Total Reviews: 71
Average Overall Score Given: 7.77746 / 10
Total Forum Posts: 0


I love video games! There is something special about being able to escape into worlds far removed from your real life. To take part in epic adventures or build a life and make new friends. To explore new worlds and get lost for a few hours in something completely different than what you do daily. Thunderful Games is well known for their fantastic indie games, and I am always quick to snap up a review title if it’s from them. Wavetale caught my eye, for multiple reasons, but the fact that it was water/ocean related made it a must review. You’d be hard pressed to find many games that don’t have some sort of water in it, but Wavetale dives into the deep end by allowing you to literally run, walk and glide on water. This 3rd person action-adventure title was originally released exclusively on Google Stadia in 2021 but has now made its way to PC and consoles and is one of the more relaxing and enjoyable games I’ve played in some time.

Wavetale takes place in the aptly named small town of Strandville that is literally surrounded by water. A lonely lighthouse stands against the storm. You play as Sigrid, a feisty, sarcastic and cynical young woman whose temperament is on full display through the voiceover actors sighs and mumbles under her breath. Sigrid naturally wants to explore the world, the wide ocean surrounds Strandville but her grandmother won’t even let her dip a toe into the water because of the dark and foreboding “Gloom” (clouds) that is omnipresent. It’s a tale as old as time. Young person wants to stretch their wings and fly and see the world but they are warned of many dangers. Sigrid has lost both of her parents and that is why her grandmother is overprotective.

Eventually Sigrid gets to see the world, but not entirely by her own choice. The first chapter (tutorial) has you searching your island home for ‘sparks’ for your grandmother. These are an energy source in the form of cute little blobs of electricity. Upon completing the first mission for Grandma, a tidal wave hits your town and you are thrown onto a patch of land. From here, Sigrid meets a mysterious underwater creature, which mirrors her every movement from under the surface of the water. This allows her to walk, run and even surf across the surface of the ocean. Eventually your grandmother allows you to venture out into the world to try to collect more sparks and money, and this is where the story truly begins.

You are off to save the world from the Gloom that is taking over everything and collect the sparks to help clear the Gloom and provide electricity to the inhabitants you encounter. With your trusty, technologically advanced net in your hands, you set off to complete quests and puzzles, defeat enemies and restore power to locals and unravel the mystery behind your mother’s death. It wouldn’t be a dramatic indie without having some sort of mystery to solve. The banter between Grannie (who is always in contact via headset) and Sigrid is delightful and full of water puns.

Zipping around the ocean was the most fun part of Wavetale in my opinion. It was more than just a mode of transportation; it was relaxing, freeing and just downright fun. The splish splash sounds of the water lapping at your feet and the music picking up tempo as you sped along, all gave me a real feeling of surfing or wave riding. It put a smile on my face from the first time I encountered it. Although the pace does pick up during missions and through some simple combat, the main focus of Wavetale is leisure. I’m not even remotely embarrassed to admit I spent time just zipping around on the water. Moving around the water is easy with the frequent and convenient placement of ramps and springs as well as places to grapple.

Gameplay follows a more traditional format with a main quest and some side quests and optional collectibles. Most missions involve opening up areas or saving people from the evil liquid ‘Gloom’ that surrounds everything. It’s like a sort of ooze that you hit with your net to dissipate. Sometimes when you find and rescue these characters they will give you an additional side quest, normally a fetch quest. Gameplay is fluid and intuitive, mechanically it’s quite simple. Missions and puzzles test basic skills like double jumps, gliding and grappling to get to different platforms to activate switches and levers. You can hover/fly using your net by spinning it like a helicopter blade.

Health regenerates without needing food or rest, and even when multiple enemies approach you at the same time, they wait their turn to attack. Boss fights are more about speed and movement, and less about your combat skill. You can literally button mash and beat the baddies in combat. It must take a lot of hits to die, as I don’t think I died once in the 4–5 hour playthrough. The biggest challenge I found in Wavetale were the timed challenges from Asta. You must navigate a route in a certain time limit and is not very forgiving. But if you plan correctly there are enough time boosts to collect to make it. Mastering these took the most time and concentration in the game, but it was very rewarding once you completed them, even if some took more attempts than I care to admit.

Visually, Wavetale looks like a paint by number book you might work through when trying to calm your mind. I mean that in a good way. Beautiful cel shaded pastel colours, and drawn to create a sense of whimsy, it was easy to fall in love with the world and surroundings. Between sea and sky there is a vast array of blue colours used. The coastal design included some typical features you’d see in coastal communities and lent itself to a bit of familiarity to me growing up near the ocean. I found a lot of comfort and nostalgia washing over me with the choice of drawing, although I’m not exactly sure what animation from my past it reminded me of.

There are some customization options for Sigrid in game and you can buy items in game with coins found. One thing I didn’t like was that even though I customized my Sigrid, she showed as the original default Sigrid in cutscenes, a slight disappointment. On top of the gorgeous visuals lies a superb soundtrack, composed by Joel Bille, and fantastic voice acting for Sigrid and her grandmother.

I didn’t run into too many technical issues while playing Wavetale on my Series X, but did find at times the camera would circle around behind Sigrid randomly and be behind something in the world so I couldn’t see myself or where I was trying to go. This left me jumping into the voice and hitting my grapple, hoping for the best. Sometimes it worked and sometimes I ended at the base of whatever tower I was trying to climb to begin again.

There is a simplicity with Wavetale that makes it really hard not to love. It favours freedom and movement over complex skill trees and combat. It's unfortunate that Wavetale likely fell under a lot of people’s radars since it was a Google Stadia exclusive, but I am hoping now that it will gain more attention. Thunderful Games has put an interesting spin on a post apocalyptic world with something that wasn’t dark, evil and scary, but rather joyful and beautiful in its own way. It’s a simply delightful game.

Thunderful Games has written a game about family, loss, self discovery and also about how we impact our environment. Wavetale culminates in an emotional ending and the story tugs at your heartstrings as you move along. The grandmother telling the story about losing her soulmate was particularly moving for me.

Wavetale is relaxing, beautifully drawn and has a superb soundtrack. It can and will suit a wide gaming audience regardless of skill level, and with it’s quick runtime it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Other than wishing the camera movement were a bit less finicky, I can’t really find too many faults with Wavetale and am looking forward to logging in and skipping around the ocean again when I need a reprieve from the real world.

**Wavetale was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 BLACKTAIL

The Nordic folklore tale of Baba Yaga has fascinated me ever since I first heard it, so when I saw a trailer for BLACKTAIL and heard it was a sort of reinterpreted origin story for Baba Yaga, I was extremely interested to play it. BLACKTAIL is a first-person action-adventure RPG developed by The Parasight S.A. It’s the first game from the Polish studio who proudly proclaim to be a game studio focused on creating “wonderfully unsettling games based on dark legends and fairy tales” and is published by Focus Entertainment. There has been plenty of proof that folklore, mythology and dark fairy tales make for interesting video games, and BLACKTAIL is just the newest to tackle this genre.

The story of Baba Yaga has a few variations, but she is primarily a child eating witch who lives in a hut that sits on chicken-leg like stilts. As anticipated, BLACKTAIL is a highly reinterpreted origin story. We are not introduced to the old witch from the Nordic folklore, but to a young 16-year-old girl named Yaga, who has been kicked out of her village after being accused of witchcraft. Yaga is searching for her twin sister, Zora, at the beginning of the game. Zora told Yaga to meet her at the giant red oak, but as Yaga is heading there to meet up a voice starts to speak to her telling her that she must reconstruct her memories and fragments of her past in order to find Zora. After a bit of looking around, you find a hut on stilt like legs, and start working at a cauldron to begin your initiation into witchcraft. Will you be a good witch, or a bad witch? I won’t give you too much more to the story than this for fear of spoilers. The story and journey in BLACKTAIL really are about discovering who Yaga and Zora really are, what happened to the village and everything that happens in between.

The plot and narrative are intriguing and partly what took me so long to get through this game. I didn’t want to miss a single snippet of the story. I spoke to everyone and interacted with everything that I was able to. Yaga interacts and speaks with giant talking mushrooms, stick insects, ants, beetles, imps, black cats and so many more creatures.

Most of us think of fairy tales as lighthearted although, in reality, most of those stories come from darker origins in folklore. BLACKTAIL is technically a fairy tale, but not the kind most people think of with that word. Funny and friendly woodland creatures are replaced with dark characters that have no intention of helping Yaga in her journey. In fact, most want to prevent her from discovering the truth and don’t want to let her pass unscathed. Since this is based on real Nordic folklore, I applaud the strong use of narration and word building by The Parasight. It’s probably the strongest part of BLACKTAIL and some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in gaming.

As for the gameplay of BLACKTAIL, it’s best described as a combination of linear story and open world map. Meaning you are given a main story line and directions to follow, but there is really nothing keeping you from wandering around the world uncovering secrets, lore, and NPCs who may give you some secondary side quests. Some of these side quests help to determine your alignment (good vs evil) and I’ll touch more on that shortly. You will follow the primary quest and backtrack multiple times normally during each branch of the main story. While the world is not totally open, you have a bit more freedom in how you get from place to place. Some of these alternative paths also open some side quests.

There are ample save points where you place a red flower on an alter to save the game. Each save point also has a black cat that you can pet and will morph you back to the hut where you can upgrade weapons, skills, and hexes. You will also place any items found on a ‘lost and found’ shelf here. There are also small fountain-like pedestals here to place magical frogs you find in the world. Your primary weapon is a bow, and you start with just basic wooden arrows available to you. As you level up and unlock skills you learn to craft and use modified arrows that will be used against ice, or are sticky, magical, etc. You’ll also earn a magic broom type of object that you can stick in the ground that will attract enemies’ attention for brief period of time, allowing you to get an advantage in battle or run away. You have some limited magical abilities like stunning enemies to give you a buffer.

The traditional style skill tree throughout the game is simple in design, but well rounded. I never really felt at a loss during fights once I learned the skills I needed. You can be very underpowered or under skilled if you decide to wander and take on boss fights before your time. Survival skills are also important in BLACKTAIL. As you wander through the world you must gather and collect materials that you’ll combine for crafting weapons and potions. The system is fairly straightforward and basic. Materials are abundant and rarely will you need to take a break from the story to gather missing supplies. While this introduces a survival/crafting element to BLACKTAIL, thankfully Yaga doesn’t need to be concerned about hunger, thirst or stamina in general. Berries are ample in the world, and you can consume them or cooked meat to replenish any health lost or visit one of the shrines in the world for a full refill.

Cooking meat is a tedious and unnecessary minigame unto itself, however and I disliked it so much that I only did it perhaps three times in my playthrough. You have a circle that surrounds the meat with a single opening in it. You must rotate this opening using your controller sticks to capture the flames that shoot in from random locations. Although not complicated in theory, I found it annoying and time consuming. Just let me cook the meat at a fire. Also of note is the fact that all materials are harvested ethically, small amounts at a time and acknowledgement of sacrifice is given if you hunt an animal. Morality plays into many things in the game, even from deciding if you should free a trapped bird or end its suffering by killing it.

As briefly mentioned earlier, along with the main story, you get to interact with some secondary characters. Often these characters will have optional missions for you. Depending on your dialogue and choices, you will forge your alignment to the light (good) or dark (evil). Helping the Ant Queen may win you favour with her alliances but will cast you in a negative light with those against the Ants having control over humankind. These choices do affect your narrative and overall gameplay to an extent, but I wish this were fleshed out a bit more. Good is the harder choice, and the game seems to want to steer you towards evil. Choosing good morality means you have more limited options for healing early in the game, and as you progress, different skills will only be available if you align to one side versus the other. Because of this, the game encourages multiple playthroughs to see any missed content because of your alignment choice. The morality bar is easily seen at any time, and you can choose to balance it as you see fit. It is an interesting mechanic but not really explored as much as it could have been. It’s also not always clear which is the good or bad choice when making decisions. I guess in some ways this is like real life. You may not realize consequences until decisions are made. Some choices it’s clear what the game wants you to do, others not so much.

There is definitely a bit of an Alice in Wonderland feeling to BLACKTAIL, from the saturated colours, to talking insects and cats, as well as the other flora and fauna quest givers you encounter. The forest and world feel lush and full. The voice acting was wonderful and whimsical, and it carried the story in the dreamlike way fairy tales often do. Some players might find the choice for voices unusual as there are multiple accents - Yaga is British, but the omnipresent voice in your head is American for example. There are a variety of other accents too. All characters are voiced well. I didn’t find any of the mix of accents unusual, it is after all a fantasy world.

The black cats you use for fast travel were a delightful surprise, and without spoiling too much of the story, I can say when he uses a human voice to say ‘meow’ it made me laugh out loud. The original soundtrack for BLACKTAIL (composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski) is the foundation and emotional backdrop of the vibrant world you navigate in BLACKTAIL. Traditional Slavic themes, mixed with modern motifs and synthetic sounds, reflect the contrast and duality of the light and dark themes you discover in your journey. I was so enamoured with the soundtrack that I immediately found it on Spotify and have been playing it for weeks now on repeat.

The only real downside to BLACKTAIL is the limited gameplay. It is mostly linear and your skills only expand minimally. You will explore and you will backtrack (a lot) over the 15-20 hours of gameplay. With a price of $29.99 (USD)/$39.99 (CDN) I think it’s outstanding value in terms of what you get for the price. I was surprised to see the sticker price after completing it. While nothing really stands out as new for the gameplay in BLACKTAIL, it has an outstanding setting and fantastic narrative. The voice acting is top notch. While Yagas quest to find her twin sister Zora is the engine that drives the story, you’ll quickly discover that it’s really the journey that matters.

**BLACKTAIL was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Evil West

Cowboys and Vampires and Sci-Fi... oh my!

I don’t play games like Evil West often, meaning that I’m not an action/shooter gamer in general. I am, however, a sucker (pun unintended) for vampires, cowboys and anything that has an alternative take on history. This year there have been a few games that have taken on supernatural versions of the Wild West, and I’ve even covered one of them earlier this year called Weird West. While both titles have taken on the same genre, they couldn’t be more different in their execution. While Weird West took on zombies and eventually grew on me, Evil West takes on vampires and grabbed my attention from the moment I loaded into the game.

Developed by Polish developers Flying Wild Hog (Trek to Yomi) and published by Focus Entertainment, Evil West is a 3rd person brawler/shooter. Rather than giving us yet another massive open world game (that seems to be the norm now), Flying Wild Hog have given us a linear story that still managed to captivate me and gave me a solid adventure to play through. It was refreshing to have something more pared down and reminded me of the game style I used to love.

In Evil West you play as Jesse Rentier who is both gunslinger and one of the last remaining members of an elite team of vampire hunters from the Rentier Institute. Wielding firearms and sci-fi technology alike, you will fight against the scourge of vampires and other dark creatures plaguing your town.

You are the heir to the Rentier family business, The Rentier Institute (started by your father). The Institute’s entire existence seems to be focused on ridding the world of vampires and other undesirable creatures. Your father gets gravely injured and the vampire conspiracy plot thickens. Even though you’re a bit of a rebel (and not particularly sold on taking over the family’s legacy), you need to step up and take care of the business, family and vampire hunting, and you head off to uncover the truth. Although I found the story interesting enough to keep my attention, the core of Evil West’s experience is the combat. This is something they did really well. Ranged and melee combat combine into a brutal and bloody dance. As mentioned earlier, I am not a huge fan of shooters, but I do enjoy crossbows, electrical shocks, grenades, and Evil West had all of these to play with. The most important weapon you have though is your gauntlet. Combining Sci-Fi, steampunk, and metalworking, this piece of gear allows you to apply some absolutely devastating, and incredibly satisfying melee attacks.

As you progress through the story, you’ll gain experience and can level up your gear and skills. Eventually you’ll be harnessing the powers of fire and electricity to enhance your arsenal. Practice makes perfect, and with each new skill you are able to create new attacks that combine multiple skills. Most games allow you to choose how you deploy your combat, and you can do this to an extent with Evil West, but it really caters to an aggressive, action first approach. Enemies come at you in groups keeping the combat fast and frantic. Equally important is learning your defenses like dodging, blocking and countering attacks. Often there are large groups of enemies and multiple bosses at the same time, so the ability to get out of danger is essential.

Upgrading your skills and learning the weak points and weaknesses of each enemy type if your key to success. You unlock such a variety of skills that often I forgot I had a particular skill until I either accidentally used it in battle or stopped to look at my perks. Like any combat-based game, you’ll find what combination works for you and tend to stick to it. By far my favourite weapon was the electrical gauntlet. Something particularly satisfying about using the electricity to fly across the battlefield to an enemy, shocking him and just pummeling him. As someone who plays a lot of cute indie titles, this is outside my normal coverage in games, but something I didn’t realize I has been missing in gaming lately.

Besides the brutal fighting, each zone allows players to explore and look for chests and treasure. In the crates you may find equipment or money, you can also find blueprints to unlock weapons lying around in buildings, and of course, bags of coins lying around. Coins are used to unlock perks, skills and skins. One thing I wish was more satisfying was the coin collecting. You literally just walk beside it, and it collects. I always like that sort of satisfaction of manually collecting treasure. Feels a bit more personal. There are spots located around the world where you can reset your perks, and this can be helpful if you find the combos you are using aren’t working against a particular type of enemy you are fighting. There is no chapter select in Evil West, however, so once the credits roll you have to start again from scratch or play NG+ if you want to go back and pick up anything you missed along the way.

While, visually, Evil West isn’t the most gorgeous game, especially if standing still, it has a character and charm that seems to work well when in motion. It’s a story about an alternative dimension/timeline. I don’t need it to be the most realistic graphics. It had a sort of comic book graphic style that, again, made me feel like an older style game that I just can’t put my finger on. The vast landscapes and environment are very well done, but the linear and obvious path to follow doesn’t let you explore it too much. You generally go from fighting to following a highlighted chain marking a path to follow, to fighting again. You know when you are about to get into a fight because you enter a large flat open area scattered with some TNT crates and spiky obstacles to impale your enemies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it gave you a bit of a warning, but if you like surprise fights, you aren’t getting them here. Oh, and if you are squeamish in games and you don’t like blood, guts and that sort of thing, this likely won’t be a game for you. There is a general ‘ick’ quality everywhere. It all looks squishy at times as the blood and guts are abundant. Since it’s not super realistic in its graphics, it may not bother you as much as a movie per se, but it has an uneasy visceral quality in its design.

There are 16 missions of varying length and interest, over the course of 12-15 hours play time (in my estimate). The story wasn’t the best I’ve played but kept me interested for the duration of my time playing. Narrative and context were primarily delivered through cutscenes and although a good choice, I found going from guns blazing to story cutscenes a bit jarring at times. There were also a few hubs between missions where you can wander and pick up additional lore and information. Ultimately, Evil West was about the combat, and that was enough for me. I encountered very few technical issues and I think only one or maybe two instances where the game froze, and I had to restart.

Fellow Canadian (born here but based in the UK), Derek Hagen brought a charismatic voice performance to the main character of Jesse Rentier. A man of few words in general, uttering simply ’money’ when he finds coins in the world, he has a few wisecracks as well throughout the story.

In general, I’d say the game is fairly accessible for most players. You can adjust some visual settings, and there is a story mode in choosing your difficulty. Combat isn’t very complex and is pretty forgiving. The combat is intuitive and if you don’t want to use every skill and weapon you have, you don’t need to. I won many battles only using a few moves to test out this theory, even though it took me longer and required more defensive measures and healing. I like the ease of the combat but also found it did a bit too much hand holding at times. Sometimes it’s nice to play around and figure what you can and can’t attack with a particular weapon. For example, the game was really clear what you could and couldn’t use fire on. Part of the fun in combat games is to try to figure out weaknesses on your own.

There is something old fashioned about Evil West, in many ways. It’s linear narrative, brutal combat and simple dialogue - all remind me of the Xbox 360 era, and this isn’t a bad thing by any means. Sometimes you don’t need all the best graphics, or an open world with a million tasks and quests, because sometimes you just want to beat bad guys up. Evil West gave me that, and cowboys and vampires too.

*Evil West was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Ship of Fools

Roguelikes are a genre I’ve never truly been drawn to. I don’t like the idea of dying a lot and starting over from the beginning. I have no desire to replay the same section over and over again. I am a sucker for cute animations and anything involving the ocean however, so I decided to take a chance on Ship of Fools when I was offered the opportunity. Ship of Fools is a debut title for Canadian developers Fika Productions and publisher Team 17, well known for their excellent roguelikes as well as some truly fantastic (and chaotic) co-op games like Overcooked! and Moving Out. Since I have loved their co-op games in the past, and Ship of Fools seemed to blend the two styles, I thought it was a great way to get more involved in the roguelike genre. Would it change my mind and keep me engaged and afloat, or would it make me want to walk the plank? Let’s take this voyage together and see.

Ship of Fools starts out with you waking up on the shores of The Great Lighthouse (your hub). You get your bearings and are immediately called to action by Clarity. Clarity serves as your initial guide in game, and she is a wise squid like creature. She tells you a storm is encroaching, and you must fend it off. Thus begins your tutorial of the game. Making your way across the hexagonal map, solo or in co-op, you’ll fight against a variety of foes, using different types of cannons to blast them, or your oar to melee attack them should they get too close to your ship. Melee is also used to deflect projectiles back at your enemies and, when successful, it’s quite satisfying. Enemies rarely damage your ship directly but will often throw sluglike enemies or fire onboard for you to deal with.

If you have wooden planks retrieved from the ocean, or purchased, you can repair your damage while continuing to fight. Ship of Fools is heavy on the combat, light on the story, and like any roguelike, it’s not meant to be a walk in the park. You will die plenty of times before you start to see progress, and that was part of its addictive charm. Each run will net you some tokens which you will use to add permanent upgrades to yourself and your ship. Combat is simple by design but by no means is it easy. Lining up perfect shots, specifically with the harpoon trying to grab floating treasure was really a gamble. With harpoons being limited, you really couldn’t afford to miss any shots either.

Starting characters are Todd and Hink, and they are classed as fools (blank slates for you to create and customize). As you progress and complete challenges you will unlock more. Aside from their visual differences and clever and cute names and puns (hello Krillstoph the prawn and Lotte the axolotl), they each have a special trinket which they take with them on their runs. Trinkets are essentially their perks which range from bonus damage, defence, ammo, etc.

Playing solo, you’ll have access to two cannons but you only control one of them as the other will auto fire at your enemies. This is definitely needed as it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you are being attacked from both sides. You will still need to reload the auto-fire cannon though, so plan accordingly and keep reloading when there is even a small lull. You start with one cannon on each side, but you are able to move them from side to side should you choose. If playing co-op, you’ll still have the two cannons. You can both decide to be on them, or one can be assigned to melee and ammo duty. How you play is up to you. Ship of Fools is fun solo, but the co-op was where it really shines. I would recommend playing with a friend versus someone random as you need to communicate and work together to be successful. Huge shoutout to my friend, Kevin, for playing the co-op with me so I can cover and experience both parts.

No run is ever wasted. You’ll pick up something, even if it’s just the handful of upgrade tokens mentioned above that can be used to upgrade cannons, items, or increase your health, etc. Along with dying a lot before you’ll see any progress, you’ll also likely have a decent number of upgrades before you see yourself progressing much as well. Each level has you navigating through the map, deciding where you want to go, what you want to try to pick up, etc., and each level ends in a boss battle. None of the bosses take it easy on you but when my hard-earned success feels that sweet, I started to understand the real appeal of Ship of Fools, and maybe other roguelikes too.

Each run starts with three hubs on your ship. You can place statuettes on these that give you extra harpoons, ammo, money and more. Ammo choices can make a real difference in your runs. They vary between ammo that doesn’t need to be reloaded as often, or fires faster, some will freeze the enemies or even light them on fire. I was quite pleased with the variety in the game. As you progress through the levels you will unlock new characters, each bringing their own perks to help you out. Once unlocked, you can play them at any time. You’ll also meet a variety of NPCs who will each have their own skills to help you. Once you beat the first boss, for example, you’ll be able to meet the blacksmith who will help you upgrade your cannons or allow you to purchase new ones.

Every run felt like I got just a little further and it never felt stale, even if it was frustrating at first. Also lending to its ability to keep things feeling interesting, the maps you find yourself navigating are random. You’ll have different combos of enemies, rewards, random islands, loot or characters. Different types of events are shown on the map with unique symbols, and it’s up to you (or both of you) do decide the route you sail. After each boss battle, you move to a news section and you can see the entire map, allowing you to create a plan of attack. There are over 100 trinkets, upgrades, and ammo types that you can find and use in Ship of Fools, meaning your runs will give you something different each time. RNG is always a factor, and you have no control over this. There were many times I left treasure behind or didn’t have enough money when I really needed it. All par for the course in roguelikes.

I adored the 2D hand drawn art style of Ship of Fools. Characters, environments, and enemies were all delightful. The colour palette was often muted, and with the murkiness of the sea and surroundings, I think it was an excellent choice. Characters were unique and recognizable as their real-life aquatic counterparts, and still drawn in a silly style alluded to in the title. Moody music accompanied the muted tones of the game perfectly. The use of orchestral music was the perfect choice to swell with the seas and levels. Punchy guitar picks punctuating the attacks in battles.

If I had to pick one weakness for Ship of Fools, it would be level design. Although randomly generated, it all felt the same. I enjoyed the chaos, but it felt a bit repetitive, and I would have liked a bit more variety in scenery and enemies. Would have also liked to see some cosmetic customizations for the ship.

Ship of Fools is a game full of rough battles and tough decisions. I firmly believe it should be played with a friend, and I totally lost count of how many times we thought a run was ‘the one’. Ultimately how much fun you have with Ship of Fools comes down to if you have someone to play with. Solo was fine, but co-op was a blast. I can see myself grabbing my first mate and heading out again on our very own Ship of Fools.

**Ship of Fools was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 McPixel 3

I honestly don’t recall the last time I played a game that made me laugh so hard that I actually snorted. It takes a lot to get me to laugh that hard, but that’s exactly what McPixel 3 managed to do recently. McPixel 3 is the follow up to the 2012 indie classic McPixel from the solo developer Sos Sosowski. There is no McPixel 2 (there was a mini documentary about why) but instead of pondering over it too much just know this sequel was highly anticipated. Following the adventures of the title character, McPixel, who will do anything and everything to ‘save the day’ by using objects and finding solutions in the environment around him.

McPixel is clearly a parody of MacGyver and McPixel 3 is, by far, one of the most ridiculous and entertaining games I have ever played. It will come as no surprise to most, that Devolver Digital is the publisher of McPixel 3. Every single part of the game has Devolver Digital stamped on it. If you know, you know.

I cannot reiterate this enough. If you don’t like crude humour, McPixel 3 likely isn’t for you. I’m still not entirely sure it’s for me, but I laughed at the sheer nonsense that was on my screen at times. The opening tutorial, if you can call it that, sets the tone for the whole game and involves diffusing a bomb and pooping. Yep, we’re at poop level humour in McPixel 3.

Controls in game are simple. Using a basic point and click system for getting around, joystick and single button to interact. You are controlling McPixel, and it has such a simplistic game style that you could sit virtually anyone down in front of this game and they would be able to figure it out with minimal effort. Be prepared, though, despite its cute 8-bit graphics, it is NOT a kid’s game. It’s juvenile, definitely, and the ESRB rating is T for Teen for involving ‘crude humour, use of alcohol and tobacco, sexual themes, partial nudity, and fantasy violence’. With all of that parental warning stuff out of the way, it won’t be long until you’re laughing at the absurdity of McPixel 3. Watching the trailers, I thought it was really childish, it showed just the crude potty humour, but once you get into it, it’s just pure chaos and nonsense and I was fully pulled into the world.

Exploring the open world hub, the town of McBurg, you’ll unlock areas after earning currency playing levels. Each group of levels is referred to as a round, and each level in the round is a scene where McPixel must save himself from imminent danger. While there is only one way to ‘save the day’, a correct solution they want you to discover, there are a multitude of wrong ways. This is where the hilarity of McPixel 3 shows itself. Whether you get it right or wrong, once you complete one of the solutions you’ll be shuttled to the next scene, and you have to wait for it to roll around to take another crack at it. Once you solve each level correctly, you’ll go back out to McBurg and pick up a new round from a new area.

Scenarios can range from diffusing a bomb, stopping an out-of-control train, finding your way past a cat (when you’re the size of a mouse), etc. McPixel 3 quickly taught me that using logic wasn’t the way to win the game, in fact, the more I thought about the solutions, the longer it took me to complete levels. Time is of the essence in each level, and I found I just had to ‘wing it’. Solutions started to make sense if I thought about it from McPixel’s frame of mind. If you are familiar with Saturday Night Live’s MacGruber, and how his thought process wasn’t always the smartest solutions, then you’ll understand McPixel’s brain a little better. If you’re even older, you may be familiar with Super Dave Osborne and his antics. Both are applicable here. Think outside the box, and out of the ordinary to find all the hidden solutions.

Besides saving the day, McPixel will compete in sporting events, take part in TV shows and action movies, even become a layer in his own retro style video game. You do not need to complete every possible outcome to get through a scenario, but to get 100% of the game and coins you will. At the end of each round there is a summary showing you how much gold you earned, what percentage of the level you completed, how many clicks it took you, and your total time. There are incentives for replaying and completing it faster and more accurately, and it’s easy to jump into any area you’ve completed from the main menu. In total there are 100 levels to play, with more than 900 gags, 1500 items to interact with and 20 mini games within the world.

As you are walking around McBurg, you can interact with anyone you see. McPixel’s preference for interacting with people is to either kick them in the junk or pee on them. There’s a line I never thought I would write in a review. I’m not exactly why these are your only two options, but they are. In fact, you can pee on almost anything in the game and sometimes this is one of your solutions. For example, one way to prevent a bomb from exploding. Clicking randomly around the screen often rewards you with unexpected surprises. At times you will find a hidden Steve, in a garbage can, in a hole in the ground, you never know. Steve is sort of a side gag to the game and has his own side quests of sorts. He has entirely unwinnable scenarios, but they are ridiculous in their own way. I’m not sure I can pick a favourite level in McPixel 3, but one that sticks out was a game of chess, where the only way to ‘win’ the level was to sucker punch your elderly opponent.

While I rarely found myself stuck in trying to find a solution to a level, there is a hint system where you hit a button and it will highlight everything on the screen you can interact with. It won’t tell you how, why, or what to do with it, but sometimes just seeing something you may have missed will clear your mental block. There is a finite set of options in each level though, so you may repeat an option, and that’s okay too. McPixel is fast, and chaotic, and it never wants you to slow down. In the grand scheme of things though, finding the right solution isn’t the main purpose of the game, the absurdity in all the wrong solutions is.

Graphically, McPixel 3 has a classic 8-bit aesthetic. Each area and character are well designed with enough detail available to give little bits of personality to each character. The entire game is backed by an old school energetic soundtrack keeping pace with the quick movement of the game. There was a distinct lack of sound effects that I found strange though. People with nostalgia for the older style games will find something familiar here, but I tend to think more modern gamers may not find as much appeal.

McPixel 3 isn’t for everyone. It’s crude but it gave me the kind of unexpected laughs that I haven’t had since moments playing the most recent South Park game. If you want something to have a few laughs, and not take seriously, I think you’ll like it. If you like crude humour, you’ll love it.

**McPixel 3 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Tanuki Sunset

Skateboarding Racoon. That was all I had to know before grabbing Tanuki Sunset to review. Developed by the Canadian coders at Rewind Games, Tanuki Sunset is a third person longboarding game with a synthwave aesthetic. It’s a mild twist on the endless runner genre and was originally released on Steam and earlier this year. You can now play it on console.

A tanuki is a Japanese racoon dog, similar enough for people to think it’s a racoon like I did first upon seeing the trailers. Your sole job is to master the art of longboarding, not an easy task when the roads throughout Sunset Island are full of obstructions, twists and turns. You play as the titular Tanuki, a radical ‘raccoon’ with big dreams to be on the cover of FISH magazine. In order to do this, you must make it through Sunset Island’s three main areas and make it to the fabled ‘Big Ramp’. I promise to try and not use too many 80's slang references, but I couldn’t resist one use of radical. Thank you for not rolling your eyes so loud so that I could hear you.

Gameplay for Tanuki Sunset is very straightforward. Control your longboard with the left analog stick, both speed and direction. You can drift using the 'X' button, also learn to do spins and tricks. The objective is to get down the tracks as fast and as stylish as possible. Drifts, jumps, flips, grabs and near misses all accumulate points. Although the controls are simple in design, they do require some practice to learn and master. The tracks in Tanuki Sunset are all randomly generated within the levels, and each will have checkpoints within them.

If you fall off a track, you will start at the closest checkpoint you completed. This sounds like it would be great, but I found it slightly aggravating because the checkpoints are quite far apart from one another, meaning you could spend numerous attempts at times to complete certain sections. It’s not like practice can make you necessarily better either. Since the tracks are randomly generated, they are never the same after you crash into a car or fall off the side of the raised track. For this reason, I found the game a lot more stressful than it should be for a game based on chill beats and a laid-back vibe.

Players collect ‘bits’ as they maneuver through the game. You can use these bits between levels to buy cosmetics at Bob’s Skate Shop. Bob is a sloth and his shop acts as your base of operations. You can wander around the store buying longboard cosmetics from him, like wheels, trucks and skins. The shop also has an arcade cabinet where you can take part in ‘trials’ to pit your skills in speed, jumps etc against others. There is also another NPC selling wardrobe cosmetics like shirts, helmets, sunglasses and even ‘walkdudes’ that you wear on your hip to listen to your music. All the colours and styles are pulled directly from the 80's boarding culture. Don’t forget to pet Dio the dog in the shop. It’s a small room, just a shop with not a lot to explore. As you complete objectives, or pass time trials, you’ll earn stickers from the levels.

Speaking of music, the soundtrack in Tanuki Sunset is Tanuki Sunset’s best feature in my opinion. While the games visuals feature a vaporware aesthetic, the soundtrack is a collection of Lo-Fi beats and tunes. Every track was great, I wish there were more of them as I heard the same few songs frequently while playing. The soundtrack even has the sound of swapping cassettes between songs. Would love to see the soundtrack available for purchase eventually. Graphically, Tanuki Sunset has low-poly graphics that are like a comic book brought to life. The game even has a photo mode. Trying to pull off a trick and using photo mode was really tricky, but I was successful a handful of time.

I had a few dislikes about Tanuki Sunset. First, although the game was an easy one to pick up and put down. There was no ‘options’ button/tab/menu to remind you what the controls were. Since I’m someone that jumps from game to game - both for reviewing and personal gaming, a reminder of the control functions would be appreciated, or at least somewhere to open and see them. Second, I see nothing for accessibility options. No way to change camera controls, blur, or button mapping. Third, the steering and drifting is far too sensitive to feel like you have any control, and using steering and braking on the same stick caused me to have some joint pain in my thumbs. I would have appreciated the button mapping and sensitivity adjustments here. Lastly, there is a lack of tricks, but since this is more of a speed/dodge game than a skateboarding game, I guess it makes sense.

Finishing the 3-4 hour long story mode unlocks an ‘endless’ mode that adds to the potential longevity of the game. I would have loved to see more upgrades available for your boards, more trick options and difficulty settings would have also been appreciated as I could see that youngers gamers would really like this style of game, but the frustration level could be pretty high for them when it’s so easy to fall with the current controls.

While more tricks and options would have made Tanuki Sunset more enjoyable, if you’re looking for something chill to occupy your time, or as a palate cleanser between games, I’d recommend this indie title, even just for the soundtrack.

**Tanuki Sunset was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Brewmaster: Beer Brewing Simulator

Gamers do not have a shortage of simulation style games. You can be a surgeon, mechanic, manage a football team, run a farm, pressure wash everything, build PC's, even be a goat – the choices are seemingly endless. I generally find the simulation genre quite relaxing, and I get to explore jobs, worlds, and skills I would never experience in my real life. When I was invited to take a sneak peek at a new sim game late last year, called Brewmaster: Beer Brewing Simulator, I eagerly took a chance to try out my dreams of brewing my own beer without the added costs of financing a real-life setup. Now that I have my hands on the final release, let’s see if it goes down smoothly or if it is super skunky.

Simulation games generally fall into two categories; the ones that are nothing like reality, think along the lines of Goat Simulator, and the ones grounded in reality where you will invest a lot of time learning and growing before really getting into the game. Brewmaster: Beer Brewing Simulation (simply referred to as Brewmaster going forward) is a really chill and laid-back game that falls in to the second classification. Developed by Auroch Digital and published by Fireshine Games and Sold-out Software. It launched in September on PC and recently on consoles. There are no fail states, no drama, no combat or time limits. It’s just you learning about and brewing beer and experimenting. As your knowledge grows, you can experiment further. Boil water, add grains, hops, honey etc, ferment, taste and repeat. During the tasting you can bottle your beer, creating custom names, labels etc. You are given a full flavour profile and analysis breakdown. You will see the colour, clarity and alcohol content among other characteristics.

As the wise Friar Tuck once said: This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to his bounty by learning about... beer!

There are two major modes in Brewmaster. Story mode and Freeplay. You can play either from the beginning of the game which is nice if you are already familiar with brewing beer. It gives you all the equipment and ingredients, recipes and knowledge you need to brew to your heart's content, in your own time. Since freeplay doesn’t really need more of an explanation, I will focus primarily on Story Mode for this review.

Story mode sets you up to work your way slowly through stages, processes and steps to start your brewing career. You’ll start with one of the simplest recipes, a basic ale, gradually adding new ingredients, steps, equipment and skills to your hobby as you progress through the story arcs. Start by grabbing a pot and filling it with 21L of water. Bring the water to a boil. Since this takes some time, it’s nice to have a fast forward option on your watch as to not have to literally watch the pot boil. Once it boils add your malts and grains, wait, cool, ferment, add yeast, condition and finally taste. Each step requires time like it would in reality, so using the stopwatch to speed up time (or calendar to skip multiple days in some cases) is helpful.

At the tasting stage you can either bottle your beer or store it. Storing it is a great option, especially if it’s a good match to a particular type of beer as you may be able to use it in a competition in the future. Once bottled you can’t submit it to any competition. When bottling you can create your own custom labels, eventually unlocking different bottles, glasses and more custom options. If you are creative, this can occupy a lot of your time. Each stage lets you follow along with a recipe of your choosing or gives you a particular job to complete. This job could be brewing a particular style of beer or brewing a beer using a specific method, tool or ingredient combo. Requests may be small, like achieving a certain colour, clarity, alcohol content etc. This simply requires you finding a recipe in your arsenal that hits these marks. As you progress, however, you will have more requirements to fulfill to complete a job. Perhaps trying to hit a particular colour as well as 4 or 5 different flavour notes, but not hitting others. Maybe your hops need to all be from one region. The requests can be finicky but if you have an eye for details, they are mostly manageable.

Each day starts with you looking at the current brewing magazine for the season. You’ll find some tips and hints in there. You may also have a delivery at the door with new ingredients or equipment. Open it up and put it away in your kitchen work area. Sometimes you’ll also be given the opportunity to create brews for other breweries that want to partner with you, participate in events or even enter contests. I enjoyed the competitions the most. You have a list of likes and dislikes from the judges as well as general guidelines for the type of brew expected. You have a bit of time to enter, so you can enter one beer option, and continue to brew batches, swapping them out if you think they may have a better chance of winning. After the competition closes you’ll see if you win. Placing in the top three earns you prizes and if you manage to get First place, you get a lovely trophy and glass to decorate your workplace.

I was pleased with the balance in Brewmaster. It left me enough freedom to explore and learn and be creative, but also gave me some guidance to follow without holding my hand too much. Brewmaster also didn’t take itself too seriously. For example, it didn’t care if you cleaned your equipment meticulously. You also have a bit of a buffer in levels and measurements. If things weren’t perfect, you were still often lucky enough to get the results intended. I have accidentally left batches uncovered, or for too long in fermenting barrels and still had decent results. Definitely unlikely this would be the case if I were brewing in reality.

One really nice thing was once you purchased ingredients, they were always available to you, they never ran out or needed to be repurchased. This was a good thing as you don’t make a lot of money in Brewmaster. It’s indeed a hobby where you earn a little, and learn a lot. The biggest fault in the game, in my opinion, was a need for more precise measuring of ingredients. Using the 'Right Bumper' to pour meant I was frequently stopping short, just to over pour when trying to add just a little more. Also, when measuring your hops from the fridge, you could only take them in 5g bundles and some recipes required an odd number (43g for example). There was no way to get a precise number here. Possibly this was easier to do on PC. I would have also liked to have a bit more information and guidance to determine how to achieve or change characteristics in the beer. It was hard to sometimes determine how to get a particular level or note from a beer, and how to correct or alter a recipe when I wasn’t sure exactly how each characteristic could be altered. I did spend some time searching online and talking to people who understood home brewing far more than I did. I did encounter a few bugs, mostly where I couldn’t open something or pour, equipment would just vanish from the bench, or my hands, but opening a menu and closing it again would normally fix that.

The gameplay loop is simple. Brew beer, over and over. Even though this could be boring to some, I was drawn into it far more than I anticipated. I made a lot of mistakes, as you would expect, but the science nerd in me wanted to succeed. The beer lover in me wanted to create and discover. The list of equipment and ingredients wasn’t massive but had enough options to keep the game interesting. I am a craft beer lover and have spent a lot of time visiting breweries, talking to real brewmasters, and tasting of course. This game gave me a little sneak peek behind the curtain to the science behind the beer I love. I learned a lot from this game. See, video games can be educational.

Music in the background was ever present, but thinking back on it, nothing really stands out. That it likely a good thing as I wanted the entire process to be relaxing. The sounds of water running, or items being poured seemed well thought out. I have no complaints there. Outside of brewing in game, you can purchase and earn items to decorate your home. It’s a nice little break between brewing batches, or perhaps you want to let your process run in real time and just chill for a bit. Sit back and look at all the trophies you’ve earned in the competitions. Small touches I added to my home made it feel a bit more personal to me versus when I started with the blank slate.

