Total Reviews: 56
Average Overall Score Given: 6.41250 / 10
Total Forum Posts: 5

GRID Legends

Over the years, the Xbox community has been spoiled by great racing games, be it any of the Forza Horizon titles or the mainline, and more sim-like Forza Motorsport franchise. Regardless of which type of racing you prefer, Microsoft, Turn 10 and Playground Games have had you covered. Of course, this comment simply pertains to first party releases, and doesn’t take third party or multiplatform games into account. We can’t forget those, either, because while they’re generally not as good or as polished, some stand out for good reasons.

In the past, there were the Project Gotham Racing and DiRT titles, along with regular Need for Speed releases. Then, in 2008, Codemasters rebranded and rebooted its TOCA: Race Driver series as Race Driver: Grid, or Grid for short. That spawned a new sub-franchise, which is still going to this day, thanks to yet another reboot (in 2019) and a newly released follow-up called Grid: Legends. It’s that latter, and most recent, title that we’ll be focusing on here.

If you played the 2019 reboot, or followed Grid: Legends’ development somewhat closely, you’ll likely know what to expect. That is, a racing experience that combines elements of both the simulation and arcade varieties, and is thus best described as being a ‘simcade.’ The end result is a game that can appeal to both audiences, although those who prefer very true-to-life racing should probably still steer clear. After all, despite trying to sit in the middle and please everyone, this is an experience that still leans towards arcade more than anything.

Earlier in this review, I referenced Legends as a follow-up, because it is in a lot of ways. Although it changes some things, most of those alterations are minor, and the majority of the game builds on its most recent predecessor’s groundwork. As such, the competitive racing still incorporates the nemesis system, wherein aggressive driving (or plot based rivalries) turn other drivers into the player’s nemeses. How often this happens generally depends on one’s play style, but it all boils down to the same thing: pissing a computer-controlled opponent off so much that they start to be aggressive in return, be it by trying to push you off the track or by simply trying to block your advances.

I’ll admit: As someone who tends to be quite aggressive in arcade racers and isn’t afraid to trade paint within the corners, this happened to me pretty often. Hell, there were a couple of other drivers who were perpetual nemeses of mine. That said, it was sometimes difficult to tell how much of this carried over. Sometimes drivers would remain my nemeses from one race to another, but not always.

The biggest change comes in the form of ‘Story Mode,’ which introduces a full motion video-based narrative. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. Things pick up as a documentary crew begins to film the boss, lead engineer and ‘star’ racer of the struggling Seneca Racing team. Without the financial security of their higher ranking peers, or a true number one driver, they find themselves wondering if their doors will be forced to close. Then Driver #22 enters the fray as a new hire, although his or her origins are not exactly chronicled.

You’ve likely guessed, but we, the players, are Driver #22. For this reason, the character is not shown outside of their racing suit and helmet, and even then it’s rare to see them on camera. The developers wanted to increase immersion as much as possible, and obviously hoped that the player would see his or herself as embodying the promising rookie. Thus, their face, gender, nationality, skin colour and voice are never shown.

This honestly led to a bit of a disconnect for me, because I never felt like I got to know Driver #22, or really felt like part of the team. Granted, that was also likely due to the mediocre and forgettable nature of the narrative, itself.

Although we get to know Marcus Ado, the son of Nigerian immigrants who acts as Seneca’s team principal or owner, Ajeet Singh (their lead engineer, and the best part of this campaign), and number one driver, Yume Tanaka, they don’t really feel like real people. This FMV-based storyline is so scripted, cheesy and uninspired that it never truly clicks, feels immersive or makes you care. Well, that was my experience at least.

It doesn’t help that the villains – your evil rival, Nathan McKane, and his unlikeable boss – feel so caricatured that it’s hard to take them seriously. McKane’s one-on-one interviews are so over-the-top, and stress that he’s the bad guy so very much, that it feels like he’s some sort of stereotype. He’s the big bad racer who doesn’t care about anyone, and would steal your kid’s candy if he could.

I completed all thirty-six chapters of this ‘Driven to Glory’ storyline, but never truly identified with its typical underdog tale, nor did I feel like I was a superstar racer. Part of this was because of what I mentioned above, but another part was due to how everything was structured in terms of the actual racing events.

After watching a short video, featuring behind-the-scenes footage, one-on-one interviews or Nathan McKane being mean to his teammate, the player gets to jump into one or several different events. These usually start at the beginning, but some – like the first race, which picks up after a terrible crash – begin in progress. Your goal isn’t to win them all, though, and is actually to keep improving your placements from one race to the next. For example, one may ask you to come in tenth or better, while the next one says to get eighth. This is all easily said on paper, but Grid: Legends is an easy game and coming in first isn’t too difficult. I ended up placing first in almost every race.

You’d think that there’d be mention of such a great accomplishment, or that the game would adjust to how you place, but there’s nothing of that sort. This is, for all intents and purposes, a very stilted and structured FMV game. It’s impossible for the script to change, so even though I was getting first in every race, the story continued as if I was slowly improving.

Another thing that I found odd was that, upon starting Grid: Legends, it asked me if I wanted to play the previous season or start a new one. I only saw this once, so I wasn’t able to go back and investigate what each option would present. Of course, I went with the previous season, because I got the impression that this would be a story told over more than one season, and it is. Your first year is in the amateur ranks, and your second one is in the big leagues. It’s there where you meet McKane.

What’s nice about GRID Legends, though, is that it has more than one single player ‘campaign,’ for lack of a better term. There’s the story mode, and then there’s the career mode, which is presented in tiers like your typical racing game from the twenty-five to thirty years. There, you start as a rookie, complete enough miscellaneous events to progress, and then move up the ranks. In total, there’s something like 260 different races to pick and choose from, but you won’t have to finish them all to complete things. In fact, only the second last tier needs to be completed in full in order to unlock the final tier. That’s a good thing, because the amount of events is honestly overwhelming. Even the rookie tier has eight different types, and each one has numerous different events inside.

I can’t wholeheartedly praise the progression system at work here, though, because it’s not all great. Yes, it’s nice that you don’t have to complete every event to move on, but unlocking events can be a pain in the ass.

Instead of using a typical progression system, wherein completing one event of a particular type unlocks the next one, and so forth, Grid Legends does something different. You may get to pick from a couple of events, but once you complete them the third will be unlocked. Why? Well, progression within the disciplines (or car types, if you prefer, as there are sports cars, electric vehicles, stadium trucks, drift events and special vehicles like VW Beetles) is often based on kilometers and upgrades.

How does this work? Well, the general idea behind it all is that vehicles upgrade independently, and they do so by being driven. There’s a meter that tells you how much you’ve driven a specific car, and you see it increase towards unlocking different tiers of upgrades. This is annoying, because it artificially lengthens the game in a poor way. Instead of being able to complete two events and then jump into the third, the game blocks you from doing so by saying that you haven’t driven that car enough to unlock the upgrade tier needed for that race, and it keeps doing it.

Then there’s the fact that the menus are abysmal, with upgrades and the car shop being hidden behind multiple button presses. Legends gives you a hint of what you need to do, but it doesn’t come out and tell you or make things accessible. Instead, you’re left to fend for yourself and figure out that you have to go to a specific menu, then press a face button and spend money on upgrades.

I should also note here that it’s possible to upgrade two different things: your individual cars and the imaginary race team that you can create for the career mode. The latter upgrades don’t deal with speed, braking, traction or anything like that. Instead, they offer extra race winnings, cheaper car repairs, less pricey upgrades and cheaper car purchases.

You also need to reach certain driver levels to unlock the second and third tiers of your team upgrades menu, and if you’re like me, you’ll also notice that creating a team feels somewhat pointless. Sure, there are lots of liveries to choose from and unlock, but I didn’t see my team logo appear on my car, and didn’t see how to do so although I could’ve missed an option or button press. Furthermore, the team’s name doesn’t appear often, and your customized driver name only seems to appear in the standings. Once I changed my name, it also overwrote ‘Driver #22’ in the story mode standings, and event positioning lists, but they still always referred to me by my suit number.

The other modes include custom races, where you can create your own event by choosing the city, track configuration, number of laps, amount of drivers, weather, time of day and car type, as well as online play. When I jumped online, I got into a match with only one other human driver, with the rest being bots. It was seamless, and there were no issues.

That said, I’m not somebody who looks forward to, or enjoys, playing racing games online. I find that there’s always the one or two guys who are so good, or so fast, that they’re a mile ahead of everyone. Then, there are the people who try to crash into others for fun, and do so every race because they want to cause chaos. It’s never been much fun to me, outside of race instances, but this isn’t a slight against Grid Legends, itself. It’s just my opinion and personal observation.

For the most part, the driving is fast, frenetic, fun and engaging. I got pretty immersed into some races, but also found myself getting a bit bored when I played for hours on end. Things were just a bit too similar, through and through, despite the different types of vehicles and events. The racing is quite arcadey at heart, but it’s possible to change the settings so that damage is a major issue. With this toggled on, your car can become so destroyed that it simply won’t work anymore. I didn’t find this of interest, though, and favoured the regular setting and their three helpful rewinds.

The thing is that Grid Legends looks more like a sim than it is. It has a lot of closed in tracks, including ovals and city courses based all around the world. On top of that, it has fast sports cars, races featuring twenty-two different vehicles and penalties for going off course. However, the racing is fast, occasionally violent and it doesn’t penalize you much for trading paint, outside of docking a bit off of your score. That is, the score you earn for doing good things, like slingshotting, passing other cars, following the driving line and stuff like that. It is then deposited into your player profile and increases your driver level.

It’s all very forgiving, though, and the rewinds help even if they’re limited. It also favours arcade over simulation, with some less lifelike mechanics. For instance, truck races have jumps spread throughout their courses, while electric vehicle events have two different gates that fill your boost gauge when you go through them. This is the only event that seems to have any sort of boost, though.

Given that this is an Xbox centric website, I don’t need to specify which console ecosystem we reviewed Legends on. However, I must state that I did review it using my Xbox Series S review unit. For the most part, everything ran smoothly and was impressive. I’m sure it’d have all looked better on an Xbox Series X and a swanky 4KTV, but I was generally pretty impressed with how things looked. That said, Grid Legends is far from being the type of looker that Forza Horizon is, and expectations must be tempered some. It does look nice, but it doesn’t have the same type of pop or wow factor that other arcade racers sometimes do, despite an overuse of fireworks, balloons, confetti and sun flare. The weather does look pretty nice, though, and so do the tracks, with one specific outlier.

Near the end of the story mode, I started noticing quite a bit of pop-in. It was most noticeable on one track, but appeared in at least a couple. Usually, it was minor and would only involve trees on the outskirts of the track. However, this one particular Chinese course – which featured mountains, tunnel(s) and more arcade style trappings – was really bad with its pop-in. The mountains would change as I drove by, as would the shadows. I’d see trees’ shadows covering the road ahead of me, but when I got closer those shadows would change dramatically. It was odd and really marred the visual experience on that track.

Another issue I had with story mode was how compressed the racing footage was. By that, I mean the ‘replay’ footage they showed during the FMV scenes. These replays were often from past races, but some were also from events that Driver #22 wasn’t allowed to partake in, at least not physically. Near the end, there were some final events that were essentially simmed, and I only got to race and compete in select parts of the streamlined final series.

On the sound side of things, there’s little to really complain about, but there’s also little to truly celebrate. Like the rest of the game, Grid Legends’ soundscape is fine and solid, but far from spectacular. The acting isn’t very good, the writing is poor to mediocre, and the sound simply isn’t great. There’s also only music during story mode races, but most of it leaves a lot to be desired, and some of the basic instrumental songs even had me considering pressing the mute button. At least the cars, and the general racing mechanics, all sound pretty good.

With all that having been said, I must admit that Grid Legends wasn’t the great racing game I’d hoped it would be when I named it one of my ten most anticipated games of 2022. Despite this, it’s an above-average experience, and one that is worth checking out if you’re a fan of arcade racers. The driving is fast, frenetic and fun, and there’s quite a bit of content to be found within. It also attempts to build on every aspect of the 2019 reboot, though I admittedly got into and enjoyed that game more.

**GRID Legends was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series S**

Overall Score: 7.4 / 10 Gangsta Paradise

Flash games were quite popular back when I was in high school and although I didn’t have the home internet to support them, I managed to play some at both school and friends’ houses. I was never that big on them as a whole, but Newgrounds’ Kick-Ups hooked me for some reason, and made programming class bearable. Why that game? I don’t know.

I’m talking about Flash games for a reason, and it’s because that’s basically what Prison Games’ Gangsta Paradise is. It’s a very simplistic looking and playing title, which doesn’t offer much in the way of variety.

Although it basically shares a title with a popular Coolio song from the 1990s, Gangsta Paradise doesn’t have anything to do with rap music. In fact, it harkens back to yesteryear, when the mob wore trench coats and fought for turf in back alleys. Then again, maybe that’s more Hollywood than real life.

Either way, this is a very straightforward strategy shooter in the vein of Plants vs. Zombies. The idea is that you’re a lone mobster who’s being threatened by the enemy and must make a last stand, by moving vertically and shooting horizontally. Different types of mafiosos stream in from the right while you, armed with different types of guns, try to protect the left side of the screen. Failing to do so will result in the enemy breaking your fencing, destroying your cars and presumably killing you, but things end once the fence is destroyed.

As with other games of this ilk, completing this title will require patience. You won’t be able to go gung ho and kill every foe with ease right from the get go. Instead, you’ll want to replay and farm early levels in order to earn money that can then be spent on upgrades. The fence can be bolstered, your weapons can be upgraded and new ones can be purchased.

Of course, the weapons are all themed on the 30s or 40s time period in which this game is set, not to mention borrowed from mafia movies. Thus, you’ll have access to a pistol, dual pistols, a Tommygun and a surprisingly effective shotgun. The latter will likely end up being your best friend as you progress; at least until you run out of ammo for it.

Gangsta Paradise presents forty levels over four different chapters, with the shooting gallery environments changing with each act. As I said above, this is a very basic game, meaning that the backgrounds rarely ever change and only do so when you progress from one chapter to another. Then again, it’s not like they affect much. Neither does beating the game, it seems, because there’s hardly any acknowledgement when you do so.

As you’d expect, the enemies also keep getting more challenging as one progresses. The basic gangsters give way to stronger foes, who then give way to even bigger and more daunting foes. Thus, whereas a quick headshot is enough to take a basic grunt out, you’ll need to pump more lead into the others. It’ll also be important to make good use of your grenades, which have a surprising stun effect. Most of all, though, replaying early levels and upgrading your stuff will have the biggest impact, because this thing isn’t necessarily easy despite being simple and only two to three hours long.

Being that this is more or less a Flash game, don’t expect much from Gangsta Paradise’s visuals. They’re drawn and cartoony, and pretty colourful, but they’re far from notable. The same is also true of the very basic music and sound effects, which don’t stand out and aren’t memorable in any way.

With all that having been said, it’s likely unnecessary to state that Gangsta Paradise will not be for everyone. In fact, I only see this appealing to a very limited and niche audience because of how basic and dated it is. Those stuck at home may find a bit of fun playing through it with a friend (through local co-op), but there’s so little here that I even wonder at that. The good news is that it only costs $8.99 CAD, but even then it's hard to find the value.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. It was reviewed using an Xbox Series S review unit.**

Overall Score: 3.9 / 10 Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

Most of the gaming I did during the PlayStation 2/GameCube/Xbox generation came from the former system, as it’s all I had for most of those years. I eventually bought a GameCube later on but didn’t acquire an original Xbox until right about when the Xbox 360 was due to come out. Thus, a lot of time wasn’t spent with it. I did, however, try to play the games I was most interested in (and jealous of), including one particular exclusive: Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse.

Now, more than fifteen years later, the flatulent undead and his fifties themed adventure are back in remastered form. Don’t get it confused with a remake, or a very intensive remastering, because it’s not. A lot of the old jank remains, and things have merely been touched up just about enough.

If you’ve never heard or of played it, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse is a quirky and unique game in which you actually get to play as the shambling corpse. It all takes place in a futuristic and supposedly idyllic American city called Punchbowl, which was made to look and feel futuristic despite it being the 1950s. The billionaire behind it all went so far as to build robots, floating vehicles, futuristic housing and what someone from the 50s would think an urban downtown would look like in the year 2000s. Despite all of this, Punchbowl still retains a fifties look and charm, complete with black and white video screens, suits and fedoras and a lot of politeness.

On the day of the city’s opening ceremony, two college students are necking in a park when something stirs beneath them. All of a sudden, an ugly green hand appears out of the ground and a strange looking man crawls out after it. Afraid but machismo to a fault, the young man threatens the zombie and suffers the consequences before turning into one himself. Thus begins the reign of terror called Stubbs the Zombie.

As it was back in 2005, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse Remastered is a janky, comical, corny and unique third-person action game. Players stumble along as the rather slow and dull witted zombie, causing mayhem as they go. What type of mayhem you’ll cause generally pertains to the level, but a lot of it involves eating brains and creating an army to do your bidding. There’s more, though, including driving a poop flinging hovercraft, assaulting robots, chasing special targets and doing disgusting things. By that I mean throwing your exploding spleen at people, or stunning them with a rancid fart cloud. Hell, you can even detach your hand and scurry around with it in order to do something nefarious or get out of sticky situations.

Needless to say this is a quirky game that won’t be for everyone, which is added to by the fact that it’s still pretty dated. In my case that meant a trip back in time to better days and a (healthy and saddening) dose of nostalgia. This particular game was a big deal to me a decade and a half ago, and I was excited when I got to play it. Thus, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. That said, it’s never been the best or most polished title out there, or anywhere close. With a game like this, though, the faults can be part of the charm, and that’s certainly the case with Stubbs. He’s still fun to control and wreck a city with in the year 2021.

As mentioned above, this is a remaster that doesn’t seem to have received a ton of time in the oven. It’s fine, but it won’t win any awards or blow anyone away. The core game remains intact, the visuals have been updated some, and it’s in full widescreen. However, the controls remain a bit wonky (which works here, given what type of experience this is), and the cutscenes do not fill the whole screen. They’re in widescreen, but only fit about 3/5 of the display at most, which is odd.

Some parts of this campaign have aged better than others, but that’s to be expected. While Wideload’s brain-eating affair was originally criticized for being too short, some of its sections now feel like they go on for too long.

At the end of the day, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse Remastered is a flawed but appreciated return to yesteryear. Although it’s never been the most polished or expertly made game out there, it’s always been fun to play and remains so. Furthermore, there aren’t many campaigns like it, where you get to play as a zombie and have some good, old-fashioned fun.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. It was reviewed using an Xbox Series S review unit.**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Monster Energy Supercross 4

Sports games tend to get a bad reputation because they generally release on an annual basis and don’t always show obvious improvements. Well, not to those who don’t play them regularly. This is the case with everything from Madden to NHL, and now Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame, which has just received its fourth iteration since its debut in February 2018.

Although I’ve always been a wimp and was never that athletic despite (poorly) playing quite a bit of organized soccer as a kid, I do watch a lot of sports. These days it’s mostly hockey, but I grew up playing video games based on almost every sport under the sun, including motosports and extreme sports. So many hours were enjoyably lost to games like Excitebike 64, MX 2002 Featuring Ricky Carmichael, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, 1080 Snowboarding and the SSX series. That’s why I’ve always gravitated towards these licensed Supercross games despite not following the circuit itself.

Like most Milestone S.r.I. releases, the first three Monster Energy Supercross games were enjoyable, albeit flawed and rough around the edges. Due to the nature of their real world inspiration they were repetitive but almost soothing, and it was easy to get into a kind of flow while playing. They always tried to demand proper weight distribution, good jumping techniques and advanced skill that I didn’t have, but I was able to lower the difficulty and not have to worry too much about being perfect. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t possible with Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame 4, for whatever hard to fathom reason.

Upon first booting Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame 4 up, I was greeted by increasingly polished menus and an appreciated but admittedly basic character creator. Then, I was dropped into the game’s main menu hub where I chose to check out its revamped career mode. Things were going well until that point. It was then that the wheels fell off, and I struggled to find the fun I’d previously experienced.

Instead of trying to cater to both hardcore and casual fans, or continuing to tow the line between arcade and simulation, Milestone’s latest is a demanding and frustrating affair that is hardly accessible. If you’ve been playing these games for years and have put many hours into refining your skills and perfecting your techniques, you’ll probably be okay. However, I simply haven’t devoted that amount of time to these games, and usually moved on after beating their career modes and playing some custom courses. Granted, I was never amazing at this particular series, despite being quite good at some of the aforementioned titles when I was younger and less tired.

That said, based on other reviews and online discussions I’ve seen, this is a common complaint. It makes me feel better to know that, because it means it’s not just me struggling. The noticeably improved career mode doesn’t go through the motions as much as it used to. You’ll find that there’s a lot more thought included in it this time around, plus an appreciated coat of extra polish. Although you’ll still do similar things, like racing, picking sponsors, trying to reach objectives and training, there’s more to most of those things. Many different training minigames are available, sponsors seem to want a bit more from you and the general structure of one’s racing career has been adjusted.

Instead of simply jumping into the 250 East and West circuits, you’ll first take part in an introductory Futures one, which is made up of a few events. After that you’ll move on to Rookie and eventually Pro circuits, those being the 250 and 450 seasons. It still plays out similarly to everything that came before it, but features a better coat of paint. The problem here is that things are hard from the get go, no matter which difficulty you choose. Whereas previous iterations featured a noticeable divide between their very easy and super difficult AI settings, Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame 4 does not. Why? I don’t know. It makes very little sense to me.

What results is a very unforgiving, inaccessible and generally punishing game, which demands near perfection from the start. Sure, there’s a limited tutorial, but even it’s basic. You’re just expected to know how to perfectly distribute your rider’s weight on each type of jump, pull off great drifts around corners and be able to ride like a superstar from day one.

It doesn’t help that the racing and course physics are both punishing and occasionally random in and of themselves. It’s hard to produce the type of finesse and perfection that the game wants when your bike is bouncing all over the place, or when it’s so easy to randomly crash on landings you previously stuck. That isn’t the worst thing about this though. That would be the new rewind system, which limits you to just a few rewinds per race, as opposed to allowing you to rewind whenever need be.

Those who defend this practice will say that the idea is to keep playing and improve your skills over time. That’s one way of looking at it, but not something that should apply to a racing game such as this. Plus, when there’s almost no sense of accomplishment it can get easy to get both bored and frustrated, not to mention disillusioned.

There are skills and upgrades to purchase in the campaign’s menu, but it takes time to earn enough points to unlock them, and even then the difference isn’t always noticeable. The AI riders always seem to have an extra gear and don’t seem to be slowed down by bumps, humps and jumps like the player is. Even on very easy, it’s like they’re playing on very hard.

At the end of the day, we all play video games because they’re fun and offer a sense of accomplishment. That isn’t the case here.

Of course, career isn’t the only mode to be found in Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame 4. It just happens to be the main draw for people like me, who are single player oriented. As per usual, this year’s release also offers online play on dedicated servers, an updated track creation mode and the ability to share created courses with the community. One can also choose to partake in single events, start their own tournament or play time trials.

The Compound also returns, offering a good place to practice and play with friends if you’re so inclined. You won’t have to worry much about frustrating artificial intelligence there, and can also go after collectibles. I don’t see the appeal in spending hours in the Compound, though, when I could be playing the career mode.

Being that this is the series’ first foray on next-generation hardware, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. After all, the Monster Energy Supercross games have never been the most beautiful racing or sports titles out there. They’ve always looked solid enough, but felt a step behind their bigger budget peers, which was fine and understandable. That’s kind of the case here, although the lighting system, character models and terrain textures have definitely benefited from next-gen improvements.

The audio? Well, it’s pretty much the same as before. Loud engine sounds, loud and energetic announcers and mediocre at best music that you’ll probably want to turn off after a while in favour of playing your own.

I’ve now reviewed all four of these games, and have never given one a negative score. I never expected this one to buck that trend, either, but here we are. Although Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame 4 looks better and has seen noticeable improvements in its menus, career mode and some of its racing mechanics, it’s simply not fun due to punishing physics and cheap A.I. A lot of this could be addressed with a patch, but I have no idea as to whether Milestone sees the shocking difficulty curve as a problem.

Skip this one. For now, at least.

**This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which was provided by its publisher**

Overall Score: 4.4 / 10 Bright Memory

When the Xbox Series S|X consoles released, most of the talk centred upon their limited launch line-up. It was a list comprised almost entirely of third party offerings, with tent pole series like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed leading the way. However, little was said about some of the smaller experiences, of which Bright Memory is one.

Originally released onto Steam a year or more ago, Bright Memory is less of a game than it is an elongated demo of sorts. This is the most important thing that you should know before you spend several dollars on it, and it’s also why the price is so low. If you blindly purchase this thing expecting a lot of content you will likely come away disappointed. Developed by one man, this Japanese first-person shooter is a hint of what’s to come from 2021’s Bright Memory: Infinite, which was previously showcased during online trade events. Combining the fast-paced and arcade inspired action found in arena shooters with enemies, environments and cosmetic items found in games like Dark Souls, it’s an interesting but flawed experience. Still, despite its flaws and shortcomings, the brief campaign remains fun and replayable.

Bright Memory hints at more of a story than it presents. Things begin with an ominous voice over, which talks about two connected worlds and one needing to be sacrificed for the other’s survival, before it truly begins with a bang. It’s at that point where we enter into a futuristic office building, wherein a soldier slumps dead in an elevator. There, we find Shelia, an operative who’s under fire from armed guards who are attempting to stop her from getting into a server room of some sort.

What follows this inaugural, partially slow motion, shootout is a thirty odd minute-long campaign full of bullets, swordplay and monsters. What begins as if it’s going to be a typical, futuristic shooter between one rogue soldier and her former employers quickly changes course once Shelia is teleported out of danger and onto a floating island full of strange beasts.

It’s on this strange island, with its Avatar inspired floating mountains, where the majority of Bright Memory’s gameplay takes place. As Shelia comes to terms with her new surroundings, she begins to explore and finds that the local fauna aren’t pleased to have her around. This isn’t limited to a first meeting with two vicious wolves. No, most of the creatures found within this game are much more gruesome and dangerous than that. Some are lions with gills, who just so happen to shoot fire out of their mouths, while many others take the form of sword wielding zombies, some of whom have shields. When I met them for the first time, the Dark Souls inspiration became pretty obvious. It only strengthened as I continued to play through the ‘campaign,’ fought the first boss (who feels like he was ripped straight out of one of those games) and eventually came across a bonfire with a sword stuck into the middle of it.

The good news is that Bright Memory only pays homage to the Soulsborne genre. Thus, it’s not as difficult, frustrating or cumbersome as those titles happen to be. If it’s not clear, I’m far from being a fan of theirs.

You’ll start off with a pistol, but will quickly pick up a slightly futuristic take on an assault rifle, before also unlocking a shotgun for use. These three bullet-driven options won’t be your only forms of attack, though, because a Metal Gear Rising style sword is also made available almost from the start. By pressing a shoulder button, one can use the sword for limited bursts, and can pull off some pretty great amounts of damage with it. The effect is heightened whenever one chooses to press the D-Pad up or down to unleash special, sword-based attacks, although they can only be used once per bout of swordplay. As with every one of Shelia’s special abilities, the sword must regenerate before being used again.

The first special swordplay attack is a forward slash, which quickly deals a nice amount of damage to the closest enemy. On the other hand, pressing down on the D-Pad will let you slam the sword into the ground, which has an area of effect. Foes caught within its reach will be sent flying into the air, allowing you to shoot them while stunned and airborne.

If one so chooses, it’s possible to combine this sword slam with other abilities to prolong an airborne enemy’s suffering. Once you unlock the option to slow down time (around one particular enemy) and boost your attack damage, you’ll find that combining those two abilities with the sword slam can keep a foe aerial for a decent amount of time. This, of course, factors into an achievement that is said to reward players for juggling an enemy for 15 seconds but doesn’t work that way. If you care about achievements, which it seems some still do, know that it can take double that amount of time before that one will unlock. You may even have to try to glitch it, by getting the monster stuck in a tree, which still counts as it being in the air.

Some of Shelia’s other abilities – which must be purchased using experience earned from killing baddies – include a lightning area of effect, a barrier that damages any nearby enemies and upgrades to one’s health and running speed. You’ll quickly notice that these experience points aren’t just added to your total, but actually need to be picked up by walking over glowing yellow or red circles that remain once a monster has perished.

One important thing to know is that you won’t be able to unlock or use all of these skills and abilities during your first play through. This is one of the reasons why FYQD Studio suggests that you play through his game at least three times before considering yourself done. This is idea is promoted not only by the title’s achievements list, but also by the fact that you simply cannot unlock every ability during one playthrough. Plus, there’s the menu, which lets you continue (as in new game plus) or start an entirely new ‘campaign.’ Continuing lets you keep your powers and collectibles, of which there are several to find.

Just a brief tangent about the menu: Although it doesn’t have many options, it’s stylishly presented just like everything else found in Bright Memory. This means that, instead of a static image, you’ll watch as Shelia’s character model is buffeted by wind on some sort of barren battlefield. The moving camera sometimes makes the text tough to read, as does the presence of extra bloom. None of what I mentioned above makes Bright Memory’s menu unforgettable, but a surprising effect of the wind did just that.

When I discovered that there was a second set of options located on the bottom right-hand side of the main menu, I decided to check them out. It was at this point that I was able to see what they did, which is change the main character’s costume. While she may start out in soldier style gear, the other three costume types are nowhere close to as businesslike. No, all three of the other outfits turn Shelia into a schoolgirl, complete with pigtails or ponytail and one of the shortest skirts imaginable. Why did this make the menu memorable? Well, it was only moments after making the change to schoolgirl chic that the camera angle changed, the wind picked up, and Shelia’s new short skirt fluttered up to show the underpants below.

After playing through Bright Memory three full times, I still don’t know a whole lot about its story, which I assume will be fleshed out in Bright Memory: Infinite. All I can really tell you about this game’s narrative is that it centres upon a young operative named Shelia who was given to some sort of futuristic tech organization when she was just twelve years old. After taking up arms against those who oppressed her, she’s used their technology against them, in order to escape danger. This has resulted in her being transported to the strange, floating island, which reuses environments that feel like they were ripped straight out of an RPG like Dark Souls or Might and Magic. Ancient ruins, that is, which feature stalwarts of those genres like runes, artifacts and strange symbols.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t talk about the core gameplay loop more, because it isn’t just about surviving against upwards of eight enemies at once. No, Bright Memory also features a scoring system that seems to go from B to SSS, just like what you’d find in Devil May Cry. There’s little incentive for one to really care about these rankings, outside of achievement hunters who will find that they must keep an SSS rank going for 30 seconds, but the feature is there. At least it is when it wants to be. For most of my three play throughs, the style counter was conspicuously absent. It would show up from time to time, but was supposed to be there during every combat encounter, of which there are quite a few including two big bosses. It was nowhere to be found, though, and would just appear out of the blue from time to time.

Put simply, Bright Memory is an action packed and somewhat enjoyable game, but it’s a very rough and buggy one too. Nothing about it truly stands out, but I still found myself having fun when it wasn’t frustrating me with its randomly increasing difficulty level, enemies who would be easy to kill one time and then be bullet sponges the next, and glitches. One checkpoint failed to load, the style counter almost never appeared, and other glitches marred my experience from time to time. However, it’s hard to really be harsh on these technical problems since this game was developed by just one man. I know damned well that I couldn’t make anything close to as competent as this, so I must say that I’m pretty impressed despite Bright Memory’s faults.

Very few of the games out there have been designed and developed by just one person. Even fewer of them feature visuals that aren’t rudimentary or stylized to be retro, with pixel based characters and chiptune music. Bright Memory may not succeed at being the incredible looking next-gen shooter it so wants to be, but I applaud the effort. The heavily stylized visuals feature lots of bloom and slowdown effects, but if you look closely you’ll notice some dated textures that really do not line up, such as uneven stair textures and things like that. The blood effect, which sometimes includes splatter on the player’s screen, is also neat but dated because the blood texture isn’t very modern looking.

It’s rare to see another human being’s face, because almost all of the people you’ll enter into firefights against are armored, with helmets covering their heads. Outside of Shelia, the only human face you’ll see belongs to a bad dude named Carter. His visage isn’t something you’ll want to see a lot of, either, because it’s very dated and lacks a lot of detail. His mouth moves when he talks, but little else does. It’s a bit creepy, to be honest, but it is what it is.

As far as audio goes, Bright Memory sounds as you’d expect. The sci-fi/fantasy/RPG inspired shooting takes place on ancient feeling grounds, but the hard rock soundtrack keeps your pulse pounding, as does the uneven difficulty. Shelia sometimes also speaks to herself, or others, and does so with voice acting that is certainly better than expected for such a game. Hell, while the overall voice work isn’t great, it’s still impressive for a game that was developed by just one talented man. Of course, most of what you’ll hear – outside of the music, that is – will be combat driven sound effects. The bullets are loud, the enemies are vicious, and the sword sounds decent when used. Don’t expect triple A sound design, though.

At the end of the day, Bright Memory is a bit of a tough one to score. I went in not knowing much of anything about it, and would be lying if I said that I didn’t end up having some fun with it despite its faults. Still, regardless of how impressed I am by the fact that only one man developed this thing, there’s not a lot to it that stands out. It’s dated, it’s buggy and it’s beyond short. Still, it can be pretty fun if you temper your expectations and understand that you’re not going to get a lot for your money.

**Bright Memory was reviewed on an Xbox Series S**

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 We should talk.

Please be warned that there will be slight spoilers in this review. It’s hard not to talk about certain things.

Prior to taking We Should Talk’s review on, I must admit that I hadn’t really heard about the game. In fact, I researched it beforehand and decided that it sounded short and interesting. After all, I enjoy giving indie games a chance, and have liked a lot of games that many others haven’t bothered with, or dismissed for a bevy of reasons. Games like Cars 2 and Toy Story 3, for instance.

We Should Talk is exactly what its title suggests. It’s a dialogue-based experience, where you have conversations with your significant other and a few other people who happen to spark up a conversation. Thus, all you do is pick dialogue options, and those choices affect which of the nine or so endings you’ll unlock. This is interesting in principle, but the ‘campaign’ is so brief (15-20 minutes) and has such limited dialogue choices that it gets tedious quickly.

You play as an unnamed woman who just so happens to spend at least three nights a week at a swanky, New York City bar. She’s there so often, in fact, that she knows that bartender’s name and story. Her being away from home also worries her girlfriend, who has self-esteem issues and also deals with a difficult job. On top of that, Sam (the girlfriend) has lived a cruddy life, starting with parents who basically ignored her and didn’t accept that she was gay.

After you place an order, by telling the owner what you’d like (from a myriad of options) and deciding whether to flirt with her or not, you’ll get a text from Sam. She loves her short burst texts, too, so expect to wait as one comes in after another. These texts will mostly be about your relationship, but she’ll want to talk about her job and her past. You can choose to be nice or a bit distant, but only certain times allow you to be rude.

Therein lies the basis of this game: Talking to Sam and deciding whether you want to listen to and placate her, or whether you’d prefer moving out and ending your relationship. Through this premise, the player is given the option to flirt with two or three other people, but it almost seems to do nothing except unlock an achievement or trophy.

That’s actually the biggest problem with We Should Talk. It’s simply too forced and doesn’t give you enough options despite its premise. Some of the response choices are so similar that it’s hard to pick which one to respond with. There were also numerous times where I wanted to be rude, or change things up but couldn’t. The game basically pigeonholed me into certain choices.

Although I played through this thing from start to finish a total of four times, I only unlocked the two most common endings. This was not done without effort, or care. Even though I tried to cheat on Sam, I still got the same ending as once before. I tried to change up my responses, but the options were so limited so often that it was difficult to.

In the end, I resorted to looking at a text-based guide online. This confirmed my suspicions that it’s all about the minutia, and too much so. If you don’t pick the right part of certain response sentences you’ll miss out on certain endings. This is true even though said response is so similar to most if not all of the others.

To get all of the endings, I would’ve had to spend hours choosing different parts of up to three-tiered sentences. If I’d use the guide, which I didn’t feel like doing because I was already bored, I would’ve had to go word by word and I just wasn’t up to that. You would think that making major changes would have some affect, but it didn’t in my experience. Hell, I didn’t unlock certain achievements because of the wrong start to sentences, even though it was so similar to the other options. Not that I care.

The premise is interesting, and will appeal to a certain sect of gamers, but there’s so little here that it’s hard to recommend this title to anyone. I respect that it was made by a small team during an indie game expo of some sort, but it’s simply not fun. At its $7 price tag, there’s just not enough here to justify the cost. That is, unless you want to use the guide and follow it letter by letter for nine playthroughs, in order to unlock all one thousand achievement points.

I was hoping that the story of Sam and her unnamed girlfriend would hook me and be memorable, but it simply wasn’t. Sam was annoying and the playable character had very little personality. The writing simply didn’t stand out at all, and it needed to.

We Should Talk’s presentation is also unspectacular, but I kind of expected that. It’s fine for what it is, and the character models’ retro look serves this short, indie game fine. Just don’t expect a looker or anything live action. The music is also 'okay'. There are a few tunes that play on the bar’s speaker as you respond to Sam’s many texts and talk to others, but I didn’t recognize any of them. I also didn’t find any of them to be bad or problematic. The same is true of the limited sound effects.

At the end of the day, We Should Talk is a conversation that you probably won’t enjoy a whole lot, or want to have. Not at its price, at least. If this game was a dollar, it would be easier to recommend, but there’s just not much to it and repeat playthroughs get so very, very tedious because there’s almost no variety. I wanted to like this one, I really did.

Suggestions: This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. It was reviewed using an Xbox One X review unit that we were provided with.

Overall Score: 3.6 / 10 Ice Age Scrat's Nutty Adventure

If you’ve seen any of the Ice Age movies, then you’ll know who Scrat is. Hell, this is probably true of anyone who’s watched one’s trailer. He’s the almost instantly recognizable saber-toothed squirrel, who acts as comic relief throughout the movies, due to his own greed and stupidity. At least that’s what I’ve gathered, as I fall into what seems to be a minority of people who have never watched more than a couple minutes of any of the animated Ice Age films. I’d honestly planned to watch the first one, back when it came out, but just never got around to it.

Although there’s no new movie on the near horizon, Scrat has surprisingly returned in video game form. He’s done so in Just Add Water’s Ice Age: Scrat’s Nutty Adventure, which was released onto Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and Switch. I had the chance to go hands-on with the Xbox One version of the game and, now that I’ve finished its somewhat short campaign, I’m here to share my thoughts.

By now we’ve all heard of the ‘licensed game curse.’ By that I mean the mixture of greed, limited budgets and rushed development time that has historically been responsible for more duds than winners when it has come to games based on movies, TV shows or superheroes. I’ll admit that, when I took this review on, I expected it to be another casualty based on having not heard it was in development, the non-existence of a new movie and not knowing much about the developer. Now that I’ve finished it, I must also admit that I was kind of, sort of, wrong. Now, don’t get me wrong: Scrat’s Nutty Adventure is not a children’s masterpiece. It is, however, quite a bit better than your average kids game, and deserves some credit for that.

Things begin again, as they often seem to, with Scrat losing his precious acorn. This time, it falls into a Scratazaon temple. Upon entering this strange location, with its odd writing and even stranger statues, our squirrely hero learns that he’s part of an otherworldly race. A race that requires him to collect four crystal acorns so that he can transcend Earth and join them. That’s pretty much it for plot, and it all results in a rather sexually suggestive ending (featuring a latex clad female love interest) that probably shouldn’t close out a game meant for kids.

If me spoiling that bothered you, I apologize. I’m usually fully against spoilers, but sometimes they’re required for warnings. I know that I would appreciate such a warning if I was the parent of a young kid who was interested in this game. However, please don’t take what I said and picture something out of an R-rated movie or an M-rated video game. All she does is pique his male interest with her curves and the tight fitting latex suit that covers them. After that, things fade to black.

From start to finish, Ice Age: Scrat’s Nutty Adventure presents as the type of 3D platformer that we saw often on the PlayStation 2 and other systems during that particular console generation. It’s not the most modern game, nor does it try to be in any way, shape or form. The developers seemed to want to create something that hearkened back to the early 2000s and paid homage to classic 3D platformers on the N64 and original PlayStation, and that’s what they ended up doing. It’s also targeted at kids, meaning that the gameplay isn’t punishing, nor is it ever too challenging. In fact, it’s almost too easy, but that’s coming from someone who’s been gaming for close to thirty years. Kids may not feel the same way.

There exists a 3D open world, which uses an open forest clearing as its home base. From that clearing of sorts, four different paths branch out in different directions and lead to varied locations. The first, and most easily accessible, takes Scrat to a forest filled with colourful beetles, flying bugs and a crapload of large stumps. The second, which becomes available after the player learns how to double jump, then takes him to a frozen lake full of icebergs, piranhas and crabs. Following that, the player moves on to frozen caves, before finishing the campaign in a lost, but not well hidden, tropical jungle, complete with dinosaurs and even lava. Along the way, they’ll not only learn how to double jump, but will also gain other new abilities, such as a telekinesis. What it boils down to, though, is being able to move special boxes (in order to create platforms) and being able to pull platforms out of rock walls.

The above is designed in a way that also hearkens back to Super Metroid, Castlevania and other such titles. While Scrat’s Nutty Adventure is a 3D platformer, it promotes backtracking and hides some of its collectibles behind barriers that require later visits. For instance, you’ll start seeing telekinesis boxes in the opening levels of the game, but will not be able to move them until you’ve almost finished it. Let it be said, too, that there are quite a few collectibles to hunt for here, some of which are decently hidden. Each level, of which there are maybe sixteen, features a hidden statue as well as hidden shard(s).

Due to what’s said above, those who have interest in unlocking all of the game’s achievements will have to do so through approximately two playthroughs. The good news, though, is that this thing is quite short. It shouldn’t take you longer than four hours to complete.

The gameplay is pretty much what you’d expect, outside of the special powers. You’ll walk, run and jump through varying locations, all while trying to avoid falling into hazards like water and lava, or simply falling into an abyss. What’s nice, though, is that falling into water or lava doesn’t result in an immediate death. Instead, Scrat will hop a couple of times before succumbing, leaving you an opportunity to get to a nearby platform. Most platforms are pretty massive too, meaning that they won’t be too difficult for kids to jump onto. That said, it can sometimes be hard to properly judge the distance of a jump, which can lead to death and frustration. The controls also aren’t absolutely perfect, meaning that the double jump may fail you once in a blue moon, or something like that.

Every stage comes bearing enemies, and most aren’t too annoying. Hell, the average foe (coloured beetles, flying insects, pinching crab and piranhas) can be bypassed completely without a second thought. There are some rather grating ones, though, such as these weird lizard and meerkat hybrids that love to throw rocks. Them, as well as sleeping wolves that hunt when awakened, and similar dino birds that kill with one bite. I assume that the wolves do as well, but can’t say for sure because I didn’t let one touch me.

Most of the time, though, getting hit doesn’t mean a whole lot. Scrat has a health bar, which can be increased by collecting enough shards. We got the notification that we’d reached the heart limit after picking up 5000 of them, and it only took about half the game. Shards are constantly found in boxes, and life replenishing hearts are also pretty common. They’re found in breakable pots, though, not boxes.

Of course, there’s also a bit of combat to be found here. It’s quite simple, though, and exists as a mix of basic kicks, rock throwing and a more powerful aerial slam. When the player presses 'X', Scrat will unleash a kick, and pressing it a few times in a row will do a very basic combo, which will end with a sweep of his tail. This is good for killing basic enemies, who often flip over onto their backs when damaged. Rock throwing is handled through another basic mechanic, that being a locked on aiming system that can be a bit cumbersome to aim with. Lastly, the slam (which I didn’t know existed until hours in) is what you’d expect. You jump in the air, press 'B' and then slam to the ground. It’s useful for hurting groups of enemies, and also comes in handy if you need to break some thin ice.

Basic is a word that can also be used to describe the game’s three boss battles, but that’s not too much of a detriment given that this thing is targeting kids as opposed to us adults. The first battle is against a couple of rhinos who love to rush at and slam into you, the second is against an annoying dinosaur fish and the third is against a massive flying dinosaur who’s surprisingly easy to beat. Defeating all three won’t require too much skill, given that their patterns are simple enough to follow, and that they aren’t able to take too much damage before ‘dying'.

When it comes to presentation, this is a bit of a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected. It’s pretty easy to tell that the developers weren’t given a massive budget, or an incredible amount of time to work with, but they did a solid job with what they were afforded. While some of the textures look pretty flat (especially the ice, the frozen walls and the ground in the lava jungle), other aspects of the game are nice and colourful. The beetles, for instance, have a nice amount of detail to them and really pop. To be honest, they look better than Scrat does, as his fur isn’t the most eye pleasing texture ever designed.

The sound is fine, serviceable and fitting. It won’t wow you, do tricks or try anything special, but it works and is hard to complain about. The sound effects are fitting, the music is more tolerable than it is in most of these games and there’s a bit of comedy to be found. That said, I did experience a section where the music cut out entirely after I died. This was during one of the ‘world’ concluding minigames, wherein Scrat had to slide out of the way of falling ice. Others tasked him with doing things like water skiing and skydiving.

As I said above, I didn’t expect much from Ice Age: Scrat’s Nutty Adventure before I started it. Now that I’ve finished it, though, I’m quick to admit that I was wrong. While this game won’t set the world on fire, and isn’t the latest Batman: Arkham Asylum, Toy Story 3, Cars 2 or Marvel’s Spider-Man, it’s pretty solid and enjoyable. Kids should enjoy this simple platformer and may even find fun in going back and finding all of its collectibles. Don’t expect something that will have tons of replay value, though.

**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 6.1 / 10 Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered

Say what you will about the ‘licensed game curse,’ but it was usually pretty easy to find evidence supporting it. For years, the majority of games based on existing properties – be they movies, TV shows or even superheroes – tended to be rushed and mediocre at best. Sure, there were some outliers that went above and beyond the status quo, but there’s a reason why the supposed curse got its legs.

It was during the last generation where we really started to see that more attention was being paid to licensed efforts. Batman: Arkham Asylum was a big part of this, as it proved that giving a superhero title a big budget and lots of development time would pay dividends. The Caped Crusader wasn’t the only character, or franchise, who received more money and attention, though. The Spider-Man games seemed to get better as they went along, Toy Story 3 got a fantastic video game tie-in and so, too, did Cars 2.

More than a decade ago, Terminal Reality and Sony decided to start work on a game based on the Ghostbusters series of films and general IP, after seeing a promising tech demo. The result was Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which saw the light of day in June 2009, at which point it released to generally positive reception.

