you know exactly what’s in store for you with Nightmares from the Deep 2: The Siren’s Call. Sometimes you simply want to take a break from shooters and action games, and for times like those, The Siren’s Call is a great title to relax with and solve some puzzles.

The Siren’s Call is obviously a sequel, and while I’ve not played the original title, there’s a very brief attempt of catching you up on what’s happened so far. Given that titles like these aren’t generally story intensive, it’s appreciated that there’s at least an attempt to include an intriguing narrative, even if it sometimes falls flat in some parts. You play as the returning protagonist, Sarah Black, who works at a museum and receives a mysterious package one night from a shadowy figure. As you solve the puzzle of opening the package and obtain the artifact within, you’re instantly assaulted and robbed.

Thinking her crazy adventures were behind her, she's thrust into a new adventure in the town of Kingsmouth, whose population is filled with fishmen. You must retrieve the artifact and save a siren to prevent the evil mayor from summoning the Kraken to do his bidding. It’s a little out there for its' story, but fitting for the whole Davy Jones mythology. While the voice acting isn’t perfect by any means, it’s at least passable. Sure the story is cliché and predictable at times, but in a game like this, the story is simply there to string you along from puzzle to puzzle.

You begin by first choosing between Normal or Expert mode, with the main difference being that normal allows you to use hints after a certain amount of time and your map shows you where you have to go next. On expert you get none of these assists. The first handful of puzzles start off quite easy, easing you into the gameplay and teaching you the basics you’ll need to continue your adventure.

Most of the puzzles are either a HOG, tasking you with finding a shopping list of items in a messy area, or having you use and combine items in your inventory to solve other logical puzzles. The bigger puzzles are generally some sort of tile moving or rotating gears type, nothing too difficult that I ever became frustrated or stuck, but varied enough to keep things from becoming stale. Most scenes you come across will require you to inspect items, only to find out that you don’t have the pieces you need to progress before solving puzzles in a different area.

If HOG’s aren’t your thing, you can alternatively play a quick game of mahjong instead. Why mahjong I’m not sure, but at least there’s an option for those that would rather not sort through messy items. There’s even an achievement for playing all the mahjong games rather than HOG’s, so two playthroughs are required for those achievement hunting.

You eventually gain access to a map, not only for showing you how the scenes are connected and allowing you to fast travel to and from any scene, but it also gives you a hint of where you have left an unsolved puzzle (on normal mode) to prevent becoming too lost. While The Siren’s Call is easily completed in a single sitting if you’re a puzzle aficionado, especially if you’re relying on the built in hint system, it’s still a fun experience to be had. There’s an epilogue included as well that’s playable once you complete the main game. While it’s a very short addition and nowhere near as challenging as the main game, it’s still a welcome addition that adds another hour or so to the experience.

The art style that Artifex Mundi uses for their games is absolutely beautiful. While the voice acting and animation could use some work, the visuals alone is quite impressive with its' colorful and vibrant style, making for a charming experience. Every scene feels as though it’s been hand painted and fits the overall tone of the game and backdrop. While the music itself isn’t as prominent and featured as the visuals, it’s subtle and adds to the overall mood of the scenery.

Loading times are minimal when moving from scene to scene, and I never had to struggle with the controls clicking the wrong items in the HOG’s. Given that the reticule is quite large, it’s accurate for the most part, when trying to choose a specific item. Thankfully the framerate issues I encountered in Grim Legends seems to have been fixed and is none existent in The Siren’s Call, so good on Artifex Mundi for solving that nagging issue with their previous titles.

Sure, the game is only a handful of hours long (or much longer if you’re not great at puzzles), and the story is basic, but the gameplay though is fun and never becomes frustrating to the point of wanting to give up. If you’ve played any other games in the genre before you know exactly what you’re getting into, but even if you haven’t, or you don’t think it’ll be your thing, still give it a go. You might be surprised like I was and find yourself really enjoying the genre.

The Siren’s Call, and the whole Artifex Mundi catalogue as a whole, is a great ‘filler’ when you need a break from shooting enemies, squealing tires, or the cheeer of the crowd in any sports game, as it can easily be played in short bursts. My wife, who isn’t even much of a gamer, really enjoys helping me in the HOG’s, and I’m hoping that Nightmares from the Deep 3 comes to Xbox One soon so I can finish the trilogy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bunch of items to click and a game of mahjong to complete.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Worms WMD

I can’t believe I’ve been playing worms for over 20 years. I still remember the day I went to a friend’s house and saw him playing this odd game on PC with worms shooting each other. From that moment on I've been hooked. Even though I’ve been a massive fan of Worms, and their developer, Team 17, for over two decades, I’m not blind to the fact that some of the last releases have really been hit or miss in terms of quality and lasting power.

Many fans feel the series peaked way back in 99’ with Worms Armageddon, myself included, so the question for super fans is if Worms W.M.D. can be just as good, or better, than Armageddon. Well I’m happy to announce that W.M.D, while not drastically better than Armageddon, is easily at least on par, which is saying a lot given there’s been a dozen releases between then and now. Team 17 has done just enough to refine and add to the tried and true gameplay to make for a modern-yet-familiar gameplay for fans. There’s so much here that feels like Worms, yet I’m still learning a ton of new intricacies even after a couple dozen hours of gameplay.

While the core gameplay hasn’t changed drastically after twenty years, as you’re still commanding your team of worms against the opposing team with over the top weaponry and cartoonish graphics, it finally feels as though Team 17 has gotten back to what made Worms so great, making you want to play ‘just one more game’ after each one. There’s something for everyone here; single player, challenges, multiplayer, and a whole slew of new mechanics to learn and strategize with.

Even though I’m a Worms aficionado, I still always play through the single player campaign missions before taking my skills online. Normally these are pretty dull as you face an A.I. team, or teams, of worms of increasing difficulty, simply adding more worms to increase challenge. I honestly expected the same with W.M.D. but I’m more than happy to report that the campaign has been completely reworked and is actually engaging and really fun.

Comprising of 30 missions, each one has a main objective that needs to be met to get a passing mark. Each mission also has a handful of secondary objectives to challenge your skills. Some of the primary objectives may consist of defeating the enemy worms, defending a specific worm, collecting a crate, or other special goals. This adds some variety to the typical ‘kill all worms’ gameplay that the series is known for.

Secondary objectives are completely optional, but offer some new challenges and replayability, even for series veterans like myself. Sometimes these are simple and you may even complete them naturally, but others will have you approaching levels slightly different. Some of these might consist of your worm ending the round with more than the starting amount of health, or having your whole team finishing inside a building (more on this exciting addition shortly), or using a specific weapon to get the final kill. There are even hidden posters that can be found to unlock up to ten special challenges.

This new campaign setup is much more bite-sized, but the variety makes it become less dull since the primary objectives switch often. You earn XP for completing these objectives, unlocking new cosmetic items and sound packs, so there’s some reward in spending the time to do so. Team 17 has done a great job at changing up the formula and making it a mode that I actually wanted to sink time into and complete.

For those that have somehow missed playing a Worms game in the past two decades, it’s essentially a turn based strategy game where you’re tasked with defeating the opposing team(s) of Worms. You’re given an arsenal of weaponry that ranges from standard bazookas and shotguns to completely off the wall armaments such as banana bombs and concrete donkeys. There’s a surprising amount of strategy that goes into a match of Worms, and with all of the new additions, even more so with W.M.D.’s release. Thankfully the class based worms have been nixed from W.M.D., so expect a much more classic gameplay overall.

One thing I’ve noticed about Worms games when playing single player is that the A.I. is completely random. Sometimes they are as dumb as a bag of rocks and will shoot their teammate, while other times they seem to have prayed to their deity and make humanly impossible shots with pinpoint accuracy. This randomness seems to live on in W.M.D., as some matches the enemies will be a pushover, and other times they’ll make a shot that you wouldn’t be able to do if you tried a million times in a row. Given that Worms is primarily a multiplayer focused adventure, it’s not a deal breaker, but something to keep in mind when going through the 30 campaign missions or against bots.

There are a handful of weapons that are so iconic to the Worms series that even to this day when I see a banana, the banana bomb instantly comes to mind. Not that I have, but if I ever see a donkey statue in real life, I know Worms will come to mind. Many of the favorites and staples return, such as the bazooka, uzi, shotgun, super sheep, air strikes, holy hand grenade, concrete donkey, and many more. There are even a handful of new weapons that, while maybe not as iconic yet, they certainly fit in the silliness of the Worms warfare. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, as figuring out what’s new and how they work is half the fun, but I’ll just say that the phone battery is now a regular in my armament.

There are now also mounted weapons that can be used if you make your way to them. Placed randomly in the battlefield, you may come across a mounted sniper, machine gun, mortar, and others. Obviously their placement will determine your strategy to use them or not, but man, they can make a huge difference in a match if utilized properly, giving you a massive advantage.

As for utilities, Worms wouldn’t be the same without the staple jet pack and ninja rope to traverse around the map. For vets like myself, it’s been a rough time ever since the rope changes from Armageddon, as it’s never felt as good since then. It seems Team 17 has taken this to heart, and while it’s not as perfect as it was back in 99’, the ninja rope is once again an easy to use yet hard to master utility that can make a world of difference in your gameplay if learned how to be used properly. As a side note, learn to use the rope effectively so you can also destroy many worms with the new sheep on a rope weapon as well.

So what else has Team 17 done to make Worms fresh and relevant again? Vehicles. It’s crazy to think these haven’t been a part of the series until now considering how awesome they are. You can find scattered throughout the level (should your settings allow it) tanks, helicopters, and mechs. Yes, mechs. The first worm to get inside of it can use it, and while it can be game changing, it can also be hijacked by the opposing team on their turn and used against you as well.

While vehicles can deal a massive amount of damage, they do take some getting used to, and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve accidentally shot my own team with some poor helicopter flying skills. Just be aware that while you’re in a vehicle you do gain some extra protection, but if it blows up with you inside you’ll take that extra damage as well. The vehicles feel overpowered at first, but require quite a lot of strategy to use them effectively, especially since you can be ejected from them during an opponents turn.

Another new addition, and quite a game changer, is the ability to craft weapons. Not simply another bazooka or grenade, but variants of almost every weapon in the game. What if your bunker buster simply won’t cut it? Why not craft a mega buster that explodes with the power of a holy hand grenade. Heck, why not craft a holy hand mine instead? There’s a huge list of weaponry that can be crafted, each of which has a specific time and place to be used and opens the door for even more strategy involved.

You need a specific amount of resources to craft items, some of which can be found in crates, or you can deconstruct items you don’t plan on using as well. You break down these items into scrap which can then be used to create unique and even more enjoyable weapons to defeat your enemies. It takes a turn to craft a weapon, but you can even craft during an opponent’s turn, which is a huge addition and can easily turn the tide of battle if thought out correctly ahead of time. This mechanic absolutely needs to stay in any following Worms releases, as I found myself using it much more than I expected to.

The other big addition to the weathered gameplay is buildings. Now there are certain buildings that can be entered and hidden in. When in a building the opposing team can’t see exactly where you are inside, unless it’s been blown up or you’re in one of the few visible spots, like a window. This allows you to hide without having to rely on the standard digging that we’ve done for years, or even set traps for unsuspecting enemies. While it’s not as big of an addition as crafting, it’s big enough to warrant some new strategies.

W.M.D. has taken Worms back to its 2D hand drawn visual style, as opposed to the awkward 3D models on a 2D plane that occurred in the past few games. This results in a gorgeous style, full of color and charm. The new hand drawn look makes it feel fresh and new and arguably one of the best looking Worms game yet.

There was only one huge downfall in my time with W.M.D., and that’s the lack of a map editor. There’s options to change the style and type of landscape, but there’s no ‘paint brush’, so to speak, that previous Worms games have included. This may seems small to some, but for those of us who like to create our own maps for specific game modes, like rope racing (which is sadly missing), and while it may not be a deal breaker, it’s sadly a big miss. I’m hoping that this might get included in a future update, as it would really make W.M.D. a standout in the series.