The game is far from hardcore. It’s fairly approachable to casual sim game players, but also in depth enough for beer making enthusiasts. I can see that those with experience would enjoy the freeplay immensely. From hanging out in the Auroch discord, I saw an abundance of knowledge being shared from people far more into brewing that I will ever be. Some even sharing recipes they created in reality or in game with one another. Brewmaster has a lot of depth, a lot of detail and a lot of science. Brewing beer is part science, part art, and all love. There is so much detail that I’d likely need an entire article in itself to cover all the equipment, hops, grains, add-ins and more that are in the game. There is clearly a lot of love and attention to detail involved here. I think if you are a fan of craft beer, if brewing interests you, or you are into simulation style games, you should check out Brewmaster to see if its flavour profile matches with your tastes.

**Brewmaster: Beer Brewing Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Pentiment

How do I even start to talk about Pentiment? After finishing the game at 2AM, I found myself not being able to sleep because I was thinking about what I had just experienced. Not only what I played and how I felt, but what I might have missed during my first playthrough. I say first because there will definitely be a second, and probably a third. I guess this is how I’ll start this review. Pentiment is a game not only about what you do, but about how you feel. It’s about people’s lives, a turbulent history, family, friends, love and loss, and so much more. Trying to provide a brief synopsis of Pentiment will prove to be a challenging task. A simple premise, in the form of a narrative driven historical adventure. It had me captivated as it dove into politics, religion, philosophy, gender and cultural shifts through the eyes of the people just trying to live their lives in the 16th century Bavaria Region of Germany.

History is fickle. It’s written by the ‘winning side’ and passed down through stories and paintings, often convoluted and mysterious, and changes depending on who you hear it from. Recorded for posterity on parchment or stone, in written word or in pictures, it changes and grows. The word Pentiment means to repent or change your mind. In religious terms it’s to atone for your sins, in art it’s the changes that artists make when painting over original works. You can often find these changes when peering through layers, and we have seen some of these discoveries over the years brought to light. Both the religious and artistic sense are covered in the game.

Pentiment is a game made by a small team of 13 talented people from Obsidian Entertainment and published by Microsoft Game Studios. Obsidian has a rare, almost perfect record of creating exceptional story driven games. From Pentiment’s first trailers and following the buildup over time, I became increasingly interested in playing this historical narrative adventure. Pentiment starts with a simple phrase in Latin, "In principio erat Verbum", taken from the Book of John in the Bible meaning ‘In the beginning there was the Word’. You are greeted with a page in a book and you remove the writing with a stone to take it back to its most basic state, the blank vellum. A subtle way of letting you know you are about to write your own story and the power of the words you read and write will shape your experience. One quick note, Pentiment has an ESRB rating of Mature, 17+ for sexual content/suggestive material in the dialogue and some profanity.

You are Journeyman artist, Andreas Maler, working in Kiersau Abbey, close to the town of Tassing, in the alps. The 15-20 hour story takes place over a period of 25 years (and 3 acts) and stays primarily within these two areas. Andreas spends his days illustrating in the Abbey and lives a remarkably simple life, renting a room in the town. One day as he’s on his way to work, there is a murder of a wealthy Baron (a patron of the Abbey) and his friend, Brother Piero, is accused of the crime. Looking at the historical setting - burden of proof, and massive investigations were not common. Andreas simply can’t fathom that his friend would commit such a crime and asks for some time to look for alternate explanations. This is where the game really took off for me. Pentiment is a game of choice and a little bit of chance, as you have multiple options and decision branches, and not enough time to do all of them. You may chase a lead only for it to be a dead end. You have a limited time to gather what info you can and give your input. Because of these time limitations, your playthrough will likely be different than mine. This is one of the reasons I can’t wait to play again and try some other options.

Like real life, your day is broken into work, meals and rest. At mealtimes you are welcome at almost any table in the area. When you have meals, you can see the economic discrepancies between groups even more boldly. While dining in the Abbey you have roasted game and an abundance of choices. You often see food leftover on plates. When dining within Tassing you may have a meager serving of bread and cheese, or even a plate of gruel. At one point you notice that you are the only person at the table with bread. You realize this is because they couldn’t afford bread normally, but you were a guest, so what little they had was yours. It was customary to treat your guests to the best.

You are privy to every action and choice Andreas makes, good or bad, and most of your information gathered is akin to gossip. Will you jump to conclusions based on your feelings for a character? Will you be impartial? Will you express your real feelings and opinions, or stay silent and listen as they talk? As you move around Tassing and the Abbey, you can change the course of the story. Helping the miserable elderly woman with her home might make the Abbey angry. Convincing a young person to pursue their dreams or chase their true love could create a different branch in the story. Will you use your position to help the peasants? Will you join in on the revolt? All of these choices are yours to make. With every choice and consequence, I came to care about the characters more and had a harder time making decisions that may hurt my favourites. Pentiment is less concerned about who actually killed the Baron. In fact, after talking to others who accused a different person of the murder, their story played out differently than my own. There is no right answer here.

You can customize Andreas in a small extent. Picking some options for background, education, locales visited etc., gives him some expertise in areas that may or may not help you in certain circumstances. Choices of locales will mean you can read and understand certain languages and text, and those of similar backgrounds will appreciate you more and hold you to a higher level. You can choose options that might make you seem dangerous (the Occultist for example), or options that make it easier to sweet talk people or threaten them to get information. Some quests will be easier, or impossible, depending on your background and interests picked.

Your choice of dialogue matters, even if your decisions aren’t apparent until hours later. From time to time, you will get a notification saying, ‘this will be remembered’. This caused moments of nervousness and uncertainty as I worked my way though the story. As in real life, you will never please everyone nor be on everyone’s good side. This is your choice to make when dealing with the church and the locals and those in between the two. Incredible writing, meaningful dialogue and believable characters made it easy to stay engaged in the story. There are many themes addressed in Pentiment, although none of them is the only theme of the game.

A lightly fictionalized, but historically accurate setting, you will meet a wide range of characters from diverse backgrounds. Each background represented by a unique style of writing on the page. Less educated individuals might have messy, scrawling words, and higher educated will have more elegant, flowery script. Printers will use a more modern typeface. These are not set in stone either as when Andreas talks to people, his opinions sometime change and therefore their text styles do as well. Someone initially deemed to be uneducated may have their font change from messy to more elegant as a conversation progresses. This was fascinating to see in action while playing. Equally interesting was the way the font was presented graphically. Text is written in real time, the sound of scraping against the parchment the predominant sound you hear in game. Sentences were written in the way they would have been during that time, blanks left to add in names or words that would be using different ink after the original sentence was put on paper. These words, mostly religious in nature, were written in red vs black ink.

Spelling mistakes were made in their writing, and you could see and hear them being corrected in real time, a scraping sound of a knife or rocks removing the letters and then corrected. Ink dries and blooms like it would on a real page and not consistently. Just beautiful. Names and words are sometimes underlined, and you can use a glossary for a definition, a bit of background, or a picture if a person is being named. Obsidian have managed to make the narration its own character of sorts, and a strength versus the weakness it can often be seen as. Ink splatter and shakiness of the page indicate feels of anger, stress, or distress in conversations. There are no voice overs, and not much in the way of music (with the exception of certain scenes involving events and festivals mostly). The music and singing in game were impactful and well chosen to represent the setting of the game. The sounds Pentiment, like the rain and birds, were so realistic that at one point I thought they were coming from outside and not the game I was playing.

I can’t dive too far into the story of Pentiment without getting into spoiler territory, and I will say the less you know going in, the better the game will be. Because of the time being limited in your days, the game does have some replayability, and you will have to play multiple times to see different story arcs and to gather all the achievements available. I will be playing to see different branches, even though I full expect the magic and mystery to appear a bit worn once you know the base storyline. There are a few mini games under the guise of daily chores sprinkled throughout Pentiment. These break up some of the days spent simply talking to people. As expected, people talk while working and going about their daily lives, so the best way to get information is to join in. If it’s not been clear though, gameplay is not the highlight of what makes Pentiment special, it’s the narrative aspect.

Pentiment’s gameplay, or lack of, may deter some potential players, and it’s definitely not a game for everyone. There is no combat here and you will spend the majority of your time reading. There is a lot of reading. Being so heavily text based is potentially another deterrent to get people interested. Of note here are the Accessibility Options included. With a game that uses a variety of stylized script options used to denote the status (or perceived status) of characters, I had a few concerns about what accessibility options there would be. Looking in the Accessibility Tab you will find High Contrast and Photo Sensitivity (for flashing effects) options to toggle on or off, as well as a slider for text size and notification time. You can also toggle on voice assist to enable text to speech to read all of the written dialogue aloud (with adjustable volume as well). There are 10 voices to choose from. I did play with some of these settings and found them to be extremely helpful, especially when my eyes were tired. The narration was clear and when presented with options in dialogue you would hear ‘option 1 of 3’ for example, followed by the dialogue options. As someone who doesn’t require these options, I can only give my opinion, but I found them to be clear in their direction, scope and application. Button remapping is an option should you choose as well. Pentiment is localized for seven different languages including English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish. Important to note that if you use the easy-to-read fonts, you will lose some of the more distinguishing features that help differentiate the ‘classes’ of characters.

As someone raised in a family with ties to the Catholic church, I was familiar with a lot of the religious context in the game. As someone no longer tied to those beliefs, I found myself digging further and further into references made in Pentiment. The game’s historical politics were fascinating. Bringing in real history references to Martin Luther’s reform of the church and the Twelve Articles that were part of the peasants’ demands in 1525. Many referenced to Pagan and Roman myths as well. Pentiment even highlights some lesser-known history hidden in the church. But - no spoilers.

Visually, Pentiment looks like it was written and drawn in the pages of old books. The world is detailed and not only filled with people, but also animals. And yes, you CAN pet the dogs and cats you encounter. You can interact with many things, like ruins, fallen statues, flowers and gravestones, each making the world feel more real and full around you. Characters are 2D and can only move left or right, with 3D facial features that are easy to see and decipher their reactions and feelings. Running and other movements seemed natural.

I did encounter a few things I didn’t like and some slight bugs. First the map. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I found my position shown on the map in the journal versus my position in the game wasn’t really accurate, and I often had to check the map multiple times to go places. Second, I had some technical issues when spots to interact with were too close to one another and I’d hit the wrong one and ended up having to backtrack at times. Fairly minor, more often just annoying. As a quick reader the spelling corrections and changes and writing in real time was frustrating at first but after the first little while I learned to slow down. This also helped me become more engaged with the story. Pentiment invites the player to sit and think about the story and the sad truth at times. My biggest gripe is the lack of background music, but I know that it would take away from the sounds of the writing. I could be critical about Pentiment falling into a few story tropes, or that the ending was a bit more rushed than it could have been, but this would just be trying to find faults at this point.

Pentiment does a fantastic job of showing how history is messy. Even the story is a bit messy, but it’s perfectly imperfect where it matters. People change and grow as does their storytelling and the history that gets passed on. They are moulded and changed by what happens to them during their lives. Good people are capable of making bad decisions, just as bad choices at one time doesn’t mean that someone can never change their ways. People who seek and have power will often abuse it, and stories are never really just black and white. There is no ‘right’ path in Pentiment, just the story journey you choose to take. There is really no ‘happy’ ending either, just the consequences of your decisions. Seeing the way my story was laid out before me at the end of the game was fantastic. Thank you for that final artistic touch. One final note, the achievement name for completing Act 3 is called “manu propria” which is Latin for “(signed) with one’s own hand” and was typically used after a person’s name when a signature wasn’t used or available, as in when something was typewritten or printed. I couldn’t help but interpret that as Obsidian’s signature on their digital document. Even after the credits rolled in the wee hours of this morning and into the next day I sit and think about the fondness for Illuminata as she shared her quiet and soft wisdom about literature, and a special spot for the babies I watched grow up over the 25-year span covered. Seeing the characters and families grow and change hit in a way I didn’t expect.

I started playing Pentiment wondering what I had gotten myself into. The first hour was slow, a lot of reading, and a lot of religion. But once I got into it, I couldn’t stop playing. Utterly addictive like a novel I couldn’t put down. Pentiment was a highlight of my year, and one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Covering an abundance of topics, including losing people before their time, and loss of a child, there are many options to create great discussions if you want to talk about this game with others. I look forward to talking to my friends after they’ve had a chance to experience it. It’s not perfect, I don’t think any game is, but about as perfect as you’ll find. This game will likely divide players, but those who enjoy narrative driven stories, historical settings and perhaps even a murder mystery will surely find something to love. Pentiment is a perfect jaunt through an imperfect part of history.

**Pentiment was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 Darkest Tales, The

Indie games with cute characters will always get my attention. Add in fairy tales and I’m even more intrigued. Put a dark twist on those fairy tales and I’m all in! Videogames are no stranger to the concept of dark twists on fairy tales, there are many of them. The newest to tackle this genre is The Darkest Tales from Trinity Team and 101XP. What happens when the heroes from your children’s stories are twisted by their thoughts and deeds?

You play as the adorable, although grumpy, protagonist named Teddy. If you couldn’t figure this out, he’s a teddy bear. After spending some time locked away in his toy box, he is awakened by a fairy named Lighty (who dwells in the nightlight) telling him that the little girl who owns him (Alicia) is trapped in her own mind and needs to be rescued. She is being kept, locked in her own nightmares, by a sleep demon. Teddy must now become Alicia’s knight in shining armour and rescue the little girl. Lighty gives Teddy a pair of scissors to accomplish his task - defeat the nightmares and help wake Alicia.

Teddy starts out wielding this pair of scissors that he breaks in half to create dual wielding blades. As you work through the story you will also unlock a bow, boomerang, axe, harpoon and great sword, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each is also able to be upgraded via the skill tree. As you kill enemies and collect skill orbs throughout the game, you will fill the skill tree up. It levels your health and weapons at a fairly steady pace and doesn’t feel too grindy. In addition to the skill orbs, you are able to locate ability orbs that will give you bonuses. Some of these include having a longer dash or dealing more damage when you are at lower health.

As you uncover new weapons and abilities, you can play with them to uncover different methods to move through the game. Some of the abilities can only be equipped one at a time so you need to decide what to use and when is the best time to equip a particular ability. Each new area requires you to learn new ways to traverse it. You’ll encounter Red Riding Hood, Peter Pan, a giant, Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent to name a few of the characters. You’ll fight gingerbread zombies, giant insects, wolves, bears, dwarves, and a whole cast of fairy tale creatures.

Combat is only one part of this 2.5D platformer. Unfortunately, the platforming isn’t as fun as the combat. Some of the levels are rage inducing and ask for near perfection when navigating. This is almost impossible at times, primarily due to the inconsistencies with Teddy’s controls. The beginning is fairly simple and straightforward, as Teddy can jump, run and attack using his scissor blades. Then you’ll open a dash, double jump and grapple hook to swing from. As you open these other advanced movements it starts to become less cohesive and smooth. Teddy will often not let go of the grapple hook or throw it when you hit the button. This means he will miss, or the timing will put you square in the danger zone.

The same goes for the double jump. The double jump only works well when you hit the second button tap when you’re at the apex of the first jump. You have a very small zone to have this work, so it ends up being pretty finicky and frustrating. You would think simple double tapping would get a double jump but it’s not the case. It is fairly counter intuitive compared to other platformers I’ve played. The Darkest Tale also seems to have some fairly inconsistent difficulty spikes. Perhaps that’s just on me though.

Each level has a shattered window (mirror?) that allows you to jump to any other level you’ve completed. Each level also has save points where you can change your equipment and skill combos.

Visually, The Darkest Tales is striking, it looks like it’s taken directly from a children’s storybook. Each level has a different theme, focusing on one fairy tale. You’ll have the Woods from Red Riding Hood, a giant and their beanstalk, Neverland with Peter Pan, even an underwater level where there may be a little mermaid. It was beautiful and yet disturbing to see how the developers twisted the children’s classics I grew up with. The level designs were creative and varied, and at an instant you could tell what story they were from. The watercolour aesthetic was a perfect choice for this storybook game.

A strong vocal performance from Yong Yea as Teddy was a highlight. He was gruff, grizzled, angry and cranky. Exactly how he should feel after being discarded in a trunk and forgotten about. The dialogue between characters was well done, each character having a sort of sinister side that I wasn’t expecting. The developers could have made the dialogue between Teddy and others squeaky clean as a lovable teddy bear, but it’s clear from the start that Teddy has some serious issues with being abandoned and takes that out on poor Lighty from the beginning of the game. The soundtrack was enchanting and foreboding, haunting and beautiful.

If I could pick one issue I had with the game besides the mechanics listed earlier, it’s that there is no map. Early in the game this isn’t an issue as the levels are fairly linear. However, as you progress through the game and the levels become more complicated, you have more ways to traverse them and it’s easy to get turned around. This became one of the more frustrating moments as I did find myself from time-to-time backtracking, or after falling from a platform, not being exactly sure which way I was supposed to go.

Overall, The Darkest Tales runs about 6-9 hours, and despite some technical issues, I enjoyed it immensely. I would have liked to have seen something new with regards to gameplay, but sticking with the classics has a sort of comfort to it, and that also plays into the toys and fairy tale feeling. The characters were delightful, the artwork was spectacular, the music was enchanting and the tale - Twisted.

**The Darkest Tales was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Trifox

I will forever have a fondness for an Indie platformer with a cute protagonist, and Belgian Developer Glowfish Interactive (along with publisher, Big Sugar) have given me just that with their newest game, Trifox. The premise is simple, the titular fox has had his TV remote stolen by the villain and his minions (who are all pirate foxes). No one messes with a person’s TV remote. This is clearly a super villain, and they have many minions protecting them from the fox trying to retrieve the remote.

After a quick prologue giving you the basics of controls, you set up in a high-tech base where you will eventually be able to upgrade and equip perks and abilities. You also have a teleport system that moves you between levels. Trifox is an isometric platformer, twinstick shooter (something I am not normally fond of) with brawler elements. Featuring an adorable anthropomorphic Fox, it plays homage to a lot of early 2000 platformers, and when you play you can see the inspiration of Ratchet & Clank, Super Lucky and Crash Bandicoot for example.

I’m an Engineer, I’m a Mage, I’m a Warrior... I am EVERYTHING! You get to mix and match abilities and perks from all three classes in Trifox, creating an almost endless number of ways you can choose to attack the multiple levels. I’m guessing the three classes are where the 'Tri' in Trifox comes from, but can’t be sure. You can swap these any time at your base, and even have multiple layouts saved. There are specific abilities that will make certain levels easier, but I didn’t really have too much trouble making my way through regardless of what I chose to equip. You just may have to find a different way of doing it. I really enjoyed the vast array of mix and match designs. While you see inspiration from other 3D platformers (it is clear that Glowfish loved the genre) everything is just different enough that it kept it fresh.

The three classes are our usual fare that you’ll find in most games. Warrior is your tank – hard hitting but slow. The Engineer is your ranged attacker – using turrets, guns, and missiles. And your Mage is also a ranged class but focuses on defense abilities and dark magic. Trifox’s main strength some from this ability/skill tree. I’ve not really experienced a lot of Indie games that had such a diverse mix and match approach. Each class has a base ‘dash’ movement specific to its style, and nine other skills/abilities. You unlock each item with coins earned in the levels (killing, looting etc). There really is no restriction as to what you choose to unlock first, even though the higher levels require more coins. After items are unlocked you can mix and match to your heart's content. Using one, two or even all three classes to create your Fox the way you want.

You can map abilities to any layout you choose too. No skill or ability is locked into a particular button or location. Most people I know have a certain class they tend to gravitate to, but Trifox really encourages a versatile playstyle. I ran a character that had a combo of all classes as no single class had everything I wanted. I wish more games were like this. Engineering skills were fantastic. Why fight when you can hide behind walls, turrets and flames? One thing I would have liked to see was to have a reason to switch your class around. I found a pretty great loadout early in the game and never really felt compelled to switch it. I would have like the levels to have something to take you by surprise and force you to change your approach. On the other hand, I’m glad it didn’t force me to switch at times because there is no place to hop back to the hub mid-level to swap things without restarting. It would be a bit frustrating to lose 20 minuntes or so because you had the wrong gear.

There is no dialogue spoken, expressive gibberish along with humourous animations acted out within and between stages carries along the storyline for you. Each of the levels has four separate stages, including a ‘boss battle’ in each. Three biomes with multiple minions and mini bosses progressively got more detailed as you moved through the story. The puzzles became slightly more complex and required more steps to complete and I enjoyed the lighthearted nature of the interactions. There is also no blood and gore here, more like taunting and nonlethal fighting. Characters can die, but there is just a fall down and restart to it. There are also four difficulty settings of Easy, Normal, Hard and Crazy. In the Crazy mode all damage is fatal, and you get a warning of that before you start the game. For all these reasons, I think Trifox is a great game to introduce younger gamers to what can be known as a more challenging genre of games.

Glowfish clearly has an immense love for the genre. It’s evident in the graphics, combat, and level design of Trifox. The level design builds slowly, and in the fourth chapter it all comes together in some of the most brilliant gameplay I’ve had in the platforming genre. There are some fantastic nods to pop culture scattered throughout as well, including some Indiana Jones-esque temple runs and even a cute Easter Egg nod to Cast Away. I won’t spoil it.

An important part of any 3D platformer will be the camera. Trifox uses a top-down view primarily. This helps you to look around and see everything, follow the action and look for hidden chests and coins. The aesthetic fit well with the game, as bright and colourful animations brought the game to life. I didn’t encounter any real graphic issues or bugs and all worlds felt distinct and full. Whether you were in a jungle, ice world, surrounded by water or fighting though catacombs, they all felt unique.

Sound design isn’t something I always pay attention to in cute platforms, but Trifox was incredibly well designed on the audio side. While the soundtrack didn’t stand out to me, the audio from small things like the clinking of clay pots when breaking, or even the footsteps when moving on wooden platforms were all crisp and clean.

A few notes to what I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. The movement in the game felt a bit sluggish at times. You had no dedicated sprint, other than what you choose as a dash for your class. You simply speed up as you move in one direction. When you jump you lose this momentum and start at base level again. This was slow in my opinion. Also, the jumping consistantly felt ‘off’ to me, even with having a ‘landing zone’ circle. I found myself missing a lot of jumps that just didn’t seem to want to line up where they should have. Minor frustrations that didn’t take me away from the game, even if they caused me to die a few times. At least there were frequent checkpoints.

There isn’t a lot of replayability either. Other than going back should you have missed one of the gems, there aren’t anything akin to relics that you’d see in Super Lucky’s Tale. There is something to reward you for beating a certain time limit and to keep you coming back to try to beat it. You will see your fastest time on the screen for any particular level, and there is an achievement tied to completing everything under 3 hours, so you could hunt that. Not having the ability to change your skills on the fly was also a problem for me. If you found you’d prefer a different blend of skills you have to go back to your hub and start the current level over again.

Coming in at approximately 5 hours for a basic run, and around 8 hours for a complete 1000 achievement points, Trifox was lighthearted and had a good mix of exploration, puzzles and combat. It was more than I expected, and I really hope we’ll see a Trifox 2 someday. If you’re a fan of 3D or isometric platformers (old or new) you’ll likely enjoy a run with Trifox.

**Trifox was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Unusual Findings

When I first saw the trailer for the point-and-click puzzle game called Unusual Findings from Epic Llama, I was hooked. As a fan of Stranger Things (and a child of the 80's) this ticked off all the nostalgia boxes to draw me in. It’s Christmas in the 1980’s. Vinny, Nick and Tony are best friends who sneak out to meet up and use a signal descrambler to watch Pay-Per-View adult movies. Or at least they are hoping to. When they turn on the descrambler, however, they pick up a strange alien signal just before a mysterious object crashes from the sky into the nearby woods. Upon reaching the woods they are confronted by a park ranger who immediately gets killed by a giant robotic alien. The boys run away but decide to find a way to stop the alien from doing any more harm to their community of Southplanes. They create a group known as the Mystery Stalkers and jump on their bikes to solve the mystery.

Gameplay in Unusual Findings is mechanically simple. Your overview is a map where you pick a location, street, shop, woods, military base etc when you start any scene, it’s always a side scroll. You click on the screen to move you and your friends through the scene. This would be easier if you could move in a straight line across the entire screen but that is rare to do. Normally there is an object that you have to move around. This might be a car, trash can, shopping cart, door etc. Throughout each scene there will be multiple objects to interact with. You can tell if you can interact with an object when you hover over it, as the reticle will turn from white to red. Each item will have options like ‘interact’, ‘talk to’ or ‘look at’.

If you are able to talk to someone you will be presented with multiple dialogue options. You can choose what to say and in what order. There are some interactions that will affect parts of the story, and there are three separate endings you can get. You will need to keep talking to the person until you figure out the information you need from them. After you get the info you need, you will get a ‘bye’ as part of the dialogue options. One frustrating thing about the dialogue though, is if you solve whatever you are there to find out, the other options will disappear. This means you don’t always have all the info you need to know where to go next. If you exit the scene and come back, you still can’t get any additional info either.

Point-and-click games often have a tough time translating to controller use with consoles, and Unusual Findings is no different. I was often frustrated trying to get things to line up properly. Speaking of puzzles, this is the main part of the game. It was a highlight and also a frustration. You spend a lot of time jumping around the map trying to find something you need to trade, barter, fix, combine, gift etc. As with most point-and-click puzzle games, there is no hand holding here. The only real assistance you get is the end goal of the current puzzle. For example, your first task is to make a trap to catch the alien. You aren’t told how to do this, so you have to pop around to different areas looking for something to make the trap.

I found a lot of the puzzles very convoluted, and I spent far too much time trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I missed, or where didn’t I look for something. Eventually I just took to dissecting each scene painfully, trying to gather everything I could, determined to not have to backtrack as much. This worked for me in some instances, but I others I simply found myself just taking everything out of my inventory one at a time and trying things to see what would work. A lot of time I could see what I needed to do, but just had no idea how to do it. One example of this was the following sequence; You need an ID card, but in order to get that you need to trade a comic, which you get from swapping an old video game cartridge that you had in your bedroom at the start of the game. You will also have to combine items to create new usable items or make solutions in the lab you get to later in the game.

Another time you had to beat a group of kids at an arcade game similar to Street Fighter (called Street Puncher in the Unusual Findings) to get their tickets to swap for a set of bolt cutters. In order to beat them, you need to win three matches in a row. There is no way to know how to beat this without playing over and over until you eventually get it. Incredibly time consuming. The game also replies on a lot of moon logic, in my opinion as well. A moon logic puzzle is a puzzle that is solved, not by logic, but by some obtuse form of thinking that seems entirely counter-intuitive.

Besides the frustrations I had with the gameplay, I found the story compelling and extremely well written. The dialogue was witty, and reminiscent of the way my friends and I talked in the 80's. It’s pure nostalgia that you’d find in any of the movies or TV shows of the era. There are so many Easter Eggs and nods to classic pop culture. Taking some liberties and to avoid Trademark infringement I’m sure, you get the 80's IPs of “Galaxy Wars”, “Ponies”, “The Amazing Arachnodude”, “SuperSam” and many others. There are clear nods to “Terminator”, “The Goonies” and other classic movies of the 80's as well. You’ll also see classic tech from the era, like a Commodore 64 and VHS among them.

Although the dialogue was well written, the voice acting felt a bit strained and unnatural. There were a few times that the words were pronounced entirely incorrect, making it feel like the voice actors were reading from their script and didn’t do much in the way of multiple takes. The rest of the acting felt a bit stiff but considering a lot of TV shows of the era also feel stiff looking back on them, perhaps this was a creative choice.

As expected with a game set firmly in the 80's, the graphics are a nostalgic retro pixelated masterpiece. You could have been looking at your favourite game of the decade. I would have liked to have had to option to change some of the contrast for colours though as I found certain areas quite difficult to determine objects to interact with vs the background environments. By far the best part of Unusual Findings was the soundtrack. This is often the case with Indie games and being from the 80's this had enough classic music to have me dancing in my chair. One of the first songs you hear in the game (as well as the trailer) is the classic ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ by Dead of Alive. The ambient music was a perfect compliment as well.

I had high hopes for Unusual Findings. The concept, graphics and overall aesthetic really captured my attention when I first saw the trailer and I was excited to play it. It has a promising premise, but the convoluted puzzles just didn’t keep me invested or engaged as I had hoped. I consider myself to be quite smart and good at puzzles, but at times I felt dumb playing this. If you are not good at critical thinking games, you will have a tough time with this. However, the witty writing and pure throwback to my youth with the music, clothes, décor, and pop culture references has to pull on my heart a bit. Unusual Findings may not be perfect, but any fan of the genre or 80's should take a trip to Southplanes and see where the story takes them.

*Unusual Findings was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Let's Sing ABBA

We’re heading into the holiday season shortly, and nothing screams holiday get together like channeling your inner Diva or Rock God and singing with your friends. With that in mind, I was able to get some early practice in with Let’s Sing ABBA. Let’s Sing has been around for a long time, and with ABBA releasing their first new music in 40 years, there is no better time for the long running karaoke series to give us ABBA to sing along to. Now, Dear Readers, I am of a ‘certain age’ that it doesn’t take much to convince me to belt out ABBA at any given time, so I was happy to take on this review under the guise of ‘work’ solely to justify me singing ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Waterloo’ etc at the top of my lungs with no shame. I will gladly sing along with the Swedish supergroup of Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid, as I tackled 31 of their tracks (all with official videos) for you.

Let’s Sing ABBA, from Voxler and Ravenscourt, is a rhythm game where your voice is the instrument. Let’s Sing doesn’t require you to have any fancy microphones, as you can use your headset mic, any USB mic, or download a simple to use app on your phone. It felt more realistic holding my phone to sing, like a mic, but I’ll dive into that a bit more shortly.

All of the modes in Let’s Sing ABBA are the same as the last few Let’s Sing releases. This means Legend and World Contest modes are there for the solo players. You basically have a campaign full of challenges, but like any karaoke, this is best enjoyed with a group of friends who want to showcase their singing chops. Classics like ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Take a Chance on Me’, ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ and ‘Super Trouper’ are all there, as well as newer music such as ‘I still Have Faith In You’. If you have a favourite ABBA song, it’s likely in Let’s Sing ABBA. I’d hazard to say that even people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves ABBA fans would enjoy belting out some of the more familiar songs for fun. Other than the music though, nothing really is new compared to other Let’s Sing titles.

Classic Mode allows up to four players to just sing along with songs. No twists or competition required. Four players can also take part in the Mixtape Mode as well. This mode sees five separate songs all mashed together to make the ultimate mixtape. This will keep players on their toes. Mixtape is great if you don’t want to invest the time to sing the whole songs. Feat Mode has you singing duets with your favourite partner (real or AI) and Let’s Party mode allows up to eight players (split into two teams) competing in a number of challenge laden performances. Jukebox mode opens as you complete the songs in any other mode. It simply puts the videos up on the screen with the lyrics.

Any Let’s Sing veteran player knows that you don’t actually even have to know the words to do well at the game. The game recognizes the tone/notes you hit. To be certain of this, I actually played through a few songs without actually singing any words, I just merrily hummed my way though making sure to raise or lower the tone to hit the sweet spots on the screen. This was helpful in the newer ABBA songs with which I wasn’t particularly familiar. You could even ramble gibberish as long as it was remotely on key and still score well. My favourites were ‘Does Your Mother Know’ and ‘Voulez-Vous.

Notable songs missing were ‘Angeleyes’, ‘I Have A Dream’ or ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, to name but three. Now, I understand they can’t include every track from ABBA’s extensive body of work, and maybe there will be DLC in the future. There is a token progression system included and if you ever stuck on what to do next, a simple push of a button will prompt you with a suggestion. No need to feel overwhelmed by the choices in front of you.

Back to my issues with using the app as a microphone. Even though you adjust your settings at the beginning, there was constantly a delay for me. I went in and re-adjusted my setting multiple times and could never get it to line up properly. Possibly, this was an error just on my part, but even so, it was frustrating. Equally frustrating was no way to verify your pitch. It would be nice if there was an option to alter pitch/octaves in the game as not everyone will be able to sing all songs at the required pitch. I will never be able to hit the baselines required for some songs, for example. Thankfully Let’s Sing isn’t about being perfect all the time, it’s about enjoying yourself karaoke style. Full disclosure, I reviewed this solo and tested out most mode using AI partners. I firmly believe that this is a game to be played with friends as that’s where the Let’s Sing franchise shines.

Let’s Sing ABBA wasn’t on my most-anticipated games horizon for 2022 - but it’s always nice when something unexpected comes along, especially when it was this much fun. I am known to break into song to the delight/horror of my friends and I like to think I can hold a tune. I’m also the girl who’s seen Mamma Mia more times than I could possibly count, so it’s easy for me to tell you that I found myself sucked into the musical magic of Let’s Sing ABBA. Ultimately whether you pick it up or not depends on how much you love ABBAs music. Simple as that.

It’s a solid entry into the Let’s Sing series. It was the same as other entries as far as gameplay, so the only real difference was the music and new avatars, and that was enough for me to find it enjoyable. ABBA sits alongside only a handful of acts that seem to have longevity and cross generational appeal. I’d hazard to say they are up there with the likes of The Beatles and Queen. For this reason, they are a perfect choice for this outing of the Let’s Sing franchise. Voxler didn’t give us anything new but delivered what was promised and that’s enough for me.

*Let's Sing ABBA was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Lemon Cake

I have always loved to bake. I remember standing on a little step stool and helping my grandmother make cookies and tea biscuits when I was small. I’ve continued that love of baking, having used my skills as fundraising initiatives as well as gifts, but the idea of actually opening and running my own bakery has never once crossed my mind. Thankfully, I can test my skills with no capital investment in the cute indie game, Lemon Cake, by solo developer Eloise Laroche of Cozy Bee Games. Published by SOEDESCO, Lemon Cake is a time management simulation game that was much more complex than I initially thought it would be.

After creating your own character, you stumble into a run down and abandoned bakery. With a little help from a loveable ghost (Miss Bonbon) who used to run the place, you start rebuilding the bakery. You start out with three recipes under your belt, a single working oven, and a wish for customers to support your endeavor. Luckily, you have a steady stream of customers from day one and you are able to make some money and start the upgrading process. Like all management style sim games, you have options on what to upgrade first. Will it be a second oven? What about extra window space to display your wares or an extra table for customers? What about a fruit tree or an animal to expand your ingredient lists? Perhaps it will be an upgrade to your apartment above the bakery? The entire gameplay of Lemon Cake is simple like this, balancing what to spend your money and time on.

As you level up, you will also open additional recipes to make for the bakery. Planning comes into play when choosing your menu for each day. You must balance the time it takes to prepare an item to the profit from selling it. This will vary depending on the number of ingredients used and how long it takes to bake. For example, simple candy may only have one ingredient and no baking time, but it also won’t net you a large amount of profit. On the other hand, some of the cakes have four ingredients and take 25 seconds to bake, but will net you $4. You will also get bonus money in tips if you balance your menu well. You want to keep the menu average reasonably priced, have a gluten free option, and also keep the options fresh. If customers see the same thing too often, they are less inclined to buy it. This was really the most complex part of the game. The menu had a large variety of options – candy, cakes, cookies, pastries, frozen treats etc. There were seven categories, each with multiple options within them.

Each morning starts the same. Water plants if you have them, brush your animals (cows or chickens), stoke the fires, and fill the window display with your choice of treats. I would often fill my window with the most expensive and time-consuming items on my menu to start the day before opening the doors to customers. Once customers come in, they will either purchase a premade item from the window or sit at a table and order from your menu. Trying to keep displays filled and customers orders done in a timely matter could get stressful, especially during the lunch hour rush. Seated customers only had a finite amount of patience before leaving, but thankfully there didn’t appear to be a penalty if you missed serving them. As you level up, the friendly ghost becomes an assistant and will serve seated customers coffee to extend their time they will wait. She will also clear tables which is helpful in that it gives you more time in the kitchen instead of having to multitask as much.

Each day will end with a profit report. You will also choose any upgrades and your menu for the following day based on what you learned from that current day. Occasionally another ghost (Inspector Moustache) will arrive and ask you to catch bugs in your bakery. It’s a mini game that was cute at first and helped get you some extra cash. Unfortunately, it felt more like busy work after a while and annoying. I wish you had the option to skip it.

I already touched on upgrades and earning money, but this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. You make money slowly and upgrades are quite expensive. Early in the game I would be lucky to make $40 per day and upgrades would routinely cost $200. Going back and timing the in-game days (approximately 10 minutes per day), I would estimate about 30-45 minutes to earn some of the upgrades. Upgrades included things like longer burning firewood, better quality ovens (so you didn’t burn food as quickly), and a sprinkler so you didn’t have to keep watering your greenhouse. Once you earn enough upgrades, I was able to make about $130 per day, but at this point in the game I had all the major upgrades needed. On the topic of upgrades, the best one, in my opinion, was the ability to turn your bakery into a cat café. Cute kitties and finding them homes... amazing!

Although simplistic, I couldn’t stop playing Lemon Cake. There weren’t a lot of mechanics involved but at the end of each day I always had this drive to do ‘just one more day’ to see if I could have a better one. I think that says a lot for this little game. I really wish it were longer and hope that maybe some DLC will be added in the future. Game mechanics could use some improvement. Often, I would find if I weren’t standing in exactly the perfect spot, I might pick up the wrong ingredient, or nothing at all. Character movement also felt sluggish until you opened a few upgrades like faster movement or dashing.

Spills in the kitchen also really slow you down, like walking through deep mud. You can clean these in between baking which takes time, or just leave them and deal with the slow movement. Eventually you can get a magic broom that will clean the spills automatically for you. Really helpful. The lack of counter space in the game was also an issue. Once you picked up an ingredient or a prepared food item, you needed to put it down before picking up something else. If you didn’t have someone waiting, or an open display area, you ended up having to toss it in the trash.

Lemon Cake is an indie game personified. This isn’t a bad statement, but rather meaning it checks all the boxes of what makes an indie game great. The animation isn’t perfect, but it works. The four rooms you occupy are all full of personality but lack a lot of small details. Each room has distinctive traits, from the bright storefront with tables, displays and the cat café area, to the kitchen with the stone fireplaces, the foliage filled greenhouse and even your tiny apartment. Graphically, Lemon Cake is colourful, cozy, and welcoming.

The soundtrack included basic sound effects associated with the daily kitchen tasks that added depth to the gameplay. The music, while not completely memorable after turning the game off, was relaxing and mellow and fit with the cozy vibe of the game play. The music created by Matthew Harnage did change tempo from early morning where it was more chill bubbly vine in the morning to a more up-tempo soundtrack including brass and horns during the busy lunch rush. It then winds down to a more mellow soundtrack with piano and guitars to end the day. It felt like something you would hear in a local café if you went in and spend the day.

With the simplistic style, rotating generic customers and tasks, some might find the game tedious, but I think this was brilliant. Let me focus on the tasks at hand and just take care of the customers. One of the cutest things was when customers would order a whole cake to themselves and then finish eating it in just a few bites. We’ve all had that feeling while gobbling up our favourite treats, I’m sure. Lemon Cake is a recipe filled with luscious graphics, sweet characters, and game play that I just devoured. I highly recommend you pick up this indie gaming morsel to satisfy your gaming sweet tooth.

**Lemon Cake was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Bunny Park

Anyone who has had pets will let you know that caring for them is mostly a thankless task. You feed them, give them shelter, take care of their cleanliness and their medical needs, and they’ll reward you with love and affection. This is normally a fair trade off if you ask those same owners as well. We will do just about anything for the furry members of our family. Bunny Park is a cute click simulation game developed by Cozy Bee Games and published by SOEDESCO where you will create and maintain a park for bunnies. It is a laid-back game where you spend your time clearing the land, building and renovating the park in hopes to attract the 25 homeless bunnies around the area. Thankfully this doesn’t really require much in the way of skill and is mostly a chill style game.

Unlike most other park building/simulation style games I’ve played and reviewed, Bunny Park has no story. Because it has no narrative you are free to so whatever you want whenever you choose to do so. Some may love this, and I know some will love the freedom, but I wasn’t really sold. I like to have a game that is a bit more structured. As much as I don’t like to have multiple checklists of tasks, it would be nice to feel like I was accomplishing something. Although there were no real demands in the game, you are ultimately moving towards an end goal.

You are given a plot of land that used to be home to 25 rabbits. It is now rundown and they have fled. Your ultimate objective is to rebuild the park so they will return. The method to do this is fairly straightforward; clean the debris of logs and rocks, plant edible plants, and create attractive surroundings. As you increase the attractiveness of the park, you will gradually have bunnies show up. Feed the rabbits, pet them and keep them happy. Happy bunnies will dig up coins that help you pay for the expansions to your land area as well as all the things you need to buy to create your park.

The early game is quite frustrating, in my opinion. Money is very hard to accumulate, and the few bunnies around are very demanding in wanting snacks. What should be primarily a relaxing game starts off as more of a stressful grind. As you progress though, money becomes easier to get and you can even open bot butterflies (bot-erflies?) who will fly around and collect the coins or clear debris. The collecting of coins was one thing I had a bit of a problem with at the beginning as well. Sure, you gather coins by removing debris, but your happy bunnies will also dig up coins. My assumption was that these coins would automatically go into my inventory but that was not the case, you have to actively collect them. That’s fine, except they bunnies don’t stay together, and you have to look for them. Also, the coins will disappear after a few moments if you’re not quick enough. In order to collect the coins however, it wasn’t simply a matter of moving the cursor over the coin, it had to be done in a very particular way, one in which you were never really told about. Trial and error and lots of lost coins in the beginning. Once you get the butterfly bots though things were much easier. They do most of the clearing and gathering of coins and you can focus on the cute and cozy aspect of the game.