That very game has just been re-released, and is now available on modern consoles and PC, under the name Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered. This was during a time when Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis were trying to develop and pitch another celluloid Ghostbusters sequel, Ghostbusters: The Video Game seemed like a consolation prize of sorts. After failing to get their movie venture off of the ground due to issues with Bill Murray and other things, the team decided to incorporate some of their Ghostbusters III ideas into this game. In the end, they were successful in getting all four actors to reprise their roles in interactive form, with not only Aykroyd and Ramis contributing to the project, but Murray and Hudson as well.

Set during Thanksgiving of 1991 (which would place it a couple of years after the events of Ghostbusters II), Ghostbusters: The Video Game begins with a training exercise. You see, after all of the trouble they were forced to deal with in previous outings, the foursome decided to welcome a new member, who would theoretically help to lighten the immense load. Said newbie, who ends up being an unnamed Rookie character, is who we play as within the game’s supernatural driven campaign.

Things begin innocently enough, but it isn’t long before the proverbial sh** hits the fan, as a pulse of energy engulfs New York City and greatly increases its paranormal activity. Tracing its origins to the infamous Gozer Exhibit, the boys in brown jumpsuits head out to try to save New York from another spiritual infestation. Along the way, they train their rookie member in the art of busting ghosts.

Said campaign takes place over the course of several different levels, which incorporate environments like the Sedgewick Hotel, Times Square (complete with a battle against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man), the New York City Public Library and an offshore island. Generally speaking, it’s of average length, and is kind of what you’d expect from such a game. However, the added bonus here is that – at least in some respects – the included narrative was intended to step in for Ghostbusters III, which they weren’t sure would ever be made. As such, it’s almost a must play for any hardcore fan of the series, or any child who grew up loving Ghostbusters for that matter.

It does seem that Ghostbusters III will actually happen now, though, after the Melissa McCarthy-led all-female reboot failed to win audiences over. A teaser has even been released. It’s also been ten years since the game was even released, meaning that it’s been even longer since the first attempt to get a Ghostbusters III script written and greenlit.

Over the course of the game, the Rookie must work with the rest of the team to free some of New York’s most prominent landmarks from dangerous spirits, including the aforementioned Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the iconic, green Slimer. This involves using the team’s traditional gear, including a Proton Pack and traps. However, as they progress, the player will unlock new types of streams and other gameplay options, including streams that both slow and tether ghosts. Hell, you even get the ability to slam ghosts from left to right, or right to left, or even up and down. Slamming becomes a useful tactic when trying to trap something unruly.

While it all sounds great, the execution isn’t exactly top notch. That is, at least not in comparison to modern day video games. I remember renting Ghostbusters: The Video Game when it first came out, and also remember enjoying it as I played through the entire campaign over the course of a week or so. My friends were also fans of it. For this reason, I was looking forward to playing this remastered version this fall. Unfortunately, time hasn’t been that kind to this title, and the effort that went into updating it doesn’t exactly jump off the screen.

To put it simply, Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered is kind of rough, and is more frustrating than I remember it being back in 2009. The third-person shooter controls are cumbersome, the mechanics are feel dated and the visual presentation is unfortunately pretty ugly, especially when it comes to gameplay animations. The gameplay, itself, can also be annoying, as enemies hit hard and knock the Ghostbusters down a lot. As such, you’ll likely get used to running from one member of the team to another, in order to press A to revive them, all while risking being knocked down yourself. Sometimes the Rookie gets knocked down quite easily, but at other times he’s able to take quite a bit of damage before falling and needing assistance.

This thing is also kind of buggy. For instance, during the first mission’s training exercise I became unable to slam the ghost for some reason, and had to restart the checkpoint as a result. The on-screen indicator told me how to slam, and my ally kept yelling at me to do so, but the game just wouldn’t let me. That glitch kind of set the tone for the game, because while I haven’t experienced anything as major since, the whole Remaster has felt lackluster and half-assed.

I hate saying that, but it’s true. This is a pretty underwhelming return of what was once a solid game. That said, the core game is still here and it’s still funny and playable. Thus, anyone who missed out the first time around may want to check this out to make up for it. That is, if they happen to be a Ghostbusters fan. The story remains solid, and there’s some good humour from the iconic cast.

Since I’ve already kind of covered it, I won’t waste more time deep diving into the presentation. It’s far from spectacular, and almost feels older than it is at times. The cinematic cutscenes seem to have received the most treatment, and are better off for it, but the gameplay visuals and audio can be rough at times. Most of all, everything just looks flat and muddy, especially during the Times Square level. The performance also isn’t excellent, although it’s not game breaking or anywhere close.

In conclusion, Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered is kind of a disappointment. On one hand, it offers fans of the franchise what is still a half-decent game, but on the other hand it feels dated and as if little was done to bring it forward a decade. If you haven’t played this game, you may want to check this version out, because the story has its funny moments and is worth experiencing. However, if you’re someone who’s already played through the original version at least once, it’s hard to really recommend this update.

**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Outer Worlds, The

By now it’s become pretty obvious that Fallout 76 wasn’t the best direction for its series. While online play and social gaming continues to rise, the launch of that one has been plagued by many issues, including an unwise and rather costly subscription plan that was just recently announced out of the blue. If you ask me, and perhaps also many others, the follow-up to Fallout 4 should have remained a single player dystopian RPG, as opposed to going social. Let’s just hope that we’ll get another in the not too distant future.

Thankfully, Obsidian has stepped up and delivered something that will appeal to all fans of Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and also Fallout 4, although it doesn’t contain any of that awful base building crap. We’re talking about The Outer Worlds, which is now available on different platforms, including Xbox One (and Xbox Game Pass, to boot). It’s a more traditional, single player only RPG, which is well worth your time and money.

The Outer Worlds (which is easy to confuse with The Outer Wilds, which was also released this year), tells the story of a fictional colonization attempt, wherein humans have sent some of their best and brightest into the galaxy. Things seemed so positive at first, but they didn’t exactly end up that way. While some colonies seem to be flourishing, many live under a cloud of lifetime employment, which tosses them away like garbage whenever they get sick. The worst of it all, though? The Hope – a massive colonial ship carrying many cryogenically frozen human beings – is adrift, and it’s unknown if any of its inhabitants will ever wake again.

At the start of the game, a wanted criminal and scientific mastermind sneaks aboard the ship and picks one colonist to awaken using his own technology. This occurs after a seventy-year period in which the Hope laid dormant. This is the character we get to play as. One who is fully customizable, though looks don’t matter too much in a game such as this, where first–person views rule the day and the player almost never sees his or her own avatar. The decent character creator has a Fallout spin to it, too, thanks to a traits system that is reminiscent of that series’ S.P.E.C.I.A.L. characteristics. You’re tasked with molding your personality, skills and intelligence by increasing different categories and leaving others. I, for one, went with a smart character who ended up being great at persuasion and other conversational techniques, as well as lock-picking and hacking. She was also very good with a melee weapon, and not too shabby when it came to guns either.

Following all of the above, one is tasked with hopping into a drop pod and plummeting to an earthlike colony called Edgewater. Things don’t go as planned, though, and the contact you’re asked to meet ends up dying in a somewhat comical way. This endows the player with their own ship, which is humorously named The Unreliable. Said vessel is controlled by a female AI, which is both helpful and funny, and can tell a pretty cheesy knock-knock joke. What follows is a twenty to thirty hour-long game, which is addicting, immersive and quite well made.

As with Fallout, The Outer Worlds’ main gameplay loop consists of undertaking quests and heading out into the world to complete them. This includes story quests, side quests and tasks, which are the lowest tier of this job system. Hell, there are also six companion quests; one for each of the game’s six allies. One can employ two at a time, allowing for some combat assistance (and some decently badass special moves). There’s a good amount of player choice to be found here, too, with a lot of it being morality based. However, instead of offering just good and bad choices, The Outer Worlds likes to sometimes operate in the gray areas. As such, some of its choices are tougher than others.

Through the way you play the campaign, you’ll befriend and alienate yourself from different factions. This is portrayed through green and red bars in the menu system, and can have major effects on how things play out. For instance, the Board (who control much of the colonization attempt’s business ventures) ended up hating me after something I did during one of the later story missions. This led to every one of their soldiers shooting at me upon first view, and my inability to turn a completed task into an NPC who wouldn’t talk to me anymore. I don’t recommend pissing everyone off though, because that’s not normally the way I play, and having everyone attack you isn’t exactly the best strategy. Of course, it also changes and limits the quests you can undertake.

There was another instance where I was given a secondary objective from a faction I was trying to prove myself to. This involved helping two of their related soldiers deal with bad guys. It wasn’t the main objective, but it ended up being really important to one of the moral choices. Reason being is that, after one of those soldiers was hit by accidental crossfire, they started attacking me and ended up dead. One of the faction leaders was pissed off that I wasn’t able to help them, and then took it out on me when I tried to forge a truce between her people and those in a town. Everything was looking good, in terms of that truce, until I got her records and then asked her if she would lead their half of the agreement.

The Outer Worlds’ storyline is all about traveling to different planets and ships, some of which are more hospitable than others. You do this through a navigation terminal upon the Unreliable, which shows a simple but effective graphic of a small ship flying from one end of the galaxy to another whenever you do so. The loading is quite fast and doesn’t take long to move from one place to another, which is nice because you’ll be doing it a lot. As you venture throughout, and explore the galaxy, you’ll get to either help or hinder the different factions’ ventures. Perhaps you’ll side with the rebels over the company men, and aid them with extra power. Or, maybe the rebels’ ideals don’t sit well with you and you decide to force their hand. Those types of choices come up more than once within this game.

While the campaign is immersive and addicting, its storyline is not perfect. The frozen colonists premise isn’t new, and the whole storyline could’ve benefited from more depth and originality. That said, I don’t mean to infer that the narrative is bad or hinders the game. It’s just not as great as it could’ve been, and lacks a bit of oomph as a result. The dialogue, on the other hand, is pretty great. The Outer Worlds’ writers did a really good job of making their game funny without crossing the line between serious RPG and funny B-movie. The result is a humorous experience, which offers some pretty funny dialogue options and one-liners. Players can choose the sarcastic and humorous approach, or they can portray the serious hero they’d rather be. Humour isn’t a part of every conversation, but when it pops up it offers a good chuckle.

Combat is another common thing, much like the aforementioned dialogue trees, which are full of opportunities to persuade, lie, impersonate (using costumes) and be forceful in a way that makes others cower. That is, if you’re proficient enough in those skills, thanks to the original character creator or through leveling up. You’ll spend a lot of time fighting beasts, people, machines and bosses, and will do so with some help from your friends. The player can equip four weapons and two pieces of armor at one time, and will constantly find more options through natural progression, exploration and hacking. Everything breaks down, though, so be aware of this. If something needs repairing you’ll see an indicator at the bottom of the screen, and will also obviously see such things in the menu itself. Make sure to stay on top of things, because you don’t want anything to break in the middle of combat. I somehow got lucky and never had anything break on me, although I’m sure I came close.

There are quite a few different weapons on offer, and they all fall into ranged and melee categories. Tossball sticks can be used to whack enemies, or upgraded to allow for a static shock upon impact. Guns are also there in spades, with pistols, shotguns and assault rifles being most prominent. One can also find and equip a flamethrower, a mini-gun, laser blasters and electrically charged ranged weapons. The melee and gunplay are both faster and more accessible than what we got in Fallout 3 or any of its sequels, but not by a whole lot. This is, after all, still an RPG first and foremost. Generally speaking, though, everything works well here, and the combat is both fun and exciting. Things got a bit too easy on normal after a while, though. At least that was the case until I got to the final mission and found that the last boss packed quite a punch.

Those who find it beneficial can slow time down by pressing the right shoulder button. Doing so provides extra time to aim, and a way to get the jump on enemies. I didn’t use this option much, but based on friends’ stats, they seem to be using it more than I did. Then again, I used a lot of melee attacks and found that slowing down time didn’t aid those much. It’s there, though, for those who wish to take advantage of it, and I’m sure it’ll be more helpful on tougher difficulties. Sneak attacks, especially.

Speaking of difficulties, it’s important to note that The Outer Worlds has several. There are the more traditional ones, like easy, normal and hard, and then there’s Supernova. That particular setting will only be for a select group of people though, because it enforces the need to eat, sleep and look after oneself, and also features companion permadeath. That, alone, is enough for me to steer clear. My companions died enough on normal for me to know that they probably wouldn’t last long on Supernova, and that it isn’t for me.

The companions are one of the best things about this game, because they have depth and will chime in whenever they see fit. Oftentimes, these bits of dialogue are helpful or informative. Hell, they can even help sway things in your favour if you have the right companion selected. Each player will prefer the company of different ones, though, meaning that each play through will be different in this regard. While I tried to use them all, some were definitely better and more favourable than others. For instance, I didn’t particularly like the Vicar character, and left him on the ship most of the time. He’d get into arguments with the others there, but I never dismissed him, or anyone else for that matter. Then again, the Vicar (who asks for your help to find and decipher a special book) was an anomaly, who stood out in a group of soldiers, a medic and even a cleaning robot. Most of the companion quests were also quite impressive, not to mention deep. Some ended up being standout missions, and turned out to be up there with the game’s best. Parvati’s especially.

Before we go on, I should also talk about how health is replenished here. You see, in The Outer Worlds the main character carries a special sort of inhaler that allows him or her to ingest health replenishing gas. This thing is quick and easy to use, and is tied to the left shoulder button. Sometimes it’s not fast enough, though, meaning that you’ll quite possibly end up dying at least once or twice while in the process of healing. It happens. Although I didn’t use food, drinks or anything like them much, it is seemingly possible to mix different items with this inhaler to create added buffs. You’ll pick up a ton of different food and drink items along the way, too. Lots of junk as well, but that can be sold. Extra weapons and armor can be sold or broken down for crafting items, which can then be used to repair other such items. Mods can also be added, to give them boosts.

Based on how you play, you’ll develop flaws. These will appear maybe three or four times during the campaign (it honestly all depends), and will offer perks in return for flaws. By that, I mean 25% extra physical damage, added fear while dealing with specific enemies, and that type of thing. I accepted three of four, and got perk points for doing so. The perks, themselves, are pretty basic though. They don’t really compare to Fallout’s, and that’s disappointing, but not a huge issue. Generally speaking, they offer what you’d expect: the ability to carry more, the ability to fast travel while encumbered, bonuses to damage or defense, and improvements in other areas. There aren’t the animations or comical names found in the Fallout games’ perks menus, but that’s to be expected. The Outer Worlds is very similar to Fallout, but stealing those would’ve been going a bit too far. It also doesn’t seem to have had as much of a budget as Bethesda’s flagship sci-fi RPGs, but that doesn’t mean it feels like a low budget game.

This brings us to presentation, where The Outer Worlds succeeds by presenting a colourful and interesting world. The visuals aren’t top notch, but they’re also far from bad, and work really well with this type of game. Sure, some of the animations are a bit stilted, but most are just fine. This is, after all, an RPG, as opposed to something that is expected to be more fluid. It’s a pretty polished one, too, because I didn’t see much in the way of glitches or visual flaws during my maybe thirty hours with it.

The soundtrack doesn’t stand out, but the sound effects are solid and add to the game’s addictive immersion. What stands out most in the audio department, though – apart from the over the top sound that plays out when you level up between 1 and 30 – is the voice acting. For the most part, it’s all quite solid and above average, which also helps things feel as believable as possible. The actors did a good job with the humour, too, which was nice to hear.

In all honesty, The Outer Worlds had been one of my most anticipated games in some time. As someone who was disappointed with Fallout 76’s reveal, it sounded like the replacement that I had been hoping for. Thankfully, it lived up to my high expectations, and proved that its developers were worth hitching my excitement to.

Of course, whether you’ll like this game depends on whether or not you liked Fallout 3, New Vegas and/or 4. If you did, then The Outer Worlds should be right up your alley. However, if you didn’t, then it may be best to look at something different. As great as it is, it won’t be for everyone. Then again, that’s true of pretty much anything. What's nice about The Outer Worlds though, is that it can be downloaded and tried for next to nothing, through Game Pass.

I just wish that it had been longer.

**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which we were provided with by the publisher.**

Suggestions: Here's hoping for a sequel that is longer and has a deeper story.

Overall Score: 9.1 / 10 GRID

If there’s one thing that Codemasters is known for, it’s developing quality racing games that stand the test of time. This is especially true when it comes to rally, where DiRT and DiRT Rally really stand out above the competition. Back in 2008, the Banbury, England-based studio took on the risk of creating a new IP, which would be a spiritual successor to their series of TOCA Racing games. The result was Race Driver: GRID, which effectively blended the lines between arcade and simulation, and was able to appeal to different audiences as a result. In Race Driver: GRID, players would run their own racing team, while acting as the primary driver. This role would send them around the world, as they competed in a plethora of different, digitally crafted events in international locations, including Europe, the USA and Japan. First, though, said player would have to do jobs for other teams, in order to earn the money required to start his or her own.

Eleven years later, GRID is back, after a hiatus that followed the release of a couple of sequels to the debut game. This time around, however, what we’re looking at and able to play is a reboot, which reimagines that original. As such, it simply goes by GRID, and is meant to refresh the series as a whole. Released earlier this month, 2019’s version of GRID is considered to be the tenth game in the long-running TOCA series, even if it doesn’t share the same branding. Loved Formula One driver, Fernando Alonso, also helped with development, acting as a consultant. For his troubles, he was immortalized within the game in a pretty major way.

Is this refresh the incredible Forza and Forza Horizon competitor that it could’ve been? Not exactly. It’s a quality affair, but doesn’t reach the heights of those games, or end up being as excellent as we had hoped.

GRID 2019 is divided into two different modes: Career (aka. single player) and Multiplayer, which involves Xbox Live connectivity. Both are quite similar, though, neither one will set your world on fire. They’re competent modes, but nothing special. Unlike some of the flashy Career modes of Codemasters’ past (DiRT series, I’m looking at you), GRID’s is displayed as a simple, static menu. There, you’ll find several disciplines, with each having approximately thirteen base events and one ultimate showdown against a professional driver. Those usually take the form of races, but there’s one or two time trials intermingled within.

The disciplines on offer are of the Touring, Stock, Tuner, GT and Fernando Alonso varieties. The titles, as any racing or car fan will know, generally relate to the type of cars you’ll be driving in each one. The Fernando Alonso series, however, requires fast cars, including souped up, Formula One style chassis. What you'll discover as you play is that, not only does GRID offer its own version of F1 racing; it also has a handful of NASCAR-esque events (and tracks) as well. There is also a lengthier Invitational series, which slowly unlocks as you play through the others. These racing events are meant to be one off palette cleansers, so to speak, as they’re designed with special vehicles in mind. For instance, the first couple involve driving a Mini. The cars get better from there on, though.

It can take some time to unlock all of the Invitational Series’ events, because several of them are tied to completing different ones spread throughout each of the other disciplines. Meanwhile, those other disciplines unlock through basic progression. Finish one series of 1 to 4 cumulative races, and you’ll open another one, until there aren’t any more left. To open, and become invited to all of the different final showdowns, your goal is simple: Complete ten of the thirteen events in each of the main disciplines, with the Invitational seeming to be optional. Through this, GRID allows some player choice and freedom, which is nice because it can sometimes throw a curveball at you, by way of vehicle cost. For instance, just four or five races into one of the tiers, and I was looking at a $1.2 million purchase, and that one car was the only thing available for use.

The above kind of negates GRID’s open and (slightly) choice driven campaign. After all, given that you can start with any of the tiers, it’s odd for such a roadblock to appear as it does. It isn’t the only one either, as certain events will require you to spend quite a bit of cash. Earning can be kind of slow, too, especially if the teammate you’ve hired wants a big cut of your winnings from each race. I didn’t realize that I could hire somebody different until several hours in, because said mechanic was not made clear, and when I looked I noticed that the default guy was taking a 30% cut. The second person I hired? He takes 10%.

Understandably, it took me quite a few (8?) hours, and a good portion of the career mode, to earn enough money to buy that $1.2 million car. I was able to progress without doing those events when they came up, however, because of the fact that I only needed to complete 10/13 in order to unlock the showdown. My plan is to go back and do them later. I think that the vehicular pricing structure, and the roadblocks it can create, stick out to me because of how the Career mode is set up. While there is a garage hidden in the driver details menu (which is where you can also go to hire new drivers, change your team’s name, edit your player card and that kind of thing), the game doesn’t exactly make this clear. Nor does it do a great job of portraying which cars you’ll need when. You pretty much have to unlock, then open an event, before seeing if you own something it allows, or what the price tag of purchasing said ride will be. Sure, you can purchase a touring car, but that doesn't mean that all touring events will allow the same car.

One will find a competent list of fast, fun to drive and licensed vehicles within GRID, but don’t expect something akin to Forza or Forza Horizon. The list is somewhat varied, but it’s far from something in one of those games. As such, certain events will only allow one specific car (or racing truck) to enter, while others will give you a list of three to five that you can purchase. You may already have something, though, especially if you’ve paid extra for the more expensive (or early) editions, because those come with exclusive vehicles. Sadly, nothing that offsets the $1.2 million wallet destroyer.

Once the player has finished (at least four of) the Career mode’s main disciplines and their concluding showdowns, they’ll be entered into the higher stakes GRID World Series, which separates the professionals from the imitators. It’ll take a decent amount of time to get to this point, though, because the Career mode can be deceptively long, since many of its series require you to do at least decently well in two to four consecutive races, during which your placing is turned into points that are tallied at the end. Funnily enough, I’ve come in first in series where I thought I’d barely make the podium, after finishing eighth or lower in one event, third in another and so on.

The gameplay that drives GRID is fast, fluid, and polished to a nice shine. As you race, you’ll enjoy some rather smooth mechanics that turn the in-game driving into a mesmerizing trance of sorts. After a while, things become reflexive, as you get sucked into the on-screen engagements. It’s really quite impressive from a technical standpoint and is deserving of all of the praise it’s been getting on this level, especially since it’s able to appeal to both simulation purists and arcade fans at the same time. Granted, this is aided by options that allow you to make damage detrimental, increase or eliminate the amount of available rewinds, tune, and decide whether you want critical damage to be a thing.

It isn’t without its faults, though, and one comes in the form of difficulty.

During my time with GRID 2019, I mostly played on medium, but did dabble in hard for a little bit. What I found was a frustratingly uneven difficulty system, which is hard to get a read of. When I changed the difficulty, it was because races were too easy. However, I quickly found out that hard wasn’t the answer. It was a bit too far of a step ahead from where I was, as a competent and skilled, but not flawless or incredible racer. After a few 8th place finishes, I switched back to medium.

The odd and frustrating part of all of this isn’t the difference between normal and hard. I’ve played enough video games to understand that I can’t play everything on the same difficulty, and that each one has its own definitions of easy, normal, hard and so forth. What was annoying was how different medium was throughout the game. Sure, many races (including later ones, like showdowns) were almost mind-numbingly easy on that setting, but every so often I’d encounter races where I could hardly make headway past sixth or eighth. It was like the AI had become much better drivers out of the blue, without me having changed anything. This kept cropping up, too, and wasn’t just a one off oddity.

GRID’s nemesis system, which attempts to make the stakes higher by turning every racer you anger (whether by accident or on purpose) into your rival or enemy, is also a disappointment. It feels shoehorned in as a bit of an afterthought, and doesn’t really have the depth that one would hope for. In the end, it simply makes the people you repeatedly hit (or hit hard once or twice) mad at you, and causes them to be more aggressive. Will they spin you out from time to time? Yes, they will try for revenge. It’s simply not that big of a game changer, or anything to write home about. Having plentiful rewinds also means that it’s generally not much of a nuisance. Hell, you can spin out after being touched by any car, especially if they run into your back wheel. Spin-outs are a bit too common, if I'm being honest. Sometimes it seems like a light tap to the back wheel will cause the player's car to spin and head for the guardrail.

Despite boasting quite a few great tracks, and some impressive driving mechanics, GRID’s racing can also become tedious after a while. Although there are different disciplines, a lot of it tends to blend together after hours of playtime. As such, this is something I recommend playing in shorter bursts, as opposed to lengthy ones. It’s better that way.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but as well made as GRID is, it’s also hard not to feel like something is missing. Some sort of a wow factor I guess you’d say, that will keep people wanting to come back. Yes, the driving is good, and yes the Career mode is decently long, but it doesn’t have the variety or personality found in other games. The multiplayer is also very derivative of the single player section, and seems to simply be an online extension of the series featured within the campaign. One can set something up, invite friends, or play with randoms.

When I tried to play online, I could only find one other player, so the rest of the cars were driven by bots. I don’t know if this is because of sales, or simply because of the time of day, but it made the multiplayer feel even more similar to the base mode. Then again, I generally don’t play racing games online, because I don’t find it to be as fun as playing against the computer and completing the campaign. Why is this? The AI tends to make for better drivers, and is more predictable. When you venture online, you’re often at the mercy of one really good racer and one or two others who want to do nothing more than piss people off. You know them; they’re the ones who drive backwards and ram everyone they can.

Presentation wise, GRID 2019 is a success. It’s easy on the eyes, has some impressively detailed vehicles (including realistic cockpit views), and offers some gorgeous tracks. There’s lots of colour and realism to look forward to, along with some nice bloom effects that can really put the sun in your eyes and limit what you can see, albeit in a realistic and non-frustrating way.

There isn’t much in the way of music, but the sound effects are on point, and make you feel like you’re in the cockpit or driver’s seat of your chosen vehicle. They're loud, boisterous and realistic, at least in my opinion. I’m not much of a car guy, so I can’t exactly compare how each different vehicle sounds in real life to how it sounds in the game.

At the opening to every race, one can listen to a male announcer and his female commentary partner as they go over the necessary details and outline what to expect. That is, if you don’t press 'A' to skip it all, which is something that becomes habit after a while, as you plow through the Career mode. For the most part, it’s nothing special, but it’s a nice touch, especially since they’ll change their tune and simply say, “Well, it looks like the action is about to begin” if you cut them off. The two also appear in a visceral opening video montage, which has some playable moments, where the player is dropped into different cars and racing events, in order to get a feel for what they’re about to partake in.

With all that having been said, I must admit that GRID is a difficult game to score. It does a lot of things very well, but it’s hard not to feel like it’s missing a spark, a wow factor or some sort of true personality. As it stands, I don’t see it being something that people will continually go back to, despite its quality mechanics and beautiful visuals. It’s simply a bit too sterile. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun while it lasts, though, or that it isn't rather well made.

**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which we were provided with by its publisher.**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Team Sonic Racing

Good, let alone great, kart racers are few and far between. That’s especially true of today’s era of gaming, which tends to prefer realism over the fast-paced, battle kart style racing that ruined many friendships during its 90's heyday. Still, that doesn’t mean we’ve been without, as Mario Kart is still going strong (at least through a very popular port), and other combatants have attempted to leave their mark on the sub-genre. Take Nickelodeon Kart Racers for instance. That’s just one of some lesser known and lower budget attempts, and was something that I not only reviewed but beat more than once within the last year.

Of course, there’s also Crash Team Racing, which comes out next month and promises to bring one of the genre’s best back to the spotlight. A 90's classic that I sadly missed back then, due to not owning a PlayStation and not having any friends that owned that particular game. I was happy with my Diddy Kong Racing, though, and still consider it to be the best of its kind.

Enter SEGA, which released the only two kart racers worth mentioning in the same breath as the greats, during the last generation of consoles. It started with 2010’s Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, then continued on through the beloved effort we know as Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The former was a straight up, traditional kart racer with a very addictive adventure mode, which turned heads and rightfully so. Meanwhile, the latter built upon the foundations of its predecessor, but also tried to do something different in the process, ending up as a sort of spiritual successor to Diddy Kong Racing. Both were absolutely fantastic, and filled a void. Hell, some still say that Transformed is one of the best racing games of all time, as well as the de facto best kart racer ever made. Me? Although I like both a lot, the first game has more of a soft spot in my heart for whatever reason.

Enter Team Sonic Racing, the newest entry in SEGA and Sumo Digital’s thoroughly impressive series. Having just recently released, it brings with it a new approach to the sub-genre, that being team mechanics that employ the use of three teamed up racers.

Instead of racing alone, those who test their mettle at Team Sonic Racing will find that they must help and worry about the success of two other racers. The flip side to this is that the same is true of the rather solid and competent AI, which does its best to help the player whenever possible. This is important because, at the end of each race, the trio’s placing is combined to generate its score.

At first, I didn’t quite like the whole team thing. The early races pitted myself (Sonic) and two other allies (Tails and Knuckles) against three other racers, creating six driver events. Later, though, things progressed to the point where more teams of three were introduced, creating a much busier and more customary experience That is, with the one big difference: teamwork. You know what? It all started to grow on me after a while, to the point where I started enjoying myself and had a hard time putting the controller down. I never did truly fall in love with the game, but had some fun with it for sure.

So, how does all this team stuff work? Well, it’s pretty simple.

To start, each team can share items between its members, and those items are power-ups that come in the form of wisps. These wisps, as they’re called, come in different colour categories and can offer different things to different racers, based on their class. Some boil down to speed boosts, rockets and shields, while others allow you to drop boxes that hurt opponents who run into them, turn into a ghost that becomes immune to outside influence, or spin foes out with a laser. It’s a system that can be somewhat confusing despite its intended accessibility, and is one that never truly reaches the quality or memorability of the items in Mario Kart or even Diddy Kong Racing.

The most important and helpful facets of all of this come in the form of speed boosts and team powers. You see, if you’re behind an ally then you’re in luck because their wheels will leave burning track marks that can be used as a slingshot. The longer you stay within them, the faster your speed boost will be coming out of them. It’s also possible to get a boost from driving alongside a comrade, though the slingshot mechanic is much simpler and should get the most use.

As you work together, you’ll fill a meter that appears behind your kart. This meter refers to the Team Ultimate power; something that blends an elongated speed boost with what is essentially a star power-up from the Mario games. When used well, it can take you from the back of the pack to the front of it, while dealing some damage in the process. Needless to say, it’s really helpful, and the nice thing is that it’s possible to regenerate your Ultimate power more than once in a race. There’s even an achievement and trophy for doing it three times, which can take some planning and effort at the beginning, but eventually comes naturally.

When you strip away the team play, the racing becomes what it’s always been about: driving as fast as possible, using power-ups wisely, attempting to steer clear of enemy projectiles, attacks and drifting. It’s that latter mechanic that, once again, can be a big help during Team Sonic Racing. If you drift, you’ll get different levels of speed boosts depending on the length of said drift, and using them to your advantage can turn the tide in your favour. Be careful, however, because drifting can sometimes slow you down and become a disadvantage.

The racing can be quite frenetic, though, and it can also be easy to mistake your teammates for opponents during the heat of a harried event, even if they’re all outlined. At times, however, things can also feel kind of slow, eschewing the sense of speed that one would hope for. Team Sonic Racing may be pretty fast, but it doesn’t always feel or look as fast as it could. This was true on all difficulties, including normal, hard and expert. Unfortunately, there is no easy difficulty to be found here, which is disappointing given how the difficulty tends to spike during the ‘story’ mode.

It helps that the tracks are pretty well designed, with lots of different avenues, shortcuts and special factors, like balloons that can be bounced upon. That said, there are no transformations this time around, meaning that you won’t turn into a plane or a boat whenever you fly into the air or end up on a liquid surface. You’ll simply go through them by kart, with different reactions based on the substance, your skill, your path and the driver you choose. By that, I mean the type, as there are Speed (Sonic, Amy, Blaze, etc.), Technique (Tails, Chao, Silver, etc.) and Power (Knuckes, Big, Omega, etc.) classes of racers.

By picking someone from the Speed type, you’re asking for a faster and more all around racer whose vehicle prioritizes speed over defense, meaning that they stay spun out longer after getting hit. Meanwhile, picking someone from the Power category will give you a driver with better defense and boost, but slower speed and acceleration. In the middle are the Technique racers, who aren’t the fastest or the strongest, but handle better than the others. They have one big advantage over the rest, too, that being the ability to drive on any surface without slowing down.

The power drivers can sometimes feel like tanks in comparison to the others, so picking one of those might not be your best option. That said, some will prefer them because of their more powerful boosts and shorter downtimes after being hit. All of the racer types have their own perks, though, such as the speed ones emitting something that can block incoming attacks that threaten their lead.

The aforementioned tracks? Well, there are 21 of them to be found here, including some that have been carried over from the two previous games. Some are better than others, as is always the case, but there’s a good mix of environments and challenges to be found. I wouldn’t say that they’re the greatest tracks in any kart racer, but they’re certainly well above average.

All of the above is crammed into what is, in essence, a budget title, as Team Sonic Racing is only $39.99 USD ($54.99 CAD). Still, even with that appreciated discount, one would hope for more content than this game offers. Sure, its racing is pretty fun, but its list of game modes and challenges leaves something to be desired.

Upon booting this thing up, one will find a barebones menu that offers three different types of racing: Local Play, Online Multiplayer and Team Adventure. Then, below those three, there are Player Stats, Garage and Mod Pods. The last of those items refers to a casino game of sorts, where one can spend ten credits (earned from racing successes) to unlock a random car part or horn sound. These parts can then be put on their linked vehicles in the garage menu, allowing one to create different loadouts. While there, they can also change the paint jobs to customize the look of their ride of choice.

Keep in mind that Team Sonic Racing is not the type of game where, the more you play, the better your vehicles will get to the point of being unfair to newcomers. No, each new part you unlock, be it wheels or wings or even an engine, will have its pros and its cons, which will be reflected within your driver’s stats. One thing may improve your speed and acceleration, while lowering your defense. It goes without saying that, if you play long enough you’ll find the loadout that suits your play style best, but that doesn’t mean it’s not overwhelming at first, or that it’s the world’s greatest system.

On the racing side, Local Play allows you to just pick up and play Exhibition, Time Trial or Grand Prix events. It’s what you’d expect any game like this to have, and is joined by Online Play, which is also necessary in this day and age. The only problem is that, despite this game having just come out, the online lobbies seem pretty desolate. When I tried, I was only able to find three or four humans to race against at any given time, and sometimes the amount was less than that, forcing bots to enter the fray. I also noticed a bit of lag, and have seen people complain about the online on Xbox.

The good news is that Team Adventures is a story mode with Super Mario Bros. style worlds and map overlays. You start in chapter one and progress all the way through chapter 7, within a basic storyline that plays out through many dialogue bubbles featuring relatively annoying cross-character chatter. The idea is to compete in singular races, team grand prix events (which are made up of four races and factor in combined scores), elimination races and mini-games, while earning stars in the process. Each ‘stage’ or event will have its own requirements for stars, but they usually involve making it onto the podium, taking first place yourself, having your whole team come in first or finishing an elimination event without losing a member. Reaching other select parameters will also give you keys, which can unlock different routes.

As expected, you’ll need a certain amount of stars to progress from one chapter to another. Don’t worry much about this, though, because so long as you’re pretty good at the game and win almost every event, you shouldn’t have a problem. I haven’t had much of a problem, despite hearing that normal is pretty difficult. My only issues and annoyances have come from the occasional mini-games, which can be pretty unfair, even early on.

The first mini-game you’ll likely encounter forces you to collect rings (which increase your speed during regular races), while driving along a track. If you stop collecting rings, your meter will drop, and once that meter is empty it’s game over. However, if you drift, boost and drive well, you’ll be able to keep that meter full by picking up enough rings. It can be really difficult to do, though.

The worst of the bunch involves drifting past slalom type poles, and isn’t that enjoyable. The two best ones unlock later on, though, and they’re certainly more fun. One involves using rockets to shoot different coloured targets that are spread on or above the track, while the other revolves around shooting rockets at (or bumping into) Eggman’s bots in order to destroy them. Both are enjoyable diversions, but like the others they only offer two stars: one for getting a silver level score, and one for getting a platinum level score.

Be wary of level 6-3, though, because it’s a forced slalom drift event. If you aren’t able to beat it you’ll be stuck, because there’s no other route to the end of that chapter’s map. It took me tens of tries, but I eventually limped by with barely a silver medal, after several times where the game basically laughed at me and said “Close, but no cigar, buddy!”. To say that stage is an unfair and poorly designed difficulty spike would not be an exaggeration, and I’ve seen others complain about it online. It’s a poorly balanced chokepoint in a campaign that is otherwise not terribly difficult, though that’s not to say that it isn’t without other uneven aspects. For example, the grand prix events (and their four total races) tend to be easier than the one off races that make up most of the events.

You should be able to get through Team Adventures mode within several hours, and it’s not like it’s anything spectacular. The racing is pretty fun, but the story – which begins with a strange being whisking Sonic and friends off to a different planet for racing adventures – isn’t much to write home about and can be downright annoying due to its cheesy, repeated dialogue and grating character voices. Once you finish it, all that’s left is trying on a harder difficulty, going for all of the stars (kudos if you do accomplish this because of the uneven difficulty), or playing either local or online events. That is, if you can find enough people to play with, let alone a full lobby. Thus, unless you’re someone who likes to constantly better him or herself at the same game by setting new scores, or loves to challenge friends to regular kart racing matches, you may not find a lot of long-term value here. That’s the boat I find myself in.

When it comes to presentation, things are quite positive. Team Sonic Racing is very colourful and has a rather pleasing aesthetic outside of its barebones menus. The racing is also very smooth, with a near constant 60 frames-per-second frame rate to thank for that. Sumo definitely knocked it out of the park with that aspect of the game. There’s quite a bit going on on-screen, too, which makes it pretty impressive.

The audio? Well, it’s got its pros and its cons like everything else. It’s not up to par with the visuals, but that’s because a lot of the dialogue, voice acting, music and character quips can be pretty annoying. It might’ve even been better if the developers had kept voice acting out of Team Sonic Racing altogether. That said, some of the music is pretty good, and the effects are both fitting and immersive for the most part.

At the end of the day, Team Sonic Racing isn’t exactly the game I was hoping it would be, nor is it incredibly close. It’s a good, very competent and fun kart racer, but it doesn’t have as much content or as much of a wow factor as the two incredible games that preceded it. Still, I don’t want to sound as if I don’t like this game or think it’s above average, because I do. It's a good, competent racing game, but doesn't have the wow factor or staying power that I was hoping for.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we purchased. It was reviewed using the site’s Xbox One X console.**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Rage 2

The better part of a decade has passed since we were first introduced to the zany, chaotic and action-packed wastelands of id Software’s RAGE. In gaming, and pop culture in general, that constitutes a long time. Thus, it was somewhat surprising when Bethesda announced plans to bring a sequel to fruition, and stated that it’d charged both id Software and Avalanche Studios with doing so.

Fast forward to today and we can now look back on RAGE 2, after having had the chance to go hands on with, and play through the post-apocalyptic shooter. Was it a good idea to bring the series back? In this reviewer’s opinion it certainly was. While RAGE 2 is not as good as its predecessor, or as memorable in various ways, it’s a very solid and fun shooter that offers pretty impressive gunplay and movement mechanics.

This new campaign takes place decades after the conclusion of its predecessor, and introduces us to a rebuilding world. Humanity has thrived in what remains of its former world, and has gone about attempting to recreate a proper civilization. Their efforts have been rewarded, too, with the return of some technology and certain plants, leading to a jungle-like section of the game’s open world. Through this communication, and their undertaken efforts, the region’s humans have also been able to construct several different towns, all of which have their own I.D., though despite all of that progress having been made, the world is still a perilous place. Bandits and marauders patrol the dusty roadways, mutants prosper underground and in certain hideouts, and bullets still speak louder than words. Progress may have been made, but danger still lurks everywhere in RAGE 2, meaning that traveling outside of the world’s camps and towns is a dangerous proposition.

Enter Walker, the last remaining (male or female) Ranger from an advanced settlement that is unfortunately no more. His or her story begins with a bang, after the Authority – the main enemies from the first game – return with force during the opening cutscene. Leading the way is familiar villain, General Cross, whose hatred for humanity knows no bounds.

Over the course of the game’s surprisingly short campaign, you’ll battle against different types of opposing forces, be it mutants, humans or members of the Authority, all while attempting to help bring a long dormant project to life. To do so, you’ll have to meet with and help three specific characters, who unfortunately end up being little more than glorified quest givers. In fact, none of the NPCs in RAGE 2 are very memorable, which is a disappointment. Then again, the story is mostly just an excuse to shoot and blow sh** up, which is something it succeeds at.

As was the case with Avalanche’s Just Cause 2, only a limited amount of story missions exist within RAGE 2. In total, there are only seven or eight, meaning that the majority of your time with this game will be spent doing side missions and activities. Once the opening mission concludes, the choice is yours as to who to talk to first and which missions to undertake, but the truth of it all is that there aren’t many to worry about. The three NPCs all offer two each, and that’s it.

The idea here is that one must complete open world activities and side missions in order to level up within each of the three different ‘factions’ (for lack of a better term). Certain things are tied to specific leaders, be it taking out convoys, attacking enemy outposts, killing giant monsters or completing arks. Speaking of arks, it’s important to mention that they are pivotal objectives, which help you improve Walker’s skills and weaponry. While they may present as optional fare, your best bet is to venture to as many of them as possible before you worry about getting to the end of the short story. If you don’t, you will likely miss out on certain firearms and special abilities, like dashing, slamming to the ground, putting up a bullet blocking blockade and both a shotgun and a rocket launcher, among others.

I made things a lot easier for myself by doing as much side content as possible before tackling any of the NPCs’ story missions. This meant searching for arks, killing the enemies that stood outside of them, and attacking bandit encampments, outposts and the like. In addition to this, I also took out mutants, searched for hidden chests full of money, and looted both chests and fallen meteorites in order to get feltrite crystals. The money went towards buying bullets, rockets, grenades, health items and upgrades for some of those things, while the feltrite crystals were used for both healing and upgrading skills, weapons and the like. Downed enemies drop them, and picking them up during battle can keep you close to full health, so long as you don’t wait too long.

You’ll need to get to level 5 in each project in order to unlock its second story mission, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem if you play like I did. Without even knowing that was how things worked, I set myself up well by getting to between levels 4 and 6 for each of the quest givers just by doing side missions and optional things. It didn’t take long, nor was it boring, and it allowed me to do most of the campaign missions without having to grind at all.

Truth be told, one of the biggest problems with RAGE 2 is that it’s overwhelming. The menu system is sluggish and full of different tabs offering upgrades for different things. Each one requires something different, too, be it nanites, project points, vehicle parts (for your main vehicle and other stored ones) or feltrite crystals. Keeping track of everything is a pain in the ass, just like navigating the menus.

You see, each of the three quest givers is entrusted with one special part of a bigger project, which everyone hopes will destroy the Authority. When you speak to and help them, it unlocks their project category in your menu system, but it all essentially just boils down to perks. Things like 25% extra ammo, no fall damage, extra grenades, increased health, better health regeneration and the like.

Easily the best thing about this game, though, is its combat. The gunplay is fast, fluid and sometimes even frantic, and the movement is certainly up to par. The result is a series of gunfights that are as fun to watch as they are to play. That’s a good thing, too, because RAGE 2 is filled with combat and is focused upon it. Outside of such battles, there’s not a lot to the game. It even comes into play within the open world, where enemies can be found at the side of the road, as can large towers that attack you on sight. The good news is you’ll have a trusty vehicle that can almost always fire a buttload of bullets, rockets or whatever else you’ve unlocked.

As one kills groups of enemies, a meter of sorts fills towards an overdrive ability. When triggered, this allows Walker to shoot more ammo, deal extra damage and blow bad guys up in even more visceral (and gore-filled) ways. It’s a great help, especially early on when the game is more challenging, since it can also regenerate your health. However, you’ll end up being so overpowered near the end of the game — at least on normal — that you might start forgetting about it.

Mutant TV thankfully returns, but it’s not as wild or as memorable as it once was, nor is it as prevalent. In my twelve or thirteen hours with this game (one or two of which were spent after completing the story), I only discovered two of them, and they appeared on the map. One was related to a story mission, while the other was not. The one that was part of the campaign appeared in combination with a race, which seemed to be the only organized race in RAGE 2. I found that disappointing, even though it was possible to challenge certain drivers to impromptu races out in the open wasteland.

The driving? Well, it’s decent. There’s nothing spectacular about it, and the vehicles you’ll need for the campaign are pretty limited. You’ll get an armored vehicle to start off with, will unlock and need a tank, and will also be given a buggy to race in. Some can also be unlocked by getting to level 10 in certain projects, but that takes a while and isn’t really necessary unless you’re after achievements. Other than that, it’s up to you as to whether you really want to hijack and store enemy vehicles, because they’re not exactly necessary either.

Simply put, there’s not enough wow factor or enough variety here to really make RAGE 2 great. Its campaign is short, and most of the content found within it (main and side) boils down to shootouts. They’re fun, but get repetitive after a while, and after twelve hours I was pretty much done with the game. Going in, I had expected this thing to be double that length, and hoped that it would be as great as the first one, which blew me away and had me addicted to my console for some time. That didn’t end up being the case, although I did have fun nonetheless.

RAGE 2 is a good and well above average game. It’s just not the great game that its predecessor was, or the great game it could have been. There’s too much repetition, and more style than substance. The open wasteland also isn’t as interesting as it could’ve been, as much of it is desolate and dull, with little going on unless you drive up on a camp, an ark, a monster’s lair, a ranger echo or a gas station that requires blowing up. Even then, most boil down to killing a bunch of enemies, looting the area and then leaving.

Once you finish the game, there will likely still be lots to do, but if you’re like me you’ll be somewhat bored of it all. It’s not like a lot of interesting new objectives open up at that point. It’s simply clean up and collectible hunting, by way of looking for chests, shooting balloons or finding one of the game’s other type of collectibles.

When it comes to presentation, there are easily more pros than cons here. RAGE 2 is a nice looking game, and one that sometimes looks quite beautiful, but it does occasionally tend to look muddy. The NPCs don’t look spectacular, and some of the environments are lacking in detail. It does run very well, though, with a stable frame rate despite all the craziness going on on screen.

The sound effects are boisterous and fitting, and really bring the firefights to life. Thus, it’s easy to get immersed into RAGE 2. The mixing and voice acting could’ve been better, though, because sometimes it’s difficult to hear what the NPCs are saying. Still, it’s hard to really complain about or slag the audio as it’s pretty solid overall.

With all that having been said, RAGE 2 is a game that is easy to recommend to people who like and are in search of good open world shooters. A masterpiece it is not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing. Although it’s not as great as I was hoping, I enjoyed my time with this sequel and am glad that I played it. It might not be a masterpiece, but it’s a fun way to spend ten or twelve hours.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which was played on our X. We purchased it.**

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 Uglydolls: An Imperfect Adventure

In a world where strangeness and individuality are celebrated, the UglyDolls thrive as a community. This isn’t true of their neighbouring village on the other side of the nearby mountain, as its inhabitants tend to feel that flaws are inexcusable. Such is the premise of the film of the same name, which is currently in theatres and does its best to instill children with a positive message. That is, to be themselves and celebrate their differences.