To be completely honest, I’m willing to overlook the lack of a map editor (for now) simply because of the amount of other new mechanics that have been added. Crafting alone is enough to learn and strategize, and I really hope it’s a standard feature moving forward. Playing online with a friend resulted in many laughs, which is what Worms is all about. While it may not exceed the greatness of Armageddon in some respects, Worms is definitely back, and W.M.D. shouldn’t be passed over if you want an enjoyable night of gaming chucking a bunch of banana bombs and a slew of other new crazy weapons at a friend.

Suggestions: A map editor is a must.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Overcooked

I’m not a great cook in the kitchen. Sure, I can do the basics, and I make a mean plate of pirogi, but aside from that I leave the cooking to my wife in our house, as she enjoys it and excels at it. Well, thanks to Overcooked from Ghost Town Games, I can now boast that I’m a better cook than her; well at least on the Xbox One in this specific instance. Developed by a team of two, Overcooked is charming and silly, making for a unique experience that should be shared with friends on the couch.

Overcooked has a completely silly and over the top story centering around a massive spaghetti monster that is demanding to be fed. Unfortunately you’re not a skilled cook and you fail to appease its appetite, luckily though the Onion King arrives to save you by sending you back in time so that you can learn the culinary skills needed to succeed the next time you catch up in time and face off against the beast again. Going back in time and gaining the these skills is the only way you’ll learn to create delicious dishes, manage the kitchen, and get the orders of food out on time. It’s completely goofy, never takes itself seriously, and the art style is fitting for such a humorous tale.

Overcooked is a co-op game that turned out to be much more fun than I was expecting. It’s up to you and a friend (or up to 4 players) to run your kitchen properly, smoothly, and without it catching on fire. The first few stages start off slow and easy, but eventually the levels become incredibly chaotic and frantic, throwing unique challenges at you on practically every level.

Levels start off basic, tasking you with simply making soup. You complete this by grabbing the ingredient from the corresponding box, chopping it, then placing it in the pot to cook, though that’s all before plating and delivering it of course. Eventually you’ll have stages where your tables move, you're separated by food trucks barreling down the highway, rats that steal food left out on the counter, earthquakes that can separate your cooks, and even rotating platforms in space. Almost every level feels unique and offers a distinct challenge, which is great for variety, but it can make it difficult to master.

Gameplay is simple, but the challenges you face make Overcooked incredibly challenging at times. Orders that need to be cooked appear in the top left corner, which show the required ingredients. Certain items need to be chopped, cooked, or deep fried, so there’s lots of chaos that takes place since you need to do a handful of steps before plating and serving. The quicker you cook the better your tips, and subsequently your final star rating. Completely fail to cook an order before its timer runs out and you’ll actually lose tips, so gaining perfect scores requires precision, cooperation, and speed.

As you complete levels and gain completion stars, more levels will unlock until you reach a point where you need to go back and replay older levels because you don’t have enough stars to play the next locked stage. This 'gating' can be a little frustrating, especially if you’re playing alone, but if you have a friend to cook with then there shouldn’t many issues where you become stuck at a certain point.

Controls work well for the most part, with the d-pad controlling your cook, the A button used to pick up and put down items, and the X button used for interacting. If you’re playing alone, the shoulder buttons will swap between cooks allowing you to multitask; something that is vital. Even though the controls work well, the angled viewpoint makes it sometimes tricky to see what exact item is on a given area due to the low camera angle and the wall slightly blocking the view.

Overcooked is an adorable looking title with a cute kid-like style to it. My toddler even asked if we could get “those toys” after playing, thinking that the characters and food were also toys in a store. The cartoony style fits the humor, as the ingredients are as big as your head and dashing around in the kitchen is adorable with a handful of different looking unlockable cooks.

While Overcooked can be played alone, something that I did for the majority of my gameplay, the real charm shines through once you have someone to play locally with you on the same couch. Sadly there’s no online multiplayer, so you’re going to have to do it the old fashioned way. Playing alone means you need to constantly switch from chef to chef, juggling tasks on your own, though it never really feels fun as you’re constantly falling behind on orders and can't multitask easily. There is an option to ‘split’ your controller, allowing you to play both cooks at once, but it’s incredibly challenging to do and would take a lot of dedication to become proficient at.

You’ll want to play with friends, as even one more player makes a complete world of difference. To be completely honest, playing by myself for a few hours wasn’t all that entertaining, but I finally convinced my wife to give it a shot with me, and for someone that generally isn’t proficient in using a controller, she managed to catch on quickly after a level or two. Before we knew it we were running a kitchen together, delegating tasks to one another and working on the incoming orders.

Playing with friends means that each person (up to 4) can split up the responsibilities. So one person can be accountable for either one side of the kitchen or specific tasks like chopping, cooking, plating, washing dishes, or simply moving your ingredients to designated places. The more players you have the better your kitchen should run, but that’s a big ‘should’.

In theory, the more players you have the smoother things should be going, but in reality, you’re going to be bumping into each other, grabbing each other’s items, and participating in other shenanigans that will no doubt bring some laughs and shouts. Communication is absolutely required and needs to be on point if you want those perfect three star ratings, so you better play with some friends that can take orders without question.

Overcooked at times can be frustrating, especially when playing alone, but when playing with at least one friend, it becomes a hilarious title that you’ll no doubt make you laugh and curse at one another, depending on how your orders are being filled and whose fault it was that the tomato soup burned this time. It’s fast paced and the countdown timer adds to the crazy pace that needs to be adhered if you want to succeed. You only get tips once your meals have been served, so you need to keep an eye on your time and learn how long specific tasks take so you can figure out the best way to multitask.

Once I played the multiplayer mode, Overcooked truly surprised me. This can easily be one of the main multiplayer games any gamer will pull out when they have friends over, as it’s very simple to learn and will have everyone laughing when barking orders at one another. It’s got a unique concept, great gameplay, and almost anyone can enjoy its simple premise. If you don’t have anyone to play with though it’s going to be a frustrating and dull experience, but if you can get even a single person to play with you, Overcooked will have you coming back for one more order.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Solar Shifter EX

Bullet hell games, more commonly referred to as shmups (shoot em’ ups), tend to have a unique characteristic or mechanic to make each one stand out against the other games in the genre. These types of games, and their gameplay, are generally known to throw as many bullets at you as possible, requiring the highest of reflexes and nimbleness to survive. Solar Shifter EX, a game recently released on the Xbox One, may not reinvent the genre, but it does possess a unique gameplay mechanic that I’ve not seen in a shmup before. That being said, I’m just not sure if that’s enough to make it worthwhile. Like many smaller indie games coming to Xbox One, Solar Shifter EX was released on PC last year and it has now made its way to Microsoft's console, so if it looks familiar, that’s most likely why.

While shmups generally aren’t known for their in-depth or intriguing storylines, Solar Shifter EX does include a narrative, but it’s nothing we’ve haven't seen a hundred times before. The story revolves around an alien invasion and mankind needs to fight back or face extinction. While cliché, and not overly original, at least some effort was put into having some basis behind your actions. The story is not told very well though as the game lacks cutscenes and there isn't any decent voice acting. Get used to the fact that you’re coming for the bullet hell, and that aspect is definitely present, so just leave it at that and ignore the paper thin plotline as it doesn't do anything to be anymore interesting than what it is.

Like most shmups, you pilot a spaceship that can only sustain a certain amount of damage before being destroyed. A good shmup needs two key mechanics to work in sync in order for the game to be successful: precision controls and an accurate hitbox.

Controls need to be spot on since you’re dealing with hundreds of bullets on the screen at once, and if you can’t avoid them 'fairly' then the gameplay suffers. The hitbox for your ship also needs to be accurate and logical, allowing you to only get hit when you ‘should’, and if that is not the case, then that’s another big issue that’s a huge detriment. Solar Shifter EX is an odd case, because while it has decent controls, the camera completely messes up any effort that’s gone into making them accurate. The hitbox for your ship seems to suffer in the accuracy area as well, and I can’t tell if it’s because of the shifting camera or some other underlying issue; but more on that shortly.

Like any bullet hell game you will be punished for not being skillful enough. Sometimes you need to start from the beginning while other times you'll find that you can continue from certain checkpoints. Luckily Solar Shifter EX employs the checkpoint system and allows you to respawn not too far back, but get used to long loading times as the level seems to be completely reloaded every time you die. Considering that you’ll be dying quite often it becomes frustrating to wait so frequently, sometimes more than the gameplay.

What I found very odd was that there was no bomb system or super weapon to use when you’re stuck in a tight situation, which is unlike what most games in the genre utilize. There’s also no upgrade system in place aside from spending credits you gather from downed enemies to improve your main and secondary weapons (both shoot at the same time). For all of the upgrading that I did I never noticed any difference in my firepower. I don’t know if that’s because the enemies gain more health in the later stages, or if the upgrades are so minor that you can’t tell the difference. Either way, it felt like a waste since there’s no tangible benefit from upgrading, other than there’s nothing else to spend the credits on.

What sets Solar Shifter EX apart from others in the genre is its unique shifting mechanic. This allows you to instantly shift to other predetermined spots on the screen (top/middle, bottom/middle, left, and right) with a flick of the right stick. While you can’t spam the shifting non-stop, the cooldown is very minimal and there’s no limit to how much you can use it in a level. It’s a mechanic that is only briefly explained in game and it's not taught to you as well as it could be. You better learn how to utilize it to your strategy very early on though, as there are many sections in the game that you won't survive without shifting out of danger to a safe spot. It’s a unique idea, and has potential, but surviving in Solar Shifter EX is simply about finding one of the few ‘safe spots’ on the screen as enemies shoot in predetermined directions, so it becomes a test of memorization more than skill.

The level designs are bright and colorful, and there’s more than enough happening on the screen at once, but it’s impossible to take in the visuals when you’re trying to frantically focus on your spacecraft and any projectiles heading your way. While bullet hell games are known for filling your screen with projectiles and chaos, there’s just too much going on here for it to be appreciated. The inability to appreciate all that goes on is also most likely due to the terrible and shifting camera angles, as they are more of a detriment than anything else.

Every shmup that I can think of off the top of my head always has a static camera. It is usually a top down view and you shoot horizontally or vertically depending on the game. Solar Shifter EX seems like they wanted to mix things up and use odd angled views, but they are at inopportune times which you have no control over. So, sometimes the camera will move to a specific 45 degree-like angle, yet your controls don’t feel as if they’ve been re-calibrated to accommodate the new viewpoint. I get that they were going for a more cinematic approach, but when it’s a hindrance to the gameplay, and simply doesn’t work, it's not fun. The odd angles also have you shooting at weird directions, also being unsure of where the next ships and bullets will come from next.

At the end of the day I can appreciate that Solar Shifter EX is trying to do something new in the genre, and while the shift mechanic adds a new way to think about playing, it hasn't been fine-tuned enough to be something truly special. More than anything, the camera issues are the biggest drawback, along with the gameplay devolving into finding 'the safe spot’ to survive more than using reflex skill. Fans of the genre, like myself, will enjoy this game for what it is, but it won’t stand up against the greats of the genre like Raiden or Ikaruga. If you’re a casual fan however, I’d recommend waiting to pick this game up until it is on sale, unless you really need to see what bullet hell is really like.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Ninja Pizza Girl

Apparently a surprising amount of people answer the door without pants on when they get pizza delivered. That was one of the big takeaways I got when playing Ninja Pizza Girl. Well, that and the fact that bullying is bad. Released last year on PC, Ninja Pizza Girl has been delivered to the Xbox One, but is this delivery on time, or does it need more time in the oven and a few more toppings?

You play as Gemma, a bonafide ninja pizza girl who has some crazy parkour skills, allowing her to jump from ledge to ledge and rooftop to rooftop, all the while avoiding enemy ninjas. Yup, you read all of that right. Your goal is to deliver your dad’s famous and delicious PizzaRiffic pizza as fast as possible to your client’s door. Unfortunately for you, the huge pizza corporation MegaCorp has noticed a small dip in their profits because of your family pizza business. So what does any greedy corporation do to get more sales? Hire hundreds of ninjas to block Gemma from making her deliveries of course; I mean, that’s what I would do.