With no elements of risk or danger, Bunny Park is an ideal game for anyone of any age to sink time into. You can choose a variety of buildings, entertainment, crops or decorations to make your park look however you want. There is even a seasonal category with things like hay bales, fall fruit trees, pumpkins, corn mazes and scarecrows. This is where I get into the major issue I had. Looking at the achievements list there were achievements dealing with placing an item related to each season. Autumn was easy as that’s where I started, but after a few hours into the game, the season didn’t change. After doing some research to see if this was a bug, it looks as though the seasons change with real time. Meaning if you don’t want to time jump through settings in the Xbox, you’d literally have to come back each season to get those items. This alone made me lose interest really quickly in Bunny Park. I loved the idea of changing décor and creating a cute habitat, and I love losing hours into a park management/simulation style game. I am not, however, going to invest that amount to time, coming back to a game after a few months just to pick up achievements either. With no active story, events or changes in inventory, I can’t see this keeping anyone interest for very long.

Back to the good things. The game is adorable. Pastel colours and the ability to pet bunnies (giving you little hearts above their heads) sold me when I saw the trailer. The details in the decorations were well done as well, I loved the look of the game. The lack of danger, fire, shooting or gore made this a refreshing change from a lot of games out there. One really nice feature was the ability to place items on a diagonal plane. That is something not often seen in games and opened up more possibilities in your designs.

Bunny Park is a port from PC and I think that is obvious in its controls. The cursor was slow and the collecting of rings I mentioned earlier was hit or miss. The cursor was simply too big and made it hard to pinpoint what you were trying to do. With a chill and relaxed game maybe this doesn’t matter as you have all the time to complete things, but I found it frustrating. The unpredictable camera movement, I also didn’t love. Sometimes the camera would pan or zoom of its own accord. It seemed to want to focus on something that I just couldn’t see. One thing I would have appreciated too was a little more of a tutorial. You are given a few pointers at the beginning, but I learned a lot of things just through trial and error. You also have multiple stats showing for your park, cleanliness, coziness and more in the top corner of your screen. I was never really sure what was required to get the bunnies to come back to the park. They seemed to just show up randomly. Mostly in order, but some out of order. If I knew what I was trying to do to get them to come back, it might have helped.

Because of the issues with seasonal items and lack of things to do, I don’t think this game has longevity or a lot of replayability for most people. It was cute enough for the four hours I spent with it, but there really wasn’t anything to keep me interested with the limited décor items to work with. If you’re looking for something adorable to fill your time or to just take a break between more eventful games, it’s cute, chill and made me smile, but I can’t see myself investing similar amounts of time to other park style games.

**Bunny Park was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Beacon Pines

Hiding Spot’s Beacon Pines is a combination of a third person walking simulator and visual novel with some very mild puzzle elements. This may seem like you’d have a simple and boring game on your hands, but in truth, the game is something otherworldly in terms of its storytelling and capacity to engage. At the start of the game, the developers make it clear that, despite its cute and colourful atheistic, this is not a child’s game. This is so true as one of the first scenes you get is the main character Luka sitting graveside and talking to his dead father. As someone who has recently lost my father, this was an unexpected turn of events and surely changed how I approached the whole story.

Luka is a relatively happy-go-lucky little deer, despite having a dead father and a mother who has recently disappeared, effectively making him an orphan. His grandmother has moved in and become his primary caregiver. He spends most of his time with his best friend, Rolo, and the pair are planning how to spend their summer holidays. This involves a lot of time at their tree house (dubbed Mission Control). Rolo is a good friend and takes it as his personal mission to keep Luka occupied and distracted. Their plans involve relaxing, exploring and dodging chores for the most part.

Beacon Pines has a sort of 'Stranger Things' vibe in the beginning; cute small town, something sinister lurking in the shadows. The anthropomorphic characters and beautiful artistry lull you into a sense of safety and then you’re hit with a dark underbelly of what is really happening in Beacon Pines. The town is reminiscent of any small town that you may have grown up in (like me), visited or seen on TV or in movies. Generic small town X. The typical main street with a library, pharmacy and Town Hall. The town square with a large fountain and stalls selling things. Even a small area being set up for the end of summer fair. None of these things seem exceptional, or out of the ordinary, until you start uncovering how they all intertwine in the overall story.

The town used to be thriving until an accident at a fertilizer plant changed everything. When the town fell on tough times, many people moved on to greener pastures, while others stayed to tough it out in their home. A large company has since come to town and is helping rebuild the town to its former glory. Luka and Rolo are always keenly aware that their town is kept afloat from this mysterious company. When Rolo discovers some strange things going on in an area of the town that should have been abandoned, he and Luka start chasing a story full of twists and turns, deceit and intrigue. It’s story full of conspiracy theories and secrets about the past and future of the town.

While you are playing as Luka, you are also the person reading the story. There is a duality in play where you play two parts of the game. The story in Beacon Pines is literally being read from an open book and plays out in a ‘choose your own adventure’ book style. Hopefully you had those books and know to what I am referring. Basically, you will follow along with the story and you’ll get to a point where you have to make a choice. Once you make this choice your story will branch. If you end up dying, you can backtrack and see what would happen if you had chosen differently. In Beacon Pines, your choices are determined by what ‘charms’ you choose to fill in the blanks. You will uncover these charms while exploring, learning, talking to and interacting with others.

The first decision you make in the game is telling your grandmother if you will ‘hide’, ‘chill’ or ‘ponder’ when hanging out with Rolo. This is a simple choice in that it doesn’t really affect the story other than Gran's dialogue. As the story progresses your choices will matter, often taking you to a dead end in the story and the narrator (impeccably voiced by Kirsten Mize) telling you something along the lines of ‘that’s not right’, ‘that’s not how the story should end’, etc. When you hit one of these story endings, you can simply open your book and go back to any ‘checkpoint’, a memory made when you had to pick a charm card to choose. This means there are a variety of ways the story plays out, and I can’t really dive into it too much without hitting spoiler territory.

Suffice to say though, the story wasn’t what I was expecting, the good guys and bad guys blurred and even when I changed my charm choice, the story didn’t always follow a direction I anticipated. Sometimes you are given only one word choice to use in a situation, and it doesn’t seem to fit, so you know you have to find the right charm to go back and change the story. When looking for charms in the world, explore but don’t waste time. If you follow the storyline and Luka’s inquisitive nature, you’ll eventually find them all. Some of the story branches are short, like the first one where the boys are trespassing and Rolo gets kidnapped, The End. Other choices may become multiple chapters in their own right. All of this is to say that mechanically, I found Beacon Pines to be a triumph in the way it told the story. There seems to have been a clear beginning and end in mind to the original story, but the way you got there felt like watching the writers at a storyboard going through all their options on how to travel between the two points.

All of the characters in Beacon Pines are different anthropomorphic animals. Luka is a deer, Rolo a Tabby cat, other characters are bats, dogs, and racoons etc. While they are all animals, they never lose a human touch and it’s easy to identify the human qualities in each. The writing is so well done in combining what may seems like stereotypical qualities of each animal into the character creation. Luka is a shy and curious deer whereas Rolo a tough and brave cat. The rich and influential family are all sleek looking animals, like Heiress Valentine, the long-haired Afghan hound. The mayor is a kind looking dog. The town eccentric is a racoon and all the ‘lackies’ for the big corporation are an entire group of red pandas. Beck is a black cat who strives to be uncaring and aloof, but ultimately just wants a home and friends to which she belongs. You get to learn more about each character as you play through the various branches of your story tree. No character acts exactly the same way once you backtrack and change your charms used.

Luka and Rolo may just be school kids, but this doesn’t make or keep them safe in the story. This quickly becomes apparent, and you stop trusting everyone in the town. My mind was running scenarios like I was watching a movie trying to figure out what was about to happen, only to realize I never really got it right. While the tension is amped up in the game, there is a vein of humour that carries throughout. The banter between characters made me laugh at times and this kept the game charming during the time I spent with it. The story covers a lot of ground, and as you get near the end I found I had to focus on what version I was playing as I started to mix some details up. I think if you stopped playing for any amount of time, you could find yourself lost and forgetting where you were. I played through the game in one sitting and even then, found myself questioning aspects of which branch I was currently in.

Since you are the one controlling the story, you know things from alternative timelines that Luka simply doesn’t. I would have loved to have seen that explored a little more. Perhaps a timeline where you had to put Luka and Rolo in danger to complete a task, despite knowing the outcomes bound to happen. Maybe that is simply me looking to find faults in this surprisingly captivating game. I really came to care about Luka, his friends and the town. I became invested in how the story played out. I was rooting for the good guys and angry at the bad guys, but then there were times that the narrative switched slightly, and it wasn’t exactly clear who the baddies were anymore. While there were very few happy endings in Beacon Pines, the journey to get to any of the endings was a treat.

As much as I loved the story, I must talk about the soundtrack for Beacon Pines. Written, produced, and recorded by Matt Meyer, this reached a level that I’ve not experienced in many games before. Certainly not in a game within this genre from my memory. Often soundtracks for indie games are hit or miss. They can be simply ‘there’ or can be so beautiful that I might listen to them while working. Neither explains how I felt about the Beacon Pines soundtrack. It was its own entity, yet I can’t imagine really listening to it outside of the game. It was perfect for this game. When you first arrive at Luka’s home, the music can only really be described as ‘cozy’. Piano notes made you feel comfortable and safe at home. Synth music, as well as jazz, fill in the soundtrack as long pieces of music change as the story does. Whether a fearful scene, or a heist, talking to friends or catching fish. Everything felt like it mattered. The music was intentional and beautiful.

Also relating to sound was the purposeful choice to only have the narrator voice acted. Kirsten Mize was able to convey joy, sorrow, regret, elation etc, all without interacting with any other characters. Think of your favourite storyteller from your childhood. The parent, grandparent, teacher or even LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow. There is something magical when a person reading a story can capture your imagination and hold your attention. Filler sound effects make up the rest of the ‘dialogue’ from characters. Attention was given to this as well. The speed, tone and pacing of each character was distinct and also goes to what I was talking about earlier with the animals keeping stereotypical traits. Rolo, for example was a boisterous, loud, charismatic character, while Luka was more subdued with softer melodic tones. Dawn, the young bat (and wannabe reporter) had a higher pitched and quick paced chirping quality when she spoke. While you could play Beacon Pines with the sound off, you would be missing a lot without hearing the tonal changes in my opinion.

The artwork by Ilse Harting is stunning. Environments, interiors, and even random items on the ground all have such attention to detail that it can’t be overlooked. Often visual novels do the ‘big picture’ well, but there was nothing skimped on here.

Beacon Pines is a simple game. There is nothing earth shattering in its gameplay mechanics. It’s full of cute animals, a mystery in a small town and is a chill story game to just sit and lose yourself in. I loved ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a child and something about this game has captured my attention in a way that I haven’t experienced in some time. It may not be for everyone, but I would highly recommend this charming ‘cozy horror’ game to anyone, especially as we draw nearer to Halloween.

**Beacon Pines was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.6 / 10 Justice Sucks

Growing up, my mom and I would always have the fight about cleaning up my room or helping with the chores around the house. She’d often mutter the phrase “cleaning won’t kill you”. Today I’m happy to report that I have proof that cleaning (at least vacuuming) could kill you - at least in the game Justice Sucks: Tactical Vacuum Action. For ease of this review I will referring to the title as simply Justice Sucks going forward. When I first heard I was going to cover a game where you played as a Roomba, I assumed I was getting myself into a cute little story game, something akin to the Brave Little Toaster, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Justice Sucks is pure chaos and humour.

Currently there seems to be some popularity in games that involve cleaning. Pressure Wash Sim and House Flipper are both games that I, as well as friends, dropped many hours into. How would a game involving a robot vacuum stack up? Would it suck or would it sweep me off my feet?

From Samurai Punk and tinyBuild, Justice Sucks is a stealth action angled top-down game. It is the sequel to 2019’s Roomba: First Blood and has you in control of a Roomba style vacuum cleaner (aptly named Dusty McClean) out for revenge. When someone breaks into the McClean family home, he swiftly turns from friendly household vacuum bot into protection mode and kills the intruders. Killing the intruders and cleaning up the evidence draws the attention of his parent company, FamilyCorp, who banish him into another dimension through the living room TV. Dusty’s mission now is to destroy FamilyCorp and find his way back home to the McClean household. When you wake up in this alternative dimension you are paired with your fighting spirit (alter ego?) Sexy McClean. Yes, you read that right. I will not spoil the interaction between these two characters, but I literally laughed out loud.

Once you’re in this alternative dimension, defeating FamilyCorp takes on the form of working through a variety of levels and scenarios, from nightclubs and party boats to airport terminals. Each location has a story level and once completed you will unlock extra missions to do. Some of the missions are just straight forward objective to cleanup things, others involve delivering packages without getting caught, and some involve diffusing bombs. There are stealth and combat components involved in most missions. Using cover from furniture or vents to escape detection is just as important as hacking into anything electrical to injure/kill the baddies or to provide a distraction to get away. One of your major skills is, of course, sucking up items to use as projectiles. These can be small items like knives, or bigger things like chairs, plants, wet floor signs, even a cat or fish can become a projectile. In fact, shooting a cat at a bad guy results in some hysterical gameplay you’ll want the sound on for that for sure. Between things to hack or things to pick up and use, there is a lot of mayhem in here.

As you progress through levels and missions, Dusty will unlock skill that you can mix and match to create the ultimate lean, mean and clean killing machine. One skill that I found particularly handy was one where you would become invisible for a brief moment after taking damage. The allowed you a moment to get away and find a hiding spot. You can change your loadout before any mission, so if one doesn’t seem to be working for you, you can back out and try another option. I would say that stealth is more important than direct combat in Justice Sucks and finding spots to hide, like in plants or under furniture, gives you a respite to plan your next move.

You are able to see paths and vision cones from your enemies as well, so it makes your planning a bit easier too. The hacking skill is quite fun to play around with. It can cause taps to leak, door frames to collapse, toilets to explode and more, any matter of dangerous or distracting things. Dusty also gets energy from sucking up blood and chewing through the enemies. Yes, you read that correctly. The little cute robot vacuum breaks apart bodies and crunches them up for boost to energy. Think of the sound your at-home machine makes when something bigger gets sucks up and amplify that. You can almost imagine it’s grinding the bones. Thankfully, you don’t need to see or empty any bags for Dusty. I can only imagine what that might look like. Consuming blood fills up a ‘super’ bar in which you can assign three separate super skills to help.

With each level completed you are also graded. There are achievements tied into completing all missions with a certain grade or higher, so you’ll want to be careful there as well. Grading is based on a variety of things depending on the mission. Damage, speed, number of deliveries, etc. all come into play. A lot of them also require you to clean the area after disposing of the enemies as well. This is normally a timed component, so if you can, your best plan is to clean a little as you go if you are able. Cleaning as you go also helps with replenishing the blood bar mentioned above.

No level in Justice Sucks takes very long to complete and if you are skilled enough you can move through the levels quickly. There is definitely replayability in the game with the inclusion of leaderboards, both showing friends only or a global leaderboard as well. If you are competitive, you have the ability to jump in and out of levels to try to beat or maintain your position. Even if you aren’t competitive, I feel there is enough variety in Justice Sucks to keep you entertained. I am normally not a fan of stealth games and found myself enjoying this and laughing at the ridiculousness of the entire premise as I killed bad guys, ran away, and went back to chew them up and clean up my mess.

Graphics have a pure 80's and 90's retro cartoon feel. They are mostly rounded in natures and there isn’t a lot of textures in the game. I think that was what I was most drawn to. It really tapped into the 80's and 90's neon nostalgia vibe. The music was equally nostalgic. Although not directly ripped from my younger days, there were obvious nods to the songs of the time, including bands like the Backstreet Boys. Character models aren’t particularly fantastic, as seen in cutscenes, but as this is primarily a top-down game, none of that really mattered all that much to me.

Maneuvering Dusty was easy and the mechanics weren’t too difficult to understand or put into practice. The only real qualm I had in regard to graphics or gameplay was how some of the top -own was handled. It’s great that wall disappears so you can always see Dusty, but that also meant that door frames would disappear. This meant some frustration when trying to find my way out of a room as I often ran into walls multiple times trying to find exits.

While the gameplay may seem simple and you’d think it would get repetitive, I didn’t find that the case as Justice Sucks was fairly short. That isn’t a criticism, as I think if it were much longer the game mechanics might have become repetitive. I enjoyed my time, and I would have liked to have a bit more. Justice Sucks: Tactical Vacuum Action had some minor faults, but I really enjoyed my time with Dusty in his alternative universe. The writing was funny and the nostalgia definitely had me in it’s grasp, even if the cutscenes progressively become over the top. It was chaotic, nonsensical mayhem, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

**Justice Sucks was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Little Orpheus

The phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ was something I grew up with. It usually means the telling of a tale that is so drawn out, fantastical and nonsensical that it can’t be believed. Often it isn’t to be believed, it’s just for fun. Think of people talking about ‘the big one that got away’ when fishing and amplify that. That’s what it’s like to spin a yarn, and I grew up listening to many of those types of stories around a campfire, or from relatives who enjoyed entertaining us. Have you ever sat and just listened to someone tell a story like that? You can now if you decide to dive into Little Orpheus.

Little Orpheus is an adventure platformer developed by The Chinese Room and published by Sumo Digital’s Secret Mode. Initially released on Apple Arcade for iOS in June of 2020, it was set to launch on March 1st 2022 for PC and console. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, however, the decision was made to postpone the release for a few months because of the themes and content revolving around the game. It is now set to release on September 13th.

You’re playing as Soviet cosmonaut Ivan Ivanovich who, despite failing his physical and getting caught lying on his entrance exam, is given a mission to take a nuclear equipped rocket drill into the centre of the earth to confirm whether the Earth is hollow and if the land literally ‘down under’ is suitable to colonization. Long thought dead, he pops up 3 years later without the nuke (the titular Little Orpheus). When forced to explain where he’s been for the past 3 years and where the nuke is, he recants an outlandish tale involving everything from being chased by dinosaurs, to traversing deserts, and even navigating subterranean cities.

You may think that Ivan is a dummy, and in some ways he actually is. The real Ivan Ivanovich was a mannequin that was sent into space by the Soviets in their unmanned Vostok missions in 1961. The mannequin was so lifelike that they had to put the word ‘dummy’ inside his helmet so that if anything went wrong and he was found, people wouldn’t think he was a real person. In short, Ivan Ivanovich is basically the equivalent of our John Doe, or every man.

The majority of the game is created from the banter between Ivan and General Yukovoi who is interrogating him. It’s quite clear that the General doesn’t believe any of the tale, but every time there is a question, Ivan somehow creates a story to answer them. The entire narrative plays out over 9 separate chapters/episodes, each opening and ending in traditional 50's TV style drama with the still picture and voice over. “What will happen next? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode” - that sort of thing. Each chapter takes you to a new and colourful world where you find out more details of his ordeal. One fascinating aspect was when the General got frustrated with Ivan and raised his voice, this translated into the story we saw on the screen in Ivans mind. Ice floes would crack under his feet, or animals would snap their jaws. When the general warns Ivan that his patience is wearing thin and he’s running out of time with his story, the entire landscape becomes clock themed.

Little Orpheus is a game that relies on having your sound on in my opinion. I know a lot of people will play story-based platformers with the sound off, or listening to their own music, but this would do a complete disservice to Little Orpheus. Yes, there are subtitles but the banter and dialogue really needs to be experienced in its full glory. The tone and delivery of some of the threats, for example, may not have their full impact of their brutality when just reading them on the screen. The cadence in which Ivan and the General speak throughout the entire game truly is a highlight. The humour was unexpected, and I found myself pausing due to my laughter at times. Hats off to the brilliant voice acting of Gunnar Cauthery (Ivan) and Paul Herzberg (General Yukovoi). Their banter felt like an actual conversation versus acting and even the few lines of dialogue delivered in Russian felt authentic.

Equally outstanding was the art style and soundtrack. A beautiful, colourful landscape made each approximately 20 minute chapters seem like its own mini-movie. Prehistoric jungles, hot deserts and ice filled landscapes all gave unique visual appeal. Each stage has incredible composition. Sand moves freely, the aurora glows over the shipwrecks in the ice, you can almost feel the wind blowing past you. There is even a chapter where you are in the belly of a whale, as big as any ‘big fish’ story can get, complete with squishy walking. The score, by Jim Fowler and Jessica Curry, also gave me something to delight in. Music is always important in a story-based game, and each world had a unique feeling. My favourite little stand out was when Ivan camouflaged himself with an eggshell to sneak past a T-Rex. Each sneaky footstep accompanied by a pluck of a violin string. Similar to the old cartoons I grew up with. Just delightful.

With all of the wonderful voice acting, graphics and music, I am sad to say the gameplay just didn’t give me the same joy. Knowing its origin as an Apple Arcade game, it’s not surprising that gameplay mechanics would be simple. It was meant to be played with touch controls on your phone or with an optional controller, but it was just too simplistic for me. I love platformers, but this just didn’t give me much to work with. Very few quicktime events, puzzles that didn’t require more than a moment to solve, and prompts on the screen that came up much too early to give you any real surprise or suspense to what would happen next really was a let down. You spend most of your time just simply running, sometimes for a full minute before performing a jump, slide or a swing.

There was surprisingly little difficulty involved in the game. You won’t die very often. When I did die, it was usually because I just wasn’t paying attention due to a bit of a slow moment in the game where I was just running, and I sort of zoned out. Each chapter had one chase/fight scene where most of the activity took place. The most difficult thing I encountered was trying to decide the best time to flip switches to complete moving puzzles. Oh, and there one chapter that required flying. I am just terrible at that, no matter what game I’m playing.

Some of the most beautiful moments in the game, and most memorable when telling people about Little Orpheus, involved nothing more than moving left to right across the screen. In these moments you can really take in the beauty of the game, the humour in the dialogue and the music playing. As I said, knowing this was originally a mobile game, it was to be expected, but it left me wanting more at the end of it all. I could look at this and say maybe this was by design, that we were being strung along with the story dragging out, just as the General was listening to Ivan tell his tale, but I really think there just wasn’t a lot to do in the game. Whether by design from a story perspective, or because it was originally a mobile game, it could have used a few more mechanics to keep it interesting.

Once you complete each chapter you unlock a bonus version of the level where you have to collect glowing orbs. If you want to get all of the achievements, you will have to play each chapter at least twice to collect everything. Each orb you collect gives you a little bit of artwork to look at and collecting the orbs also unlocks costumes. Some of the achievements require you to wear specific outfits when playing a particular level. None of this is difficult, but will double your approximately five hour runtime to about ten hours of gameplay.

I’m not really sure what audience Little Orpheus is aimed at. Younger players will likely not get the historical significance, references or nods to old TV show formats, whereas older players could get bored easily. Also, right now may now seem like the best time to be rooting for any eccentric Russian with a loose grip on reality either. Perhaps if it had fewer but longer chapters accompanied with a few more puzzles, I may have found it more fulfilling.

In short, Little Orpheus is filled with myths, legends and beautiful artwork. There are nods to history and some throwback nostalgia to old time TV when things were simpler. References and nods to other Sci-Fi classics like Journey to the Center of the Earth are obvious. If you know what a matryoshka is, you’ll understand the layering in the story telling. A matryoshka is a Russian nesting doll, every time you open one, there is another layer or surprise inside. This is the same way the story in Little Orpheus unfolds, and is indeed, its strong point. The voice actors do all the heavy lifting in my opinion, and I would happily sit and listen to those two characters banter for hours, spinning a yarn by a campfire.

*Little Orpheus was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Tinykin

I have been looking forward to the full launch of Tinykin since I had the pleasure of previewing it back in June. In my initial preview I was enamoured, and I am pleased to say that those feelings are still evident after getting to play the full game.

My love for gaming has always had one constant. Drop me into a massive non-linear environment where I can explore and collect, and I’ll be my happiest gamer self. Give me a unique way to move around and some cool abilities and I’m even happier. Cute animation and little pet like creatures are a bonus. Tinykin checks all of these boxes for me. Developer, Splashteam, and publisher TinyBuild, have combined eye catching 2D art with interesting 3D environments that kept me fully engaged and interested. I was so invested in the game that I played through the whole story in one sitting.

You play as Milo, a tiny space man who has crash landed on Earth. Well, a specific place on Earth, someone house. This home is normal size for us but enormous to Milo. An entire universe unfolds before him, each room opening to another unique landscape and explore and adventure in. A variety of bugs (cute and not creepy) have set up colonies throughout the home, and you’ll interact with them as they perform their normal daily routines. Some will work low wage jobs and struggle, some live like royalty.

There is a ‘church’ in one section with insects worshipping and singing, another room has insects planning a huge party. Each room has its own theme and is beautifully crafted to create a full landscape using typical household items in a variety of ways. The kitchen had ‘fields’ made of scouring pads for example. You’ll definitely want to spend time getting lost in the environments and explore, a lot. The attention to detail when creating these worlds did not get overlooked by me. The way Splashteam took normal objects and created something out of the ordinary, kept me playing the game with a grin on my face the entire time. A convert hall inside a guitar? A beach party in a bathtub? Adorable.

Each room had one main mission to get the piece shown on the blueprint to rebuild the spaceship, but there are also some side quests. Some of them are optional and some are required to progress the main quest. There is a jar of nectar, 4 letters to collect and deposit into a mailbox, and pollen to collect in each room. It varies per room level but often was close to 1000 units of pollen to collect in each room. If you want to collect all of it, it will take time and dedication. Thankfully there is a counter to tell you how many you have as you work through the rooms. This pollen replaces the standard coin collecting mechanic that you’d often find in platform style games.

Ants, beetles and other tiny creatures bring additional stories to the game play, and some of them will give you these optional tasks to complete. When you complete them, you earn collectible items or pollen as rewards. These collectible items go into a museum of sorts where you can view them. I didn’t 100% Tinykin, as there was a lot to collect, and I think if you’re a completionist you will find it a bit of a grind to get everything. I played through the journey, collecting the majority of items in about 6 hours.

Traversing these large room landscapes uses three basic mechanics. Walking, using a soap bubble to float (which can be upgraded over time to float longer distances) and a soapboard. The soapboard is a skateboard-like object that helps you glide across surfaces quickly, also allowing you to slide across strands of web above the ground. I think the soapboard could have been used in more ways, and although fun to use I wish they had expanded on its use. Mechanically I found very few issues with movement in the game, and if I fell, it was normally my own inattention versus the fault of sticky controls.

Now, of course this game would be nothing without its namesake, the tinykin. Once you free them from their eggs, they follow around behind you. There are 5 colours of them, each coming with their own powers. First you will encounter pink. They are the strongest and can carry items around for you. Then red with the ability to blow things up. As you move throughout the levels you will have a different combination of tinykins to locate and use. They will not follow you from level to level, but if you leave and come back to a level later, they will be waiting for you - you won’t lose them. As you collect the tinykin, you will amass a large, adorable group of followers. When you need to use them it’s a simple pull of the Right Trigger to get them to activate. I was glad there was no awkward menu scrolling to determine which to use, and if you have them in your inventory they will automatically select.

Each interaction has a certain number of tinykin needed to perform the action. It could be 1 or 2 to blow something up or it might be 25 to carry an item. If you don’t have enough of a particular colour, you can look around and gather more of them. By the time you reach the last room you will have all 5 colours. Joining pink and red is green, with the ability to stack you can reach new heights, blue with the ability to conduct electricity and yellow with the ability to join together to make ramps and bridges. One complaint I had was the last 2 you encounter were the blue and yellow and they had the least interesting abilities in my opinion. I know I’ve already said how cute the game is, but now you can just imagine a group of close to 50 teeny, little tinykin following you and when you stop for a moment, Milo and all the tinykin fall asleep. It’s really cute.

Along with the ease of use when determining which tinykin to use in a situation is how smart they are, particularly the pink carriers. If you need something moved from one location to another, they will simply pick it up and take it where it needs to go. There is no need to micromanage them. The only thing you will have to potentially do to assist them is create ramps or bridges, or open areas for them to cross parts of the room. One example of this is when you need them to pick up and move a polaroid camera. They will take it where it needs to go. Then you just go to the location and complete the next step in the puzzle.

The artwork in Tinykin is really a great combination of 2D characters in a 3D environment. The combo was unexpected but just worked. The dialogue was all in text format, so there was a lot or reading involved. I would have liked to see some more options for increasing the size of the text or changing the colour of the text on screen. For a game that does rely on colours a lot, I would have thought you’d see colour blind options. It was something I did notice during the preview and had hoped it would have been added in the full launch, but no luck. I am guessing because the menu is intuitive and auto selects the tinykin for you that perhaps they felt the need wasn’t there. There are adjustments for screen movement and vibration though, and these helped immensely with the motion sickness I experienced a bit in the preview.

Tinykin doesn’t do anything original in the platforming genre, but that doesn’t matter. What it does, it does really well. I played the whole game through is one sitting of about 6 hours and had a silly grin on my face the whole time. While that may seem really short for some players, I appreciated that it didn’t overstay its welcome. It showed up and gave me a solid gaming experience and moved on. I didn’t get bored or find myself just wanting it to be over. While I would have liked a few more mechanics to mix it up in the later levels. I was so enthralled with the environments that it didn’t take away from my overall impression of it. This game was full of clever dialogue, enough puzzles to keep me happy and a narrative twist that kept me on my toes. It’s quirky from start to finish and proof that good things can come in small packages.

**Tinykin was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 RimWorld Console Edition

RimWorld, published and developed by Double Eleven and Ludeon Studios, first launched on PC back in 2013 and spent 5 years in early access refining itself before officially launching its full release in 2018. I know people who simply forgot it was early access all those years because of how much there was to do. Here we are coming up on 10 years since it first hit PC and the sci-fi space colony sim is now available for consoles. It might be easy to ignore and dismiss a game that’s almost a decade old but one look at the Steam page for the game will be enough to make you want to take a leap and try it. Critically acclaimed and played by over one million players on PC, it has a staggering number of positive reviews, over 100k of them. Retailing for $51.99 CDN for the base game, I already know I’m going to lose hundreds of hours of my life to this game.

Now that’s out of the way, let me backup for a minute. I was lucky enough to get invited to an Xbox preview for RimWorld Console Edition hosted by Double Eleven on Discord. I got a sneak peek of the game and they talked about the differences in bringing the game to console etc. I had never even heard about the game before being invited to this, so I spent some time looking online at gameplay so I’d have a bit of an idea what I was getting into. What I saw completely overwhelmed me. That being said, I had to remind myself that some of these players had been playing the game for up to 9 years at this moment, and being a sim game, the game would and could be massive. I watched some YouTube videos on tips and tricks for beginners etc, but it was all still pretty overwhelming if I’m being honest. The preview event was really helpful in explaining things on a more small-scale level but there were still so many things to learn and look at.

Now, if anyone knows me, even just from reading my reviews, they’ll know that I love great sim games. I love creating my own stories, crafting, and living out some strange life only available through gaming. What I don’t love is feeling lost and stupid. Sadly, I spent many hours in this last category. My first hours with RimWorld were not great, at all. The tutorial kept crashing, or just simply not progressing. After multiple false starts with the tutorial, I decided to just start a game on the easiest level. This couldn’t be that complicated to figure out, right? WRONG! I was so very wrong. Without the tutorial, and not really being familiar with this style of game, I made many, many mistakes. I killed many colonies in a variety of absurd ways. I seemed that learning to love RimWorld was going to take time. 100k positive reviews can’t be that wrong, could they? I had to be missing something. So, I persisted, I started over at least five times before I finally made it through one year in-game.

I was finally getting the hang of it. Oops, spoke too soon. Everyone was dead again. At this point I was multiple days of real time invested in the game and had seriously wondered if I might have to ask for another code and have another writer take over this. No, not me, I will overcome and prevail. I am not one to back down and I was determined to at least understand the base of why people love this game so much. I can write about the appeal and understand the love for something without actually enjoying it myself, right? I persisted and I finally had my breakthrough moment.

One morning I grabbed coffee and logged in, started a new colony and finally had some success. I slowed down and took my time. I finally got it. Next thing I knew ten hours had flown by and I was still wanting to play more. I broke through the barrier. Enough about my RimWorld crisis, let's move on to the game, as that’s what you’re here for. Thanks for bearing with me on that.

PC ports of games often don’t go very well. Games like RimWorld have complex multi-tiered menus that are common on PC games which works because they have many sources of input. I am really pleased to say that Double Eleven did a fantastic job porting RimWorld to console. It felt like it was made for console. Using the controller to navigate multiple menus was easy and felt organic, and even though some of the options took a little time to navigate and discover (I might refer to my poor start and lack of tutorial mentioned earlier) nothing that couldn’t be figured out with a few minutes of searching though. RimWorld is a game that can be paused at any time, and in fact it’s encouraged to pause often when planning and managing your colony.

When starting RimWorld for the first time there are a variety of scenarios to choose from. They all have varying degrees of difficulty associated with them and different ‘win conditions’. Not only do you pick your story difficulty/beginning, but you also pick a storyteller. This will also contribute to the type of game you get. One is very easy going, one is pure chaos, and another is someplace in the middle. Approaching RimWorld as a simple management/building sim is too simplistic. It bills itself as an interactive story generator. But the basis of the game is designed for you to create and grow your colony over time. Survive, adapt and thrive. Starting out with three randomly generated survivors who crash land on a planet, the standard beginning scenario has you starting with nothing other than a few weapons and a pet. You must build a stockpile zone, a shelter, fire etc. You must find food from farming or hunting and defend against animals and raids. Sometimes even animal raids. Two peculiar raids I had involved man-eating bunnies and man-eating terrier dogs. Cute and terrifying all in one package.

Post apocalyptic/dystopian landscapes leave you nothing. You will encounter mutant animals and plant species. You have strange sicknesses with no way to treat them. If you’re even unlucky enough to start like I did, you don’t have anyone who can build anything remotely akin to recreation or power supply devices. So frustrating. Colonists are going on rampages and breaking anything because they are bored, but none of my group have the skills available to build anything other than a horseshoe pit and chessboard. Ugh. It’s a vicious cycle that I found myself in often.

Since everything is procedurally generated, no two playthroughs will be the same. Different areas on the planet have different resources, flora and fauna. It’s punishing at times, it’s brutal, but it’s also beautiful and addicting. I loved my ragtag group of three. None smart enough or strong enough but seemed to be managing okay most of the time. Over time others may join your colony. You may rescue someone on a mission or from a crash site. They may wander into your colony randomly, they may be running from danger and looking for a place to hide. Whatever the reason your, colony can grow over time. You can even take prisoners when you defeat them or buy and sell from slavers. I had a moral issue with this in the game though. I understand their place in the gameplay, but it never sat right. Between the slavers and things like being gay classified as a ‘personality trait’, some of it just didn’t feel appropriate in 2022.

When you take a new person in, there are a few growing pains, as is expected. Sometimes these were them bringing disease in. Another time I used a lot of medicine to heal them only to have them die anyway. Nothing is simple, even on easy mode. A growing colony requires additional resources and maintenance, and you will spend a lot of time trying to find that balance. As with any colony, there is drama. Two of my colonists fell in love quickly and got married. Almost as quickly, they each had affairs going. All of this affects their moods. Same for boredom, hunger, disease, etc. Mood plays a lot into how they colonist do everything. From the speed and efficiency, they work to how they behave around the colony. Often one of my characters would go on insulting sprees. If he weren’t my biggest defence person, I likely would have exiled him.

Drama outside your immediate group also randomly appears. RimWorld offers missions. Some are fetch quests, others for trading (looking for items you can craft to trade). Each have varying timelines in which to accept and/or complete. One trade request was looking for human leather, I just couldn’t even entertain this mission. Some are exploration based and you can gather supplies. Each offers different rewards and you can decide if you want to embark on them or not. I would often try to go for the ones that offered skill upgrades as reward. Choosing what missions to take on will depend on who you can afford to have leave the colony for a few days, how much you can risk, etc.

Porting RimWorld from PC to Console couldn’t have been easy as there are layers upon layers in the menus. Navigating them would be much smoother and faster with mouse and keyboard but Double Eleven has somehow managed to make it work very smoothly. The UI was completely rebuilt with a controller in mind. Items on the screen are meant to easily tell you what kind of button you need to find them. Top corners use Bumpers and bottom use Triggers on the controller for example. They designed the UI so that any action was no more than three button pushes away. The UI has also been optimized to be played on a TV at a distance of 10 feet away. These numbers are the gold standard for console players. The font has also been optimized for this distance and size. They used standard accessibility guidelines for eye comfort and readability. There is no way to change the font size currently, however when I asked about this during the preview, I was told it would be something they may look into in the future. I can see that the UI is changing over time, and it has had at least two changes since I started playing. The game is 1:1 with its PC counterpart, meaning that everything on the PC version is available on the console version. They didn’t cut any content. The only thing missing is modding, which is HUGE in the RimWorld PC community.

There are a few things that could be improved, mostly minor issues but would really add to the ease of someone new learning the game. If you are doing a task, like having colonist automatically fill fuel, the task bar shows many things, including this option with a red 'X'. My brain said that this meant it was off and to click it to turn it on. This was the opposite though. It meant click it to turn it off. It’s a simple thing that made me question a lot of things in game as to whether they were working as intended. The game has a lot of the same colours on screen as well and I would like to see them add some colour blind options or highlighting. I spent a lot of time really zoomed in on my screen to distinguish items from one another, meaning from time to time I would miss something else happening outside of my small window.

You don’t control individual people, but simply line up jobs and assign workers as needed. You will spend a lot of time on this screen. Trying to figure out who can and will do the job. Do they have the skills and the drive? Will they get cranky and stop working or go on a temper fueled rampage? You really are never 100% sure of anything in RimWorld. Trying and failing is at the core of the game. It’s a massive storytelling experience where you try to choose your own adventure, but there is always something lurking in the wing to flip the scales. It’s the little details, the relationships, the small things that have big impact. Are your people compatible, is someone cooking the proper food (food poisoning is common), are you making the clothes they want? Are you making the right pharmaceuticals (recreational drugs) to keep them happy? Will your pet a pig suddenly go feral and attack everyone? This happened.

You need to focus on everything, all the time. Construction, medical care, research, cooking, hunting and more are all ongoing skills at all times. When things seem to be going well, you must realize that you are overlooking something. There is never a perfect day from my experience. At one point I had fully stocked a warehouse for the winter, then on the first day of winter, my cooling system caught fire and I lost all my food. Life has a way of reminding you that you can never fully be prepared for everything.

RimWorld is not for the faint of heart, in its content or gameplay. It has a massive learning curve and may be one of the most difficult games to learn for new players like myself. As I started this review, I talked about my fairly negative experience at the beginning, but now I can’t stop playing it. The characters are all different; They live, they die, you learn and start again. It’s punishing, it’s brutal, but also complex and addictive. I’ve completely changed my mind about RimWorld over the past two weeks and I am so happy I stuck with it.

**RimWorld Console Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.9 / 10 Rayland

From Brazilian developer, Naoka Games, and EastAsiaSoft Limited (Hong Kong), comes the futuristic light manipulation puzzler, Rayland. There is a story involved here, one that I had to look up as I don’t believe there was any narrative at the beginning of the game. The inhabitants of Rayland use energy from the ‘Domus’ (red sphere) to survive. They have to use the ‘Reflectus’ to direct the rays of light across various lands to reach the Domus. Your job is to help them with this task.

Ultimately your mission in the game is to move the light beams from A to B. The emitter (A) and receiver (B) are both stationary and you can move the reflectors to any squares on the map and rotate them freely. You are using only two buttons in the game. With gameplay so simplistic, you’d think the controls would be perfect, but they aren’t. I didn’t struggle too much but there were times when it seemed that the reflector just wouldn’t drop on the square that was highlighted, or that I thought was highlighted. Not a huge deal or a game breaker, more just frustration.

Light manipulation puzzles aren’t new, and Rayland doesn’t break any new ground here. With any puzzle game, players should expect the game to progress in difficulty. I simply didn’t find that to be the case with Rayland. The first ten puzzles were almost identical and you can complete them in about two seconds each. The next ten were slightly harder, but there wasn’t really any progression in difficulty or skills learned or needed. Eventually you’ll have two light beams to manipulate, and also trying to manipulate intersecting beams, but that’s about as complex as I experienced. I completed the first 30 levels in twenty to thirty minutes. 30 levels are all that are required to complete all achievements on Xbox.

Graphically, Rayland has a futuristic space age vibe with really simple and clean animation design. Nothing to complain about in this department as it looked like it should for a game like this. It was really crisp looking on the Series X. I was more impressed with the music though. From the moment it opened on my loading screen I was taken with the chill vibe and sci-fi edge. I was really excited with the music at the opening and thought maybe I was going to be getting something equally exciting once it launched. I could sit and listen to that soundtrack for awhile for sure.

I honestly wanted more difficulty, more skills and more challenges. I absolutely adore puzzle games and I do want something that gives me a bit of a challenge from time to time. Something that makes my brain really think about things and gives me a real sense of accomplishment when I figure it out. There really isn’t anything in the way of replay value for Rayland either, sadly. No collectibles to hunt after or extra modes to open up. There is so much that could be built upon here. That being said, it’s a dream game for gamers who like to collect all achievements when playing. Nothing missable, short play time and inexpensive to buy. If you are an achievement hunter, it should be added to your list.

I realize my review may come across as negative, and it isn’t really. I enjoyed what I played, I just wanted more. Rayland looked great and had fantastic music but it was a bare-bones puzzle game though. For the low price, it’s a good enough puzzle game to quickly bulk up your Gamerscore, I just wish it had made my brain work a little harder.