As was almost always the case years ago, UglyDolls has received a video game tie-in – something that has become more of a rarity these days, as the genre’s previous lack of success led to it almost completely drying up. While most big movies go without complementary video games, this one is an exception for whatever reason. Unfortunately, the result is rather disappointing, as what kids are offered here is a game that doesn’t have much respect for their time, or offer much in the way of enjoyment.

To put it simply, UglyDolls: An Imperfect Adventure is a slog of a cash-in, and one that you’ll want to avoid unless your kids happen to be absolutely batty about the movie and its characters. Even then, you’re probably best to save your money, because this thing is absurdly overpriced at $54.99 CAD.

In all honesty, I just looked up the price now, after finishing the game and beginning to write this review. To say that I’m shocked would be an understatement.

UglyDolls: An Imperfect Adventure begins in a town in turmoil. The cute, fuzzy and imperfect inhabitants are in a tizzy and are hiding out, because robots from the neighbouring town of Perfection have invaded their territory. Said metal and bolt based contraptions haven’t come peacefully either, and have no qualms about hurting the flawed and colourful dolls they come into contact with. Their goal is to change them until they’re perfect, which is something that isn’t wanted or necessary.

After picking between a male or female doll avatar, players find themselves inside of a sewer-based lair akin to something from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There, they’re asked to help out, by a bat who appears on a computer screen, and whose voice is the only form of vocal acting that appears within the game. He introduces the perilous predicament over simple motion comics, and then sets you on your way with your first aboveground task.

The problem is that none of the objectives, or tasks if you will, are entertaining or even remotely fun. In fact, they’re all so basic and repetitive that there’s little to no variety within this game. It could easily have been called Fetch Quest: The Game instead of UglyDolls: An Imperfect Adventure.

The folks at Well Played – who developed this thing, with publishing help from Outright Games – failed to create something fun, no matter what your age is. Although I can’t exactly speak for young kids, I know that I would never have enjoyed such a game when I was younger. Nor do I feel like today’s kids – who have so many options on tablets, consoles, computers and phones – to find much enjoyment in a game that is basically a series of simple fetch quests.

As you make your way through this three to four hour campaign, you’ll find yourself (and maybe one friend) tasked with rescuing different UglyDolls characters, all of whom require something different from you. It’s here where the game’s collecting and crafting mechanics come into play, as you’ll constantly have to stop and riffle through toolboxes, sewing containers, crates and bakery containers for parts. Things like springs, paint brushes, aluminum cans, feathers and rolls of tape.

The idea here is that the aforementioned tools can be used to craft things that can both be given to your rescued allies in exchange for their help, and used for your own purposes. This includes balloons that highlight where your next objective is, pogo sticks that allow you to jump on top of small buildings, boom boxes that can cause a distraction by making robots dance and hearts that refill one’s courage (health). These are just some of the crafting options, and are flanked by other items like boxes (to hide under), floatation devices (which help you avoid drowning while in water) and running shoes, which are needed to get from one switch to another before the timer runs out. Said switches appear occasionally, and are required for some of the game’s more ‘advanced’ puzzles.

Nothing about this thing is very difficult, though.

If you really want to take your time, you can avoid using the balloons, but I’d recommend taking advantage of them wherever possible. Reason being is that UglyDolls: An Imperfect Adventure has no consideration for one’s time, and is of the opinion that people will enjoy walking from one end of the map to another ad nauseam. Yes, all you’ll really be doing here is walking from one marker to another, collecting yellow coins as you go. Sure, there’ll be some challenges – like robots who chase, rush at you or shoot teleportation beams – but they’re not difficult to get away from. There are also the aforementioned switches and light puzzles, but to even call them puzzles is reaching. Throw in a bit of light platforming and that’s all you really have here – one long series of fetch quests with basic gaming mechanics.

Although the story asks you to collect cake ingredients, pick up about 27 blocks of ice and find other random items, all of them are shown as gold coins. Thus, almost none of the objectives found within this game feel unique. You’re just going after the same visual item over and over again, while the characters who want them pretend that they’re something special.

Along the way, those who brave this ‘adventure’ (or, as I like to refer to it: AD-venture) will see lots of green buttons, as well as a smaller amount of blue ones. These are in-game coins, which must be used to purchase certain crafting recipes. Some are given to you through progression alone, but others require a 100 button deposit, even if they’re requested during the campaign. It’s here where some added annoyance comes into play.

If you look at the achievements list, you’ll see that there’s one for collecting 1000 buttons, which should come naturally if you collect most of the ones you see. Normally, one would think that getting to that plateau would be an optional milestone, but it’s not. After getting to 1000 cumulative buttons during the final mission, I made my way to and helped the final of that mission’s five different UglyDolls, all of whom sent me on fetch quests or had me craft things for them. At that point, the game decided to play a fun little trick on me, by telling me that I needed to collect 1000 as part of its final objective.

The above might not sound like much, given that I’d already collected 1000 buttons or more, but it was. Reason being is that I’d already spent a lot of my cumulative total on crafting recipes, leaving me with about 360 to 380 at the end of the game. That meant having to walk around the boring map, picking up green and blue (which are worth five) buttons whenever I saw them. Since they’re normally only in small groups of one to seven (green) ones, it took a while. The blues are quite rare, and this isn’t like Sonic or Super Mario Bros. where rings and coins are quite plentiful. It takes a while to collect a big amount, which meant that I had to waste 30 plus minutes doing this menial task to artificially extend my playtime.

It made me feel very valued, and also made me wonder how kids would respond to such a menial slog of a task. Then again, they’ll be used to such tedium from playing the rest of this bland, unoriginal and boring game.

When it comes to presentation, UglyDolls: An Imperfect Adventure is fine but far from anything to write home about. It’s a serviceable visual and audible effort for the kids’ game that it is, but doesn’t set the bar very high or compete with the best in its subgenre.

The art style is colourful, and the gameplay takes place on a 2D/3D plane that houses a flat town and characters who are quite flat and two dimensional, for the most part. It fits the look of the movie, but won’t set anyone’s world on fire, especially given how repetitive the world and its objectives end up being. It runs well and serves its purpose, though, much like the sound which is fine but far from noteworthy. It offers somewhat annoying music, serviceable but forgettable (and very limited) voice acting and some sound effects that won’t scare or scar children.

With all that having been said, I doubt that I need to admit that I was happy to see the credits roll on UglyDolls: An Imperfect Adventure. While I went in with an open mind – as someone who’s played a lot of kids games and been impressed by more than a couple – I never enjoyed my time with this one. All it did was make me wish I was playing other games, even mediocre ones that I’ve yet to finish. It’s nothing but a series of incredibly repetitive and forgettable fetch quests that offer little in the way of fun, and comes with an absolutely absurd price tag to boot.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 2.7 / 10 Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 2

Since the dawn of the motorized vehicle (car, truck or bike), people have been drawn to the thrill of racing them. While Nascar has thrived in the more traditional sense, motorcycle racing ventures also have devout followings. This includes not just ‘crotch rockets,’ but also the dirtbike variety and supercross itself. Every so often, the supercross circuit will turn massive baseball diamonds and both indoor and outdoor arenas into dirt-covered tracks, filled with bumps, humps and jumps.

The latest video game to portray this high-flying, adrenaline-fueled action is none other than Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Video Game 2. A mouthful to say the least, it’s the follow-up to a very similarly titled game that released last February to middling reviews. One that covers, and is made for fans of the Monster Energy Supercross circuit.

A good sequel builds upon what its predecessor established, by refining its strengths and improving its weaknesses. The goal is to release a notably better game than what came before it. With Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Video Game 2, the folks at Milestone have improved on their previous effort, but haven’t bettered things enough to make it stand out. The result is a game that is merely okay, and one that doesn’t have a lot of pressure to be better than it is, because there’s unfortunately so little competition in this subgenre.

Like the last game, Supercross 2 (as we’ll call it) is centres upon fast-paced dirtbike racing, in the professional sense. Thus, its events primarily take place within the confines of major cities’ arenas and stadiums. Places like Anaheim, Las Vegas, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Minneapolis and St. Louis. The game’s central focus, which is none other than its career mode as one would expect, tasks the player with creating a rider and then traveling throughout this dirt-filled roadmap. This is done through three separate championship circuits: 250 East, 250 West and the 450 Tour, which comprises both of them and uses faster bikes to boot.

Last year, the career mode was pretty barebones, mostly consisting of just races, rider customization and a basic rivalry system that left a lot to be desired. This year’s iteration unfortunately isn’t a lot different, and still feels very basic and uninspired. To the developers’ credit, they did add a weekly, pre-race schedule to worry about, alongside some training minigames that reminded me of FIFA’s loading screen practice drills. However, these engagements are nothing to write home about, and there aren’t many of them. Hell, every week’s schedule can be made to consist of nothing but cutscenes, making up PR appearances, fan engagements and media days. Note that all of these animations are the same throughout, with only your rider’s gear and bike changing, if you’ve bothered to make an adjustment.

In addition to those established career options, this sequel adds two other weekly, pre-race engagements. One is training, which I mentioned above, and it consists of things like cornering speed, starting speed and jump accuracy drills. The other is a challenge mode, wherein one can challenge the ghost of another racer (ideally a rival) to a time attack ‘race’ in what is essentially a farmer’s transformed cornfield. Needless to say, there’s not a lot on offer here, and while the attempt is appreciated, it doesn’t help things much.

As is always the case, players also have the opportunity to set up their own tournaments, play one-off races, engage in time trials or visit the compound, which is a glorified practice area. An added plus here is that the compound offers more than one track this time around, but the others need to be unlocked before they can be used for practice, or for events.

If none of those things interest you, you can also head online and play on Xbox Live. I was able to find a game without too much difficulty, but got the impression that the community isn’t massive. The online gameplay also performed rather well, offering a few, slightly varied race options.

As they dabble in this middling and unfortunately brief list of modes, players will earn experience points, which will accumulate and allow them to reach new rider levels. Only the most hardcore Supercross 2 players will get the most out of this mechanic, though, because it takes a while to level up and one can increase his or her level until the option to prestige becomes available. At least, that’s how it seems from what I’ve read. I never got close.

Earning experience points leads to unlocks, and that’s the major incentive to do so. You’ll find more suits, helmets, boots, goggles and neck protectors in the shop. Things cost a lot of in-game money, though, so don’t expect to be able to buy a lot of things unless you play for a while. New bikes are especially expensive.

The above will certainly be of interest, and benefit, those who care a lot about customization. I’m not like that, though, and generally don’t worry too much about it. Thus, I didn’t bother with the shops too much, or become enthused about trying to unlock certain gear. I maybe would have if the gameplay was more exciting, but it is (unfortunately) pretty mediocre.

There are building blocks for a rather good racing game here, but like its predecessor (and some other Milestone titles, of which there are quite a few), Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Video Game 2 feels rushed and dated. I hate saying this, because I don’t like being negative towards smaller companies, but I had more fun with such games on the PS2, even the Xbox 360 and PS3.

The racing found within this title is okay, but there’s nothing special about it. The developers have tried to create gameplay that can be adjusted to fit each player’s skill, but their core mechanics suffer from the same problems that existed last time around. The physics are a bit better, but still remain frustrating and unpredictable, leading to random crashes and even difficulty steering. The AI and difficulty levels can also be quite severe and unforgiving, which is why I’ve been playing on easy. Furthermore, the controls leave something to be desired, because they’re simply not tight enough.

Having the ability to create, use and share your own tracks is a definite plus, but the new track creator is perhaps even less user friendly than the last one. Others have created some pretty good tracks, though.

On the presentation side of things, this is once again a middling affair. Like the other Milestone games I’ve played within the last couple of years, Supercross 2 looks and feels dated. It does the job, but doesn’t really showcase the sport as well as it could, nor does it feel as fast as it should. There are also some lengthy load times, as well as some visual and frame rate hiccups, but nothing too major.

The music is heavy, pretty loud and punk heavy. None of the songs were familiar to me, but there were a couple that I liked. It surprised me when I discovered that they were licensed songs from bands like Good Riddance, Sick of it All and NOFX. Said music drowns out the half-decent sound effects, though that can surely be adjusted if one wishes to do so.

As someone who enjoys this genre, and always has, I wish that Milestone could strike gold and usher in a new heyday of off-road racing games. They have some building blocks in place, but need to try to take more time with their games and polish them more before release. Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Video Game 2 is hurt by this lack of polish, as well as some dated mechanics and middling gameplay, leaving it a mediocre racer overall.

**We were provided with a review code.**

Overall Score: 5.8 / 10 Far Cry New Dawn

Less than a year ago, Ubisoft combined a dangerous and delusional cult with a digitized take on Montana’s vast, open countryside. The result was Far Cry 5, a large-scale sequel to one of gaming’s more popular franchises, and in this humble writer’s opinion, one of its best. A sequel that took on religious fanaticism with its guns blazing, Molotov cocktails flaming and colourful guns for hire by its side.

With Far Cry 5, the French video game giant delivered a very good sequel that was both large and accessible. Its attempt at creating a more realistic villain (that is, if you strip away the cult magic and odd things its leaders were capable of) was successful, and led to a pretty memorable villain. Well, that and a rather shocking ending.

Fast-forward to this very month and Hope County, Montana is back in gaming’s limelight, though it’s changed more than a little bit. You see, the bomb that went off at the end of Far Cry 5 did a number on the area, and only parts of it have recovered even a decade and a half later. Somehow, though, most of the region’s grassy hills, lakes and other natural wonders have regenerated, and have added lots of colour thanks to some newly bloomed flowers that have gone rather wild. The buildings? Well, they’re another story. Most were destroyed, and many exist as mere shells of what they used to be. Then again, at least they’re in better shape than some of the nearby forests, which were completely killed (and fully irradiated) by the bomb.

This is the world of Far Cry: New Dawn, Ubisoft Montreal’s lesser-priced follow-up to Far Cry 5. Call it what you want, but it’s essentially a sequel to the previous game, or a Far Cry 5.5 if you will, though giving it a half point isn’t really fair. This is a rather full-fledged experience, and discovering that made for a nice surprise.

This twenty some-odd hour-long campaign picks up after the events of the last one, and gives an overview of what happened after the bomb went off. The gist of it all is that the survivors moved underground, where they stayed for approximately fifteen years, before venturing back to the surface. At that point, nobody knew what to expect, but things turned out pretty positively. Not only had most of their home come back to life, but it’d arguably become even more beautiful, thanks to nature’s wonder.

By that, I mean flowers.

Things were peaceful for a little while, but as is always the case after a near apocalypse, the shit hit the proverbial fan. People couldn’t play nice with one another, which led to conflict, with most of it coming from an outside source: the local chapter of a group called the Highwaymen, which happens to be led by two young women named Mickey and Lou. Two young ladies who want nothing more than to take what they want, kill whoever they hate and torture while doing so.

After dealing with unwanted threats, oppression, thefts, bullying and attacks, the citizens of Prosperity (the survivors’ newly constructed home) decide to reach out for help. They do so by sending Nick Rye’s daughter, Carmina, to talk to one Thomas Rush, whose group has become famous for helping people out of jams. It just so happens that he and his comrades – including The Security Captain, whom ends up being the player’s avatar – are travelling through Hope County by train.

Things hit the fan again, bullets fly, people die, and Mickey and Lou show their true colours. This kick starts what is a surprisingly lengthy, immersive and content rich campaign filled with over 20 story missions, along with multiple side quests, numerous bunkers and tens of gang hideouts to attack and hopefully take over. All of that plus the fishing, hunting, animal attacks, quirks and hidden secrets that Far Cry is known for.

Needless to say, this is a pretty full-fledged Far Cry game, and one that doesn’t skimp on story. It’s also one that incorporates some familiar faces in important ways, throughout its rather decent storyline.

For the most part, Far Cry: New Dawn’s gameplay loop is pure, typical Far Cry. By that, I mean that you’re traversing a large open world by foot or by vehicle, while taking out enemy patrols, attacking outposts, hunting, picking plants for healing purposes and completing missions. This game is more about upgrading one’s home base, though, and has its own post-apocalyptic currency: ethanol. One must take over outposts, hijack fuel trucks and steal the enemy’s aerial supply drops in order to earn ethanol that is then used to upgrade different sections of Prosperity. This includes the garage, the medicinal plant garden, the workbench (where you can construct your own weapons and craft your own ammo) and the excursions helicopter.

It’s important to upgrade Prosperity as you go, and to not just focus on story missions, because there will be points where the game will stop and force you to get to a certain level. This means investing in approximately six, then twelve, different upgrades. On top of that, you must also go out in search of (and save) the game’s five specialists. These include a captured Nick Rye, whose rescue mission is very memorable, a druggie named Selene, and familiar faces in Grace Armstrong and Sharky Boshaw. The first mission to set these progression requirements will ask you to help/save three of them, while the last will require you to have helped all five before it will let you move on to the next true story mission.

Ethanol can sometimes take a while to earn, but you’re helped by the fact that enemy outposts can be reset, in a matter of speaking. If you capture one, you’ll earn 100 units of ethanol, with more being available if you do so without being spotted or without having the alarm sounded. After that, the good guys take over the outpost, and it becomes a fast travel and stock-up point. If you’re feeling adventurous, and/or want 50 more units of ethanol, you can reset that outpost but will make it more difficult in the process. This is because each one has three different levels, and each time it’s reset it is restocked with more challenging enemies, and a larger number of them.

To capture these violent locations, you’ll want to invest in workbench and guns for hire upgrades, so that you’re stocked with level three weapons and very powerful allies. Speaking of these weapons, it’s important to point out that the map is littered with random locations (like dilapidated barns and houses) where supplies like metal gears and duct tape can be picked up for later use. Such supplies are plentiful within New Dawn, but can sometimes be somewhat hidden. There are even more safes to hack, and many more perks to unlock.

As mentioned, the guns for hire also make a return, and almost all of them (apart from Carmina) must be rescued and befriended. This includes Timber the dog, Pastor Jerome, the shotgun wielding berserker, heavy gunner Gina, sniper Nana, RPG fan Hurk and a masked hunter called The Judge. Hell, there’s even an angry hog named Horatio, who happens to be a tank.

Generally speaking, these guns for hire are very helpful folks, who want nothing more than to kill Highwaymen with you. They’ll even revive you if you fall, so long as they’re not too lead-filled themselves. What I found is that the dog is the most helpful here, because he doesn’t tend to be shot (much) by enemies while attempting to save the player. Whether this was purposeful or an oversight, I don’t know. They’re all pretty helpful, though, and have solid but imperfect AI.

Last, but not least, I must also mention two other things. The first is that this is a fully single player or cooperative experience. The second is that those excursions I mentioned above are essentially challenge maps, wherein one must travel to a new area, then try to steal a package of some sort from an enemy base. The one I unlocked and completed involved going onto an aircraft carrier of a ship and looking for the package, all while dealing with a never ending flow of asshats. Some even had shields (like the odd enemy does in the campaign). I had fun picking those up and then throwing them at guys, causing them to instantly die.

For the most part, this is a very fun return to Hope County, albeit one that isn’t as polished as some of the previous Far Cry games. It’s also not as memorable, or as good as games like Far Cry 3. That said, it’s a much-appreciated release for fans like me. The gunplay is fun, there’s lots of action and the world is not only large, but also full of side content.

The thing could’ve been better, though, if it had better villains. Mickey and Lou are okay, but the most memorable thing about them – outside of their gender, age and style – is that they’re mean. They’re not as memorable, deep, unique or creative as someone like Vaas.

Far Cry: New Dawn is also a very pretty game, with detailed character models, beautiful environments that absolutely pop and a solid frame rate. It is not perfect in this department, however, because you’ll come across the odd glitch, often see into the unknown that resides below the map when you fall to the ground, and may even fall through the map itself. I did at one point. Thankfully, though, those glitches are few and far between, and the game both looks and sounds good, thanks to some solid voice acting and boisterous sound effects. Hell, there are even collectibles in the form of MP3 players that carry popular licensed tunes. These songs also play during the odd mission, and come on the radio while driving.

Speaking of driving: It works much like it did in Far Cry 5, except for one difference. With its setting being within a post-apocalyptic world, the developers saw fit to invoke a well used trope, by adding cages onto the front of most of the cars. Those, coupled with what feels like a lower viewpoint while driving, make things more difficult. Simply put, it’s harder to see where you’re going.

With all that having been said, I must admit that I find it easy to recommend Far Cry: New Dawn, especially to folks who happen to be fans of the series like I am. While it’s certainly not the best game in the franchise, or even the second or third best, it’s a very solid affair, and one that offers good value for its price tag. You’ll get a lot out of this game, including fun, a good challenge, lots of side content and some very dangerous and difficult beasts to hunt.

If you’ve never been a fan of the series, then Far Cry: New Dawn won’t win you over. However, if you’ve ever enjoyed one of these games, or happen to really enjoy this type of experience, it’s well worth picking up.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Horizon Chase Turbo

As a child, I was glued to my Super Nintendo and was lucky enough to be able to rent pretty much any game I wanted. My mom was also quite generous, and would buy me a new game every so often out of the kindness of her heart. One such rental that ended up turning into a previously played purchase was Top Gear; a fast-paced and addicting racing game from Kemco and Gremlin Interactive. It was a title that was originally released in late March of 1992, but didn’t come into my possession until years later.

I’ll never forget playing Top Gear. That’s especially true of one night, when my friend came over and we ended up pulling close to an all-nighter playing through its career mode. I believe we beat the game at around four in the morning. At least, that’s when I recall my dad waking up to use the washroom, noticing my bedroom light was on and yelling at us to go to bed. I don’t think we did though.

Why am I talking about Top Gear and some old memories? Well, my latest review assignment reminds me very much of that iconic racer. You may have heard of it, but if not, it goes by the name of Horizon Chase Turbo and is developed by Aquirius Game Studio, which just so happens to be located in southern Brazil.

Like its spiritual 90s predecessor, Horizon Chase Turbo is a very fast, retro racer. It’s one of those games where it feels as if everything is coming towards you, and at fast speeds. This is because the perspective is different from today’s average racer – something that was done out of necessity years ago, when it wasn’t possible for developers to create open world racing games on hardware like the SNES and SEGA Genesis. The result is a racer that gives you a great sense of speed, while also making it feel as if you’re staying in place. It’s a weird juxtaposition, for sure, but it’s one that works well.

What’s impressive about this game is how much content it offers. The World Tour mode – which is the only available option upon first booting things up – is comprised of twelve different worldly locations, ranging from California to Hawaii, with stops in Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Iceland, China, Japan, and several other countries in-between. This boils down to a total of 12 different cups spread across 48 cities, and 109 tracks between them. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look forward to.

Of course, as is often the case, there are also 31 unlockable cars to earn, race and upgrade, with 12 different upgrades made available to players. These upgrades are not purchased through in-game currency, but are instead locked behind optional upgrade races that appear in each city. These need to be unlocked by earning enough points in World Tour mode. Said points are how you progress from country to country and unlock each one, and are added after each race. This is done through a cumulative tally of your finishing position, the amount of coins you collected, and how much fuel you had left at the end of each race.

What’s impressive is how large-scale World Tour actually is. The races may be somewhat brief, lasting only a few minutes due to their short track lengths and limited amount of required laps, but they add up, especially when you’re doing about 10 per country. Things also get progressively difficult, to the point where it’s important to go back and redo events with upgraded vehicles, in order to change a third place finish to a first place victory, or even collect the few remaining coins that you may have missed. If you collect every coin in a race and come in first place, you get a special cup instead of a gold cup, and getting all of the special cups also unlocks a coveted achievement.

World Tour is not the only game mode found within Horizon Chase Turbo, though it is the longest. As you progress you’ll gain access to tournaments made up of several races, an always changing mode that features events that mix random weather types with different courses, as well as Endurance events that ramp up the difficulty and force you to place high in order to progress. Events can even be played in split-screen multiplayer, while one can also challenge friends’ ghosts and track his or her own progress via the game’s global leaderboards.

As mentioned, this is a very retro-inspired game, and one that was designed in order to pay homage to classics like Top Gear. Thus, you shouldn’t expect much in the way of a modern racer, both in controls and in terms of visuals. This is a mostly fair, but still challenging and occasionally frustrating, experience, and it is mostly based around the idea of navigating quick straightaways and tight corners while attempting to move from the back of the pack to the front of it. That’s easier said than done though, especially later on when things get more challenging. If you hit another car’s rear bumper, your speed is depleted, and if you end up going off course and hitting one of the many hazards that border each track, you’ll either flip or spin out. Thus, it’s important to learn the tracks and prepare for their corners, all while making good use of the limited turbo boosts you’re given.

It is possible, however, to pick up one or two additional turbo boosts, but you need to be in the right spot at the right time. As mentioned, coins also litter courses and can be collected for additional points, and the same is true of gas canisters. It’s possible to run out of gas in this game (which reminds me a little bit of another childhood favourite: Atari’s River Raid), so you must remain on the lookout for more fuel.

Visually, this thing looks like a mix between classic Top Gear, a modern mobile game, and something from a 90s movie theatre arcade. It’s 16-bit action, with varied tracks, weather effects (snow, rain, etc.) and day-to-night cycles that come at you in addition to the road in front of you. Courses with lots of hills may cause certain folks to feel sick or lightheaded, just because of the way the game’s perspective is almost first-person in nature. Everything comes at you instead of having you going to it, making it have a much different perspective than what we’ve become used to today. Plus, the sense of speed is phenomenal, with the cars going upwards of 130mph.

Speaking of the game's tracks, it’s important to note that every city offers different geography, geometry and environmental items, be it trees, monuments, city skylines or what have you. Horizon Chase Turbo’s art department didn’t skimp on anything, and the attention to detail, not to mention the amount of effort that went into this thing, is simply remarkable. Every track has its own look and identity, many of them unique and memorable, and they all play differently. Just watching someone play this game is a treat as it is so colourful, detailed and immersive.

It helps, of course, that the music is top notch. Aquirius went to the effort of getting 90s sound designer Barry Leitch to score the music for its arcade racer, and he’s done an excellent job. His name may not be familiar to you now, but he was actually responsible for the great music found in the original Top Gear game, of which this is so reminiscent. On top of that, he also worked on Lotus Turbo Challenge’s soundtrack, and that’s another game that this games seems inspired by.

With all that having been said, it’s hard not to blush about and sing the praises for Horizon Chase Turbo, which is an addictive and engaging experience that feels right at home on consoles despite originating on mobile devices. Right from the start, this game scratched an itch that I didn’t know needed scratching, and brought back great memories that I’ll always cherish. Even when I’ve fully finished all of the tournaments and the optional modes that it has to offer, I keep it installed so that I can return to it for my fast-paced, retro racing fix.

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 One We Found, The

In order to be successful, a good horror game must strike a balance between being both scary and fun. At the same time, it must also be challenging and offer something that the player hasn’t seen before. This is tough to do, and it’s why a lot of games (and movies) fail to stand out within the genre. It also doesn’t help that there’s so many of them, with many having been made on shoestring budgets.

The latest title to enter this overflowing genre is The One We Found from Irish developer Josh Loveridge, aka. Loveridge Designs. Part stealth experience, part first-person shooter, and part run for your life simulator, it’s an indie title that doesn’t stand out for any positive reasons. In fact, I am sad to say that it’s easily one of the worst games I’ve played in recent years, if not in general.

The One We Found is a strange little title, which borrows from some much better games. Set in the dark and dilapidated Whisperwood Mental Institution, it tasks players with uncovering a ‘mystery’ while dealing with zombie-like former patients and other disturbing creatures. All while solving very light puzzles and trying to survive.

Upon assuming control of the protagonist, you become James Ledgewick, a psychotherapist who’s employed at the institution. Voiceless, forgettable, and hardly ever named (if at all), he’s simply an almost invisible avatar due to the game’s first-person viewpoint. The only part of him that you can really see is his bottom half, meaning the ends of his legs and his feet. Honestly, if I hadn’t of read who he was, I would’ve had no idea that he was even an employee.

Things begin outside of Whisperwood, where you quickly become best friends with a flashlight. Reason being is that The One We Found is incredibly dark, to the point where it’s impossible to see anything without a flashlight, and even then it’s difficult at times. The game has several brightness settings, starting with recommended and going all the way to ultra-bright, but even the ultra-bright setting is still somewhat dark. You’d think it’d be incredibly bright and would ruin the game, but it’s actually how I played because I couldn’t see a damned thing on the recommended brightness setting and got lost right at the start. It didn’t help that I didn’t notice the flashlight, and walked right by it. I later found it after starting over, due to the frustration of not being able to see in this dark setting.

The flashlight truly is your best friend here, and the game certainly borrows from Outlast and Outlast II in this regard. Flashlight batteries are scattered all over the place, and that’s exactly how it was with those two games, not that they’re the only interactive experiences to ever feature flashlights. The One We Found also borrows from them in other ways though, including featuring monsters who chase you and you have to hide. How do you do this? In lockers... when it works, at least.

The campaign plays out over eleven chapters, a few of which are a minute long, if not less. Others can take a little while to complete, because while those who know the game well (and don’t end up having any trouble) can complete The One We Found in an hour or so, but doing so requires a lot of luck. The game’s AI is terrible, and some of its enemies are very difficult to get away from, especially given the fact that the developers want you to either lead them away from combination locks and/or hide from them and hope that they will walk far away (which they rarely do). Why combination locks? Several important doors and gates are locked and require you to slowly and methodically input the proper combinations after discovering them written on folders, pieces of paper or walls. It takes time, and when an enemy is running after you it’s impossible to do, given that they just end up killing you as you attempt to get the numbers right.

As you play, you’ll discover that the game's structure is rather odd. Some chapters take place within caverns located underneath the sanitarium, while others are set inside of it, in what often feels more like an office building than a mental institution. It isn’t as if the main character is shown moving from one to another either. He’ll be in the caves for one level, reach the exit and then appear elsewhere. Then, after a stealth mission in the office-like sanitarium, he’ll be in the caves again. How does the game explain this? Not very well. At the end of some levels you’ll suffer a random heart attack and wake up in a new location. Then, at the end of others, you’ll enter a dreamlike state and go back to where you were before. This is all told through text, of course, and it’s honestly quite funny.

You’ve likely already gleamed from what I wrote so far that The One We Found is all about getting to exits, you'd be right. It's very much the case, because your goal in each stage is to find a way out. This is accomplished by solving puzzles (finding fuses, locating combinations, unlocking electronic keypad locks, manipulating crystals to create electricity, etc.) that will eventually lead to the exit door unlocking. Then, upon exiting each one, you’ll be rewarded with at least 50 achievement points.

The indoor stages are all about stealth, and they’re by far the worst and most frustrating. The reason being is that they include a terribly annoying and poorly crafted female enemy, who can be heard singing. She’s like Left 4 Dead’s witches in some respects, because she only attacks when alerted. If you get close to her, she’ll notice you and then take off after you. Your goal is to avoid her, sneak by her if you can (good luck), or either hide from her or run around her when she notices you. Guess what, though? She’s a one hit killer and cannot be harmed.

Needless to say, it’s cheap as hell and gets really frustrating at times, especially when you need to access multiple rooms off of a hallway that she’s guarding.

These very similar, and practically rehashed, environments also feature maze-like vents that one must crawl through in order to get to other rooms, find keys or get to an old computer terminal that may or may not unlock a door. As gamers we’ve all crawled through many vents, but these happen to be guarded by a creepy skeleton-of-sorts that can crawl quickly and deals lots of damage when he gets close. Sometimes he can be avoided, but it’s hard to get by him without alerting him at least once. This can lead to some cheap and annoying deaths, all of which wouldn’t be as frustrating if the game had some checkpoints.

Yes, you read that right, there are no checkpoints whatsoever. If you die, you’re forced to start the level over again. Sure, it helps that most of them are pretty short, but that doesn’t keep it from becoming annoying or being a waste of time.

The other levels – the ones set in the caves, that is – play out differently. They tend to be longer, feature more puzzles and include some gun-based combat. During these levels you’ll run through similar looking rocky caverns, read notes left by a researcher or some other type of doctor, and discover some of the institution’s backstory as it pertains to the sickness that ravaged its patients. You’ll also use crystals to unlock doors and generate electricity, all while fending off some zombie-like humans, along with some strange and out of place Girl Guide-esque enemies.

It’s a weird mix, and an odd experience overall. Not to mention one that doesn’t exactly mesh as well as its developer probably intended. This isn’t aided by how unpolished, broken and downright terrible the gameplay often is. To say that this thing feels like a clunky PS1 game would be describing it well.

For starters, the controls are far from player friendly, with left on the d-pad used for crouching, B used for reloading and RB used for firing weapons. Moving is handled by the left stick, as is running (though it’s difficult to run for long because you have to really hold L3 in to do so), and the right stick does a poor job of being your viewpoint. Meanwhile, the game features a limited inventory system like you’d find in an older Resident Evil game, and the action doesn’t even pause when you go into it. As such, it’s easy to run out of ammo and then die while trying to pull out another gun, or even reload.

Why do you need to go into your inventory to reload? Well, there are times where your gun will show available reloads and there’ll be times where it won’t, even if you have extra clips. This requires you to go into the inventory and double tap A to make them available, before exiting the inventory, and pressing B to reload. Meanwhile, if you want to change guns, of which there are several, including a pistol, SMG, rifle and a shotgun that I didn’t find, you’ll have to open the inventory, double tap A to unequip the one you’ve been using, and then double tap A to equip the one you want to use. Good luck with doing so if you don’t have an empty space in your inventory for the gun you’re unequipping, because if you don’t nothing will happen.

Sounds fun, huh?

Unsurprisingly, the loading times are atrocious, even though this thing looks, feels and plays like a PS1 game, or at the very least something from the Xbox 360’s Indies section. For some reason, the developers also chose to bestow The One We Found with the weirdest loading screens I’ve maybe ever seen. Even though it’s just a gray background with the game’s title poorly plastered above, it still remains incredibly weird. That’s because, instead of using a normal loading wheel or percentage, this abomination goes to the fifth percentile. By that, I mean it’ll often show numbers like 21.20756% and 27.30156%, before jumping to 90% and then 100%.

This screen appears at the end of each stage, and also makes its' presence before the retry option appears after each death. Hell, the game even shows a loading screen before going to its main menu.

Honestly, there’s not one part of this thing that is anywhere close to good. The stealth is clunky and frustrating, the controls are awful, the shooting mechanics feel 20 or more years old and ammo is sometimes so scarce that it’s nonexistent. Meanwhile, the enemies are awful and their AI is terrible, and those things combine to create lots of unnecessarily cheap and frustrating deaths. Then again, at least The One We Found rewards its players for achieving 20 deaths.

On top of all of that, it’s not very scary, despite beginning with text that mentions a scientist who discovered the world’s most frightening sound back in the 80s. It’s said that this game features that sound – which is known to terrify – but it’s not something that you’ll notice. You’ll hear it though, and you should use headphones to get the full effect. Meanwhile, the sound is bad, there’s little in the way of scares and the main menu plays a loop of screams and growls that will drive you up the wall.

I’ve already talked about the visuals, so I won’t say too much more. I will say though, that if you’re brave enough to give this one a shot, you can expect incredibly dated and ugly textures and animations. That, as well as occasional frame rate drops and gameplay that sometimes loads incorrectly, to the point where you’ll find that you’re unable to crouch, unable to open your inventory or unable to use a flashlight. I experienced all three glitches more than once.

In addition to the rest, The One We Found also features a very blatant rip-off of Call of Duty’s Zombies mode as its secondary game type. It has you facing off against waves of zombie-like creatures, all while earning points that can be used to purchase new weapons, weapon upgrades and ammo. Said points can also be used to open doors to new areas within the three different maps. It’s as blatant a rip-off as it is bad.

In conclusion, it almost goes without saying that I cannot, in any way, shape or form, recommend ever buying The One We Found. Don’t buy it if it’s two dollars, don’t buy it if it’s one dollar, and don’t buy it if it’s fifty cents. The frustration that comes from its dated gameplay, terrible AI and poor level design isn’t worth it, even if there’s an easy 1000 achievement points to be found. Stay far, FAR away from this one.

Overall Score: 1.7 / 10 Nickelodeon: Kart Racers

These days, what was once old is becoming new again. At least, that’s the case with quite a few properties and experiences, including classic movies and video games like Spyro the Dragon, A Star is Born and Final Fantasy VII. Companies know that developing a new IP is a costly and risky process, so they like to draw from the past and use both nostalgia, iconic characters and classic storytelling to revitalize older, once successful properties for newer audiences.

In a way, this applies to Nickelodeon Kart Racers, a Mario Kart-inspired game that uses nostalgia as one of its main forms of appeal. After all, many people within the average gamer age group (which, at least used to be in the mid-30s if I remember correctly) grew up watching shows like Rugrats, SpongeBob SquarePants, Hey Arnold!, Ren & Stimpy and more. Meanwhile younger gamers, including these folks’ potential kids, may have grown up watching some of the iconic, pop culture mainstay’s newer animated shows, like their modernized and very animated take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Of course, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been around for decades now, and were one of my favourite things when I grew up during the 90s. It’s just that they seem to be the most modern characters included here because of the recent show, and rival only SpongeBob in terms of popularity.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers is, at its core, a mixture of speed and nostalgia, with a copious amount of goo thrown in for good measure. It’s part Mario Kart and part 90s cartoon, featuring familiar characters and environments. Thus, there’s a lot of fan service, which will bring at least some back to easier days when the worries of adulthood were nonexistent. It’s also not very original, although we won’t pretend that it’s the first game to borrow from Mario Kart over the last 20 some-odd years. Hell, it’s kind of difficult to be a kart racer and not be compared to the series that made the genre what it is and still remains its biggest draw.

The action – which is spread over three different difficulties – takes place on almost twenty-five track arrangements, including ones set in Bikini Bottom, the New York City sewers, Tommy Pickle’s house and Arnold’s school. These environments are pretty true to their source material and ooze both colour and slime, with slime being a big part of gameplay. Then again, given that this is Nickelodeon that’s to be expected.

Truth be told, the first time I played this game I avoided the slime, thinking that it would be bad. I’d forgotten about how prevalent slime was on Nickelodeon TV, and didn’t think that it would actually be a way of earning speed boost. Then again, I’m a Canadian who has never had cable TV and only got to watch these shows during visits with his grandparents. Even then, I think they were on another channel, that being YTV.

Drifting is still an important thing to do if you want to get really good at this game and do really well within its confines, but riding over slime deposits (or activating each stage’s one or more slime shooters) is just as important. After all, slime equals boost and boost is important in a game like this, especially given that catch-up AI is a problem. You can be racing almost perfectly, yet still find others on your tail.

It should also be mentioned that, while some tracks only have a limited amount of slime to offer, others are mostly slime. On them, your kart uses its boat like attachments, which allow it to fly through the muck. These courses don’t control too differently from the others, and are pretty fun because they’re generally faster due to all of the free boost. That said, the game controls pretty well on all courses, though it's certainly not nearly as polished as Nintendo's efforts, or the two Sonic racing games.

For the most part, these courses are actually pretty well designed. They’re not the greatest tracks in the history of kart racing, but they pleasantly surprised me and provided more fun than expected. Going in, I honestly didn’t think I’d encounter anything that good, but things ended up being better than I’d ever thought they’d be.

Of course, being that this is Nickelodeon Kart Racers, a kart racing and Mario Kart style game, one must expect weapons and power-ups. They’re littered along the courses at different intervals, and come in forms like rockets, shields and slime. Furthermore, each character has his or her own special weapon, be it footballs, nunchuks or something else. These weapons are mostly pretty straightforward and unoriginal, outside of those specials, and they don’t always work as well as those in other games. For instance, it’s seemingly impossible to shoot certain projectiles backwards.

While we’re on the subject of characters, it’s important to note that there’s a roster of twelve here, all of whom are advertised as being “some of the most iconic Nickelodeon characters”. To some extent, this is true, given that you get to play as SpongeBob, Patrick, Arnold, Tommy Pickles, Reptar, Sandy Cheeks and all four of the re-imagined Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in addition to some other characters from those Nickelodeon shows. That said, so many are missing, likely due to licensing issues and a limited budget. There’s no Rocko, and no sign of characters from shows like Ren & Stimpy, Jimmy Neutron, Dora the Explorer, the Fairly OddParents or certain others.

Most of the characters have unique vehicles, like turtle shells and things like that. However, part of Nickelodeon Kart Racers is about earning in-game currency to upgrade and customize your ride with different wheels, boat skis and components. As such, it’s possible to make them look a little different, though not a lot given that the options are pretty limited. You’ll want to do this, though, because it helps with tackling the higher difficulties of normal and hard, where the catch-up AI can be worse.

What will frustrate some is the fact that none of the difficulties stack when it comes to achievements. I discovered this the first time I played the game, because when I completed one of the game’s numerous cups on normal or hard, I never got credit for doing so on easy. Thus, those who wish to play this game for its pretty easy achievements should know that they’ll have to complete the thing at least three times, and that can be a bit of a grind.

While it’s nice to see that Nickelodeon Kart Racers has a lot of tracks and, through that, also offers a good amount of cups, they’re not saved from repetition. The result is a game that can be fun in short bursts, but isn’t anything special either way. You’re not going to get the next Mario Kart here, but you will get a licensed affair that is better than it was probably expected to be. To fully complete it though, you’ll have to play through several cups, then the few unlockable (and twice as long) cups that open up after doing so, and must do this on three separate difficulties.

On the presentation side of things, this is a dated, but okay looking experience that does its job but won’t win any awards. The game doesn’t come close to pushing the Xbox One in any capacity, but it looks fine for what it is, and is quite colourful to boot. It also sounds like a Nickelodeon game, though the music can be annoying and you won’t miss a whole lot by muting it and just listening to music.

With all that having been said, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend spending full retail price for Nickelodeon Kart Racers. Those with children, or a really fond nostalgia for the channel and its TV shows will probably find fun and hours of gameplay here, but even with four player (local) multiplayer, there’s not enough here to really justify an approximately $50 (CAD) price tag. Nor is the game all that great. It’s simply half-decent, but surpassed my honestly low expectations and ended up being more enjoyable than I thought it would be.

Wait for a sale on this one if it intrigues you, or do as I did at first and borrow it from the public library.

**This review is based on a copy of the game that I borrowed, as well as a review code that we were supplied with afterwards.**

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 LEGO DC Super-Villains

Since 2005, we’ve been inundated with block-filled video games featuring the LEGO brand. In fact, they’re so common that each year brings with it at least two, if not three, and little time seems to pass between releases. Hell, since September 22nd of last year, we’ve received four of them: The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2, LEGO The Incredibles and now LEGO DC Super-Villains. That’s a lot of very similar games in a short span of time, not to mention the ton that have come since LEGO Star Wars first debuted during the spring of 2005.

When the LEGO games first debuted, they were fun, fresh and comical, and provided a new way to experience classic IPs. Nobody expected them to be that good, so it was a pleasant surprise when they were. After all, back in those days licensed games were almost always bad, and there was an absolute glut of them. Now, though, it’s almost always just more of the same game in and game out, and only the odd one ever stands out.

Truth be told, LEGO The Incredibles was one of those games. Sure, it was another LEGO game at heart, but even then it managed to separate itself from the pack by offering more variety than they usually do.

Given all of the creative freedom that its developers have had at their disposal, I expected even more from LEGO DC Super-Villains. In fact, when both games were still in development, I had more interest in this game than the Incredibles one for that reason. Unfortunately though, LEGO DC Super-Villains is a step backwards after a pretty solid, Disney-themed outing, and fails to really innovate. It’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here.

In this colourful spinoff of the LEGO Batman trilogy, the Justice League has disappeared and a group from Earth Three has stepped in to fill their shoes, or so they say. This set of impostors, who have familiar but altered looks, names and personalities, calls itself the Justice Syndicate, and it’s honestly anything but. They’ve come to twist Earth to their own ways of thinking, and want nothing more than to get rid of those who stand in their way. This means dealing with the many villains who populate the DC Comics universe, including their leaders, Joker and Lex Luthor.

Things begin inside of a prison, where a shiny-headed Lex Luthor is planning a jailbreak with the help of a new friend. This chummy inmate and newfound ally happens to be the player’s custom created LEGO embodiment, who doesn’t speak.

In the lead-up to LEGO DC Super-Villains’ release, talk about being able to create one’s own personal villain was front and centre. It’s a neat idea too, and one that is brought to life with a rather excellent character creator which lets you customize pretty much anything you’d ever want to, from his or her look and weapon, to their speed and the colour of the lasers they shoot out. More and more options unlock as you progress, and the same is true of abilities, so you can look forward to going back to the creation screen more than once.

The disappointing thing is that, while this create-your-own-villain schtick has been heavily advertised and highly touted, the player’s custom character is underused within this narrative. In fact, it’s not uncommon to be sent on missions without him or her, with your options limited to several of DC’s C and D-list evildoers. This is a real misstep in a game that is supposed to make you feel like one of the group, especially when the character creation suite is so impressive.

The story, itself, is decent. It’s a comic book affair, and an alright one at that. It won’t win any awards, and won’t knock you off your feet, but it does its job. More could’ve been done though, and something better certainly could’ve been crafted given all of the creative freedom that TT Games had at its disposal with this one.

This disappointment carries forth into the gameplay department, where it’s pretty much just more of the same. There’s little variety to be found, and most of what is there gets tedious pretty quickly. Thus, you can expect lots of basic combat, bare bones boss battles and block breaking. After all, the only real way to progress in these games, it seems, is to break something then use its blocks to build something else, or solve an easy puzzle. It’s a shame that the variety that was present in LEGO The Incredibles didn’t bleed into this one, because there was a lot of potential here.

Moving on, there is an open world hub, and it’s comprised of more than one part, although there’s not a lot of interesting stuff to do.

Things start in a dark, rainy and somewhat constricted version of Gotham, which truly isn’t that interesting or that fun to explore. Then, the narrative moves you into always-sunny Metropolis, before visiting Smallville. These hubs are connected, and are not alone either, because you’ll also visit places like Arkham Asylum and the Watchtower. Not all of the hubs are big, or connected though, as some are smaller and self-contained, not to mention less interesting. The Watchtower is one such environment.

The main campaign unfolds over the course of approximately fifteen stages, which send the villains to the far reaches of the DC Comics Universe. Some stand out more, and happen to be more enjoyable than others, but too many are confined interiors that blend into one another. When LEGO games are good, their stages are open, creative and unique, not closed-in interiors like laboratories, space stations and jails, where everything feels cookie cutter in nature. These designs make the games grow old fast and made LEGO DC Super-Villains become boring rather quickly. As much as I wanted to like the title, I had a hard time finding fun within it and struggled to find the desire to play it. Yet, as I mentioned before, I was looking forward to it because it looked so colourful and creative.