Your brother helps you out by giving you the directions (arrows on the screen) to each delivery’s door, though aside from a few unique levels, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Once you deliver your pizza though I found it odd that seemingly no one paid, though maybe they ordered online? Even worse, apparently everyone ordering pizza wants to open up to Gemma about their problems and life’s troubles. I understand the reasoning behind doing so, as the underlying message of Ninja Pizza Girl is about bullying and feeling good about yourself, but it comes across as terribly forced, as generally people don’t interact with their pizza delivery person in this way. Or maybe I’m simply doing it wrong, who knows.

Some of the mini storylines are very odd, like the one that revolves around the idea of a man who’s in love with a friend (that you just happened to deliver a pizza to earlier) but is afraid to talk about his feelings directly to her (yet he talks to a random pizza delivery girl and opens up no problem), so instead he orders a crazy spicy pizza for his secret love and asks Gemma to deliver it for him. Of course the woman receives the pizza, knows exactly who it’s from, and falls madly in love on the spot. It’s silly, but it’s a little too far out there for my tastes. That being said, it’s interactions like this that show that the game itself has some humor and isn’t trying to take itself too seriously.

At its core, Ninja Pizza Girl is a platforming speedrunner where you’re given a specific amount of time, usually around 3 minutes, to deliver a hot pizza to a customer before heading off for the next delivery. You’ll need to use Gemma’s parkour abilities to jump, slide, and hop onto ledges to overcome a seemingly endless gauntlet of rooftop debris. The more time you finish the level with the better your rank. Levels are linear in terms of getting from point A to B for the most part, but there are some slight branching paths that play into the rooftop verticality setting.

While I was able to easily finish the game in a single sitting, there’s a decent amount of gameplay here for completionists, as each level has a handful of items to collect, not all of which can be collected in a single run, meaning you’ll need to run each level multiple times. If you’re into speed running and online leaderboards, you’ll also be happy to know that those are included as well, so while it may seem like a shallow experience at first, there is a decent amount of replayability if those are your things.

Controls work well for the most part. You’ll jump and slide with ease, and eventually you can take out rival ninjas in your path by jump kicking or sliding into them as well. That being said, I found some issues where where I would get stuck on a ledge or couldn't climb up onto a corner that I should have been able to. While it didn’t happen frequently, for a game that focuses on smooth maneuverability, it did stick out. Eventually levels become much more difficult as you’ll have to jump gaps with moving platforms, swinging posts, and other objects that need to be timed correctly.

The items you collect during your runs can be spent on purchasing Gemma items to make her feel better. The more you ‘crash’ or get hit, the lower her morale goes, as does the grayness of the screen. So, to make her feel better you spend your earned currency on food, video games, or costumes. I understand the idea behind it, but it’s as if the moral of the story is to buy things to make yourself (or someone else) feel better rather than deal with it or talk to someone instead. I know it wasn’t intended that way, but that’s how it came across.

One issue I had near the end of the game was a specific level where instead of reaching the goal as quickly as possible the game wanted me to collect a certain amount of items. This was never explained, so when I kept failing the level when trying to reach the end, which I couldn’t as the level loops, I eventually figured out what I needed to do. Seems like a minor oversight, but it was enough to frustrate me slightly as I didn’t know why I was failing the level numerous times.

As a whole, Ninja Pizza Girl is a simple premise with some silliness behind it. Its goal is to teach players about bullying and to not listen to what the they may say. Sure, the message isn’t conveyed the best at all times, but it’s the underlying tone and meaning that’s important. As a basic game that can be completed quickly, it hovers at "just alright"; however, it’s got a good message for any of the younger gamers out there who are into platforming titles. Just remember; no pants, no pizza!

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 MX vs ATV Supercross Encore

Recently I got the chance to review another dirt bike game titled MXGP2, and while it didn’t set the world on fire, I had high hopes for my latest review, MX vs. ATV Supercross Encore, as I’ve always tended to prefer any racing titles where you could backflip and perform other crazy stunts. Although I’ve only recently learned about many aspects about the sport of dirt bike racing I have come to appreciate all of its intricacies and appreciate that there’s much more motorcycle racing genre than simply going fast.

The last MX vs ATV game I played in detail was probably from the PS2 days. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, I’m just not one to go out and get them when they release unless I find it at a discount sometime afterwards as I am not a diehard fan. It’s clear that MX vs. ATV Supercross Encore is made for the fans, but it does extremely little to bring new people to the series. Case in point, Encore is simply a somewhat re-release of the last generation version of MX vs ATV, albeit with a few additions, hence the Encore title.

Given that Encore is somewhat of a remake of the Xbox 360 title, I was fully expecting some impressive visuals and a plethora of additions to justify its existence and price. Sadly none of these are found within. The MX vs ATV series has been around for quite some time, though the past few games in the series have seemed to have stagnated, as each new game seems to add only a few tweaks here and there rather than any substantial changes and improvements.

What sets MX vs ATV apart from the competition is that it features, well....MX bikes vs ATV’s, wrapped in a casual play style setting when compared to other games that tend to be more on the simulation side. In the beginning you’ll customize your rider and vehicle, which is limited to only a few options, but this will change as you progress through the different modes. While many parts you earn are mainly cosmetic, there are some performance enhancing ones as well. While there’s not much visual differences in many of the parts, at least some effort has been made, which is more than some other games can say.

The career mode is where you’ll most likely start first, allowing you to race on a series of 5 to 12 tracks depending on the class and style of race. You’ll gain points based on where you finish, and the racer with the most points at the end of a series is the winner. It will take some time to learn how to steer properly, so I suggest starting out with Single Race instead, which should help you to get your bearings and grasp how the game handles.

New to the Xbox One version is a Free Ride mode, allowing you to just ride around an open area. This really brought back memories of the Motocross Madness series, especially since the game will ‘throw’ you back onto the map if you drive out of bounds. It’s a nice addition to have for those that simply want to just ride around and do some tricks, but it doesn’t feel like it adds much to the overall package, especially since the game looks incredibly dated with its muddy textures. Another addition to Encore are the outdoor tracks, something severely lacking in the previous release. Lastly, Rhythm Racing is also included, which is a straight track full of hills and moguls. It sounds easy but they were the hardest tournaments I faced and I had difficulties placing.

The controls are the most difficult thing to get used to in Encore. It seems as though they wanted to take a somewhat realistic approach to the steering, but because of the weird physics and movements it doesn’t feel right, even after a dozen hours of getting used to it. You need to steer with the Left Stick obviously, but you also need to lean with the Right; not a big deal. Where the issues start to surface is when you lean just a smidgen too much or too little and you completely botch your turn. You do eventually become accustomed to it, but when you upgrade your bike with new parts, it’s like learning this mechanic all over again.

To make things even more difficult, you need to pre-load your jumps as well, and this is done with the right stick, meaning that when you’re holding down to load up on a jump, and if you slightly lean to the side, things can go all kinds of wrong real quick. You’ll also need to maneuver while in mid-air to correct your position before the landing, and again this is done with the right stick. Many times I thought I had my wheels lined up and I was positioned at the right angle, only to be thrown off my bike and eat a face full of virtual dirt.

I was totally excited that Encore allowed me to pull off some backflips, Supermans, and other crazy stunts, but there’s no real reason to as you’re not scored on them in races. To make matters worse, it’s not a simple button or direction press either, as you need to hit a combination of directions, such as up, left, and right on the Right Stick for a single trick, but that’s only if you’re holding the Right Bumper first, to indicate you want to do a trick. It’s not gratifying even when you do manage to pull one off, and because of the difficulty in doing so, there’s no real reason to either.

Graphically, this isn’t an HD-ified version at all. There is lots of texture pop-in, nothing looks that sharp, and the open tracks, which I was excited to explore, are nothing but barren land with nothing to even find or challenges that you can set up for your friends. As you race the same lines in multiple laps on the various tracks, ruts will form and it looks as if the ground is deforming, but it never felt as if it made a difference to my racing at all, even when hitting the ruts at a completely wrong angle.

There is an online multiplayer mode, and I’d love nothing more to go into detail about it, but after 3 days of searching for a match I’ve still been unable to find a single game to join. When the game doesn’t hang while searching for a game, you’re unable to cancel or back out, forcing you to wait or close the game manually. There’s no simple Quick Match, so you need to select one of the numerous modes to join and hope that someone is hosting, or looking to join, that specific mode. Even trying to find a Freeride game brought no results, as I wanted to see what 12 players would be like, but apparently there’s no mini-games built in for you to have fun with. My guess is that there’s simply no one playing this online, which is a shame for fans that was hoping for a good community to join.

While the game is priced decently ($29.99 CAD), it’s unfathomable that this doesn’t include all of the previous DLC to this point, as this is a port of the last generation title. Delving into the marketplace, you can spend more than the price of the game on DLC alone, which comes across as trying to double dip. If anything, MX vs ATV Supercross Encore simply feels bland and mediocre as nothing stood out or is memorable, and I didn’t even feel like finishing up many of the achievements when failing tournaments numerous times in a row (I don’t want to Rhythm Race ever again).

If Encore had all of the included DLC and had signs that some effort went into making it for current-gen, then it would be a different story. Instead, you have a game that’s kind of fun in very short bursts, but only if you’re a huge fan of the series and genre. If the controls weren’t such a mess and the stunt system an exercise in what I see as "finger yoga", then I would say to at least give it a try, but in its current state though, this one is doomed to stay stuck in its own rut.

Overall Score: 3.5 / 10 Ghostbusters

I love when I get surprised by a game and then get to write about it so that you, the reader, can make an informed decision to purchase it or not based on my opinion. Well, Ghostbusters, developed by ForeForge, surely did surprise me, but not in the way that I had hoped. A brand new Ghostbusters movie released this summer for a new generation, and while I’m old enough to have grown up on the classic, it seems as though Activision decided to cash in on a game tie-in for the new movie in hopes that if you liked the movie you'd want to buy the game as well. If you’re a seasoned gamer you already know the track record for abysmal movie tie-in games in the past. Sadly this might be one of the worst offenders in so many ways.

Let me just say that I absolutely love Ghostbusters, it was one of my childhood movies growing up, and I had all the toys. Given that the 2009 Ghostbusters game was actually quite good, I had high hopes for this 2016 version. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes too high. While the game looks decent from afar, delving deeper into it and its mechanics shows its many flaws that not only make for a blatant cash grab, but not even an entertaining game in the end either. Everything you loved about Ghostbusters is nowhere to be found here.

While technically it’s connected to the movie, it takes place after the credits and doesn’t star the four new Ghostbuster ladies from the current 2016 reboot. It's almost as if they were trying to avoid any of the politically correct drama that encapsulated the movie’s protagonist’s genders. The game instead stars two women and two men, all of which seem like a B-Team to the famous group. There’s actually only one or two lines that connect the game to the movie, so I hope you’re paying attention if you play.

The core narrative revolves around the city once again becoming infested with unruly ghosts. Who you gonna call? Well, the Ghostbusters of course. Sadly, there’s no major over-arching story or plot to coax you into caring about the characters or their reasoning. Simply blast all the ghosts and save the city, that’s it. There are only two cutscenes in the game in total, and they bookend the entire game, which is sad, as the animation used for these cutscenes looks like it would be something you’d see on a Saturday morning cartoon. All other story tidbits are laid out in cheap 2D narrated phone calls. Not what you’d expect from a huge franchise like this.

As you begin your ghost busting journey you’ll have the choice of one of the four main characters, each of which has a different type of weapon and grenade. That’s right, you don’t simply use your regular proton pack beam, instead you have to whittle down a ghost’s life bar with standard-like weaponry. These standard weapons range from assault rifle, mini-gun, shotgun, and dual pistols, and sure they’re proton pack-ified, but it just seems silly and not fitting of the franchise.