**Rayland was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Endling - Extinction is Forever

The moment of Extinction is classified as the time in which the last individual of a species dies. The last of a species in existence is referred to as the ‘Endling’. This is all the information you really need to understand that Endling – Extinction is Forever will not be a lighthearted and easy game to play. Created by Spanish developers, Herobeat Studios, and published by HandyGames from Germany, this side scrolling adventure opens with you (as a female fox) running for your life as the world is burning around you. You find safety in a makeshift den and immediately give birth to a litter of four adorable babies (kits). You are no longer the Endling of your species, but the story is just beginning.

At the heart of Endling – Extinction is Forever there is a survival game. It was designed to examine how extinction is one of the most dramatic, and heartbreaking, consequences of human activity. Due to humans’ actions, centuries of harm and destruction to the planet, the Earth is in crisis and withering. Mass deforestation has occurred, resulting in a lack of food, water and habitat for the Vixen and her kits. This was all clear when I took on the review, and I am considered a bit of a ‘tree hugger’ by many people, so I was intrigued if it could deliver an eco-conscious message while also delivering an engaging gameplay experience.

You and your babies wander the world during the night looking for food while returning to your den during the less safe daytime hours. Day one was relatively uneventful but on the first night of rest, a horrible trapper steals one of your babies. An endangered animal sighting would be rare and would likely go for a pretty hefty sum of money. Now your days are following spent following clues to track your missing baby while also still trying to find food for your three remaining ones. Add on to this that your babies are clumsy and can get caught or injured from misadventure or predators, and you are also being hunted by local human scavengers, it’s a lot of emotions at play during the 4-5 hour game time. Although primarily a 2D side scroller, the world does open in ways that have you moving in almost a 3D plane. This also means I had to refer to the map quite often to make sure I wasn’t getting lost to heading to a dead end.

I found the survival aspect of the game stressful at times. There is a meter at the bottom of the screen indicating hunger of your little ones. If the bar gets too low, one of their cute little white face icons starts to flash red and the red drains from their face as they get hungrier and slower. You can abandon them if you choose to. Survival of the fittest as some say. They can even die in the game. In fact, there are achievements depending on how many of you are alive at the end. The stress levels involved in finding food, prey, fruit or even garbage, often made my heart race. I was determined to keep every single one of them alive.

To find food you tap a single button to sniff and you’ll get a green trail indicating food. You have to crouch, sneak and pounce on rabbits, mice, fish or chickens to catch them. You can climb trees to discover eggs, or hop into bushes to retrieve fruit and berries. You can even scavenge through garbage. This becomes tricky though, because at times you’ll get a plastic bag wrapped around your neck and have a limited time to stop it from killing you. Between the garbage, the predators, the hunters and trappers (with traps spread out throughout the map), there are multiple ways for you and your family to be killed. Oh, and if you die, your cubs won’t survive without you. If this occurs, you’re presented with giant letters on the screen telling you this fact. Heart wrenching. You can reload the game from the last save point which is when you have last rested.

As you move through the map, some areas will be locked until you complete a certain number of days. Once a new section opens you can find a new den/home base, but you can still go to older parts of the map if you choose. There are even a few badger tunnels for quick travel. Also, as you progress the days, you will track your missing baby, and on each day that there are clues available there will be three to find. Each clue location opens a ‘shadow scene’ where you see the story of what your baby has been going through. You see who took them and what has been happening in their timeline. It’s really not an easy thing to watch if you are emotionally invested. It is almost impossible to talk about this story line without spoiling the game, so I’ll not say much other than you can find your missing baby.

There is a night and day cycle in the game, and you have limited amounts of hours at night to track clues, find food and unravel the story/map before having to return to your den for the daytime hours. As time progresses, your kids age, becoming more self sufficient and they will learn new skills to help you. You can send them into small openings or climb up trees to help gather food. And they’ll also learn to jump higher distances, run faster, etc. Each kit will be assigned one of the skills learned. I am not sure exactly what happens if you lose one of them, if the skill will transfer to another for example, because if I’m being honest, the two times I lost a cub I searched out a hunter or trap to kill me so I could start the day again and have a second chance. This game was emotionally all encompassing for me.

The art direction in Endling – Extinction is Forever is simple and beautiful. The designs made it easy to hate the bad humans and love the adorable fox family. The way they interacted with each other felt truly authentic and heartwarming. This made any pain, discomfort stress, etc. that they had to deal with even harder to digest for me. The soundtrack was subtle but impactful and helped great an emotional connection in the way it would swell in stressful or dramatic moments.

One thing I did find lacking in the game were some accessibility features. Most noticeably you had to tap buttons repeatedly to dig or escape from traps for example. Giving the option to single tap and/or hold the button would be an effortless way to open this game up to more players. I would have also liked to see more variety in the dangers presented in game. They became repetitive and predictable quickly. The gameplay was also rather simplistic, but I’m assuming this was to not distract from the story being told.

Although there are some extremely heartbreaking moments in the game, and I found myself ugly crying during parts of it, Herobeat Studios created a beautiful game with cute foxes and a really important message. I have not been this emotionally moved by a game in a long time. Many of the things shown in game are based on current real-world events, and a lot of it was hard to stomach. Enthusiastic social commentary, a compelling story and beautiful graphics really gave me something I wasn’t expecting from a game with cute foxes at the forefront. Even with the slightly basic gameplay and repetitive nature, the game (and particularly the ending) hit hard and will leave a lasting mark for some time.

*Endling - Extinction is Forever was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Eternal Hope

There is just something about Indie games that I love. Especially the ones that find a way to invoke strong emotional responses in just a small amount of time. The ability of the gaming industry to tell such emotional tales has come such a long way in recent years, and I think these types of games have really seen a surge in popularity. Think Limbo, Ori or Life is Strange for example. These types of games find a way to leave a lasting impression on the player long after the credits roll. Every time I think Indie games can’t catch me off guard anymore, another game comes along and finds a way. Such is the case with Eternal Hope, developed by Brazil’s Doublehit Games.

Eternal Hope is a fairly simple 2D puzzle platformer that was available on PC last year and has now made its way to console. Spread out over eleven chapters, this relatively short game grabbed hold of my heart less than five minutes into the game. Doublehit has stated that Studio Ghibli films were an inspiration for Eternal Hope, and I think that inspiration is obvious from some of the characters you see.

The prologue is simple and straightforward. You play as Ti’bi, a young boy who one day finds the girl of his dreams (Hope). They fall in love and then one day she is taken from him in a tragic accident. Ti’bi is heartbroken and in mourning when his thoughts are interrupted by a mysterious voice. This is the keeper of souls who promises to bring Hope back to life if Ti’bi helps to locate the scattered fragments of her soul and bring them to a temple. From here you embark on an emotional roller coaster as you traverse the world finding the soul fragments and completing puzzles.

With the assistance of the Keeper of Souls who promises to help you, you are given the power to call for help from the An’mu, creatures from another dimension, who will assist you in climbing and getting through areas that you couldn’t on your own. When you activate your power you can see secret entrances, paths, branches, platforms etc. Some of the actions you need to do can only be done in one realm and not the other, so you have to know when to switch back and forth. This is the core mechanic in Eternal Hope and moving across areas often relies on switching back and forth in a timely matter to avoid falling.

You will also see mysterious souls to collect as you play as well. This special power is on a stamina bar though, so move quickly once you activate it. It replenishes automatically and will fill very quickly. If your stamina bar depletes while you are in a hidden area, it will close on you and you will die. Thankfully there are many save points in game and you won’t have to backtrack very far. The first time you use your power you will also encounter a tiny fairy like creature named Heli. Although Heli doesn’t do anything game wise, they provide the lore and commentary to you as Ti’bi is silent.

Most of the puzzles involve trying to find a way to just keep moving forward. You may have to move a rock or vase to find a switch or lever. You may need to find a way to break a cage and have that animal break something else for you (also while avoiding being hit by said animal). Some puzzles are more complicated, like trying to find your way through a section of underground mazes using switches and levers while also trying to avoid large monsters or goblins. The puzzles do involve a bit of trial and error at times as you determine exactly what you need to do. I found some were hard to figure out but not entirely frustrating. Explore, die, learn, try again is the mantra. Thankfully when you die, the closest save point isn’t going to cost you much time. My biggest issue with the puzzles wasn’t with how to complete them, but simply my reaction time wasn’t as quick as I would have liked or needed it to be. I am not sure if this is an issue due to controller vs keyboard, or simply my old reflexes. Also of note, to jump in Eternal Hope, you use the 'B' button. I found this slightly unusual as I am used to most games using the 'A' button instead.

The entire game took me between 4 and 5 hours. One of those hours being the last chapter alone. Playing through a second time, I was able to complete it in just over 2 hours. Eternal Hope is absolutely stunning. The main character is adorable and the backgrounds create a sort of rich painted tapestry behind the action. It is very dreamlike and surreal, fitting with the story in a beautiful manner. The backgrounds of blues, greens and purples contrast nicely to Ti’bi who is basically black with a white scarf (or cute white mask when using his power). One little thing that I loved in the animation was Ti’bi’s scarf. As you ran along, it flew behind you, giving a real sense of motion and movement. Such a small thing, but it was impactful. The scarf also becomes a parachute later in the game that can be used to avoid falling from heights or to ride wind currents.

Eternal Hope also uses cutscenes that look like they could be from a children’s book. They help move the story along and help fill in some of the more emotional components. There are a few other things about the animation that I noticed. It’s easy to distinguish who is friend or foe in the drawing style. Rounded, smooth characters are friendly while more jagged and pointed characters are bad and trying to hurt you. Also, the living world was more brightly coloured, while the shadow world was more muted in its colouring.

What Eternal Hope lacks in originality of its gameplay it makes up for in heart. It’s a story of love, loss and redemption. Ti’bi, like a lot of us, is just struggling to keep moving on and moving forward. Clever dual dimension gameplay and a simple but emotional story make this a great little game if you want a heartfelt adventure to get lost in for a few hours.

**Eternal Hope was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 DEADCRAFT

I am a huge fan of supernatural games and I have a love for anything zombie related. TV shows, movies, games – anything with zombies normally catches my eye when I see a trailer. DEADCRAFT is no exception to that, and I was hooked when I saw the tagline, “Farm the dead to stay alive”. Ummm, what? I’m growing zombies? Will it give me post apocalyptic Mad Max vibes meets Harvest Moon game play? I also have a massive love for any game that involves farming activities, so I knew I had to find out more.

I’m not really sure of the exact plot details but what I’ve managed to gather goes something like this; Meteors crash to earth, destroying a lot of the planet as well as bringing a virus that reanimates the dead. Oh, and also, you’re a half zombie. Maybe I’m oversimplifying with those statements, but that’s the start of it. DEADCRAFT's twist on the zombie genre is that you are half human/half zombie. This means you have both human and zombie qualities and skills that you have to balance. There are pockets of surviving humans scattered around the world (of course they all start their own factions versus working together) and you will work with or against them depending on what choices you want to make. Choose your enemies and allies wisely.

You play as Reid, a half zombie who has just escaped from a scientist hoping to use you and your half zombie abilities to help take over the new world. Not only do you want revenge on the scientist for what they’ve done to you, but also because he killed your best friend. Oh, and he was also experimenting on children. Just an all-around bad guy.

DEADCRAFT tasks you with accomplishing 3 things throughout the game: craft, cultivate and combat, the 3 C's if you will. I’m not entirely sure of how to classify this game from Marvelous Europe, and the trailers didn’t fully prepare me for what I experienced when I started my play though. It’s part survival game, part isometric action RPG and part zombie killer, and you’re also part zombie. Yes, it’s as complicated as it sounds. You’re basically in a limbo between the human and zombie worlds and you choose how you balance them to ensure your survival. You must venture out into the wasteland scavenging scrap, materials, food and water. You will craft items and cultivate crops (both plant and zombie).

Being a half zombie has pros and cons. You can summon some supernatural-like abilities when in combat for example. Transforming one of your arms into a shield or using it to swat away a massive number of enemies, but you also have to keep a certain part of your self human in order to not be attacked by the other surviving humans in the wasteland. Striking a balance isn’t easy as there are multiple health and stamina concepts at play. You have one gauge that shows how much of a human/zombie you are, and then you also have hunger and thirst bars. Each item you consume will not only replenish/diminish the hunger or thirst bar, but also affects the zombie/human balance as well. Contaminated food and water give you more zombie qualities while fresh food and water give you more human qualities. Until you learn the ability to grow food and make ‘agua cola’ you are constantly eating and drinking nutrition of varying contamination.

Being weighted more to the human side means you have more stamina and defence against the undead, while being more zombie means you have access to your special abilities but also less stamina overall. You also have an overall energy bar that only replenishes by resting at your home. This resting area is often quite a distance from where you are doing your quests. The amount that your energy bar replenishes when resting depends on how full your hunger and thirst gauges are as well. It was a lot to juggle at first.

Starting out, I didn’t find the tutorial particularly helpful in explaining how things worked and spent a lot of time trying to figure things out myself. It’s not overly complicated but does require a bit more attention than I am used to in games. While I understand that these all serve a purpose, they felt sort of tacked on and I had to often waste a lot of resources just to have full gauges so I could have max stats after resting to start the next day.

The crafting is a massive part of the game, as to be expected with CRAFT in the title, and thankfully it’s not overly complicated. The skill/craft tree has a lot of stages and detail but slow to open. You have to do quests for NPCs around the encampments and they reward you with items and skill points. Sadly, these were mostly fight and fetch quests. The fetch quests were sometimes tough too. There were many times I abandoned them simply because I couldn’t find or scavenge what I was looking for. Then I came to the realization that often you had to do a particular quest for a different person to get the items you needed for another etc.

This takes me to one of my biggest problems with the game. Why can I only do side quests one at a time? Sure, I can scroll through them but if I choose to activate one, I have to abandon the one I’m currently working on. If you abandon a quest you also have to start from the beginning of it when you start it again. They don’t partially save. After a few hours I became bored quickly with the repetitive nature of the quests. Although I enjoy a game with crafting, the cycle of the same types of quests just took the joy away from what sounded like an amazing concept on paper.

Crafting was very satisfying though, as you could make weapons, ammo, food, drink, as well as traps. Weapons have a wide range from the standard knives, bats and guns to chainsaws and even electric guitars. You could also upgrade and learn to farm different items, including your own zombie allies by planting severed zombie parts. Plant the parts, water with zombie blood and watch them spring to life to help you or be harvested for more parts. There was something utterly satisfying about being in combat and deploying a reanimated ally to help in your fighting. One of them even wore a little purple flower on his head so you knew he was a friendly.

As much as I enjoy farming sims, this isn’t a Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing cute farming sim, and I didn’t find the farming as satisfying as those. Growing varieties of food and crafting them into other types were the way to get buffs to your attack, defense etc. There was some humour with these dishes too, things like having the ability to make ramen, but also zombie ramen with entirely different abilities. You could also craft a machine similar to something like a Bloody Mary machine that you use to extract zombie blood. This zombie blood was used for a variety of things in farming and crafting. You could also create better equipment to make life and farming easier too.

There isn’t a lot of combat in DEADCRAFT, and while it’s not terrible, it’s pretty basic. The roster of who you fight, both human and zombie is pretty limited, and you fight using the basic melee, roll or block combos. Even the boss battles left me wanting more variety.

NPCs didn’t have much in the way of verbal dialogue, often a paraphrased first line from what you see typed on the screen, and the rest was there to read and toggle through. I found the dialogue awkwardly written, although I can’t exactly put my finger on why. It felt overly exaggerated and old timey at the same time. If you pay attention to the NPCs there are some pretty disturbing, awkward and amusing back stories to be heard as well. The unusual humour was there, the writing was clever, I just wish it were a bit more in the forefront. Reid had excellent voice acting from Xander Mobus which was great.

There is much more content to DEADCRAFT than its budget price would indicate, but a lot of content doesn’t always mean enjoyable content sadly. I loved the idea of the half zombie hero concept. I love crafting and survival games, but the lack of variety in the missions was a pretty big deterrent for me to continue on long term. That, along with the odd combat style and top-down gameplay didn’t make this a game I loved, and after about 10 hours I really was kind of bored with it. I wanted to love it more, it just wasn’t for me. If you like fetch quests and crafting, maybe you’ll love this. If you’re looking for something with a compelling story and a real survival action RPG, this probably isn’t what you want. Thankfully, there is a free demo that you can check it out for yourself and make up your own mind.

*DEADCRAFT was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Silt

It’s estimated that 80% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored and that is likely why there is always something mysterious, exotic and sometimes scary when you wonder what lies beneath. Developed by indie newcomer, Spiral Games, and Published by Fireshine Games, Silt has a definite Lovecraftian subnautica vibe that is equal parts intriguing and creepy, and I was all in from the very beginning.

Is Limbolike a genre yet? Basically, a 2D scrolling adventure, usually monochromatic and feels like it could have been brought to life via Tim Burton? If not, it is now. Silt is a Limbolike game, but underwater. It’s a surreal underwater puzzle adventure game where you quickly learn that even though there may be plenty of fish in the sea, they are likely all trying to kill you.

As soon as I started Silt, I was taken in by its art style. It’s monochromatic and stylized with its old timey diver and all of the sea life reminded me of the old maritime books that existed before cameras. It’s visually one of the most stunning games I’ve played recently. You start your adventure with a few poetic lines, written rather ominously on your screen, ending with the line ‘seal my fate’. There is no explanation as to why your diver is risking their life or explanation as to how or why you start the game chained to the ocean floor. As you make your way through the story it’s up to you to fill in the gaps. Your diver flickers to life as light fills their helmet and you’re off on your underwater adventure.

You have no weapons, and your only ability is the ability to possess other sea creatures. Yep, some mind melding science fiction stuff there. By holding one of the controller buttons an ‘electric’ looking worm (Your Soul? Your Consciousness?) snakes out from your body and enters the closest creature. You then inhabit that living being and have whatever power they possess. Each animal has their own skill; the piranha has snapping jaws that can break ropes or chains, the ray can pass through solid objects in short bursts, there is an electric eel that can be used to power up objects and an entity, which looks similar to a dandelion head, which can explode on contact. As you can tell I am not a zoologist. Although impressive visually, this was often a very slow mechanic and that caused some issues with a few of the puzzles where time and speed was of the essence. Dreadful creatures lurk in the darkness and will sometimes dart out of their hiding places to deliver a quick death unexpectedly. This caused me to start each new area with a lot of anxiety and cautiousness, more so than I anticipated when I started my underwater adventure.

As you move through this puzzle adventure game, you’ll uncover long forgotten mysteries. You’ll explore long forgotten ruins and temples with images depicting gods and having ornate architecture, and find ancient machinery hidden in the depths of the ocean. You’ll meet strange creatures who have evolved over time and even rescue other trapped divers. It’s hard to get into how the story and narrative unfold without spoiling anything so I’ll not divulge much in the way of the story here. Explore and enjoy the approximately 3 hour journey. I will say though, that a lot of the story is left up to the players interpretation. Depending on what you see while swimming around, your story as to what happened and will happen may be different than another’s perspective. I love games like that, ones that can keep you wondering and thinking about what you experienced.

Each new screen gives you a new puzzle to explore, you’ll turn nearby sea creatures into your puppets and use them to help you find your solutions. One issue I had with Silt was that often the puzzles were just too simple. Usually, you’ll grab the first creature you see and use them in the way that is obvious and right in front of you. As you move along, the puzzles do become more difficult, and some involve multiple steps and creatures, but I only ran into one real ‘head scratcher’, and that was the first multi step puzzle I came across. This was mostly because everything up to that point was so simple that I assumed it would continue that way. Once I realized there were additional steps, I was good to go.

I really wish the game had a better checkpoint system as well though. If you die, which I did frequently, your previous checkpoint was often far enough away that you had to do quite a few things to get back to where you were. This ultimately left me frustrated and took me out of the surreal dreamy nature that I felt when just existing in the game. A few more check points would help in this aspect for sure. Also, there is absolutely no HUD in the game. You have no idea if you’ve been in a particular zone or tunnel, if you’re swimming in circles, or what way you’re supposed to be going at time. It’s all so familiar and foreign at the same time. Although I understand this is part of the design and gives you the feeling of being confused and entirely alone in the ocean, it also was slightly irritating at times.

To allow you to fully take in the beauty of Silt’s art style, there is very little in the form of a soundtrack in the game. Your diver breathes loudly in their suit, but the only other real sounds are environmental. This was a spectacular choice to use minimal music. It really feels like you are underwater and free from a lot of the outside noise.

I’m not sure if it can be considered a moral dilemma, or because I usually play games using the good morality options, but I had many moments in Silt where I was conflicted about what the game was telling me I needed to do. Did I really need to take control of a small fish and have the whole school follow me into the carnivorous plants, killing them? Once I realized that was the only way for me to get passed this particular area, I had to accept that the game was making me complicit in its plot and I was not the good guy I really was hoping to be. I’m not sure if I liked knowing I could now be free to be evil, or if I was upset that it was forced upon me, but that’s another thing entirely. The implications of controlling and manipulating other living creatures to suit my own designs hit on something I’m not accustomed in a lot of games: guilt.

Although there were a few things that I think could make the game a much better experience, mostly more checkpoints for myself, the beautiful art style and surreal feeling while playing really make this a game I have no problem recommending for people to check out. It may not be a very long game but I enjoyed my time immensely. The ocean will always be mysterious, alluring and you never really know what may lie below. I hope we see more games like this in the future.

*Silt was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Moo Lander

A self described ‘aMOOsing MOOtroidvania’, developed and published by The Sixth Hammer, Moo Lander is a 2D, pun filled, action-adventure RPG with hints of Metroidvania in the mix. With its classic hero dialogue, beautiful art style and sassy AI sidekick, Hamilton, I couldn’t get enough of this space escapade and so glad I had the chance to experience it.

You can’t just make a plot like this up (well, I guess technically they did), but you are a pilot with a very generic name, Lander, flying a spaceship and abducting alien cows for their milk. In reality each of us has our own version of what we consider valuable in our daily life and of what we think we need for survival. At the base level of it all though, your survival boils down to food and water. This is the main plot behind Moo Lander. It’s wacky, bizarre and opens up a whole field of creative possibilities.

There are strange creatures, weapons, ship repairs, upgrades and so many cows. As you progress through the game you level up and earn more milk. You will use the milk to pay for your upgrades of weapons and skills. There are 3 main categories of weapons/skills, from attack, defense and stun (non-lethal). In each category you’ll have a variety of choices and thus can tailor them to your preference and gameplay style. One thing I loved about Moo Lander was the ability to change weapons on the fly, even mid fight. This was really important as navigating through certain areas was much easier if you had the right combination of weapons or skills. You can also swap out your ship’s camouflage. These choices also have their own rewards and skills. You earn the new camouflage by completing research in the game. Levelling up happens after each combat experience and it’s fairly easy to accomplish this. There are multiple difficulty settings to choose from as well and your experience can be made more challenging or easier should you desire.

Exploration elements of the game are broken up by relatively simple puzzles and your bovine boss battles, each alien cow is unique looking and has their own attack mechanics. The way you defeat them really doesn’t vary much throughout the game though. Basically, just spam use non-lethal attacks to stun them into submission but the cows fight back various ways to deflect your non-lethal attacks. You must continue to stun and attack, using your environment to help you in your cow rustling. Once defeated, you simply beam them aboard your ship. The cow fights were a bit of a shortcoming of Moo Lander, as some more variety in the fights would have made them more interesting and fun.

You can easily get lost in the exploration, especially the caverns and underground areas. There is no mini map and often you’ll have to backtrack and rely on your memory to help you find your way. Progression normally only gets halted sporadically when you encounter a locked door that you’ll need to solve a puzzle to find the way to open your path again. They are fairly easy and do progressively become more difficult. They are never really overwhelming, even if sometimes you may find yourself frustrated by some of them. What became more frustrating for me was the seemingly endless combat. No matter where you were, there was something trying to kill you. Poisonous plants, skeletal fish, giant worms, spiky plants, all trying to hamper your exploration. Your weapons are sufficient to make quick work of them but being in a constant state of fighting did take its toll on my hands gripping the controller from time to time. Precise aiming seemed to elude me, as the right analog stick was used for aiming but it didn’t feel fluid and quicktime movements weren’t always kind to my reflexes.

Moo Lander is beautiful. It’s colourful hand drawn aesthetic and animation were so enjoyable. The cows you encounter were bizarre and nightmarish and clearly each were designed painstakingly to create something unique. Not only did each cow look different, depending on their skills, they moved and acted different as well. The stages were distinct, each with their own feel, flora and environment. Along with being beautiful, it generally ran well on my Series X. I did encounter a few small glitches too though. Once I was stuck to a wall and unable to move, another time I couldn’t fire any weapons or go to my skills menu to change them. The biggest issue I ran into was at the very end before the main boss, I went through a door and was in an empty space with nothing to do. I solved this by restarting from the last checkpoint and thankfully the level populated properly. The checkpoints are numerous and spread out well throughout the levels so you’ll never have to backtrack too far should you die.

In addition to the stunning art, the music (MOOsic?) was also exceptional. Biomes each felt different with their unique musical backgrounds. Underground scores ranged from fast tempo in fights, to dramatic or eerie in tight confines. When I first hit the open plains in the game, the world turned bright green, opened to the air and a beautiful accompaniment of string instruments and bagpipes started playing. It all came together in a moment that had just enough magic that I stopped for a moment and forgot I was playing a game about abducting alien mutant cows to steal their milk.

Moo Lander’s overall tone, although enjoyable, felt mashed together at times. There was the more serious story about war and the fall of your civilization, along with a warning about messing around with nature, and then there is the sci-fi component about trying to find milk from alien cows to rebuild your civilization (along with many cow related puns).

There is Multiplayer, called Mooltiplayer) in the game, but since it’s strictly couch co-op I didn’t have the chance to try any of it out. I wish it has online multiplayer as it would have been great fun to play with friends. There are 4 modes available to play:

- Cow vs Lander: Players can assume the role of Lander or Cow in PvP
- Landers vs AI Cow: Players team up as Landers against an AI controlled Cow
- Galactic Mooball: A Rocket League style game mode where you can control a Cow or Lander to score points
- Survive the Waves: A horde-mode game where you fight non-cow enemies in waves with other players each controlling their own Landers

Even with the few issues I encountered, Moo Lander is wacky and nonsensical and just about the most ridiculous and best thing I’ve played this year. I couldn’t stop playing it or talking about it. It was a refreshing reminder that not all games have to have a deep story or even take themselves seriously. Sometimes ridiculous and fun is all you need. Moo Lander was, indeed, an aMOOsing adventure through space and I enjoyed my time with it very much. With a relatively short completion time of around 6-8 hours, and its fantastic price point of only $22.99 CAD, you should definitely take off on your own exploratory journey of Moo Lander for yourself.

**Moo Lander was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Endzone - A World Apart: Survivor Edition

In 2021, terrorists blew up nuclear power plants around the world and plunged the world into chaos. A few people were able to escape into underground facilities called “Endzones”. Now, 150 years later, humans return to the surface and you’re in charge of the population. An extremely hostile environment surrounds you, full of radioactivity, contaminated rain, extreme climate change, dust storms and more. Your people are wanting a better life. Time to prove you can be a leader. Time to help your community survive and thrive. This is the plot of the game Endzone: A World Apart Survivor Edition. Developed by Gentlymad Studios and published by Assemble Entertainment, it was released on PC last year, and now finally comes out of its bunker and onto console.

The console version includes the base game, all DLC and had some additional tweaks to help it play better with a controller. Outside of the standard survival mode seen in this style of game, you also are given several ‘scenarios’ to play through, each with their own story to follow, adapt and conquer. Each scenario is also tied to an achievement in the game. The game also has some of the most impressive and comprehensive difficulty sliders and settings I have seen. You can tweak almost anything you can think of. Turning on or off things like weather, radiation, drought, sandstorms, raids etc. Being able to tailor almost every aspect of the game should make this more approachable for a variety of gamers and play styles.

Even though advertised as a primarily RTS (real time strategy) game, Endzone: A World Apart plays more similarly to a SimCity style game with some RTS components. Instead of building and fortifying and planning attacks on enemies, your primary objective is to simply survive and keep your people happy. I’d say it’s more of a management sim. There will be a few fights with Raiders when playing on default settings, but they are really a small component of the game.

Playing through the tutorial mode gives you a solid foundation for how to play the game, even if you’re not familiar with this genre. This is anything but a simple tutorial though and playing it can take you an entire evening to complete. You may think that it’s too much time to spend on a tutorial, but it’s just a tiny glimpse as to what is to come in Endzone, and the fact that I wanted to complete the whole tutorial speaks volumes of my experience with the game.

You start with a bare bones settlement. Literally a RV/van in the middle of an open space. You’re reminded of what is most important for survival. First is water. You build a jetty on a nearby body of water and assign water gathers. Then you build a cistern to hold water. You must also assign people to be builders to gather the items required to build your structures such as wood, scrap metal etc. Eventually you’ll have water and resources coming in. Assign people to fish, hunt, farm, gather herbs and more. You’ll build and create places to refine materials to other resources, like electronics, cloth and plastic, each of which require people to work there. You’ll build homes for you community, large caps or homes for individual families (children only happen if you have some private family homes, for ‘privacy’). Farming requires you to monitor the land for moisture and radiation levels. You can remove radiation or irrigate if needed. You need to decide the best food to grow, weighing the seasons required to mature and the payout from the crops available to you at that time. Seasons may seem like a long amount of time to wait for thing in game, but you can speed time up and events will happen much quicker.

There are over 90 building types in the game for you to build if you have the right materials and knowledge. Knowledge comes from exploring and researching, another pretty big part of the game. You can’t create many power producing options without first figuring out how to build them. Expeditions are like doing side quests, as you don’t technically have to do them, but they open up new locations and give you access to additional and different resources. You can also explore the same location multiple times as there may have been loot left behind or seeds not collected. People you send on the expeditions have a variety of skills and sometimes they will find different things.

Managing expeditions and research on top of your increasing community takes time management skills. Once your community gets to a certain size they’ll also have requests. These are accessed once you build the Forum. You can also pass ordinances here, whether it be a short-term family planning ordinance to stop your population growing for three seasons and temporarily stop your population from growing too quickly. You can also choose what I consider extremely heartless ordinances for your town like exiling all of your elderly people. Everything you do has an effect on the game and how others perceive your leadership.

For the requests you receive from the townspeople, they are mostly simple asks. It could be for a different food type or more variety. Maybe they want coffee or beer, stew or cake. Maybe they want to increase their defences or branch out and discover new places. It’s up to you which community concerns you tackle. Each comes with costs and benefits. You can grow your basic settlement to a town and eventually a city over time if you have the patience and management skills.

Management Sims and RTS games ported to console from PC don’t always go well, but it seems like the Endzone developers have taken their time and made some adjustments so that it feels a bit smoother than others I have played. While still not the most precise in its movements using a controller, it’s not as clunky as many others. Even with some technical bumps, I really enjoyed my time in the post-apocalyptic world.

One thing I did find a bit annoying with Endzone was that buildings didn’t have a quick way of identifying them without directly interacting with them. In the beginning it wasn’t a big issue, but as I got up to over 1000 people living in my city, and with a fairly vast footprint, trying to quickly find the building I was looking for to upgrade or change its function became a bit more arduous process than it should have been. Another issue was that if your population declined, the game decided what jobs would be abandoned but didn’t tell you. So with the first and second issues combined, I found I had to constantly check buildings and personnel assigned when I noticed that I was becoming low on a particular building item. For example, at one point I was out of plastic for building, and then I found that of all my recycler buildings, the two with plastic being produced, had no staff. It was a bit frustrating and means you have to micromanage a bit more than I would have liked. It also doesn’t auto reassign people to jobs when the population rebounds.

On paper, Endzone: A World Apart may seem like any other management sim, but I thought it was well balanced. You can adjust all the difficulty options and slow/speed up time, so you shouldn’t really feel overwhelmed. With lots of scenarios to explore and overcome, as well as a massive survival mode, it kept me engaged for more hours than I intended to play it each time I sat down and picked up the controller. Even with the normal management sim ‘issues’ when using a controller, I really enjoyed my time with Endzone - A World Apart: Survivor Edition. It has a massive amount of content available and if you enjoy this type of city builder/management game, I encourage you to check it out.

*Endzone - A World Apart: Survivor Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Dandy and Randy DX

Dandy and Randy DX is a 2D top-down old school style game from Ratalaika Games. The two title characters are a couple of archaeologists who owe the bank a lot of money, and when they receive mysterious information about a fabled precious stone on the faraway Sunrise Islands, they jump at the chance to solve all their financial problems. The game is a cute 16-bit throwback that harkens old school gaming charm. Pixel art style and a familiar chiptune soundtrack hooked me from the moment I saw this pop up on the review list. Okay, if I’m being honest, an adorable character named Oinky really caught my attention in the trailers, but the retro stylized charm was also a factor.

As you start the game you can choose to play as either the pink duck (Dandy) or the blue rabbit (Randy). They have the same skills and stats so there is no benefit as to who you choose other than which cosmetic speaks to you more. There are also a couple of other characters you can play as once you unlock them. You initially are armed with only a shovel, which comes in handy for digging up cash beneath the islands surface but eventually you open a boomerang, hook shot, hammer and a few additional tools and skills which are opened by progressing the story. The boomerang allows you to hit otherwise inaccessible switches, attack enemies or gather unreachable loot, the hammer smashes impassable rocks and the hook shot allows you to travel across gaps like water or lava.

Each area of the island has a distinct visual look from deserts and frozen tundra, to mines and even a graveyard. Eventually you can free roam and explore but initially you have to open each area in order. At the end of each level there is a boss fight, each similar to one another but with their own distinct quirks for beating them. To get to each boss you must first find the 4 hidden keys in each level. The keys open the locked doors in each section. There is really no way to truly get lost in the game because you can’t clear a section without the key. However, I did find myself a bit lost at times, backtracking over areas I had already been in thinking I may have missed some hidden loot items. Bosses are never defeated using any of the skills you learn though, which I found interesting. Instead, you are dodging out of the way and attacking with either the hammer or more likely the ‘things’ that spring up from the ground in the boss areas to throw at them. These could be plants, or bombs for example.

Most areas are cleared through a variety of block pushing and light logic puzzles. None of them were really difficult and along with the option to turn on a mode with no deaths this game is suitable for a wide variety of ages and skill levels. There are no achievements that can’t be unlocked if you choose this mode either, which is a nice bonus for anyone looking for a quick runthrough to increase their gamerscore. The entire game can also be played in co-op mode. A few of the puzzles were slightly frustrating and relied heavily on super precise speed and movement through a timed area. Even once you get the ‘speedy’ shoes, I failed some of these multiple times as there wasn’t much room for error.

For the most part, Dandy and Randy DX is a fairly simple and straightforward game. With no checkpoints in the levels however, if you die you do go back to the start of the level you must complete any puzzles you already finished again, so it’s a good thing that the levels are fairly short. When you die you also lose half of your cash you’re carrying at the time. You can go back and reclaim your dropped cash at your death site though, and this is important for accumulating enough to visit the delightful Oinky’s shop and buying his overpriced health potions and other odds and ends.

A couple of the later game bosses gave me some problems mostly because they weren’t really telling me if I was doing any damage to them. Since I couldn’t tell if I was, I wasn’t sure if I understood how to beat them initially. It was a mild annoyance that didn’t really bother me to the point of quitting or dropping the difficulty, although it meant I died a few times and had to restart levels.

The story is told in a very tongue in cheek way and the writing is quite clever. There were even a few twists towards the end that I really didn’t see coming. A short run time of about three hours depending on your skill level, Dandy and Randy DX was quick and didn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a very low-cost game if you are into quick achievement hunting as well which is always a nice bonus.

*Dandy and Randy DX was provided by the publisher and reviewed on Series X*

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Kombinera

As a gamer of a certain age, Atari was my first console - the Atari 2600 to be exact. I remember playing many games like Space Invaders, Asteroid, Pac Man, and my personal favourite, Pitfall. When I saw Kombinera pop up on the review list and it had Atari as the publisher, it put a huge smile to the face of this ‘classic’ gamer. Kombinera, from developer Graphite Lab, is a classic and straight forward puzzle platformer, a genre that is quickly becoming a favourite of mine. Describing itself as a brain bending puzzle platformer, let’s see if it delivered.

There is a story with Kombinera, but since I’m still not exactly sure what that story is (something about a king has fallen and you need to lead him back to get his kingdom in order) we will just ignore that and treat it like the puzzle game it looks like on the surface. The story really has very little to do with the gameplay and is only shown through brief, cute cutscenes between levels.

As you begin Kombinera there is a large screen warning about the potential to cause seizures, etc. This was a full screen in large print and required you to press a button to pass it. As someone who experiences sensitivity and headaches at times from games that have flashing lights, I started hesitantly, changed settings that I could and adjusted lighting in my room as I normally do to buffer any of these affects. I am happy to report that I had no sensitivity issues with the game. From the beginning of Kombinera it was obvious why this warning was there though, flashing retro lighting that Atari is famous for, also with lots of quick movement and bright colours in the game could definitely be an issue and I was happy to see they had the warning and took it seriously.

In Kombinera you control multiple balls simultaneously, finding a way to make them merge together is how you compete the levels. Seems simple enough, however, there are several obstacles and hazards you must navigate to make this happen. Simultaneous movement isn’t as easy as it seems either. Trying to determine how to get two balls on opposite sides of a screen to come together when they both move in the same direction means using the environment to your advantage. Now add in additional balls, hazards, blocks, spikes, lasers and anti gravity - it can become a bit mind boggling.

The controls are very easy to use and remember. The last thing you want in a puzzle game is super complicated controls when you’re trying to bend your brain as well. Left and Right on the D-Pad to move the balls. The 'A' button for a small jump and 'B' for a larger jump. Nice and simple, except when you forget that you have two different types of jumps and consistently die over and over and can’t figure out what you’re doing wrong. Maybe that’s just me though.

There are also multiple colours of balls in the game, each with their own ability. Red can roll over spikes without dying, yellow can break the yellow bricks and walls, green is invincible to the lasers and the white ones need to be protected from everything and anything, like fragile eggs. As you combine the coloured balls, their powers will also combine. This means that a red and yellow ball can now break yellow bricks and also be immune to spikes. Thankfully it maintains both colours, like a yellow ball with red outer ring, instead of turning to orange, so you can still see at a glance what the abilities are. Each ball is introduced in its own level, one additional colour at a time, so that you’re not overwhelmed and get to learn their abilities. They then become incorporated into some of the future puzzles. Slowly increasing the difficulty of the game kept the levels from getting immediately overwhelming.

The slow build of complexity also gave a nice feeling of accomplishment. The levels were mostly small, and while some were very easy, others gave a huge feeling of satisfaction when you managed to finally make that finicky dash or jump and passed the level after dying many times. Anti gravity throws another dynamic at you with balls on the ceiling and floor moving together. If you jump with these above one another, they can combine mid air if close enough. You really need to think what you are doing. Along with the combining of balls to complete the levels, there are also crowns to collect in some of them. They provide an extra level of difficulty. In the upper left corner of the screen you can see the amount of time you spent in a level, along with the target time to beat. There are achievements tied to beating times and collecting crowns for those that want a true challenge.

There are 300 levels in Kombinera and an undisclosed number of secret levels. I couldn’t even guess an average time to complete the game, as this will vary depending on your skill level. Atari has a discord where you can find help from other players if you are stuck though. I was stuck quite a few times, stopped, walked away, and came back to just happen to complete it on my first try after restarting. That seems to be common with puzzle games for me. You get frustrated because you make mistakes and then make more mistakes because you’re frustrated. Walk away, take a breather and come back to it.

There is no way to skip levels, so be patient and enjoy the ride (even if that ride is 30 minutes on one level). While some people will enjoy the intense difficulty of the game, it can be incredibly frustrating to others, like myself. I would have appreciated a hint system or the ability to skip a level after failing a certain number of times. Let me skip that level and come back to it. I am currently stuck on a level and not sure if I will get past it anytime soon. I have been looking for hints but haven’t found something yet. This likely means I am making it overly complicated for myself, but that’s the way puzzle games are sometimes.

Kombinera is pure retro magic, undeniably Atari, and every bit feeling like the games of my ‘good old days’. Bright colours on black and white backgrounds, the classic retro music, I instantly felt like I was back playing the old school games of the 80's with my little brother. The difficulty was not consistent however, and at times really frustrating. The controls often felt too ‘floaty’ when they really needed crisp reaction to navigate some of the puzzle levels. I’ve often heard the term ‘rage platformer’ used for some old school games, and I think Kombinera could absolutely fit the bill. If you like puzzles and platformers, and don’t mind a bit of frustration while working towards your rewards, pick up this retro feeling gem.

**Kombinera was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Road 96

Very rarely will you see games be so obviously political as Road 96 is. Sure, games have had hints of political undertones, some more than others, but most often PR for games will be adamant that they are not being political. Road 96 is literally a game steeped in politics. Let’s get this out of the way; if you don’t want a game that makes you consider real life situations and politics, this isn’t the game for you.

A fascist dictator is in control of the fictional state of Petria and they are kidnapping dissenting teenagers and brainwashing them through torture. There is no way to sugar-coat this, that is the story. It’s not hidden in undertones or in lore read through the game, it’s fully 100% obvious that this is the story. Fun fact: advertisements for Road 96 were pulled and banned from Facebook because of their political content. Playing as one of such teenagers, your only option is to try to run away and try to escape by crossing the well guarded Northern border. You will meet many people along your journey and how you interact with them can mean they may help or hinder you in the future.

Originally released on PC and Switch last year, DigixArt’s Road 96 has finally made its way to consoles. It’s a game well worth playing through multiple times and seeing how different choices play out. It also seems quite relevant given the political climate we are in currently. It’s hard not to think about people fleeing their current countries and situations as you play through the game.