It doesn’t help that a lot of the villains you play as are, as noted, B to D level characters. Although I read comics as a kid, and have seen pretty much every super hero movie ever made, there were quite a few avatars that I didn’t know or recognize, and some even felt like rip-offs of Marvel characters. They always fell into archetypes too, which is something that LEGO games are notorious for. You usually have the guy (or girl) who can blow up silver blocks, one who can shoot a laser that cuts into or destroys golden blocks, someone who can use terminals and someone who can dig. That’s pretty much the case here, and it’s gotten old.

There are five bonus missions worth mentioning too, and they show what happened to the Justice League when they were banished at the start of the game. Combined with the main campaign’s stages, they add up to about 20 levels, which is a number that fans will appreciate.

The rest is pretty self-explanatory. Like all of these LEGO games, replayability is incentivized by secrets, collectibles and character-specific content that can only be unlocked or interacted with by returning to stages in free play mode. LEGO DC Super-Villains also features selfies, races, Joker minikits and other such collectibles that are inventoried upon completion of every stage. If you like this kind of thing then you’ll have a lot more to look forward to. Even if you don’t care about this stuff, you’ll experience some of it as you make your way from cutscenes to stages by way of foot or vehicle, and solve puzzles in hubs to unlock your next story level.

Truth be told, it’s the presentation where this thing shines, because the visuals are solid, the voice acting feels mostly right and there’s some decent comedy to be found as there is in every other LEGO game. None of it feels as fresh as it did years ago, but that’s to be expected after 13 years and so many releases. It stands out as being the best part of this game, though, and includes something unexpected: a licensed song (Wolfmother’s ‘The Joker and the Thief’) that plays over the menu and I believe even appeared during the campaign.

With all that having been said, I must reiterate my disappointment. Although I’ll never claim to be the biggest fan of LEGO video games, I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with quite a few of them and was hoping the same would happen with this one. Unfortunately, LEGO DC Super-Villains doesn’t do enough with its creative licenses and freedoms, and ends up being a very cookie cutter and rather dull game. It’s a shame.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 5.4 / 10 NBA 2K Playgrounds 2

As a child of the 90s, I was able to experience the heyday of arcade sports video games. Through titles like NBA Jam, Mario Golf and NFL Blitz, I honed my skills and lost hours to over-the-top competitions with both game A.I and friends alike. Hell, one of my best sleepover memories involves an all-nighter (following one of my biggest birthday parties), a game of NFL Blitz and a cheating friend who scored multiple touchdowns on me while I used the restroom.

Sadly, those days are behind us, and so too are the best days of arcade sports, at least it feels that way. Developers and publishers have been trying to stoke the flame again, in an attempt to revitalize the genre and create a new instant classic, but none have been all that successful. Sure, there have been some pretty good games, like 3 on 3 NHL Arcade (which sadly never got a sequel), and the NBA Jam reboot, but nothing that stuck or created the same level of interest as in years gone by. NFL Blitz has gone downhill itself, and even the Mario sports games aren’t as good or as polished as they used to be.

During the spring of 2017, a new challenger entered this arena, that being Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds. An over-the-top baller, it tasked players with filling up their rosters by opening packs of cards that they’d earned through both time and progression. Every unlocked player could then be taken out onto one of the game’s exaggerated and themed outdoor courts for some relatively fast, arcade basketball.

Although NBA Playgrounds released to mixed reviews, and suffered from technical issues on Nintendo Switch, it was a pretty fun game. That said, it wasn’t something that stood the test of time, or that was a great replacement for the games I grew up with. After completing its limited tournaments, playing online and unlocking most if not all of its player cards, I lost interest and moved on. There just wasn’t enough to the game, and it got pretty repetitive after a while.

It was honestly a surprise when, earlier this year, I saw that they were making a sequel. One that would be affiliated with the NBA 2K series, thanks to 2K Games stepping in to help out. Upon seeing this, I assumed that we’d be in for an even better sequel, given the publisher’s pedigree and the monetary assistance it was probably provided, but that didn’t end up being the case.

To put it simply, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a grind, and a long one at that. It’s a game where those who wish to unlock great players and flesh out their collection-based rosters will have to spend a lot of time playing, competing and winning. In-game currency is awarded in small amounts for victories (say 100-130 per win), and it can take 20,000 to unlock a former superstar like Vince Carter, for instance. It also takes thousands to unlock the good card packs, and even then you’ll need get quite a few of them in order to get every single player. There are no guarantees, and the cards are, after all, drawn at random.

If you do the math, it’s safe to suggest that to unlock a 5,000 credit gold pack, it will take someone approximately four hours’ worth of playing.

It would help if the gameplay was addicting, entertaining and fluid, but it’s not. Somehow, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 manages to be slower and more difficult than its predecessor, not to mention a lot more clunky. It’s really too bad, because the first game had some good pieces that could’ve been made a lot better with both time and polish. Instead, 2K and Saber Interactive chose to add shot meters into the mix, and also opted to make it harder to make good shots. This helps the grind, though, for a reason that I’ll explain.

Obviously, those behind this game want people to keep playing it. Moreover, they really seem hopeful that people will spend money on virtual credit that can be used to fast-track one’s collecting. For instance, someone could go out and spend $9.99 USD to unlock all of the game’s roster players and retro superstars, and doing so would make the game a lot more enjoyable. Meanwhile, those who want to do it the legitimate way are looking at tens of hours’ worth of grinding.

The developers have attempted to make things feel like less of a grind than they are, by creating a system in which every utilized player levels up. The player cards you earn start off low leveled, but as you use them they earn experience and level up to silver, then gold, and so forth. This makes them slightly better, but I didn’t see enough of a change myself. The two players I had unlocked for my favourite team (The Toronto Raptors) were OG Anunoby and Jose Valanciunas, and they were the only ones I had to use for the first while. Yet, despite both being decent to good NBA players, neither one could make many regular or three point shots, and they’d often flub dunks and alley-oops. The shot meter would almost always also be in the red and offer percentages like 20% no matter where I shot from.

After a while, I broke. We were admittedly provided with both a review code and a virtual credit code that gave me enough to unlock all of the players and many additional packs of gear (different fashions you can equip the players with if you don’t want to see them in their jerseys). I didn’t want to use it, and wanted to unlock all of the players on my own, but I broke. It was simply too much of a grind to do so, and earning enough coins to purchase good packs was taking forever. I also wasn’t enjoying the game very much, despite wanting to.

With better players at my disposal, I was able to then field a twosome of Kawhi Leonard and Vince Carter, which I thought would be a lot better. They weren’t that great in comparison, though, and I still had trouble with the shot meter giving me low percentages no matter where I shot from.

Of course, like in the regular NBA and in the proper 2K games, every player has his own list of detailed stats that rank them out of 100 in various categories. Things like blocking, stealing, three point shooting and that kind of thing. These in-depth ratings feel overdone in a game like this, one that is supposed to be arcade based, and the grind and frustration that they feed into hurt NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. Furthermore, they leave it feeling like a game with an identity crisis. Does it want to be an arcade experience or a more realistic affair? It doesn’t seem to know.

While the original NBA Playgrounds offered several different tournaments to play and win, all of which took place on outdoor courts, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 goes a different route. Instead of tournaments, there’s an abbreviated NBA season mode, which lets you pit your team of two chosen players against a scheduled team’s two, then it tasks you with doing so against every other team on your schedule. It’s a familiar archetype, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of creativity, memorability or even personality. It doesn’t help that the outdoor courts you play on feel like colour swapped versions of each other, with the home team’s colours (and mantras) being shown on both the court and the video screens around it.

One should be able to unlock all of the game’s players after one or two seasons, but that isn’t the case here, given what I mentioned above. It’ll take quite a bit of play in this mode to do that, and the same is true of the online arena, if that’s your preference. There is online play, after all.

Online, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 provides new courts that are more like that of its predecessor. For example, there’s a really dusty one that looks to be set in the Australian outback. This mode also has a tiered rating system, wherein players progress or regress based on their success, or lack thereof. Repeatedly winning will move you from the bronze tier to the silver one and so forth, whereas losing will hold you back. It’s a decent system that may become addicting to some.

The online gameplay was fine for me except for one instance where a spike of lag caused the players to momentarily disappear then reappear in a different location. Other than that, it was smooth and competitive.

In both local and online arenas, players can have a friend join them or they can go about it alone and control both of their chosen athletes. Both modes also allow for special power-ups that are earned with consecutive drained buckets and related streaks. These powers can provide one perfectly aimed (on fire) shot, poison the other team with a curse, limit the other team’s shot clock, or freeze the buckets. Complementing this system are x2 and x3 icons that sometimes appear on the courts, providing bonus points for every shot made.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 online experience also offers a three-point contest, which can be played both online and offline. Here, the shot meter really reigns supreme, by moving from left to right and tasking players with pressing X at the right moment. Most of the meter is red, and will result in a missed shot, while a small sliver is green. If you land in the green, your shot will go in. Conversely, landing right on its outer edge will result in a 0% miss. Needless to say, it’s more frustrating than fun. It doesn’t stand out in any way, though it had the opportunity to be a fun tertiary mode and diversion.

Nothing about NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 feels fluid or cohesive, and it’s kept from being the good fun that it could’ve been by questionable decisions and monetization. It looks decent and sounds alright, but even those aspects of the game feed into its lack of identity and unwillingness to decide whether to be an arcade game or a partial simulation with exaggerated player images and visceral dunks. It’s a shame, because there was potential for a rather good game here, using the first one, which was decent, as a building block and stepping stone. Instead, we received a decent looking and somehow tedious experience that has a few licensed songs and some caricaturized avatars.

If you’re looking for a fun and action-packed arcade basketball game, you’re unfortunately going to have to look elsewhere. NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a disappointing and overpriced step backwards that suffers from the changes that were made to it, not to mention greed. As much as I looked forward to, and wanted to enjoy this one, I never found it to be all that fun.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Guns, Gore and Cannoli 2

More than three years ago, a neat little indie game with a unique take on zombies, apocalypses and the mafia was released. The game was Guns, Gore & Cannoli, a joint effort from Crazy Monkey Studios and Claeysbrothers. It was an old-fashioned affair that took us back to the heyday of organized crime, with an added twist.

At that time, I was working for a different website and got tasked with reviewing Guns, Gore & Cannoli. Hell, I’m pretty sure that I asked for it myself. The reason being was that it looked not only fun, but it was also looked unique and interesting. My want to review it ended up being a good decision, because the original game was a lot of fun and truly something original. For those reasons, it’s stuck in my mind ever since.

Although it’s my job to follow the gaming industry with a close eye, I somehow failed to learn about the sequel (Guns, Gore & Cannoli 2) until just recently. In fact, I stumbled upon it while looking at free wallpapers on the PlayStation Store. The surprise was a nice one, though, and led me to become excited for another dose of Mafioso and the undead.

Guns, Gore & Cannoli 2 picks up just over fifteen years after the events of its predecessor, meaning that it takes place in the mid-1940s. The year is 1944 in fact, and after surviving the Thugtown zombie massacre, our friend Vinnie gets caught up in more of the same. Someone, you see, has been working behind the scenes, preparing another attack via shambling, flesh-eating corpses, and only Vinnie can stop them. Well, he and a cast of palette swapped characters of both the male and female genders.

This approximately three hour long experience features a colourful tale that is chock full of guns, gore, zombies and humour. Our hero, and up to three online-based friends, will traverse through familiar haunts on American soil, then the game sends them overseas to where the Allies are fighting the Germans during World War II. Needless to say, it’s a unique affair, especially given that zombies play an integral role alongside enemy mafia members and shoot-first-ask-later Nazi soldiers.

The gameplay feels more vertical than ever before, and it achieves this through a nice assortment of varied stages. Not all of the locations are unique, but that’s because each area (the United States, France, etc.) gets its own set of levels as Vinnie powers through his unexpected journey. They all have something in common though, and that’s platforms. You’ll be jumping a lot, be it from ground level to higher platforms, or down into underground tunnels and things of that sort. Vinnie, or whichever other character you choose to play as, can double jump too.

Enemies are plentiful, and they’ll come from all levels and angles. As such, it’s important to always have an one eye in front and one eye in back of your character. In fact, as you make your way through Guns, Gore & Cannoli 2’s short but fun campaign, you’ll kill at least a thousand enemies, if not more. You’ll start off with members of an opposing mafia group, then find yourself dealing with police who’ve come to raid the members of organized crime before things get zombified. It’s later on when the Nazis start to factor in, as they appear about halfway into the game. Hell, there are even mutant rats of different sizes to contend with, in addition to hulking zombies with rocket launchers and more traditional heavy weaponry (like anti-air guns). Oh, there are traps too.

Weapons are plentiful, but ammo isn’t unlimited. As such, players will have to cycle through different death dealers using the provided weapon wheel, which doesn’t always work as intended and can be difficult to use under duress. Available weaponry includes a pistol, dual pistols, a magnum revolver, multiple types of submachine and Tommy guns, a rocket launcher, a grenade launcher, a shotgun and a flamethrower. Needless to say, there’s a lot to kill with.

Aiming is handled with the right joystick in a twin-stick shooter type of design. What’s nice too is that there’s a white sightline that shows you where your bullets will be headed. This control mechanic ties into a scheme that takes some time to get used to, because it has jumping linked to LT. As someone who’s used to pressing A to jump, it was weird at first. Truth be told, even after I got used to it, I’d still sometimes forget.

Once again, stages are broken up into sections, with each one having its own checkpoint. It’s at these checkpoints where you’ll always find a heart, which is the icon that represents both healing and cannoli, which happens to be what is used (or eaten) to regain health. There’s an achievement for eating a certain amount of them, but you’ll eat far more, especially on the more challenging difficulties. Start with normal, though, because it’s a decent challenge in and of itself. If it proves too difficult, it’s also easy to switch difficulties at any time.

Earlier in this review, I mentioned traps. Those come in the form of fire and spotlights that, when triggered, usher forth very damaging gunfire. It’s important to be careful around both. One can also look forward to some very, very light puzzling in order to get around some of them. It’s also important to make note of where cover is, because it can save your life, especially against Guns, Gore & Cannoli 2’s three colourful bosses.

At times, this game can be a bit cheap. It’s also somewhat repetitive, meaning that playing in small chunks may be the ideal choice. It’s quite fun, and offers some pretty intense co-op for those who wish to take part. Just to note, I went through the game solo.

When it comes to presentation, there’s a lot to like. Much like the original game, Guns, Gore and Cannoli 2 features hand drawn characters, enemies, weapons and environments, and they all look great, thanks to both talent and a good amount of detail. The colour palette also befits the age in which the story takes place, as do the environments those hues cover. It’s very much the same on the sound front, too, with lots of wise guy talk and quirky writing befitting those types of caricatured characters. You can even look forward to some comical one-liners, as well as what I believe is a tongue-in-cheek take on the “Make America Great Again” slogan. This is a fully voice acted game, and a pretty good one at that.

Simply put, Guns, Gore & Cannoli 2 is a good sequel that is worthy of your time, especially if you played and enjoyed the first game. It’s more of the colourful, bullet-heavy fun that its predecessor offered, and stands out amongst the heap of available indies on modern day consoles. It is repetitive, however, and doesn’t take too long to 100%. Even then, there’s reason to go back through with friends.

Overall Score: 7.6 / 10 My Brother Rabbit

As children, many of us were enthralled by hidden object books like Where’s Waldo? as well as its numerous peers and imitators. For some people, this interest has expanded into video games, where a hidden object genre exists despite getting little publicity or word of mouth. It’s here where Artifex Mundi likes to do business on mobile, PC and console.

The latest hidden object game to come out of that Polish studio is My Brother Rabbit, a sad but charming affair that stands out thanks to its visual style. A slow-paced experience through and through, it’s something that has been made for more of a niche audience, and won’t appeal to those who like their gaming to be fast, competitive, cinematic or full of bullets. This is a title for those who enjoy exercising their brains within an interactive space.

At the heart of My Brother Rabbit lays a very touching story, wherein a young family must deal with an unexpected illness. Their young daughter – the youngest of two children – has fallen ill and nobody knows what’s wrong. She’s rushed to hospital, and her family follows suit, with her older brother and his favourite stuffed toy (a rabbit) in tow. What follows is a trip into a fantasy land, which one presumes is set inside the boy’s imagination. Through it, his sister’s time at different hospitals unfolds, as do the experiences that they share with both each other and their loving parents, including medical tests and the crippling anxiety that comes with them.

This real world story is presented briefly, through hand drawn imagery that is reminiscent of a storybook of sorts. It’s professionally done, looks nice and conveys events in a moving comic kind of way, while being devoid of any dialogue. In fact, all of My Brother Rabbit is dialogue free, making it feel more surreal and also more personal in some ways.

Those scenes only account for a very, very small portion of this game, meaning that most of this three-or-so-hour-long experience takes place inside a world of fantasy.

Within this fantastical realm the brother is depicted as the heroic rabbit, and must come to the aid of his sick and feeble sister, who’s shown as some sort of plant creature, with a head that resembles a flower’s bulb. Both are animated in a unique way, with visuals that bring painted children’s books to mind, and the same is true of a lot of what surrounds them. Thus, to say that My Brother Rabbit has a unique art style would be stating the obvious.

When the characters move, it’s because they’re scripted to, or you’ve simply changed locations, because the game world is made up of chapters, and each one is set within a set of up to several different locations. As you explore, find objects and solve puzzles via cursor, you’ll open up pathways to new areas and will be able to go there by pressing 'A' over the ladder (or arrow) that will take you there. It’s pretty simple in practice, and is like moving from one page of a storybook to another.

When I mentioned hidden objects, you might’ve been thinking about having to look for one or two of multiple different kinds of items. The truth is that, while My Brother Rabbit does ask you to look for a ton of different objects and creatures, it often asks for many of the same kind. So, if you’re looking for butterflies, or perhaps even spiders, in order to solve a puzzle and open a door, you’ll be looking for maybe 6-8 of them as opposed to just one or two. This is true of practically every hidden item. In fact, being asked to find three of something is a rarity.

Every chapter is set in a different part of the world, and is themed after it. As one progresses, the rabbit helps the plant travel from beginning to end across a crayon-drawn map. Their transportation includes a mine cart, aerial transportation and even wind.

Each location has its own unique objects to find, but a lot of them are quite similar. I would’ve thought that they’d all be quite different in this respect, but you’re often looking for similar things: bugs, handles for machinery, gears, plants, eggs and other natural objects. Certain environments lead to other objectives, though, such as the final chapter requiring you to go underwater to find crabs, pearls, and that kind of thing.

Near the end of most chapters, one is also tasked with putting a machine or vehicle of some sort together, be it a wind bike, a boat, a robotic moose or something else. This involves finding multiple objects within a single environment, then slotting them all into their proper places, so as to bring the thing to life. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t take too long, but provides a breath of fresh air from the otherwise slow and methodical gameplay.

To say that some items are well hidden would be an understatement. Some are terribly hard to find, because they’re hidden in crevices or blend into the environment. There will also be times where you won’t know what you’re looking for, or will have found something before it was needed. As you progress through each chapter and location, more and more things will be required, so something you touched earlier and didn’t get a response from will likely be needed later. This can be a little bit frustrating, because it can be easy to forget where some things were, given the amount of objects you’re tasked with finding and how well they blend into the environments.

My Brother Rabbit’s developers have attempted to make things easier by using colour to indicate whether an object is still hidden within a certain area. The icons that show what you need to collect are always found in the top right corner of the screen, and if there’s one nearby the icon stays coloured. Conversely, if you’ve found each of that type of object that said location has to offer, the icon will be grayscale.

The thing is that, while My Brother Rabbit is certainly playable on consoles and doesn’t have any major performance issues, it’s obvious that the game was made for a mouse. I found it difficult to find certain objects, and found some puzzles to be somewhat obtuse at times, which is what led me to watch a YouTube guide whenever I needed help. It’s not something I normally do, or something that I like to do at all, but it was necessary for this game due to its difficulty, given how hard some of the items were to find. While watching this walkthrough, which was created using the PC version of the game, I noticed how much better the mouse was at selecting objects in the environment.

On console, you get a relatively sizeable circle, and you’re to press A to select something. The problem is that it doesn’t always work perfectly. I would sometimes move the cursor throughout the environments, while constantly pressing A to see if it would find something I couldn’t see or find, and would then get frustrated. Then, I’d watch the walkthrough and notice that I had hovered over the item and pressed A without response, which was frustrating. This didn’t happen enough to be a huge problem, but when it did it was certainly annoying. And it happened more than once.

The above-mentioned issue, coupled with how hard it can be to find certain items, as well as how obtuse a few of the puzzles can be, combine to artificially lengthen My Brother Rabbit. This isn’t a very long experience, and is one that could be finished in a couple of hours, but it took me longer than that. I will admit, though, that I don’t normally play this type of game. I wanted to expand my horizons and give something new a shot, and also took it on to help out. Thus, I was basically a newcomer, and felt overwhelmed early on because there was so little explanation.

Continuing on with that train of thought, My Brother Rabbit is a game that I respected more than I enjoyed. I never found it to be that fun, but I was impressed with its audio and art style, with its hand drawn and painted-feeling locations and characters, as well as the thought that went into certain puzzles. You can tell that a lot of planning went into this game, and I really don’t want to overlook that in my review, even though the gameplay wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. There are some pretty smart puzzles here, which are impressive and overshadow some of the more obtuse and annoying ones.

The story was also especially touching, even if the real world narrative didn’t have much screen time. I applaud the developers for tackling such difficult subject matter, and like how they were able to use it to create something that is both touching and fantastical.

Alas, if you’re a fan of hidden object games, then My Brother Rabbit is certainly worth looking into. It’s not perfect, and can be both tedious and frustrating at times, but its pros outweigh its cons for sure. This is a game that definitely won’t be for everyone, however, and it’s likely that it will only appeal to a somewhat niche audience.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided**

Overall Score: 6.6 / 10 Transference

It came as a surprise when, in 2017, actor Elijah Wood joined Ubisoft on stage at E3. He was there to announce and, of course promote, a new game. That game was Transference. It was created as a joint VR-focused venture between the publishing giant and Elijah’s own company, SpectreVision, which makes its headquarters in sunny Los Angeles, California.

Instead of offering a lot of details and showing tons of gameplay, SpectreVision decided to keep its cards close to its chest, and went with a cryptic marketing tactic. At that E3, and the one that followed, they showed just enough to get us interested, without giving too much away. The idea was to make everyone wonder what the hell Transference was and, in this case, it worked. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t been wanting to play this game since the day it was announced.

Developed with PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in mind, Transference is a visceral horror game that is told from a first-person perspective. Part walking sim, part spook-show, and part light puzzle game, it’s a dark and disturbing affair.

Things begin across the road from a darkened city block, which is outlined by grid lines. As players make their way across, they’ll see a music store and the door to an apartment building, which requires a key that you have to find. Both locations are important to the story because, while everything takes place inside and on the perimeter of one particular apartment, the family who lived there also owned the music store. In fact, the mother was a talented musician with love for both creating and performing.

Make no mistake though, Transference is a dark story, and the family in question is far from perfect. Their domestic and personal issues are on full display here, and that includes the mother’s depression, the father’s obsession with his work and the son’s feelings of being left out. There’s also a family dog who’s gone missing, and whose image appears on flyers outside the building.

Over the course of about two hours, players will find themselves trapped within a domestic nightmare, albeit one with more to it than most. Saying much more would potentially spoil what is a narrative heavy experience, but it must be said that the father’s work is not of normal variety. He happens to be some sort of doctor and inventor, who could best be described as a mad scientist. He has also been hard at work on something both new and creepy, which involves themes of reading and digitizing human memories and consciousness. Thus, one can expect themes of life, death, philosophy and mental illness.

As mentioned, the gameplay found in Transference is quite basic. You walk, or crouch, and can pick things up to further investigate them or use them for solving basic puzzles. One may involve placing letters in the correct order, while others involve tuning radios, adjusting clocks and playing the piano in a specific way.

All the while, you’ll be exploring this family’s Boston-based apartment and encroaching on all of their darkest secrets. Taking the initiative to search every nook and cranny will also reveal further details of the family, via audio logs, notes, phone messages, and video diaries.

Yes, there are videos to watch, and like the introduction at the start of the game, they incorporate real-life actors who give pretty good performances. You won’t see them all though, unless you really scour the environment. I did my best, but I came up short and missed several of them.

What makes the searching more difficult is the fact that Transference basically consists of two different planes of existence. In one, the place is relatively normal with the white lighting that you’d normally associate with an indoor environment, meanwhile, the other – the alternate dimension, if you will – has a reddish tint to it and is a lot darker. It’s here where some sort of metaphorical monster lives, and you’ll not only see it but you will also see the family's child's drawings of it. There are actually quite a few disturbing drawings, words, and messages to see throughout this short experience.

In order to complete Transference, one must hop between these planes, the real world and the digitized world. Puzzles involve managing both of the planes, and so does exploration. The story move back and forth through both, plus, as one might expect, the apartment changes as things progress, and can be different in each plane.

There may not be a whole lot to Transference, in terms of gameplay or length, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing or isn’t good. It has a lot of atmosphere, and it kept me pretty interested from start to finish. Yes, a couple segments got tedious, as did the character’s slow walking speed, but that happens in this type of game. There’s also an expected amount of repetition despite the short length, but then again, I may have explored more than most would.

Of course, almost all of the aforementioned atmosphere is conveyed through sound and imagery. The creepy sights, noises, and spoken words of Transference do a good job of disturbing the player. I found myself even jumping once when, upon entering the kitchen after doing something else, the child appeared and asked me where his "f***ing dog" was. That wasn’t the only time I saw someone, or something, though.

For the most part, the sound here is top notch, and the visuals are also decent. This game won’t win any awards for its graphics, but they definitely do the job and are decent overall. The lighting makes it so that lots of detail isn’t always needed, but the development team still went above the call of duty in that regard, as the apartment feels quite detailed and realistic. That is, when you ignore all of the audio/video and scientific equipment in both it and its garage.

Speaking of which, why, out of at least 6-10 apartments, does this family have full ownership of the building’s backyard and its garage? The former is where the family vehicle is parked and the child’s playhouse is located, and the latter is one of the father’s home labs.

Transference is an interesting, haunting and disturbing game that is short but spooky. The themes that it evokes can be somewhat confusing, because there’s not a lot of explanation there, but they are disturbing and innovative nonetheless. If you are looking for something scary to play this Halloween, SpectreVision has a pretty solid, albeit somewhat overpriced, option for you in Transference. You don’t need VR to play it either, because it’s still pretty good without.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Next to Mario, Lara Croft is arguably gaming’s most well known character, not to mention its strongest female mascot. From low poly beginnings, she’s matured into one of the deepest and most recognizable major players within this industry, and for good reason. It’s both commendable and impressive, not to mention nice to see. After all, it’s hard to dislike or not cheer for a character like that.

Lara began her digital life and interactive archaeology in October of 1996 and has remained within the upper echelon of popular culture ever since. Sure, there were some missteps along the way, but things are now as good as ever for the British heroine.

After some middling adventures, Lara received a makeover and a reboot in 2013, and was revitalized in the process. The result was the best Tomb Raider game to date, in this reviewer’s opinion, as well as a very good sequel in the form of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now, that rejuvenated version of Ms. Croft is back with her third outing, that being the Mayan influenced Shadow of the Tomb Raider. A game that was co-developed by Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics, with publishing duties being handled, once again, by Square Enix.

Following expeditions to the ancient island of Yamatai and a trek to the legendary city of Kitezh, Lara now finds herself in Mexico. There, she’s hot on the heels of one of Trinity’s major players, as well as one of the Mayans’ long lost treasures. What she doesn’t know, though, is that her actions are about to set something potentially catastrophic into motion, that being a large and dangerous pattern of storms that threaten to destroy our world.

Once the shit hits the fan in Mexico, things transition to Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s main environment, that being the Peruvian jungle. There, Lara and her friend Jonah must do whatever they can to track down, find and utilize ancient relics that tie into the clues they’ve discovered. It’s never been easy, though, and continues to be difficult here, given that Trinity is once again after the same things. By that, I mean a specific mountain range, a lost city and a special silver box, among other trinkets.

This story starts with a bang, but doesn’t always have the depth and memorability it needed to be great. That’s okay, though, because the gameplay makes up for a lot of that. There are also still enough visceral and impressive moments to make this a Tomb Raider game that is well worth playing.

One of the major downsides of this narrative comes in the form of its villain, who’s not nearly as interesting as he should’ve been. In ways, he’s more like a paint-by-numbers baddie than a memorable adversary, though he does a serviceable job. The other is that it often feels as if Shadow of the Tomb Raider (and its heroes) forget that the end of the world has, at least potentially, been set into motion. The game dawdles at times, and has some pacing issues that keep it from being great.

Although some major things happen in Mexico, Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t really open up until the pair venture to Peru and make a scarier than expected entrance into the South American country’s jungle terrain. There, a rather large and visceral world becomes available for exploration, complete with the things that one has grown to expect from this series: hidden caverns, dangerous challenge tombs, crypts, relics and opportunities to both hunt and craft. Needless to say, Lara is in her element, even if said element once again pushes back and puts her through hell.

As the two explore Peru on a hunch, they come across a small village where NPCs need their help with corrupt employers and other issues. Afterwards, they make their way to what is the game’s main hub city, that being the legendary lost Incan city of Paititi, where the Cult of Trinity is up to no good. There, they team up with rebels, a few of whom become pretty major players within Shadow’s narrative. This is just the second of three village style hubs, however, and all of them offer a good amount of side content to tackle .

In addition to the side quests, tombs, caverns and everything else listed above, these areas are also full of collectibles, much like the jungle itself. These come in familiar forms like documents, journals and maps, and can also be found as locked chests and underwater caches. While searching for them, you’ll also come across a wealth of scrap and other materials, which can be used to craft different types of arrows, upgrade weapons and create special outfits that you’ve found the blueprints for. Interestingly, these clothing items offer benefits, like an increased chance of coming across rare animals, the ability to gather multiple flowers from one plant, or a decreased enemy alert level during stealth.

Gameplay-wise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is quite a bit like its two most recent predecessors, meaning that it’s full of Uncharted-style climbing, rugged terrain and environmental challenges. Lara must use her wits, as well as discovered and purchased tools (like a rope expander, a rappel line, a sharp knife and climbing spikes) to get in and out of some very dangerous locales. Thus, there’s lots of rock climbing, plenty of jumping, and a ton of swimming to look forward to, not to mention a multitude of deadly traps that await each and every misstep. This third entry doesn’t restrict you as much, though, because it provides rope arrows and Lara’s trusty pickaxe rather early on.

What’s evident, however, is that the development team wanted to bring the series back to its roots a bit, by making this more about Lara versus Nature than anything else. There’s still a decent amount of combat to be found, but not as much as in previous games. This news will please some and bother others, but that’s to be expected.

Making it more about the environment has lead to deeper and more involved challenge tombs, some of which are annoyingly locked until you find specific items (like a rope expander or a shotgun, which can be used to destroy wooden barricades). They’re more puzzle heavy than before, and the same is true of the game as a whole, which wasn’t something that bothered me even though I’m not crazy about puzzles in video games. Sometimes they’re great (and they are done well here), but that’s not always the case, and getting stuck on one can be a real annoyance.

Some challenge tombs are hidden behind a pay wall, with that being the season pass. I’m not exactly sure of how they’ll be added in, but it’s worth noting. Also worth mentioning is the fact that combat, puzzles and exploration difficulties can all be separately set. If you want challenging combat, set that to hard because normal is really quite easy. Meanwhile, if you want easier puzzles, you can set it so that's the case, or even make them more difficult. Meanwhile, those who would like to explore without prompts (of which there are many, as Shadow of the Tomb Raider likes to hold your hand on its base difficulty), you'll want to change the exploration difficulty level. This can eliminate white paint on climbable walls, and does away with other prompts, making it so that you actually need to suss out where to go next.

The most notable change, though, is a greater emphasis on swimming. Lara can now dive into and thoroughly explore many caverns and lakes, and will find lots of interesting things if she does so. This includes lost treasure, hidden relics, sunken chests, water-borne plants and runs of golden ore and jade. The latter two are especially helpful because they can be sold to merchants who, despite living in the middle of lost cities, sell SMGs, rifles, silencers, bullet spreaders and larger clips.

This focus on swimming plays out throughout Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and makes for some pretty engaging moments. Lara may be able to hold her breath for an incredibly unrealistic amount of time, but she’s not immune to underwater danger in the form of deadly piranhas and constricting eels. She must also spend extra time, effort and breath to worm her way through small crevices.

Due to the piranhas, underwater stealth is a thing. Is it a good addition? Not really. It’s there, though. As such, players must watch for schools of the toothy bastards and swim into long grass in order to hide from them. It’s kind of annoying and doesn’t always work well, so don’t expect a lot from this mechanic.

Speaking of stealth, it’s important to note that, once again, combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider promotes being stealthy and rewards players for doing their best in that regard. Thus, there’s lots of tall grass to hide in, quite a few bottles and gas cans to throw (as distractions), and even some mud to get dirty in. Said mud can make Lara harder to see, as she creeps along overgrown and muddy walls, which hide her from enemies.

These stealth mechanics can be combined with new plant-based ‘potions,’ which allow Lara to heal or heighten things like her endurance and her awareness. Crafting and using a focus potion, for instance, will allow you to slow down time while aiming, thus creating the opportunity for some pretty badass shooting. Meanwhile, heightening Lara’s awareness can highlight places to dig for treasure, or even plants that can be picked up. One can also still press the R3 button to turn on survival awareness, which highlights enemies and stealth opportunities. Soldiers, cultists and creatures who are highlighted yellow can be taken out without worry, whereas ones that are tinged red are in the view of others who will react if they see anything fishy happen.

Outside of this, the game mostly plays like those that came before it, with the same types of weaponry at one’s disposal. Shadow does introduce a neat type of arrow, though, which can be used to poison enemies and turn them into friendly fire machines. These arrows are made with poison from bugs that Lara can pick up and harvest from.

Strangely enough, however, there aren’t as many animals to hunt as one would expect. Early on, you’ll encounter jaguars who attack and end up becoming minor boss battles, and will also see boars, birds, rabbits and monkeys that can be skinned. The thing is that, as you progress later into the game, the opportunities for hunting seem to lessen quite a bit. Animals aren’t as prevalent, and being that a lot of time can be spent in the city/village hubs, it’s somewhat understandable. I was somewhat disappointed by this, though, because they didn’t appear as often as before during missions either. I love animals in real life and could never hurt one, but I admittedly enjoy hunting, scavenging and crafting with those materials in this type of game, and in Far Cry.

That’s not to say there are no animals and there’s almost no hunting. That isn’t the case. It’s just that there are long periods without much of it. Then again, maybe it was how I played, since I took my time and did a lot of side quests within the hubs. One of the ladies in the third hub also did send me out to deal with a wolf problem, because kids were trying to play with them as if they were dogs.

We obviously reviewed the Xbox One version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and did so using an Xbox One X console. Thus, we were able to decide whether to play the game in high resolution mode, or in one that promoted a higher framerate instead. I spent a lot of time playing on the latter, which ran very well and looked quite good, then switched to the higher resolution mode later in the game. Whereas things had often looked great before that, they really popped once I made the change. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a simply stunning game at times, and heightening its resolution makes it really stand out. Still, it’s not perfect, nor is it the best-looking game out there. Sometimes the character models can look a bit plastic-like, in terms of textures, and things aren’t always constant when it comes to those details. I found that Lara looked absolutely amazing in some scenes, but then didn’t look as good later on.

There’s a segment which takes place outside of a refinery, and that’s one section where the game really shone. The fidelity, the detail, the action and all of the related explosions really impressed me, much like some of the jungle scenery did. At times, it was hard to believe I was playing a video game, thanks to some postcard quality vistas.

While Rise of the Tomb Raider had crashing issues, I’ve yet to experience any real problems with Shadow. Rise would crash every time I tried to play one of its DLC experiences, but this game hasn’t at all. It isn’t as smooth on the higher resolution setting, however, and also suffers from screen tearing throughout. I quite frequently saw it at the top of the screen, for whatever reason.

As you might know, Camilla Luddington (Californication, Grey’s Anatomy) resumes her role as twenty-something Lara Croft within Shadow of the Tomb Raider, after providing her vocals in both the 2013 Reboot and Rise, itself. She does a great job yet again, and really makes Lara feel like a believable character; something which is aided by some strong writing. Rumour is that this could be her last time as the iconic heroine, but here’s hoping that won’t end up being the case.

The rest of the audio is also top notch, thanks to great sound effects that are made up of realistic natural sounds, loud gunshots and boisterous explosions. I was especially impressed by some of the popping sounds that I heard as I swam through underground chasms, because they simply sounded so lifelike.

Overall, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a winner. Then again, that was to be expected given how good the games that came before it were. While this one isn’t as tight, memorable or great as either Tomb Raider 2013 or Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s a very good game and one that you won’t want to miss.

**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game. We were provided with a review code.**

Overall Score: 8.4 / 10 Unravel Two

During the winter of 2016, Electronic Arts used its resources to help a small Swedish developer release its passion project. The result was the rather well reviewed and received Unravel, which stole the hearts of those who gave it a chance. It did this with colourful visuals, a heartwarming story, a rather ingenious main character and some challenging, impressive and family friendly mechanics.

Now, more than two years later, we’ve seen the release of the game’s sequel: Unravel Two. A follow-up that was revealed during the other week’s E3 2018 expo, and was released later that very same day for approximately $20. Something different, too, being that this is now a cooperative experience as opposed to something that is strictly for solo players.

Whereas the first game focused upon a single, yarn-based character named Yarny, who originated out of an old lady’s wayward ball of red yarn, its sequel features two of the threaded creatures. Small, colour coded and without any sort of vocal skills, they must work together to solve puzzles, avoid dangerous hazards and traverse varied environments, as a story plays out around them.

Unlike that which preceded it, Unravel Two’s storyline is threadbare and confusing. It begins with kids hiding from others, then morphs into a visual representation of their escape from danger, all of which is told sporadically over the course of the game’s four to five hour campaign. As before, you’ll see ghosted replays of the characters, their efforts and their struggles play out in the background as you try to get around in the foreground. Sometimes things slow down when these apparitions appear, but that’s not always the case.

Although I paid close attention to what was happening during each of the aforementioned segments, it was hard to tell exactly what was going on. It’s possible that the kids (perhaps even teenagers) were running from someone abusive, but a lack of depth and visual cues prevented me from knowing for sure. As such, the storyline really lacked impact and left me disappointed. I have a sentimental attachment to the first game and was hoping for more from this one as a result.

The theme of this game – as mentioned during its E3 appearance, and made evident throughout the campaign – is to follow one’s spark. That is quite apparent, since ‘checkpoints’ are identified by a spark that flies through each environment, leads you to where you need to go and then stops and waits for you to solve the puzzle that will allow you to get to its resting spot. This is concluded with a text-based message that appears before the credits roll, which talks about being true to oneself, appreciating one's value and always understanding that it's possible to begin anew.

While the above is a good message, the story that it’s supposed to be found inside of isn’t told well and is hard to really understand outside of the obvious. You’ll see the kids running from something over and over again, but won’t know much in the way of details or backstory. The first game handled its story well, but its sequel struggles in this regard.

Unravel Two plays out over seven different levels, each of which takes place in a different location, with examples being a well, a burning forest, a small lake and an industrial park. All of these levels can be accessed at will after the game is completed, and are ventured to through portals found inside of a lighthouse that acts as your main hub. There, you’ll also find around twenty different ‘bonus levels,’ which are standalone puzzles based on elements from each of the seven stages. These are unlocked upon the completion of each level, and awards (no deaths, completion within par time and metallic medals) are awarded at the same time to promote replayability.

While all of these environments look quite nice, feature rich colour palettes and are impressively realistic, some of them tend to be quite overlong and can get tedious after a while. Some feature too many similar puzzles, while others just tend to drag. Not all, though. Certain stages are better designed and paced than others.

By now you’re surely wondering how introducing co-op into a cinematic, puzzle/platforming series like Unravel works. Well, it plays as you’ve probably imagined.

The very obvious idea at play here is that one player will control the first Yarny, while the other will control his new friend, who he meets on a beach after falling off of a ship at the beginning of the campaign. Both of these customizable avatars are, unsurprisingly, bound together by a piece of yarn, allowing them to remain close to each other. This means that if one Yarny is on a high ledge, the other can simply climb said string to get to his partner’s location. Furthermore, the two can combine (through what the developers call carrying, but it’s more like blending together) to create one slightly larger doll.

It’s been said that Unravel Two is more of a platformer as the result of this addition and change, and that’s pretty true. Still, there’s lots of puzzle-based gameplay to sink one’s teeth into. The inclusion of a second player changes them up quite a bit, though, because you’re not just dealing with one avatar and a tail of yarn that varies in length. Thus, very few puzzles deal with the amount of yarn that one has at his disposal, because that never changes and you won’t pick up extensions like you did in the first game. No, these puzzles are focused more on teamwork and combined physics than anything else.

As mentioned above, there are lots of segments where you’ll have to split into two and control each Yarny separately (if playing alone) or work as a team to solve puzzles using the string that combines you. This often means moving objects, then swinging or jumping onto ledges, before wrapping your yarn around an object and going back to help the other guy. That or climbing (which Yarny can now do at certain times), tying knots on two nearby posts to create trampolines, or swinging from your partner to reach distant locations.

Of course, hazards are common, and they get more severe as the game progresses. In later levels, you’ll have to avoid fire as one character hangs from another and adjusts the length of his tether as he’s pulled from side to side, or swing past flaming obstacles. Other hazards include a fish who – for some reason – wants to eat yarn, a bird who also has a strange appetite, a forest fire and weird enemies who can both patrol and chase. They’re tough to describe because all they really look like are small, shadowy lines with flaming tips. Then again, I guess you could say that they’re like Mario’s boo ghosts, because some only move when they sense or see you and remain dormant or asleep when they don’t.

For the most part, this all works pretty well. Unravel Two may not be as tight, balanced or polished as its predecessor was, but it offers some decent puzzling. Those who are good at the genre may feel disappointed, though, because this is a rather easy game that doesn’t exactly think too far outside of the box. Lots of the puzzles have an “I’ve seen that before” feeling to them, and most are quite easy. The game also offers three hints for almost all of its brain teasers, with the last one laying out step-by-step directions as to how to get by. You can also slow things down using 'slow motion,' but I never found that to be helpful in any sort of way.

It’s in its presentation facets where this game is at its best, thanks to some rich and impressive visuals, as well as some commendable art direction. The music stands out most, however, thanks to a haunting orchestral score and a great (Swedish?) song with vocals that plays during the final stage. As such, the score was easily my favourite part of this experience.

Overall, Unravel Two is both decent and somewhat disappointing at the same time. There’s some magic missing, for sure, and a threadbare and confusing storyline doesn't help matters. Still, this is a game that is worth playing for anyone who enjoys the genre, especially those who have a friend who can play local co-op (since the game is strangely devoid of online co-op capabilities).

**This review is based on the Xbox One X enhanced version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Vampyr

Things that go bump in the night are normally encountered as enemies and experience fodder within RPGs, but that isn’t entirely the case with DONTNOD’s latest interactive creation. No, this time around we get to play as one such creature – a doctor and blood specialist turned vampire named Jonathan Reid. He’s the titular and troubled main character in a game about bloodsuckers that is, very fittingly, called Vampyr.

Marking a massive change of direction, tone and style from DONTNOD’s last game, the ever charming and wonderfully creative narrative adventure title, Life is Strange, Vampyr is a game about choices and conflict. Within its text heavy action adventure confines, a man who once stood for good and did his best to help people now finds himself desiring the very blood that keeps his fellow Londoners alive. Throw in a dash of family drama, a pinch of vampire hunters and a generous helping of bloodsuckers and you have this morality-fueled plot.

This 20 to 30 hour long story begins on a damp old dock, where Doctor Reid awakens to find that he’s not quite as dead as he should be. He quickly notices something else, as well, that being a strange feeling and an even stranger thirst that propels him forward. What results isn’t pretty and helps set the stage for pivotal parts of Vampyr’s narrative.

Simply put, our conflicted and morally ambiguous protagonist has come back from the dead as a newly turned vampire. One who doesn’t have any idea as to who it was that turned him, but can hear the creature’s voice inside of his head. Later on, this manifests into red tinted visions, but that’s all I’ll say about that.

As things progress, Jonathan finds himself thrust back into a physician’s role, after meeting a man who runs a financially strapped hospital in a bad part of this version of 1918 London. The man – who is also a doctor – is doing everything he can, with the help of a few other doctors and some hardworking nurses, to help cure people of varying illnesses as the Spanish Flu steamrolls its way through the city. Many are sick as a result of this disease, and dead bodies can be seen on the sides of roads, in alleyways and around makeshift graves. They’re so common, in fact, that you’ll get used to them and will stop noticing each one you pass by.

What propels Vampyr is a social system that takes into consideration more than just relationships. As players make their way through each of London’s different districts, they’ll meet many different (and impressively authentic) characters, all of whom have their own stories to tell. Many of these folks will be sick and in need of medicine, and some will offer information that will help your cause. Quite a few are also tied to side quests (or investigations, as the game likes to call them), which act as a great way to earn much needed experience points.

Where this differs from your typical RPG is in the way that each region’s health is handled. Since it’s a given that Dr. Reid needs to feed, DONTNOD has designed this experience around the idea that you can choose to either help, avoid or feast upon any of the game’s human NPCs. Keeping people alive means you’re a nice guy, but it also means that you won’t get as many experience points or level up as quickly as someone who feasts on the occasional meat suit. This is because sucking someone’s blood is the fastest and most helpful way of earning points that can then be used to evolve your doctor-turned-vampire. Be careful, though, because killing a lot of innocents will lower the health of the region you’re in, and that results in negative consequences.

The menu system offers not only a map, but a family tree or spiderweb style look at each region within London. There, you can see every person you’ve met, check on how their sicknesses have progressed (because, if left untreated, people can also die) and see which side quests they may tie into.

Simply put, your choices matter in Vampyr and there’s a consequence for each one. Even side quests have different options, such as putting up flyers for an advertising vampire hunter, or burning them in a fire pit. The consequences may not always be terribly negative, or anywhere close to dire, but sometimes they are and that can hurt.

Now, this isn’t a perfect system, but it’s commendable nonetheless. DONTNOD has obviously put a lot of effort and thought into how this works, and it stands out as you play through the game. Sometimes the consequences aren’t as severe as they could be, and it could also be said that it’s too easy to lose people without intending to, but these are kinks that one would expect from a first attempt. Maybe a sequel will improve upon these complaints.

A good example of unintentional loss occurred when I got lost and ended up in a cemetery early on in the campaign. While trying to find a way out, I heard a woman yelling for help and found her locked inside a mausoleum that she was using as a hiding spot. In front of said crypt were several skals (enemies who are presented as lower form vampires), all of whom came after me as soon as I walked by. Since I wasn’t powerful enough, and didn’t have enough supplies to take them down, I ran. That lady then died overnight, and I lost out on a side quest because of it. All because I got lost, ventured too far and couldn’t help her.