The core game mechanic is a twin-stick shooter at heart, which makes for simplistic gameplay and easy couch co-op play (sorry, there’s no online multiplayer support). You begin in a simplistic tutorial level that explains how to play, but after a few levels you come to realize that nothing changes for the better the further you venture into your quest to save the city. A good game should slowly introduce new ideas and new mechanics as you progress to keep things interesting making a game interesting to play, but none of that is found here.

If by some miracle you manage to lose all your health, any of the other team members will automatically come and try to revive you. In my whole playthrough I only managed to fall in battle one time, and that’s because of the notorious bullet sponges that the game throws at you in the later stages, which I’ll delve into shortly. You gain experience as you complete levels and bust ghosts, which in turn levels you up, allowing you to spend skill points on upgrades like better weapon damage, trap multipliers, and more. This is normally a good incentive to keep you playing, but even after having maxed out a bunch of the upgrades I didn’t feel more powerful at all, even when replaying the earlier levels.

In the beginning the shooting feels alright, but the gameplay is so repetitive and unvarying that it becomes dull. Eventually every enemy simply has way more health than they should, requiring you to reload multiple times to unload full clips to defeat them. You heard me right, you need to reload (vent) your proton-ized weaponry on a constant basis. You do have access to grenades, with a very long recast time, but they don’t feel anywhere near as useful as they should be for how seldom you can actually use them.

Just like the true Ghostbusters, you have access to your PKE meter allowing you to find hidden secrets throughout the level. In the beginning I was constantly using it to find all of the secrets, but you walk at a snails pace when you’re using the PKE meter, so it makes a dreadfully long game even longer when doing so. Sure, completionists will want to find everything, but I eventually just gave up using it aside from the few forced sections which spawn a mini-boss.

As the game progresses not only do the simplest enemies take forever to defeat, but more and more are thrown your way to artificially make it more difficult. Most enemies are just reskins of previous ones, adding no real variety to strategy or gameplay. The worst of this comes to light in the boss fights and the final stage, which I don’t want to spoil, but it was a terrible experience.

When you manage to finally deplete a mini or stage boss heath bar, you then need to play a mini-game to trap it, which also feels like artificial lengthening to the tedious gameplay. First you need to switch your weapon to the classic proton beam, aim and shoot the boss, then aim the right stick in the direction it tells you to. Then you need to use the Left Trigger to slam the ghost (usually 3 times) before you can actually trap it. To trap it all you need to do is press the ‘A’ button and then spam the button as many times as you can before time runs out to boost your multiplier. These small parts should feel most like true Ghostbusters gameplay, but in reality they simply feel like tedious mini-games.

After a half dozen or so hours, and vanquishing the final big bad ghost, to which there’s zero indication you're coming to the end until you reach him, I promptly finished up a few achievements and quickly uninstalled. I don’t mean to come across as harsh in regards to this review, but there’s little to no redeeming qualities of this shameless cash grab. What makes it worse is that Ghostbusters is priced at nearly a full priced AAA game. That’s right, everything about this game looks and plays like a budget download title, but sadly the asking price is well more than three times the price I expected.

If I had to note a positive about the game it would be that at least they licensed the classic Ray Parker Jr. version of the theme song that the series is best known for. Unfortunately they even messed this up though, as the song only plays in the menus and not during the gameplay itself. What’s wrong with the way it’s setup is that every time you go into a menu and back out to another, the song restarts every single time. So the chance of you hearing the song from beginning to end is impossible unless you simply let it play in the background before you subject yourself to one more level.

I don’t particularly like pointing out so many negatives, but when there’s virtually no positives to speak about it’s difficult not to. A nonexistent storyline, basic and repetitive gameplay, terrible and constant one-liners, and nothing that makes it feel like a real Ghostbusters experience, makes this game a difficult sell at $20, but it’s price is unfathomably three times that amount. Ghostbusters is pretty much a waste of time as there really isn't much fun to be had. Who you gonna call? Hopefully someone else so that you don’t have to experience this for yourself.

Overall Score: 2.5 / 10 Super Mutant Alien Assault

Sometimes games don’t always have to have an engrossing story and can easily stand on their own with a simple foundation. Super Mutant Alien Assault chooses to go the simplistic route, allowing you to slaughter waves and waves of alien invaders with handfuls of weaponry. Simple games can be entertaining, but they need to have solid gameplay to keep your attention for any length of time.

There is a story, albeit a paper thin one, that revolves around Aliens attacking Earth and three ships carrying the remaining humans have fled the planet to search for other galaxies to inhabit. To make this long journey humans had to be put into cryofreeze, leaving droids to watch and defend the ships should anything happen. As it turns out, the aliens have found the ships and are breaking their way inside. It’s up to you, a simple droid, to take them out to ensure mankind survives.

Your life as a droid is a difficult one, as you begin with absolutely no weapons or abilities. You’ll learn early on that you’re going to die a lot; however, as you play, and become more proficient, it does become somewhat easier, but the randomly generated levels can work for you or completely against you. Even though you’ll die quite often you will make some progress as you go, unlocking (the chance for) new weapons, abilities, and perks.

There are only a dozen levels in total, and while that may not seem like much, they are randomly generated, so every time you play they won’t be exactly the same as the last. Granted, you’ll see the same levels multiple times, but the game does a good job at mixing things up for the most part. Each stage has its own conditions for winning to help mix things up too. Sometimes you simply need to survive the waves of incoming aliens or you’ll have to bring an item to a certain machine numerous times, while other times you will need to stop canisters from exploding. And we can't forget that there are boss stages on each 4th consecutive level. Overall, some stages are much tougher than others since the objective must be met to move on, and killing everything only makes more enemies spawn. During the boss stage he must be defeated or else the minions will keep on coming. Depending on what types of these levels you like, you’ll either have a great run of easy levels or a slew of really tough ones due to the randomization.

While the aliens themselves are generally not too much trouble on their own, it’s the frequency and amount that spawn which is the difficult part. They usually come in a handful at a time and quite quickly so you can easily become overwhelmed if you aren’t doing your best to take them out quickly. Some have specific attack patterns, while others do their own thing, but when being crowded into a corner because of the volume of aliens coming at you, you’ll see why it’s easy to die very quickly.

A big issue that you experience early on, and quite often throughout the game, is that the levels are extremely small, making it quite easy to find yourself in a tight spot with not much, if any, room to maneuver to safety. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if your weapon pickups weren’t randomized, so sometimes you'll find that you have the completely wrong weapon for the situation you’re in and there’s nothing you can do about it, for the most part. For example, having a grenade launcher with enemies swarming in on you fast, causing you to take damage when it explodes nearby. Yes, you take damage from your own weapon as well, making the already sporadic difficulty even more challenging at times. It doesn’t help that many enemies take too much ammo to defeat than they should too, even the weaker ones.

Once you play the tutorial and learn about the weapon vending machines you'll discover that you can carry one primary weapon and a sidearm, along with an explosive weapon, an offensive and defensive ability, and a perk. All of these are dealt out at random. Once you’ve made it past the first boss you can at least respawn with a sidearm to begin with (yes, it needs to be picked up every time before you can have one on each play through). The majority of the weapons are your regular fare such as assault rifles, snipers, shotgun, rocket launchers, and more. There are some unique abilities and sidearms though, my favorite being the circular boomerang-like item that you can call back to you whenever you like. There are also ones I dislike, like the previously mentioned grenade launcher and an odd pogo stick that explodes when jumping on enemies. Because it’s completely random which weapon you get, you might find yourself wasting the primary ammo quickly just so you don’t have to be stuck with too long while you wait on the timer to get a new weapon.

There are special abilities that you can also get, ranging from a knockback, a double jump, a quick dash, and more. While it was nice to have the options, I found the gameplay much too frantic for me to use them as intended, or even simply remember that I had them. There’s no quick glance to remind you of which abilities you have aside from pausing, so you might think you have a dash equipped, only to remember later that you had it on during your last playthrough.

There is local multiplayer where you and a friend can play together, which makes things easier overall, but it definitely amps up the franticness with more happening on the screen at one time. The highlight of the game has to be its visuals, as it’s done in a retro pixelated style, but it’s done very well with lively animations and bright colors. The music is fitting and encapsulates the gameplay with some quick-beat tempo jams.

I found that one of the biggest flaws comes from some massive slowdown that always occurs on specific levels when you’re about to slip into hyperdrive. I initially thought it was a purposeful design mechanic, but after it happening quite often I don’t believe it is. It’s simply not done in a stylish way. Everything just goes maddeningly slow for a few seconds, then BAM, everything is back to normal, completely disrupting the flow of gameplay. I hope this important issue gets fixed soon, as it’s very jarring and is a big black eye to the experience.

Super Mutant Alien Assault is an experience you may enjoy if you playing for a game for a few simple few minutes at a time with complete randomness and challenging difficulty is your thing. That being said, while it does have some replayability to it with its randomly generated levels and weapons, there’s simply just not that much depth to be had if you’re looking for something a little bit more. It’s charming in its own way, and a fun way to pass the time now and then, but you might want to wait until it goes on sale to get your full monies worth.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Dynamite Fishing - World Games

If there was ever a game where you could decipher its core premise from the title alone, Dynamite Fishing – World Games would be near the top of the list. Originally a mobile game, and now on the Xbox One, it revolves around your desire to fish, but in true redneck fashion with dynamite instead of fishing poles. With an unlimited amount of explosives you’re going to blow your way up to the top of the fish catching leaderboards, but the real question is if this console port has anything special to offer over its mobile roots.

When you first start you can only choose a single character in his bathtub, which represents his boat. You will notice that new characters and other boats are unlockable, but they are behind a set number of trophies that you need to obtain. At first some of these unlockables won’t seem like much work, but the amount of time actually required to unlock them is much longer than you expect once you start playing a few levels and you realize how much of a grind it can be.

Played as a side-scroller, your main goal in the game is to catch the most amount of fish by the time you or your opponent reach the finish line. So, you can either rush to the finish line in hopes that they do not catch as many fish as you or you can take your time in each area, gathering more fish, hoping to have more than your opponent by the time they cross the finish line first. It’s a simple idea with very friendly and colorful graphics that my 3 year old seemed to really enjoy watching when I played it.

To throw your unlimited supply of dynamite into the water you simply press the ‘A’ button, and if it makes contact with any fish it will deplete their life bar. Once they’ve been killed, as some fish are very resistant to dynamite apparently, they will float to the top of the water for you to collect as you travel over it. You can toss your dynamite further by pressing up while tossing or throw it right below you by pressing down as you lay on the ‘A’ button. While you may think that combining different toss distances is the best plan, I found it was much more efficient, and simpler, to just press down and hold the ‘A’ button the whole time as you travel left and right. This made it easier to know exactly where the dynamite will drop and places you closer to the fish corpses when you need to collect them.

You need to rack up a bigger haul than your opponent, and when either one of you cross the finish line the one with the most fish in their boat at the time wins, so it’s a little bit strategic in the sense of balancing speed and gathering. At the top of the screen you can see where your opponent is in relation to you and the finish line, so you never have to guess where they might be. Some fish only take a single hit to defeat, while others in the later stages will require numerous hits. Eventually you’ll encounter fish that aren’t going to take your attacks ‘lying down’ andthey will actually fight back, either by trying to ram you or shoot you with their guns and other whacky weapons. It’s silly but it fits the setting and mood of the game.

There are multiple levels, each of which are split into 5 stages. In most games you have to complete each stage before moving onto the next, but Dynamite Fishing – World Games does things slightly different, as you might expect. Once you complete a stage you move onto the next, but you’ll also move onto the next stage if you fail it as well, so the main goal is to have the most fish as a total at the end of all 5 stages. Even if you fail a stage it is totally possible to make up for it in the next one if you’re skilled enough. You can even get halfway through a level then switch to another setting and work on that locale if you wish, as you’re not locked to a specific level at any time. It’s a small detail but it didn’t go unnoticed.