Road 96 takes place in the summer of 1996 and sees you playing as a runaway teen in the months leading up to an election. In each ‘act’ you play as a separate teen, starting from a variety of distances (up to 2000 miles away) from the border you are trying to cross. Road 96 said it was an ‘ever evolving story’ featuring ‘thousands of roads’. Although I’m not too sure of the accuracy of those claims, you will cover many miles over the full play through consisting of about six runs, and who and what you encounter along the play though will vary on which teens you play as. As you start each act you have a basic segmented health bar, and this is your life for each teen. Walking along the road will normally take 3 segments at a time, hitchhiking is normally 2, but if you take a cab, you can often rest and recover some health. Taking a cab however costs money, of which you have almost nothing at the start of each act, so you must earn or steal to get money, food etc.

On each stop along your road to the border you will meet one of the game’s seven characters. Each of them has their own stories, situations and problems that you will uncover through the multiple acts you play as the different teenagers. Stan and Mitch (considered one character as you never encounter them solo) are a couple of slapstick robbers trying to find out who is trying to kill character number two, TV host Sonya (also a mouthpiece and supporter for the current president). Third is Fanny, a cop struggling with her morals to keep her job while fourth, Big John “Papa Bear”, is a kindhearted trucker deeply conflicted over what he is doing. Fifth is Alex, the teenage, followed by Jarod the cab driver, and finally Zoe, another teenage runaway. Each of these characters have a series of stories that will piece themselves together as you wind through the main story. The small cast is endearing, and the voice acting is stellar.

Their unique quirks in their personalities and they way each talked made them more unique, and I connected with each of them in a very different way. This was something that isn’t common for me in a lot of games. Normally I am drawn to a few specific characters, but in Road 96, I connected with each and liked all of them (and disliked them at times too). Each person had their own faults, strengths and motives for doing things. Your perceptions changes through the game and how you first felt about one of them may not be the same at the end after you fill in their stories. I loved parts of the stories that you came across that connected two of the characters from other acts that you only saw parts of. It was a very ‘6 degrees of separation’ type of thing.

As you move through the game you can see the percentage of each of the characters stories at the bottom of the screen. As you move through the stories you'll also earn and open perks from them, each giving you one of the abilities as you open their stories. This could be lock picking, a government pass, the ability to hack, etc. While you can influence what characters you meet by picking a particular type of transportation, like the cab, it is mostly random. If you are missing parts of the story, replaying and choosing different decisions can help fill in those missing pieces. Once you get the perks/abilities, you keep them permanently, so once you hit the endgame you can continue on without losing them. Road 96 captures a real feeling of teenage rebellion and uncertainty. As each act is procedurally generated, you never truly know what is behind each corner, each stop, even if you’ve played it once or twice before already. Will you end up sitting at a campfire talking about the future? Or possibly in a cab where the driver clearly has someone in the trunk?

What you see and do from character to character can vary. You may be having a simple conversation or shooting down road pirates from the back of a semi truck and using a nail gun. You may even be helping someone get intel to help (or hinder) the election or searching a motel for terrorists. Your outcome will vary depending on choices to a certain extent. For example, do you turn the terrorist in to the cop, or lie and help them escape? Both have consequences so I won’t dive too much into the stories as to avoid spoilers.

Taking place in the 90’s, the game truly captures that feeling with its colorful animation and exaggerated character models. The ever-changing locales really give the feeling of an actual road trip, the natural beauty is captured in a manner similar to the game Firewatch, and although not realistic, is reminiscent of retro National parks advertising and postcards. The original soundtrack is simply spectacular. It features The Toxic Avenger, Cocoon, Robert Parker, Daniel Gadd, Volkor X, Kalax, Alexis Laugier and S U R V I V E, and also includes bonus tracks by composer E-Boyz and Xilix. If Road 96 doesn’t win at least one award for their original soundtrack it will be a huge shame and I will be disappointed. This music is pure 90's in the feel and vibe. If I didn’t know it was an original soundtrack, I would have sworn I listened to it cruising around the city back in the 90s. Speaking of music, there are cassette tapes you collect through the game. Make sure you grab them all for the achievement.

While it’s clear where Road 96 stands on the political spectrum - you are literally playing as teens trying to escape the ‘bad’ government - you choose 3 basic stances in the game. For the current president, against them (and supporting voting), or stay independent and not caring what happens since you are planning to leave anyway. I mostly stuck to one side but did flip flop and tried to follow what my conscious really told me to.

Interweaving themes of political turmoil, family and freedom, along with capturing the romanticism and freewheeling chaos of the road trip isn’t something easy to do, and DigixArt has managed to do all of that and more. While each character you meet isn’t with you for long, they leave a definite impact. Road 96 has fantastic pacing, creating lulls of relaxation and moments of heart racing and adrenaline pumping panic. My only wish is that I had more time with the game. When it reached the end I still wanted more.

The team of around 15 developers created a 15-20 hour game that is heavily influenced by the works of Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and Bong Joon-Ho and inspired by many stories, including The Goonies. Although unlikely, I would very much like some extra content featuring the loveable bumbling team of Stan and Mitch. While the game fell a bit short of it’s promises of your outcomes drastically being different because of your choices, it really doesn’t matter. You could strip away all the decision making, and you’d still have a gripping and intense story that you struggle to put down.

**Road 96 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.9 / 10 Weird West

If you were to ask me to list some of my favourite games, you’d see a wide variety of genres and styles. My primary love is large open world games with great characters and stories. Something I can get caught up and lost in for hours. I also love short indie games, of course, but something about being part of a giant story experience will always draw me in. Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Supernatural, Western, Medieval, Guns, Bows, Magic - I love all of it. When I was presented with the opportunity to tackle Weird West, a game that brings together the supernatural and western genres, and has Devolver Digital as its publisher, of course I jumped at it. That’s three stars for me right there. This review took me far longer than anything I’ve written before. Not because I didn’t like it, but I have developed such a complex relationship with this game that I’m not sure how to put it all into words. Did I love it? No. Did I hate it? Also no. It took over a lot of my thoughts like a strange dream that I just couldn’t put into words after waking up.

Weird West is developer WolfEye Studios' first game, and as such I always look for something that gives me an indication of what the studio's identity is, what makes them stand out in the sea of content out there. I always love covering first games from studios, getting in on the bottom floor and ready to see what they have been working hard on. These first games are often passion projects, games that have been worked on and tweaked so many times, just waiting for their big entry into the world. I already have a soft spot for Devolver Digital games, so I had an idea of what I was getting into and with the two former Arkane Studios veterans that started WolfEye Studios, there is a lot of knowledge behind this new studio already.

Weird West is a single player dark reimagining of the Wild West genre. Gunslingers are just one part of the population in this world that also includes werewolves, witches, pigmen, cultists, ghosts and other supernatural/wild creatures ripped from fables and nightmares. Your job is to survive and discover the mysteries through the intertwining stories of five separate and unusual heroes. It is described as an immersive sim by WolfEye Studios.

The Old West has always been a bit weird though, hasn’t it? Heroes, villains, murder, mayhem and robberies. Stories of heroism and nihilism. All mixed in with both isolation and friendship. Like two opposing sides where the ‘good guy’ isn’t always as simple as looking for the ’white hat’ like the movies would lead you to believe it is. This is what makes Weird West really stand out in my opinion, the choices they made with the story telling. You are basically body swapping throughout the duration of the game. You’re faced with playing five separate, but connected, stories of unlikely heroes. Each with their own timeline, destination, destiny and outcome. Each character has their own unique skills, abilities and strengths. Sadly, I was never able to really maximize the characters before the story ended and was moved onto the next one.

Starting as a bounty hunter, Jane Bell, I was trying to locate my missing husband. At the end of her arc, I became Cl'erns Qui'g, recently transformed into a Pigman and started his own story. He doesn’t remember who is or how he got there. Next is Across Rivers, a member of the Lost Fire Nation. This character is based on the real-life Anishinaabe Indigenous people and was written by Elizabeth LaPensée (of Anishinaabe descent). Fourth is the story of Desidério Ríos, sharp-shooting werewolf prophesied to lead his people against a greed demon, and finally you play as a witch initiate who is there to stitch together the stories of the previous four. I liked the idea of seeing the world through the eyes of the different characters and their unique perspectives. I think this can speak to the real-world idea of never knowing what someone else’s experiences are and that we should never really assume we know someone’s story.

As you play the subsequent characters, you can meet your previous incarnations and ask them to join you. Depending on your moral standing in the game, they may or may not join you. They all seem to already ‘know’ you, although this isn’t really fully explored. Having them join you for missions is a good idea as they are often higher skilled than your default beginner partners for each story. Another benefit to having the previous played characters join you is that you will have access to your previous inventory as well. This is a huge benefit. Since your companions are essentially glorified pack mules, I would have like to have seen an easier way to navigate inventories implemented in the game. It was a bit cumbersome.

Quests alternate between mundane and outlandish. You could be pressuring a barkeep for intel about a roving gang, the next mission might have you tracking down mystical ingredients. Sometimes they are fetch quests, others are search and destroy. All the normal quests you’d find in an RPG style game. You choose how you play your story lines to a certain degree as well, run and gun or stealth for example. You can pick the skills and abilities you open and level up with each character. Some of the characters are a bit more defined and streamlined than others though. The Pigman is clearly built to be a brawler and the cultist is based in the magic realm for example.

Traveling through towns and across the map, you’ll encounter all sorts of natural and supernatural things that you must navigate to complete your missions. I use navigate versus beat or destroy because sometimes it’s easier to make deals with them, to barter or talk your way out of a situation rather than fight your way out. This is a strategic choice, especially if you are under skilled or don’t have much ammo (a common thing I found). Townsfolk you encounter are just as likely to be dealing and trading in magical items and spells as they are more traditional western fare like skins or ore. Magic is an everyday occurrence, and the lawmen in town can sling lightning and fireballs as well as bullets.

The map/landscape in Weird West is vast and varied. There are plains, mountains, rivers and even caves and mines to delve into. You can also discover entire ghost towns to explore, looting and maybe even helping spirits with missions. Moving around the world can be done in primarily two ways, by foot or by horse. Horses are expensive so you might spend a lot of time on foot. Unless, of course, you want to steal a horse and risk going to jail (which I did on a few occasions). The biggest issue with a stolen horse is that they won’t stay with you once you steal them. At the first stop you make the horse will run away, leaving you stranded and travelling on foot again. There is no fast travel in the game, you simply pick where you want to go, and your loading screen will take you to that point. Most often you will be stopped before you get to your destination by an in-world event. This might be something harmless like a travelling group that has wares for sale, or something more nefarious like a wolf pack or bandits. Save often while travelling in the world, especially at the beginning. You will die and respawn at your last save point. This could be quite a distance away and may also mean you have to craft and loot things you’ve done since your last save as well.

Maps are strewn with exploding barrels of TNT or oil cans lit on fire, poisonous clouds and toxic puddles; besides the people, creatures and animals you encounter. The ways you kill and die have many variations. One of my favourites was when I encountered a group in a room sleeping. I snuck in, piled up a stack of dynamite and lit it. I honestly wasn’t expecting the result I got. The explosion was spectacular. The environment is also an active part of the gameplay. The wind will direct flames, so you can create a path to set up explosions for example. You can use strategically placed oil or TNT in the same way to create chain reactions. You can even light tornadoes on fire. Water will conduct electricity but also put out fuses. This was a fun dynamic to play with. Trying to create different traps. The day/night cycle also plays into the story. Certain things, like shops, are only available during the day. But robbing banks is best done at night. Some missions are dependant on the day/night cycle too.

The actions you take throughout your stories can also affect the world you encounter as your next version of yourself. If you killed a certain gang as Jane, for instance, they won’t be around to bother another character. If you cleared out an entire town of locals, you may find that it’s been infested by something supernatural the next time you see it. Actions have consequences, and this also increases the replayability of the game. The towns are also ‘living’, things change from day to day. If you kill people and then return the following day, you may see new graves in the graveyard. Maybe it’s silly and of no real consequence, but it was an interesting feature. I did often bury people myself, for fear that the Weird West would have some of them come back as zombies, but that didn’t happen during any of my time in the game. You will also meet strangers through your travels that will become ‘friends for life’ if you help them and they will randomly spawn when you are in a firefight to help you out. On the opposing side of the friends for life, are the characters that promise to hold a grudge or vendetta towards you that you will eventually need to deal with.

The main story wraps up in an interesting way that takes your big life and death choices you’ve made, and whether you were mostly good or not, and puts you into a high stakes event rather than an end game big boss battle.

Weird West had lots of potential; however, it just wasn’t well executed for me. The top-down game play really wasn’t the best form for seeing and utilizing what could have been a more interactive and immersive experience in the world. Imagining seeing the fighting and explosions through a third person perspective would have been preferable for me. Also, as much as the game allowed you to play stealthy, the gun play was often more satisfying. Sadly, the gunplay was 50% circle strafing and 50% just randomly shooting hoping to set something on fire or set off an explosion. I never really got the hang of the dual stick shooting. I also fully admit that it’s probably more of a personal issue in this instance. I don’t play a lot of twin stick shooters, nor am I truly a fan of top-down games. The game was infinitely more fun for me when I was randomly hurling things around or using a variety of melee weapons.

The writing was mostly well done and I really enjoyed the characters I controlled. I also had some really memorable interactions with NPCs, a lot of which have their own stories should you choose to investigate. It’s a shame that there is no voice overs, but also understandable with a game that seems to want to have the feeling of a silent film or graphic novel. The only voice you hear through the game is a narrator that was (in my opinion) clearly designed to remind you of Sam Elliott, one of the most iconic ‘cowboy voices’ of our time.

I did find some amusing bugs during my playthrough like missing weapons in hands and floating NPCs, but the best one I encountered was after spending the night in jail, I simply floated out of my cell and up into the sky. Maybe it was the rapture? Most of the bugs and glitches I encountered didn’t take away from the gameplay as most games will have some silly small things like this. If nothing else, it made Weird West even weirder.

If you push through the game in a linear fashion, you can complete it in about 15-20 hours I’d guess. I took somewhere in the realm of around 40 hours for my first run. I spent a lot of time wandering and exploring. The second run will likely take longer as I explore a lot of possibilities I thought of after I finished a character’s story arc. At the end of each story you get a synopsis of what your decisions were and what each character achieved or accomplished. This gave me a desire to go through and see what else there was to uncover. In the first few hours of my second run, I had already encountered many things I didn’t see the first time, including a super creepy talking doll who asked for help (No thank you!). I have also been trying to use more of the characters abilities as some of these lead to pretty hysterical outcomes as well.

Now, back at the beginning of this review, what probably seems like five lifetimes ago now, I mentioned my complicated feelings about Weird West. Here’s the condensed version. It took me a LONG time to even be slightly comfortable with the gameplay. I still don’t like the top-down style and I never really got the hang of the twin stick shooting. That being said, the writing, the characters and the story kept pulling me back in. As I played through Weird West (and wrote this review) I talked to many people, none more than one person in particular who often laughed and sent memes about how much I hated the game but kept going back to it. I will confess, I wasn’t a fan at the beginning, but now I’m deep in the midst of a second playthrough because I want more. That, to me, is what any game wants for its audience. Something that resonates with them, something they want to talk about and share. Weird West was never really weird enough in the supernatural sense, but compelling enough for me to get past the unremarkable loot and lackluster weapons, just to dive deeper into the stories of five unlikely heroes of their own wild west stories.

**Weird West was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Imp of the Sun

If you know me in real life, through social media or here, you’ll know I’m a fan of an underdog story, a champion of the scrappy indie game that rarely gets credit amid all the big flashy titles, a lover of cute and adorable animation and a massive fan of music - especially beautiful game soundtracks. Often compared to the likes of Ori and the Blind Forest, this debut game from Peruvian developers Sunwolf Entertainment, Imp of the Sun, checks off all of those boxes for me. Taking its inspiration from Inca culture, the beautiful imagery and soundtrack transports you through time.

In Imp of the Sun, you play as an adorable little imp named Nin, created from the last of the Sun's power. With Earth being plunged into an eternal eclipse, you must find a way to bring the sun's power back. This involves defeating the four keepers that have stolen that power. The last two humans, a young girl named Suyana and her grandmother, offer tips on your adventure.

2D platformers have been and will always be a popular choice for indie developers, and Imp of the Sun falls within this genre. Being a popular genre means that a lot of games will be released in this category, and you have a work a bit harder to get noticed. Its gameplay mechanics are typical of a 2D platformer, you start the game with a basic jump, then acquire a double jump, dash and a wall jump. Using a combination of your moves you will make your way forward to the Keeper of each of the four realms of the map, jumping over gaps and avoiding obstacles. You will upgrade skills to include more powerful attacks, higher jumps, speed boosts and even the ability to light fires. Your stamina bar known as your “inner fire” gets replenished with fire orbs from defeating enemies or by being near a fire, so having the ability to light your own fires in certain places helps maintain your Inner Fire. Fans of the genre won’t find anything exceptional or new here but there is something about the familiarity of moves that helps this genre stay the course and remain popular.

When I first saw the trailers for Imp of the Sun, I was intrigued by the Inca influence and the adorable art style. Of all the games I’ve played through the years, I don’t know of one that used Peruvian story telling. The dialogue in game is provided entirely through text, although the characters make sounds as their speech text appears on screen. I knew it was an action platformer and wasn’t expecting anything super original. I liked the exploration and collecting components, but I loved the puzzle solving. Most puzzles involved finding your path through various parts of the world, using your skills to break through walls and finding switches and levers.

Combat was also typical of 2D platformers, attack, jump, dodge etc. The boss fights, although few, were enjoyable and well designed. Tough enough to have me die a few times before noticing the pattern of movement or what I needed to accomplish and were enjoyable along with the mild challenge. I found Imp of the Sun to have a good balance of not being too easy, but not becoming incredibly frustrating either. The main issue I had with the combat was that it was often imprecise. This meant there were times when you would get hit from an enemy when you shouldn’t have been, or you’d miss a hit on an enemy when it should have connected. This was frustrating at times, especially if it caused you to fail a boss battle. If you die, you’ll respawn at your nearest checkpoint. luckily these were frequent throughout the map and often just before boss fights as well. This meant you didn’t have to go far to get back to the fight should you die. I died a fair amount in the game, and after multiple attempts at a boss, I would often wander off in search of new skills or upgrades and then fast travel back. Most platforming sections weren’t too difficult, even with my ‘older gamer’ reflexes. With the exception of an area near the end that took me much longer to navigate than I care to admit.

With four sections of the map, you can explore any area at any time. This was a relief as I got stuck on one of the Keepers and had to move on to avoid pulling my hair out. Once you learn all of Nin’s skills you’ll likely have to go back to each section anyway if you want to collect the artifacts and trinkets strewn about. Your skill level and the desire to collect all of these things will determine the length of time you take to complete Imp of the Sun. If you are particularly skilled at these types of games and not into collecting, you will likely breeze through in an estimated 4 to 5 hours or so. Or you can take your time and sink more hours into it. The short competition time is not a terrible thing, I think the game paces itself very well and doesn’t give you too much filler to artificially inflate the game.

I briefly talked about the text and sounds used for speech, but I would also like to touch on the music. One of the things I love the most about indie games is that they always seem to put a lot of care into their music selections. Some of the best soundtracks come from these small games. The level of detail is never lost on me, and if you’ve read many of my reviews of these hidden gems you’ll see I often spend time talking about that. Very frequently, I’ll track down these soundtracks and add them to my playlists to listen to as I write. Imp of the Sun is no exception to this. Its soundtrack is playing right now in fact. The melodies flow freely and easily. Pan flutes (a staple of the culture represented) are forefront, and each map section or area has variations that help lend a special atmosphere component to the game. The soundtrack features 17 tracks utilising Andean and Peruvian instruments. Some of these instruments are over 6000 years old and have never been heard in modern recordings until now. You can purchase the soundtrack on Steam, but as of the time of writing you can listen to it in its entirety on the developers website. A massive thank you to the Peruvian composer, Jose Varon, for your beautiful music.

As for your enjoyment of Imp of the Sun, it will depend on a multitude of factors. If you are a fan of 2D platformers and/or are interested in the Inca inspiration, you’ll likely enjoy the game. If you’re looking for something completely new, a strong challenge or a lot of history/story, then this likely isn’t a game for you. Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with Imp of the Sun very much and I look forward to what Sunwolf Entertainment produces next.

**Imp of the Sun was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Curious Expedition 2

Curious Expedition 2 starts with you sailing the seas, looking for something - Fame? Fortune? In the distance you spot land, an island that you hope will provide you and your crew some safety from the storm you are about to face. Shortly after you dock and start to take a few steps to explore, you are met by locals who take you back to their settlement. You use this opportunity to start building a good relationship with them, and when you leave you have one of their tribe along with you to help you in your expedition.

The world has a hand drawn story book style that pairs well with the roguelike structure. The charm of the graphic choice, along with the narrative driven exploration finds a good balance for the gameplay. I didn’t play the original so I was concerned that I would be at a slight loss of how to approach this sequel of the 2016 original game, however I found myself feeling quite familiar with the controls in the game quickly. That being said, there is a lot thrown at you at the beginning, so I would recommend that you play the tutorial. It gives some good advice and guidelines to help aid you in your experience.

Assuming you follow the story, you’ll find an unusual monument. Despite the warnings the islander gives you, you decide to mess with it, and it has a disastrous consequence of triggering an event that wipes the island off the map. Since this is one of the first things you can do in the game, I was really confused as to where the story was going as I destroyed a massive section of the map. In true video game fashion though, you manage to outrun the disaster and escape on your ship. Congratulations, you’ve basically finished the tutorial section of the game. Now you’re tossed into the main game of Curious Expedition 2, alone and without any real guidance.

At this point you can assemble your own crew, recruiting and rebalancing as you earn the ability to. Your choices of crew can span from hunter, chef, sailor, soldier, shaman, to dog, donkey, and even a dinosaur? Characters will have different skills and abilities so choose wisely. The longer they are with you the more you can upgrade them as well. Each will also have their own strengths and fears. I didn’t think about this too much until I had one crew member threaten to leave because he had a fear of heights, and we were of course traversing mountain terrain. He was able to be bribed with additional loot though.

You have to weigh your crew perks with each expedition. Sometimes it really pays to have a chef to cook meat you get from killing animals, or a local shaman who will give boosts when consuming local plants and animals. When preparing for an expedition you can also choose to align with clubs to assist you. These are basically the guilds you can align with. As you earn XP for the guild you choose, you can open rewards from them. Each expedition allows you to pick what club you want to align with, each having different pros and cons to them as well, so you can earn XP in multiple clubs. You also don’t have to pick one and stay with it. Mixing and matching your crew and your clubs mean that there are a lot of options as to how you approach your expeditions. Despite the cartoon aesthetic and simple UI, there was a lot to uncover in Curious Expedition 2.

Planning your crews’ movements is a functioning economy, balancing your sanity, supplies and water. You need to determine what sacrifices you may have to make if you want to explore that distant temple. I found the system a bit complicated at first, and unbalanced, but eventually become more comfortable navigating it, becoming more confident in my long movements and locating and using villages and oasis for rest and respite. As to explore the islands you will find many obstacles that impede your progress, from mosquitos, elephants, poisonous plants and even a tribe of lizard men. There are many dangers out there. Along with having to manage your crew and supplies, there is also a bit of ‘karma’ to the game. You have a reputation. As you do things, like help tribes, you can increase your good reputation. This will earn you greater discounts and additional perks and bonuses while trading or bartering for example. The worse your reputation is, the harder things will be for you in most situations.

You need to manage and use your supplies accordingly. When exploring, travelling uses up your sanity, needing a certain amount to start each move on the map. This is functionally your stamina. I shouldn’t really need to explain what happens when you run out of sanity, but I’ll just say some bad things happen. In order to manage your sanity levels, you want to move across the island in as few moves as possible. Of course, you can increase your sanity when having additional supplies like whisky and chocolate (I feel like this spoke to me on a personal level).

My biggest issue with Curious Expedition 2 was the combat. I’m already not a huge fan of turn-based combat but can easily manage a game if the combat is intuitive. Here though it felt unnecessarily complicated. You have a roll dice during your turn to determine what moves you can make. This meant that sometimes you’d only have 1 or 2 options to attack, you may have only healing or defence options, or even some blank dice. This mechanic felt like it added a layer that did nothing to add to the game, only managing to slow it down. Despite this, I enjoyed the expeditions enough, and was pretty invested in my characters who all developed their own relationships and traits in game as well. Two fell in love, a few robbed me and ran away, some went ‘missing’ around the same time others were miraculously no longer hungry – this happened to both human and animal companions. Some simply wandered off and died. When I failed missions, I’d think about what I could have done differently and try again, either with a different crew or just with a different strategy in mind. There were so many ways to play. Your dice rolls also come into play during certain dialogue sequences and events where you must roll a particular combination to be successful. This could be something like persuasive language or bartering. With the game being mostly open but still quite structured, I would have liked to see an optional sandbox mode for the game.

One thing I would like to mention is the portrayal of Indigenous cultures in the game. There has been some talk about how they are portrayed, which is fairly stereotypical in my opinion. You can choose to help or take advantage of them. You can loot their temples and shrines, or simply explore and leave them be. It’s true that colonization and exploration have historically been truly horrific towards Indigenous cultures, but I don’t think this game takes liberties and makes any of them behave in a way that is played for laughs. It is fictional, a game, and I didn’t see anything blatantly abhorrent or celebratory in actions taken here.

There is no doubt in my mind that Curious Expedition 2 plays to the romanticized and nostalgic notion of early travel and exploration, the one we read about in books or see played out on screens. You travel and discover exotic locales, find treasure and choose whether to rob ancient temples. What it doesn’t do is sugar coat everything as movies tend to. People die. You may barter away or eat your dog companion. Your crew may kill one another (and possibly eat them). You may get robbed. You may die alone in the wilderness. Happy endings are actually really hard to come by.

Curious Expedition 2 has a really great ‘choose your own adventure’ vibe to it. Although not a fan or the combat in the game, it intrigued me enough to keep playing for many hours and I can see myself going back to play more of it in the near future.

**Curious Expedition 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.6 / 10 Last Cube, The

There is something to be said for games that don’t take themselves too seriously. Games that don’t pretend to be some obscure and profound piece of artwork just to distract you from the lack of substance or content you’re about to consume. Sadly, a lot of games fall into the trap of trying to elevate themselves to something more than they are, to put on a pretense that they are more than the simple sum of their parts. If you think that sounds like I’m about to criticize The Last Cube by Improx Games, you’d be wrong - it’s entirely the opposite.

There is a story set up for you, sort of. You are the last of your kind, the last cube from your cube home world, and there are optional tidbits of lore (collectible baby cubes) to pick up through the game. You are searching for others, or wandering to see if any others find you? Something to that affect. I wasn’t really able to piece together the whole plot and narrative, but that’s not why I was interested in the game. I was all in on the idea of a fantastic looking indie puzzle game. You are playing as the titular cube, solo maneuvering through multiple levels trying to get from A to B using a variety of skills learned in each level. Master the skill over 3 stages to each level, move on, learn a new skill and combine it with those previous learned. Repeat.

The Last Cube is a game that a lot of people would be quick to overlook. Some will see its reliance on simple geometry and basic mechanics as a game lacking in substance. Its screen shots don’t so the game any justice either. The levels are colourful and vibrant but desolate. The gameplay is simplistic in design but can become quite complex in its application. You are a cube, a 6-sided 3D object moving around in a 2D space. You roll like a die to get from A to B. Easy.

I recommend using the D-Pad for movement in the game, as often the thumb sticks sensitivity worked against me. Now we start introducing skills via ‘stickers’. As you tumble over these stamp/sticker spots on the ground, the symbol stamps to the side of your cube that is facing it. Sometimes this is on the ground, sometimes it’s attached to a wall, or maybe even another tumbling cube. There are 6 different stickers that each grant you a separate ability. Each one of these skills can only be activated when they are on the top facing side of the cube. It is also important to note that each level is designed so that you are never able to get stuck. There is always a solution to where you are and a way to backtrack. There is no way for you to hit a dead end with no way to correct an error and having to restart the level. There are, however, wrong moves that can set you back in your progress of getting to the exit teleporter at the end of the level.

To begin, things are straightforward. You start with a sticker denoted as a blue ‘X’. This skill allows you to rotate your cube while in place vs tumbling. Not a particularly useful skill on its own, but invaluable later on in the game. As you unlock more skills you start to use them in combination and it makes more sense. The simple puzzles become more complex and really start to test you. It’s not about what sticker you need to pick up, but also what side does it need to be on. Some of the later puzzles will have moments where you need to flip the cube quickly between 2 sides to open things. There is a yellow plus sign that allows you to boost 4 squares in a single direction, a red circle that allows you to drop to lower platforms using a staircase like mechanism, a purple sticker allows you to teleport small distances, etc.

My favourite skill was the orange sticker. It allowed you to move diagonally across 2 corners of areas that weren’t attached. It wasn’t the skill I was in love with, but the fact that your cube tilted up onto one of its corners and wobbled like walking on tippy toes. It was adorable. Your job is to use the skills available to you to activate switches, redirect lasers, make use of other tumbling cubes in the area (by transferring stamps to their sides), or your own cloning skill to solve the puzzles. You also need to contend with hazards in the levels, as certain squares on the map will erase the stickers you have on your cube. Water zones wash away a single side facing down and laser squares delete your entire cube. You also need to plan your way around their areas as parts of the puzzle. How will you get the sticker you need to the other side of the trap?

The Last Cube really tested my brain during later levels. None of the puzzles felt cheap or unfair and I had many ‘ah ha’ moments in the game when I finally figured out what I needed to do after being stumped. I found The Last Cube to have a fairly consistent rewarding gameplay experience.

For a simple puzzle style game, the campaign was fairly lengthy and there are over 100 puzzles in the game to solve throughout the multiple levels. You can also open bonus levels if you collect enough of the lore cubes throughout the game. Each level is also given some replayability as once you complete it, you open a challenge that encourages you to play again. This could be something like a time challenge or finding a way to complete the level only using a certain number of moves.

Despite being a very minimalistic game visually, I found The Last Cube to feel full and dynamic. Using various colours for each level, corresponding to the sticker colour you are learning to use, helped fuel the feeling of progression as well. I love puzzle games and have played so many as to think I’d seen every mechanic possible until I met The Last Cube. I didn’t anticipate enjoying it as much as I did. It was well paced, had good layers of complexity and a sense of accomplishment tied to it. It was colourful and although didn’t really have much of a story, I developed a sort of attachment to my little cube, wandering through the universe alone. Since completing the main campaign I’ve thought about the little baby lore cubes I’ve left behind in levels and I can see myself going back to collect them to unlock further bonus levels as well.

**The Last Cube was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.4 / 10 Summertime Madness

The name Summertime Madness evokes, instantly, the thought of something that would feel like a musical number out of the movie Grease. Young friends and couples dancing away with no cares in the world. Despite the few screenshots filled with happy pastel-coloured scenes of flowers and trees, the game Summertime Madness was anything but light and carefree. The game involves World War II, a deal made with the Devil, a group of obscure almost unsolvable puzzles based on surrealism and a really odd and bizarre post credit message that has left me wondering how to capture my feelings about this indie game.

Summertime Madness is a single-player first-person puzzle game. It starts off with a fully voiced intro cutscene giving you the plot that is extremely well done. The opening of the game says ‘Prague, 1945’, giving an immediate indication that we are in for something darker than first thought. We see an artist painting beautiful landscapes, likely trying to escape the dismal conditions around him. Suddenly a man in top hat, complete with ‘bad guy’ moustache appears and offers a deal to the artist. He can go spend time inside his paintings (and be far away from the War) as long as he can find an exit before midnight. Failure to do so means he would be stuck there forever. Seeing what he has painted, versus what would have been happening, I’m not sure I would have wanted to leave the idyllic landscapes, but he makes the deal and is launched into the first painting. After the initial scene with the painter and the ‘Devil’, you’re given an option as to how you want to play, either with a 3 or 6-hour time limit to challenge you, or with no time limit. Your eyes open and you are now the Artist. For a puzzle game there is a lot of walking. I am guessing this is because it’s meant to be a peaceful experience. But if that’s the case, why give players a time limit?

Summertime Madness is a game full of puzzles, labyrinths and mazes that is overly complicated and has no real direction. You can see glimpses inside the artists mind, but they never really become anything other than more confusion in my view. The puzzles involved a lot of running back and forth, levers, switches and backtracking. They didn’t feel like they were well thought out or organized though. There are moments of genius, but they get bogged down in the overly complicated puzzles. Clearly this wasn’t just an issue I had, based on the number of ‘Thank yous’ on multiple YouTube videos showing solutions.

One maze/puzzle puts you in an abandoned city where you need to pass through three gates to get to a staircase to the top of the world. Simple enough. But in order to get to the staircase you need to pass tough a series of doors. In order to get through the doors to have to find and switch levers throughout the city. As you pull a lever, one door opens, the other closes. Trying to decipher which opened and closed isn’t an easy task as it’s not really easy to see where they are located in comparison to you or the lever you pulled. Besides that, there are some that can only be opened or closed after you’ve flipped an hourglass to switch from day to night or vice versa. I spent close to an hour trying to figure that one out and had to restart. Again, thank you YouTube.

Between the mazes and puzzles, there are also collectibles tied to achievements, butterflies, fireflies, musical instruments and even graffiti saying ‘Emilia’ (more on that later).

Ultimately, I found Summertime Madness tiring. It favoured style over substance and lacked a really clear story, at least one that I could follow. It had moments of beauty and some of the puzzles were smart. The feeling of the art gallery could have been meaningful but I got lost the more I twisted and turned trying to decipher what to do next. Instead of challenging, they felt exhausting. Most puzzles or mazes were overly long and complicated, and some of the collectibles I never would have found without help. Back away from the statue until it’s barely visible, then turn 180 degrees and walk towards the faint light until you see a door. Go through the door to find what you’re looking for. What?! How are you ever going to just find that?

The base of a good game is there but it was ruined by the puzzles that were poorly delivered. I really liked the premise of the game, just not the execution.

Now back to ‘Emilia’ referenced earlier and although I had already formed an opinion of this game and I have reviewed it based on my feelings about the actual game and gameplay, there is a post credit image that soured anything good I felt about Summertime Madness.

“Oh Fellow Adventurer
You have been brave enough to find out all of those “Emilia” secrets hidden on the island, congratulations!
Since You proved to be so fearless and passionate, I guess you’d like to join me in this last super difficult achievement:
Help me meet Emilia Clarke.
So, yeah...this whole game was just a smokescreen, now this is the real mission!”

It goes on. Even jokingly offering cookies for anyone’s help to meet her. This immediately didn’t feel right to me. As a woman, as a human being, and as a fan of Emilia Clarke myself. This was just not a good feeling. It didn’t sit right, and it still doesn’t sit right even weeks after playing the game. Part of me thought I was overreacting, so I posted the image from the credits, with no comment as to the game it was from, simply asking opinions on how they would feel about it. A few commented that it was funny, that he was taking a shot a meeting her. One said exactly what I was thinking, that it could have been worded differently to not come across so much like a stalker. They could have said, I’m a huge fan of Emilia Clarke and she’s been an inspiration for me... I’d love her to see this, etc. Still creepy, but less so. One said Emilia Clarke should be made aware so she can have the dev investigated. An outstanding majority agreed it felt slimy and creepy and had no place in a game.

Women are too often harassed and objectified in the gaming industry. We’re often not taken seriously in playing, competing, reviewing or writing about video games. We’re considered too emotional, not able to be objective or have the experience of being a ‘real gamer’. I’ve been gaming for over 40 years (most of my life) and been involved in many aspects of the industry for many years. This review took me a long time to write because I wasn’t sure how to express my feelings on the game and the Emilia situation without making it seem like one clouded the other.

Honestly, people may read this and think I’ve overreacted, and that’s okay. I stand by my review as being fair and critical of Summertime Madness based on notes I made while playing, not that I need to justify myself. It was important for me to acknowledge the creepy feeling this game has left with me and I’ve been really disappointed to not see any others talking about it at all. But considering I haven’t seen many reviews for the game, and most were by males, I’m not entirely surprised I would see things differently.

**Summertime Madness was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 Dying Light 2

Dying Light 2: Stay Human is finally here. I was a massive fan of the original Dying Light game back in 2015, and it’s massive DLC post launch, ‘The Following,’ in 2016. I probably have close to 200 hours in the original Dying Light over the years. Techland continued to add content since the launch and even in the days prior to Dying Light 2’s release.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a lot of concerns after the many delays of Dying Light 2 since it’s initial reveal at E3 2018. As more delays happened, my excitement for the game started to diminish. Between its reveal and launch there were many other high-profile games that launched with the same hype I felt for Dying Light 2, and one in particular did not remotely live up to the excitement I had for it. I don’t need to mention it by name, but any gamer knows the game I mean. Seeing that launch and the fallout afterwards really made me check my expectations for Dying Light 2. I was patient, there was a worldwide pandemic and delays were to be expected. What I had hoped was that the delays would also mean that Techland would take the opportunity to polish and refine the game as to not have a similar launch experience as the other game, which was also in production for about the same amount of time, and give us fans the game we were all hoping for.

So here we are... finally!

Dying Light 2 takes place in 2036, 22 years after the events in the first game, and 15 years after the Fall (a catastrophic event in December 2021 where a new mutant strain of the Harran virus is spreading across the world). This is a new Dark Ages for the world. I can’t help but make a comment based on the fact that the world is currently living in a pandemic in real life so some of the story felt real enough to send shivers down my spine. Do I think we’re about to be living in a world of real-life zombies? Of course not. But strains of virus changing people and the way we live? Definitely.

You are playing as Aiden Caldwell, an infected survivor looking for a cure. Aiden arrives in the city of Villedor searching for his missing Sister, Mia. He’s a Pilgrim, a messenger of sorts who travels between the few remaining cities, delivering goods and messages. Because he’s an outsider, Aiden must gain the trust of the people he encounters in Villedor. This is a lot of your side quests in the game. Doing tasks for people so that they believe you are on their side. I say believe, because even while doing some of the tasks you will get an option to go against your original plan if another offer seems better for you.

Each person you meet, each choice you make, can potentially change your story and your outcomes in the game to an extent. You are haunted by memories you can’t decipher and trying to find answers about your past. Since the timelines of the two games aren’t directly connected, and you aren’t playing as Kyle Crane from the first game, it isn’t necessary to have played the first title before jumping into the second. Your only real advantage to doing so would be that you’d have a loose idea of the backstory and already be familiar with the mechanics of the gameplay. Dying Light 2 does give a substantial recap at the beginning of the game to remind you of the story in the first game though, in case you hadn’t played, or have forgotten over the past 7 years since it launched.

Dying Light 2 boasts a giant open world map, and the new city of Villedor feels much bigger than the city from the first game. Villedor is only a portion of the world you visit though. Traversing this giant map you will meet many characters, different factions, each trying to sway your choice of actions to side with them. This is where the voice acting shines in Dying Light 2. There were many times when I was convinced I was going to play a particular mission one way until another character managed to persuade me to their point of view. I didn’t find myself loyal to either of the two main factions, both had strong views, neither sitting firmly on the good or evil side of what was best for the city and world. The Peacekeepers are a faction that values security and order, even if that comes at the cost of personal freedoms. On the other side are the Survivors, who value freedom and community, hoping that the people can put aside their differences and work together to sure everyone has what they need to survive. I really feel like the game was encouraging you to run with the Survivors as the ‘good guys’. The Peacekeepers just weren’t as appealing to me.

One of the key issues I had with the way I felt forced to play Dying Light 2 was each faction had its own skill tree. This meant that my decisions in the game weren’t always what I wanted to do, as in what I wanted for the city, but because there was something I was aiming to unlock on a skill tree. The Peacekeepers, for example, had a crossbow that I just needed to unlock. I feel like the rewards should have been based on the number of areas unlocked versus who you chose to assign them to. This would have allowed me to ultimately play the story the way I wanted, allowing a bit more freedom. This being the case, I feel that the story isn’t as fluid as it could have been since I have to think most players would choose to play for rewards rather than what’s best for the city. This was a bit disappointing since the faction component was pretty hyped up prior to launch.

With the map being so massive, you’ll really want to the option to fast travel, and thankfully Dying Light 2 has that option, sort of. You have to earn it. There are subway/metro stations throughout the map, and you must enter and power them on to be able to use them for fast travel. This involves sneaking around, fighting zombies, finding the power sources, etc. In the beginning of the game I didn’t bother with many of them and realized later in the game that it was a mistake. As I moved around the vast map I really wished I had opened up the fast travel points.

Parkour is your main mode of movement in the game, and something the original Dying Light did really well. It was a new experience for me to be able to move so fluidly in a game at the time. I am happy to say that I believe Dying Light 2 has made its parkour even more fluid and enjoyable. There are many other ways to traverse the city, and more skills you’ll unlock like wall running and using spring pads to get around faster. When choosing which faction to give control of for a particular section of the map, you really should look at the way you play. The Peacekeepers side will increase the number of traps around the zone thy control, the Survivors will increase the number of ways to parkour. Since I enjoy the parkour so much, most of the time I went with the Survivor option. Once you master your parkour you really feel like you’re flying through the city.

Speaking of flying, Dying Light 2 also has a paraglider and was more fun than I anticipated. Being able to launch yourself off buildings (especially the tall skyscrapers) was satisfying and exhilarating. The grappling hook was also a fantastic way to move around. Both of these items are fairly underwhelming when you first get them, but once you start upgrading them they become integral to your movement in and around Villedor. Another handy gadget was the binoculars, being able to look into the distance and adding things to your map was much easier than having to climb towers. It also helped you spot all kinds of side missions and challenges in the game. Moving throughout Dying Light 2 is a feeling really unlike most other games. This is thanks to the brilliant design of the game. Creating linear parkour paths is one thing, but Dying Light 2 allows for movement in all directions. There aren’t many routes you can’t take when getting around, creating a giant concrete jungle gym of sorts. One of my fears in reality is the fear of heights and I realized that this can also manifest from playing games. The fear was real, and I felt myself feeling anxious and nervous when walking along narrow beams on the outside of tall buildings. Once I had the paraglider I was a bit less nervous, but even with that equipped I was uneasy as it was only good for a certain height of a fall because you have to use stamina when it is deployed.