As you make your way back and forth across London, you’ll come across a good amount of safe houses, all of which offer a crafting (or blood testing) table and a bed. Jonathan has one at the hospital he works at, but there are quite a few scattered around the game’s decent sized map. They’re pivotal, too, because they not only heal you and progress time, but also allow you to upgrade in your sleep.

Sleeping too much can hurt you, though, because of the game’s aforementioned district health system. People who are left untreated will continue to get sicker as each day passes, and when you awake at night you could be down one, two or even more NPCs. It’s a juggling act to say the least.

The crafting tables are quite helpful, because they allow you to do a few different things. First off, they’re where you can test blood samples you find and develop different types of medicine (for the people who suffer from things like anemia, sepsis, pneumonia and fatigue), as well as formulas that can boost Dr. Reid’s health, stamina or blood. Secondly, these tables are where you go to upgrade your weapons (knives, saws, swords, guns and the like) and add perks to them. And lastly, the crafting tables also allow you to recycle discovered items (like watches, glass vials, rings and other things) into parts that can then be used for crafting.

Speaking of blood and stamina, it’s important to note that Jonathan has three different bars, and not just one health bar. The first is his health, which regenerates slowly (but can do so faster if certain upgrades are purchased), the second is his stamina (which is required for each attack, or to run) and the blood he’s collected from enemies, people or rats. This blood can also be used for healing, through a process where the character infuses it into himself to increase his health bar moderate amounts. This involves pressing a shoulder button or trigger and can sometimes be a tad cumbersome.

Vampyr is not an easy game, either, and it isn’t difficult to die within it. Each night, vampire hunters of varying types (melee, ranged and heavy) stalk the streets in search of what they call leeches. Skals also inhabit some areas, and more powerful vampires appear later on. Hell, there’s even the odd werewolf. These enemies are important because they provide the action in what is an action RPG, but sometimes they can become a bit much. It’s not uncommon for several to be after you at once, and early on this can make things quite difficult.

The combat becomes easier when you level up and feast upon a few of the living, but it takes a while for that to happen, and it also takes time to get used to how things work. Dr. Reid can carry four weapons, two of which can be mapped to each hand. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because while you can only use one at a time, it’s possible to press the d-pad to switch to the other. The X button controls your standard weapons for regular attacks, while the Y button will likely be mapped to things like stakes (which stun enemies and allow you to feast on them for blood and some damage) and guns, which can both stun and damage. Those, or weapons that take blood with each strike.

No part of Vampyr's combat is incredibly polished, noteworthy or unique. The basic combat is quite simple, and can get repetitive quickly. Also, even though Jonathan can equip vampiric powers (all of which need to cool down after being used), they still don’t do enough to keep the combat fresh. Sure, making someone’s blood explode is neat, as is coagulating it so that they can’t move, but this combat system will never make you say, “Wow!.” It’s basic to a fault, slow paced and somewhat cumbersome.

Of course, the powers that you have equipped – be they defensive, evasive or aggressive – will vary on what you choose to prioritize in the upgrade menu. Choosing to focus on increasing Jonathan’s blood, stamina or health meters, how much he heals, or the amount of blood he takes in, can also keep you from really pimping out your powers to their fullest extent. This just means that every player will have a different experience; something which is also made true by the social system and its moral choices.

The frame rate also takes a dive whenever there are lots of enemies on screen at one time. It can get pretty bad, but thankfully it rarely gets to that point. Vampyr does have frequent hitches and stutters, though, and it likes to load for a decent amount of time, even prior to certain conversations with NPCs. You’ll think you’re about to enter a cutscene, but it’ll just be a regular conversation with a myriad of different (and somewhat interesting) dialogue options to choose from.

All of the characters in this game are incredibly wordy, so expect to have to read and/or listen to a lot of dialogue. A lot of it is pretty interesting and helps flesh out each character, but that isn’t always the case, and you may well experience dialogue fatigue. It is possible to skip from one line to the next if you think that you’d prefer to quickly read things instead of waiting for the voice actors to say them, but be warned that you may miss things because the subtitles don’t always show every line at once.

Due almost everything mentioned above, Vampyr is a slow burn of an RPG that will not be for everyone. This is something that will appeal most to a certain audience. One with patience, and one that is able to overlook faults in what is a slow, repetitive and flawed game a lot of the time. Vampyr’s social system stands out, though, and its choices really do matter most of the time. Its game world also feels very authentic to what 1918 London would’ve been like, but the layout can be confusing and it can be very easy to get lost. The map isn’t great, and it doesn’t tell you which doors are locked. There's also nothing in the way of fast travel, which is quite disappointing.

As hinted at above, this is a somewhat dated-looking experience that isn’t without its technical problems. From the odd glitch (like being stuck inside an NPC) to frame rate issues, there are things that mar the campaign. Also, when I went into the sewers to meet someone and then fight a boss, it was hard to even see the creature because almost every time I’d walk through the water a very bright bloom effect would take up almost the entire screen. To beat him, I had to make good use of the lock on feature and pay close attention to where he was, while constantly shooting and then dodging away until all of my bullets were gone.

Vampyr’s sound and voice acting, on the other hand, is pretty good. It’s not Life is Strange quality, but it does the job and offers some pretty good performances. As per usual, some of the voice actors did better than others, but the average is pretty consistent. They lend an authentic air to a game that has music and sound effects that befit its setting and the creatures that haunt it.

In conclusion, Vampyr is a flawed but somewhat impressive experience that plays differently than a lot of other games. It isn’t something that will appeal to a wide audience, but it’s worth checking out if you’re okay with a slow burn and don’t mind lots of reading. Just don’t go in expecting another homerun like Life is Strange. This is a very different game, and one that does tend to be overlong.

**This review is based on the Xbox One (X) version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 6.4 / 10 Super Mega Baseball 2

As many have lamented, the Xbox One is lacking when it comes to good baseball games. Sony has its own first-party franchise, which is incredibly well received year in and year out, but there’s nothing for Xbox owners to look forward to as far as Major League Baseball goes. Sure, both consoles tend to get an RBI game every year, but those pale in comparison and don’t hold a candle to The Show. The difference in quality could be equated to fine dining versus eating uncooked hot dogs straight out of the package.

Four years ago, Canadian developer Metalhead Software gave baseball fans who don’t own a PS4 something to get excited about. That happened to be Super Mega Baseball, a polished, entertaining and surprisingly impressive arcade sports game.

Fast forward to the month of May 2018, where we’ve seen the release of Metalhead’s aptly titled follow-up, Super Mega Baseball 2. A game that spit shines the things that made its predecessor so fun, while adding more and better content in the process. It was free too, as part of Microsoft’s Games With Gold program, but has since been replaced by Metal Gear Solid V.

Since the MLB’s rights are expensive and somewhat exclusive to boot, Super Mega Baseball is an independent affair, which presents its own made up league. Within it reside multiple teams, who are ranked based on all of the facets of baseball, including power, contact, speed, defense, starting pitching and relief pitching, but are categorized by their biggest strength. What thas means is some teams are extreme power hitters, whose specialty is the long ball, while others carry titles like “all around”.

With flexibility comes creativity, and that is found in both the names of the teams and their players, who carry some punny monikers to go along with their caricatured designs. The teams aren’t left out though, and also carry some pretty unique names like Moonstars, Sirloins, Platypi, Crocodons and Beewolves. Many of these teams carry over from the first game, too.

Unlike the original title, Super Mega Baseball 2 has a good amount of modes to complement its infinitely replayable gameplay. You’ll find the expected single game option, which is flanked by full season play and even an elimination tournament. On top of those, there also happens to be online play, which has its own timed leagues and stats-based competitions amongst players on different difficulties, so there’s certainly no lack of things to do.

What’s neat is that most of these modes are customizable, meaning that you can adjust their length, fine tune their difficulties, and introduce custom teams that you’ve edited or even perhaps created yourself. Super Mega Baseball 2 has a rather impressive logo and uniform creation suite and also allows you to edit players’ stats. Hell, there’s an achievement for making a player’s overall rating 99, which is something my friends and I used to do a lot as kids while playing NHL games.

Through these modes and options, Metalhead presents what is a rather robust baseball game, and one that doesn’t skimp on colour. Super Mega Baseball 2 may be a cartoon experience, but it’s more like a mix between arcade and simulation than a full on arcade game, at least when it comes to the harder difficulties.

First, let’s talk about the difficulty system, which is based around something called ego. This is a modifier, for lack of a better term, which lets you scale the challenge in different ways. The default one has been carried over from the first game, and what it does is allow you to scale the difficulty by choosing a certain point value. For instance, 1-19 is easy, 20 and above is moderate, then challenging lays ahead. However, you can change the look of the ego system in this sequel, so that it shows how difficult each portion of the sport will be, which is nice.

To be honest, I’ve always had a hard time finding the sweet spot, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The AI doesn’t hold any punches on tougher difficulties either, and can actually do pretty well on an ego level between 18-20. It’s nice that players can really fine tune their experience though, because it helps. I’m sure that if I really tried, I could find my perfect sweet spot, too.

The gameplay may look colourful, but that doesn’t mean that it’s childish or simple, though it can be. Home runs are epic, celebrations are beyond that of real life MLB players, and the stadiums themselves are more creative than something like Yankee Stadium. There’s an industrial themed park, one that looks like it belongs in a seaside city like Vancouver or Seattle, a Japanese themed one and another stadium that happens to be full of Colonial architecture. Each one has its own pros and cons too, such as being hitter or pitcher friendly, much like the real life stadiums do. On top of that, some also have their own unique lighting types, such as the Colonial park’s retro-inspired filter.

When one steps up to the plate of one of these stadiums, he or she will find a reticule that can be different in size based on the type of player is in use. Sometimes, this reticule will move to where the pitch is, but this seems to be dependent on difficulty. Making contact can be as simple as pressing A at the right time for a standard hit, but there’s more to doing well than just that. After all, hitting the ball cleanly is the goal, otherwise a foul ball may result.

Power hits are once again accomplished by using the X button, while B controls bunts. The thing is though that a well connected bomb is the result of a charged hit. By this, I mean that you must hold the X button, then release it at the right time, in order to get a perfect power hit. If you hold the button for too long, or release it too early, your results will not be very positive, but that adds challenge. Of course, knowing when to hit for power and when to hit for contact is a key aspect of the sport of baseball, much like it is in Super Mega Baseball 2. Skinnier players are better served for contact and stolen bases, while those who look like they pump weights 24/7 are the ones you’ll want to use for power. These guys look like miniature Hulks wearing baseball uniforms.

Pitching is handled differently. To throw a good fastball, curveball, or what have you, one must choose a pitch type (using the right joystick), then pick a spot and press A. What happens next is that a small circle will appear at the spot at which your chosen pitch is expected to land after its curve, slide, or whatever. If you quickly move the reticule back there and highlight it, your pitch will then be more powerful and more successful to boot. This is handled by a numerical rating system, which briefly appears before the pitcher begins to throw.

Needless to say, pitching is definitely more difficult than batting, and it can take some time to get used to. The same is true of the game’s defensive system, which doesn’t really highlight where the ball is going to go, so you’ll need to use your smarts and watch for shadows and things like that. Players will run to where the ball is going to drop, at least on lower difficulties, and if there’s a chance for a diving play, time will also sometimes slow down. This is a case where practice is needed because it’ll take you some time to get things down pat.

For the most part, all of this is quite fun and impressively polished. Sure, there’s the odd hiccup, but like the first game, Super Mega Baseball 2 is a quality affair. It’s not perfect, however, because it suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis, in that it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be. As such, it straddles the line between being an all out arcade sports game and being a more realistic, simulation experience. And I will admit it, sometimes I wished it were a bit crazier.

When it comes to presentation, there’s little to complain about. Everything looks really nice, and there’s certainly no lack of colourful detail. The stadiums are well crafted and defined, the players all look really good, with their caricaturized designs, and the gameplay is easy on the eyes. I also quite like the team logos, and a lot of the uniforms as well.

The audio is what you’d expect from an arcade baseball game. There’s some good music, but there’s not much in the way of announcements or anything too unique. It all works, though, and fits the bill. This isn’t a game that needed to spend a ton on professional commentators, or anything like that.

At the end of the day, Super Mega Baseball 2 is another home run for a talented studio. Hopefully you were able to get it while it was free with Gold, but if not it’s certainly well worth the price of admission, especially since this console is sorely lacking good baseball games. Sure, it may not be a realistic MLB experience, but it’s good fun.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Count Lucanor, The

Age old fairy tales have been used as fodder and inspiration for many movies, TV shows and video games throughout the decades that these entertaining mediums have existed. Sometimes the stories are told almost verbatim, while other experiences only tie in loosely, using the source material as a backdrop for something else. Such is the case with the game The Count Lucanor from Baroque Decay Games.

Things begin in a colourful and very pixelated fantasy world, which is home to a sad boy named Hans and his cash strapped mother. It’s a special day too, because Hans has just turned 10 years of age. His excitement doesn’t last for long though, because once he returns home from playing with his best friend, the family dog, he discovers that not only does his mother not have a toy for him, but there won’t be any sweets for supper either.

Those two disappointments end up bringing our fairy tale character of a protagonist to a boiling point, upon which he lashes out at his poor mom (whose husband went off to war and never returned), before telling her that he’s going to leave in search of something better. Surprisingly, the young woman lets her son take off into the great unknown, that in this game are the neighbouring woods, but she doesn’t do so without giving him three things: their three remaining gold coins, a block of cheese, and a cane.

After distracting his dog with a bone, young Hans sets out on his own with almost nothing to his name and a very limited inventory to boot. It isn’t long before he comes across others who just so happen to be in precarious situations. First, there’s an old lady and a pig. The old lady laments needing a cane, which creates a moral dilemma (the first of several) for the player and his or her pixel-based avatar. Giving the old woman the cane will help her, but at what cost? Will it be needed later?

As he progresses through his journey, Hans encounters others, including a down on his luck merchant wanting money and a shepherd who wishes for nothing more than cheese. How one interacts with these characters affects how things play out later on, and surely impacts upon which of the game’s several endings you’ll get.

So, what type of game is The Count Lucanor? I guess you could describe it best as being a retro inspired, Zelda-light game with horror elements. It is a game that has absolutely nothing in the way of combat, but it looks and plays similarly to the classic screen changing 2D Zelda titles of the 80's and 90's.

Really though, The Count Lucanor is a colourful and quirky indie game that stands out for its design elements and its characters, as well as its intriguing main quest that is presented as a series of trials. How is that? Well, shortly after walking away from home and meeting those down on their luck characters (not to mention some animals in need of food), Hans falls into a dream state and awakens in a bloody nightmare, within which a blue kobold leads him towards a small, Gothic castle that is said to be owned by the Count himself.

The real quest begins once the castle has been breached through a crack in the wall, and it’s then that the kobold speaks. What he tells the player is that in order to leave and earn that which he seeks (a new life free of frugality), Hans must complete several trials and collect letters that will then be used to spell out the kobold’s actual name. Once that has been accomplished, and the name has been spelled out of eight letters, Hans’ life will change forever.

This is all intriguing, but it’s also too good to be true and comes with some caveats, those being a dangerous castle that is full of traps in the form of spikes, fire, and enemies. Hell, the palace’s own caretakers are creatures who stalk its halls and emerge from the darkness with intent to harm. Coming across one can mean death for our young hero, who has limited health that can only be replenished by eating different types of discovered food. Not only that, but death means one must reload a previous save, and that comes with the threat of lost progress. This is amplified by the fact that one cannot save on a whim, with the only places to save being two separate wells, both of which charge a gold coin upon each visit.

The good news though, is that coins aren’t too rare so long as you explore and interact with everything you come across inside of the castle and its many unique rooms. These rooms are, of course, where your trials are housed, and each one is different. The first one has you moving boxes out of the way in order to make a clear path to a chest containing a letter, whereas another room tasks Hans with deftly avoiding upwards of one hundred different flame panels as he attempts to get from its door to its well protected chest. Meanwhile, other rooms introduce spike traps, hidden urns that must be lit, and a challenging maze into the equation.

All of the aforementioned room's doors are colour coded too, and you’ll need to earn their like coloured keys in order to open them. First comes blue, then green, before red, and the optional gold key that can be purchased from a merchant. These are unlocked through progress, and are almost always given to you in the castle’s garden, where its colourful (and mostly familiar) cast of characters hang out by a well.

Needless to say, this is as much a puzzle game as it is anything else, even if the puzzles themselves aren’t too involved. Most do require a bit of thought though, and will require you to collect items as you explore. For instance, there’s a bucket that can be collected then filled with water, a wooden plank that can be used as a bridge, and a piece of a ladder that can help you reach a second floor. None of it is overly complicated or unfair, but some thought is involved, meaning that it’ll take you a bit of time to complete everything. This inflates the game’s short length somewhat, as does dying at the hands of the enemies who stalk the castle’s rooms and hallways while whispering creepy things. You can usually tell where they are by the volume at which their whispers are emitted.

Many, many candles can be found inside of The Count Lucanor’s castle, and it’s these that will help light your way in the darkness, while aiding you in your attempts to spot and avoid those creepy creatures. These candles never melt either, meaning that you could technically use the same one throughout the entire game. Why have so many then? Well, it’s simple: As you walk through the castle, you’ll likely find leaving candles helpful, because they’ll light your way and allow you to watch the creatures move along their path as you hide under a table or behind a curtain. Candles are also especially helpful during the maze, because dropping them at different intervals can help one remember which path you have already taken.

In addition to the above, which all requires common sense, a bit of thought, some tactical evasion and use of a basic inventory system, The Count Lucanor presents a quirky cast of characters and a surprisingly intriguing storyline. To be honest, I never expected to become as invested or be as interested in Hans’ quest as I became, and that was a nice surprise. I was always looking forward to seeing what would happen next with the characters I’d met and any that would be introduced later on. There’s a bit of everything here: charity, morality, murder, sacrifice and witchcraft. Ok, maybe that’s not everything, but you get the gist.

The Count Lucanor isn’t a long game though, and that was surely a design choice as much as anything. Its quest is meant to be played through more than once, so as to experience all of its endings (five, I believe). As a first time play through, it should only take you between two and three hours, though this will vary depending on how often you die and whether or not any of the puzzles end up stumping you.

Now, as mentioned before, The Count Lucanor is a retro inspired indie, and it wears this with a badge of honour. The visuals are a mix between 8 and 16-bit graphics, with limited detailing given to Hans and quite a bit given to his surroundings. Most of the character models are somewhat basic, but stylistically so. The sound is also very retro, using a chip tune model, and it works very well and is of quality throughout.

That said, there are issues within this digital download of a game. Although its presentation is FAR from demanding, there are still performance issues where the frame rate will drop for an entire screen. You’ll be walking and then begin to feel like you’re walking into the wind. The controls can also be wonky at times and not work properly, and by that I mean that Hans won’t always move as he’s directed. Sometimes he’ll just stand in place for a moment.

So, what do we here at XBA think of The Count Lucanor. Well, it is an interesting little indie game that deserves attention. Sure, it may be flawed in places, but its issues do not have a greatly negative effect on what is, a neat and intriguing game. It is a game that is quite good as is, but could've been very good with more time in the proverbial oven.

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes

During its more than twenty-five years in existence, the Cartoon Network has enjoyed great success thanks to some very well received content and a little bit of luck. They struck gold with shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Johnny Bravo, and then followed them up with successful standouts like Ben 10, Steven Universe, Adventure Time and Rick and Morty. Now that some of its more popular shows have run their course, the channel is searching for its next big hit, and may have found one with OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes.

For those who’ve never heard of it (and if so, you’d fall into the same boat as I did before I took on this review), OK K.O. Let’s Be Heroes is an animated comedy series that was created by Ian Jones-Quartey, who worked on Steven Universe and Adventure Time. In it, a young boy named K.O. attempts to become the greatest hero of all-time within a world that is saturated with unique and colourful heroes. His boss, his mom, and all of his friends just so happen to be of that ilk, as do all of the people and creatures that he interacts with on a daily basis.

Developed in conjunction with the TV show is OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes; a beat ‘em up styled video game that also incorporates RPG elements. It’s just recently hit the Xbox One through digital distribution, and is also available on platformes. Of course, as we are an Xbox centric site, the Xbox One version is the basis for this review.

Like the show, Let’s Play Heroes takes place in Lakewood Plaza Turbo, a typical strip mall plaza that is owned, staffed, and populated by heroes. K.O. himself just so happens to be an employee at the main attraction – a convenience store that is referred to as a bodega in an attempt to be more fancy. There, he works for Mr. Gar, a ferociously muscled badass who feels like he’s been ripped right out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Mr. Gar isn’t the only colourful character who works at the bodega full time though, as an alien and a carefree teenage girl also staff the place on a daily basis.

In this unique universe, heroes pride themselves on the levels that appear on their POW cards, which are collectible trading cards featuring the denizens of Lakewood Plaza Turbo and its neighbouring area. Said cards feature prominent photos of the heroes, as well as their individual stats and hero levels, and it’s one of these cards of his own that K.O. so desperately wants.

At the beginning of this game, K.O. shows up for work on a special day, that being the release date of new, holographic versions of the POW cards. We’re talking about pieces of collectible cardboard that can now summon their subjects into battle, or simply into the owner’s vicinity. Needless to say, this irks some heroes, who don’t want to be bothered by being teleported from one place to another without their consent or sort notice, but that’s not the crux of this story. No, what ends up happening is that after our protagonist finally gets his own card (which isn’t much of a spoiler since it happens at the beginning of the campaign), evil Lord Boxman takes over the POW card factory and starts to wreak havoc.

What Boxman does is delete all of the heroes’ levels, dropping them back to zero. This, as you can surely understand, causes pandemonium to break out and personal crises to occur. Thus, K.O. is thrust into the spotlight by his good intentions, and takes on the task of helping his family and friends. How so? By completing quests and beating up Boxman’s robotic children, who share similar names like Darryl and Shannon. That’s how!

Over the course of what is a several hours-long game, players must control K.O. as he completes these quests and battles loads of robots. Sometimes said battles are random, but others can be ignored through a system where boxes appear in the plaza and one presses the Y button to instigate a fight. Oftentimes the plaza itself will come under attack, forcing K.O. into action, or fights will occur as part of quests, with those including some robotic boss battles that aren’t terribly difficult.

Combat takes place in a two-dimensional space, albeit one that factors height into its equation. As such, some engagements will force you to jump onto multiple platforms, or use uppercut specials to knock foes off of their high perches. Said uppercut is one of K.O.’s more advanced moves, which are unlocked through experience as he levels up after fighting. These fights are helpful for levelling, but not altogether necessary, given that K.O.’s basic fighting abilities are often sufficient. You can also avoid being hit by double jumping or pressing down on the A button to do an evasive move, which can prevent a lot of damage.

Powie-Zowies (power moves) can be used quite often, and only take a bit of time to charge up through punching, dodging, and general combat aspects like those. Examples of these include Mr. Gar’s epic body slam, Radicles’ ability to shoot blue energy bullets at enemies, and Enid’s powerful kicks. Every character you help, and level up, can provide his or her own special move, though the ones that you’ll have at your disposal will likely differ from what your friends will unlock. In fact, since some cards are hidden behind special codes (which were added into the show, in one-per-episode fashion), and packs seem to be randomized, it’s hard to unlock them all. Hell, 0% of Xbox One players have done so, according to the achievement app.

Keep in mind that you can easily complete the game without these special codes, and can do so by just purchasing and unlocking regular cards, as well as the stat boosters that are sold in the bodega and elsewhere, like a food truck that specializes in burritos (Yep, I just said that). Sometimes you’ll also have to eat these Mexican delicacies in order to become smaller or burn yourself, as certain quests will require it.

The game's combat is never too involved, nor is it usually that hard outside of a few random difficulty spikes. What is odd about it though, is the fact that the game rewards you for knocking computer chips out of your robotic foes. Why is that odd? Well, the only way to actually do this is to let your opponents hit you in a specific manner, which then leads to them showboating and leaving themselves open to attack. This can reward you with credits (after selling the chips to the robot named Dendy), but it takes important health away for minimal pocket change.

What hurts this game most however, isn’t its' somewhat basic combat system, but its' repetition in general. Not only does fighting the same robots over and over again get tedious, but most of the included quests boil down to little more than fetch quests. Thus, most of the game is spent walking from one part of the plaza to another, in order to talk to different characters and pick up what they’ve requested. Needless to say, it gets boring after a while, and makes the game feel overlong, which is a shame because it’s obvious that quite a bit of thought, effort, and care went into recreating the show for interactive purposes.

Unlike the TV series, which has a hand drawn aesthetic, OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes features its own unique looking take on the characters and the plaza that they inhabit. It’s very colourful, albeit a more exaggerated and cartoony take on the source material, but it’s one that works very well and shows that developer Capybara Games cared about what it was working with. Couple this with exaggerated sound effects, humorous and witty writing, and the show’s talented voice cast, and you have something that was made with fans in mind.

It’s just a shame though, because for a game that was made with so much love, care, and attention to detail, OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes isn’t better and more varied than it is. Unfortunately, more care was put into the presentation side of things than the actual gameplay, and the result is an experience that suffers from pacing issues due to its repetitive blend of fetch quests and relatively simplistic combat.

If you’re a fan of the show, then you’ll most likely really appreciate OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes’ attention to detail, and will be able to overlook its faults. This is, first and foremost, a game for fans, while those of us who don’t have anything invested in the TV series it’s based on aren’t likely to get the same things out of it.

Overall Score: 5.9 / 10 Albert and Otto

When Playdead released LIMBO, it struck gold and delivered a timeless game that many will remember for decades to come. However, as is always the case with this type of success, those involved open themselves up to imitation, clones and genre peers. In the years since LIMBO's release, there have been a good amount of similar titles, some of which were good and some of which were bad. One of the better ones is Albert & Otto, a title that just made its way to the Xbox One after debuting on Steam and OS X back in 2015.

Originally planned as a four-episode journey, developers K Brothers’ game has yet to see the release of its second episode, and it seems like it probably never will. Years have gone by without updates, so it’s looking like what’s there is all there’ll ever be. However, while this has prevented the game from being everything it could’ve been, and has kept it from delivering a full story that has a beginning, middle, and end, its' sole episode is still worth playing. You just need to go in knowing that you’ll start off confused and finish in the same state.

The events of this mostly grayscale indie take place in 1939 Germany. There, a boy sets out in search of a mysterious girl with rabbit ears, who communicates with him through pictures that have strange messages written on them. She and her friends are in trouble, well, it seems that way, and they have been locked up somewhere. At least, that’s what I got from them.

As the title suggests, our silent protagonist (Albert) is not alone. It isn’t long before he climbs some trees and meets a new friend, that being a red rabbit like creature named Otto. The two then become reliant on each other to solve puzzles, using Otto’s abilities, some of which are not made available until later on in the episode. His base powers are good enough at the beginning though, as they allow Albert to not only double jump, but also use switches that he otherwise would not be able to if he was by himself. This is handled through a mechanic in which the boy can drop the rabbit, then pick him up again later on.

Over the course of the first episode’s two-hour runtime, Otto’s abilities progress into supernatural territory. At one point he becomes able to use telekinesis to move objects and animals, both of which are usually needed for platforms. There are, however, times where innocent sheep must be lit afire and used for light, or dropped into green hued water as piranha bait. Who knew sheep could be so versatile and useful?

Otto’s other power involves electricity, and sets up quite a few puzzles wherein he must be used to return power to dormant switches. Sometimes this involves nothing more than leaving him in front of one and pressing X, but more often than not things are more involved, presenting challenges where Otto must slide down slopes, use his electric powers at the right moment, and then get picked back up again before he falls to his doom. Hell, this even comes into play during the episode’s final (of two) boss battles, which is itself a puzzle instead of anything combat-based.

In actuality, both of the game’s bosses must be dispatched using the game's familiar physics puzzles, some of which are timed and don’t offer much in the way of leniency. You’ll need to be fast in order to best both of them, and will need to take into account the fact that the characters can die independently. If left alone, Otto can succumb to a fall, or to a laser shot out of a boss’ eyes, just as well as Otto does when landing on spikes.

For the most part, the puzzles in Albert & Otto are switch-based, with some involving the aforementioned electrical switches, and others involving those that need to be pressed either by a character’s weight or a box of some sort. Thus, it’s very much like LIMBO, and that inspiration carries through to its art style, which is limited in colour to the point where it’s predominantly grayscale.

This is not an exact LIMBO clone though, thanks to the double jump ability and Otto’s aforementioned powers, as well as a rifle that Albert can use to kill evil crows who wish to eat him for breakfast. This is done using a simple mechanic that combines the right joystick’s 360-degree arc for aiming and the right trigger for shooting.

That said, the inspiration is once again the better game here, with Albert & Otto presenting a merely decent puzzle/platforming affair that borrows heavily from the Playdead classic. Sure, there is a lot to like here, but there’s no denying that things are rough around the edges, due to some unfortunate lag, a few disappointing puzzles and controls that sometimes fail the player at the worst possible time. It doesn’t help that this game may never be finished, leaving this sole episode’s story and ending a point of confusion for those who’ll play it. It does, however, nail a creepy atmosphere, with a mixture of dark and light colours, some sparsely used but haunting music, and some decent sound effects.

Albert & Otto is a game that should appeal to those who’ve been itching for more LIMBO-style gameplay. That being said, anyone who buys it needs to know they’re not getting a full game for their money, as it is only the first episode of what is yet to be a full story. Then again, it’s not like this thing is over in minutes, given that it at least offers a campaign that hovers around the two-hour mark depending on player skill, and one in which going off the beaten path is rewarded with collectible shards.

Overall Score: 6.1 / 10 A Hat in Time

During the days of the N64 and PSone, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a different 3D platformer. This era was especially cluttered with them, and it was thanks to an advance in technology that made it all possible. This, of course, led to incredible and timeless classics like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, which were flanked by many copycats and imitators, some of which ended up being pretty good.

One major aspect of these games happens to be collecting. Whereas Mario had coins and stars, Banjo and Kazooie had jigsaws, notes and Jinjos. As such, these games were platformers that also moonlighted as 'collectathons'. You can call them what you will, but they’ve attempted to make a comeback this year thanks to indie developers.

In April, Playtonic tried to usher in a resurgence of the 3D platformer with Yooka-Laylee; a Banjo-Kazooie knockoff that centred upon a lizard, a bat and a magical book. However, much to the dismay of many (including yours truly), Yooka-Laylee failed to set the world on fire. The reasons included a bad camera, far too many borrowed gameplay elements, and a lack of polish that was evident from the start. Add in poorly designed bosses, bland worlds and an uninteresting pair of bad guys and you have even more to blame for its disappointment.

This fall brought with it a new, retro-inspired combatant with the same hope of revitalizing the once incredibly popular genre. That game is called A Hat in Time, developer Gears for Breakfast’s homage to the days of yesteryear, which was published by Humble Bundle. It is a game that is obviously as much of a passion project as it is a commercial effort.

Showings obvious signs of inspiration from Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and those like them, A Hat in Time is a colourful, whimsical and unabashed little platformer. It tells the tale of Hat Kid, a young lass whose abilities change every time her noggin warmer does. She’s on a quest that will hopefully lead her home, but she finds herself stuck in a galaxy that features lots of varying geography, not to mention quite a few vastly different creatures.

Things begin in outer space, as a relaxed and easygoing Hat Kid enjoys a quiet trip home aboard her very plush and childlike spaceship. As she awakens from her slumber within a princess dream bed, which is neighboured by an epic pillow fort that even has its own diving board, she does so without worry. It is shortly after this that the proverbial crap hits the fan, when a visitor opens an airtight lock and chaos ensues. By that, I mean Hat Kid’s ship’s power cores – which look like hourglasses and are referred to as time pieces – end up getting sucked out into the great void. This causes her ship to stall, and her galactic trip home to come to an unexpectedly abrupt halt.

Somehow, all forty of Hat Kid’s time pieces end up falling downward, and crash land on the planets below. The planets that play host to A Hat in Time’s several different chapters, each have their own theme, characters and creature types.

The first place you visit, through telescopes that act as level select devices, is Mafia Town. It is, as you’d expect, a world that is staffed only by manly mafia men. Some are nice, others are stereotypes, and a few are meanies who wish to prevent our protagonist from getting what she needs. It’s here where miscellaneous tasks must be completed across multiple ‘levels,’ some of which only unlock after visiting later worlds.

Of course, the word 'level' is in quotes for a reason. That’s because instead of visiting a set of separate and unique stages, Hat Kid’s time in Mafia Town is mostly spent in the same open world environment. There she stops faucets from leaking volcanic lava, fights slightly evil mafia members, finds the code to unlock a golden safe and has issues with a brief friend named Mustache Girl. She’s a fellow little girl whose blonde hair is styled in a way that makes it look like she has a ‘stache.

After each level, Hat Kid returns to her ship where she can combine relics to create sculptures, sit in chairs, ride the Roomba to earn achievements, or collect gifts through a slot machine that takes discovered tokens. The ship also acts as her hub, and lets players level select in a way befitting the games of the 90s that this one pays homage to. Doors to the rooms where these telescopes sit are almost all locked until set amounts of time pieces have been collected.

Following Mafia Town, which honestly isn’t the best opening level a game could ever have thanks to a confusing layout, camera problems and uninteresting characters, you travel to a movie studio that is staffed by birds and only birds. There, two rival sects have discovered the fallen time pieces and wish to use them as awards, causing you to have to step in and change those plans. What results is having to sneak one’s way on set, then act within different movies, including one that mimics Murder on the Orient Express. The others involve racing across a trap-filled train that is close to exploding or leading a parade across rooftops as a harmful crowd cheers below.

Yes, the second event makes no sense on paper, and the same is true in action. The idea is that you cannot touch the crowd without suffering damage, which results in the loss of one of Hat Kid’s four health pieces, nor can you touch the parade members who mimic every one of your moves. While avoiding both, one must set off pyrotechnics and collect bird icons, both of which are far from enjoyable.

Next up is a dark and mysterious forest, where large mushrooms, dangerous slime (in the place of water) and mean spirits rule the day. This, unlike the bird studio, is another somewhat open world where you must travel to different areas on foot, be it a tainted well, a haunted house (where noise awakens a ghost who must be hidden from and avoided) or a group of spirits whose campfire desires paintings. This half-decent world stands out for its dark and gloomy style, but it is punctuated most by a large spirit who forces you to agree to contracts before taking Hat Girl’s soul as collateral. These contracts are a nice touch in a way, but they are under-utilized and therefore disappointing, especially since they generally relate to major objectives. Things like cleaning the well and defeating the boss, for instance.

Even the fourth chapter of A Hat in Time continues this trend of showing promise and creativity but failing to provide a wow factor or the commonly referenced knockout punch. This large open area, which takes the form of a series of mountains, forces you to ride rails to and from each section and complete tasks while doing so. First, horns must be blown to signal the aerial rails’ deployment, then they must be ridden in the right order. It’s easily the best looking of all of the environments, but can sometimes be more obtuse than the rest and doesn’t deliver on its visuals’ promise.

Simply put, A Hat in Time has a lot of solid ideas, but its execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. On one hand, it’s easy to applaud developer Gears for Breakfast for the amount of thought and love they obviously put into the project, and for some of the settings and dialogue that they came up with. However, on the other hand, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by their execution. It truly feels as if they tried to include every homage they could think of, then ended up being bitten by using this 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach. This game has its moments, but is too all over the place and too cumbersome to be the great platformer that it could’ve been.

The other unfortunate thing is that, although its cheerful, colourful and generally warm look draws you in, its gameplay is too cumbersome to really enjoy. The platforming lacks precision and the controls leave something to be desired. A lot of the objectives also feel like busywork, making the game feel like a chore when it’s supposed to be fun. This is especially problematic during the open world sections, none of which made me want to return for further exploration.

While playing this game, I never knew what to expect, and this often wasn’t a good thing. There were far too many times where I wondered where I was going or what I had to do, because the game didn’t do a good job of conveying that. Sure, it has a hint system, which sometimes points to your next objective, but that’s only available whenever you’re wearing Hat Kid’s basic hat. If you equip another one that you’ve crafted (after collecting limited pieces of yarn hidden in each of the environments) that button will default to their special ability, be it sprinting, throwing magical potions that explode on impact, or turning into a block of ice. This is something that wasn’t explained, which led to me wondering how to find my objective after returning to the thing following a short break. The options menu wasn’t helpful, either.

Hats aren’t as integral as you’d expect though, and that feels like another missed opportunity. While some are needed for progression, and others help find secrets, the developers didn’t go far enough with this premise and it often feels forgotten when you’re simply scouring worlds for combination codes or engaging in basic combat with Hat Kid’s simple umbrella. Sure, the badges you can pin to each hat offer some creativity, like a blast attack, limited health that causes you to die after one hit, a camra to take pictures with and radar to help you find hidden items, but it’s not enough. It also takes a lot of crystals (which you’ll collect throughout your adventures) to buy many of them.

Finding hidden items can lead to relics, which come in at least two pieces. When placed together on pedestals in Hat Kid’s ship, they combine to open time rifts that can then be used to travel to new stages. At least two of these are actually found on the ship itself, while others are hinted at through photos, which can be looked at using each world’s telescope. This is an okay, but unspectacular system, and the ones that I completed were also very basic, acting as challenge rooms as opposed to anything creative.

Presentation wise, A Hat in Time has both pros and cons. While it’s evident that a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this retro-inspired passion project, a frustrating camera affects the experience, as does some missing polish. The game looks alright, but it’s just not anything special in the looks department, nor is it the easiest or most player friendly game out there. This is especially true during a trip towards the forest’s haunted mansion, during which invisible walls and very limited time limits create frustration.

The audio is also okay, with limited and very exaggerated voice acting having been employed in order to both create and fuel a cutesy, cartoony vibe. The music and sound effects are occasionally too obnoxious, like the dialogue can be, but for the most part it all fits and delivers what you’d expect from this type of game.

With all that having been said, I must say that I’m torn and feel kind of bad. On one hand, I applaud the passion that developer Gears for Breakfast approached this project with, and admire their enthusiasm. However, on the other hand, I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t have much fun with this game. Although A Hat in Time was crafted with love, and has some good moments, it’s overwhelming and obtuse, and lacks cohesion, polish and great gameplay.

Overall Score: 5.6 / 10 Road Rage

Twenty-six years ago, Electronic Arts struck gold when it released Road Rash onto the then-modern SEGA Genesis. Thanks to some very enjoyable gameplay, which centred upon violent and combative motorcycle races, it became a quick success and ushered in the start of a series that lasted for nine years. One that, even today, many older gamers pine for the return of, so long as it’s done right.

In the time since its demise, Road Rash has seen some copycats, with one recent example being the dismal Road to Hell: Retribution. Now, thanks to Maximum Games, a new combatant has entered the ring in an attempt to usher in a new age of reckless motorcycle racing. It conveniently goes by the name of Road Rage, which is so similar to that of the original series that it’s easy to get the two mixed up.

Although its stolen idea still has lots of potential, Road Rage has been buried almost as quickly as it’s surfaced, and for good reason. As it rusts in the junkyard that is the realm of forgotten video games, its only claim to fame will be how crappy it actually is.

Road Rage begins in an urban jungle that has seen better days. It’s here where, as the story states, a battle between the elitist and wealthy 5% of the population and the other 95% of the population has led to most of the population residing in city blocks that are both walled off and policed. It’s a very drab, forgettable and depth-lacking narrative, which is told through awful voice acting and text-based overlays that sit atop ugly imagery.

As his or her chosen avatar, the player begins their digital life in Subtroit as a new member of an anti-establishment biker gang. Therein, they find themselves in the middle of an unruly world where disputes are often solved through the running of violent motorcycle races. The type where weapons – like baseball bats, metallic pipes, hockey sticks, knives and even selfie sticks – almost matter more than one’s driving abilities.

On paper, this sounds like a somewhat fun game, even if the story is silly. Motorcycles are fun to drive, knocking others off of their bikes with murderous weaponry is neat, and Road Rash was one of the more enjoyable games of the 90's. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is everything. Everything went wrong here.

Although it boasts around 100 different missions and miscellaneous events, Road Rage fails to be what every good game is: fun. That’s actually putting it lightly, as the honest truth is that what we have here is a game that is not only boring and woeful, but also happens to be hard to play because of lackluster mechanics and random performance issues. The story isn’t the only thing wrong here, nor is the boring game world, which includes regions with awful names like Subtroit, Chitaly and Ruscago.

Most of your time with this game will be spent driving around a dull, grey and concrete-filled open world and its poorly laid out streets. You’ll drive from one point to another, to activate markers that signify different types of events. Approximately 45 are story-based, while the rest are miscellaneous challenges that run the gamut of available types.

You’ll find traditional circuit races, wherein several bikers compete to be the first person to cross the designated finish line after completing a set amount of laps. They’re complemented (for lack of a better term) by two different types of time trials, one of which simply gives you a limited amount of time to make it to a couple of different checkpoints on the map, with no course suggestions whatsoever. Then there’s the knockout challenges, which asks the player to knock six to ten opponents off of their bikes within a short window of time. There are also assassination ‘missions’ wherein one must locate targets and ‘murder’ them by hitting them with a weapon.

That’s not all though, as Road Rage also features arcade events, which are very much like time trials in that one must fight a ticking clock as he or she races through upwards of 40 or more gates. There are also Trick challenges, if you can call them that.

For some reason, the folks at Team 6 Studios, which developed this game for Maximum, decided that motorcycle assassinations and combative racing were not enough for their Road Rash rip-off, thus, trick events were born. They needn’t have ever been crafted though, because they’re not only terrible but frustrating to boot.

Don’t think of these tricks as being of the Superman or heel clicker variety, or even a simple front or back flip. No, this racer’s idea of tricks is much lamer than those. As such, these events will task you with pulling wheelies, experiencing near misses with computer-controlled traffic, and getting some airtime. This would be okay if the controls weren’t crap and the time limits weren’t so tight, but that’s not the case. It’s easy to wheelie and knock that part out, but it can sometimes be difficult to find enough cars to barely miss colliding with, and even more difficult to find and line-up jumps. While the latter are shown on the mini-map, their icons don’t tell you which direction they’re facing, and they can often be few and far between.

To add even more frustration, you’ll always be fighting the controls too, not to mention the game’s hilarious physics and random frame rate fluctuations. Each of the several unlockable bikes tends to control like a tank, with poor brakes and floaty maneuvering to boot. It’s hard to actually make the turns you aim to, making avoiding explosive crashes hard at times. It doesn’t help that Road Rage’s physics are all over the place, or that you’ll never know what will happen when you crash. Often, your bike will explode, but there’ll be times where it won’t and it’ll be like nothing ever happened. The frame rate will also sometimes harm your cause, as it can result in your bike hopping around the screen for no reason whatsoever.

Of course this is a combat racer, meaning that one’s goal is to hurt and almost murder the opposition. With that being the case, you’d think that the combat controls would be great, and that hitting another racer would be as simple as pressing a button. Well, if you think that then you’re overestimating this game. Although Road Rage has LOTS of weapons, and even gives you two buttons to attack with (one being for the left side and the other for the right), its ‘attacks’ are disgustingly sluggish and difficult to line up.

When I first started playing the game I was able to swing my weapon without much trouble, but as I progressed it felt like I was trying to swing a bag of bowling balls, what with how slow and cumbersome the animation is. There were countless times where I lined myself up with another racer, pressed one of the attack buttons and then saw nothing happen. That is, nothing on my end. The opponent usually takes a nice, quick and sharp swipe at my avatar, which either sends her flying or makes her bike burst into flames.

In sharp contrast to what the developers intended, I actually found myself trying to avoid other racers unless I absolutely had to attack them (e.g. during knockout events). I never looked forward to those as a result, because they were far too difficult, due to the controls’ sluggishness. I’d try to line up a good hit, then be beaten to the punch by an opponent and sent flying. Matters weren’t helped by the unjustifiably constrictive time limits, which hardly gave enough time to catch up to, let alone perfectly hit 6 to 10 others.

More often than not though, glitches ended up aiding my cause during these engagements. For example, I’d be sitting at one knockout, when all of a sudden the counter would jump to six. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps it was giving me credit for almost every time the AI crashed and killed itself, or was rewarding me for touching them lightly before they did so. All I know is that I didn’t instantaneously hit several enemies with my weapon, nor was I close to anywhere near that many at those times.

Normally my conscience gets the better of me when a game glitches and unjustly rewards me. If it’s not too much trouble, I’ll often reload the checkpoint and do things properly. This was never going to be one of those cases though, because I knew that if I didn’t take advantage of what this ‘experience’ was gifting me with, I’d end up having to retry the events over and over again, while attempting to get enough knockouts within their terribly short two-and-a-half to three minute time limits.

Of course, as is the case with other games like it, Road Rage features an unlock system that rewards both success and progression with new bikes and additional avatars. This sounds good on paper, but bikes unlock out of order and I was never sure if I should risk putting a lot of money into upgrades for one when many events required a specific ride. Some, you see, want said bike with zero upgrades, while others want it with 5 upgrades. Then, another story event would ask me to buy and use a completely different bike.

Achievements are awarded for spending $1000, $5000 and $10,000, which is funny given that one upgrade costs at least a thousand bucks and getting to the ten thousand mark takes seconds. After just the first couple of story events, I had close to $25,000 in the bank and blew through a lot of it pretty quickly. There’s lots to buy though, as each bike has many upgrades, not to mention alternate looks and different paint jobs. Then there’s the weapons, of which there are tons, and almost all of them must be unlocked by completing specific story missions, as is the case with the rides themselves.

Now, let’s get back to that story, because it’s important to mention how it’s told. You see, while there is voice acting to be found, cutscenes are absent here. How is the story told then? Through text of course! Tons and tons of poorly written text, which include the f-word but only in censored fashion. Why, I don’t know, because every time f@*! appears in text, the voice actors say it without hesitation.

The voice actors sound like they had better things to do, like important appointments they were worried that they wouldn’t make or something like that. Perhaps the developers just found them on Craigslist. Regardless, very little effort or emotion was put into any of the spoken dialogue, making the game’s poorly written characters even more wooden and stereotypical than they already were. Hell, there’s even a guy who does a terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, because every game needs one of those.

Visually, Road Rage doesn’t fair much better. With graphics that resemble that of an up-rezzed PS2 game and animations that are as wooden as some of its dialogue, the game fires on very few cylinders in this department. An uneven and randomly problematic frame rate doesn’t help things, nor does the developer’s love of slow motion, which is employed often. Transitions into and out of races are also jarring, because races tend to use ugly fog filters that make everything look dark and muddy, and they’re miraculously removed once the checkered flag has been waved.