Although your main goal is to catch as many fish as possible, you’ll notice quite early on that you’re also going to have to survive not only a fish rebellion, but also other obstacles that can quickly deplete your life, causing you to sink your boat and fail. Most are standard water geysers and TNT crates, but there are other quirky things to watch out for, like rats, ghosts, and more. The most nefarious enemy you’ll encounter is the selection of bosses. I wasn’t actually expecting anything like this, so it was a welcome addition. Here you have a set amount of time to defeat them before they swim off, earning bonus money and a boat repair if you succeed. While most of these bosses are predictable, some are quite challenging and will no doubt defeat you early on before you have any upgrades purchased.

Speaking of upgrades, you earn money for not only winning stages and finishing a series, but also collecting coins and completing side bonus missions as well. This allows you to purchase upgrades for your selected character and vessel. What’s interesting is that each character and boat have their own single stat that can be increased, and they vary between selection. For example, the redneck and bathtub you begin with allow you to upgrade critical hits for him, and a speed boost for the boat. Once you unlock new characters and boats, they will have different bonuses that can be purchased, so it’s a game of upgrading a lot now versus more later with better choices. It will come down to how much you plan on playing. As I said before, unlocking the final few choices will take a lot of grinding to do so.

As you begin each stage you’re also given a choice 3 special weapons to bring along with you. These are completely whacky and fitting of the redneck theme, such as squirrel bombs, gatling gun, toaster, a nuke (yes, a nuke), and a handful of other crazy weapons. Some are, without a doubt, more powerful than others, as nukes are completely over powered, but they all act in a different way and allows you to choose special power-ups that suits your play style. If you manage to find treasure chests in the water, destroying them can net you a random power-up, or even a dangerous TNT, but it’s always worth taking the time to check, as these special weapons can net you a massive amount of fish in a short time.

The art style is very clean and colorful, completely fitting of the game's setting. The premise is silly and the game itself is humorous overall with its over-the-top wackiness. The audio also fits, but there’s only so many times you can hear the same one-liners over and over until you’ll want to mute the speakers. While I really liked that there’s a bunch of unlockable characters, boats, and even items to cosmetically change your character and vessel, you’re going to have to do a lot of grinding to earn any of the really good ones. You get a trophy for finishing a level (of 5 stages remember), but when you need 40+ trophies for the better unlocks, it can be a daunting goal to achieve.

Although Dynamite Fishing is a fun game, the sad fact is that it is fun only in very small bursts. Even after a single set of 5 stages it becomes a little tiresome. In short spurts it’s a fun way to pass the time, as it was intended to be played that way on mobile devices, but it’s unlikely to hold you attention long enough to earn the best rewards. At its current cheap price point I can recommend it if you’re looking for a simple game to pass a few minutes here and there, but if you’re looking for something with more depth though it’s going to be found elsewhere.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 MXGP2

So let me get this out of the way first and foremost: I know absolutely nothing about motocross. Before delving into this review I had no idea what ruts, 2-stroke, scrub, or even holeshot meant. Now that I’ve put a couple dozen or so hours into MXGP2 I’m by no means an expert, but I could at least carry on a conversation about the topic should it ever come up. Though some might see my lack of motocross knowledge a bad fit for this review, I rebut this notion by saying that I was looking at MXGP2 objectively as a game player and not a fan. Milestone S.r.I. is known for their racing titles, so I had high hopes that this would be another ‘great game’ under their name. While they did do some things right, there’s also many faults that are hard to ignore.

Sports games these days need a career mode as it gives players an objective aside from winning. Usually this means progressing your character, earning new items, or other forms of rewards as you play. If you’re meant to spend hours playing through a campaign you generally want something to strive towards, aside from some possible achievements or completion. So it baffled me that there’s no real end goal aside from winning in MXGP2’s career mode.

As you begin you’ll create your rider, choose a helmet and your colors, a starting bike, and off you go. Your goal is to earn points in races to eventually become the world champion. You’ll get offers to sign with teams and sponsors, and purchase new bike parts, but there’s a severe lack of customization of rider and bike. Aside from earning money and reputation for your wins, there is no other form of progression. Your rider doesn’t level up and become more skilled with stat increases, and there are only a handful of bike parts that can be purchased, but they are all the same stat-wise regardless of brand.

There’s also not much in the way of rider customization. Sure, you can pick some base colors and a handful of helmets, suits, and boots, but that’s about it. For some reason there are even some numbers that you display on the back of your shirt that aren’t selectable. I’m sure someone with more motocross knowledge than myself might know the reason, but it’s not explained to the non-fan. The lack of personalizatoin results in you not really looking that unique from any of the other riders on the track, and the same goes for your bike’s visual options as well.

Career mode tries to offer more depth by giving you a manager, a team, and sponsors, but they don’t result in any differences at all, at least that I could tell, aside from roleplaying purposes. Using GoPro as my sponsor was no different than choosing a different one, so it feels like a shallow choice in the end. The same goes for team selection, as there’s no real benefit in choosing one over the other, unless you’re a real fan and want to virtually support them.

I slogged through the campaign, making my way from track to track, eventually becoming the world champion, only to find out that the first season ended. Needless to say I was disappointed, as I put in hours into the campaign only to be rewarded with nothing of significance, and the game just expects you to work on the next season of races. There are other single player modes outside of career, such as MXGP, Monster Energy Motocross, Stadium Series, and even a Real Events mode, the latter I argue should have been the focal point of the game.

Real Events mode allows you to relive significant moments in motocross history. The first example is when Ryan Villopoto’s bike malfunctioned at the start of the race but he managed to recover and beat his rival. This mode starts you off in specific real life situations where you need to recreate the outcome. It was fascinating as a non-fan to see how many interesting stories and drama the sport has, even though I’m sure this is just a very small glimpse at some of the more memorable stories.

When I first started playing the game my first few races did not go well. It took a good 4 or 5 races before I finished higher then dead last. It doesn’t play like a standard racing game, nor should it, but the controls took quite some time to learn and adjust to. MXGP2 is clearly made for fans of the sport, and rightfully so, but there’s no effort taken into easing the non-fan into the sport and explaining what differences exist between bikes, classes, and more. Not that it’s hard to pick up as you go, but some explanation would have been very welcome. A true fan will feel right at home, as there’s a handful of real racers and teams that you can choose from in certain modes. A friend of mine was enlightening me on some of the more famous racers and it was cool seeing their virtual counterpart represented. For the super fan there’s a lot here to excite you.

As you begin a event you’ll need to race the track a few times. The first for determining your position, and then twice more to determine your final point tally for that specific leg of the circuit. Luckily there’s an option to forgo the qualifying race and let it default you to the outside starting lane, which is generally considered the worst, but it’s nothing hard to overcome once you become proficient in your virtual motocross racing skills. For those wanting the full experience, doing the qualifying race is obvious, but I found doing the same race track three times was to lengthy and tedious.

MXGP2 prides itself on being a realistic take on the sport, and as such it tries to make the gameplay realistic as well. Don’t expect any backflips or tricks that you can pull off (aside from a scrub) as the realism is the primary focus. This means you won’t be barreling into corners trying to drift out of it. It's almost exactly the opposite as you need to seriously slow down and work the brakes at almost every turn if you want to win. The realism doesn’t carry over into the rival AI though, as they will race their line, regardless who is in the way or not, sometimes resulting in hilarious AI crashes.

As you learn the controls and start to win races you will earn money which you will spend on new bikes and parts, but sadly there’s almost no reason to. You begin earning only small chunks of change at a time, but constant first place finishes, and winning seasons, will give you more money then you can spend. The other problem is that only a few pieces like exhaust, brakes, and tires, increase your bike’s stats. Even though there are a different brands to choose from they all have the same stat bonuses, so once you buy the best part, there’s nothing else to do with your money. Sure you could buy another bike, fit it with different looking parts, but it’s the same result in the end for the most part.

At first you'll find yourself settling for minor upgrades to allow you to progress further and win more races, earning more money, getting you closer to the best gear. You'll also realize that there’s no way to actually customize your bike for races either. Sure, you’re buying new tires and suspension, but you can’t actually tweak any of the performance of your bike in any way. Apparently this plays a huge role in real-life for pro racers and their bikes, and it’s simply not here. It’s a huge miss for a game boasting about being official and realistic.

If this doesn’t frustrate you, the inherently slow loading times will. Every time you load up a new race be prepared to wait at least a good minute or so. Yeah, I know it’s only a minute, but with today's technology it’s unacceptable, especially when you factor in that the graphics aren’t really all that impressive either. Not all is bad though, as there’s been some major improvements since the previous game. There’s now a rewind button you can use (up to a maximum of 9 times per race), there’s three types of realistic physics setting, the hardest of which will have you struggling to even stay sitting upright on your bike, and you can now also use the clutch, which is needed to get a holeshot.

As I mentioned above, the biggest hurdle I struggled with was the controls. You need to slow down, sometimes almost completely on some hairpins, so don’t expect to do much drifting. The bikes feel heavy, and even though you float as you go off a jump you land real quick and with some heft. The tutorial is something left to be desired as it doesn’t do a good enough job at teaching you the ropes. There’s some massive over-steering issues that you simply need to learn to deal with, and it will take a handful of races to even get the hang of it before you don’t have to constantly think about it at every turn. Even a couple dozen hours in I still make mistakes when it comes to over-steering, as it doesn’t feel natural but it’s simply something I’ve learned to manage.

You control the front and back brakes independently, and couple this with the fact that you need to balance your rider with their weight, it can be very confusing in the beginning, especially with the poor default controls. By default the Left Trigger is front brakes and the rear brakes are controlled by the A button. Yes, you’re expected to steer with the Left Stick, lean with the Right Stick, use Right Trigger for gas, and somehow use the A button if you want to use your rear brakes; asinine, I know. Luckily you are able to remap the buttons and triggers, so once I changed the rear brake to Left Trigger it changed my gameplay experience instantly. It’s a good thing that the game allows the remapping, or else an Elite Controller would almost be necessary to play effectively.

In regards to multiplayer, it took a good three days for me to finally get into an online match. After searching for quite sometime I was finally put into a lobby where my disappointment began. When you are in the lobby you can see in real time where every racer is on the map and in what order, what you don’t see is what lap they are on, how much time is left, or how long you’re expected to wait until the next match starts. There’s no spectating while waiting and you’re literally just sitting in the lobby waiting for it to be completed so you can join the next race, that is if the host doesn’t quit after the race, ejecting everyone out of the lobby and forcing you to start the search all over.

Once I finally got into a match after much searching and waiting I experienced some terrible lag when playing with others online (empty spots are filled with AI). I don’t know if it’s simply host based and that’s why, but after a single horrible race of finishing last because of lagging and rubber banding, I went back to single player.

I enjoy racing games and thought I would enjoy MXGP2, but it simply feels like too much is missing. It doesn’t look pretty by any means, the framerate can be abysmal at times, and the realistic physics are only realistic when it wants to be. Sure, ruts will cause me to dig in and get traction, but other times I can seemingly wall ride banners when I’m not taking a jump straight on. Landing on a racer doesn’t cause either of you to crash, but simply sliding at an angle with an AI hitting you, and you launch into the air. Also, riding over a crashed racer, or their bike, seems to do absolutely nothing in terms of messing up your race line, so no need to avoid them really.

There’s a lot of challenge to be had with MXGP2, and it does take quite a while to get used to before you become proficient in your motocross abilities. Yes, the game is flawed, but it can be enjoyable once you start to get a knack for it. If there was any sort of progression for your rider in the career mode, it would have made me want to continue playing, but there’s sadly no reason to other than ‘one more race’. If you’re a super fan, then it’s an obvious purchase as you’ll get to race as your heroes, but strictly speaking as an objective view to the game as a whole, it’s hard to look beyond the glaring issues, even more so if you don't follow the sport.

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 RevErsi Quest

I’ve loved Reversi since I was a kid, I just never realized that’s what I was playing. I grew up with Othello, a ‘practically the same game’ experience save for a trademarked name and some very minor differences. Othello on NES was one of the few games that was at Grandma’s house when I would visit, so I became quite good at it and have loved it ever since. Many other people may recognize Reversi, but under the Othello name, but for the most part it’s essentially the same game.