The day/night cycle is back but unlike the first game where you didn’t want to be outside at night unless you had to, Dying Light 2 forces you to be outside at night in some instances. Some world events are also only available at night. It’s scary, visceral and had me jumping out of my seat at times. Your flashlights have limited power and range and there are such a variety of zombies in the game that you are never really safe, day or night.

What really helps propel the game is the score by Olivier Deriviere. He is also the genius behind one of my other favourite games, Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag. No matter if you’re scaling a building or running from zombies, the music never failed to hit the mark. The games audio design also plays a part in the way Villedor feels. During the day, the music swells as you parkour through the city. In the distance you can hear survivors in the distance fighting with bandits or zombies. As the sun sets you can hear shrieks and growls of the infected or screams from survivors. It is clear from the audio that the best time to be outside of your safety zones is not at night. Audio also makes the combat more real and visceral. Techland has basically removed all guns from Dying Light 2, so you have melee weapons and bows primarily. Something about the sounds of a bat against a skull or metal pipe blocking another weapon - each combat attack felt like it actually had weight behind it. Aiden is also quite vocal during parkour movement and fighting - grunting, yelling, or even breathing heavy when out of breath or stamina.

The main story for Dying Light 2 is fairly linear until you reach a branching point. Decisions don’t really affect the main story outcome as much as it was implied they would, but decisions can lock you out of certain side stories and dialogue options. That being said, the side quests do have choices that can affect your outcome and I think most of them were a bit more enjoyable than the main story. At the end of the day, Dying Light 2 is carried by its characters, as Aiden was likable but not particularly remarkable. Even though his personality wasn’t that intriguing, the voice actor (Jonah Scott) nailed the performance and I found myself rooting for him. Lawan, played by Rosario Dawson, is really the heart of the story and steals just about every scene she’s in. She has such a complex back story. She was definitely much more than she appeared to be when you first meet her.

If it wasn’t apparent, I really liked Dying Light 2, and I think it has improved on the first game, but now for the things that weren’t great from my experience playing. There were a lot of bugs for me in the game. This is one of the main reasons it took as long as it has to get this review out if I’m being honest. A few game breaking bugs that meant I couldn’t progress the main story. They were fixed with a patch, but the biggest problem for me was a pretty massive issue with audio bugs. The game would start buzzing loudly, with no other audio. No dialogue or game music, often accompanied by it going to a black screen so I couldn’t even read the subtitles. The only way to fix the buzzing sound was to completely restart the game. Because of the auto saves, I couldn’t replay the scenes I missed, and therefore missed some substantial bits of the story which was quite frustrating. That being said, there was a recent patch deployed that seems to have fixed that issue. Co-op also wasn’t working at launch, and cross gen still isn’t available from what I can tell. This means that if you have a Series X or S console, you can’t play with your friends on Xbox One. This is unfortunate as the game is a lot of fun playing co-op with a friend, new consoles are still hard to find, and not everyone has been able to or chose to.

Looking forward, Techland has already released a bit of a roadmap, committing to 5 years of content. They have been really engaged with their player fanbase online as well and open with their plans for post launch support. The original Dying Light didn’t launch with a lot of fanfare and has gained a lot of popularity over the years as its dedicated fanbase has recommended it and played with new players. I even managed to get someone to play it for the first time last year with me and it was great to jump back in and play some co-op and see it through their eyes for the first time. Dying Light 2 has launched with more eyes on it and I am looking forward to putting many more hours into it over the next few years.

**Dying Light 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 A Musical Story

When people talk about the 1970s, what comes to mind? Long hair, hippies, Woodstock, bell bottoms, pet rocks or 8-track tapes? How about the Atari 2600 gaming console? Depending on when you were born, you may not even have an answer to the question. Younger generations seem to think anyone over a certain age is a ‘boomer’, a term thrown around commonly online without most even knowing the origin or who Baby Boomers actually are.

As one of the ‘boomers’ who write for Xbox Addict, I jumped at the chance to review this Indie game, A Musical Story. I was born in the 70's, and although hadn’t even started school before the 80's came along, I grew up listening to my parents’ music of the 60's and 70's and still have a strong connection to music of that time.

A Musical Story is a rhythm game set entirely in the realm of 70's music. You explore the memories of a young man named Gabriel who, at the start of the game is in the hospital, and you are looking at his life through music and visuals alone. This is a debut game from French developer Glee-Cheese Studio. At the start of the game, you’re presented with words on the screen that say it’s recommended that you play this game with headphones. I will 100% back that up. The sound quality, focus and intensity were a different experience playing with a headset versus without one. As you start the game you heart a slight whisper... ’3...2...1’ over top of a heart rate monitor.

You can’t help but notice the similarity of Gabriel to Jimi Hendrix. Another of his bandmates resembles John Lennon. Icons of the 70's and I feel this was a way to make the story slightly familiar to you even if you’re not familiar with the decade of music. The memories take you through Gabriel practicing with his band and working a day job, to going on tour with the band in a van. The chapters are even laid out on a map like a road trip. You see a tale of friendship and love, and eventually how he ends up in the hospital. I won’t spoil any of the emotional journey you are taken on. All with very few actual words spoken in the game.

It’s a beautiful audio-visual treat for your senses, boasting a soundtrack of 26 original songs, composed and performed by Charles Bardin and Valentin Ducloux. The music is a wonderful blend of psychedelic 70's rock and lo-fi beats and I want more of it. The soundtrack, along with a painted visual novel (crafted by Alexandre Rey), combined with a unique take on a rhythm game creates something I’ve never experienced before.

When I talk about unique take on a rhythm game, I mean in the way it presents itself on the screen. Most games in this genre follow relatively straight line on the screen. Whether it is the notes from Guitar Hero or the blocks from Beat Saber, the notes move towards you. In some dance games, the directions scroll from top to bottom of the screen. In A Musical story, they are in a circle on the center your screen, I assume a reference to the vinyl records of the era. As you follow counter clockwise, you hit the buttons indicated on the screen. Complete the rotation for that instruments track and open a sliver of a memory. Complete the chapter with all instruments and open the full memory.

Each chapter had 3 to 6 instruments to complete. The biggest problem I had was that the top of the circle was missing/not shown on the screen. It only shows you one time what the strand of music is, and you have to catch it on the first beat at the top. You have no real indication of it starting and often I missed the first note, and therefore missed the perfect pass. If you could see the top of the circle, the missing beats would be a bit more obvious to count you in, and I think I would have made less mistakes. There also seemed to be a slight lag or delay between the sound and the timing to button press and at first, I thought this was my error and adjusted my timing accordingly, however, Steam is offering a substantial free demo of the game and I would I was much better with my reflexes and timing there. I may plug my controller in and see if that makes a difference.

Being a gamer of a certain age, my reflexes aren’t really as quick as the younger generation, so I assumed I wouldn’t be the best at this game, but I am fairly musically inclined and have a good sense of music and pattern so I also had a certain confidence going into it. A Musical Story starts you off slowly, only using one button, then the other, and the third time you’re using the combination of the two. On Xbox this is the 'LB' and 'RB'. You either tap or hold depending on what is required of you. Since this game is an original soundtrack, there was no real familiarity to the songs, and thus no advantage to knowing them going in. There are 24 chapters and if you complete each of the 24 perfectly, you’ll unlock a bonus 25th song/chapter. I will be honest, I didn’t unlock the bonus chapter and that was primarily by choice, I couldn’t help but allow myself to fail a few times just to listen to particular songs in the soundtrack multiple times. I only wish I got to hear the whole songs. I reached out to the developers and was told that the entire soundtrack will be available upon release with the deluxe version of the game.

Depending on how quick you catch on to the game, and how many mistakes you make, you can finish the game in about 2 hours. It's a quick jaunt, but A Musical Story was a surprise and a delight for me, a solid and confident debut game from Glee-Cheese studio and I will definitely be grabbing the soundtrack to listen to once it’s available.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Grow: Song of the Evertree

‘You are special because your heart is strong. You are special because you chose to care.’ These two lines set off an entire wave of emotions that I wasn’t expecting from this cute game I’d been playing for hours by the time it came up on the screen.

Grow: Song of the Evertree is an open world simulation game developed by Prideful Sloth and published by 505 games. When I first saw the trailer for Grow: Song of the Evertree, I knew immediately it was the same team behind one of my favourite games, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles. The style is unmistakable. Grow: Song of the Evertree is a wonderful blend of exploration and simulation, encompassing alchemy, farming, and town management mechanics.

With so much stress in the world right now, I have found myself drawn more often to really relaxed and chill games that have a lighter mood and simple mechanics. Something to distract me and take me away from the news that is so easy to get bogged down in. I knew Grow: Song of the Evertree would fit the bill perfectly. Following the story of a young Everheart Alchemist, you are the last human living in the shadow of the Evertree. Your job is to rebuild the world after it has been ravaged by a disease called the Withering. The Withering takes the form primarily or tangles of thorny brambles.

Guided in your journey by your main friends, a talking spell book and a helpful cauldron, you create seeds to plant on the Evertree. As the seeds first germinate, they are plagued by the Withering. In order for them to grow, you’ll clear rocks and toxic weeds, water plants, and eventually each seed will become its own established world on a branch of the Evertree. You may also need to ‘sing’ to help animals trapped or plants grow. The game is called Song of the Evertree after all. Depending on the seeds you create in the cauldron, using a combination of essences you gather, your worlds can have an unbelievable variety of plant and animal life, as well as its own climate and weather. Flora, fauna and landscape vary immensely.

I had some lush worlds with beautiful flowers and trees, and others that were arid and desertlike. I even had one that looked like it could have come from a Saturday morning cartoon, as everything was pastel and princess like. It even had a glad slipper rock formation. Since the worlds are random and determined by the seeds you create, if you are looking for a particular resource to complete a project, you have to have a world that produces it. That leads to quite a bit of trail and error in creating your seeds and worlds though. This led me to the discord for the game. Spending time in the discord with others who played the game was a joy to see and share the recipes for the seeds we’ve love the most. Helping each other determine what combination gave us the traits we were looking for. What a wonderful community.

Like any open world game, there are a multitude of collectibles. You can fish and catch bugs, harvest plants, fruit, minerals and essences. There is a journal where you can see everything you’ve captured in the game. There are so many slots for items that I am happy there wasn’t an achievement for collecting everything in the game. Once the animals appear in your new worlds, you can befriend them by either feeding them or giving tummy rubs. The animation here is delightful watching a variety of strange animals becoming happier and more friendly. Eventually you can ‘adopt’ them and move them to your main village/world to live in nature sanctuaries, or even as pets for some of the villagers if you choose to.

Speaking of villagers, you have to manage and grow each section of Everheart, and as you open and build each town, people will visit. Sometimes they may choose to stay if there is an available place for them to live. If they stay you need to create more homes, employment and provide other needs for them. Each person you interact with has a distinct personality. They have a preference for jobs that will make them most happy and may also have strange quirks you uncover. You can build a variety of homes and businesses, like motels, cafes, libraries and even creature care centres that are shaped like a cat (complete with ears). You can also customize the buildings, at least the exteriors. You can place decoration and landscaping features around as well. I really enjoyed giving each village a sort of personality or identity. Each village you create will also give you a list of challenges to complete. These could be something like placing a certain number of items around town or having a certain number of people living there. It might also be that you have to do a few fetch quests. Each challenge completed increases the happiness level of the town and gives you a stone for the center of the village. Once you get all the stones for that particular village, you can ‘sing’ to the stones which will remove the Withering from the next section of the map, and you repeat the process with your next village.

Like most simulation games, your days become defined by a schedule of tasks. Wake up and check out the villages. Once those tasks are done for the day, you’ll fly up to the Evertree on your adorable lion/dragon hybrid, jumping between the worlds, gathering resources and maintaining the landscapes. Eventually you’ll hit a mandatory sleep cycle, and you start again the next day.

One thing I would have liked to have seen in the game was an option to skip tutorials. The initial tutorial takes several in-game days and once you learn how to do things like fish, catch bugs etc., you end up doing it all a second time when you go to the world of the Everkin. I’m not sure why the game had you learn things twice.

One of my favourite features of Grow was the stunning art design. Each environment you uncover or create was fully saturated with colour and had amazing unique details. Blades of grass moved in the wind, ripples appeared in the water when fish swam by, the trees, plants and blossoms all were rich in colour and full of life. The beautiful worlds, the relaxing soundtrack and almost hypnotic flow of tasks made it quite easy to lose track of time while playing this gem.

Grow: Song of the Evertree is a great game for fans of simulation and relaxing games as well as a wonderful game to introduce new or young players to the open world genre. Grow: Song of the Evertree has very forgiving mechanics, simple explanations, and no matter how many times you choose to restart the game, you are sure to have a slightly different experience. Especially with the worlds you create on the Evertree.

While some gamers will find the game tedious or menial or won’t capture their attention, I found it to be the opposite. I couldn’t stop playing it. Like I mentioned early in this review, I loved Prideful Sloths first game, Yonder, and Grow: Song of the Evertree was exactly what I wanted it to be; Familiar, but more refined and unique. For friends I talk to frequently while reviewing games, they’ll tell you I wouldn’t stop talking about this one. It was exactly what I needed, and those two lines I mentioned in the opening of this review hit me in a way I didn’t expect, and I loved it.

**Grow: Song of the Evertree was provided by the publisher (Xbox One version) and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Cake Invaders

I love cake! Things I never thought I’d use to start a review, but here we are. Do you love cake as much as I do? Would you risk your life for cake? I certainly wouldn’t but the cute little characters in Cake Invaders will do exactly that. They will put their lives on the line to defend their German cake (Baumkuchen) from the alien invaders. Aliens are welcome to visit the planet anytime, but if they come for the cake, it’s war!

Developed by ZOO Corporation and Eastasiasoft Limited, this is a simple, casual arcade shooter. Cake Invaders has a delightful retro aesthetic and punchy soundtrack. It reminds me of Space Invaders and is equally addictive to the game I spent a fair amount of time in my youth playing.

With a fixed screen perspective and no character movement, this is a very easy game to play once you got used to the finicky aiming. The skills required boil down to shoot, shoot, and shooting some more. Kill those alien fish! As it’s an easy game to play you can quickly move through the achievements as well. Approximately 30 - 45 minutes and I had them all. There is only one game mode and it got a bit repetitive quickly. There isn’t much there to entertain you for more than an hour or two unless you want to get really competitive and try to climb the online leaderboards.

Cake Invaders story makes no sense, and that’s perfectly fine with me. You start off as one gunner standing on top of the middle cake of five on the screen. Aliens stream in from various locations on the screen in waves and your goal is to not let them destroy your cake. For each hit, one layer of cake is removed. Each cake has three layers, meaning you have fifteen hits before the game is over. When you die, you start from wave one again.

Weapon and skill upgrades are random drops, meaning sometimes you get lucky and get an extra gunner on your team, and other times you’re unlucky and just get a different style of weapon. The different ammo types didn’t really seem to have much of a different affect on the aliens. The extra gunners, up to five total, were extremely beneficial and were really the only way of getting to higher waves. With five gunners you are almost unstoppable. After wave fifteen, the speed of enemies really ramps up and it became a bit more exciting and stressful trying to survive.

Cake Invaders is delightfully retro and took me back to my Atari Space Invaders days. It’s a quick game to jump in and play and put back for another day. Keep checking the online leaderboards, if that’s your thing, to make sure you’re not being passed, completely reminiscent of the time spent in arcades making sure you were still showing on the main screen. I went back to play a few more times to get another nostalgia fix and was good for putting a smile on my face. I was slightly disappointed in the soundtrack though, something I am normally drawn to in retro games. While functional, it didn’t really stand out and could have been pulled from almost any other game.

In conclusion, Cake Invaders was cute, nostalgic and an achievement hunters dream. Really quick to get the 1000 gamerscore, if that is something you like to do. At the time of writing, Cake Invaders was on sale for just over $6 CAD, and I think it’s a fair price for it. Now off to find some cake.

**Cake Invaders was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 MouseCraft

You know the theory about Schrodinger’s cat, right? Well, I’m telling you he’s alive and well and toying with a trio of mice in MouseCraft, a delightful game by the team with the most adorable logo (Crunching Koalas).

In simple terms, MouseCraft is an A to B puzzle game where your job is to use a variety of blocks and skills to allow three mice to navigate a safe path to the end of the puzzle and get the cheese. It’s like a combination of the games Tetris and Lemmings. Over the course of eighty levels, you’ll learn new mechanics and tricks to help you solve increasingly difficult puzzles. You’ll use your skills to collect gems, defeat enemies of robot rats, blow up obstacles and navigate environmental hazards. It’s surprisingly addictive, and I quickly became obsessed with making sure all three mice survived every round.

Each level starts you with a set number of each style of block. Until later in the game, the blocks can’t be moved once you place them. You can, however ‘rewind’ a step if you make a mistake and want to change a blocks placement. Once you have your path completed, you hit the button and release the three little mice off their wheel. You can have them run at the standard slower pace, speed them up slightly, and even pause if you need to make any adjustments. This is an especially important feature late in the game when you are only given 1 or 2 bricks that have to be moved multiple times to get your mice to the end. The mechanics are relatively simple and, if you are a fan of puzzle games, you’ll find a solid balance of easy and brain teasers in the 6-10 hours run time.

The goal of each level is really two-fold; get as many mice as possible to the cheese at the end, but also picking up the gems scattered in each level. These gems are required to open up the higher levels as you move through them. Once a level is completed, you can jump to any previous levels that you have finished if you didn’t complete it to 3-star level or if you need to pick up some gems you missed.

One thing I loved about MouseCraft was that it introduced each new skill in its own level, you didn’t just get shown a tutorial, you actually completed a level with each new block type uncovered or mechanic unlocked. There was enough variety to keep me engaged and I played through the entire thing without getting bored.

I had one bug that was consistent through the game though. If I wanted to pause the game, I had to use the center button on the Xbox controller and then go back to the game for the pause menu to show. Not entirely sure why that was always the case, but hopefully it will be patched. A slight annoyance, but didn’t ruin the enjoyment for me. Pausing the levels while playing didn’t have this issue, just if I wanted to pause the entire game.

The animations were great with a fantastic cartoony feel to them. This gives the game a more family friendly feeling in my opinion and can be enjoyed by a variety of ages. Music didn’t stand out as anything special, but it’s a puzzle game and the soundtrack is a simple backdrop to the puzzles. It didn’t stand out as being out of place. MouseCraft’s simple aesthetic, and somewhat generic name hide a really polished and highly enjoyable puzzle game that had a sort of magic hold on me. Maybe the mad scientist cat is smarter and more influential than I originally thought.

**MouseCraft was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Lacuna - A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure

There is something about the Noir style that always manages to grab my attention. Movies, TV shows, commercials, graphic novels – the dark brooding narrative, the stereotypical sax in the background, everything about the genre appeals to me. When I saw the opportunity to review Lacuna: A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure I immediately had to play it, and I’m so glad I did. This is a fantastic debut from German developer DigiTales Interactive.

At first glance, Lacuna looks like just another pixel point and click game, but please don’t make this mistake. The pixel art somehow manages to capture all the Noir feeling more than I thought possible. Once you get through the oddly structured tutorial, you are placed in the trench coat of Neil Conrad, who works for a seemingly futuristic version of the FBI known as the CDI (Central Department of Intelligence). He’s an absentee dad, wasn’t a fantastic husband, but loves his job and is well respected. The game takes place in the future and on the planet Ghara, not Earth. You are tasked with protecting a visiting dignitary from the planet Drovia and, well, you know what happens next... the VIP bites the dust, and you need to solve the case. The murder needs to be solved quickly and efficiently, but this story was so much more than the homicide investigation directly in front of you. Lacuna’s story captivated me from the start and every event had me wanting to know what would happen next. Every conversation, every decision could have played out in a unique way, and you can definitely replay this game multiple times and have different story outcomes. The story is part crime solving, part corruption, part politics and a little family drama mixed in.

I spent a lot of time investigating and uncovering Neils personal life. I talked to everyone I was able to and explored the streets lined with cafes and corner shops wondering who might talk to me next. I listened to street musicians and got lost listening to his inner monologue. I spent time uncovering side stories and helping random characters, like assisting an old man with his missing boat, or meeting a colleague for breakfast, instead of simply rushing to the next case. I explored the relationship with Neil's ex-wife, Catherine, and talked about decisions involving his daughter Laura. This method of gameplay helped the game feel fuller and more rounded than when I rushed through on the second playthrough to see a separate ending. The writing is strong, and each character you meet is unique with their own backgrounds, concerns, and personalities.

There is a lot of narrative shoved at you, a lot of conversations and clues to pick up and refer back to. Thankfully, there is a log you can refer back to if you can’t remember who told you the piece of info you needed to fill out your sheets to turn in to your supervisors when solving cases. Twists in the plot come into play when you fill out these sheets to turn in. Was the suspect bald? Did he have red hair? A beard? A scar? What mega corporation was funding the attacks? So many choices, so much intrigue. If you make a mistake, the story will still move forward, but with the scenes playing out differently.

One thing to note is for the majority of the time you can be the most inept detective in the universe, and it doesn’t matter. People will cover for you and help you out if you get things wrong. That’s fine up until a certain point where it definitely matters if you got it right, and your incompetence is no longer accepted or tolerated. I played through once being the most bumbling cop I could be to test this theory.

Once aspect of the game design I really disliked was the save system. Rather, the lack of the option to have multiple saves for the game. This means that if you make a mistake, or take a turn you aren’t happy about, you can’t go to a previous save or jump around after finishing the game to explore other narrative options. In other words, make no decision lightly. Mistakes can hurt. Every decision, or lack of, has consequences. For me, this was extremely frustrating. I am a bit of a completionist and there is an achievement for seeing all eight endings of the game. Because of the inability to jump to branching points, you’ll basically have to do eight playthroughs to get this. I may find the time to go back and do it in the future. I can’t have that missing achievement haunting me. Another point of frustration was the investigation scenes. You could pop in and out of an AI mode that helped you locate things to inspect or gather, but when multiple items were close together, it was rather finicky trying to find the perfect place to stand to be able to inspect it.

I genuinely adored the noir inspired presentation of the game. You see the seedy underbelly of the world in which Neil lives and it’s obvious that this would be tough place to survive unless you were one of the affluent ones. You encounter hookers, drugs, murder, and plenty of F-bombs that didn’t seem out of place. Neil’s internal monologue kept the broody vibe flowing throughout the game. In fact, his internal monologues are the only voice acting you’ll hear in the game, and it was knocked out of the park by voice actor Buzz Blackburn. The gravelly, brooding tone was the only voice needed to carry this noir adventure. The game is accompanied by an original and beautiful soundtrack from Julian Columbus, and is available for purchase if you are a jazz lover like I am.

Lacuna billed itself as a 2D point and click that didn’t keep with a lot of typical tropes seen in these styles of games, which I adored. They did a fantastic job. Instead of solving the typical puzzles normally find, you’ll spend your time gathering clues, investigating the scenes and interviewing suspects and witnesses. Most conversations are straight forward with multiple dialogue options to explore, and when filling in your sheets to work through your cases, the answers are all multiple choice. Remember to refer to your log if you’ve forgotten details. Dialogue choices also have a timer, creating an urgency to your replies. You can turn the timer off, as well as use your AI discovery sense to assist in your investigations but I found that leaving the timer on and not using the AI help gave a more intense and realistic detective experience. Turning the timer off and using help let you have a more leisurely experience and gave you more time to dwell over your answers and questions.

It’s easy to dismiss a lot of 8-bit games as retro in styling but Lacuna seems to push the boundary here as well. Characters move fluidly and light bounces off people and objects creating more depth and movement. As Neil sits for a smoke, or rides an elevator, the camera zooms in to create a sort of dramatic intensity, then pulls away to show more of the vista.

It’s rare that a game finds a way to fully explore the weight is choices and consequences, and even more so to find a debut game to that. Lacuna does a fantastic job in that regard. Coming in at around 4-5 hours for a playthrough, it is well paced, doesn’t have a lot of filler and keeps the story front and centre. Take it from this dame; it doesn’t take a gumshoe to tell you to investigate this narrative driven noir game and not let this prime suspect slip through your fingers.

**Lacuna - A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Beyond a Steel Sky

Despite being a sequel, you don’t need to have knowledge of Beneath a Steel Sky (published in 1994 on PC) to play and understand Beyond a Steel Sky. It was a concern I had before taking on the review of this game by Revolution Software. Since I hadn’t played Beneath a Steel Sky, I did watch a primer to get some background info and Beyond does give you a bit of an overview before you start, so I had a basic understanding of the story line thus far. While there are a few references to the original story, Beyond a Steel Sky is more of a spiritual successor to the original than a direct sequel, 27 years in the making, set 10 years after the events of Beneath. Unlike its predecessor, this game is no longer a point and click game, and is a fully flushed out, free moving 3D adventure game. It’s simple control system works well on consoles.

Beyond A Steel Sky sees our protagonist Robert Foster living in The Gap, the wasteland/desert outside of Union City. He must return to Union City while searching for a child named Milo who has been kidnapped from his village. Like any good game, the kidnapping is only part of a darker story and secret that the city is hiding. En route to Union City, Foster finds a dead man on the road, he takes his brooch and assumes this man’s identity to access the city boundaries. The man had a full life in the city, including a wife who is very willing to go along with Foster’s charade. The plot thickens.

Union City is a cyberpunk utopia full of large skyscrapers, lots of electronic billboards with advertising and rules, robots and holographic assistants are prevalent. There is a travel system to whisk you away anywhere you need to go. Foster’s best friend, Joey, used to run Union City until he handed the keys over to a mysterious Council that takes care of everything now. There are lots of references and statues to Joey in and around Union City and most people talk about him with a sort of reverence bordering on religion. The Council has members in charge of different things for the city, like the Minister of Well Being, The Minister of Comfort, etc. Something is obviously ‘off’ with this, and you will eventually unravel the secrets.

The Council uses a system called Qdos to track and control the citizens of Union City. Qdos tracks everything they do; their happiness, comfort, charitable actions, etc, and determines their status or standing, in the city. The higher your Qdos, the higher your standing. Your status determines the types of jobs you can have and what places you are allowed to access in the city, an obvious class system. All Qdos can be accessed through the aforementioned brooch that all citizens wear. The system is fascinating, and the game could have spent more time exploring it, but it is simply something you refer to while moving through the story.

Foster must gather information from dialogue choices you make while having conversations with a multitude of characters. There are numerous options to each conversation, and although Foster can end conversations at any time, I would recommend you explore and exhaust all questions to get as much info as you can. One negative to the story writing in this regard is that sometimes multiple questions will give you the same information. The info you gather determines where you need to go next and helps you solve the puzzles that you use to navigate your way through Union City. At points you feel like your choices matter, and at other times it doesn’t seem to make a difference as long as you eventually get to the location it needs you to get to. The destination, not the journey, matters. The story is engaging and you’ll never really forget what you are doing. While the story is rather linear, it isn’t boring and there was a moment where I literally said ‘what?!’ out loud. A twist I didn’t see coming, but I won’t spoil any of the story here.

The characters in Beyond are well written and diverse. There is a little something for everyone; a dramatic teenager, a poetry loving robot, a smelly truck driver, even a strange underground tech guy. There will likely be a character that resonates with you. Most actors do a great job with the well written script, and the accents and voice acting make the game feel authentic and even wholesome at times. Most of the game's humour comes from these additional characters you meet, but they are merely moments in passing. You don’t get enough time to explore them or become too invested in them. In classic Charles Cecil style, there is lots of wit and charm in the writing. Revolution really does a fantastic job in the writing and voice acting. The game also boasts a fantastic soundtrack by Alistair Kerley.

Beyond looks like a graphic novel, and while it may not have the most striking visuals, the Cel-shading creates a wonderful background, especially when you get a wide shot of the city. I wanted a bit more when it came to the character models though as they often felt very cartoon like and a bit stiff. None of this really took me out of the game, I just wished it felt a bit more fluid and dynamic.

Puzzles are a staple of any adventure game, and Beyond a Steel Sky is no different. Foster will accumulate items as he moves through the city and this inventory is used in various ways for his solutions to situations. It could be as simple as bribing a man with a sandwich or using a crowbar to open a stuck door. Unfortunately, it became obvious that there weren’t a lot of options needed and the beloved crowbar was used a lot. I would have liked to see more variety. Foster also has the ability to ‘hack’ any machines, like androids, billboards, doors etc. Using his hacking device, he can swap the actions of each system and trick them into doing something they are not initially programmed to do. This isn’t just useable on one device at a time either, if multiple devices are in rage at the same time, he can swap choices between them as well. This way he can get machines to do things they wouldn’t normally do. This is a great way to access locations he shouldn’t be able to, or a way to distract onlookers to sneak by. It is a simple mechanic to master and doesn’t overwhelm, but eventually became a bit repetitive. If you ever get stuck on what to do next, there is always a hint menu built into the game that came in handy a few times for me. The hint system starts with just giving you a hint, then after a brief cooldown you can ask for another hint. Eventually it will walk you through step by step how to solve something. Some of the puzzles can be solved in various ways, meaning there are a variety of outcomes and dialogues you can encounter throughout your play time.

Beyond a Steel Sky feels like there are areas where it could be open world, but it is very straight forward, and you can play through in about 10-12 hrs. Subsequent playthroughs can be completed in about 3-4 hours once you know what you are doing.

Even without playing the predecessor of Beyond, I found myself engaged in the story and am interested in going back and finding the first one now. I think that’s a good sign for a game. While I’m not sure if it was worth the 27 year wait for the sequel, as I hadn’t played the first, it’s easy to recommend this game if you are interested in a laid back story driven game with puzzles. I enjoyed the narrative, and even with a few minor graphical bugs, I thought it looked and played great on the Series X.

**Beyond a Steel Sky was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Aspire - Ina's Tale

A girl awakens in a strange and eerie tower. She doesn’t know how she got there and how to get out, so she sets out on her journey to discover who she is and how she got there. Developed by Wondernaut Studio, Aspire: Ina’s Tale is an engaging and delightful 2D platformer that takes place entirely in a strange tower that feeds on people’s dreams. You play as Ina, also referred to as ‘The Heart’, as she embarks on a journey to discover who she is and uncover the secrets of the tower. This is a primarily solo endeavor, but occasionally you will come across other prisoners who will help you learn more about the mysterious tower. Knowing that Ina is referred to as ‘The Heart’ is your first clue that there is more to our young protagonist than at first glance, this is confirmed fairly quickly when you find out that she can harness the power of light energy.

The mysteries of the tower are literally written all over the walls, and runes are everywhere. I love puzzles and was excited to think about how to solve them, but realized quickly that the game auto deciphered them for you. Slightly disappointing. As you move through the tower you encounter other prisoners, and as you help them escape or with a problem they have, you will unlock their memories. The memories are the primary source as to how the story unfolds in Aspire: Ina’s Tale.

Gameplay is typical of a 2D platformer. Ina will swing across chains, leap crevasses, move heavy blocks, jump onto platforms and ledges, activate levers and slide down slopes. Since she can also harness light and manipulate this energy, she can change and alter the structure of certain elements to use them to her advantage. She uses this power to help her solve the puzzles to move through the areas of the tower. She can make blocks larger/smaller, cause them to move up/down, and also use a lantern to bring light energy with her. It will also help repel and evil creatures she finds.

While there are a few baddies scattered throughout the game, gravity and puzzles are your real foes. None of the puzzles were that difficult, in fact, the only issue of being stuck on a puzzle I had was when one section wouldn’t recognize something I did. I spent about 30 minutes trying to discover what I was doing wrong before giving up. I reloaded the game after a few hours and the switch was able to be moved. Obviously a bug, and a frustrating time waster at that. While I appreciate that the game didn’t have a HUD, some sort of indicator for points like this would have made it more obvious that there was a bug, and not simply that I couldn’t figure out the puzzle. Thankfully the save points are generous and there wasn’t a lot of backtracking and not much progress was lost. Another issue for me was when you were switching between her ‘abilities’, as it wasn’t always obvious which was currently her active one. Many times, I made a block or platform do the opposite of what I wanted and had to start again.

A vague but epic quest, vast beautiful environments, and ancient machinery finally coming back to life after being dormant, it’s easy to be reminded of other epic games in this genre, like Journey or Limbo. Like these games, you’ll visit a variety of distinct levels, from dark ruins full of technology and bright sun filled temples. The art style is beautiful - shadows, light and reflections dance along as you move through the tower. The graphics, although not complex in design, had colours that were bright and dynamic. There is a section with beautiful pink blossomed trees that was just stunning. Instances when the camera would pull back and you were treated to a grand sweeping look at your surroundings were some of my favourite scenes in Ina's adventure. I feel as though Wondernaut favoured the beautiful art style over their game design, however. There were times I found myself frustrated with some janky controls, or some odd animation, and some of the components of the puzzles simple disappeared into the background. Trying to find a lever that was camouflaged in the similarly textured and coloured wall was not an isolated incident either.

As beautiful as the game was, the sound design was even more stunning. There is no voice acting, all dialogue is delivered through text boxes on the screen, but no voice acting was needed in my opinion. Sounds effects are convincing and realistic. Clanking of metal, whirring of gears, shattering of glass, the ticking of a clock were all wonderful. Above and beyond though, the musical score was the true heart of the game. A beautiful blend of haunting, atmospheric and emotive, it truly captures the feelings of each scene as you moved though the tower. The sound effects echo through the environments, reminding you of the enormous size of the tower in which you are captive. The tempo rising and falling along with my heart rate, creating a sense of urgency but also moments of calm.

Even with Aspire: Ina’s Tale being a simple and beautiful 2D game, don’t expect the story to be a happy one. It had an overwhelmingly melancholy tone. The ending may not have been the biggest surprise to me, but the journey was well worth it. With no collectibles and a short run time of about 5 hours, there is no need to revisit once completed. This may seem like a bad thing, but it isn’t. The game provides a focused gaming experience that achieves what it sets out to do. Aspire - Ina's Tale told a story, captured the imagination, and left me a variety of mixed emotions. It also seemed to know how to wrap things up before it outstayed its welcome and started to run too long, something a lot of games don’t seem to understand. If you’re a fan of 2D platformers, I recommend checking this one out.

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Before We Leave

Space Whales. The words jump off the page and sell themselves. This could be a new movie, a novel or a TV show. It would catch my attention immediately. Space Whales are the closest thing to an antagonist in Before We Leave, a gentle, non-violent city builder game by Balancing Monkey Games.

At the start of Before We Leave, there’s a warning about a disaster that wiped out earlier generations. It’s vague, but clear, “In bygone times, humanity descended into bunkers to escape a galactic disaster. Only centuries later, when the cause of the calamity was forgotten, did humanity emerge. Having lost all but the remnants of their past history and knowledge, they begin once again on a planet born anew.” This is where we start building the new world for ourselves.

So, your people, affectionately referred to as ‘Peeps’, emerge from the bunker after having not seen sunlight and eaten nothing but potatoes in who knows how long. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether I find the name ‘peeps’ charming or cringey, but I’m leaning towards charming. Your Peeps are all individually named and will give you a little info about how they are feeling when you click on them. The design of them is simple, think little wooden toys that children play with. They sort of wobble around the map, and you can change the speed at which they do. It’s rather adorable. The world is nothing like you left it and has managed to overcome whatever happened to it. Once again it is a source of abundant natural resources.

The only things remaining from the ‘before time’ are a few rusted out remnants and run-down ruins. Perfect for collecting iron ore and stone. Since we don’t really know what happened to the world, you can assign any of your own personal ideas to it. For me, I assumed that it was a natural disaster, something akin to climate change. As someone who has studied environmental science, and an adult that simply needs to look around, it’s easy to come to that conclusion. With this ‘knowledge’ I start to rebuild the worlds for my peeps. Trying to find a balance between growth and sustainability. Watching the environmental impact of each step. And yet, the game is clearly edging you to expand further and further into the world. Expansion, progress, happiness, all the things we see in our daily lives.

You start small, a few people emerge and build homes on the hexagonal spaces on your map. They have basic necessities such as water, food and shelter. Then paths to places, then a school, library to research, businesses to create more advanced tools, or energy from resources like sand and oil. Each thing you build takes a certain number of spaces on your map, and each requires certain things to build it - like tools, resources or access. As you add more to your civilization, your population grows. It will continue to grow as long as you provide the necessities for them to thrive. Your Peeps will never die, even if mismanaged. They will be unhappy, and won’t work, but they never get sick or die. Another thing that sets Before We Leave apart from other 4X style games is the nonviolent component I mentioned earlier. You are not building armies and planning to overtake adjacent lands. It has a very chill and laid-back vibe to it. As someone who hasn’t played many of this style of game because they tend to have a whole battle experience, this gave me the city building game I wanted, without the pressures of battle.

Before We Leave isn’t really clear on your end goals. The mini tutorial walks you through steps as to what your peeps need, but other than the list of things you ‘should’ do, you can have free reign to really do whatever you like. Your first main objective is to fix up an old ship. Once you do this you can sail the seas and find an additional island to expand your civilization. As you open more and more areas, you can run shipping lanes between your islands. This gives you the ability to transfer resources between colonies and help each other progress and grow. Your community can start to make clothing, necessary for different environments and you can make and trade luxury goods, which will increase happiness of your Peeps.

To run your advanced operations, you need energy. First this energy is generated from forestry, then oil. Since each area you expand to can have different resources, you need to plan wisely and arrange your trade routes properly. Of course, as you create energy you also create pollution. Eventually you have to build homes and vegetable fields on polluted land, and this makes no one happy. There is an operation you can start where you can clean up polluted areas, but it is a slow process. Up until the pollution became a problem, and people were unhappy, I found the game quite calming and stress free. Peeps moved around the world at 4x speed, and I found it quite charming.

You can click on individuals in the game and see how they are doing. They each show a small blurb of speech saying how they are feeling. Most were content or happy. Once they became unhappy and overwhelmed, I became stressed. Although they can’t die, I was unhappy because they were unhappy. I was in charge of taking care of them. There wasn’t enough food, not enough power, your Peeps are unhappy. Trying to manage multiple islands and trade routes made me slow down the speed to try to think tactfully, then a solution appeared. “Find and repair the spaceship”... What? That’s the solution, you find and repair a spaceship and take off to discover a new planet. Leave the mess behind. The new planet will have untapped resources you can use as you colonize it, and you will also run shipping lanes between planets as well as between islands on each planet. The solution just made things more complicated. Eventually I had five planets with multiple islands on each. Along with colonizing the planets, there are some mysteries you will discover, and I won’t spoil them all here except to reiterate how I started this... Space Whales.

You can pause the game while you plot the perfect pathways for your Peeps. You can decide to make the distance shorter for them to get to and from resources and thus increasing efficiency. This means more production of materials, faster building etc. Or you can go entirely freestyle like I did. Meaning mistakes were made and I ended up having to demolish cute little sections I had built, but all in the name of progress. The game is entirely paced on the happiness of your peeps. If they are unhappy, they won’t work as hard, meaning things will slow down for you.

As I expanded my colonies, I had less time to sit back and chill with my Peeps. It put more stress on resources, my Peeps and me. Completely the opposite of what I was promised would be just a chill, nonviolent experience. After making multiple mistakes, I learned a lot of lessons, and wholehearted plan to start a new game and take my lessons learned and hopefully have a less stressful experience.

The aesthetic of Before We Leave can only be described as adorable. From the children’s toylike nature of the Peeps to the storybook homes and structures. The calm nature and fairy-tale artistry easily lulled me into thinking this would be a simple and lazy stroll into building and conquering the solar system. Bouncing between planets was simple and fluid with no waiting for loading screens. When you zoomed out from where you were and looked at the solar system as a whole, I couldn’t help but be enamoured with seeing the tiny spacecraft flying between planets on their interstellar trade routes. The was something delightful watching them toddle along when happy, and bittersweet when they were sad. Just looking at them made me feel guilty and want to fix things for them.

The audio was equally delightful. Happy villages pumped out upbeat folk songs from their homes while unhappy villages had silence, only broken up by the sounds of working like clangs of steel or chopping of wood, or industrial noises of the company’s creating energy. It was easy to see and hear at a distance where there was joy vs. sorrow.

What is completely evident from my time in Before We Leave, is that I should never be the person in charge of the entire interplanetary supply chain. Not because the game made it hard, in fact it was easy, I just still somehow managed to make a mess of it. At some point I realized that it wasn’t playing out as I wanted so decided to sabotage it from the inside, entirely halting progress and work. My peeps were living in bare minimal supplies, naked and with no creature comforts, and yet there was music in in the towns. Maybe there is a bigger lesson here.

Before we leave is a pleasant little distraction to while away some time. If you like the idea of city building and management, without the conflict that a lot of this style of game have, it’s worth a look. Just don’t look for a definitive goal line to move towards. Also... Space Whales.

**Before We Leave was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Rubber Bandits

I am a huge fan of single player games that have great characters and fantastic storylines. There is nothing quite like getting lost in a world and watching someone’s story play out in front of you. When you’re emotionally invested and cheering for that person on the screen, there is no better feeling. That being said, there are time when you just want to turn your brain off and mindlessly goof around with your friends, or gang up on them. This is exactly what you’ll get with Rubber Bandits.