I should also mention the civilians, who can be seen walking around the city. In addition to earning achievements for winning races, spending money, and customizing your bike, you’ll also earn them for hitting MANY innocent people. Not with your bike, of course, but with your weapon, which results in super slow motion every time it occurs. Since getting the full 1000G requires one to hit and kill one thousand civilians, it's a very arduous and tedious ask.

I hate being so negative about a game, but simply put, Road Rage is a mess on all fronts. Not only is it hard on the eyes and ears, it’s also unnecessarily frustrating and cumbersome to play. There are no real redeeming qualities to be found here, in what would be a very forgettable game if it weren’t so damned poor.

Overall Score: 2.0 / 10 Evil Within 2, The

There’s no denying that the original The Evil Within was an ambitious effort, but it was undone by frustrating gameplay, clunky controls and a lack of polish. As such, what was supposed to be Shinji Mikami’s triumphant return to the survival horror genre failed to live up to expectations and it was ultimately forgotten by the masses. Now, three years later, the revered producer and his team at Tango Gameworks are back, with a full-fledged sequel, which is aptly dubbed The Evil Within 2.

Set three years after the events of the first game, The Evil Within 2 begins with a bang. It's during this opening segment that former detective Sebastian Castellanos finds himself in darkness, with only the light of flames to guide him. The fire that lights ahead isn’t a campfire though, and is instead a raging inferno engulfed around the home that he shares with his wife Myra and daughter Lily. The former is nowhere to be found while the latter is trapped and needs to be saved.

It’s after the one time cop runs into his burning home and attempts to rescue his young child that it’s revealed that this is nothing but a dream in the head of a booze addled and very depressed forty-something. One who’s been to Hell and back, and has lived to tell the tale, after his stint inside the head of a madman within the first game’s runtime. Those who’ve played that one will likely remember it well, thanks to its violent and disturbing imagery, white knuckled chase scenes and creepy, abandoned mental hospital setting, even if the game as a whole didn’t set the world on fire.

Upon awakening, Sebastian finds that he’s nowhere close to the house he once owned and lived in. Instead, he’s face down on a nondescript bar table, with empties by his side and an old friend unexpectedly sitting across from him. Kidman, that is. She’s come to talk work again, and despite the two being on poor terms she has news that the former detective will want to hear. It regards his daughter, who was presumed, and pronounced dead, but apparently she is still alive and somewhat well.

Kidman hasn’t come as a favour, and is instead seeking help herself. It seems that Lily was screened as a child and found to be the best possible candidate for the role of the core in a new cerebral world that Kidman’s employer, Mobius, has crafted. Going by the name of Union, it’s a hivemind location that has come to be thanks to computer engineering, and it takes the form of your typical American small town. However, despite looking both idyllic, warm and cozy, things are not all well in this neighbourhood. Not at all.

Although it started its digitally crafted life as a safe and secure place, Union has become something sinister. Mobius doesn’t know this at first, but it’s presumed as contact with the town’s operatives has suddenly ceased. Now, it’s up to the former detective to return to the STEM world, in which Union exists, in an attempt to find and save those lost, militarized souls.

Of course, it was the STEM world that Sebastian unwittingly joined during the first Evil Within, and that resulted in him entering the mind of a madman. One whose sick delusions, twisted fantasies and violent thoughts all combined to create one Hell of a nightmarish experience. So much so that it still haunts our protagonist, who has nightmares and visions regarding it (the Beacon Hill Mental Hospital, to be exact) throughout the course of The Evil Within 2’s somewhat creepy twelve to fourteen hours.

After entering Union, by way of a bathtub full of a white liquid, it doesn’t take long for the shit to hit the proverbial fan. That’s because it’s quickly discovered that a new type of maniac is running amuck, with this one being a fan of the artistic side of murder, if there really is such a thing. He’s an artist, you see, and loves to use the STEM world to his advantage, in order to kill, stop time and thus permanently capture his messy work. The splattered blood, fragments of skull, and bits of sinew that are seen exiting and floating around these murdered corpses just add to it all.

Thus begins the first half of the game, wherein players must both explore Union and chase after the murderous photographer at the same time, all while he taunts Sebastian with glimpses of Lily. The thing is though, this is just one part of the game, and the photographer (Stefano Valentini) is not the main adversary. He’s simply the opening attraction before the others come out to play.

What results is a bit of an identity crisis, because this opening half plays a lot slower than what follows. During its seven or so chapters, you’ll find yourself skulking through the town, trying to find as many different items as possible (boxes of bullets, hidden weapons, plants, gun pieces and collectibles), while doing your best to hide from the (mostly) humanoid monsters that prowl the streets and alleyways. That’s not always as easy as it sounds though, because any loud movement can cause alert, and sometimes the bastards simply come out of nowhere.

If you take your time here, and don’t skip any side quests, you’ll come away with a decent arsenal. The key to this game is to always be searching, and doing every side quest you come across will aid your cause in great ways. After all, The Evil Within 2 is a survival horror game through and through, meaning that ammunition is limited which makes it a luxury as opposed to a privilege. This is especially true during the nightmarish campaign’s final chapters, where bullets become even more elusive.

Of course most combat encounters can be avoided, so long as you use both stealth and cover to your advantage. Crouch, walk slowly and avoid running unless you’re absolutely sure that there aren’t any deformed monstrosities around. They’ll even hear you walk if you do so normally, without entering into the noticeably slower stealth mode. That is, unless you upgrade your stealth skills quite a bit.

Your goal should always be to stealth kill foes before wasting even one bullet on them. That’s easier said than done though, because enemies will sometimes lunge out of the darkness, or turn and spot you just before you’re about to knife them in the skull. Granted, some more powerful foes, like the lanky and disgusting female witches, are too powerful to be taken out with just a quiet knifing, and will react in anger if you try. For these asshats, and really any enemy you come across with whom you can’t use stealth, it’s best to just aim for the head and fire.

The gunplay mechanics are a tad hit and miss, but the good news is that they hit more than they miss. Aiming is relatively tight, and can be made better through upgrades, like most other skills, including melee and stealth. That said, I couldn’t even start to accurately count the amount of bullets that I lost due to poor hit detection, especially later in the game, when the enemies are faster and come with more ferocity. This was most noticeable during a segment where Sebastian and an ally were walking through a wall of fire, with only a small circle’s worth of room and large enemies coming from both sides.

Needless to say, aiming a seemingly perfect shot just to see it fail for no specific reason is frustrating. That annoyance doubles, or even triples, when you’re low on health or are trying to conserve ammo and end up firing a blank because the game has failed to register that you did, in fact, shoot the ugly creature in the head.

It’s also worth noting that there is a delay when it comes to healing. You’re able to pause the game, so to speak, by holding the left shoulder button and entering a quick select menu. You can also set your favourite items to the d-pad. However, even though you heal by going to this menu and selecting a medkit or a needle (which offers a fraction of the health regeneration a full kit does), there’s still a brief wait in-between the time when the game resumes and when Sebastian sticks himself to heal. It may be more realistic this way – even if nothing else about this game is – but it’s terribly annoying, because foes can kill Sebastian during those brief moments before the health kicks in.

The odd boss can also one hit kill you, but thankfully these are few and far between. Truth be told though, most of the game’s bosses are also pretty ho-hum. They look cool, especially the badass-looking final boss, but they don’t offer much in the way of unique battle mechanics. Thus, most of the game’s bosses boil down to running around an environment, avoiding being hit and then waiting for the right time to line up a few good headshots.

A few bosses from the first game actually make an appearance during a vignette of bosses that comes up in one of the final chapters. It’s a nice nod to where things all began, and it fits the narrative well. The battles themselves though are more frustrating than they are engaging.

The best thing about The Evil Within 2 is actually Union itself. Stealthily stalking one’s way throughout the town, by way of its alleys and overgrown yards, can be pretty exhilarating and awfully immersive. I also enjoyed sneaking through some of its more prominent buildings in search of items, crafting materials and collectibles, especially the statues that housed locker keys. Then again, I have a hard time not checking almost every corner and crevasse in just about every game I play. It can be tough to find everything here though, as doing so will require one to search every inch of the town, which few will have the patience for.

What’s kind of odd is that The Evil Within 2 features discoverable pouches that increase the amount of bullets Sebastian can carry for specific weapons, like his pistol, shotgun and assault rifle, for example. It’s strange, because it can be rare to have more than 3 bullets for each one at any given time.

It is possible to craft things, be it health packs, bullets, bolts (for the crossbow that is rewarded for completing an early side quest) and weapons (a sniper rifle being one, if you can find it). This is done using gunpowder and other miscellaneous items that are found throughout Union and the underground tunnels that connect it. Safe houses offer crafting benches, as do some garages, but you can always find one in Sebastian’s safe room, which is once again accessed through mirrors that act as portals. The nurse is there again too, and she’s even gone so far as to open up a rather fun little shooting gallery for you to practice in and earn things from.

It’s this safe area, which now resembles a detective’s office, where you can go to save, look at slides (which are hard to find, narrative-based collectibles), craft, open lockers and upgrade your hero. Upgrading is once again handled by collecting and using green goo, with red goo unlocking locked routes within each of the game’s several skill trees (stealth, athleticism, combat, health and survival). Most downed enemies will liquidate into green goo, and sometimes you’ll simply find it laying around in jars. Burning downed enemies also isn’t necessary anymore, as matches have been removed.

Upgrades can reduce aiming sway, increase your health, limit the amount of time it takes to regenerate part of your health when you’re in a near death state, and make your footsteps quieter. It’s also possible to make it so that a health syringe is automatically used every time a normal enemy comes close to killing you, and you can also unlock a dodge option, though that mechanic never really worked well for me. Guns themselves are upgraded separately while using crafting tables, and you’ll use gun parts for that.

Be aware of the fact that it is possible to craft when you’re on the go. The only problem with crafting on the fly is that it uses more materials, and they’re usually pretty limited. Alas, it’s sometimes necessary, and it may well save your ass on at least one occasion.

For the most part, The Evil Within 2 is your standard survival horror game, albeit one with semi-open world mechanics and a couple of side quests. Sure, it’s not common for them to have safe houses where you can talk to allies, drink coffee to heal, craft and save, but this is a Shinji Mikami game and the quirks that come with that are welcome. Hell, there are even Easter eggs that pay homage to games like Skyrim and Wolfenstein.

It is a bit strange however, that the first half of the game is all about one antagonist while the second half, which is shorter, and more frustrating because of its occasionally cheap difficulty spikes and very limited ammunition, relates to two others. The narrative remains relatively interesting throughout though, which is the important thing, even if it’s not the deepest or most creative story ever told in horror. Some of the dialogue and voice acting can be pretty cheesy, but it is what it is. Sebastian has never been the most personable or well spoken main character, and that continues here with some cheesy comments and complaints that can take you out of the moment. On the plus side, the orchestral soundtrack is really good, though.

Those who played any of the first game will surely go in expecting a very dark, dingy, and gritty visual experience, filled with more than its fair share of blood, guts and decrepit creatures. While a lot of that fills The Evil Within 2, its visuals aren’t as scummy or as worn as they were the last time around. Union presents a cleaner look than the mind of the madman did, and some may not like that as much. It’s also more colourful, and brighter than what came before it.

Textures can look kind of waxy, especially when it comes to character models, leaving them feeling like they’re missing some detail. As I progressed towards the credits, I also started to notice more blurry textures within the environments and on the items that I was picking up. At times, it seemed like certain ones failed to fully load in, but the game does have a bit of a blurry look to it in general. It’s definitely not as sharp as it could be, and isn’t without occasional glitches, including whatever caused it to crash on me during one of the campaign’s most difficult segments.

Overall, The Evil Within 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor in almost every way. It’s cleaner, more user friendly and also more enjoyable, though frustration does seep in, mostly during the endgame where ammunition is far too scarce. This is a good game though, albeit one whose first half is markedly better than its second. Thus, it’s an easy choice for Halloween playtime.

Overall Score: 7.9 / 10 Splasher

With so many games releasing each and every month, it’s hard for every standout title to receive the recognition it deserves, especially if it comes from the realm of indie gaming. Every so often indies hit it big and become the talk of the town, or industry if you’d prefer, but just as many others fail to receive the buzz that their quality suggests they should though, which can be sad.

What’s worrying is that Splasher, from SplashTeam, Playdius and Plug In Digital, could end up becoming one such title. Here’s hoping that won’t end up being the case though, because this is one title that deserves a lot of recognition.

After first coming to life on Steam, Splasher has now made its way to the Xbox One, with an in-development Nintendo Switch version having yet to be released. It comes with lots of promise too, with colourful visuals, a zany attitude, and gameplay that looks to mix at least two of platforming’s best and brightest together. What’s great then, is that the game actually lives up to said promise, and stands out as being one of the better platformers in recent memory.

Fans of Super Meat Boy will like this one, because it’s very similar in a lot of respects. However, unlike that nefariously difficult, and often sadistic experience, is that this one isn’t so hard on its players. The result is a game that is challenging, but never unfair, while rewarding those who go out of their way in an attempt to achieve 100% completion.

Each of Splasher’s 22 levels is both a speed run challenge and a test of one’s platforming skills, with time trials available for those who’d really like to see how they stack up. With punny and comedic names like Water is Coming and Rayman Origin, they’re all challenging, but fair, and walk the line that runs between the two. That’s not to say that you won’t die, because you will do so a lot, unless you’re someone who’s an absolute master when it comes to these types of games. Even then, you’ll still perish the odd time, because even though Splasher’s mechanics are very solid and present a lot of polish, they aren’t always perfect and sometimes end up failing you.

Such can be the case with this type of platformer, however, and it’s tough to be perfect all the time.

The general idea here is that you’re an everyman – a hero who’s taken up arms (or ink, as is the case here) in an attempt to stop the madness at the place you call work. That is Inkorp, an ink plant that is hiding a terrible secret. One that involves a maniacal asshat using technology and available resources to make heinous super soldiers behind closed doors.

With Inkorp’s oddly set-up lobby acting as a level select hub that is itself full of platforming, your goal is to unlock each door and complete all of the levels that lay behind them. This isn’t accomplished by mere progression, and is actually predicated upon the amount of collectibles you find as you go through each stage. By that, I mean human beings who used to work at the factory before things went haywire, and who have found themselves trapped in ink or locked in cages.

In order to get through each level’s twisted menagerie of platforms, walls, saws, enemies, poison, and water, you’ll need to use your wits and think ahead. Speed is good, but staying alive is the most important thing, and you’ll need to use what’s at your disposal in order to remain with the living. What’s good though is that most checkpoints are pretty fair, even if there are some that will send you back a decent ways upon dying.

After seeing what was happening behind closed doors, our unnamed hero grabs a tool and is able to use it to his advantage in his attempt to escape and right the aforementioned wrongs. He does this by either spraying water or shooting ink, both of which play important roles. Water, you see, can damage enemies, turn turbines (that move or open platforms) and help you collect the golden ink that litters each stage. Red ink, on the other hand, can slow enemies to a crawl, and can also be used to stick oneself to walls and ceilings.

A lot of the game is made up of using ink and water to get from point A to point B, while trying to save as many workers, and collect as much gold ink, as you can. The developers throw quite a bit at you though, including lasers, saws, poison, and enemies that can both fly and run. There are even portals that can be entered, wherein challenge rooms await, their prizes being human collectibles.

What’s neat, in an homage to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater kind of way, is that each level only has enough trapped workers to spell the word Splash! As you save them, they’ll form the word on the top left part of the screen, and will help you keep track of how many you’ve found and how many are left. The exclamation point is important too, because it’s always made up by one final worker, who’s been trapped at the end of each stage. To free him, you must collect 700 points worth of golden ink, then deposit it into the trap that is holding him hostage.

Splasher is as fun, polished and well made as it is colourful, with very cartoony visuals complementing its zany action. Things look hand drawn, and both the environments and their enemies really pop off the screen. This is saying a lot, considering that the game takes place within a factory, which is mostly made up of metallic walls and floors, with wire grates providing accents. Then again, the enemies, the water, the ink and the poison that fills them all act as colourful accents too.

There isn’t much in the way of audio, outside of some frantic music and the sound effects that result from your actions. There’s lots of personality in just those tunes and noises though, which is fitting within what is already a very colourful game.

Needless to say, Splasher is a must play for any platforming fan. Although it’s not all that long, coming in at maybe a few hours in length, with deaths making up a lot of that, it’s very well made and stands out for many reasons, and with this in mind it is very easy to recommend.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 DreamBreak

Although triple-A releases tend to steal the spotlight during any given week or month, indie games offer 'outside-of-the-box' thinking that their bigger budget peers sometimes lack. Some push boundaries, while others try to communicate their messages through quirky gameplay or stylistic choices. There are also others that use retro-inspired designs to both pay homage to the games of yesteryear and deliver something nostalgic. DreamBreak, from developer Aist Studios, is one such title.

Set in an alternate universe, DreamBreak’s action is centered in an advanced, post Cold War USSR, where robots offer defense and the government propaganda controls folks’ minds. It’s here where we find a lowly, down on his luck janitor named Eugene, who becomes an unwitting pawn in the anti-establishment resistance. This all begins on a regular, somewhat sunny day, where things feel like they always have and little seems out of place.

After making his way to work, Eugene finds himself busy with dangerous repairs such as fixing toilets with BioShock-esque pipe puzzles and fixing the power while dealing with hazardous conditions. It isn’t long though before things change, as our nondescript protagonist finds a note on some sort of device, which tells the whoever finds it to run. What follows is a surprising murder, and the beginning of an unexpected one to two hour-long espionage quest for the resistance itself.

Although DreamBreak’s general story is intriguing, it’s not an incredibly deep game in terms of its narrative. The developer has tried to create something that makes you feel like you’re a part of something unique and interesting, but almost all of the narrative is told through messages, propaganda, and hidden notes that are completely optional. There is some dialogue, but even it is basic, taking the form of a few written sentences (at most) which appear over different NPCs’ heads as you walk by them.

Short is the word of the day here, because what developer Aist has created is far from lengthy, or even an average length. Then again, indie games tend to be shorter than most big budget releases, so it’s not like this is unexpected. The truth of the matter is, however, that this particular game can be completed in an hour if you know what you’re doing, and it is only about 90 minutes long in terms of its first playthrough length. There are two different endings to be experienced, but you can see both by simply reloading your final save.

As a whole, DreamBreak is best described as a modern homage to games like Another World and Flashback, complete with visuals that ape what was considered bleeding edge twenty-five to thirty years ago. It’s all artistically done however, thanks to shaders and more modern takes on such looks and animation. A lot of it does bring forth an Atari vibe though, especially when it comes to the in-game arcade unit that can be played for two different achievements.

What you won’t realize at first is that said arcade game – which tasks you to duel against approximately forty-two different bandits, while using basic shot and block mechanics – actually teaches you how to battle against the police and robots that you’ll come across later on in the actual game. Of course, it’s completely optional, unlike the enemy encounters themselves, which must be completed in order to progress. All you’re doing during both though is shooting, then pressing the shield button whenever you see a bullet come out of your foe’s gun. It’s very simple stuff, which would’ve been right at home on the Atari 2600 or something else from that time period.

Don’t expect to engage in a lot of gunfights, because they’re relatively few and far between. Most of DreamBreak actually involves making your way through different environments, while avoiding either detection or death at the hands of robotic security devices. This means lots of climbing and jumping (in Olympic fashion, as Eugene is quite the long jumper), as well as hacking, the latter of which helps you manipulate the environment to your advantage.

Everything about this game is retro and that includes the music, which is decent, as well as the gameplay and controls. What this means is that you can expect clunky movement and dated mechanics, which often combine to make the experience more frustrating than fun. This is especially true when it comes to jumping, because it’s easy to make a mistake and end up dying, either by touching a hazard while attempting a jump or by jumping too far.

At certain points, you’ll also find yourself engaged in different mini-games. There’s one where you fly an air bike while attempting to avoid walls and platforms, and another one that is story-based and locks you in a flying cab while it’s under assault from police drones. The latter one is particular frustrating, because it requires a lot of fast and precise movement.

During the cab sequence, the only thing you can control is your attacks. This doesn’t mean doing something simple, like holding the left joystick and pressing a button to fire a machine gun. No, the only way to kill the many flying robots – who must each be downed in a very limited amount of time, or else you’ll find yourself falling towards ground and needing to retry – is to highlight them, press a button and then use the left joystick to trace a unique path that shows up on-screen. One may be left two squares, up four squares then right two more.

If you’re not fast, adept and on your toes here, you’ll surely die and become very frustrated as a result. Although the cursor rotates from left to right, and will stop on any drone it comes into contact with, letting it do so naturally won’t be your key to success. I tried this multiple times, but found that I had to get used to highlighting them myself by holding either left or right on the stick in order to manipulate the rotating cursor to have any kind of chance.

This is just one example of a game that is more obtuse than it should be and it punishes the gamer unnecessarily as a result. In fact, DreamBreak should have been a lot more enjoyable than it was – despite its clunky inputs and mechanics – but the developers designed it in a way that it’s sure to frustrate everyone who gives it a chance.

Still, there is a decent amount of charm hidden behind all of DreamBreak’s rough edges. You just need to be willing to overlook some obtuse, aggravating and often cheap engagements and puzzles in order to see it. This is something that I doubt a lot of folks will be willing to do, and the game’s retro design is also likely to make it a tough sell to most.

Needless to say, this is a dated experience that will only appeal to a certain type of gamer. That is, folks who grew up with this type of game, or those who consider themselves students of the medium. DreamBreak is definitely a tough sell, but it’ll be worth it for people who fall into either of these categories. That’s especially true since there aren’t many games like this these days.

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Maize

Like music, literature and movies, video games are a varied beast. They come in all colours, sizes and varieties; something which has never been more true than it is now. The reason? Well, that’s simple: indie games and their developers’ creativity, not to mention the freedom that comes with lower budgets and not having to worry about bending to a publisher’s wishes.

During its several years in existence, Microsoft’s Xbox One has played host to many different indie games, some of which have been better than others. There have been weird ones, for sure, but few have been stranger than Finish Line Games’ Maize, which comes to us from beautiful Toronto, Ontario, Canada. If that name rings a bell, it’s because you played Cel Damage HD, which the studio handled porting and improvement duties for.

Maize is a strange beast, and one that will elicit different opinions from each and every person who plays it. That’s because, not only is it weird and out there, but it’s also clunky and imperfect, with a very clunky opening that is further hindered by performance issues. Underneath the problems, though, lays a narrative so unique that it can’t help but be endearing.

Things begin in a nondescript cornfield, where the player’s avatar awakens and begins his first-person journey. He isn’t alone, though, as right from the get-go it becomes apparent that this isn’t just an everyday farm. After all, it’s not everyday that you see pieces of corn move and run out of frame, using their stalks as legs.

It’s due to the above that Maize is referred to as the game with the sentient corn. There’s quite a bit more to it, though, even if it only lasts three to four hours.

As a game, Maize is best described as a first-person point-and-click adventure game, which is a term that fits it relatively well. As such, you can expect the majority of your time with it to be spent going from area to area, or room to room, picking up different items. Said random pieces are then used in combination with others, in order to solve puzzles and aid your progression forward, be it through the farm itself, or the underground science lab that it hides.

The puzzles are weird, too, and sometimes very obtuse, to the point where a walkthrough can become your best friend. Although I hate using guides, I broke down and had to do so this time around, because I got stuck more than once. It doesn’t help that very little explanation is given, nor does it help when you’re occasionally tasked with using random objects in strange ways.

At the start of the game, you’ll find yourself holding a piece of bread, some nail clippers, rancid corn oil, a sink plug and a rusty nail. Then, later on, you’ll pick up a plethora of other odd things that could easily be called junk. Each one serves a purpose, either as a folio item (things like newspaper clippings, invoices and random junk that flesh out the story and are saved to your menu-based collection) or puzzle items that you can carry around and cycle between.

The end goal, of course, is to find every important puzzle item and use them together in the right way, not to mention the right order. Doing so will help you get through the game’s puzzles and challenges, all in an attempt to learn more about the experiments that created said sentient corn. At least, that’s your base goal. There’s more to the story, but it cannot be said, else everything will be spoiled.

Over the course of your journey, you’ll visit a farmhouse, a scientific laboratory and the average farm exterior, complete with an outhouse, a greenhouse, a silo and a barn. This one also has a pool, though it’s currently filled with radioactive waste. Thus, one can tell that the government hasn’t inspected the place in quite some time.

Despite its quirkiness, however, the gameplay that makes up Maize is clunky, occasionally obtuse and far from special. You simply walk through those different environments looking for things that stand out and glow in the dark. These are items that you can pick up and collect.

Little skill is required, but a good set of eyes are necessary, because it can be easy to miss things. This is especially true of a piece of tape that you’ll need for grabbing fingerprints off of a keyboard. I missed seeing it and picking it up on more than one occasion, and it wasn’t the only item that I had a hard time seeing.

Truth be told, I actually hated Maize the first time I played it; so much so that I dreaded going back to it and playing through the rest. It was clunky, rather ugly (the dark farmhouse with the glowing items, especially) and it ran poorly. That said, I’d only played about 5% of it then, so when I went back to it I had about 95% left to complete. And, you know what? It grew on me and became endearing. Not because of its gameplay, but its characters and quirky storyline, which has more than a couple talking (and walking) pieces of corn in it.

Sentient corn aren’t the stars of this show, however, even though the game is named Maize in reference to that vegetable. No, the real star here is an angry Russian bear named Vladdy, whom the player brings to life by combining a toy bear with an old computer and a stick of RAM.

Vladdy is a badass, and his constant spouting of anger-based one-liners turns a dull and bland game into a comedic and enjoyable one. Honestly, if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I’d be giving this thing a positive score. He’s instrumental when it comes to the game’s enjoyment factor, and is hilarious in the way that he constantly berates the player, calling him or her a stupid idiot.

Maize does get better as it goes along, though, and there are two other characters who make for humorous content. Bob and Ted are their names, and they’re the two founders of the lab that hides underneath the farm and happens to have given birth to the walking, talking and dancing corn who stalk its hallways.

Although Bob and Ted are never seen, their personalities are felt in every room because of the messes they’ve made and the notes that they’ve left each other. Bob, you see, is an idiot of a scientist who loved spending outlandish amounts of money on stupid things, like statues, paintings, brochures and numerous amounts of lobbies. Why? Well, he had it in his mind that the lab would become open to tours, which was obviously never going to happen. Ted tried telling him this, but he just wouldn’t listen.

There are well over a hundred different Post-It notes spread around the base, with blue signaling Ted and pink used for Bob. What’s funny is that, although all of Ted’s notes are angry and full of yelling, he always signs off with “Cordially, Ted.” Then, even though Bob is an idiot and a slob (whose bedroom is a complete write-off), all of his notes are written in fine, articulate handwriting.

Needless to say, Maize’s real and lasting charm doesn’t come from its gameplay. Instead, the best things about this short indie affair come from its quirky characters and unique narrative. The game that surrounds them is mostly just busywork, although it has its moments.

Visually, Maize is nothing special. It runs poorly on the Xbox One – especially during its outdoor segments – and looks dated. The sound work is better, though, and it’s the voice acting and 80s synth-style music that really stand out. For some reason, all of the male corn characters speak with British accents and like to do only two different things: nap and stand in front of walls.

Should you buy Maize? Maybe, but perhaps not. If you’re looking for something quirky, unique and downright weird, then this is definitely worth looking into, provided that you’re okay with some obtuse busywork and clunky mechanics. On the other hand, if you’re looking for polish, length and replay value, you may want to look elsewhere.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 5.9 / 10 Planet of the Eyes

Narrative-driven, LIMBO-style puzzle/platformers have become popular ever since PlayDead unleashed the challenging, black and white-hued tale of a boy who finds himself on the edge of Hell. We recently reviewed Black the Fall, which took a similar form, and now there’s Planet of the Eyes, which has just migrated over from Steam.

Developed by Toronto-based Cococucumber, Planet of the Eyes is a short but memorable game that was crafted with help from the Ontario government. Their efforts, support, and aid paid off too, as the title ended up as a finalist for “Best Indie Game” at the Canadian Video Game Awards. That’s an honour that not only hangs prominently everywhere this thing is sold, but one that is also well deserved, even if there are factors that keep the interplanetary experience from being exceptionally great.

This brief one-and-half hour-long tale begins after a crash landing, during which a human piloted craft has found itself marooned on an alien planet. That is, the titular Planet of the Eyes, which forms the environment in which this entire excursion takes place. However, while such a name promises something epic, perhaps in the over-exaggerated style of 1950s science fiction, it doesn’t deliver as much as it could’ve in that department. The planet is home to quite a few eyes, many of which have tentacles for bodies, but they're not focused upon enough given the name.

At the centre of this alien excursion is an unnamed, sentient robot, whose creator speaks to him through discarded audiotapes. Our hero, who never speaks or utters any sort of distinguishable form of dialogue, awakens outside the large shuttle craft and is propelled from left to right as ‘he’ explores his new surroundings. What results is a LIMBO-esque puzzle platformer, which combines both physics and environmental hazards to create the majority of its thinking man’s challenges. After all, fictional alien planets are never portrayed as hospitable environments, and this one is no different, what with its falling lava, robot-eating fauna and pinpointing laser beams.

Don’t go into Planet of the Eyes expecting something super challenging, or even obtuse, because you won’t find it here. Instead, what results from the aforementioned premise is a game that makes you think but is hardly ever punishing, or even all that challenging. Instead, the experience that exists is quite serene, explorative and fantastical as opposed to being downright difficult or frustration inducing. Its short length aids this too, because the game never overstays its welcome or becomes boring. Then again, the other side of the argument is that an hour-and-a-half is perhaps too short for such a title.

It’s good to take your time here, because there are hidden secrets and caverns to explore, as well some water-filled depths to swim. Beware of the monsters – electric eels, large fish, dangerous plants, giant spiders and robot eating beetles – that exist throughout though, because they care little about ending one’s metallic life. This exploration certainly has its rewards, because achievement seekers will find that almost all of the game’s Gamerscore rewards are based around going off the beaten path.

Outside of being able to walk and jump (decently, but not with the same grace and execution as Mario or Luigi), this unnamed grey robot can not only swim, but also grab onto things and use vines to swing. This allows him to get across dangerous crevasses; which is something that is also accomplished by using the world’s physics to your advantage. Through this, falling platforms, sliding trees and self-propelled carts become friends and allies, and act as the only way forward despite their occasional attempts to kill you.

Visually, Planet of the Eyes is a treat, albeit a basic one. Despite using a Flash-style engine to create its characters, environments, and everything that exists within them, Cococucumber’s flagship effort stands out due to its use of colour. The music and sound effects are also very fitting, while the only voice of any sort comes from the robot’s AI creator who fleshes out the storyline with his plot and relationship driven dialogue.

At the end of the day, Planet of the Eyes’ value depends on the type of gamer you are. If you’re someone with limited spending ability, or someone who values substance, then this may not be the title for you since it’s very short and doesn’t have a lot of replay value. However, if you’re someone who likes to have different experiences within the realm of gaming, or someone who simply likes to support solid and ambitious indie titles, then this is something to definitely look into. After all, there’s a good game here, even if it’s over rather quickly.

***This review is based on a copy of the game that we were provided with***

Overall Score: 7.4 / 10 Agents of Mayhem

After several successful Saints Row games, Chicago-based Volition decided to do something different. The result is Agents of Mayhem; a game that marks a change of direction, albeit mostly just in a gameplay sense. You see, though it is not Saints Row in name, nor in direct comparison, there’s still a lot of its predecessor’s DNA to be found within its coded veins.

Best described as a loose spinoff, Agents of Mayhem takes place in an alternate dimension within the same multiverse as the Saints games that came before it. As such, it drops players into a different world that has never known the colourful gang. Instead, it looks up to M.A.Y.H.E.M., a group of unique heroes who’ve joined together to fight incoming threats under its raven-haired and black dress clad leader, Persephone.

All of the action held within actually takes place following the retconned ending of Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell, which will make sense to those who’ve played through that game and remember a lot about it. Those who haven’t needn’t worry though, because story isn’t the primary focus of this title, nor does it possess a rich plot, let alone one that is explained in great detail. All you really need to know is that the world is under attack, and that the worst of it is centered upon Seoul, South Korea.

Fighting against M.A.Y.H.E.M. is a criminal organization known as L.E.G.I.O.N. which is made up of more than one arm, all of which are named after sins like greed, gluttony and envy. It’s the Ministry of Pride that is up to no good here, and it’s all thanks to one Doctor Babylon and his lieutenants, the list of which includes not one but two pop stars, as well as a mad scientist and a crazed expert programmer.

Following a crippling global event known as Devil’s Day, the world has fallen under the control of L.E.G.I.O.N. and its several different divisions. Having crippled the world’s governments, these evildoers are continuing their fight against humankind, all while scouring outer space for powerful crystals.

The problem with this storyline isn’t its colourful cast of original characters, or the way it’s presented through Saturday morning cartoon-inspired cutscenes. No, what holds it back is its lack of depth. Lots is referenced – including Devil’s Night – but little detail is actually given about the event. The same is true of L.E.G.I.O.N. itself, as well as how M.A.Y.H.E.M. actually came to be. Sure, there’s lots of talk about how Persephone used to be a part of one of the evil Ministries, but we’re not told why she switched teams.

To be honest, I actually had to look at the game’s wiki page, in order to find out more about what actually went on. These are details that the campaign should have given to me instead of simply hinting at them. Then again, story wasn’t meant to be the main focus of Agents of Mayhem, and at the end of the day it definitely isn’t. It’s the twelve different heroes that are meant to take center stage, and that they definitely do.

At the onset, players are given control of three different agents, those being Hollywood (a famous actor who carries an assault rifle and is of the all around type), Fortune (whose dual pistols pack quite the punch, while complementing her stun abilities and damage-focused stats), and Hardtack (who’s a shotgun wielding tank). Together, these three form the Franchise Force, which is just one of several nicknamed M.A.Y.H.E.M. trios.

Through progression within the main storyline and optional character-based missions, players will unlock up to nine other agents, all of whom possess their own weapons, skills and special abilities. Some of the more memorable ones include former Russian elite soldier, Yeti, whose cold skin and freeze ray are the result of special experiments; Daisy, the drunken roller derby chick whose love of booze is only matched by the excitement she gets from using her mini-gun; Oni, the Japanese criminal who looks and plays a lot like an Asian version of John Wick and Braddock, the female (American) marine who can not only take a lot of damage, but also dish it out through the use of her SMG and annihilation rays.

Truth be told, all of the agents stand out for different reasons, making it hard to list just a handful of them. All of the above were fun to play as, but I also enjoyed my time with the others, such as the soccer-loving hooligan, Red Card, and Joule, the turret-loving hacker. The same is true of Kingpin, who just so happens to be Pierce Washington from Saints Row fame, and the ninja, Scheherazade, who is perhaps the best of the bunch. After all, it’s hard to beat ninjas, especially when they carry incredibly powerful swords that can take out basic enemies in just one slice.

The way things work is that you can only employ the services of three different agents at one time, by creating a three-person squad. This is done every time you leave the Ark, which is the fancy name for the floating sky fortress that M.A.Y.H.E.M. runs its operations out of. It can be visited at whim, simply through the press of a couple buttons. Then, once you’re there, you can upgrade or alter your agents’ loadouts, choose a different vehicle to equip, research and develop different types of technological buffs or participate in thirty-one different VR testing challenges. Going further, this flying hub is also where you’ll find the global operations map, which allows you to send (up to three) agents to different parts of the globe, in order to both fight against L.E.G.I.O.N. threats and collect loot. That is, new character or weapon skins, money and scrap materials that can be put to use in your R&D department.

After choosing, outfitting and equipping your chosen trio (with special buffs that give them bonus health, increased rounds, or the ability to cast different status effects against foes), you’re ready to go and tackle whichever mission you choose. For the most part, all of the main objectives allow any type of team to tackle them, but there is one that requires you to have an elite hacker in your grouping. Why, I don’t know, because it’s not the first to require players to hack into enemy computers or security systems. In fact, that’s a common objective and something you’ll do a lot throughout the game’s fifteen to thirty hour runtime. It’s not like it’s difficult, either, as all you need to do is press the A button a few times.

This is just one of the questionable design decisions that have combined to make Agents of Mayhem a middling game instead of a great one. The most perplexing one, though, comes from Volition's decision to abstain from adding any sort of multiplayer or co-operative play into the mix. Although this game screams for co-op, it doesn't offer it at all, and is a completely solo adventure instead.

The idea behind Agents of Mayhem is that each character you play as will offer a different experience, as you shoot and explode your way through thousands of enemy troops. This is definitely true, but the agents’ personalities and unique abilities are not able to make up for the shortcomings that are so prevalent throughout the game’s mission structure. I mean, you can only shoot the same enemies for so long before it gets tedious, or battle (and hack) your way through terribly similar looking underground bases before you realize that variety is lacking. Therein lays the main problem with this experience: its lack of variety, which leads to tons of repetition.

Unfortunately, Agents of Mayhem is nowhere near as creative or inventive as the Saints Row games were, nor is it as fun. It’s a shame too, because Volition has a lot of talent up its collective sleeve and is one of the better developers in modern day gaming. They’ve been around for a while, and have created some of my favourite games, including the original Red Faction and some of its sequels.

It must also be said that the campaign, itself, is surprisingly short. Even though the game consists of fifty-seven different missions, twenty or more of those are specific to different agents, leaving the rest as story content. That may sound like a lot, but when you consider that the engagements are generally quite short, lasting only five to twenty minutes at most, you can understand how it goes by so quickly. That’s not to say it’s over in an instant; it’s just not as long as one would expect, and despite the fact that there are several different L.E.G.I.O.N. underbosses to battle against, there’s hardly enough time to get to know each one. In fact, it seemed as if each boss’ arc was only made up of three or four missions. Then, it was on to the next one.

Truth be told, the most fun I had with Agents of Mayhem came from its optional content, that being the open world foot races and the optional, agent-based missions. The latter are what stand out most, though, because they let you get to know each of the unlockable heroes and what they’re fighting for. It’s also a good way to find out how they play, especially since you’re locked in as that one character for at least part of their story.

Still, what this all boils down to is doing the same things over and over again. You run, drive or jump from one part of the city to the next, and blow away multiple groups of enemies as you do so. Sure, there’s some variety in the types of baddies you’ll fight, but not enough to avoid repetition, and even having 12 different heroes can’t make up for that. Even the boss battles aren’t all that great, as they generally just boil down to the same thing: shooting at this or that, then shooting at something different, all while waiting for your special Mayhem ability to unlock so that you can unleash additional damage and look awesome while doing so.

Speaking of Mayhem abilities, it’s important to note that every character can pull off two different specials. One, which has timed delays, is handled using the right bumper button, with some examples being sending out self-firing turrets, shooting underground grenades or gaining haste as you await your mini-gun’s cooldown period to end. The Mayhem ability, on the other hand, is triggered whenever you’ve killed enough enemies, or by picking up a purple fleur de lis. That is, the Saints’ iconic logo, which M.A.Y.H.E.M. wears within this alternate universe.

Mayhem abilities can be pretty badass, not to mention devastating. Braddock’s is by far the best of the bunch, too, because it brings down powerful sky rays that obliterate everything they touch. On the other hand, there are some who simply receive bonus damage or stealth, which makes them less appealing. The women also tend to just generally steal the show here, as the female gender makes up most of the best playable agents, including Braddock, Scheherazade and Daisy.

Picking up a fleur de lis can also heal or revive your allies, but that’s not the only way to do this. In fact, the game is made much easier by a piece of tech that you can research then create as many times as you’d like. When equipped, this helpful gadget can be used to revive and heal all of your heroes whenever one or two of them fall, and can also bring all three back to life if you fail in battle. Needless to say, it’s a pretty helpful asset, especially when you consider that Agents of Mayhem has more than ten different difficulty levels.

I can’t remember a game ever having so many difficulty levels, nor can I remember one automatically changing its challenge level as often as this one does. For some reason, I would regularly have to alter it when I’d visit the Ark, because the game had automatically adjusted it upwards to a level that I didn’t want to be on. This may prove frustrating for those who go for the achievement that rewards you for beating every story mission on the seventh difficulty, or higher. I say that because I’ve read that the difficulty will also automatically lower if you keep dying, and it likely won’t alert you when it does so.

Moving on, it’s time to talk about Seoul, which is definitely an interesting choice for a video game’s setting. It’s hard not to appreciate the developers’ outside of the box thinking when it comes to that, but they definitely could’ve created something better and less repetitive than what we’ve received here. AoM’s version of Seoul is the city of the future, with tons of neon and many holograms strewn throughout. This ties in well with the game’s heavily cel-shaded and futuristic look, but tends to get quite repetitive since there’s no real variety, nor are there any discernable sector changes. The city looks the same throughout, and it suffers because of it. That's certainly not aided by the lack of interesting things to do, because outside of some races, some hidden lairs (which are also practically identical to those that are found in the campaign) and some L.E.G.I.O.N. weapons to take down, there isn’t much of substance available. Sure, you can drive, but the mechanics are somewhat floaty and it’s often more fun to run and jump your way through the city. Motion blur is also a factor, and it may be enough to keep some from wanting to drive, due to the mix of speed and cel-shading.

If the above sounds a lot like Crackdown to you, you’re not imagining it. Although Agents of Mayhem comes to us from a different developer, it does feel similar to Microsoft’s open world series in many ways. The Agents’ triple jump ability is one, as is the fact that red crystal shards are hidden throughout Seoul, with many being found on rooftops. Then, there’s the similar-looking mission icons, as well as the heavily cel-shaded visuals and neon-heavy world. The gameplay is different, for sure, but not incredibly different to the point where it doesn’t sometimes feel similar.

Of course, Crackdown doesn't have the same type of humour as Saints Row, and by extension that is true here. You won't hear dick jokes, overexaggerated dialogue or such caricatured acting there either, but you will here. Agents of Mayhem doesn't get too stupid, though, and doesn't even go as far as Saints Row did. There's still a good amount of toilet humour, though, and the voice acting is fitting. The music, on the other hand, is severely lacking.

So, is Agents of Mayhem worth a purchase? That really depends on how much extra cash you have laying around. If you’re someone who has limited spending ability and can only buy a select amount of games each year, you’re better off saving your money for something else and maybe waiting for a sale or price drop on this one. There’s nothing about this game that really stands out or separates it from the pack in any meaningful way, which is disappointing for more than just one reason. Still, it's got a few funny lines, has some solid moments and can be somewhat fun.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 6.1 / 10 Black The Fall

Those of us who live in first world countries tend to take our freedom for granted. It’s not because we’re unappreciative of what others have done for us during wartime, nor is it because we’re unaware of their sacrifices. Instead, it’s blissful ignorance that comes from not having to think or worry about such things during day-to-day life.

The sad thing though, is that life isn't like that for every inhabitant of this planet we call Earth. Many continue to suffer under communist regimes, and many have suffered similarly or worse throughout history.

Enter Romanian developer Sand Sailor Studio and its debut game, Black the Fall. It is a very depressing and dark Orwellian experience that doesn’t hold any punches in its portrayal of the communist attitude and everything that has come with it. Things like distrust, food rationing, abuse and dehumanizing work environments.

In Black the Fall, you take control of an unnamed machinist who’s had enough of his day-to-day life inside a dark, heavily secured and outright terrible work camp. One that is partially underground and forces its workers (read: prisoners) to run themselves ragged until they cannot work anymore. The result is lots of premature death, although those at the helm could seemingly care less.

This two to three hour-long experience takes the form of a LIMBO-style puzzle platformer, albeit one that doesn’t have the same amount of charm as PlayDead’s beloved classic does. This means gameplay is based on right to left movement across 2D environments, as well as tons of running, jumping, climbing and hiding. Sometimes being quick on the draw with one's platforming can also mean the difference between solving a puzzle and staying alive, or dying and having to try again.

Those who decide to give this mature game/political statement a chance can expect to do lots of running, and you can also look forward to lots of puzzles involving lasers. You see, although the main character is never introduced, and never speaks (there’s absolutely zero dialogue in this game, nor is there any text), our protagonist is a spry and inventive man. As such, it isn’t far into his escape attempt that he comes across and steals a laser pointer of sorts. After that, the tool becomes the key to solving the majority of the campaign’s remaining puzzles.

Aiming the laser pointer is accomplished by moving the right joystick around and pointing it at switches, mirrors or other workers. Through this, you can make others do your dirty work, or bounce and angle the light where it needs to go. Elevators also require a similar mechanic for use, as holding the white laser upwards makes them ascend, whereas holding it downwards makes them descend.

The first half or more of Black the Fall is all about using this laser to bypass dangerous situations, including blockades, turrets, guards and red laser grids. For the most part, it’s all pretty straightforward, as is the platforming that goes along with it. Platforming as in jumping from one bridge to another, or climbing and maneuvering oneself across vents and catwalks in order to avoid detection.

Later on things open up more, although everything still remains on a 2D plane. It’s at this point where mechs that resemble Star Wars’ AT-STs are introduced and must be avoided.

Our machinist isn’t alone during this section, as he ends up coming across a friend that is best described as a misshapen robotic dog. And, after joining your cause, this robot ends up becoming the key to solving quite a few puzzles, some of which require you to climb onto or hold onto its metallic body. There are others though, that will require quick platforming, fast thinking and knowledge of basic physics.

Getting the robotic dog to go where you want it to is actually pretty simple. Although it follows you around by nature, telling it to go to a certain place, or interact with a specific object, is as simple as aiming the laser pointer and pressing a button. You can also walk up to it and press the interact button in order to turn the thing into a platform of sorts, which then allows you to reach greater heights. Needless to say, it’s pretty helpful.

What’s good about Black the Fall is that it has a point. That is, to educate the western world about the terrible and inhumane indignities that people in Romania (and other similar countries) have endured throughout history. Sure, it’s not exact in its storytelling, given that sentient robots and Star Wars-like mechs never factored in, but sometimes eccentricities are okay.

That said, Black the Fall isn’t exactly the most entertaining game around, nor is it the longest or the most memorable. It’s interesting while it lasts, for sure, but it does suffer from tedium due to repetition. Variety is also lacking, so make sure to note that before spending any money.

My time with the Xbox One version was also not without its moments of frustration. I say that because I ran into glitches on several different occasions, starting with the first time I loaded the game up and found that it wouldn’t start. I’d pressed the correct button, but the loading wheel simply kept spinning while the main menu animation looped over and over again.

Black the Fall can be finicky and isn’t without gameplay glitches; however, the one that I experienced most often was crash related as opposed to anything else. As I played, I would occasionally check the Microsoft Edge app for a second before going back to the game. Well, two or three of the times that I did this resulted in the game crashing and I needed to restart it before I could continue. I’d pause it, go to the guide, select the browser app and do what I wanted to do. Then, when I tried to go back to the game it’d need to boot up all over again.