If you’re unfamiliar with Reversi, it’s traditionally played on a 8x8 board with small discs that are dark on one side and light on the other (usually black and white). The game begins with a preset pattern, equal to both players, and you place your colored sided disc down beside the opponents opposite color, thus flipping them to your color if it surrounds theirs horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. You take turns going until you successfully flip all of the opponent’s discs to your color, or fill the game board completely. It’s a very simple premise, but there’s a tremendous amount of strategy involved.

RevErsi Quest for the Xbox One takes the traditional board game to a whole new level by adding in its own twists and layering a hefty RPG element on top. Complete with a story mode, a map to conquer, items to obtain, gold to loot and more, RevErsi Quest will surprise you with its depth and challenge. Even well over dozens of hours in, I’m still grinding away, learning how to properly use some of the units and items to their full potential.

There’s an overarching story to RevErsi Quest, one that revolves around two kingdoms fighting over the landmass they share. You’re simply someone from an outside realm and play an important part of trying to bring peace to the land once again. It’s honestly a little bit of a convoluted story, but it’s much more than I was expecting from a board game based title. You’ll continue playing to level up your character, gain new loot, and unlock special items.

You begin by choosing your character, male or female, and are shown an overworld map of the area you’ll need to battle on (stages if you will). Once you choose a stage you’re then whisked to another board game-like setting where you’ll roll dice to determine how many spaces you can move. Your goal is to reach the end of said stage to take out the boss, but doing so won’t be as simple as it sounds. Like any RPG you have health and mana points that are used, and can be refilled in various ways, in battle. In the beginning it will be quite straight forward and simple, but once you unlock more dice, items, and find secret paths, it becomes much more involved to reach each successive boss.

As you roll the dice you’ll land on specific stops on the map, some putting you into battle to earn such things as a new unit for more battles, items, healing, stores to purchase items, and more. If you land on a battle square you’ll see your opponent’s stats and you can determine if you should challenge them or not. You’re going to eventually have to uncover each block, as you’ll learn quite quickly that you’re going to need to grind for a while to progress in the latter stages if you want any hope of surviving. Plus, getting battle experience in is always a good thing as it takes some time to get some solid strategies formulated, especially when you start to plan 2, 3, and even more moves ahead.

Once you enter combat this is where the game plays most like Reversi. Instead of simple discs with two colors there are actual individual pieces, almost like chess, where each type has its own attributes, strengths, and weaknesses. I tend to favor a more aggressive strategy, so I loaded my army up with more attack units. These are the ones that deal damage to the opponent whenever you ‘flip’ their pieces by surrounding them.

There are healing units, mana gaining units, and a handful of others that I’m still learning how to use properly as I continue playing. If you can get your opponents health down to 0 you win the match, which is why I favor this more aggressive style. Don’t be fooled though, as you’ll need to also utilize healers and more since there’s a maximum cap on how many of each type you can have in your deck at a given time.

When it’s your turn, clicking on one of your units will show you not only each spot on the board where they can be placed, but where they can use their special abilities as well. White squares will simply flip the adjacent opponent’s pieces, where red will cause damage, green for healing, and so on. This is extremely handy as it can get quite confusing with an almost full board, but you’re given all the damage, healing, and other information by clicking on a tile before you confirm your action.

When you’re successful in battle you will gain experience points, eventually leveling up giving you better stats and a higher cap for pieces in your hand. If you lose you’ll have to replay the fight again, so there’s no massive downfall to losing aside from your time. It takes a certain amount of HP to enter a battle, and winning those battles will refill a portion of your lost HP. It’s an intricate system, but nothing that can’t be circumvented by a little bit of grinding.

Once you land on a square and win, you’ll gain that item or unit. The next time you replay the stage, that square will be blank, allowing you to progress further on the board without any HP loss for having to initiate battles. So, all you need to do is simply grind for a while to ‘win’ all of the board stops, then cruise your way to the boss if you were unable to do so beforehand. You’ll want to reply stages a handful of times again anyways, as new stages that are unlocked after beating a boss can only be played when the previous board has a certain percentage of it unlocked. Also, new stages are very tough in the beginning, so you’re going to want to grind some XP, units, and all ranks of items as well.

While I focus more on physical attacks, magic based strategies are certainly viable as well. You can unlock new spells as you progress, allowing you to utilize your saved up mana (by using the specific units) to cast powerful spells to heal you, damage the enemy, and even other events like powering up one of your units or completely randomizing the units on the playfield.

Items will also play a vital role to your strategies, as some give bonuses to HP, mana, damage, guard rate, and even more. There are multiple ranks of each item as well, which can easily be grinded out by replying stages; another reason to do so. You can equip 2 items, allowing you to buff up your primary stats, or make up for what you lack in. It’s completely up to you and will play a big role in your play style.

At its core, RevErsi Quest is classic Reversi with a layered and intricate RPG element on top, but there’s more to it than that. A deep strategy game is made even more in depth, and even though you’ll be forced to grind to progress, I’m still really enjoying myself, even after dozens of hours, as I’m still unlocking new units and finding new tactics to earn my wins.

While I loved the game as a whole, there are a few minor issues that need to be noted. First is the fact that everything is chosen with a cursor, so your Left Stick acts as the mouse. It’s slow and awkward and it actually took me a few hours to realize that I needed to hold the A button down while I dragged the cursor up to scroll down my item list once I had quite a few. It feels clumsy and isn’t as accurate as it should be.

There’s also very little explanations given outside of the beginning tutorials. Sure, when you encounter a new unit or special board piece it will give a brief outline of it, but after that you’re on your own to figure out anything else or best practices. A much more in depth explanation of not only units, but items as well, would go a long way to ease the learning curve. There’s still stats on the weapons that I have no idea what they mean. This brings us to the final minor issue with RevErsi Quest. While I couldn’t figure out a few things in game, I decided to use the built in Help Menu that accompanies any Xbox One game. While it does have some information, it’s as if Google Translate was used, and not very accurately. It’s not completely broken English, but there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense or is worded incorrectly. I still don’t know some of the weapon stats, but I’m slightly more confused after trying to use the Help feature.

Even with its minor faults, RevErsi Quest is an incredibly in-depth strategy game with many layers and intricacies. If you love Othello or Reversi in its traditional form, check this one out, as the RPG take on the classic is very well done and fits very well with the core strategies while adding many new ones.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Drawful 2

It’s funny, growing up I used to associate party games as either Mario Kart, Mario Party, or something similar. I’ve grown up now, and while those types of games do have a time and place, I now view games such as Drawful as my go-to party game when I have guests over, for numerous reasons. This review is in regards to Drawful 2, the original's sequel. I don’t think I’ve played a game of Drawful 2 (or the original for that matter) where I don’t end up laughing till it hurts. Obviously the experience will vary from one group of friends to the next, but it’s a safe bet you’re going to have a good time since anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or computer can play.

It used to be if you wanted to play multiplayer party games you needed to have a certain amount of controllers, which can become quite expensive, and then usually some sort of special adapter or hub to attach them all to the console, again increasing the price of entry. Drawful 2 allows anyone to participate by simply going to and logging in with the room code, be it on a phone, a tablet, or a computer, so hosting party game nights only requires the initial purchase of the software, and that’s it.

If you’ve played the original Drawful you’ll feel right at home and know exactly what to do. For those uninitiated, the game breaks down to essentially a hilarious take on Pictionary where you’re told what to draw and you must try to do so to the best of your ability within 30 seconds, and without an eraser. Needless to say, this isn’t your ordinary game of Pictionary. While the classic game may ask you to draw something like an elephant, the Great Wall of China, or something normal, the phrases you’re given in Drawful 2 will have you wondering “how the hell do I draw that?". Have you ever tried to draw “my self-esteem”, or “I wrote this book with my laser eyes”? Probably not, but you got about 30 seconds to figure out how. It’s extremely obtuse selections like this that lead to some very noteworthy and hilarious drawings.

New to Drawful 2 is the ability to finally have two pre-selected and random colors to draw with. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s definitely helped my poor drawing abilities to at least highlight specific areas or what I’m trying to convey in my artistry. Once everyone has drawn their masterpiece each one is then shown in order, allowing everyone to guess what the correct answer is. Part of the fun though comes at trying to make other people choose your answer instead of what the actual drawing is, as you’ll net points that would have originally went to the artist. This is where knowing who you’re playing with and pandering to their sense of humor comes in.

Each player’s drawing takes a turn at the forefront, and when everyone has gone once the cycle starts again with a new secret word or phrase to draw. At the end of the game the scores are tallied, as are the ‘likes’ that people can freely dish out to any answers they deem fit. After this you can begin a new game with the same players or get a new set allowing others to swap in and out freely should you have a big enough party to play with. While the minimum to start a game is three players, you’ll really want the preferred 6-8, as it’s much more entertaining and lasts a decent amount of time per round.

While the game itself has preset secret words for you to draw, another new addition to Drawful 2 is the amazing ability to make your own answers. Here you can write your own answers down, allowing you to customize and cater to a specific group of friends that may be playing with you. Being able to include inside jokes or blatant insults is what makes this addition incredibly amusing. This personalization is a first, and if you get a group of people to play together often enough, it will also most likely be the only way you play moving forward. It’s a very simple addition that was lacking in the first game and now I see it hard to play without it.

While most will play for points, there are others that find the ‘likes’ much more prestigious. Sure, it’s a secondary consolation prize for getting thumbs-up, but they are recognized at the overview screen alongside the biggest points earner. Also, it will depend on who you’re playing with, but when you have that one person that would rather try and get laughs than score points, it’s easy to see how amusing Drawful 2 really can be played with the right group of friends.

Aside from the additions listed above, there are also a number of smaller improvements allowing for a much better gameplay experience. The most notable one being that you can now rejoin a game session if you accidentally close your browser, hit the back button, or whatever. In the original this was essentially a death sentence, forcing you to sit on the sidelines until the game was over, but now you can freely rejoin if needed without hassle. There are also small streak bonuses allowing people who are not necessarily in the lead a chance to make a comeback, bit by bit. While there are some big improvements, the smaller ones almost feel as important, as it makes Drawful 2 feel much more complete and polished.

If you’re like me and stream your games on Twitch, Drawful 2 has you covered. Not only can you livestream the game, but people watching your channel can actually join your game and participate as well. If all of the 8 player slots are taken, anyone can join the audience, up to 10,000 in total, where they can dish out ‘likes’ to any of the answers. It’s a great addition and forward thinking that more games need to embrace.

At such a cheap entry point of $9.99 CAD, Drawful 2 is a fantastic sequel with many improvements that simply make for a better game than the original, and that one was already great to begin with. Again, the enjoyment of Drawful 2 will solely be based on the group of friends, or Twitch users, that you decide to play with, and your humor for poorly drawn artistry. I fall into all of those categories, making Drawful 2 an absolute must if you’re a party host for a group of like minded friends.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Kung-Fu for Kinect

It’s no secret, it seems as though major support for Kinect has died down over the years. At one point it seemed almost every Xbox 360 game was “Better with Kinect”, even if it was simple integration, but these days I can’t even think of the last non-dance game I played that had full Kinect support on the Xbox One. I still use mine every day for voice commands, but it looks as though I’m in the minority as the new Xbox One S doesn’t even have a dedicated Kinect port and the decision to end support for Xbox Fitness has been a blow to Kinect adopters.

Deja-vu is a funny thing. I don’t hide that I’ve been a Kinect supporter from the beginning, so when Kung-Fu for Kinect arrived to review I was all over it, as the list of Kinect only games these days are virtually nil. So I started playing and after a very sweaty hour or so it finally dawned on me why this felt so familiar, because I played this game already, back on Xbox 360 with the original Kinect.