Created by Flashbulb Games, Rubber Bandits is a multiplayer game where you participate in a sort of bank heist where your objective is to score the most loot in each level, then escape. The hitch in your plan is that there are also three other players trying to do the same thing. Ten items of loot in each level, four players all with the same plan, you can see how the mayhem and competition would escalate. There are three modes to choose from: Heist, Brawl and Arcade. You can play solo, with just friends, or online with random players. It has cross play enabled so this can help increase the number of players when trying to matchmake.

When you first jump into Rubber Bandits there is no tutorial, so you may find yourself a bit lost. Also missing was an explanation of how to simply get started in the game. I didn’t know you had to break out of your cell and drop to another floor and hit a toilet to change the mode you want to play. I just muddled around pressing buttons until I sort of got the hang of what I was doing. Since it is a fairly simple game, this didn’t take long. You can grab and use ‘weapons’ and throw items (or people). I put weapons in quotes because there are your typical shooter style weapons of guns, lasers, etc. but also melee weapons including baseball bats, sledgehammers, bananas and hotdogs. There is also the ability to use traffic cones and even rolls of toilet paper.

Heist, the first mode, is the bank heist. Each location shows you your entry point, the potential loot locations and your exit before it starts. Locations are your normal heist tropes of a bank, museum, etc. Once it starts you and your cohorts (or opponents) work to get as much loot as you can, and escape. There are ten loot objects in each level. Each match run until one person accumulates twenty-one loot points. This could be as fast as three rounds, or much longer if there is a lot of competition. Trying to decide what course of action is best for you is part of the chaos. Do you grab as much as you can and escape, or try to fight for a larger share of the loot? Any players that choose to escape will respawn as cops and try to hinder the remaining players still in the heist room. Cops can apprehend the criminals and steal their portion of the loot.

The second mode, Brawl, is a PvP deathmatch where each player has three lives and players use available weapons and their environment to eliminate the competition. First player to win three rounds wins the game. This mode was fast paced and fun, IF you could get players who stayed. Like any multiplayer game, there are those who will just ‘disconnect’ when they are losing. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the last player standing won, but that isn’t the case. On more than one occasion I was left in an empty lobby after players left. Eventually the game kicked me back to the lobby with none of my progress counted in these situations. Sad to see players not get credit just because some sore losers decide to bail.

Arcade mode is fundamentally a career mode. You will play through the levels with friends or AI players. Each level consists of you trying to loot and escape from cops who are there from the start of the level. At the beginning the AI didn’t move, so there wasn’t any competition. However, as you progressed through the levels the AI became more difficult to contend with. It was a gradual increase, but nice to have someone to play against. This mode was pretty boring when playing solo, but I had a few laughs when playing with friends.

When starting you have a choice of a few playable characters, from a traditional black and white striped convict, an old lady and even a banana, and there are many more you can unlock by simply playing the game and earning tickets as you progress. There are five skins available from purchasing the DLC content, there are four gold versions of existing characters, and a unicorn named buttercup. I won’t lie, I’m tempted to pay just for her.

Environments in the game were designed well, using height and obstacles in clever ways. Moving cars, levers, switches and random weapon spawns can flip the game and give advantages if you are lucky.

Now to some issues I ran into. I had a noticeable input lag. Reaction times really affected how my character faired in game. I could actively count 1-2 seconds of input delay consistently. This delay also caused me to hit buttons more than once, thinking they weren’t registering. This meant I would likely grab and then drop the item before I got to use it. I also had a few problems with matchmaking. I waited over 10 minutes to get a game at one point. Now, I know the game is fairly new, but with it being on Xbox Game Pass, I assumed there would have been lots of players out there. Maybe I was just unlucky. Because of matchmaking and lag issues, I played a lot of the game solo to really get a feel for the design and gameplay. This is a rather lonely way to play what is clearly designed as a multiplayer game. The online gameplay needs a bit of work. One huge positive for Rubber Bandits is that you can play with up to four people on one screen, making this a great game for playing when friends are around and want to have a bit of gaming fun. This genre of game isn’t something seen very often anymore.

The market for Rubber Bandits is clearly those who love similar games like Gang Beasts or Fall Guys, but it doesn’t really hold up against those. It was fun, I had a few laughs and I liked the premise, but it simply had too many technical issues for me to stick with it for very long. $26 Canadian is also a high price for this, in my opinion, but as mentioned earlier it is on Game Pass, so if you are already a subscriber it might be a fun way to kill a few hours.

**Rubber Bandits was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Jurassic World Evolution 2

Few movie franchises can capture your imagination and nostalgic feelings with a simple picture or few bars of music quite like Jurassic Park. That was made obvious to me from the opening menu of Jurassic World Evolution 2, as I was immediately caught up with the music as soon as it appeared on my screen. I was taken back to when I saw the first movie in the theatre and saw realistic dinosaurs on the screen. I was amazed at how far technology had come and the movies have continued to still give me that sense of awe when looking at the majestic prehistoric beasts. Unfortunately, the game offered me little more than dinosaurs in it’s gameplay, and I quickly learned that running an attraction like this really would be no walk in the (Jurassic) Park.

In Jurassic World Evolution 2 players take control of their own dinosaur theme parks. They create their own exhibits, biomes, breed dinosaurs and create a park that caters to every amenity your guests desire. They can be very demanding. Just when you think you have things under control they want more – more shopping, more food variety, more drink options... more everything. It’s a game of balancing building, amenities and budget. Income out vs income in. Like any business, this is about being successful and making the most money.

The campaign is really short, and although designed to be a tutorial, feels unfinished. I finished the campaign and when I jumped into the sandbox mode, I still didn’t know what I was doing exactly. In the campaign, you never deal with marine dinosaurs, or searching for fossils or splicing genomes. You’re left to figure out all of that on your own through trial and error. When you play the Challenge Mode, I found more of what I expected to see in a management sim. It gives a list of things that will make your park a success. Finances, management of staff, a specific list to know if you’re heading in the right direction. In general, design and customization options were limited in game and dinosaurs didn’t have a lot of variety in their behaviours either. This would be a big deterrent in capturing, and keeping, the attention of avid players of the park building genre.

Players are guided on their journey by characters from the movies, including Dr. John Hammond, Dr. Ian Malcolm and others, many of whom are voiced by the same actors who appeared in the films. There was something familiar and soothing about Jeff Goldblum’s voice in the game. He just makes everything better. Between the familiar voices and iconic music pulled from the movies, it’s hard to deny how much audio impacted the game.

When building the park enclosures for the dinosaurs you capture/create, you can pick a variety of things in the design process. Size, location, vegetation, ground cover, water sources, feeding areas etc. One mechanic I found interesting was that certain breeds had a fondness for a particular zone or territory in an enclosure. This means they stick to only one part of their enclosure, and this will allow you to use another area of it for a completely different species with different survival requirements. There was also a mechanic where you could redesign your shops, services and concessions once they were placed in the park. It wasn’t a one stop drop for the amenities. This means you can redefine shops and services to fit the demographic and requirements of your guests.

Breeding dinosaurs is interesting. Very rarely will you get a perfect egg, most batches will have a variety of different genetic anomalies. This will create a number of problems, ranging from shorter life spans, aggression tendencies, susceptibility to disease, etc. Each dinosaur can have a distinctive personality too. I had one that would fight with any others in its pen, but it was a social breed that needed companionship. Every time they were with others they would fight, get injured or cause injuries, racking up the vet bills. Eventually I had to just let nature run its course, stop treating them and let them die. It was a really hard decision, but I didn’t really see another way. From that experiment I learned to destroy any eggs with that personality trait going forward. Trial and error. I guess exactly how it would be in reality. At least I learned my lesson. ‘Clever Girl...’

New To Jurassic World Evolution 2 were avian and marine dinosaurs. While they made for interesting specimens, their enclosures were difficult to incorporate into spaces that included mostly squared off fenced areas. There were a significant variety of dinosaur species in the game, but very few required the avian or lagoon environments, making them fairly impractical when building the parks.

Chaos Theory is a new game mode added to Jurassic World Evolution 2. This mode lets players select scenarios from the Jurassic Park movies and try to fix the mistakes made. It was a fun ‘What If’ mode. These scenarios feel like the true campaign I wanted from Jurassic World Evolution 2, and the experience of building and changing the part based on what happens in the movie and trying to correct it felt rewarding. The Chaos mode demonstrates what makes Jurassic World Evolution 2 stand out compared to other games in the genre, it’s connected to a successful film franchise that is familiar to players. You already know what will happen, so you can try to prevent the catastrophes. The best levels in the Chaos Mode were the ones where you were cleaning up after the mistakes in the movies. Think broken fences, storms, overworked scientists trying to sabotage you, escaped dinosaurs that you chase around in a Jeep to try to tranquilize and return to their enclosures. You’d think a 12 foot tall dinosaur would be easy to find in a park, but that is not the case. This mode is not for those who like their management sim games to be stress free. The clue to that is right in the name of the mode. There are five levels in Chaos mode, one for each movie of the franchise. Sometimes I found that, even with my best efforts, chaos still ensued. As Dr. Ian Malcolm said so eloquently, ‘Life, uh, finds a way.’

From most management sim games I’ve experienced; the sandbox mode normally allows players have freedom of creating without the constraints of finances or asset unlocking. Jurassic World Evolution 2 fails in this aspect. I was excited to jump into their sandbox mode to try things out, only to find that some things were still locked for me. Items are only available to players once they unlock them in Campaign, Challenge or Chaos Theory modes first. This means you can’t build the elaborate parks of your dreams until you've gone through a most of the other modes. Fans of park-builders and management sim games with robust sandbox modes will find Jurassic World Evolution 2 lacking in that respect.

Tasks in game become repetitive quickly and the only way to unlock new dinosaurs is to send scientists out on expeditions. Although these rarely fail, you can only complete one at a time, making the process slow. Despite showing many varieties of dinosaur in the previews and trailers, it takes many hours to unlock them. Once you create the proper biome for each species, they rarely require attention unless they are injured or contract an illness. These are tasks that your team of Rangers can take on with a simple click and delegation. This doesn’t give you much to do other than control your staff and finances in the game. I had hoped I’d be more involved on managing the dinosaurs rather than predominantly HR tasks.

While I can’t recommend Jurassic World Evolution 2 based on it being a park management sim, its real draw are the dinosaurs which are undeniably intriguing and captivating. The large variety of them kept me looking for more species to unlock through expeditions and gene splicing. The Chaos Mode was enjoyable as a fan of the Jurassic Park movies with ‘What If’ type scenarios, but Sandbox mode left me wanting more from the game. I would say this was more geared to fans of the Jurassic Park movies as opposed to fans of park management sims, and there are much better ones out there. For fans of the movies and dinosaurs, you’d be hard pressed to find a game more in line with the franchise.

**Jurassic World Evolution 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Tandem: A Tale of Shadows

Have you ever seen someone drop something and immediately tried to catch them to give it back? A glove, a card, money... could be anything. I have done this many times, and this is the sort of situation in which we find our main character Emma in Tandem: A Tale of Shadows. Emma is a 10 year old girl fascinated with the disappearance of a famous young boy (Thomas Kane) in Victorian Era London. Thomas is the son of a famous family of magicians. When Scotland Yard has decided to end their investigation, she decides to head to the home of the Kane family to see if she can find any clues. On her way, a carriage passes, and a small Teddy bear named Fenton falls out. As the Teddy jumps up and gives chase to the carriage, Emma follows, and they end up at the mansion she was already heading to. Both Emma and Fenton are very small compared to items in the mansion adding to the depth and dimension of the puzzles and obstacles they must move through.

Tandem: A Tale of Shadows is the console debut of Monochrome Paris. It looks like a Tim Burton movie on the screen and has a delightful creepiness as the duo adventure through the mansion together. The puzzle game is divided into two planes of play. Emma moves through the ‘real’ world, in full colour and using a top-down views, while Fenton exists in the shadow world, using black and white side scrolling gameplay. He walks on the walls of the mansion. Fenton is the only one doing any platforming, as Emma can’t jump, but Emma is the one who must manipulate objects in the levels to create shadows for Fenton to navigate. She carries a lantern to provide a light source to aid in creating the correct shadows needed. Fenton’s primary job is reaching switches and buttons otherwise impossible for Emma to reach. While they move independently, and you can switch between them with a simple click with 'RB', they both rely on one another to get to the end of each level safely.

Each of the five chapters has between 8 and 10 levels to complete and each is filled with many obstacles. Each chapter is also a different area of the Kane mansion. Kitchen, greenhouse, boiler room, etc. Each room had steampunk inspired inventions and designs, all adding to the mystery of the family that lived there. Some of the obstacles are spiders who will attack on sight, bees attracted to any source of bright light, gears with spikes, locked doors and gates, a myriad of things to bypass to get through to get to the end. Not all creatures you encounter are dangerous either. Giant gelatinous blobs can be manipulated to create various platforms to help create shadows where there wasn’t any. Switching between characters was more satisfying than I anticipated. The complete contrast of light vs dark, colour vs black and white, top-down vs side scrolling was immersive for the senses, and I found myself constantly surprised at how different each character played in a game that’s seems so simple on the surface.

Both Emma and Fenton can die, often in quite grisly ways for a game that looks like a children’s cartoon. There is no real punishment for dying though, you will respawn quite close to where you died, in the closest safe spot. The puzzles are quite easy, and more often than not when I became stuck, it was because I was overthinking something that ended up being obvious. Unfortunately, the camera movement in the game didn’t help with looking around. You can’t really move it freely, so sometimes you couldn’t see in rooms or around corners easily. Gaps and walls are easily missed when playing as Emma due to always just using a top-down view. After completing each level you are transported out to the main map where you move forward like a giant board game. The was also where you could go back and replay parts if you were achievement hunting and missed something. Each level was quite quick, about 10-15 minutes, meaning this was a great game to pick up and put down at any point. The entire game only took around 3-4 hours for me to complete, even when going back to pick up a few missed achievements.

Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton, Jules Verne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are clear influences in this game, from dialogue to animation style. Sadly, this game doesn’t have near the narrative of any of them. Other than the opening sequence in the game, there is little narrative throughout the entirety of the game. Each level’s target is to grab a key and open the door to the next level where there are more obstacles. There was little character development of either Emma or Fenton, and she was far too brave for any 10-year-old child. Giant bugs elicited a simple ‘this place is dangerous.’ Not even a shriek or hint of being scared. There are many secret rooms to find throughout the games where the narrator gives you more to the missing boy's story, but I found myself often more confused after hearing the tidbits.

The soundtrack blended perfectly with the artistic design. Fun and light at times, then dark and foreboding, constantly urging you to move forward to see what lay behind the next wall or around the next corner.

Level and puzzle design were well executed in Tandem with each level adding in a new mechanic to add on to previous levels. Emma could be asked to hide from giant spiders or robot sentinel eyeballs while Fenton opens a gate for her to sneak by unnoticed. Later levels replied on puzzle solving, timing, and some pretty quick switching back and forth. Some of the quicktime events were most noticeable in the kitchen level where Fenton had to rotate oven knobs to turn fire on and off for Emma to move through sections. The puzzles kept me moving at a steady pace for the duration of the game until it came to a rather abrupt, and somewhat surprising ending, which left me with a lot of questions. So many questions, in fact, that I jumped into the games discord server to ask if there is a sequel planned. Currently there isn’t, sadly, so I’m left to fill in the blanks for myself.

Tandem suffers from a few technical issues on Xbox. It launched on October 21 but was a few days before I could access the game due to a porting issue. Meanwhile other platforms didn’t seem to encounter this. I was also unable to unlock achievements for completing chapters. Only one of the five popped for me. I brought this to the attention of the developers, they were unaware of the issue but set to work to fix it. Although quick to fix, it took some time to deploy the patch. The patch dropped on Nov 26th, and I am pleased to report that all achievements were able to be unlocked now.

Well executed level design and mechanics, an adorable animation style, and interesting mechanics kept me engaged for the entirety of the game. Achievement bugs were my only real complaint about Tandem, and they were addressed by the team is a relatively quick manner. The story was a bit twisted, dark, and left me wanting more, but I think that is also a good thing. I would recommend trying out Tandem if you enjoy puzzle platformers and want to try something a bit different than some of the others out there.

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Roki

For most of us, fairy tales are a part of our childhood. We think back on a time when our parents or grandparents would read to us, telling us stories of bravery, heroism, magic and love. I think I could ask almost anyone, and they would have had a favourite fairy tale or children’s story growing up. As we get older, however, we often see that fairy tales are not always as light and innocent as we remembered them being. The stories we know have often originated and been built upon dark themes of evil, loss, heartbreak and loneliness. It would only take you a moment searching online to see the dark histories of some of the ones you remember the most. I know I was shocked when I found out some of the origin stories.

Roki, the debut game from Polygon Treehouse, captures everything that makes fairy tales charming and alluring, while also showing some of the dark sides as well. It easily kept me captivated until the end. Based in Scandinavian folklore, it tells the story of a young girl, Tove, who is searching for her younger brother, Lars. Lars has a vivid imagination and often believes he sees the mythical creatures from the stories Tove reads to him. As it happens, the creatures are real and Lars was taken by the magical creature, Roki, for nefarious reasons that are made clear early on in the game. In order to rescue Lars, Tove must navigate her way through the forest, solving puzzles and making connections to the fantastical inhabitants along the way.

Although primarily built around magic and folklore, the narrative has a very tragic foundation that it is built on. Tove’s mother passed away shortly after Lars was born. Her father spends most of his time grieving and sleeping in front of the fireplace in their family home. These things result in Tove becoming the primary caregiver and protector to Lars, meaning she must take on more responsibility and has a maturity well beyond her years.

While searching for Lars, Tove encounters many fabled beasts and realizes that not all monsters are evil. Some are very complex, have their own problems and are misunderstood. For example, the scary troll hiding under the bridge is not growling to scare you, but she is in pain and hiding. The little gnome like creatures (Tomkes) really held a special place for me, probably because Tove’s mother called her that, and in turn, Tove calls Lars ‘Little Tomke’. Such an adorable and sentimental way to join the stories together.

Polygon Treehouse does such an excellent job of their storytelling, mostly done through text, that I found myself having a massive amount of feelings I didn’t anticipate in a simple point and click game. I still have no idea how they made me so sad when I saw a troll turned into stone, or another troll talking about how they can’t get good tea.

While Roki first presented itself as a point and click adventure style game, it was quickly evident that it was so much more than this. Firstly, it wasn’t nearly as linear as this genre of game tends to be. Exploring and discovery encompass a large part of the game. While solving puzzles in Roki, Tove will find and interact with a variety of objects in a different order than you need them, meaning some solutions to puzzles may not be apparent until you advance the game. As you work your way through the story you discover an ancient magical tree (the mother) that has had its roots (children) disconnected from her. There are many overlapping stories involving family in the game. As you reconnect the roots, you open up various portals in the tree. They then become a sort of fast travel way to the different areas of the forest. Definitely a time saver, although I did find myself forgetting which door went to each location. As soon as I went through, I would realize my mistake, pop back through and grab the right door. Once you had all of the portals open, I found myself happily going through them just for fun, emerging on the other side, feeling a true sense of magic about them.

Secondly, there was no steep difficulty curve for the puzzles in the game. None were particularly challenging, and they were consistent throughout the game, requiring collecting and sometimes multiple forest creature interactions to complete. For example, you had to make a tea to put a troll to sleep. In order to get those ingredients, you had to bribe someone with an item you collected earlier. When he was asleep you grabbed his flute. You traded the flute for another item, etc. I liked that although the puzzles weren’t particularly hard, they weren’t always obvious from the start either. I had a lot of ‘wait, I need that for someone – don’t I?’ moments. The joy of any adventure game is the overlying feeling of what you are working towards, not just what you are doing at a single moment to get there. All through the game, Tove carries a scrapbook where she places items that she finds in her travels, a scrap of fabric, a piece of eggshell, a feather, all contributing to the overlying feeling of how memories are so important to her. The scrapbook also fills in as you open the map and also shows when she unlocks badges for doing things. There are like a substitute for achievements in the game.

Roki uses a remarkably simple art style, scaling back on textures and lighting, and going for a more stylized flat shading effect. Whether this was done for budget considerations, or intentionally, it created a perfect style for the children’s story book brought to life. The sound design was another minimalistic choice. Most of the dialogue was via text on screen with the exception of a few grunts of exertion or when the characters were calling out to one another. This was a highly effective choice in making the family the only voices you hear, making sure that they remained the central focus of the story, Family is everything in Roki. I was really surprised how well the game could elicit as much feeling from me while using very few actual words of dialogue. Tove would often utter an incredibly sad sounding “mamma” when thinking about her, or a surprised "woah" when coming across an item that she examines. The soundtrack itself felt like a collection of melancholic lullabies, also adding to the childlike feel of the game.

Roki was nominated for many awards in 2020 including "Best Debut Game" at The Game Awards. It won "Best Indie Game" at the DevGamm Awards and “Best Traditional Adventure", and "Readers' Choice" for "Best Adventure" at the Adventure Gamers ‘Aggie’ Awards. I can see why. With its childlike visuals and ability to pull you into the fairy tale unfolding on the screen, its roster of characters that make you invested in their outcomes and with a dark tale to discover and overcome, it was so much more than the simple point and click adventure game I thought I had in front of me when I hit 'Start’.

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Moonglow Bay

Grief is a strange thing. It changes us, really makes us take time, and soothe ourselves in ways that don’t always make sense to others. You need that time, it may not be long time, but it also might take you an awfully long while to find yourself again. Not everyone processes grief in the same way. When you finally find a way to move on though, you can look back after a while and see how far you’ve come. Having lost a partner myself, I found myself drawn into this game right from the start, more than I had anticipated, and I really wanted to help my character move on.

Developed by Bunnyhug (who just may have the most adorable logo I’ve ever seen), Moonglow Bay is a game about loss, grief and PTSD, but it’s also about friends, fishing, cooking, family, resilience, rebuilding and growth. There was a lot packed into this charming adventure. You play as a fisher who loses their partner when they are lost at sea. Three years later you are still stuck in a pattern of grieving until your daughter comes to visit and encourages you to find a way to make things better, for you, the town and your partners memory.

Being from Nova Scotia, I was excited to play Moonglow Bay, as it takes place in a fishing town on the East Coast of Canada, and you even have an adorable Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever dog named Waffles. The game perfectly captures the feel of a small fishing town on the coast. Complete with neighbours who know just a little too much at times, and also love to spin a tale or two. You interact with the townsfolk to gather information about the diverse types on fish in the waters, as well as do quests to help them and revitalise the town. Moonglow Bay isn’t deep, but it’s writing keeps things moving forward. The main storyline is to explore and get to the bottom of your partners disappearance, but how you get there is the bigger story.

Fishing is the main activity in Moonglow Bay. You go fishing and either turn your catch into the aquarium, sell them whole or turn them into meals to sell in the vending machine outside of your home. Some of the dishes were reminiscent of home, like fish cakes or seafood chowder, and some were ripped right from other cultural menus and included things like sushi and tacos. Members of the community may also ask for a particular fish or recipes to be made as a quest.

You use the money you make to upgrade your boat, which was left in storage since your partner disappeared and is now yours, or renovate the towns buildings, parks, etc. It costs a lot of money to do the renovations and you will have to catch many fish to accomplish this task. Cooking is also a balancing act, as each recipe you learn will cost you money to prepare and sell for different amounts of cash, so it’s up to you to determine the best bang for your buck. Like cooking, there is also the balance of work/life activities. You are in a day/night cycle and must also sleep eventually. If you don’t sleep you become very sluggish, but you need to try to sleep when the town does or you end up crashing during the day when the businesses and community are awake. Businesses are not open late into the evenings nor are people generally outdoors.

Moonglow Bay is really relaxing, and the voxel art is perfect for this laid-back game. It’s a wonderful game to just chill and play, zone out until you catch the number of fish you need to get your next upgrade or repair. Overall, the mechanics weren’t complicated at all, but I would have liked them too not have been quite so simplistic either.

Moonglow Bay teaches you new skills as you move through the story, as most games do, but there were a few times where you were on a mission and figured out how to solve it purely by luck, also discovering you had a new skill at the same time. Early in the game you must find a legendary fish that has a harpoon stuck in his back. Before this point you were able to toss and reel in your fishing rod/line, or cast a net into the water, but in this case, you must cast your fishing line at the harpoon, snag it and pull the harpoon out. This was just one mission/puzzle that I found the solution to through pure luck.

Unfortunately, when I played there were a lot of small bugs. Sometimes missions didn’t start, items wouldn’t appear where they should, mission markers would take me to the wrong location or townspeople wouldn’t accept the item they asked me for. I also got stuck in trees and near rocks a few times and had to use a previous save. In a game that doesn’t have auto saves, this sometimes meant potentially many ‘in-game’ days of progress was lost. Since launch they have implemented a substantial patch that has almost all of these things addressed including implementing an auto save when you sleep thankfully.

Even though there were bugs, they didn’t break the game for me. As someone from the East Coast, we tend to let a lot of things slide, laugh them off and just shrug our shoulders, and I felt a lot of that when I encountered things like that in the game. There were even some small things that made me laugh aloud as they reminded me of a situation or someone I knew from back home. There was a lot of feeling that went into this game, they did their research and I adore that. One thing I really loved about Moonglow Bay was that when you were talking to people, the time stopped. The clock literally slowed down so you could focus on them and the tasks. Time also completely stopped when you were cooking in the kitchen. I deeply appreciate that as the kitchen is where EVERYTHING happens on the East coast, the heart of the home, and a reason our gatherings are called Kitchen Parties. My time in game was spent catching as many fish as I could in a day, sleeping, and then cooking up a storm in the morning. Pop the dishes into the vending machine and head out to sea again. Once I could upgrade my boat to include a bunk, I could stay out for days at a time.

The soundtrack for Moonglow Bay may be my favourite thing about the game; pure brilliance. The more I listen to the 41-track album, the more I hear. There was a lot of thought put into the music from composer Lena Raine. The music is so dynamic, as something as simple as the strumming of the guitar in the music while you are walking through town is slow in the morning but speeds up after the clock hits noon. Some buildings have different music as you pass them, and certain characters have their own music in their shops where they work. Abi, your best friend in the game, has a noticeably confident bassoon melody for example. The fish market has a few characters working there and the music almost sounds like people chatting to one another. Different biomes each have their own music as does your home. You have general chill music while there, but a more upbeat bossa nova when cooking. The biggest surprise to me about the music was the aquarium, each floor represents a biome and they each have different music. When the area is empty the music has very few instruments, but as you donate more fish and it fills up, so does the music. It becomes more rounded, fuller and with more instruments. The entire album is on Lena Raine’s YouTube channel, and I encourage you to have a listen if you want something lovely to relax with or accompany your work.

A quick note about accessibility, not from an abilities side, but from an acceptance and inclusion side. In the beginning of the game, you pick your character young or old, male, or female. Then they ask you your pronoun choice; he, she, or they. Once you pick you character and name, they ask you to pick your partner, all the same choices. This allows you to customize your relationship to something more meaningful to you. I even noticed that the rainbow used in the artwork for the game wasn’t a traditional seven colour rainbow, but the colours of the Pansexual pride flag (pink, yellow and blue). I didn’t find confirmation that this was intentional or a coincidence though. Having said that, one of the bugs I noticed, on more than one occasion, was the townsfolk not using the pronouns I had selected for my partner. Again, it didn’t break the game for me, but I can see it potentially being more noticeable or jarring to someone in a different circumstance.

Despite the few bugs and glitches I encountered, I found myself easily sinking hours at a time into Moonglow Bay. Its familiarity, the need to help someone going through the same grief I had experienced myself, the nostalgic voxel art and delightful music all really made me escape into this coastal community and really feel like I was part of all of it. It was clearly developed by a passionate team who took care to really make it feel this way. I think it may have benefitted from a bit longer development time, but they pushed out a patch quickly and I will take on another playthrough of it before too long. I loved the idea of helping to save a small town like I grew up in and I look forward to spending some more time chilling in Moonglow Bay soon.

*Moonglow Bay was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Call of Duty: Vanguard

I need to start this out by stating something; I don’t play shooters. I don’t enjoy the PvP craziness, I can’t keep up with people with much better internet, or playing on PC or simply just better/younger reflexes. Last month I covered Insurgency: Sandstorm and I actually enjoyed it, but when XboxAddict asked me to take on Call of Duty: Vanguard and step even further out of my safety net of adorable indie games, I thought they were crazy. I haven’t played a Call of Duty game since Black Ops II and had no idea what I was in for. But I took the leap into this new venture and I have a lot to say about my experience.

Like most Call of Duty games, Vanguard is broken up into different sections; Campaign, Multiplayer and Zombies. I have broken them up for this review to make it easier to digest.

Let’s start with the fast and furious, Multiplayer:

Vangard multiplayer has been created to give you a powerful weapon feel. You will adjust tactically on the fly, using skills to work with your team to win in the varied PvP modes. Every map should be a new and exciting experience with your team, working on a strategy to complete your objectives. There are two main types of gameplay: tactical assault and blitz combat. Based on which mode, you could have the same map but a very different type of experience. Tactical is standard COD 6v6 players, while blitz is 24v24 players.

There are 38 weapons at ship. Each have a unique set of attachments; some can only be used for certain weapons and each weapon can have up to 10 attachments. There are a variety of operators you choose for multiplayer, creating a lot of customization options as well. One of my favourite modes in multiplayer was Patrol. It’s a new mode that is a moving zone through the map. It’s not a set track either, so every time you play it will mix it up and be a bit different. Your objective is to maintain control over the designated zone. Kill confirmed, domination, search and destroy and hardpoint are all there as well.

Champion Hill mode was an interesting change that I was not expecting. Played in Duos or Trios, you and your team are given a set number of lives and are eliminated when you hit zero. You play in a match versus one team at a time, randomly assigned for a time limit and the number of lives you have at the end of the round is what you start with going into your next match. This continues until there is only one team remaining.

There are 20 maps available at launch, 16 regular gameplay maps and four more for Champion Hill. By the end of the year, there should be 24 maps available total.


Sledgehammer Games hopes that Zombies fans new and old are going to be happy. Vanguard's Zombies is WWII, last time they were in WWII was the original Zombies mode. This should provide new and interesting stories. You now have a single universe across all Call Of Duty games, as Black Ops, Cold War and Vanguard are all connected. Cold War was based on the science of the zombies where Vanguard is focused on the supernatural.

Der Anfang is German for The Beginning, and this is the description you will see in game. DER ANFANG – Explore new mysteries of the Dark Aether and join forces with otherworldly allies to stop Ober Fuhrer von List and the demon lord Kortifex from raising the undead Nazi army. Expand out from the fog to explore the rest of the map. Do this by going through the portals you see; each portal takes you to a different mode. Each zombie type you encounter has different way to kill them. Faster than RBZ (Round Based Zombies) and Outbreak to get into action. Go to your objective, complete the action, explore, rinse and repeat. It’s tight and fast loop.

Three Ultra covenants are randomly assigned perks you can have, but you can also purchase them to make sure you have certain ones active with sacrificial hearts (the currency you earn in Zombies). Five different perk fountains have their own tiers to upgrade. Mystery weapon boxes also returns in Vanguard. Intel is already built into the map and it’s more accessible, able to hear it while you are in the space. There were some interesting conversations to be overheard. Although there is no Easter Eggs currently in Vanguard zombies, there will be one coming with Season 1, which is due to drop on December 2nd. I enjoyed Zombies far more than I expected to considering I had never played it before.


Sledgehammer games are big fans of WWII, and this isn’t their first game in that time period. Call of Duty World War II launched in 2017's Call Of Duty. Once they completed that game, they knew there were more stories to tell of the people who actually fought there. Marty Morgan, a historian, was inspirational in telling a lot of unknown stories to the team about WWII and helping create the framework for Vanguard. How ordinary people became extraordinary. Tide turning battles and epic locations are all things that heavily impacted and affected the war. Locations like North Africa, Stalingrad, a plane at Midway, all of these varied locations were important and the team at Sledgehammer went to great lengths to make it all feel authentic. WWII was also the birth of what is known as the Special Forces. Teams from different walks of life, countries etc. that come together to do amazing things. WWII was a global event and involved many countries.

The campaign is the story of the first Special Forces team, ‘Vanguard’, a rag tag team from different countries that aren’t used to working together. They are used to their own way of doing this with the countries they are from. Their special operation mission is to investigate what is simply known as Project Pheonix. They must go into Germany at the end of the war to investigate and discover what this project is and if it is a threat to allied forces. You play as the four main operatives, each have their own abilities, mechanics and specializations. They were chosen to be part of Vanguard because of these skills. The campaign story is broken up into sections where you play as each of the four main protagonists. In between each story, you watch cutscenes where you see the four of them interacting in their current situation. I can’t talk too much about the actual story without spoiling it though.

The first of Vanguard’s main characters is Arthur Kinglsey, a member of the British Army. He is voiced by Chike Okonkwo, who recently featured in the EA published Anthem as Prospero. Second is Polina Petrova, a Soviet Lieutenant based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the most prolific female sniper in recorded history. Polina is played by Laura Bailey, perhaps best known as Abby in The Last of Us Part II and Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers. Up next is Australian Lucas Riggs, based on the most decorated Commonwealth soldier in WWII – Charles Upham. He is portrayed by Martin Copping who also voiced Sipes in 2019’s Infinite Warfare. The final of the four main characters you play as is Wade Jackson., He is part of a US Scouting Squadron, based on the real-life pilot Vernon Micheel. Played by Derek Phillips, COD fans may recognize him as the voice of Raptor-1 in Black Ops Cold War as well as many other games. Each of the four main protagonists had a compelling story of their own to play though, ending in a mission where you play as each of them, showing how they work together. I will say that Riggs was my favourite, as he was wild and cocky, but somehow also incredibly likeable.

With all the incredible voice talent in the game, the standout for me was Dominic Monaghan as Richter. Known to most as the loveable hobbit Merry from Lord of the Rings, Monaghan could not be further from that in Vanguard. I spent some time looking into his portrayal of the character after seeing on his social media how much he liked playing him. He spent a lot of time reading about WWII and doing a lot of research prior to recording for this role. He was terrifying, and terrific. As an actor, Monaghan said his job is to find the justification for his character's behavior, and I can’t imagine the work that went into this. Dan Donohue as Friesinger (the main baddie) was serious and terrifying in the best possible way.

As with all campaigns in Call of Duty, Vanguard's wasn’t very long, somewhere in the 4 to 6 hour range. I loved every minute of it and really wanted more at the end of it.

Music composer, Bear McCreary, who created some epic scores for 2018’s God of War as well as working on TV Shows like The Walking Dead, absolutely stunned me with his score. Instead of using a full orchestra arrangement in much of the soundtrack, he chose to use closed mic’d instruments. Each character has a distinctive feel with the music used in their scenes and it all blends incredibly well into the main game.

On the topic of sound, Sledgehammer games did something I haven’t had happen in a game in a long time, especially a shooter. I got goosebumps, literal goosebumps playing this game in parts. Besides the music, the sounds of the vehicles, bullets and planes flying overhead were incredibly immersive. In order to capture the real authenticity of sound, they brought a dauntless aircraft out, installed recording devices and the result was brilliant. I highly recommend you playing with headphones and experiencing this in its full immersive glory.

Visually the entire game was top notch. The environment was realistic, I didn’t see many issues with voice synching to motion of faces, and the motion capture of the actors was fantastic. There were a lot of familiar faces in the game.

Did Call of Duty Vanguard turn me into a fan of PvP shooters, no it didn’t, but I am certainly glad I played it and am looking forward to playing some more Zombies with friends once it launches for everyone. I loved the campaign though, as well as the four operatives, and Monaghan was just terrific. The visuals, sound mixing and score were also top notch in every way.

*Call of Duty: Vanguard was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Eternal Cylinder, The

Evolution and survival of an individual or species depends on a variety of situations and circumstances that cause a shift in how an entity will adapt to survive. In the case of ACE Team’s, The Eternal Cylinder, the cause is the massive deadly dowel constantly rolling towards you while it flattens the terrain and everything else in its path, while you band together with your fellow Trebhums to evolve and survive.

Trebhums are bi-pedal creatures with a trunk like snout that start in a very simple form with little to no survival skills. Your main role in the game is to stay alive - and gather others to join your group. Safety in numbers. You recruit other Trebhum by finding them in the world, and either hatching them or freeing them from their confines. As you recruit them you get to name them as well, so that was sort of fun to name them all with a theme in mind. Once they join, they follow around after you and you can swap between them at will, though you only control one Trebhum at a time. The more followers you have, the better, just in case your main guy gets eaten or flattened by the cylinder rolling along.

Yes, sometimes the little guys die, but if you have at least one survivor in your group, your lost family members can be rescued from death via a strange platform/altar thing and a bunch of crystal dust that you collect around the map. The Trebhum don’t interact with each other but are very good at following the leader and will warp to you if they get too far away. You must avoid starving to death, being eaten, or squashed by any of the dangers surrounding you, whether it be environmental or creature. I feel like there is some sort of Aussie ‘everything here is trying to kill you’ joke I could insert here.

The main way to move around The Eternal Cylinder is to tuck and roll. Later in the game you can unlock a few others, but walking and rolling are your two main ways of traversing. There is also a survival mechanic in play as the Trebhums must maintain their health, hydration and stamina by using their snouts to suck up anything around them like a vacuum cleaner. This is normally plants, sometimes small creatures, and water. Some items you consume will give you the mutation effects, like growing fur to survive a wintery climate, or webbed feet to be able to paddle across bodies of water. One even turns you into a cube so you can become a sort of key to unlock a door. Some mutations are even stranger, and you can mix and match on your crew of Trebhums to create a large variety of options. I expected a more advanced evolution system from the game, but the mutations were simply different skills.

There is quite a lot going on in The Eternal Cylinder, with a broad range of mutations for different purposes. There were times that I was confused with the game. There was never really a clear indication of what you were supposed to do other than evolve and survive. I found myself tossing between feeling like I had no idea what was happening and might not have the right mutations to move forward and feeling like I also didn’t have enough to do to use my mutations before moving onto the newest one. I rarely found myself in a situation where I didn’t find the right mutations to move along quickly and didn’t have many situations where I died because I couldn’t find the right ones either.

The gameplay loop consists of you running away from the giant cylinder to reach a tower in the distance. Reach the tower, activate it and somehow it holds back the giant dowel of death. I don’t question the magical powers in this world. While the tower is holding back the cylinder, you have time to eat, solve puzzles, mutate and explore. You also use this time to increase the size of your group by finding new Trebhums to join you. Once you have done all you need to, you step outside the magical glowing dome that defines your safe zone and the cylinder starts rolling again. The tension runs high in this world. When the cylinder begins to roll, I cannot explain the stress I felt as I made my way to the next tower. I dislike any game with ‘timers’ and even though this didn’t specifically have a ‘time until death’ clock running, you were definitely under a time crunch. The sound design motivates you to run for your life. If you die, not to worry, you can just load a recent save and try again.

The Eternal Cylinder boasts a veritable kaleidoscope of brightly coloured, creepy alien flora and fauna. A true feast for the eyes, but some goofy controls really made the game a bit trying at times. The games environment never really becomes entirely identifiable even though I found myself often trying to identify comparisons of the animals and plants in that world to mine. The world feels like it could have been pulled directly from the pages of a children’s book. A whimsical sense of design and colour feels familiar and comforting, but there is also this wild and disturbed side. Eventually I found myself wondering what kinds of creative minds could produce something so completely bizarre and yet so familiar.

I caught myself on more than one occasion wondering how these creatures could survive in their environments, but then realized I was over thinking it and tried to let the creative youthful sense of wonder and whimsy simply propel me forward protecting my adorable misfit family. There are many diverse environments, lush jungles, ice and snow-covered plains, even dry and hot deserts. They all felt full and distinct from one another, each having their own flora and fauna. I was slightly disappointed when I didn’t see much in the way of interactions between the inhabitants of each ecosystem. It would have been nice to see some of that dynamic instead of them simply existing in each biome.

There are a variety of difficulty settings and it’s easy to switch them in game if you find you want to just relax and not be as stressed with the combat or survival mechanisms. One thing I didn’t see was a colour-blind mode. Perhaps I missed it, but in a game that uses colour a lot, it would be particularly useful in helping with accessibility. The campaign felt a bit long for the content provided, but there were enough twists and turns to keep me intrigued and moving forward.

I spent a lot of time while playing, wondering if the simple style and gameplay was just too simple or was ACE Team trying to tell a bigger story? Was there more to this tale of evolution and survival when what was on the surface? Maybe the giant rolling cylinder was the world, looking to crush the little guy, or maybe it was about how we should always have some hope and continue to try to be unique, stand out and be ourselves? Or maybe it was just a child like tale brought to life to entertain me for a few hours and I shouldn’t look into it too much and just enjoy the wild and wacky ride?

Any way you look at it, The Eternal Cylinder was a whacky and enjoyable ride. I found myself sad when I lost a family member and felt guilt when I didn’t have enough materials to revive them after death. The fact that ACE Team made me connect to these small creatures in such a small time just proves to me that I will always cheer for the underdogs and always try protect my friends and family. If you’re looking for a simple game that stirs the imagination, you should definitely check it out.

*The Eternal Cylinder was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 No Longer Home

It’s no secret that narrative driven games are my favourite genre. A great story and characters will easily keep me hooked and playing, unable to put the controller down until the end. No Longer Home is a story all about endings, specifically the end of an era for the two main characters Ao and Bo, two non-binary characters who have fallen in love but are being forced apart by things beyond their control.

Humble Grove’s No Longer Home is semi-autobiographical in nature, based on the life experiences of two of the developers. The game was made over the course of four years and many miles between the developers residing in Japan and the UK. Its simplistic mechanics allow you to focus primarily on the story. No Longer Home starts with a preamble called Friary Lane. This is completely optional to play but it does help give you the back story to who Ao and Bo are and what set them on a trajectory to being together. There is also an achievement for playing it if you are an achievement hunter.