I guess it goes without saying, but due to all of the above, Black the Fall isn't something that the average gamer will really enjoy or appreciate. It’s made for a certain and mature audience, for sure. That’s okay though, because those who are looking for something different (or just happen to love LIMBO and games like it) will appreciate what Sand Sailor Studio has attempted with its debut effort, even if it’s somewhat repetitive, occasionally tedious, sometimes glitchy and a bit rough around the edges.

So, now that that’s all out of the way, how does the game look and sound? Well, the best way to describe its art style would be to call it muted. The colour palette is generally dark and drab, the human characters all lack facial features, and you almost never get a good look at the machinist you’re playing as because the camera is zoomed out so far. This is all purposefully done though, in order to create a depressing atmosphere and show how inhumane similar institutions were.

The only audio to be found comes in the form of sound effects and music, or the odd TV showing communist propaganda. There’s never any dialogue though, even from the televisions found in game. Instead, different noises come out of their speakers, while the machinist’s platforming and puzzle solving create other expected sounds. The music itself is original and orchestral, but it’s not used to excess.

At $14.99 USD/$19.99 CAD, Black the Fall is a tough recommendation. On the one hand, it’s a decent video game with something interesting to say. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the value in such a price tag, as this is merely a two to three hour experience, and one that doesn’t have any replay value.

Overall Score: 6.2 / 10 Get Even

The terms ‘underrated’ and ‘hidden gem’ are thrown around a lot, but it’s often for good reason. Get Even, the latest game from Polish developers The Farm 51 (Painkiller: Hell and Damnation, Deadfall Adventures) is one of these cases, as it provides a great example of a quality game that will most likely be overlooked due to a lack of marketing and limited word of mouth.

Here’s hoping that this won’t end up being the case though, because mature gamers owe it to themselves to give this dreamstate mindbend at least one playthrough.

Taking the form of a first-person shooter, albeit not the typical, bullet-heavy type, Get Even is a game about exploring one’s memories in order to piece together what happened. Specifically, how a young woman was kidnapped, who’s to blame, and what their motive was. Even then, the answers are clouded in mystery and can leave more questions than they answer if you don’t do enough exploring or figure out exactly what’s gone on.

Within these confines, you play as Cole Black, a former criminal turned security official (and man for hire) who’s lost the ability to remember. After watching him succumb to the effects of an explosive blast, we find our protagonist outside of an abandoned mental institution. It’s a location where Mr. Black should have stayed out of though, because it isn’t long before he’s knocked out and comes to with a strange device strapped to his head. An experimental, high-tech memory exploration device, if you will.

Upon waking, you’re greeted by a man (or woman) named Red, whose communication with the player (and Mr. Black) takes place through radio chatter and TV screens. Red is as mysterious as anything in this game too, because the character’s face is blackened while on-screen, and their voice alternates between male and female frequencies. All we know about this shadow figure is that he or she serves a purpose and it’s not hard to deduce that they’re behind our entrapment within the closed down, deteriorating asylum.

The whole concept behind this game is that, through photographs, Cole is able to travel back in time and explore memories he’s otherwise forgotten. The machine is to blame for this ability, and it’s finicky beyond belief, meaning that it can’t always be trusted. Fragments can be missing, glitches do occur and killing enough enemies can cause disruptions, although those are warned about more often than they’re actually experienced.

Over the course of the next eight hours, players will find themselves hopping between memory state and the present, wherein they get to explore the asylum and talk to its unique and sometimes dangerous patients. Along the way, they’ll come across some interesting moral decisions, such as whether to let certain characters out of holding. Your choices will always matter too, because who you help will determine how things will play out later, and can lead to the deaths of important characters who play notable roles in the asylum’s story. Furthermore, making the wrong choice can affect your ending, as well as which achievements you’ll unlock.

How you tackle each memory sequence also affects the endgame, because you’re rated on how well you handled every situation. Being stealthy and avoiding conflict, or foregoing gunfire in favour of quiet takedowns, isn’t easy though, because the game’s somewhat limited enemies have good vision and some impressive hearing. It’s possible though, and will earn you the most credit if you’re able to manage it.

When spotted, enemies will alert each other and will work together to take you down, whether it’s by shooting or flanking then shooting. They’re pretty good shots, too. The good news here is that Black has some impressive tools at his disposal, those being a cellphone (with lots of apps) and a special corner-gun, which has a viewfinder that can be used to see (and shoot) enemies who happen to be located to the left or right of any corner you’re using for cover. This same principle also works when you’re crouched behind cover, as looking up at the ceiling can allow you to angle the viewpoint in a way that you’re able to shoot over the top of the blockage.

Needless to say, the corner-gun is not only neat, but also very helpful, especially if you plan to go through the game stealthily. Its basic attachment is a silenced pistol, but you can also pick up and add a louder machine gun to it if you don’t mind making some noise. Enemy assault rifles also get dropped, making them available for use as well.

That said, Get Even is less of a shooter than you’ll expect. It’s more of a narrative-focused detective experience, wherein shooting is often optional. Enemies are limited (some memories don’t have any), and there are only a few major encounters worthy of that title. Most of your time will actually be spent exploring environments, in search of newspaper clippings, letters, emails and photographs, which can be used to piece the story together.

In fact, a recurring photograph can even be used to travel from Cole’s current location to a police interrogation room of sorts. Once there, you'll find multiple light boards house all of the intelligence that you have collected, making it easier to look at things as a group and piece together each individual event. There’s a lot of evidence to find though, meaning that you’re looking at quite a bit of reading and the slowdown that comes with it. Hell, there are even patient files and audio recordings that can be listened to and explored.

All of the above combines to create an interesting, thought provoking and downright good experience, which deserves an audience. That said, Get Even will not be for everyone because of its slow pace, limited combat and occasional bit of horror. It’s for these reasons that I would only recommend it to mature gamers who appreciate something different, and love to find those diamonds in the rough.

That said, Get Even is not perfect. While it may end up being one of 2017’s sleeper hits, it isn’t without its faults. The most prominent of these is how, despite being full of great ideas and concepts, the game’s unique menagerie of mechanics isn’t fleshed out to its fullest potential. It’s simply too short to really take advantage of everything it introduces, though its' developers deserve credit for trying and for doing everything they did.

Sometimes things can get a bit obtuse too, as even though Cole’s smartphone has a lot of helpful apps, the game’s limited puzzles aren’t always properly explained. I got through them, though, and I don’t consider myself to be very good at puzzles or the puzzle genre itself.

Speaking of the in-game cellphone, it’s important to mention exactly what it offers. From text and call features (both of which are incoming only) to a flashlight/UV light feature, it has everything you’d expect. It also doubles as your gun’s viewfinder, can track heat sources, and features a helpful map that displays the location of each and every enemy, as well as their field of vision. Think of Metal Gear Solid when you imagine that.

What I can’t stress enough though is taking your time to explore each and every nook and cranny as much as possible. If you don’t find enough evidence, you may end up confused once the game comes to an end. Get Even is too much of a mindbending experience to play quickly, because if you fail to read or listen to the things that you find, you’ll lose out on vital information.

Now, when it comes to performance, there’s thankfully little to complain about. For the most part, Get Even runs very well and looks good in the process. Its realistic art style, quality textures and detailed environments aid its dark story, as do the digital glitches that occur throughout the memories themselves. Going further, some impressive writing and solid (British) voice acting also help to flesh out this quality experience.

The downsides to the Xbox One version come in the form of slowdown, which appears every so often. It’s usually during gunfights where it shows its ugly face, although it rarely ever hampers the gameplay much. In fact, there was only one occasion where I would’ve called the slowdown bad. Then again, considering how cryptic and stylish the game is, it’s possible that the developers wanted that to happen.

Alas, I’ll conclude this review by simply saying this: Get Even is a winner, and if you like film noir, dark crime stories and/or games that make you think, then you need to check it out.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 DiRT 4

Few things are more entertaining than a good arcade racing game, which is why Codemasters’ DiRT series has enjoyed longevity in an always-changing interactive landscape. However, ignoring 2012’s testosterone fuelled DiRT Showdown spinoff and 2015’s overly challenging DiRT Rally, fans of the franchise have had to endure a more than six year long wait in-between sequels. The good news, though, is that said wait is over, thanks to the recent release of the all-inclusive DiRT 4.

Those who go into DiRT 4 hoping for a return to the fast, visceral and pulse-pounding days of DiRT and DiRT 2 may be a bit disappointed. Not because this game is bad, by any means, but because it’s changed with the times and isn’t the same entity that once began life on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. No, this is a combination of parts, which tries to make two different camps happy.

This time around, players can choose from two different handling styles, as well as a bevy of customizable difficulties and settings. First is racer handling, which exists as the more arcade-inspired option and targets those of us who weren’t exactly good at the Dark Souls of racing (DiRT Rally). Then, there’s simulation handling, which is what those who loved the series’ most demanding outing will likely prefer to use, as though it’s not as challenging as what’s found in Rally, it’s still more realistic and skill-based than its peer.

Your chosen handling option can be changed at almost any time, and what’s nice is that DiRT 4 features a detailed practice area where you can test your skills with each one. It’s here where the game technically begins, with a plethora of helpful tutorials and demonstrations, which teach you all of its ins and outs. This includes how to drive on different surfaces, such as loose gravel, dirt and pavement, as well as the differences between handling in front wheel drive cars and rear wheel drive cars. The rest features talk about weather conditions, of which there are quite a few, and tips on how to take both corners and jumps.

Once you graduate from tutorial school (or opt to ignore it altogether), you’ll find yourself staring at a menu screen that is less flashy than it’s ever been. This is the first indicator towards DiRT 4 being more than just an adrenaline junkie’s rally racer. Then, following that, you’ll be able to choose from different gameplay options, including Free Play, Global Challenges, Multiplayer, Career and Joy Ride.

For the most part, Free Play is what it sounds like, as it allows you to create your own events, by choosing their locations, longevity and unique settings. There’s something different about it, though, which comes in the form of the Your Stage feature. This, you see, is essentially the basis of all of the game’s tracks, or their building blocks if you prefer that term.

With Your Stage, players can create their own courses within seconds. All it takes is choosing a worldwide location like Spain, Sweden or The United States of America, then adjusting a couple of sliders to determine the track’s length and complexity. What results is a procedurally generated course, which you can opt to save and share with friends or trash and begin anew.

It seems like this tool was used to create all of the rally courses that are found in DiRT 4’s Career mode. As such, every time you enter a new event, you can expect to find something a bit different from what you’ve played before, even if the location remains the same. This is a good thing as far as longevity goes, but after a while you will start to see the building blocks that go into making these courses, and wish for more variety in their settings. Essentially, it’s a bit of a catch-22, because this system creates an almost unlimited amount of tracks, but its building blocks don’t have enough variety to keep them feeling fresh.

Over the course of this game’s many hours of gameplay – a lot of which are found in its deceptively lengthy campaign – you’ll find yourself speeding through rainy forests, attempting to stay on course on tracks with snowbanks for walls, racing through exotic countryside and hitting the road Down Under. Its many rally events take place in several different locations, including Fitzroy, Australia; Tarragona, Spain; Michigan, USA; Varmland, Sweden and Powys, Wales. Plus, each one brings something different to the table in terms of not only geography, but also road types, track hazards and sometimes even weather, as is the case with Sweden’s snowy roads.

DiRT 4’s Career mode is somewhat strange in design, because although it features four different racing disciplines (International Rally, Landrush, Rallycross and Retro Rally), only the first three factor into unlocking its final championship, that being its Triple Crown. I guess Retro Rally is just an optional throw in, even though it’s listed alongside the others.

Rally, which we’ve already talked a lot about, is of course a timed event wherein drivers must negotiate challenging tracks with the help of a co-driver. The best time wins, just like in real life, and the game’s many championships are separated into sets of up to six different events. At the end, you’ll find that you’ll need to complete five different championships, totaling 30 different events, in order to walk away as the International Rally champion and unlock that portion of the Triple Crown.

Retro Rally is the same, except you’ll find yourself driving cars from yesteryear. It’s also quite lengthy, which fans of the sport will love.

Those of us who usually prefer the more frenetic, circuit-based confines of both Landrush (racing with trucks and buggies) and Rallycross (multiple laps around a track, with one needing to be an extended joker lap) are unfortunately overlooked a bit here. Sure, both disciplines are included in DiRT 4 and have their own spots in Career mode, but neither one is as fleshed out as either of the two Rally types happen to be. In fact, it won’t take you long to complete Land Rush and become its champion, because it only has several different championships to tackle. Rallycross is lengthier, which is nice, but it still doesn’t compare to the time sink that is Rally. Of course, not all gamers will be disappointed in this, because those who loved DiRT Rally and play these games for such events will feel right at home in this campaign. I just feel as if they could have done more to spread the events out evenly, thus increasing the amount of variety within this campaign.

Therein lays a contributor to one of DiRT 4’s biggest problems, that being its lack of a true identity. Even now, after putting more than 20 hours into the game, I feel like it’s missing something. A true identity, I guess you’d call it, because in an attempt to appeal to different groups of players, Codemasters has created something that suffers from an unfortunate identity crisis and doesn’t feel like it’s all that it could have been. It wants to be like DiRT Rally, while also harkening back to the days of the first DiRT games, but it ends up getting stuck along the way.

Don’t read the above as me crapping on this thing, because it’s more of an observation and detraction than it is a game breaking issue. I do, however, miss the days when DiRT was less structured and had more personality, but this is still a very solid game despite its lack of a true identity. There’s a lot of great racing to be found within, and the attention to detail it showcases is truly impressive. Each car sounds differently, each type reacts to terrain and weather differently, and all of the vehicles are prone to realistic destruction and damaged parts if you’re not careful. This includes flat tires that rumble and blow before forcing you to either stop for repairs (and face a penalty) or drive on rims, as well as misfiring engines and destroyed headlights.

Weather also plays a large role here, especially during Rally events. Rain slickened roadways cause you to slide and drift, while ruts form in their most traveled crevices. Fog, on the other hand, can reduce your visibility to next to nothing, and can appear and disappear at will. Snowbanks also line some tracks, and can cause you to flip or roll without much effort, while the slushy roadways that weather triggers can also affect your handling. Then, there’s nighttime, which makes everything more difficult. However, like every other time of day, all of which are recreated viscerally by the game’s impressive day/night cycle, you’ll get used to it and learn to deal with what it has to offer.

As you progress through the Career, you’ll earn money that will allow you to start your own team by purchasing vehicles (either new from their manufacturers, or used through the in-game classifieds) and hiring staff members. This currency can also be used to upgrade your team’s headquarters, R&D labs, PR department and more, which leads to more skilled workers and greater team morale.

Although being able to create your own team (and drive for it) is an asset in DiRT 4, it is not entirely necessary. You may earn more money this way, but it’s very possible to get through Career mode while driving for different sponsors and their own teams. Sticking with one team will also increase your relationship with them, so long as you perform well and achieve some of their posted tasks. These are things like completing an event without any restarts, coming in first place, or incurring zero penalties.

Continuing on, while DiRT 4 isn’t as challenging as its very demanding predecessor, it can still be difficult, especially if you make it that way through settings choices. Even on its easiest difficulty and lowest level of AI competency, this game can still be challenging whenever your competitors decide that they really want to go for it. Then, at other times, you’ll find that they’re docile and easily beaten. This is evidence of another problem, which is an uneven difficulty level that can sometimes create frustration, especially as you near the end of the campaign.

Moving on from Career, it’s important to talk about Joy Ride, which is somewhat of a campaign in and of itself. This is where you’ll go to unwind and have some fun, through time trials and challenges, whereupon you’ll be tasked with trying to knock over a set amount of boards in a limited amount of time. This fun and offbeat arena is a nice change of pace, which will surely please fans, especially those who like to challenge their friends. It helps, too, that you can earn different medals, which are good at enticing folks back for just one more try.

Of course, there's also multiplayer, which is affectionately called Jam Sessions. It’s here where you’ll be able to hop online and play against others from different geographical locations. Championships can be set up, and their standings can change based on how you do in each of their different events. Make sure to play some single player first, though, because the competition can be quite stiff out there on the Internet.

Like the single player modes it complements, Codemasters’ latest features solid online gameplay that is sure to please those who like to race against real people instead of programmed artificial intelligence. It looks good, plays fast and seems devoid of lag. The rest of the game is quite similar, for the most part, with some impressive lighting effects, great weather, a very good day/night cycle and an excellent licensed soundtrack. There are, however, some problems, including a small amount of screen tearing and visuals that won’t wow folks as much as one would expect.

Alas, we’ve come to the end of this review, where I must admit that DiRT 4 wasn’t exactly the game I was hoping for. Going in, I dreamed of a more frenetic and arcade experience, which would feature a good mixture of Landrush and Rallycross events alongside its Rally tracks. However, what I got was something that favours one event type over the others, and is more like an accessible DiRT Rally than its most enjoyable predecessors. Still, despite this change, I was quite impressed with most of what I saw and experienced herein, even if its drawbacks keep it from being exceptional.

If you’re looking for a game that features a lot of attention to detail and places a great focus on its handling mechanics, then DiRT 4 is a very worthy pick-up. Just don’t go in expecting a game that is as ‘arcadey’ as the first several DiRT titles were.

**This review is based on a copy of the game that we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 8.1 / 10 Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island

Although the 3D mascot platformer likely piqued in popularity during the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube era, the decreased interest hasn’t killed the genre entirely. In fact, we’ve seen a bit of a resurgence as of late, thanks to the remake (and theatrical debut) of the original Ratchet & Clank, as well as the release of Team17’s retro-inspired Yooka-Laylee. Granted, one achieved more success than the other, with Yooka-Laylee seemingly having failed to make the splash that it was intended to, due to some unfortunately boring gameplay, lots of unnecessary frustration and a general lack of creativity.

Now, a new attendee has arrived to the party; that being Right Nice Games’ Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island. A student developed game, it’s the debut effort from a small team based in Stockholm, Sweden, which has been published by the folks over at Grip Digital.

As its name suggests, Skylar & Plux is a wholesome platformer that harkens back to the heydays of Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank, with some inspiration from Banjo-Kazooie thrown in for good measure. The result is a game that all ages can play and enjoy, although there is a bit of intended profanity to be found. The swear words are swapped for less offensive terms, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see past them.

This short indie romp begins with a rather basic motion comic cutscene, which shows a two-legged cat creature being tormented by a moving television. This strange and slightly cheesy opening introduces us to two of our main characters, those being Skylar Lynx, the human-like cat, and the CRT, a floating television that serves as the game’s big baddie. It isn’t until later, after Skylar escapes with a mechanized arm attached to her, that we meet Plux, a bird who mistakes the cat’s escape pod for the return of his long lost father.

Together, the two explore the local tropics, and soon find themselves staring at an imprisoned white blob-like creature. It’s this alien being -- which the game refers to as the Elder Lo’a -- who helps kickstart the adventure that is referenced in the title. She does this by telling the pair about three missing orbs, which are normally used to power the island’s generator of sorts. It seems that CRT’s interference, which is driven by a desire to destroy and repurpose Clover Island and its outlying areas, has caused two of the orbs to return to where they were created, while the other remains in the big TV’s possession.

I guess it goes without saying, but Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island definitely isn’t lacking in the strange department when it comes to its storyline. After all, we’re talking about a game that has you going toe to toe with a giant CRT television who’s hellbent on ending the world. The good news is that it all comes together, for the most part, and creates what is a decent and somewhat satisfying conclusion, even if it’s all a bit too predictable.

What you’re looking at, gameplay wise, is a rather traditional mascot platformer, which does a lot of harkening back to the good old days. This means lots of jumping, melee combat, collectible finding and colourful scenery. Skylar & Plux also borrows the 'gadget mechanic' from some of its peers, presenting players with tools that they must use in order to solve basic puzzles or manipulate the environment in order to progress. The list is short though, as you'll use a time stalling orb, a limited use jetpack, and the ability to move and manipulate metal objects.

If you take the shortest path from point A to point B in each of the game’s three levels (a wintry mountain, a desert and a metallic fortress), you’ll find that this is a surprisingly short affair. After all, this is a game that can be completed in about two to two-and-a-half hours by someone whose goal is to rush through it. It took me just over three hours to finish it, but I searched for a lot of the hidden Lo’a, and also took my time exploring each environment out of habit. Trying to find the hidden creatures was a good approach though, because the Elder will increase your heart capacity every time you save five of them.

Of course this is an indie game we’re talking about, and one that was made by students. As such, one should go in knowing not to expect the same amount of polish that is typically found in a big budget platformer like Sony’s Ratchet & Clank remake. Despite its developers’ blood, sweat and tears, this is an experience that could have used some more time in the oven, and one that shows its lower budget roots.

Although it’s ambitious, relatively fun, and can be rather pretty, some middling level design, occasionally imprecise platforming mechanics and somewhat frustrating combat mar it. The worst issues to be found, however, are performance problems that bring things down to a crawl, framerate wise, during the latter part of the game, as well as an overly safe approach that has resulted in a game that doesn’t stand out as much as it could have.

Skylar and Plux, the game's mascot characters, also aren’t the most memorable. They do the job, and present a somewhat surprising duo (after all, cats normally kill birds), but neither one has much in the way of unique traits or specialties. Sure, Skylar Lynx has her metallic arm, which allows her to punch the mini TVs and annoying rocket turrets that litter each level, but her feline traits never come into play. The same is true of Plux, who’s mostly just an observer that generally only comes into play during cutscenes, during moments of dialogue or during puzzles where he sometimes gives you hints. So much more could have been done to make these two memorable, but as it stands now, they could be swapped with other creatures and little would be missed.

Still, this definitely isn’t a bad game, nor is it something that deserves to be shat upon. Yes, it’s short, somewhat uninspired, a tad clunky and quite cheesy, but it can also be rather endearing and pretty enjoyable at times. Its colourful and cartoony visuals are also pleasing to the eyes, for the most part, while its half-decent voice acting breathes somewhat believable life into its exaggerated characters. It’s just too bad that the endgame has such noticeable performance problems, including momentary freezes.

At the end of the day, whether Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island is worth a purchase will depend on what you’re looking for and how much you’re willing to spend. Longtime platforming fans who’ve been looking for something to tide them over will find things to like about what is a decent game, while others may balk at a $15 price tag for just three hours of gameplay.

Overall Score: 6.2 / 10 NBA Playgrounds

If hearing “Boomshakalaka” brings back great, nostalgic memories, then you and I have a lot in common. You see, although I didn’t own the game, I spent many hours playing NBA Jam with friends during the early and mid-nineties. Hell, it and NFL Blitz were also two of my regular go-to games whenever I was lucky enough to visit an arcade.

There was just something about the original NBA Jam that perfectly captured the elements that make up a great arcade sports game. Of course, it helped that its gameplay was pure, unadulterated fun that never got old, especially when you were playing against friends. Overall, it was a near perfect game, and still remains near the top of the arcade sports game podium close to two-and-a-half decades later.

In the years since, there have been imitators and spiritual successors, like the NBA Street series, as different developers have tried their hands at recreating the interactive icon. However, despite all of these best efforts, nothing has been able to top the original. Even 2010’s NBA Jam: On Fire Edition didn’t quite hit the same mark, despite being a quality follow-up and a very solid game in its own right.

Now, let’s fast forward to present day, where another balling competitor has entered the ring. That is, Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds, which is now available on the Xbox One, as well as a few other consoles. The first time I saw screenshots and video from NBA Playgrounds, I immediately flashed back to the days I spent playing NBA Jam with friends. After all, just by looking at it, it’s obvious that this is a spiritual successor that draws lots of inspiration from yesteryear’s gem.

NBA Playgrounds is based around a fun mentality, where all out, arcade basketball action takes place amidst colourful, playground-esque backgrounds. There’s London, which lets you play ball on a pontoon boat as it floats on the River Thames; Paris, with its café bordered court placed on a busy street with lots of onlookers; Venice Beach with its wooden backboards, and Japan with its cherry blossom trees. These are merely half of what’s available though, with each playground having its own unique look, feel and types of onlookers.

The players themselves are all designed in a caricatured way, with big heads on smaller bodies. Their defining features are made more prominent this way, and the result is pretty impressive. Then again, outside of being a bit dark, this is a solid looking game, which has lots of colour and a ton of personality. It even has a couple of licensed announcers, although their basic and oft-repeated commentary leaves something to be desired.

Still, at the end of the day this remains a basketball game through and through, meaning that what borders each court is merely there for colourful decoration. What matters is what takes place on the planks, where some of the National Basketball League’s best and most talented show their skills in visceral, arcade-inspired ways.

The whole conceit of NBA Playgrounds is that the player is a virtual card collector, who must level up and unlock new packs in order to earn new players. You start off with a couple of randomized freebies, then you're on your own. It’s not hard to unlock new packs though, nor will it take a lot of time before you’ll have a decently fleshed out roster.

One problem with this game, however, is that it doesn’t offer enough incentive to change things up roster wise. Its two-on-two gameplay promotes employing one good three-point shooter and one good dunker, but those can be found in your first couple of free packs. Sure, there are legendary players like Allen Iverson, Scottie Pippen and Walt Frazier to unlock, but even then a lot of their stats are similar to the rest of the league. I guess that helps with parity, but the downside is that it limits the excitement that comes with earning a new pack of players.

Granted, legendary players do have their own set of special moves, so you may be enticed to use them just for those. There’s nothing stopping someone from using their favourite modern players though, as I was doing great with both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Then again, as long as I had a good three-point shooter to use, I was more than fine.

There’s another caveat with NBA Playgrounds, which is that it’s simply too easy to drain threes once you get used to how the shooting mechanic works. After a while, I was able to win most games by focusing just on that, although I’d try to spice things up with the odd showboat jam. Of course, that’s where this game is at its most flashy and visceral, as its jams are impressively choreographed and a treat to watch. I could do without some of the lengthy showboating dances that come afterwards though, because all they do is slow down the game.

By taking advantage of the three point shot, I was able to complete the six ‘campaign’ tournaments without much issue. Sure, I lost a couple of games, but some of that was because I got too cocky and spent a lot of time trying to score from my own back court. There didn’t seem to be a difficulty option, which I found odd, though I can confidently say that there are such options for exhibition play.

It’s online where the most mileage lays, though. You will take on another player in the traditional 2 vs. 2 in terms of on-screen players. Lag was noticeable during the loading/introductory screens, but it seemed non-existent during gameplay. The online play is the same as the core single player game, just with another person on an Xbox One somewhere else playing against you.

What adds creativity to all of the above is the game’s lottery pick system. By filling up a meter through blocks, steals and dunks, you’ll earn a randomized lottery pick and gain a timed advantage. Examples include an automatic shot that gives you extra points, highlighted zones that can double, triple and then quadruple your scoring, and a power-up that halves your opponents’ shot clock. They’re helpful, to say the least, but the inconsistent AI means that you won’t always need to rely on them.

Although my computerized opponents would fill their meter two or three times during a five minute championship match (the regular ones are only three minutes long), I would be lucky to do so once or twice. What I didn’t realize was that by shoving my opponents in order to make them drop the ball, I was actually depleting my lottery pick bar. This was never taught through any of the in-game pop-ups that would offer tips and tutorials, but definitely should have been, even if they weren’t exactly necessary against the middling AI.

Defense was always a bit difficult to play, regardless of whether I’d try to shove, swat or block while in the air. The computer never seemed to have much trouble blocking my dunks and long-range shots, but I could never get it to work all that well. I’d usually rely on my AI peer to try for that, because ‘he’ was better at it. He wouldn’t always listen to me when I’d ask him to jump for an alley oop, but he wasn’t a bad defender.

Sometimes the players will also jump to the side while shooting, which is almost a guaranteed miss unless you’re the computer. I don’t remember landing one of those shots, but I saw quite a few go in for the other side as I made my way through the tournaments. Each time I’d try, it’d hit the rim or go wide, whereas 85% of my regular three-point shot attempts would go in. Hell, quite a few went in without touching anything, offering me an extra point.

It’s these inconsistencies that make NBA Playgrounds an occasionally frustrating game to play, and keeps it from being the modern day NBA Jam that it hopes to be. There are some great building blocks and decent mechanics to be found here though, which gives me hope that a potential sequel could end up being great. As it stands right now however, is that this NBA Playgrounds is merely a decent but unspectacular game with legs that will depend on how long its online multiplayer stays populated.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall Score: 6.9 / 10 Little Nightmares

As human beings we’re wired to experience and deal with fear, whether it manifests itself through physical dread, overwhelming anxiety, or something else. This emotion can help us survive, get us through difficult times, and lead to some extraordinary things, but it’s almost always overwhelming whenever it appears. Of course, that’s especially true of nightmares, which are the result of a myriad of factors that allow our brains to take us to dark, disturbing, and downright scary places as we slumber within the safety of our bed sheets.

It’s in the realm of the horrific where Swedish developer Tarsier Studios found the inspiration for its latest project, Little Nightmares. As such, it goes without saying that what unravels within the game is not for those who are easily scared, or anyone who finds it difficult to sleep without a light on. There are things that go bump in the shadows here…and there are lots of them.

Developed by a team that previously worked on LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway Unfolded, Little Nightmares is very much a LIMBO-esque puzzle platformer. It’s dark, dreary, and leaves almost everything to the imagination, while forcing you to deal with uneasy situations, not to mention the near constant risk of death. Through this, it’s also part survival game, as the lead character must do anything in her power to run, hide or jump away from the danger that surrounds her.

As the almighty player, we take control of a young, raincoat clad girl named Six. Alone and scared, she finds herself in the middle of a strange and downright disturbing vessel named the Maw. It’s where she first wakes up, confused and hungry, and where she must attempt to escape from if she hopes to survive.

You see, the Maw isn’t a nice place, nor is it sanitary or holy in any way. It’s something straight out of nightmares, and has trapped unsuspecting kids (and gnome-like creatures) for both game and pleasure. Kids who were likely taken from their homes without anyone knowing, having their lives and destinies changed forever.

Our young, always covered heroine begins her journey in the vessel’s damp and dingy bowels. There, she must run, jump and climb her way through dangerous environments, all while solving somewhat basic environmental puzzles. Examples of such tests include finding a power switch in order to avoid being electrocuted while going through a metallic gate, using a gear to move a box so that it will take you to where you need to go, and grinding meat into something that can be used as a swing.

Still, while Little Nightmares offers a hefty dose of puzzles that one must solve in order to safely progress, it’s the game’s dangerous take on hide and seek that ends up being most memorable. I say that because it’s the creatures that inhabit the Maw who make this experience what it is. They’re out for blood, you see, and want to satiate their most inhuman desires by killing or eating Six in awfully gross ways. As such, it’s important to lure them away from you, or hide from them whenever possible.

Sometimes that isn’t an option though, and a disturbing chase will ensue.

Six is defenseless, scared and alone, and there’s almost always something after her. In fact, after the first act of the game, each progressive chapter (and environment) offers up its own types of frightening enemies. This includes a long armed humanoid who can’t see, but can smell you awfully well; multiple bloated and diseased chefs, whose sleeping arrangements remind me of something out of a demented take on Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie; engorged, obese and downright horrifying rich folk who will chase you like a herd of sea lions, and the Lady of the ship herself.

Needless to say, the Maw is a dark and disturbing place, which exists as a tapestry of horror. What goes bump in the night there is real, and not just a figment of your imagination. Thus, it behooves you to run, hide and inch your way through its horrors, else you risk losing both life and limb. Be warned, though: While it may be possible to survive all of the denizens and deathtraps that this vessel has in store for you, what you’ve gone through will end up changing you as it does Six.

Don’t expect everything to come easy either, because Little Nightmares has some issues that combine to make it more frustrating than it ever should’ve been.

For starters, the platforming is not always as polished or pixel perfect as one would hope. What makes things more difficult though is the game’s camera angle, which offers a side view of everything that unfolds. It’s cinematically pleasing, yes, but it can make it hard to gauge whether Six is walking down the middle of a plank of wood, or if she’s at risk of falling off the edge. Of course this also factors into the platforming, as the occasionally wonky depth perception can lead to more than its fair share of falls.

It is also true then, that Little Nightmares is more of a trial and error game than many will like. It doesn’t hold your hand, which is a good thing, though it also suffers as a result, because some puzzle solutions are rather obtuse. It can also be unclear as to where Six is supposed to go, which adds to the fright factor but leads to a lot of unnecessary deaths due to trial and error. Plus, there’s the darkness, which – at the recommended brightness level – can sometimes engulf switches that you’re supposed to use, making you run around like a chicken with your head cut off until you somehow stumble upon them.

The aforementioned flaws turn what could have been a great game into one that is merely quite good, which is unfortunate given that there’s a lot of heart to be found here. Still, even with its problems, Little Nightmares is an easy game to recommend to those who happen to be fans of games like LIMBO. That’s because not only is it scary, disturbing, and full of rich symbolism, but it’s also quite the experience, thanks to some great-looking visuals, excellent character design and some of the most unsettling music and sound effects that you’ll ever hear.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Talent Not Included

There was once a time when platformers were king, and both Mario and Donkey Kong were at the forefront of it all. Hell, following the successes of both Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. the genre (and those titles) essentially became synonymous with the term video games. However, that was then and this is now, and these days people tend to think of shooters like Call of Duty when they first imagine video games, leaving the once insanely popular platforming genre behind.

Of course platformers are still around, and we've gotten some great ones in recent years, including New Super Mario Bros. U, the retro inspired Shovel Knight, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That said, while two of the above-mentioned three happen to be first-party, triple-A games, it’s indie developers that are mostly to thank for keeping the genre’s pulse going.

One of the latest releases from this long line of indie platformers is Talent Not Included, which just made its way to Xbox One after stops on both PC and Mac. We’re lucky to have it too, because Frima’s new indie is a rather enjoyable – albeit quite challenging and occasionally frustrating – experience.

Talent Not Included takes us to the fictional land of Notthatmuchfurther, where three insanely bored monsters named Derp, Zordok and Kevin have decided to write and produce their own zany play. The trio sees this exercise as a chance to cure their boredom, but it’s also a way to justify everything that happens in-game, as crazy as it may be. This includes a knight who fights for a spell caster’s helmet, a rogue who loves muscles and a mage who is awfully good at teleporting.

To mimic a play's structure, the campaign is separated into three acts, each of which forces the player to use a different hero. On top of that, each individual protagonist has its own play style, story, and special ability, forcing you to change your approach each and every time. Said acts aren’t insanely lengthy, nor is the game, but you're looking at fifteen stages per act, including a few quality boss battles. As a whole, this all culminates in a game that will take you about three to four hours to finish, so long as you’re able to best its three increasingly difficult chapters and say goodbye to their culminating final boss battle.

Don’t think of Talent Not Included as a side-scrolling, Mario-style platformer though, because it’s a different beast. In fact, its 2D stages are best thought of as challenges as opposed to levels, because that’s more in line with what they are. They’re always changing, increasingly difficult obstacle courses that you must best in order to move on.

When you imagine one of these scenes, think of a theatre’s stage. Lit up and ready for action, this wooden podium is home to multiple different props, all of which can deal death at any moment. From evil animals and shielded soldiers to repeatedly firing bullets and moving circular saw blades, there’s a whole heap of death dealers awaiting the hero’s flesh. Though, while they may be there at one point, nothing is ever permanent, as the course is constantly changing, even during the midst of each level.

As each of these three heroes, it’s our duty to get from point A to point B over and over again without dying. The goal? To score as many points as possible while doing so, in order to earn yourself an even greater ovation, not to mention a special mask and an envious spot on the leaderboards. Getting to this point won't be easy though, as earning a high score requires you to collect the majority of each level's precariously placed candy pieces, kill all of its enemies, and pick up each of its occasionally available heart pieces.

When you start a scene, you’ll sometimes see some witty dialogue that references things in pop culture and gaming history in comedic ways. What you will always see though, is your chosen character amidst another (seemingly) random obstacle course. In front of you will be candy, and said sugar pieces will lead you to a large balloon, which, when touched, makes everything change. Do this multiple times, while avoiding the loss of each and every one of your hearts, and you’ll get applause. Fail to do so and it’s a restart for you. There are no checkpoints in Talent Not Included.

Expectedly, hearts mean the difference between life and death, and one disappears each time you get hit. More will appear from time to time, but the game is never all that generous; at least, not during its later and more challenging scenes. What’s also interesting, and awfully devious, is the fact that, with each progressive act the player gets fewer and fewer hearts, to the point where the mage only has three to work with. In comparison, the knight gets five, which will end up feeling like a ton after a while.

In order to succeed at all of the above, you’ll need to get good at using the knight, the rogue and the mage to your advantage. Sure, each one may be drastically different, but they all have abilities that will make your attempts easier. These include the knight’s horizontal dash, the rogue’s roll (and ability to shield herself momentarily), and the mage’s multi-directional teleportation. I’d also be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention walljumping, bullet bouncing and double-jumping as being other incredibly helpful options.

Those who don’t take advantage of the heroes’ unique abilities will quickly learn of their importance, because Talent Not Included is not an easy game. Hell, it’s pretty far from it, although not to the extent of Dark Souls or anything like that. It’s simply a challenging, often devious and sometimes frustrating platformer, which will never hold its players’ hands. As such, those who pick it up should be looking for a fight, as opposed to a cakewalk that they’ll be able to play in their sleep.

Everything about the game is colourful though, including the scenes, their backdrops and the action that takes place in front of them. It’s a nice, eye pleasing art style, which fits right in with the colourful text that is found in each and every one of the dialogue bubbles, not to mention the script itself. All of the above is tied up nicely too, thanks to the inclusion of a mumbling crowd who will often make their presence known.

Alas, if you’re a platforming fan who yearns for something challenging to play on their Xbox One, you can’t go wrong with Talent Not Included. It is a solid, difficult and funny experience, and definitely worth a play through, especially if you have a friend around for local co-op. Just don’t go in expecting anything groundbreaking or overly long, because it’s neither of those things.

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 LEGO City Undercover

Although the Wii U didn’t receive a lot of great third-party support it did possess a handful of exclusive gems that weren’t developed and published by Nintendo. One such title was TT Fusion’s LEGO City Undercover, an original experience that looked to bring the Grand Theft Auto formula to the all-ages market with the LEGO humour and storytelling intact.

If you’re new to the fold, LEGO City Undercover is the story of Chase McCain, a police officer with love for the ladies, who has returned home to help the city’s ragtag group of parodied officers with their biggest case yet. You see, before Chase went away he was responsible for arresting one of the area’s most notorious criminals, the appropriately named Rex Fury. Now, that same bad dude has broken out of the local jail, which bears an awful resemblance to Alcatraz, while being full of homages to Shawshank Redemption.

Chase’s attempt at stopping and recapturing Rex plays out over fifteen chapters, some of which house more than one mission. Along the way, you’ll earn new abilities, find more outfits, and cycle between said disguises in order to solve basic puzzles.

Almost all of the disguises (civilian, police officer, criminal, miner, astronaut, fireman, farmer and construction worker) have their own abilities, which is something that you’ll be used to if you’ve played any other LEGO games. For instance, as a robber Chase can use his crowbar to pry things open or use his stethoscope to crack open safes, while police officer Chase has the ability to scan for clues and hidden objects and use a grappling hook. Going further, the miner can use dynamite, while the farmer can glide with chickens, both of which can lead to some rather comedic events.

As you progress, you’ll switch between these disguises in order to solve puzzles, progress through each of the game’s story missions, complete city challenges and find collectibles. There’s a lot to do in LEGO City Undercover, so prepare to give up a lot of your free time if you plan to complete the game with the magic 100%.

Unfortunately, the combat doesn’t exactly change with each costume, like one would hope, so it ends up being pretty basic overall. There are no guns or super powers allowed in LEGO City Undercover, and those who have 'beefs' with each other are forced to settle it the old fashioned way, with fists and feet. The result is a somewhat lacking combat system that eschews guns and powers for grabs, throws and basic punches.

Truth be told, though, the campaign does have some issues, and tends to drag at times. Then again, this entire game isn’t as impressive as it once was four years ago. Still, it’s a fun take on the Grand Theft Auto formula, and there’s lots of great humour to go around. The city is also rather large, and shares an obvious likeness with San Francisco, with its rolling hills, majestic bridges, cable cars and an island prison. However, there is one weird thing to note, and that is the fact that although all of the characters and civilians are made out of LEGO, the buildings are not.

Before we move forward, it’s also important to mention what’s new this time around outside of achievement support and the lack of the unnecessary second screen of the Wii U gamepad. When LEGO City Undercover was first released back in 2013, it was built as a single player only game. That has changed with the addition of two player co-op, which brings the campaign in line with most of the other LEGO branded video games. That’s not to say that the co-op is anything special though. All it does is allow another player to take control of a second Chase McCain, whose clothing is merely a different colour. That’s all. As such, it feels more like something that was shoehorned in to increase sales, as opposed to a mechanic that was given a lot of thought or care.

Of course, it’s very possible that co-op was left out of the original version due to fears of added performance issues. I say that because, as those who played this on the Wii U will know, it didn’t run perfectly. There were performance issues, pop in was evident, and the loading times left a lot to be desired. The good news is that this current-gen port addresses some of those problems, and looks rather good in 1080p. It is, however, not a complete home run, especially since its long loading times haven’t been improved upon all that much.

Thankfully, the framerate is a lot more consistent, and the visual pop in has been decreased. There are still visual anomalies to be found during cutscenes though, and there’s also a noticeable amount of blur at times. Still, for what this is, and where it started, LEGO City Undercover looks and plays pretty well on the Xbox One.

Unless you absolutely hate LEGO games (surely, you don’t, as why would you be reading this review if you did?), LEGO City Undercover is something that you should play through at least once. I say this because while it’s not a perfect experience, and it remains somewhat dated, it’s a nice change of pace and a hilarious experience. The writing is spot on, with some great one-liners and a ton of excellent homages, and the campaign has more than a couple standout moments.

Some of my favourite homages include a police officer who looks and acts like Dirty Harry, a Morgan Freeman impersonator who does a bang up job of sounding just like him but doesn’t want people to say his name for legal reasons, and a character who loves to spew Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes. These are just a glimpse at what you’ll find in game though, as it seems like every scene features a nod towards pop culture royalty.

If you’ve yet to play it, give LEGO City Undercover a chance on Xbox One. It’s a smartly written and often hilarious game that has a lot to offer for the first time player, while also being a good option for kids who are simply too young to play Grand Theft Auto proper.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Aaero

Although Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to be headed back out to pasture, their fate doesn’t mean that the music genre is dead. Nope, while it may not be flourishing like it once did, it’s still hanging in there, and for that I’m thankful. The latest entry into the once mega-popular genre is Aaero, a very stylish and futuristic game that comes from indie developer Mad Fellows Games. Having dubbed themselves as the “Purveyors of the Finest Video Games,” they’re right on track with their Kickstarter-funded debut, as it’s something no rhythm-loving gamer should sleep on.

So, what exactly is Aaero? Is it a Guitar Hero or Rock Band-esque type of note hitter, or is it something more cerebral, like REZ? Well, it’s definitely more like the latter, eschewing traditional instruments and note charts for something that mixes ‘ribbon’ following with some third-person shooting elements.

In total, there are around 15 songs to play, almost all of which are electronic in nature. What’s neat, though, is that each song has its own level designed around it, meaning that you’ll always be playing something different. Environmental elements, like lightning, are timed to the beat, and the same can be true of enemies.

Each of these three-or-so minute-long stages is comprised of two parts that don’t follow a specific order. One is directional in nature, and will have you using your left joystick to follow a line (well, what they call a ribbon) as it weaves its way through tunnel-like environments. The white line will go up, down, left, right, loop and curve, and you’ll need to follow it somewhat closely if you wish to stay alive (and earn enough points to move forward).

The other part? Well, it’s a lot like REZ, in that it’s a third-person shooter type of design where enemies will appear in front of your small ship and need to be dispatched of. Some will just float there, waiting for you to shoot them as score fodder, while others will go on the offensive, shooting projectiles or going kamikaze on your ass. Needless to say, you’re kept on your toes, and it’s imperative that you pay close attention because you’ll only have three lives per stage attempt. And, as you’d expect, each loss of life resets your multiplier, which increases up to a maximum of eight as you cling to the ribbon.

Shooting said enemies doesn’t require a lot of button mashing, but it does require skill, patience and a good eye. That’s because you’re usually better off shooting multiple targets at once, as opposed to firing one single bullet each time. Thankfully, the game makes this easy by incorporating a simple, straightforward and accessible shooting mechanic that involves using the right joystick to highlight up to six targets (if memory serves me correctly), before pressing the right trigger to unleash all of your bullets.

While only the latter stages are heavy on enemies, you’ll always need to be on your toes, because Aaero’s environmental hazards don’t pull any punches. Even on normal (the first of three difficulties which complement a ‘Chill’ mode that lets you enjoy each stage without worry), this game is quite a challenge. So much so that it’s perhaps a detractor, as it limits the title’s accessibility level. I honestly would have liked to have seen an easier starting difficulty, which would then ramp up to normal and so forth. Not that normal is unforgivingly difficult or anything – it’s just more challenging than expected and demands more from you than a starting difficulty should. It just drops you into the chaos and expects you to be good from the get-go.

In a way, it’s trial by fire, albeit an engaging, immersive and musically pleasing variation of that. You’ll watch the tutorial video (if you choose to), then get down to business, attempting to navigate challenging ribbons, avoid enemies and earn enough stars to move forward while doing so.

Yes, Aaero loves its stars, and you’ll need to earn 54 of them in order to unlock its final song. That won’t be enough to unlock its advanced difficulty though, as you’ll need to earn 90% of normal’s stars in order to progress. Up to five stars can be gleamed from each stage, and the best way to guarantee yourself the majority of them is to not die. That’s easier said than done of course, especially when levels throw moving blockades and other such dangers at you, but it’s definitely one of the main keys to success here. After all, dying resets your multiplier, and given that your score determines how many stars you’ll earn, it goes without saying that keeping yours as high as possible is of the utmost importance.

Another thing that can aid your cause – at least in terms of achievements – is trying to find all of the in-game collectibles. They appear in the form of red lights, which can be found in most stages and must be shot in order to be collected. Make sure to keep an eye out for them, but don’t expect to be able to get them all on your first attempt, because enemies will often distract you.

Not all stages are the same, of course, and a few even contain boss battles that last from beginning to end. One is a giant worm whose mouth you end up flying into, another is a massive mechanical spider, and the third is something from the deep sea. The latter comes out of the water, latches itself onto a nearby ship, then attempts to drag it down into the depths that are so prevalent in the game’s later stages.

What’s different about Aaero, however, is that its bosses don’t need to be defeated. You can still ‘beat’ their songs without fully draining their life bars, but you’ll miss out on points and achievements if you don’t. This is something that I didn’t notice at first, but I eventually realized that I didn’t completely kill the worm and felt compelled to go back and do just that. If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend some time backtracking in order to earn stars that you originally missed out on. It becomes almost paramount, because unlocking the final stage requires you to have four (or more) stars from most of the others. Three won’t always cut it, nor will two or one.