Kung-Fu for Kinect is a repackage of the 2011 Xbox 360 game Kung-Fu High Impact, though be to fair, with a new engine and other improvements, including the much better Xbox One Kinect sensor required to play. This repackage has enough improvements to justify trying to release it once again. I remember having many issues with the movement tracking with the original game, though luckily it seems Kinect 2.0’s power and tech has fixed many of these issues. If you were a fan of the original you can look forward to ragdoll physics, more game modes, more enemies on screen, and of course, better body tracking.

While most games give you a preset character, or allow you to create your own, Kung-Fu for Kinect actually makes you the star, literally. The Kinect tracks you and places you in the game in real time, so the many moves you perform are transferred into the game itself, as if you were working with a green screen behind you. Sure, at first it seems gimmicky, but you’ll laugh and realize it has some charm. The campaign is laid out in a comic book style, asking you to pose in certain ways, then places the pictures that the Kinect takes of you into the comic strips to tell the story.

The plot itself is paper thin, but it’s silly and suits the comic book storytelling method, adding to its charm, never taking itself too seriously. Sure, the voice acting could be vastly improved, but again, it’s not taking itself too seriously either, nor should you. You’ll feel silly posing in the positions the game asks you to for the story sections, but these are some of the most hilarious moments when you see the results. My 3 year old daughter was laughing so hard once she saw me inside of the comic book doing all of these crazy moves.

As I mentioned above, it seemed as though the original Kinect didn’t fair to well reading your movements unless it was a dance game. In general, I always approach a Kinect game without many expectations, and with Kung-Fu for Kinect it was the same; however, I was pleasantly surprised as every move registers and everything seems to finally be working as intended, thanks to Kinect 2.0 and the work Virtual Air Guitar has done with the updated game.

At its core, Kung-Fu for Kinect is a side scrolling brawler that places you in the middle of the action, fighting off waves of enemies with your punches, kicks, and other kung-fu moves. If you want to attack the enemy to your left, you’re going to need to throw a punch or kick in that direction. Every time you attack in a speific direction, your virtual self will slide slightly in that direction too, allowing you to traverse the somewhat confined levels. This of course makes traversing the levels themselves somewhat a chore, though the majority of enemies will rush to you if you are stationary.

As you progress through the campaign you will also learn new special moves, such as a dash punch, somersault, a lightning strike that would make Raiden proud, and more. These offer up some variety to the simple punch and kick spam that will make up the bulk of your move set. To be honest, the first night I started up the game I was unable to get any special move like the dash or somersault to work, not even once. I reached out via email for some tips because I didn’t want to hold it against the game if I was simply doing something wrong. Nevertheless, I played the next day and by some form of magic, I was somersaulting and dashing anywhere I wanted to without hesitation. I assume it was simply a ‘bad night’ for the Kinect, as I was playing late with barely any lights on, but I’ve not had a single control issue since then.

The enemies that you be fight are very stereotypical, with ninjas, mummies, and more, each with their own attacks and strategies to fight against. In the later levels, when you become surrounded by numerous types of enemies, it’s quite entertaining to simply punch your way through a dozen or so opponents at once, especially if you’re holding something in your hand as a prop to really get into the comic setting. The enemies that shoot projectiles will be the bane of your existence until you master how to dash and somersault on command, but after that point it's child’s play to maneuver around on a whim. Scattered throughout the levels are power-ups and health refills, so learn how to traverse quickly early on if you want to survive the harder difficulty levels (which can be switched at any point if any stages are giving you troubles).

Once you complete the over twenty levels of the campaign, there’s no real reason to go back and replay them unless you want to level up your skills further. This is where the handful of extra modes come in. You can do time trials, survival, and even a one punch mode, allowing you to showcase a special finishing move where the enemy only takes one hit to defeat. Needless to say, my daughter absolutely loved this mode. All of these are nice to have but most likely won’t keep you around playing for long periods of time unless it’s for the kids.

What Kung-Fu for Kinect does better than most games is make you sweat. Seriously, 10 minutes in and you’ll be needing a drink and a towel. It’s a very physical game, and swimming punches and kicking repeatedly can become quite tiring. I made the mistake of loading up the game for the first time after a long day of work, regretting that decision quite quickly afterwards. That being said, it’s a fun way to get some exercise in and be physical without becoming bored.

To be completely honest, I was going to score the game a little lower than I did, but that was before I got my 3 year old daughter to play. While I’m a grown man, trying to dissect the game for what it does and doesn’t do, seeing the joy my daughter got from playing proved something else; that being it is a fun game regardless of its flaws. Sure, to me and you it may be a shallow experience without much longevity, but if you have kids they won’t care about that. They get to punch and kick some bad guys all while having fun doing so. The amount of fun she has with Kung-Fu for Kinect every time I load it up is amazing, and she is now asking if she can play the “hi-yah!” game daily. Kids will have a blast with it, and that’s who this is really for. It will amuse them for hours, tuckering them out in the process. That alone for parents is worth the price of admission, along with taking a video of them kicking some bad guys butts to share with family and friends.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Lost Sea

I’ve always been fascinated with the Bermuda Triangle and the mysteries it holds after all these years, so any game that uses it as a backdrop has my attention from the get-go. Developer Eastasiasoft brings us Lost Sea, a simple game with an even simpler premise; you’ve crash landed in the Bermuda Triangle and need to find your way home. Normally this is where I would go into more depth about the narrative, but there is no more to add. So while it has a very basic story, it tries to rely on its simple gameplay and exploration elements to keep you hooked. Is that enough though to motivate you to try and escape the Lost Sea? Let’s find out.

Once you begin you’ll have a choice from a handful of different characters, each with a different look and style, but it’s simply cosmetic as they all control the same way and don’t have any inherent special abilities or passives. Lost Sea begins as by putting you on a tutorial island that teaches you the basics, giving you a machete to cut your way through boxes, bushes, and enemies. Utilizing a top-down camera, you’ll move your character with the Left Stick and the camera with the Right Stick, and as per usual ‘X’ is used to slash and ‘A’ to interact. That’s basically it for the controls as it’s simple to jump in and play.

Your goal is to navigate your way out from the Lost Sea, but this is the Bermuda Triangle, so obviously it’s not as simple as that. You’ll need to use your ship to sail from island to island progressing through each one, with multiple themes around each set, looking for a way home. Nothing is as easy as it should be, and to sail from one island to another you need to find a magical tablet that dictates how many islands you can sail to before having to go to another island to find another tablet, starting the process over once again.

To keep things fresh the islands are procedurally generated, so every time you play each island will be slightly different from the previous one. I say slightly for a reason; the island’s layouts are randomly laid out, almost in a Catan-like style with map tiles linking together in specific ways. You learn early on though that although pieces of the islands are linked together in a random manner there’s clearly only a handful of ‘map pieces’, so you’ll eventually see the same tiles numerous times. There was even one instance where I had the same tile beside each other.

As you explore your main goal is to find the tablet on the island that will allow you to set sail a set number of spaces, inching closer to the island that houses the boss for that stage. Each stage consists of usually a dozen or so islands. While you can search for the tablet and leave right away once you do, consistently doing so will hinder you in the long run as you should also hack down enemies for experience and smash boxes for coins, both of which are used for upgrades that will be critical the further you progress. It’s a simple mechanic but it works, though only in short bursts. There’s an achievement for even beating the game in under two hours, but that’s quite difficult to do if you haven't completed a super thorough playthrough before, which I’ll explain later. There’s more to do though, as you’ll come across treasure chests that you can’t open, bridges that you can’t build, and more. This is where your followers come in.

As you explore the islands you’ll come across other survivors who are simply waiting to be rescued. You can recruit then and once you do they will constantly follow you, allowing you to make use of their preset skills such as lock picking, mining, carpentry, and more. While it’s completely possible to complete Lost Sea without any followers, you’ll have a much more difficult time, especially in the more difficult islands, as some followers can revive you (which is an absolute must later on), grant you damage bonuses, and even net you bonus experience when you defeat enemies.

Be prepared though to lose track of your allies from time to time. Given that the game revolves around you constantly having followers, you would think that they wouldn't lag behind when they get caught on a corner or rock without you noticing, sadly that’s not the case here. Many times I would come across a chest and one of my followers had the ability to open, but they would be nowhere to be found because they got caught on a staircase or corner somewhere way back. Not a deal breaker by any means, just frustrating and disappointing.

One of the best uses for your followers is the ability to make them carry your tablets back to the ship dock for you, leaving you free to swipe your machete at boxes and enemies while they do the heavy lifting. You’ll eventually find more survivors than you can allow to follow you, as you can only have up to a maximum of four (once the skill is upgraded) at a time. Since each ally has different skill sets, you’ll want to make sure that you have one with every type of possible skill covered.

As you play you’ll constantly have to reference your map which requires you to go into a separate menu. Having a rotating map on the main screen would have been welcome so you don't have to constantly pause the game to catch your bearings. Having some dialogue between you and the survivors would be welcome too, as there’s no real dialogue after the game’s opening scene, leaving for a slightly shallow experience.

Your machete is your main weapon, allowing you to break boxes, cut down bushes, and attack the wildlife that attacks you on sight. You never get to upgrade your weapon in any way aside from recruiting followers that damage enemies when close by, making it a necessity as you fight the harder monsters. Once you make it to the boss island of each stage and take on the "big kahuna" so to speak, you’ll need to figure out its pattern and the small window of opportunity when you can attack. It’s a welcome change that breaks up the monotony of the island exploration, but once you face the same boss again in later stages, albeit with a broader move set and slightly more difficulty, it’s a little disappointing.

When you defeat enemies and collect coins, these currencies are used to upgrade your abilities, some of which will be absolutely necessary if you want any chance to beat Lost Sea in a single sitting. Why do I bring up beating it in a single sitting you ask? Well, because you need to if you want to complete it. On my first playthrough I was having no problems, barely getting hit until about the third set of islands where the animals that attacked me started dealing much more damage, killing my allies, and eventually myself. No big deal I thought, I’ll continue on from here. Boy, was I wrong.

Given Lost Sea’s charming cel-shaded artistic style and cute visuals, I guess I got lured into thinking that it would be a simple game. Quite the opposite though, as it’s unforgiving, something you learn real quick once you die for the first time. Lost Sea wants you to play the entire game in a single sitting because if you do die you begin again from the first stage, regardless of how far you made it previously.

When you die you are given a small amount of bonus experience and gold coins to begin with, based on how many tablets you found in your previous session. You begin your new playthrough with this bonus, but surprise, absolutely none of your previously bought upgrades are available. Sure, it’s nice to begin again with a small bonus, but if you’ve simply been tablet searching and progressing without finding the extra ones on the islands, you don’t get nearly the same starting bonus.

There’s another major issue with this mechanic as well, and that’s related to saving, or lack thereof, your progress. For example, say you need to quit your game, the game crashes, or whatever the case, you will lose all progress you’ve made, even if it’s your new playthrough with the starting bonus, forcing you to start over from scratch. Granted, you can begin on the furthest stage that you’ve reached, but doing so will be even more frustrating as you’re starting out on a harder set of islands without any of the previous upgrades, essentially forcing you to play from the beginning again if you really want a shot at completing it.

Once you realize this is the way Lost Sea forces you to play, it’s difficult to get motivated to play it unless you know that you’re going to have a few hours to sit and do so in one go. It’s designed to be played slowly and methodically, but not everyone has that amount of time. Once I lost 3+ hours of progress twice, I was pretty much done with the game because of this nonsensical design flaw.

For all the frustration I had with Lost Sea, it is charming in such that it is simple and basic at its core. If there was a way to save one's progress I would have dumped quite a few more hours into it exploring an island or two here and there and looking to beat more bosses, but because of the forceful time commitment required, and losing hours of progress numerous times, it looks like I’ll sadly forever be stuck in the Bermuda Triangle’s Lost Sea. It's really hard to recommend this game for everyone, but if have the time to play this game in one sitting, and you are looking for a bit of a challenge with some interesting gameplay mechanics, Lost Sea may just be for you.

Suggestions: Save my progression. Don't force me to commit to sit and play for hours at a time.

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Neon Chrome

I’m an 80’s kid, so anything neon and cyberpunk is right up my alley. While Neon Chrome from 10Tons might be one of the most generic titles there are, it offers a twin stick shooter experience overlaid with a rogue sci-fi cyberpunk theme, complete with plenty of neon colors and gameplay that seems to have been influenced by games like Smash TV. While twin stick shooters are common, Neon Chrome tries to add some mechanics to the core gameplay to set it apart from the competition, such as persistent progression, procedurally generated levels, and an interesting plot premise to name a few.

You work for Neon Corp, and while most places simply escort you out of the building when you get fired, Neon Corp kills you. You are part of a group staging a rebellion and attempting to take down the Overseer from within. To do so you’ll hack into the network and begin climbing the ominous death tower from the ground up, floor by floor, by taking control of virtual character assets and shooting your way through each level.

Being a top down twin stick shooter, there’s not much to explain in its core gameplay, as you move with the Left Stick and aim with the Right Stick. What is welcomed though is that the levels are procedurally generated, so every time you die, which will be often, you will have to make your way through the floors again, but it’ll be a fresh experience in terms of layout. There’s only a handful of levels, each of which consist of roughly five or so floors before you reach the boss, and subsequent checkpoint. It may not sound like a lot of gameplay, but the difficulty in the beginning is so high that you’ll be replaying levels many times over, slowly making progress by saving up credits and upgrading your character.

You start off in a small room that consists of some terminals and a machine where you can hack into the network and control other people (assets), allowing you to safely fight your way to the top of Neon Corp from the safe room. Given that you’re simply controlling an avatar instead of your real body, every time you die and respawn you’re given a random selection of three assets to choose from, each one having different abilities and weapons. You awaken back in your safe room, able to spend the credits you earn along the way to upgrade permanent stats or purchase better abilities and weapons. Stat increases are your best bet for the first few hours, as these are permanent increases regardless of what avatar you control and they persist throughout the whole game, constantly increasing as you upgrade.

Every time you hack into the network you’re given a choice of three random avatars to control, each one usually varies given they are different types of classes. You have assassins, techie’s, hackers, and more, each of which have their pro’s and con’s based on your preferred play style. Given the difficulty of the game, I almost always chose whomever had a bonus to their increased health pool, as dying results in restarting the level from the beginning every time until you defeat the boss and can continue from that point on.

Hackers can be useful, as they can unlock special doors and loot boxes that others can’t, and some classes even have a little robot pet that follows you around, helping you defeat the onslaught of constant enemies as you make your way through each floor of Neon Corp. Some gamers may prefer the hacking abilities of some of the avatars, but the ability to loot slightly more boxes isn’t worth the tradeoff of a 10% increase or more to your health. There is an avatar for many different play styles, just be prepared to grind a lot for the first few hours until your stats start to increase, making things easier as you go.

Classes vary the gameplay approach, but so does the weapon you use at any given time. There are shotguns, assault rifles, SMG’s, and more, and each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. You'll have to power through and learn what works best for you over time. Sometimes a shotgun is best for levels that have many tight hallways, allowing enemies to be funneled through narrow doorways, while more open levels are better suited for a different type of weapon. Since floors are randomly generated there’s no way to plan ahead and you must hope that you luck out with your strategy.

You also start out with a randomized secondary weapon, some of which are incredibly powerful, and others that are almost useless. You need to loot energy for the secondary meter to fill, allowing you to rely on it more, and it will be needed when you become overwhelmed during boss fights. The randomness of the characters on each spawn sometimes works out perfect (health bonus, assault rifle, and missile launcher), but there will also be times when you know you don’t have a prayer of completing many floors with the build you’ve been given (shotgun, increased melee damage, and mines). This can be frustrating, but factor in the seemingly random hit detection, and things start to slowly become a test of your patience. Sometimes aiming is on point, while other times it takes a few clips to defeat a single enemy as your shots miss.

An awesome little touch is that the bulk of the environment is destructible, and this is something that you’ll need to utilize if you want to survive. Sometimes a slew of soldiers are behind a door just waiting to destroy you as you enter, so it’s sometimes better to simply blast a hole through the wall behind them and shoot them before they notice. This is preferred as you get double damage from behind the door as well. The AI itself isn’t too bright though, and you can usually lure one or two bad guys at a time without much trouble. That is until reinforcements arrive and you’re swarmed with over a dozen enemies at once all gunning for you.

Each stage consists of a handful of floors that need to be cleared in succession before you get to challenge that stage’s boss. The bosses themselves are quite difficult, but the bigger challenge is simply getting to their floor with enough health to hopefully survive the fight. Since health regeneration spots are completely random you might show up to the boss floor with little to no health and a very slim chance of survival. What makes the boss fights even more challenging is the fact that there’s usually waves and waves of enemies that are spawned to fight you simultaneously. Once you manage to take the boss down, you can then respawn from that point anytime you die and hack back in with a new avatar.

Enemies that are killed drop credits, as does opening special boxes hidden around the floors. These credits are highly sought after as it’s the currency you’ll use to upgrade your main character (which any avatar you use every time you restart gets the benefit of) stats permanently. Since you begin as a weakling with no upgrades at all, you’re essentially forced to play though many stages repeatedly, slowly amassing credits so you can spend them on some upgrades, hopefully making your next run slightly easier.

You can upgrade your damage, criticals, damage, and more, based on how you want to play your characters. After a few hours of grinding (by getting so far then dying over and over) I finally was able to afford a good amount of upgrades thinking it would drastically change the outcome of my battles. While you may notice a slight improvement, simply upgrading a stat one or two points is completely unnoticeable, it’s not until you get a dozen or so points in that you will start to really notice a difference. To save enough credits to even get to this point takes time, a lot of it, and even more patience. While you can purchase weapons and other improvements they are only for the next run, so you’re much better off spending your hard earned credits on permanent passive upgrades rather than a slight bonus for a single run.

As a top down shooter, and with a camera that is pulled way back, don’t expect to see much detail in anything. Sure the art style itself is very stylish with its neon colors, but levels constantly take place inside the office tower you’re trying to reach the top of, so you only see the same backdrop with bland office walls and cubicles from start to finish, save for the boss rooms. Some of the rooms have a very dark pallet, making certain walkways and walls difficult to see without any neon accents. As a whole it can be pretty, but there’s absolutely no detail in anything within the walls of Neon Chrome. As for the audio, the minimal voice acting is done decently, but unskippable when you have to replay the same floor numerous times. The music is fitting but nothing is memorable in the slightest.

If you happen to have friends over there’s an included 4-player co-op mode. Sadly there’s no online mode, so if you’re unable to have other people over you’re stuck trying to reach the Overseer on your lonesome. Watching some co-op, it looks as if things become drastically easier since you have much more firepower the more friends that play alongside you. I would have stuck with Neon Chrome much longer if online co-op was implemented, but sadly that’s not the case.

Neon Chrome has a few good things going for it, with its interesting take on progression and procedurally generated floors, but it’s simply going to come down to how much time you want to grind before you can realistically survive a handful of floors at a time. It took me a few hours to save up enough credits to get my health pool to a decent level, meaning I had to start the grind all over again to work on my damage, and so on. It’s time consuming to actually get to the point of having your character with decent stats, and by that point you might already want to move on.

Given that you only see the same handful of enemies from start to finish, Neon Chrome does become repetitive, and the lack of checkpoints, other than those found when defeating bosses, can be incredibly frustrating at times. That being said, if you’re a true fan of the twin stick genre and enjoy a challenge, Neon Chrome has a lot here for you if you have a tremendous amount of patience. It’s strategic and allows for some varied gameplay based on how you want to build and play your character, just be prepared to sink a lot of time into it before you get to that point.

Suggestions: Online co-op would do wonders for longevity.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride

I don’t know if it’s because I’m growing older or if my gaming tastes are changing, but I used to scoff at games like Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride when I was younger. I never really took them serious, as I didn’t see the appeal in object finding games, but I found myself really enjoying my time with Grim Legends, regardless of its faults. Then I figured it out; after a big gaming session of The Witcher, Halo or The Division, I simply want to lay on the couch and relax with a completely different pace where I don’t need to worry about my reflexes and can let my mind solve some puzzles.

Developed by Artifex Mundi, a developer who have quite a number of games released on PC over the years, and who have made a name for themselves, specifically in the puzzle genre. They now have a handful of their titles on the Xbox One, but this was my first of them that I got to experience. I wish I found their gaming library earlier, because if there games in general are anything like Grim Legends, I know I’ll enjoy myself for the few hours it takes to complete. If you’ve played one of their games before, Grim Legends follows suit with familiar mechanics, but in the Xbox One version there are a few new mechanics to keep things fresh for the veterans.

You are returning home for your twin sister’s wedding, whom you’ve not seen in quite some time. Just before the wedding a ferocious bear crashes the party and kidnaps her, so you set out alongside her husband-to-be to find and rescue her. Something seems not right though, and the nearby bottomless pit, known as the Abyss, is a place the local villagers fear.

There is more to the story, with unforeseen events and twists, and it has potential, but it feels a little thin, only really serving as a gateway to go from one puzzle area to the next. While the voice acting isn’t perfect, it’s passable for the most part to make you believe in the characters. It’s a shame the story tends to be cliché at times, with certain events being obvious and predictable if you follow along.

As you begin Grim Legends you have the choice to play on Normal or Expert. The only real difference between the two is that expert mode takes longer to refill your hint meter and you aren’t given clues on the map of where to go next. I was expecting the puzzles to be much more involved on the harder difficulty, but it doesn’t seem like they were from what I could tell. As you begin playing you’re given a brief tutorial of how to inspect the environment, gather items, and you are 'handheld' as you get through a puzzle or two to get your feet wet. What I enjoyed was that the bulk of the puzzles tended to make sense and there weren't any solutions that were super wacky or those that required inventory items to be combined. If you need to cut a rope, you’ll need to find scissors or a sharp blade. Need to get an object out of reach? Then you’ll have to find rope or something to pull it towards you. Common sense for the most part.

You also get a companion very early on, an adorable cute kitten in fact, that at times needs to be used to solve certain puzzles by reaching specific items or scaring away a rat or toad here and there. The kitten doesn’t get used often, but when it does you get to watch a short little animation of him doing something adorable before handing the controls back over to you.

You’ll come across many different scenes, each of which need to be explored by clicking and inspecting, allowing you to gather items or solve puzzles which give you items to help you in you quest to solve the next puzzle. Many items can simply be found, but others will only be rewarded when you play through the numerous and unique puzzles or with the common hidden object games (HOG’s) which Artifex Mundi is known for. If you’re like how I was, and roll your eyes at the thought of the HOG’s, there’s an alternative mini-game you can play should you desire.

Instead of sorting through a table full of jumbled items, searching for the ones on your list, you can opt to play a game of dominoes instead. You are tasked to eventually place a domino in specific areas by chaining them together. These domino games can be challenging for the simple fact that if you make a ‘wrong’ move you can actually fail the game since there’s no way to reset the board or clear tiles that have been placed, forcing you to play the original HOG instead.

As you complete puzzles and progress from one scene to the next, unveiling small story snippets as you go, you’ll gather new items that can be used in previous scenes, allowing you to progress elsewhere or gain a new item for the next puzzle. You eventually have access to a map which allows you to fast travel from scene to scene should you desire, though you never generally have to move more than 2 or 3 areas at a time, but it’s a welcome addition.

There seems to only be a handful of puzzle types throughout the course of the game. Some have you simply collecting items tucked away and hidden, well others need you to find all the items of a set before being able to actually attempt the corresponding puzzle. There are also more unique puzzles, but they usually revolve around sliding pieces or rotating objects to find the correct solution. Lastly is the iconic HOG’s, where you need to find all the objects on your ‘grocery list’ that are hidden in plain sight in a giant mess. If you’re a puzzle aficionado, Grim Legends is no doubt able to be completed in a single sitting in a few hours, and obviously longer if you aren’t as efficient in your puzzle solving abilities and depending on how much you rely on the built in hint system. There’s an epilogue that unlocks once you complete the main game that gives you another hour of story and gameplay, though these puzzles are much