Moving on, it’s worth noting that outside of the above-mentioned ‘campaign’ there’s little else to Aaero. That’s not a bad thing though, because this is a game that sets out to do something and does it very well. It’s actually quite impressive, given that this thing was created by a team of just three people.

It wasn’t until I watched the credits roll that I learned how small the Mad Fellows team truly is. I had known that Aaero was developed by a small indie studio, but I didn’t realize, let alone think, that it could ever be that tiny. They deserve commendation for this, because what they’ve created is not only engaging and immersive, but also addicting and beautiful to look at. Truth be told, the only real downside to it all is the odd frame rate hitch.

The music is also perfectly fitting for the game. It encapsulates the look, feel and emotion that the developers were trying to bring forth with their futuristic cities, open landscapes, scary depths and ribbon-filled tunnels. This is all helped by the fact that each song is licensed, with many of them coming from well-known musicians, such as Noisia, Katy B, Flux Pavilion, Neosignal and The Prototypes. It’s not music I would normally go out of my way to listen to, but I enjoyed it a lot in-game.

With all that having been written, it goes without saying that Aaero is something that shouldn’t be slept on. While it may not have the big budget or heavy advertising of something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero, it’s a very impressive, engaging and standout addition to the music genre. One that I sincerely hope will end up receiving the appreciation it deserves, as well as an even longer sequel.

Suggestions: A more accessible starting difficulty.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Blackwood Crossing

As gaming has matured, its developers have become much better at telling intricate storylines and dealing with mature subject matter, such as love, loss and the resulting grief. It could also be said that indie studios have been leading the way in this respect, as they never seem to fear pushing the envelope or delving deeper than their big budget peers. The result of this has been something special, as games like Fragments of Him, That Dragon, Cancer, and the recent release, Blackwood Crossing, have all done an excellent job of conveying raw human emotion through interactivity.

Lovingly crafted by PaperSeven, whose core team is made up of former Black Rock Studio (Pure, Split/Second) employees, Blackwood Crossing is a stunning debut that you may end up hearing a lot about. Ambitious in the way it approaches difficult subjects, and impressive in the way that it combines an emotion-filled storyline with interesting gameplay, it’s a downloadable title that needn’t be overlooked. Hell, it won’t surprise me if it ends up on some end of year lists as one of 2017’s best indies.

Presented in a way that puts its narrative first, Blackwood Crossing is a game about emotions. To be more specific, it’s about saying goodbye to and living without the people that you’ve loved the most. Difficult subject matter to say the least, but it’s handled with delicate care and a lot of skill.

You assume the first-person vantage point of a girl named Scarlett, who’s recently entered her teenage years and has discovered boys, nail polish and other such things for the first time. Joined by her younger brother, Finn, she’s there to help push things forward as the boy deals with his own worries, thoughts and examples of both grief and loneliness.

What you won’t know at first is that these two kids lost their parents when they were quite young and ended up being brought up by their grandparents. The two elders did a seemingly great job, allowing their kin to play, love and enjoy life, but it still wasn’t enough and issues persist even years later. It’s understandable, and part of what those of us who’ve lost the people we were closest to deal with everyday. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons as to why I bonded with this game so much, with the same being true of Fragments of Him.

Although I wish I could talk more about the storyline, the truth of the matter is that I can’t. If I were to say much more about the plot in Blackwood Crossing it would spoil everything for those who’ve yet to play it and I’d hate myself for that. Just know that what you're signing up for by buying and playing this game is something deep, with lots of layers and character.. It will make you sad, yes, but it will also make you happy and endear the heck out of you with its charm.

Now that the plot has been explained in limited detail, it’s time to talk about what kind of a game this is. At its roots, PaperSeven’s debut is most definitely an adventure game, although it’s got a bit of that walking sim/interactive movie DNA within it. Don’t let that scare you away though, because this isn’t a boring experience, nor is it too complex or obtuse. It’s accessible, but engaging, and it may have you in tears before the credits roll.

What some will see as a downside is that Blackwood Crossing is a relatively short game; however, while it does clock in at between two and a half to three and a half hours in length there’s a reason for this. If the game were much longer, its narrative would suffer, and frankly it wouldn’t be so good and such a meaningful game to play.

There are environments to explore, collectibles to find and puzzles to solve, all of which will take people varying amounts of time. As such, each person’s completion time will depend on their thoroughness and their puzzle solving abilities. Thankfully, though, the puzzles aren’t very obtuse and won’t have you smashing your controller in frustration. There’s a tiny bit of difficulty to them, sure, but nothing that the average person couldn’t solve with some thought and a bit of trial and error.

In fact, most of the puzzles in Blackwood Crossing are dialogue based. Additionally, most of the game takes place on a train that morphs and changes depending on Finn’s mood, or what he wants to show his sister. Outside of it, there are only a couple of locations: one being a treehouse and the other a small island.

While on the train you’ll come across several recurring characters, all of whom have played a large role in Finn’s life. Wearing intricate animal masks for reasons better left unsaid, their dialogue acts as both the clues and solutions to quite a few of the game’s puzzles.

Think of this as a match game exercise, where you’ll need to listen to and match the conversational dialogue of two characters before moving on to the next pair. For instance, the earliest version of this has you matching Finn’s former teacher and a schoolyard bully, then doing the same with similar family members. It’s simple on paper, and not all that difficult to execute, but it befits this style of game and its unique narrative. Additional puzzles will have you using the environment to your advantage, or using your memory to arrange made up words to form a password. Heck, you may just find yourself putting pen to paper in order to create bugs and draw faces.

As you progress through the game, more abilities and options will become available, including the ability to give things life by blowing on them. You’ll also be able to pull fire out of campfires and use it to solve puzzles, or pull on black energy that dissipates when light touches it. And, while all of this may not sound great on paper, it’s better in action and serves its purpose.

Not all things are perfect in the gameplay area though, but the issues I found are small and far from game breaking. There are only a couple to mention, that being some slight framerate hitches and the occasional input problem. In terms of the latter, I mean issues selecting certain items as a result of the game not highlighting them properly, or unnecessarily, requiring you to talk to Finn before you can grab them.

The above problems are thankfully minor and far from common, so they shouldn’t be detractors to those who plan to purchase this game. That said, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention them. The truth of the matter though is that a review can’t really do a game like Blackwood Crossing justice. Try as I may, I worry that my descriptors make it sound boring, when, in fact, it’s actually magical.

A lot of the above has to do with how the game looks, sounds and feels. PaperSeven’s art team has done a fantastic job of creating a wonderfully colourful world that mostly exists in a dreamscape. One that looks beautiful, and feels believable, despite being a bit supernatural in nature. What really stands out most, though, are the character models and their extremely impressive facial animations, especially Finn’s.

Of course, with a game such as this, where the narrative and its well-written and haunting dialogue are the focus, voice acting becomes ever important. Blackwood Crossing doesn’t falter, or even stumble here, because it couples its visceral world with fantastic voice acting that turns these digital characters into believable people. In fact, the voice acting is better here than it is in most games.

Needless to say, Blackwood Crossing is a gem, though a couple of slight problems cloud its shine just a bit. This truly is an impressive, memorable and spectacularly human game that does a better job than most of conveying real human emotions through interactive experiences. As such, it behooves you to check it out and give it a chance to warm your heart.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 MX Nitro

Since the days of Excitebike 64, and later on MX 2002 Featuring Ricky Carmichael, I’ve had a love for games featuring a mixture of dirtbikes, ATVs and extreme stunts. Well, the good ones at least, and what’s unfortunate is that those have become increasingly more difficult to find as of late. It’s too bad too, because a great developer could really do something special with today’s advanced, 4K-allowing technology.

It was due to my love of this subject matter that I entered into this review of MX Nitro – a game that I hadn’t heard much about until I saw it on a release list and decided to look it up. Unfortunately for me though, this Trials inspired racer/trick fest didn’t live up to the marks set by its much more enjoyable predecessors.

Developed by Miniclip - whose previous focus mostly had to do with mobile and free-to-play PC games - MX Nitro is a Trials-esque game with smartphone and tablet roots. The result is an experience that, while playable on console, feels more like a mobile game than a true console game and suffers as a result.

That’s not to say that MX Nitro is wholly bad, or really anywhere close, it’s just mediocre, and would have been better had it done away with some of its mobile trappings, like its modified star system. The game’s main problem, however, is its frustrating difficulty, which may be as high as it is in order to promote replay value.

As much as I went in wanting to enjoy this nitro fuelled experience, it got to a point where I decided that enough was enough. It was around that time that things had begun to stall and my progression across the game’s world map had almost stagnated.

While I like to think of myself as a talented gamer, who can clear quite a few games on hard and has had a lot of success in the past, I know that I’m far from the best and never declare myself as being in that realm. It’s especially true of Trials-like games, as I haven’t had too much experience with such titles. Sure, I played a bit of one of the Trials games in the past, but it was a bit too demanding for me at the time.

The reason I decided to take on MX Nitro was because it seemed to be something different. That is, a more lenient, Trials-lite experience, with more of a focus on racing and tricks rather than the uber challenging, physics-based stages of the latter series. However, while it’s surely a bit more lenient than Trials, and is more racing focused, it’s also a game that is much more frustrating than it is fun.

At the center of this problem lays a lack of difficulty options, coupled with cheap rubber-band AI. Simply put, MX Nitro is the type of game where you really need to be perfect and have all of the bumps go your way, or else you risk yet another restart. This is especially true come the mid-way mark and into the latter portion of the game, where things quickly change from challenging, but fair, to cheap and aggravating.

Generally, it’s just you and two or three other racers, all vying for first place as you rocket across a sandy and hill-heavy dune, or race down a mountain slope and then head back up again. Physics are key, as they are in Trials, because you need to negotiate every single bump with expertise in order to win later events. The AI is always on your tail, though, and will overtake you with ease, lest you have a near perfect or absolutely perfect run, which is hard to achieve.

The easiest way to get through these challenging races is to use your nitro at the absolute best moments, but sometimes that’s easier said than done because the game’s physics aren’t always your ally. MX Nitro, you see, is a game where you must use the left and right joysticks to maneuver your bike and its individual wheels after each bump, wheelie and jump. For the most part the controls for this are okay, but they’re very touchy and can sometimes be too finicky for their own good. And, through them, MX Nitro often demands more perfection than it should, which ends up making its gameplay so frustrating.

Truth be told, the races are usually much more doable and less frustrating than what comes after them, that being trick-based events and boss battles. It’s here where Miniclip’s foray into Xbox One is the most aggravating, as you practically need to be perfect in order to have any success in these events around the mid-way mark.

It was during a boss battle against a Mexican-themed trickster that I started to become annoyed with this game. Before that, it had been challenging but fair, but that particular encounter was just a pain in the ass. Why? Well, I’d often be leading going into the last part of the third and final lap, only to be passed by him at the last moment. And, in a**hole fashion, this would usually involve him taking an almost absurd final jump, soaring over the top of my head, then right over the finish line.

I did have some good runs against said boss, and eventually beat him, and the same was true of a handful of the trick attack challenges. However, it often seemed, and felt, as if the game and its controls were fighting against me, which isn’t a good thing when it comes to such a precision based genre. In fact, there were multiple occasions where the controls failed me during a trick attempt, resulting in my avatar not pulling off the move that I had asked it to.

What can also be confusing is MX Nitro’s bike system, which allows you to unlock and purchase new types as you progress through its campaign. Not all bikes are created equal, of course, and this game takes things a step further by employing a system that makes it so that not every accumulated ride is better than your last. Each one, you see, has its own name and abilities, and you’re supposed to strategically use them for different event types.

While this isn’t a wholly unique, let alone a new mechanic, it isn’t exactly handled as well as it could have been. I say that because it’s not always evident as to which bike you should use for which event. I sometimes felt like I hurt my progress by upgrading the wrong bikes at times, but I tried to spread my cash out as much as possible.

Speaking of cash, a good tip is to not worry about buying much in the way of cloting, be it coloured shirts and pants, badass-looking armor, or uniquely designed helmets. Although they allow for some appreciated personalization, the cash you must spend to buy them comes from the same pool of winnings as your bikes’ upgrades, which are much more important and ten times more vital.

Take note that there is some multiplayer to be found here, although it’s merely ghost-based. The idea is that as you play you’ll unlock new campaign tracks for online play, and will be put up against another player’s best attempt each time you decide to hop into the multiplayer portion of the experience. Needless to say, it’s pretty basic and somewhat limited, meaning that it won’t keep you hooked for long.

Now that all of the above has been said, how does everything look, sound and function? Well, for the most part, MX Nitro is a fine-looking game, although it should be said that it looks more like an up-rezzed mobile title than a full-fledged, built from the ground up, console release. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that given this game’s genre, its price tag and its developer’s mobile roots. Unfortunately, though, things are not all perfect on the presentation front.

As you progress, you’ll start to notice more and more screen tearing, especially during the opening sections of different events. The racers, and their rides, also lack some of the texture work, detail and more realistic shaping seen in other games. What may annoy some people more than anything though is the heavy soundtrack, which is very, very repetitive, to the point where many will likely just turn it off completely.

MX Nitro is a title that had a chance to be good, but it failed to really make much of a mark as a result of several unfortunate mistakes. The game’s frustrating rubber-band AI and the need for near perfect runs on the included tracks really hurt it, which is a shame because those issues could have been aided if not wholly corrected by the inclusion of a difficulty system. Do your research before buying this one folks, because it’s not the easygoing, fun experience that its title makes it seem like.

Suggestions: - Include a difficulty system or lighten up on the cheap AI
- Improve the controls to allow for the required precision
- Work on reducing screen tearing
- Make the game, and its bike selection system, more accessible

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Candleman

A candle’s flame can only burn for so long before it’s inevitably extinguished. Such is the life of one of history’s oldest and most beloved light sources, which has provided sight and atmosphere to some of humanity’s biggest moments.

Thinking outside of the box has led to a solitary candle being the hero in one of the Xbox One’s latest and more noteworthy winter releases. All of this is thanks to Spotlightor Interactive, who have created an endearing, memorable and visually impressive little indie game called Candleman.

Developed in Beijing, of all places, Candleman is a game that stands out for more than just its quality campaign. After all, China is a place where video game consoles were banned until 2015, and where video game development isn’t as big or as welcomed as it is in other parts of the world. For those reasons, Candleman – like Koi before it – is a welcomed sight and something to embrace.

So, outside of being based around a candle, what is this title all about?

Beginning on a desolate, beached, and somewhat destroyed ship; Candleman’s quest is one of adventure. It starts with a once dormant little stick of wax catching flame in front of a mirror, then leads to the normally inanimate creature waxing poetic about his existence before setting out to find answers.

It’s not long after this that a bright and distant lighthouse is seen through one of the ship’s many portholes, infusing our basic and dimly lit friend with wonder and excitement. Immediately after, he sets out on a journey towards the man-made beacon, with hope of learning how to shine as brightly as it does.

Over the course of Candleman’s three to four hour-long journey, he’s faced with a plethora of different obstacles, many of which threaten his very existence. Early on, the most pressing challenges are that of darkness and dangerous chasms, but later levels change things up by introducing ghastly enemies, mirrors and spiky plants. No new world is the same in Candleman, whether it’s the creaky ship’s storage area with its swaying boxes and their chains, the boat’s flame-filled engine room, or the outside world with its water, lily pads, vines and thorns.

The result is a slightly challenging title that mixes platforming with light puzzle solving and requires precision-based jumping. Thankfully though, the game engine and all of its mechanics are almost always up to the task, making it easy for the player to become one with his wax-based friend. That’s not to say that things are perfect, though, because bits of lag will sometimes mar your adventure, especially later on in the campaign when enemies are introduced and stages become more complex.

However, despite its imperfections and short length, Candleman stands out for what it is and what it does well, not to mention its origins and unique protagonist. It’s not often that we get to play games from China, nor is it common for a candle to star in a video game. The developers also deserve credit for their unique approach to platforming, as their decision to make light a focus was a very good one.

How exactly does light factor in? Well, as I mentioned before, darkness is a common obstacle, especially during the ship section of the game. There, in the shadowy hull of the boat, there’s next to no light and it’s always at a premium. This is where being a candle becomes an asset, as Candleman is able to light himself at will and use it to his advantage. Furthermore, this limited flame can also be utilized to light other stationary candles that help you see your way, act as collectibles, and are sometimes used as checkpoints.

Where the added challenge comes from then, is the fact that our small candle friend can only burn for a limited amount of time before he fades away to nothing. This ten-second time limit means that every time you light up it must be for a strategic reason, else you risk leaving yourself at a great disadvantage. And, while death isn’t a be all, end all type of thing, each level attempt only offers the player ten lives.

Light can also affect the environment in negative ways, by making dangerous flowers bloom and spiky balls fall from the sky. As such, it’s always important to time your flame bursts and always be aware of the environment.

That said, Candleman’s design isn’t always so strong. As you enter the last third of the game, things become more dangerous and less fun. The gameplay also ends up being more about the environment than about using light to your advantage, thus reducing its uniqueness. Furthermore, the final encounter and following finale leave something to be desired, as they offer a less than satisfying conclusion.

All of the above is wrapped up in and presented in a way that resembles a classic storybook. Each of the game’s stages are titled using verses from Candleman’s rhyming story, and a female British narrator does an excellent job of setting the tables for each and every level event. Outside of this audio however, there’s little to be found apart from environmental sound effects. That’s a good thing, though.

It’s too bad that lag is present, because outside of that, there’s little to complain about on the visual front. Candleman is a good-looking game, and one that will please those who play it, especially anyone who’s aware of its origins as a Chinese indie game. While it won’t win any graphics-based awards, it’s a bonafide looker that almost always impresses. The lag can really mar this at times, though, especially when it becomes more prevalent near the end of the campaign.

Now, with all that having been said, I surely don’t need to say that Candleman is a recommended must have experience, but I will though. Despite having a few faults, it definitely deserves attention and love, because it’s solid, memorable and generally well made game.

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Knee Deep

Although Telltale is seen as being responsible for the modern revival of the classic point-and-click adventure genre, it’s not the only company that is trying to make a mark within it. Other, mostly independent, developers are also throwing their hats into the ring these days, including Prologue Games with its campy Twin Peaks-inspired title called Knee Deep.

Set in a smelly, gator-fearing Florida swamp town, Knee Deep is the tale of three different investigators who find themselves working on the same strange case. The first one – a twenty year-old blogger who calls herself Phaedra – stumbles upon the death of a once popular and bankable action movie star after getting sick of waiting in congested traffic, while the others (an aging reporter and a private investigator hired by the actor’s studio) end up being directed there by their employers.

Although the player’s three investigative avatars start out alone, they eventually come together in the midst of what is a strange and very offbeat narrative. One that manages to combine backwoods craziness with death, political misdoings and a strange, cult-like religious organization named the Church of Us.

What’s unique about Knee Deep – outside of its weird storyline, of course – is how its setting is constructed. You see, instead of being a traditional, third-person adventure game with movable characters, this entire campaign spends its three to three and a half hour-long runtime on one stage. It’s a play, and one that caters to a live audience.

Since things are confined to one stage, and the game’s budget was obviously limited, all of Knee Deep’s playable protagonists automatically move from set to set. There is no player control like you’ll find in one of Telltale’s games. Instead, your only real input will come in the form of button-based dialogue choices. Well, that, and the social media reports/stories that you’ll post from time to time, using an in-game basic smartphone interface.

Although the dialogue options are not up to par with the best in the business, there is some choice to be found. Characters can respond to situations carefully, with intrigue and excitement, or with a rude or strange response should they want to. It depends on the character though, as Phaedra tends to be the weird one, while the men can be more on the rude or gruff side.

The same type of system applies to reports and stories, which can be posted online (in-game of course) in varying forms. If you want to be careful and avoid pissing anyone off, then it’s best to go with the guarded option. However, sometimes it’s better – or at least more fun – to go with something exclamatory, even if it has the chance of angering a witness, or someone else. It should also be noted that the characters’ bosses will comment on your performance, although this is a half-hearted system that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere or affect the narrative all that much.

Due to the above, Knee Deep is not a game that someone looking for excitement, or someone who’s looking for control, should check out. It’s a very simplistic game that relies on its odd narrative to create worthwhile intrigue. Thankfully, it does just that, for the most part. That said, if you’re not into slow burn games where what you say impacts what happens later, then you’ll want to pass on this one.

At the very least, there are some puzzles to be found within the game, although they’re few and far between. A few will task you with putting together fingerprints, by rotating different pieces and making them fit together, while others will ask you to link wires together using a template that is somewhat similar to BioShock’s pipe puzzles. Granted, it’s not nearly as good, or as user-friendly.

I always groaned whenever a puzzle came into play, because their user interfaces are both ugly and unfriendly. Fingerprint pieces wouldn’t always fit together like they should, and there was simply little fun to be had with most of the designs. On top of this, the developers made things too idiot proof, by making the screen flash yellow whenever a puzzle piece is in place. As such, you can solve some of them by just guessing and moving the cursor throughout the grid.

Man, is Knee Deep ever slow, though. Few indie games have ever presented me with such a slow campaign to work through, let alone one that is so dialogue heavy. And, while I’m not one to scoff at individuality, with a heavy reliance on dialogue, or just reading in general, it did become too much at times. It was during those moments where I wondered if it would have been better served as a book, movie or TV show.

Thankfully, things did pick up as I progressed through the latter half of Knee Deep’s three act run. Intrigue started to infiltrate the narrative, and the town’s weird happenings started to really pick up. As such, by the time I was done with the game, my opinion had changed quite a bit from when I first started it, during its slow first act. Still, this is not something that I was ever blown away by, nor is it a title that is easy to recommend to most gamers. It’s a niche experience, through and through, and one where player choices may not affect the narrative as much as they could.

Going forward, it’s important to note that, despite taking place on a theatre stage, Knee Deep isn’t much of a visual powerhouse. Obvious budget limitations and independent means have led to a game that looks quite dated in appearance. Characters, sets, and almost all of the trappings almost feel as if they were ripped out of the PS1 era, and that isn’t helped by the fact that the camera is almost always positioned quite far away from everything.

That said, the audio is surprisingly decent, thanks to an eclectic soundtrack and some unexpectedly solid voice acting. The actors seem to have truly embraced the weirdness that is Knee Deep, and have run with it while avoiding going too far with things. Sure, there’s some overacting, but not as much as one would expect, and even when it does appear it fits in as part of the game’s odd charm.

At the end of the day Knee Deep is a unique and somewhat decent niche game that will only appeal to a certain group of gamers. Those who might be on the fence in regards to purchasing it should definitely do their research and watch some gameplay videos before jumping in, because at $15 USD, it’s an expensive proposition as a blind buy. Hell, even those with interest would be best to wait for a sale, given that the current asking price is a bit on the high side for a three hour-long game with limited replay value.

Suggestions: Don't put spoilers in your achievement list. Use secret achievements.

Overall Score: 6.1 / 10 Momonga Pinball Adventures

Although it’s not as popular or commonplace as it used to be, pinball still seems to be alive and well. Not just in the real world either, as more than a couple of related video games have been released over the last few years, some of which have offered tons of themed tables as paid downloadable content.

A new combatant has recently entered the console arena after first making its way to Android, iOS, and Windows devices. What I’m referring to is Momonga Pinball Adventures – a colourful arcade game that does away with the trappings of traditional wood and glass-based pinball tables. Developed by Paladin Studios – a team of thirty that bases itself in The Hague in The Netherlands - Momonga Pinball Adventures tells the abbreviated tale of a troubled squirrel village....small, Asian flying squirrels, that is.

The campaign, for lack of a better term, given how short it is, begins with an attack on the Momonga village by some bullish owls who want nothing more than to stir up unnecessary trouble. They swoop in, cause pandemonium and enslave (I believe) all of the members of the peaceful squirrel tribe. Well, except for one, that being our hero, Moma.

As mentioned above, this isn’t your typical pinball game. It looks and sounds a lot like something you would have seen on the N64, except with better visuals as you’d hope and expect in 2016/2017. It is, however, very much a mobile game, and one that may disappoint a lot of console gamers out there due to its lack of content and incredibly short length.

In total, there are 9 stages, plus three mini-game bonus levels. The first two or three stages are tutorial-based too, meaning that there’s little meat on this game’s bones, especially since the average level is only a few minutes long. Sure, there are some boss battles and a few lengthier stages, but unless you run into trouble you can expect to be finished and looking at the credits screen within about thirty minutes. I must admit that it took me a bit longer though, because there were a couple of tricky sections, including one frustrating stage where I had to control two different characters. Well, as much as you control pinballs that you pretty much only interact with using flippers and the occasional bumper.

In truth, there are flying sections that add a bit of variety to Momonga Pinball Adventures’ gameplay, but there’s only a couple of them. Then again, given how short it is that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Most of the gameplay involves shooting (is that what you call it when you flick a paddle to send a pinball flying right?) the main character at targets and blockades throughout semi-three dimensional stages that look like they’ve come out of an N64 platformer. There is some strategy involved, but it’s not shoved down your throat, and it is instead saved for challenges that you can choose to attempt or ignore.

What I noticed is that the challenges is how the developers tried to make the game seem longer than it is. That’s because each campaign level has several of them (think things like “Beat the level,” “Destroy all blockades,” “Collect all stars,” and “Get all stars during the flying sequence”), but only one challenge can be attempted at any given time. The game also automatically chooses which one will be available, which may annoy some.

The other problem with Momonga Pinball is that it’s not as precise, let alone as fair, as it could be. The ‘balls’ will sometimes show strange and unpredictable physics, and the final boss can be a pain in the arse because of some cheap mechanics. Overall, though, it’s not too, too bad, especially for a mobile turned console game.

Achievement hunters will also either appreciate the game’s 'cheevo' list or find it frustrating. It’s a pretty simple affair, but is time consuming, which is kind of strange given how short the campaign is and how there’s little in the way of replay value unless you go for all of the challenges and attempt to three star each stage in the process. Every achievement seems to be worth 100 points, but you’ll have to play 100 stages, collect 1000 stars, and three star every stage if you hope to get the full 1000 gamerscore.

At the very least, the mini-game levels do provide some replay value, as they’re relatively entertaining and can be addicting for a short period of time. One involves flying through the air while trying to eat as much fruit as possible and avoid every cloud in sight. The next one is a variation on The Price is Right’s Plinko minigame, whereas the third happens to be a score-based challenge. I enjoyed these as they were a nice change of pace.

As for the game's presentation, the visuals are cutesy and colourful, the menus resemble something out of an iPhone game, and the scoring system revolves around time, spent lives, collected stars, and earned points. As far as the audio goes, it does the trick but is nothing memorable and also features lots of ‘Simlish’ type ‘dialogue.’

Technically the game ran well for the most part, although I did encounter a bit of stutter, which I was surprised about, and I also dealt with some cheap deaths (some of which were the game’s fault, because it dropped the ball in a way that it went through my two paddles). There was also one occasion where I fell through the map and died during a good attempt at its most challenging stage.

I must say that Momonga Pinball Adventures is a tough game to fully review. It has some good things going for it, and is a relatively interesting take on arcade pinball, but it’s just so damned short and lacking in many departments. As such, I find it hard to really recommend this one, but I also don’t want to throw the "proverbial poop" on it either. I’ll just say that I hope its sequel is a lot more fleshed out and ends up being more polished than this one is.

- Flesh out a sequel if you make one (which you probably are doing given that the game ends with "To be continued")

- Improve ball physics and respawn locations

- Reduce cheap death frequency

- Add more minigames and a traditional pinball level

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Silence: The Whispered World 2

Prior to taking on the task of reviewing Silence, I knew nothing about the game and had no idea that it was a sequel (mostly because the Xbox version’s cover art doesn’t bear its full title). This was something I quickly learned, however, as it wasn’t long before the characters began to mention their previous journey to the magical world of Silence, which exists in a state between life and death.

As fans of Daedalic Entertainment surely know, Silence was preceded by 2010’s The Whispered World, which hit European shores before it made its way over to North America. A Windows, Mac and OnLive release, that point-and-click adventure game took players on a journey to Silence, where they controlled a clown named Sadwick, who found himself in the middle of an end of the world threat.

At the end of that game it’s revealed that Sadwick is, in fact, a dreamt contraption found in the mind of a comatose young boy named Noah. It’s this now teenaged character that we first control in Silence: The Whispered World II, although he's soon joined by his kid sister Renie, who acts as the sequel’s second of three playable protagonists. The third member of this trio, then, is a caterpillar-like creature named Spot, who can change his shape at will.

Things begin in a quaint, wood-sculpted town, where the threat of death is imminent and approaching. War has hit the region, and bombers have been sent to destroy everything in sight. It’s here where we find Noah and Renie, who make a mad dash for a protective bunker and hunker inside as those they know and love vanish in explosive bursts.

At first, the old bunker seems to hold up quite well against the airborne attacks, but it isn’t long before a couple of well placed hits cause parts of it to cave in, disorienting Noah and seemingly trapping his young sibling under a pile of rubble. However, all is not as it seems, and it isn’t long before Noah finds himself in a cave filled with relics of The Whispered World and hears his sister’s call from its distant exit.

Thus begins the several hour-long campaign that is Silence: The Whispered World II, as players take control of the young man and help him navigate over dangerous crevasses towards the end of the tunnel. There, of course, lays a changed version of Silence, which players must explore as they puzzle solve their way towards a distant throne room.

Like its predecessor, this is a rather traditional point-and-click adventure game, which doesn’t venture far from the genre’s decades old trappings. It is however, a beautiful one, which will impress both those who play it and those who decide to sit down and watch someone play.

Truth be told, the best thing about Silence: The Whispered World II is its visuals. They’re comprised of a beautiful layered design, which features characters and locales that look as if they were painted in. It’s an impressive sight to behold, and something that will help this game remain memorable for years to come.

Things play out on a mostly two-dimensional landscape, where both Noah and Renie must enlist the help of secondary characters. Their end goal is to return home, although they’ll have to jump through hoops in order to (hopefully) do so. This story is told over the course of three chapters, which will take adventure fans several hours to complete. Online estimates tout it as being a five-hour experience, although due to my limited experience with the genre (and mediocre puzzle solving skills), it took me longer.

Although none of the puzzles are cheap or offensively challenging, they’re not a cakewalk either. Some are obtuse, and many will force you to put on your thinking cap, but they’re never difficult to the point of controller slamming frustration. Not that I’d ever do that type of thing anyways, given that controllers are $80 or more now.

Clues are available to those who wish for them, but they’re not the most helpful things in the world. Most of the time you’ll get just a slight hint and that will be all. Hell, sometimes it will only be your objective, which isn’t of much help at all. This 'problem' is furthered by the fact that Silence's audio has an annoying habit of drowning its dialogue out with music or environmental sound effects.

From start to finish, Silence: The Whispered World II is an inoffensive, solid, beautiful, charming, and rather polished point-and-click affair. It can be very slow at times, though, and can also border on obtuse, making it something to avoid if you prefer a faster pace.

In fact, the one thing that bugged me most about this game was its pace. Although it was a treat for the eyes and had a halfway interesting storyline (albeit one that could’ve used more depth and a greater sense of urgency), it plodded along far too much. Then again, I’ve never been the biggest fan of puzzle games, though recent adventure games like Telltale’s series and The Little Acre have both impressed and entertained me.

Playing on console may also have affected my opinion more than playing the PC version would have. I say this because, after looking at videos of the game being played on PC, it’s become apparent to me that the console interface is more cumbersome than its mouse-based equivalent. Instead of simply being able to move your mouse and click on something, you must actually walk towards it and be standing near it in order to input a command. The highlighting feature can also be finicky and untoward, making it tough to highlight the exact environmental item you’re hoping to make use of.

With all that having been said, those who are looking for a charming, puzzle-based narrative could definitely do a lot worse than Silence. Well-worth playing for its visuals alone, it’s something that will likely satiate fans of the classic genre. That said, it’s unfortunately overpriced, bearing a $29.99 US asking price that is arguably ten or fifteen dollars too high.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Rise & Shine

On the distant planet of GameEarth, a war is brewing between its peaceful inhabitants and the heinous, warmonging space grunts who wish to do them harm. In the middle of this battle is a gun, nicknamed Shine, which falls into the hands of a ten year-old boy named Rise, who immediately becomes its carrier, protector and ally.

Such is the premise of Rise & Shine, the aptly titled debut project from the talented folks who make up Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team. They’re new to the fold under this name, but they happen to have lots of experience gleamed from working on games like Worms and Plants vs. Zombies. Combining a classic “one against many” tale with challenging gameplay and lots of homages to classic video games, Rise & Shine is an interesting experience that won’t soon be forgotten by those who play it. At its heart, though, it’s best described as a side-scrolling action game and bullet hell hybrid, one that doesn’t hold any punches and loves to throw everything it can at the player, resulting in a few frustrating chokepoints.

Things begin in a partially destroyed shopping mall, wherein a young boy (our new friend Rise, of course) is staring down death at the hands of an evil-looking grunt. Before his short life can flash across his young eyes, our unsuspecting hero is saved from the brink of death, thanks to the land’s beloved hero. In the process, the protector ends up giving up his own life for the young stranger’s, and drops his beloved gun as he collapses to the ground.

Unaware of just how significant of a moment that this was, Rise shambles forward and comforts the dying hero, before picking up the gun that he dropped. Almost immediately the lead shooter begins to talk, shocking the young boy before telling him that he’s not only its new protector, but that he has also been tasked with taking over the hero’s quest; that being to take Shine to the king’s castle. Shine, you see, is a magical weapon. Not only can he talk, but he’s also able to grant his chosen carrier with unlimited respawns, which bodes well for you given how challenging (and occasionally cheap) Rise & Shine happens to be.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering how this all works out. That is, if the gun is able to gift its carrier with unlimited lives, how did the almighty hero manage to die for good? This is brought up in game during a humorous moment where the question is raised and the given answer is to simply forget about it and not read too much into things. What unfolds from that harrowing, near death experience is a short but memorable campaign that will challenge and frustrate those who give it a chance.

It must be said though that Rise & Shine is unlike most other side-scrolling action games in existence. In fact, it’s somewhat unique in terms of its gameplay mechanics, which task the player with moving, dashing or jumping away from incoming fire, or shooting at it to make it disappear. Cover is sometimes available, but even it is a risky proposition, because large amounts of enemy bullets can destroy your blockade and leave you vulnerable at the worst possible moment.

The key to success here is to develop quick reflexes and make good use of every bullet you fire. Whether it’s a standard bullet, explosive round or an electric one, every expended shell must be used intelligently. So, if you use your ammo to harm an enemy, destroy incoming energy bullets, or blow something to smithereens, you must strategize your attack to make it worthwhile, because getting caught during a reload is a surefire game over.

Those aren’t the only types of shots available to you, though, as Rise & Shine also features a player-controlled shot. Slow but helpful, these bullets can be moved and aimed through bubbles that appear in the sky around enemies and by radio antennas that emit their required waves. Any time a bullet leaves a bubble, it flattens out and crashes to the ground without any sort of provenance, making it important to stay within their means.

Certain puzzles, as well as most mini-bosses and traditional bosses, require you to adeptly move a bullet through obstacles in order to hit a desired switch, electrical outlet or something of that ilk. It’s not always easy, and it can take a few tries, but it’s a strong mechanic that adds some challenge to the game, while also forcing players to use their minds.

This interesting combination of genres works well for the majority of Rise & Shine’s three to four hour length (which is artificially padded by its difficulty and resulting retries), but it comes unhinged sometimes. This generally always happens whenever the game becomes too much of a bullet hell for its own good; particularly during its last level where the shit really hits the fan.

Positioned as the second to last of about fifteen different chapters, the game’s true final level can be a real bitch, putting it lightly. Although earlier sections were difficult and required some retries, it was this stage that took the majority of my lives and ate up a lot of my playtime. I wondered if I would ever beat the final boss, but eventually did after quite a few tries.

Like most of the game’s stages, this chapter begins with a cover-based battle against a horde of enemies. However, as one would expect, this particular battle is much more difficult than most of those that came before it. The enemies don’t stop coming for quite some time, bullets litter the air and there’s even a rolling death dealer to avoid. So, if you’re not smart, you’ll quickly find yourself staring at a retry screen.

To get past this segment, you’ll need to be smart and methodical with your shots and usage of limited explosive barrels. It’s generally fair, and mostly challenging as opposed to cheap for most of its runtime. However, the developers went a bit too far by throwing tiny flying enemies into the mix, especially since they’re able to fly over top of you and shoot you when you’re behind cover. As if dealing with tons of other enemies – some of whom can kill Rise with one hit if allowed to get close – wasn’t enough. At the very least, those enemies were fair, whereas these little bastards I’m referring to are cheaper than anything.

The little asshats also factor into the final boss, which appears shortly after the conclusion of that aforementioned battle, and takes the form of a hulking robot. As you move from left to right, and vice versa, avoiding incoming bullets, rockets, rolling bombs and robot hand slams, you must also deal with the fliers from hell from time to time. They generally appear during the bosses second and third health bars, and come into play once you’ve dwindled his livelihood down halfway or more.

If it wasn’t for those particular enemies, I don’t think Rise & Shine would have frustrated me as much as it did as I approached its credits. On top of that, the game would have been far less cheap if they hadn’t of been used in such a way. They’re small, and thankfully only shoot small bullets that don’t harm you as much as regular ones, but they’re distracting and their bullets can get in the way of you trying to destroy larger ones. The worst part though, is that they’re very difficult to shoot due to their size, requiring far too much precision for such battles. It’s hard enough to avoid everything else coming at you, without having to worry about them.

Part of this problem is the fault of Rise & Shine’s aiming mechanic, which favours precision over anything else. To fire a shot, one must hold the left trigger to bring Shine out of hiding, and then use the right joystick to aim his laser sight before pressing the right trigger to fire. It’s a system that takes some time to get used to, and one that isn’t exactly ideal for a game that becomes this insane. Thus, it creates some frustration in and of itself and leaves the player at somewhat of a disadvantage.

Though its gameplay is sometimes too cheap and convoluted for its own good, Rise & Shine continually excels when it comes to its presentation. In fact, it was the game’s visuals that first caught my attention, thanks to their colourful, comic-inspired design. Simply put, the entire campaign is a treat for the eyes, with varied locations, continually switching colour palettes and performance that rarely falters.

What’s also great is that Rise & Shine’s audio is right up there with its visuals, offering an original soundtrack that is worth listening to by itself. The music ramps up as the on-screen tension does, and it’s always fitting. There is no spoken dialogue, though, as the developers chose to go with colourful, fullscreen comic panels instead. It suits the game, and is in line with its overall style, so no complaints here.

There’s little more that I can say about Rise & Shine now, having put all of my thoughts down onto paper (well, so to speak). For the most part, it’s a special little game that will challenge and impress players with its charming presentation and unforgiving gameplay. It is, however, not a perfect game, although that’s easier to overlook given that this is a studio’s debut effort, and a very good one at that.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Ittle Dew 2

They’ve always said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, so one must assume that Zelda's Link is the most flattered video game character in existence. Well, outside of Mario that is, given that his jump-based mechanics, three hit boss battles, and his simplistic, but effective life system, have been copied more times than I can count in the video game history.

Back when The Legend of Zelda first hit Japan in 1986, before making its way to North America and Europe in 1987, it sent a shockwave throughout the budding industry. One that to this day, can still be felt.

Among the many clones, copycats, and imitators lays ittle Dew 2 (yes, that is not a spelling error), the recently released Xbox One title from Ludosity Interactive. An extremely colourful, whimsical and far from serious affair, it combines a classic, grid-styled map like the original Legend of Zelda but with a more modern take on the genre’s gameplay principles. Well, that as well as a lot of intelligent and witty dialogue that will have you chuckling throughout your somewhat brief adventure.

As you’d expect, ittle Dew 2 continues the tale of ittle and her magical fox friend, Tippsie. Like before, they’ve managed to find themselves marooned on another strange island, having destroyed their ever-important raft in the process. This leads to a player driven quest where seven different dungeons must be explored and bested in order to recreate that most basic of seafaring vessels.

Generally speaking, all of the above is handled through a modernized take on the formula that The Legend of Zelda made famous during the late 1980's. You move from screen to screen, exploring a decent-sized and uniquely varied map, which is home to not just dungeons, but monsters too.

What’s neat about this take on the design though, is how open-ended it is. Instead of being forced to take a direct and planned path, you’re free to explore at will and can complete dungeons in any order. There’s also good reason to explore your surroundings thoroughly because the island is littered with hidden caves, special puzzles, and loads of secrets. This includes boxes of crayons, which help increase your overall health.

Discovered weapons also aid your cause, not only acting as offensive tools, but as puzzle solving items as well. For instance, certain block puzzles (of which there are many) will require you to somehow push blocks that you cannot touch. This is accomplished using a projectile-shooting wand of sorts, which is able to pass over obstacles like missing floorboards. All of your main weapons will double as puzzle solvers, making them more than just enemy killing sticks and staffs.

In fact, most of ittle Dew 2 is very similar to what’s come before it, be it Zelda or its imitators. That said, this is no mere copycat or half-assed attempt at a cash-in. It’s a very funny, enjoyable, and easily accessible game that is well worth one’s attention. Still, it’s not without its faults, including an overemphasis on block puzzles and a somewhat short campaign. Then again, it’s not like we’re talking about a $60 triple A title here, given that this review is about a $20 indie.

Visually, ittle Dew 2 resembles old-school Zelda while adding its own flair to things. The characters are unique-looking, the world pops with colour, and the whole package is brought to life using a cartoony, Flash-esque art style. It won’t win any awards, but it’s very fitting and does the quirky game world a lot of justice while delivering visual humour in its own comical way.

The audio continues the simplistic to carry an original theme, with playful and joyful-sounding music and creative sound effects befitting this unique world. It’s accented by some hilarious dialogue, which is, of course, stuck in word bubbles for nostalgic effect.

All in all, ittle Dew 2 is a very easy game to recommend. I didn’t know what to expect from it when I first started playing, but it wasn’t long before I fell in love with it and found myself ardently exploring the ins and outs of every one of its themed locations. Sure, the campaign may be brief if you go about it directly, but there’s lots to explore across an island that is littered with hidden caves, secret treasure chests, and copious amounts of loot. If you’re looking for something fun, nostalgic, and lighthearted to play this holiday season, or during the upcoming holiday release lull, look no further than ittle Dew 2.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Kyurinaga's Revenge

If you’ve never heard of Kyurinaga’s Revenge before then you can rest assured that you’re not alone. A follow-up to 2015’s terribly received Yasai Ninja, it’s yet another broken, frustrating and wholly forgettable release from indie developer Recotechnology S.L. One that I can safely confirm, without a glimmer of doubt in my mind, will not be remembered six months from now, let alone a year or two down the road.

To preface this review, I must admit that I’ve never played Yasai Ninja. Although it was once on my radar, due to its unique cast of vegetable samurai, I missed it at launch and ended up deciding to avoid it altogether after reading impressions from both friends and peers. Now, after having spent time with its sequel – which is terribly disappointing in its own right – I’m glad that I made that decision.

An action/platformer with rhythmic elements, Kyurinaga’s Revenge is a co-op enabled trip through vegetable-filled Feudal Japan. It’s there where the titular evildoer has returned to his devious ways, following the conclusion of Yasai Ninja’s quest. Equipped with troubling new powers, he poses an even greater threat to the realm, and it’s up to Samurai Kaoru Tamanegi (whose design is based around Asian vegetables like buk choy) and his ally, a street fighter named Broccoli, to save the day.

I promise that I’m not making any of this up.

If you’re able to find a second person to play this game with (which might be tough, especially after they see it in action), it’s possible to work your way through the campaign in tandem. However, if you opt to go through it as a solo gamer, you’ll have the option to switch between the two heroes at any given time. This is a necessary aspect of Kyurinaga’s Revenge, because each character has his own special ability, and both are required for basic progression.

What’s surprising is that instead of going the stealth route like you’d expect, the rugged samurai is equipped with bombs that he can plant at will. Detonation is another skill entirely though, and you’ll need to switch to Broccoli (whose name is as bad as the game he inhabits) in order to throw darts at the bombs to trigger explosions. These darts also factor into puzzle solving and combat, and can be used to hit targets or cut ropes holding environmental objects such as logs.

The game’s three to four hour-long campaign brings forth a mixture of puzzle solving, combat and basic platforming. With limited lives, golden coins to collect, and a blue coin that can be touched to trigger a timed collection challenge, it’s a lot like Mario except not nearly polished and much, much more frustrating.

You won’t always be jumping onto platforms, avoiding spike traps, solving puzzles or pushing blocks, though. In fact, there are a couple of other gameplay tropes to be found in Kyurinaga’s Revenge, the first of which is combat.

When you think of combat in a game such as this, your mind will likely be drawn to basic sword slashing or jumping on enemies’ heads to dispatch of their livelihoods. Let it be known though that touching an enemy results in instant death, as Broccoli and his samurai pal are both as weak as can be.

There is some basic swordplay, which can be triggered using the X button, but it’s as dreadfully simple as you’d expect. You simply swipe your sword and dispatch the foe in front of you.

Outside of this though lies what the game calls combat: engagements in which you stand still and press highlighted button prompts in order to kill incoming enemies. At the end of the day, it’s very reminiscent of a rhythm game, especially when you factor in having to switch between the two characters, and the fact that the button prompts get more complex as the engagements go on.

Mentioned previously, the other notable gameplay facet found within this uninspired insomnia cure is boss battles. These also leave a lot to be desired, and can induce a lot of frustration as a result of cheap deaths and imprecise controls.

The first boss is a ginormous vegetable, who just happens to be standing in a large pit of lava. His attacks consist of the most basic giant enemy attacks there are, that being fist slams and hand swipes. However, instead of having to wait until the beast’s hands are vulnerable, you must attack him by making your way to fallen lanterns and pressing X. This triggers a boulder to fall, but leaves you vulnerable in the process, meaning that if you hit a lantern as the boss is about to attack, you’re likely to die. There’s no safety whatsoever, and that’s a glaring oversight in what is a shoddily developed game.

On the presentation side, things are as you’d expect. A drawn out camera is used to cover visuals that are lacking in both detail and variety, and a game world that resembles something from generations gone by. It’s dark, bland and utterly forgettable, and the same is true of both the music and sound effects it incorporates. Loading times are also rather long; almost to a point that compares with how long the wait between checkpoints is in game.

Alas, Kyurinaga’s Revenge is a downloadable affair that is far from being worth anyone’s limited free time or hard-earned money. It’s offensively boring, frustratingly clunky and an absolute chore to play through altogether. As much as I hate dropping 'bombs' on indie developers, I cannot recommend this turd to anyone.

Overall Score: 2.0 / 10

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