The main story takes place one year later, immediately after Ao and Bo finish university. When most people feel like their lives should be taking off, this story shows what a lot of us experience. They are sharing an apartment and trying to make ends meet and have no idea what they really want to do with their lives. On top of that, circumstances beyond their control are tearing them apart. Ao is being forced to move home to Japan because of their Visa restrictions and they both have to move from their London flat that they share with friends. No job, no home, and Ao moving out of the country is creating a lot of uncertainty for them. This also comes after the year they have spent together while coming to terms with their gender identity and starting a relationship together. All of it is now hanging in the balance.

No Longer Home plays like many other narrative games where you have a sort of detached view of the game, using point and click, having an emphasis of branching dialogue choices. You’ll walk around the apartment, and garden/yard, going from room to room, interacting with items or having conversations with people. Your dialogue options in the game seem quite natural and not really as if there are "right" and "wrong" choices. You have the options to admit fear and insecurity, for example, without directing the story to a ‘bad’ place. The dialogue choices have a wide range and ultimately don’t matter to the end game. There are no achievements attached to them at all. What I did find interesting was that not only could you choose what was said, but at times could also choose who said it. This meant you could get a normally quiet person to interrupt a more talkative one in some scenes.

There is a section mid game where you are playing a video game with friends and it takes on a whole story within a story, although it comes across as merely a sideline of the main narrative. There is a strange supernatural element as well, and I found it to be unexpected and a bit out of place. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the story and is just there to create a sort of quirkiness just for the sake of adding one to the game. After playing, I wondered if it stood for a larger metaphor about fears etc., but I think that will be entirely up to each person who plays the game as to what they think of it.

No Longer Home tackles deep, important conversations and ideas about identity, relationships, fear, and loss. Although there are some serious topics covered in the game, it also reminds us that life is nothing if it doesn’t have a bit of humour stirred in, even during times of uncertainty and stress. The characters of Ao and Bo were relatable as were the other characters in the game. The location felt authentic, a flat where you went through rooms, and it even had two lovely pet cats to interact with. Luna was adorable and Autumn was simply enormous. Not sure if that was intentional, but I found myself wondering if they were really half the height of Ao and Bo. I just wish there was more to the game. It felt like it ended abruptly without any real closure, and I even wondered if there should have been an additional chapter to clear some things up. I suspect that could be a compliment to the writing in the game since I was invested in the characters and also a criticism of the game for leaving me with unresolved issues between Ao and Bo.

Graphically, No Longer Home is very minimalistic. It is a style often seen in this genre of game. One of the best things in No Longer Home was that it had a sort of theatre quality to it, the walls would drop in and out between scenes, similar to what you would see in a stage production. Each character feels distinct with their own personalities and quirks, even though they are all faceless, except for noses and bits of facial hair. The text in the game was presented concisely and in a no-frills font. It is all text to read in the game, no audible dialogue. There were some typos and some missed words in sentences, and this normally might not be noteworthy, but in a short game like this, every thing stands out. They didn’t really detract from the experience of the game though, mostly just something I took notice of.

As with all my reviews, I like to comment on the music and soundtrack of a game. Music can really make or break a game for me, and I found the music to be like an additional character in No Longer Home. It lent itself to feelings of eeriness, loneliness, anxiety, everything that this game tried to convey in its short play time of about two hours. Although I wouldn’t say the music was ground-breaking, it definitely amplified feelings in each scene. One thing I really didn’t completely understand though was, at the beginning of the game, it told you the game was best experiences with a headset. I obliged but I’m not really sure it made a difference. Maybe it was more immersive because I could hear floor creaks, and small atmospheric sounds, but I can’t confirm it was better with headphones.

Ultimately how you feel about No Longer Home will depend on the type of feelings and memories it evokes in you. What parts of your life does it make you recall and how do you feel about them? Although I am much older than Ao and Bo, I recall a time directly after university when everything was so important, all decisions were huge, and everything (and nothing) was possible. Now, looking back on my life and at the characters in the game, I see wasted time and a couple of self-absorbed young people who have no idea what is really important. That may sound harsh, but I’ll chalk that up to my age, experiences, and hindsight.

I found myself both relating to the main characters at times, and then also frustrated with them. This was especially evident during a lengthy conversation between them that took about 15 minutes of reading time. It’s not so much the reading but their conversation kept going in a cyclical pattern and nothing was really resolved. They both admitted to living in their heads a lot but wanting social interaction. They discussed topics of gentrification of their community and their role in it. They had little time to do anything fun but spent their time moping around the apartment and hanging with friends. They complained of no jobs or money, but didn’t seem to have the motivation to look, all while affording London rent money. For some reason they talked a lot about doing the dishes, although they never did get washed.

No Longer Home is a thought-provoking game that tackles a lot of really complex ideas and feelings. It has a beautiful design, including elements reminiscent of Broadway productions, an interesting soundtrack and, despite my frustration with Ao and Bo at times, it left me wanting more. I spent a lot of time thinking about this game after playing it while writing this, and that alone means it impacted me in a way. Which, for a narrative loving gamer like myself, is all I really want.

*No Longer Home was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Insurgency: Sandstorm

The gaming world is full of FPS games, mostly dominated by the annual releases of the big AAA titles of Call of Duty and Battlefield. These games have multi million-dollar budgets, name recognition and people jump into them every year. How does a game break into the market share, stand out and get recognition? Insurgency: Sandstorm has done this by stripping down the game and giving you a straightforward, hyper realistic game.

Insurgency: Sandstorm, developed by New World Interactive and published by Focus Entertainment, launched in 2018 on PC to high reviews and just recently released on console. The biggest change in this installment of the Insurgency series is the exclusion of a campaign mode. Instead, it focuses solely on team-based game types with objectives to secure or destroy. Each game mode has unique features that make it diverse enough from other match types to keep players entertained.

With local play, players have the freedom to test and improve their skills while fighting with an AI team to capture and destroy a series of objectives. It’s a great chance to learn skills, weapons and try out different classes before jumping in with other players. This was a massive benefit for someone like me who doesn’t play a lot of shooting games. The checkpoint mode is intuitive and there's a hardcore difficulty option for advanced players. Practicing in local can help players grow more accustomed to Insurgency: Sandstorm's quick kill time.

Insurgency: Sandstorm doesn’t give you the highly cinematic gameplay of most modern FPS games, and I think it’s the better for it. It’s a very straight forward ‘bare bones’ shooter. Strictly multiplayer focused, there are 8 modes in the game, varying depending on if you play co-op with a team against AI or against other players in PvP. Co-op tends to have more survival type modes than the versus modes though. Most of the modes and map types will be familiar to you if you play FPS games. Outpost was probably one of my favourites. In this mode you fight off waves of enemies with your team. Domination is also really fun if you have a team that wants to work together.

When I first heard how pared down the game was compared to other FPS titles, I wasn’t expecting much, but what they have done is pretty fantastic. You have a multitude of options to create your ideal fighter on both sides of the battle and can save multiple layouts for them as well. One thing missing in my opinion was a female avatar for the Insurgent side, but I’m guessing the developers considered that to be more realistic in the game.

With each side, you’ll also pick a class to play. Each class brings different benefits to the team to help you win. When you start you will only have three classes to choose from, but as you level up you will unlock more. You will have 20 points to put into what perks you want on your player. Every weapon, mod, upgrade and explosive each require a varying number of points. You can change these in the game if they aren’t working for you, and when you die, you’ll respawn with the new loadout. You will need all of your points and wish you had more, as Insurgency: Sandstorm is tough.

There are no microtransactions thankfully, as you earn points while playing the game to unlock additional items and skill points in the game. This is a refreshing take in a world filled with games that ask you for additional money to unlock things early.

Teamwork is paramount in the game, each class brings specific skills and tactics to the battle. If you have a team willing to play together for the objectives and also willing to communicate, your experience can be even better. Communication can either be in game and on mic or with the pre-sets of text you can select from. The game is not without its toxicity, as I experienced the usual boys club mentality in some matches, unfortunately. Thank goodness muting is a feature. I will say, I had a much better experience with Insurgency: Sandstorm than other FPS games, finding teams that were inclusive and willing to help and teach when I had questions. I ran for almost three hours with the same team one day only to realize they were all military and gave some really great perspectives to the game and some valuable advice to a new person on their team.

Insurgency: Sandstorm sets itself apart from some other first-person shooters with more realistic gun mechanics. The guns don't auto-aim or stay positioned in the middle of the screen, and players can go down with a single bullet and TTK (time-to-kill) is quick. Instead of being able to run into the heart of battle, players will need to use caution and strategy in order to best their opponents. Ammo needs to be reloaded manually, which can be slow, and if the magazine is switched when it's low, rather than completely out, then players will lose any bullets that were left in it. I haven’t played a lot of FPS games recently, but I even noticed that weapons were slow to reload. Spending time talking to real military personal and gun enthusiasts, this was far more realistic than other shooting style games.

One thing I did find difficult was knowing where your party members were on your team. While this does encourage you to just look out for each other, it would have been nice to see where your friends were. My partner and I decided to just wear matching bright red shirts to see each other. A dot of a separate colour or name though would have been helpful.

Audio was exceptional in the game; completely immersive. I highly recommend playing with headphones for this reason. Footsteps, reloading, weapons, explosions and vehicles all have crisp and clean audio. Depending on your headphones, directional audio was easy to pinpoint, and you could even hear bullets ricocheting off walls and vehicles.

While new match types and more realistic gun mechanics are welcome additions, some of the standard controls are counterintuitive and slow down the game. This game really felt like it was made for PC, and they didn’t make quite enough changes for it to transfer to console controller. Luckily, there's a quick fix in the menu for alternative controller layouts which are closer to genre standards. For players that want to experience the game as it was intended, there is also a comprehensive tutorial and lesson guide that explains everything the game has to offer.

Insurgency: Sandstorm isn’t the prettiest game I’ve played, graphics could be crisper and cleaner, but it’s raw and gritty. As someone who isn’t as comfortable with PvP gaming, my reflexes can’t keep up anymore, though I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Insurgency: Sandstorm. Co-op play with a team against AI was a much more pleasant experience than I anticipated and actually found myself wanting to play more than expected.

*Insurgency: Sandstorm was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 7.6 / 10 Far Cry 6

From prehistoric times, to Africa, the Indo-Pacific, the Himalayas and even Montana, the Far Cry franchise has always dropped gamers into beautifully crafted worlds full of charming villages and hidden wonders. Far Cry 6 may be the most beautiful entry to date as it drops us into the fictional country of Yara. Clearly inspired by Cuba, lush greenery, tropical landscapes and beautiful water really shows how Ubisoft creates some of the best environments in the industry. An island nation frozen in time, a charismatic dictator, a guerilla faction fighting for freedom, some of the most endearing NPCs I’ve met in game and wild weapons create the largest Far Cry game in the franchise.

El Presidente Antón Castillo, played by Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, The Mandalorian), is the fascist dictator of Yara and is training his son, Diego, to follow in his footsteps. The country is also in the midst of an uprising with the Libertad fighting for its freedom. Castillo has Yara in an ‘Us vs Them’ situation where he uses ‘fake Yarans’ to work as labour on his Vivaro plants. Vivaro is a type of tobacco that is chemically augmented and is a smokeable treatment for cancer. This is the primary source of income for Castillo and very dangerous for the workers as they often die from the poison used in the production of Vivaro.

You play the role of Dani Rojas, former Yaran soldier who eventually joins forces with the Libertad in her bid to get off the island. To help gain the trust and help of the Libertad guerrillas, you must help take over check points, capture military targets, destroy anti aircraft missiles, destroy and steal military supplies, bribe soldiers and destroy propaganda billboards - basically anything to disrupt Castillo and his military presence in Yara. Players have a choice to play as either male or female Dani, who are both canon. The story plays out the same regardless of choice, so feel free to pick whichever version you want to. You most often play in first person during the game anyway.

If you’ve played any of the Far Cry games before, Ubisoft has stuck with their tried-and-true map system. The map is broken into different regions, each with a hub, their own missions, collectibles and people to interact with. As you take over each section of the map, you get closer to ending Castillo’s reign over Yara. Although you can choose which area of the map you start with, making your gameplay more flexible and open, the game does feel like it wants you to start in the Western section of the map.

To help you along your journey you can recruit animal companions to accompany you. There are 3 main Amigos, a crocodile named Guapo, an adorable wheelchair dog name Chorizo and a feisty rooster named Chicharron. Each Amigo has their own sets of unique skills, and you can level each of them up to open additional skills. There are 2 additional Amigos you can open during the game, and another 2 only available with upgrading your version of the game. They come with other cosmetics in the Ultimate version of the game. Unlike Far Cry 5, you don’t have any human companions in Far Cry 6.

Even with all of the similarities to previous titles, Far Cry 6 also gives us some refreshing new ideas. In earlier games clothing was strictly cosmetic, but in Far Cry 6 your clothing and gear have perks assigned to them. Some strictly give bonuses while others give a bonus but also a negative to another component. Goodbye perk trees, hello mix and match for your perfect play style. You can also swap your gear and weapons on the fly. This is great for those times when you are caught in a fight where you need more protection against fire or explosions for example. Just swap out what you need. Each weapon also has a wide variety of mods so you can also customize them to your playstyle. You can add a specific type of bullet, like incendiary ammo, and when adding the gear that amplifies your weapon perks you can create chaos in any way you want. With a quick count, I saw around 90 different weapons to choose from. Dani can carry three primary weapons at a time, along with a sidearm, a variety of throwing weapons, grenades and a Supremo. Modification is the name of the game, and no two players will likely have identical loadouts.

Enemies also got an upgrade in Far Cry 6. There are a few types of them, each with their own weaknesses that you can see from scouting them. Speaking of scouting, gone are your binoculars, and you now scout using your smart phone. Your phone is also used to scan vehicles and horses to add them to your inventory. Yes, horses are now vehicles in the game.

Gameplay is very dynamic and there is a lot of variety, but Resolver Weapons and Supremo backpacks are where the wacky and wild side appears. Your Supremo backpack is your ultimate ability and can only be used once a gauge fills up, filled by killing enemies. You can add mods to your Supremo to give you additional ways to fill your gauge faster. Your original Supremo is a supped-up rocket launcher, and can take out anything from an anti aircraft gun, a tank or helicopter easily. As you find depleted uranium around the map, you can purchase alternative Supremo backpacks from Juan. These will all have a different main purpose, from self reviving, shooting through walls, jetpacks, etc.

Your Resolver weapons (used in one of your three primary weapon slots) can be acquired similarly through the game and also have really fun and crazy perks. There is a handgun that shoots nail rounds, an EMP cannon, a harpoon crossbow or an explosive sniper rifle, to name a few. Guerilla warfare focuses on DIY weapons and some of them were just ludicrous. While some weapons you’ll find in the wild are useful, Resolver weapons are probably the most powerful in the game but also the most ridiculous and fun.

While stealth is still a viable option in Far Cry 6, the game leans towards asking you to play the opposite. Why else would it give you all these crazy weapons? There was something satisfying about running in guns blazing like an action hero. Beyond the changes with weapons and gear, some minor mechanics have improved from Far Cry 5. Bodies no longer need to be looted, co-op has been updated so that both players have saved progress instead of just the host, and you can call for a ride wherever you are using your weapon wheel. Ubisoft has fixed a lot of the mechanics that made the last game slower while keeping much of what I love about the Far Cry franchise.

While exploring the beautiful island of Yara by vehicle, the radio plays upbeat music. Some songs you will recognize, like ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’, while others simply transport you to an island getaway. If you travel in a vehicle for awhile, Dani will also start to sing along to the songs. A small detail, but a nice one. The tropical vacation feel was something I didn’t realize I was missing quite as much as I am. If I closed my eyes, I was instantly pool side on a previous vacation locale, like South America or the Caribbean. I immediately searched out the soundtrack and added it to my favourites list of music. Sound design is fantastic across the board. Weapons are loud and punchy, and vehicles like planes and tanks can be identified easily by audio.

Antón Castillo might just be my favourite Far Cry villain to date. Antón’s cold and calculating demeanor is a change from the series’ more eccentric bad guys from the past games, like Vaas or Pagan Min. I would hazard to guess that Esposito enjoyed playing this role. Every line of his dialogue drips with contempt for everyone around him except for his son, Diego. Walking a fine line between wanting to respect and honour his fathers wishes and sympathizing with the guerillas who want a better future for Yara, Diego is also one of the more complex and intriguing characters in the game.

There are many great NPCs in the game, some with really interesting stories that I wish I heard more of and some who simply made me belly laugh with every ridiculous line that came out of their mouth. These two extremes are easily embodied by El Tigre, the eccentric old timer who is one of the Legends of ’67 and Philly, with his wild love of explosives.

While Yara is probably one of the best designed of their open worlds to date, it’s still easy to succumb to a classic case of Ubisoft fatigue. Far Cry 6’s map is easily twice the size of Far Cry 5 and ticking off objectives across the huge map can grow tedious during longer play sessions, especially if you are a completionist. There are 53 achievements in the game, quite a few involving collecting.

I did encounter a few graphical glitches when first playing Far Cry 6 on an Xbox Series X, however I am pleased to note that after the Day 1 patch I encountered far less of them. This review took a bit more time than anticipated because I really wanted to try and comment on co-op. I am pleased that Far Cry 6 allows progression of both players, not just the host, and also allows both players to unlock achievements. These were missing from previous games and were a deterrent to playing with friends if only one of you could get the achievements or progress your game. One flaw to co-op was that it was hard to see your partner on the mini map. In fact, they weren’t on the mini map at all. If you looked around the area you could find them, but if there were other friendlies in the area, they all had the same blue dot. I would like to have had my partner have a different colour or a name above them to make it easier to locate them, especially in battles.

Finally, I must mention the large array of accessibility options offered in Far Cry 6. The game features some of the most extensive colorblind settings I’ve ever seen, and you can also choose from a selection of pre-sets across vision, hearing, motor, cognitive and motion categories. All pre-sets can also be manually adjusted by the player, meaning there are many ways to customize the game for accessibility. I counted a little over 30 different visual options that you can adjust on your screen to make it easier to play. I was pleasantly surprised to find I could easily turn off motion blur and adjust a few other settings to completely remove the motion sickness that I often experience in first person games. I also adjusted the colour and thickness of outlines around collectibles in the game, making it easier on my eyes and helping so that I wouldn’t miss out on any of the supplies needed to craft weapons or gear. It also highlighted any collectibles so I wouldn’t miss them and have to backtrack. One of my friends also benefitted from changing ‘hold button’ to ‘tap button’ a quick tap was much easier for them with their hand pain.

Far Cry 6 may be my favourite entry into the series. The ridiculous weapons, wonderful Amigos, beautiful scenery and charismatic Esposito made it a fantastic experience for me. Although it doesn’t ‘reinvent the wheel’, it knows it’s audience and did improve and add some new ideas. If you enjoy the Far Cry series, you should definitely make some time to visit Yara.

*Far Cry 6 was provided by the publishers and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Suggestions: please make it easier to see your co op partner on the mini map/HUD and when looking around. A different colour or name would be very helpful

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 A Juggler’s Tale

A Juggler’s Tale, developed by German studio Kaleidoscube, is an atmospheric puzzle platformer that tells the story of Abby, a marionette, who is trying to find her way to freedom. Puppet master Jack firmly holds her strings in his helpful hands.

Set in a marionette theatre, the fairy tale world unfolds on stage over 5 acts. You don’t play as Abby, but rather the puppeteer who navigates her though the world, jumping, pulling/pushing objects and solving puzzles to avoid objects that block or snag her strings. Simplistic controls make this easy to navigate. 'Left Stick' to move left or right, 'A' button to jump or 'Right Trigger' to grab items to move them.

Abby starts her journey being held captive by a circus, putting on shows during the day and being held in a cage at night. Abby eventually manages to escape but soon discovers the other dangers in the outside world. After a brief moment to enjoy her new freedom she must navigate traps, river crossings, bandit camps and more on her journey.

The narrator/puppet master is very important, and he gives all the characters their voices and guides Abby while securely holding her strings. It is his story you are playing, and things become more complicated as she starts to veer from the original intended story he’s trying to tell.

The narrator tells the story in a theatrical manner and therefore uses poetic language to describe the world around you, give puzzle hints if you’re stuck and to be the voice for all characters: “Little Abby takes a pause and stops with a shiver / If you want to be free, you’ll have to cross the river!” for example. The rhyming used in the writing definitely took me back to being a child and listening to stories in person or on TV. I found myself captivated by its lyrical nature. While searching for more info behind the game, I was delighted to find out that the studio took the time to keep the rhyming narration in German as well. Although the words would be different, and have different meaning, I was pleased to know others would also be able to enjoy the lyrical magic I experienced.

The charismatic narrator and puppet master, Jack, is voiced by the wonderful Shaun Lawton, who was perfect in this game. I loved his voice and I could sit and listen to him read stories all day.

The accompanying music for the game was straight out of fairy tale. As soon as the music stared on the title screen I was hooked. Like a beautiful melody played by a bard I was enchanted. I even sent a message to a friend stating that before I even dove into the gameplay.

While clocking in at a very quick 2 to 3 hour gameplay, I enjoyed every moment with A Juggler’s Tale. This was the first major game by Kaleidoscube, and it stuck with me for days after playing it. I even went searching for more info about the behind the scenes of the game and the voice actor behind the Puppet Master Jack. Kaleidoscube is a student founded Startup and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

While A Juggler’s Tale is primarily a game that revolves around the connection between storyteller and Abby, it’s even more so a game about trust and the things that bind us together. A Juggler’s Tale really is a children’s story come to life. With its simplistic controls, lovely, stylized scenery, enchanting music and the narrator’s charismatic voice, A Juggler’s Tale creates a gaming experience to be enjoyed by everyone.

*A Juggler’s Tale was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Kitaria Fables

Kitaria Fables, developed by the Indonesian studio Twin Hearts, is an action/farming RPG hybrid that’s as frustrating as it is cute. While I loved the anthropomorphized cast of adorable critters, I found the fighting and gameplay more frustrating than enjoyable.

In Kitaria Fables you play as an adorable kitty soldier/adventurer, Nyanza von Whiskers (Nyan) who is dispatched to Paw Village to help after a threatening invasion of evil forces in the world. He is accompanied by his companion Macaron, who is with you in dialogue scenes but not in combat. According to the legend, many years ago, The Calamity threatened the world but was driven away by a hero. Since then, there has been peace until recent developments seem to be a troubling omen. The setting is fairly standard for an RPG, but the writing kept things a bit more fresh than other games I have played. While receiving quests from the cute cast of bunnies, puppies, bears and other animals, there is also some underlying darkness in the writing. In the beginning you are warned not to let the villagers know that you have learned magic abilities, or you may possibly get dragged off in secret. Magic is something you use often in the game, but seems like the villagers are nervous about it. I never really found out why.

The cast of characters you meet through the game are adorable, and a few managed to elicit smiles out of me every time I saw them, particularly the children in the villages. There is a one particular tiny bunny who is always dancing when you see her, and a mouse who is always asking you have any candy for him. While you are restricted to only playing as a cat, there are some customizing options in your home for you to create a character to make it feel individualized.

Visually the game was very appealing. Bright and colourful with a hand painted 2D look. There are interesting areas to explore as you move around the map to complete your quests. The map wasn’t very helpful other than to give you a vague direction in which to move though. I do wish the transition between zones on the map was more fluid, but as you crossed the dotted lines indicating borders there was a brief ‘black screen’ when you transition. There were some fast travel and save points you open while moving through the game, but most of them were one way only. Handy for getting from your main checkpoints to places, but not back to the main points to turn in quests. I could almost overlook this if you didn’t walk so comically slow in the game, and there was no button to sprint.

The UI was well designed and attacks were animated nicely. Unfortunately, the enemies weren’t designed as well and felt a bit uninspired. You had a variety of skills to learn to fight, including magic and a sword and bow, but really only able to roll out of the way to use as a defense mechanism. Because you only have one method of defense, I was happy that the enemies’ attacks were easy to read. The game gave you a large warning for the area of attack. While this made defense easier, it really took me out of the game, and I was hoping for a more immersive experience in the fights. The fighting in Kitaria Fables also felt basic and got boring quite quickly. With only a few attacks, most fight were broken down to a formula of dodge, spell/melee attack, dodge, attack, repeat.

Most RPGs are known to have a certain grinding component to them, but I found Kitaria Fables to be exceptionally grindy for no particular reason. To get a new spell you must craft it by killing a lot of enemies and collecting materials. To complete a side quest, you have to kill a lot of enemies and collect materials. To upgrade your weapon, you have to kill a lot of enemies and collect materials. I think you get the point I am trying to make.

When I first saw the trailers for Kitaria Fables, I saw farming and cute characters and that’s what drew me into doing this review. Sadly, other than a few quests that require you to harvest items in the beginning, the farming is strictly for making money in the game. Even the farming was grindy though. Plant seeds, water every day or they will die, forget to harvest on time and they’ll die. The easiest way to farm in the game became plant, sleep to progress to the day, water, sleep, water, sleep and continue until the harvest time for the crop. Sell your goods and repeat the process.

Kitaria Fables' visuals were great; music was a delight (feeling like it was pulled from a fairy tale), and the story was charming. It is definitely not a game for everyone, but what game really is for everyone? The combat and quests were grindy, but if you are the type of person that feels accomplished by completing lengthy tasks you will likely enjoy Kitaria Fables.

*Kitaria Fables was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Life is Strange: True Colors

I’ll admit I was more than a bit skeptical when I first heard that Alex Chen’s superpower was empathy in the new Life Is Strange Game. After Max’s ability to manipulate time in the original, and Daniel’s telekinesis in the sequel, it seemed like the ability to feel and take on the emotions of others would be a weak choice. I am happy to report that I was wrong. Seeing someone with empathy on the screen was a fantastic choice for the new game.

Life Is Strange: True Colors is the newest game in the well-known series. Developed by Deck Nine, the team behind the well received Before the Storm prequel, they have said they consider True Colors to be the ushering in of a new era for the Life Is Strange series. This is also the first game in the series to release all chapters at once. Because it wasn’t released episodically, it feels a bit more like bingeing an entire season of a show versus waiting weeks for it to play out. Playing straight though keeps the narrative easy to follow and remember.

We first meet Alex at the Helping Hands Group home where she is speaking to her therapist. She has been living there for 8 years and is finally ready to leave and live with her brother Gabe in Haven Springs, Colorado. She’s an adult (21) who’s already aware of her powers. Compared to her teenage predecessors, who struggled to come to terms with their newfound abilities, Alex feels more measured for it. It takes a lot to throw her as she’s already seen and been through quite a bit before. She’s less likely to react recklessly than the teenage protagonists the other Life Is Strange offerings. It’s a refreshing new take for the series but still played into the coming-of-age stories Life Is Strange is known for.

Alex doesn’t simply feel emotions of people around her; she sees auras (blue, purple, red and yellow depending on the emotion) and can tap into these emotions and actually hear what the characters are feeling. What are they afraid of, worried about, thinking etc.? Not only can she tap into them, but she can also actually take away these feelings of being afraid or angry, even if they hurt her in the process. As with other choices in the game, you can choose whether to take on the emotions or simply acknowledge the feelings and progress in the story.

In the opening scene we also see what a long way graphics have some in the Life Is Strange series. Alex’s facial movements are more subtle than previous games, her brow furrows when thinking and her eyes dart to the side or she’ll blink rapidly when trying to avoid a question. This may seem like such a small detail to focus on, but it really made me connect with Alex. She seemed more real, unsure and nervous about what her move will bring. These small facial movements even from other characters help fill in unspoken parts of the story as Alex works her way through the town meeting the locals in town. The animation was very well done, and the movements seems authentic and natural looking.

After a brief cutscene, Alex finds herself in Haven Springs, a beautiful village deep in the mountains of Colorado. Flowers in a range of beautiful and vibrant colours line the streets, contrasting with the lush greens of the grass and trees. There are tranquil sounds of the water running down the river. This beautiful scenery could easily be seen as a tourism advertisement for Colorado, or any mountain town (like Banff, Alberta). The small-town feel was also evident with characters. They all knew each other so well, and it was clear that they really cared for one another. Being from a small town, Deck Nine really hit on that familiarity for me. At the end of Chapter One there is an accident. It was shown in the trailers, but I won’t spoil here in case you haven’t seen them, and Alex must unravel the mystery involving the evil Typhon mining company, discovering the truth as to what happened.

Life Is Strange: True Colors is full of fascinating characters that each provide their own stories to the narrative. Although you need to talk to some of them to unravel the main story, others are simply there to add depth. You can choose to not talk to them, but you really would be missing out on some of the most heartfelt moments in the game. Small details are hidden around for you to discover and something as simple as discovering a couples initials carved into a bar stool led me to uncover a beautiful and heartbreaking story later on in the game. Should you choose to, you can tap into locals’ emotions and thoughts and help them solve some of their individual concerns while walking around the town. These range from helping a couple admit their feelings to one another, to helping a bird watcher find her elusive target to win a contest. I loved these small interactions in the game and it really made the game feel full.

As mentioned earlier, some characters are considered central to the story and one part involving a beloved elderly character, feeling all too familiar as I played through the game. As with any Life Is Strange game, you have options as to how to respond to characters, your dialogue and choices definitely do impact the game as you progress. As you react and chat with characters, you will see a variety of auras and facial expressions that may help you determine how they are feeling and how you may want to progress with the story and choose your words and responses. If you choose to not interact with some memories or characters, certain dialogue options simply will not be available to you and won’t factor into the ending you’ll get. I played through 3 times and had a different story unfold and very different endings. Deck Nine has said there are 6 distinct endings and none of them are canonically considered the true ending for the game. They are all valid, and all seem completely natural and authentic to Alex.

As you move though the story, and similar to other Life Is Strange entries, Alex’s journal entries update as you gather more info, as do her text messages on her phone. As you interact with characters, different dialogue choices in alternate playthroughs, even small things like song lyrics she was composing would be scratched out and changed in her journal. These can be totally different from one playthrough to the next. I noticed that the texts would also change, depending on conversations you did or didn’t have.

Just when I thought I knew how the story was going to play out, Deck Nine hit me with an unexpected twist that changed everything, and I couldn’t wait to see how the rest of the story/game finished. Chapter 3 was a LARP (live action role play) chapter, tossing in RPG game play elements that added a refreshing twist in game play mid game. A game within a game if you’d have it. I won’t spoil any of this chapter, but it was an unexpected and wonderful addition to the game. It fit in completely with the nerdy nature of some of the characters and I am so glad I didn’t have any of that spoiled for me prior to playing.

With all Life Is Strange games, there are romance options. In True Colors, Ryan and Steph are both solid choices for romances, and each felt rewarding in their own way. This was different from previous games where it seems like one romance option was clearly pushed as the choice you should make.

There were some noticeable framerate issues, specifically with the outdoor scenes while playing, and Deck Nine/Square Enix did provide information that it would be fixed with a patch at launch, as well as the missing ray tracing would also be there once the game officially launched. I am happy to report that post launch these issues appeared to be fixed.

The soundtrack for Life Is Strange: True Colors is compromised of an original score composed by folk and indie pop group Angus and Julia Stone and licensed tracks, some of which were specifically composed for the game. The haunting cover of the song Creep was prevalent in the trailers, and I immediately knew this would be a stirring soundtrack to listen to. It may be one of my favourite soundtracks I’ve ever experienced in a game and has been on repeat on Spotify since I finished my first playthrough.

There are many moments of Zen where Alex simply sits and takes in her surroundings. On the bridge, the dock as the edge of town, listening to a record player in her apartment or the record store. These all provided chances to take a minute to contemplate and really take in the depth to which music plays an important role in this game like all of them in the Life Is Strange series.

Deck Nine got a chance to prove itself with Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, but if there were any lingering doubts about where the developer can take the franchise, they’re surely cleared away with True Colors. Life Is Strange: True Colors has kept me more emotionally invested in any Life Is Strange Story since I played the original. Consistent writing for both main and side characters, a compelling, well paced story as well as dialogue choices that have actual consequences over the course of the five chapters, True Colors may just be the best entry into the Life Is Strange series.

**Life Is Strange: True Colors was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Gelly Break Deluxe

Gelly Break Deluxe is a re-release of Gelly Break that was first released 3 years ago, a colourful couch co-op platformer designed for players of all ages. You take on the roles of two adorable squishy gellies named Gel and Lee. They must work together, using their shooting and switching skills, to save their world from the baddie named Evil Blob, his minions and a variety of mini bosses.

You can play Gelly Break Deluxe either as single player or couch co-op. This makes it a great option for couples and families, but if you are a solo dweller, you are forced to play single as there is no online multiplayer included unfortuntely.

Having had the opportunity to play both co-op and solo, I found solo easier, although I do see the appeal of playing with a friend as many laughs were had. In single player you switch between the 2 characters using 'Left Bumper', swapping you from Green to Orange and back again. Green can jump on green platforms, Orange on orange which means you’re switching between them often to maneuver and climb up areas or hop across lava flows. You also use the ‘switch’ mechanic to shatter glass and rescue the gellie’s friends in the levels or break glass to get additional items.

In single player, the switching is easy and rarely challenges your reflexes. I can only assume this is to bring the balance down, as the levels are identical whether you play two player or alone. It is entirely possible to breeze through single player in about 4-5 hours if you wanted.

In co-op things are a bit more challenging. In order to switch between characters, you must first jump onto your partners back, with both players pressing their buttons at the same time to accomplish this. This is even more difficult than it sounds. My first few attempts seemed like this would be an aggravating task and we’d never get through the levels, but after some trial and error we agreed on a timing mechanism that worked.

There are a few safety nets in the game. You can gain extra lives fairly easily, and a super Mario style bubble retrieves you if you fall off the edge. Your health bar allows for several falls and knocks.

The levels are clearly geared for two player and the game starts with two players as the default. Often you have multiple route options, each geared towards a colour where you would split up, move along and regroup. This game play is removed when you play solo because you simple choose a path of convenience and ease.

About halfway through the game I had seen about everything Gelly Break Deluxe had to offer, all of the skills and all 4 minion types. Boss battles mix things up a bit and give you the only unique moments in the game. A lot of it was simple combos of the game jump, spin, break repeat.

The music was very upbeat and reminiscent of most arcade style platformers I grew up with, as I found myself bobbing my head along on numerous occasions. Happy music, bright colours and cute characters definitely give this platformer appeal for multiple ages.

Gelly Break Deluxe gave me what I expected from the game; It was a cute, colourful upbeat platformer. Its happy music, simple design and couch co-op made its appeal evident for family or couple fun, but I do think it could benefit from online co-op so you could find others to play if you happen to live alone. I did find the solo gameplay less challenging and frustrating and enjoyed my time playing the game in this mode much more overall.

**Gelly Break Deluxe was provided by the publisher and reviewed on and Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Cloud Gardens

The world can be stressful and, if the past 18 months or so have taught us anything, unpredictable too. We’ve all been doing our best to combat the stress and boredom in whatever ways work for us as individuals. This could be something like listening to music, reading, taking up baking sourdough bread etc., whatever helps to distract us from the steady stream of news and negativity on the news or social media. Video games, although well known as a distraction, haven’t really been known to be a form of calm meditation. Cloud Gardens has changed that. It was the perfect ‘Zen Garden’ for me to escape to.

Zen Garden may not be a perfect description of Cloud Gardens, but, created by solo developer Thomas van den Berg of Noio studios, Cloud Gardens is about creating green spaces in stylized empty landscapes. It definitely brought me a lot of moments of quiet contemplation.

Cloud Gardens tasks you with planting seeds and growing plants over scenes of urban decay. There are four different locations to play around in: Highways, a junkyard, rooftops, and a greenhouse. There are various types of plants and tree seeds you will unlock and can choose from, as well as water supply ‘seed’. Placing items (mostly garbage and junk items) coaxes your plants to grow. While placing the item, you can see its area of influence—with larger items usually causing more growth. It’s a strange mechanic, where garbage is essentially your fertilizer. As the seeds grow you harvest their flowers/fruit, and that harvest in turn fills the gauge you need to plant additional seeds.

You grow your plants and place items in any way you see fit with the goal to ‘cover 100%’ of the map indicated with a percentage gauge in the bottom corner. Most levels are easy to complete but there is a fail state, and I did fail a few levels, either by running out of plant material or décor items. It’s a quick restart though and addictive. I immediately jumped back in and just kept wanting to play more and more. I loved creating spaces with the artifacts to set a scene and a story in my head about what may have happened before the people simply disappeared.

As someone who has worked on volunteer reclamation projects in cities with abandoned plots of land, I found this game very rewarding. Taking back the dead land and making it alive again lit a spark. I need to find a way to do that again. It was beautiful and cathartic. I found it to be very relaxing and since the game has the ability to jump around and play levels as you want, as I could play my favourite areas more than once.

The level design is also pretty clever. Each scene is potentially part of a larger scene. Sometimes it was simply one area to complete and move on, while sometimes a scene would continue on to a larger diorama. I think the largest I encountered was 6 sections. The larger, complex ones were my favourites to go back and repeat. Once you knew what artifacts you would get as you covered more of the space, you could make a better plan the second or third time around.

There is no tutorial for Cloud Gardens, no explanation as to how the seeds grow, which will cover the most space or require the most resources to generate a seed, it’s simply trial and error. In that way I guess it’s like real gardening. You’re never quite sure what will grow or how it will flourish. In the time it took me to understand how Cloud Gardens really worked, I’d gone on an emotional journey from fleeting confusion to intense focus on the game levels. Each new level gave me the opportunity to rotate the camera, trying to find the perfect place to plant the seeds or place the items I was given to create the best garden. But as with all sowing and reaping, this is inevitably a game about balance. Using your garbage arsenal wisely comes into play as you hit higher levels with less items available to place around.

The game doesn’t have high resolution graphics and isn’t hyper realistic, but I think this lends to its charm. It’s like a beautiful watercolour that slowly reveals itself on a canvas. Perhaps I felt a little like Bob Ross in some moments, planting ‘happy little trees’.

As with most point and click style games that I’ve played on console, the controls aren’t as smooth as they could be. Camera movement wasn’t always easy to get a good angle, and physics-based stacking of items often became frustrating when they didn’t act as they should. None of these things took away from my overall enjoyment of the game though.

The entire game of Cloud Gardens has a serene and Zen like quality to it, and as you would expect, the music used for its soundtrack also contributes to this feeling. It had a very meditative quality that would be something you would hear in a yoga studio or spa environment. Cloud Gardens is a unique experience that is hard to describe or compare to anything else I’ve played before. It’s part garden simulator, part dystopian landscape designer, part puzzler and so much more. It’s a game about growth, beauty and the lovely wild things that can spring up in unexpected places. It’s an exercise in finding balance and it’s a gentle reminder to look beyond what you see on the surface, perhaps a bigger teaching moment than I’ve had in a game in some time.

Cloud Gardens gave me a moment to reflect how lucky I am to do things like this, to play games I likely never would have looked at if wasn’t given the opportunity to review them. Gamers tend to snap up the big, bold action-packed titles, or really well known and highly talked about Indies. I didn’t know what to expect from this game or how to approach it. Turns out this is exactly the way to go into the game. Look around, learn the landscape, take back the barren wasteland. It was satisfying, and a complete joy to play. It will stick with me for some time, and I think I will revisit it when I need to take some time out of my hectic life, or a botanical escape in the dead of winter in Canada.

**Cloud Gardens was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Suggestions: Would love to have the camera movement be a bit more fluid. I simply couldn't get the camera to move to some areas to see where I wanted to place items more accurately, especially when stacking smaller items like bottles.

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Omno

While having clear goals, direction and combat create player motivation in the world of gaming, there is something to be said about a low stakes/low stress gaming experience. Omno was created by a single independent developer, Jonas Manke, via Kickstarter back in 2017. Studio Inkyfox has created one of the most pleasant and laid-back gaming experiences I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

Omno puts you in the shoes of a little unnamed guy while he and his tiny green companion make their way through multiple biomes. Each chapter/biome has orbs and books to collect and as you enter the level you approach a platform to meditate. When you meditate, it will give you the direct to find three glowing orbs. As you collect the orbs you open the main pillar that creates the opening to the next level. Each book gives you some of the lore to explain the story of why the main character is maneuvering through the world and trying to get to his final destination. Omno is very simple, each level has meditate, collect orbs and lore, identify animals... repeat.

While progressing you will unlock abilities. First you learn to run, jump, interact with animals and then you learn to use his staff to dash, glide, surf or warp between touch pads. Finding the correct combination of skills will assist you in solving the puzzles and getting to all the orbs required to open the pillar and move on. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult and all were enjoyable. There is also a good variety in the puzzles. Whether you are using the warp pads to get through gates before they close or pushing block to obstruct beams, there is something new in each chapter. The abilities also help with movement in the game. As you start, the areas are quite small, but as you move through the game, they get larger in scope. The puzzles themselves are balanced perfectly – for me, at least – to never make you feel stupid whilst also managing to offer that sense of satisfaction once the solution becomes clear.

Each chapter falls into a biome category. Wetlands, lush green areas, desert, snow etc. The entire game was captivating and cozy, and I often found myself just panning the camera around and looking and listening. Because there is no combat or danger, and you can’t attack anything, the game is a calm peaceful journey and a simple joy to sit back and explore.

Jonas Manke manages to tell a heartwarming story of friendship and trust through brief interactions between the main character and their timid flying squirrel-like creature, which delivers an emotional story despite its lack of dialogue.

Omno is an incredibly refreshing title, one that I didn’t know I needed until now. Video games more often than not are filled with endless lists of quests, collectibles to check off, to do lists and monsters to defeat. In Omno, gentle giants are your friends, you can frolic and play with them or ride the larger ones to marvel at your scenery. Learning how to interact with the smaller creatures is a game within itself. Surfing with some of the small critters in the winter wonderland zone brought me massive amounts of joy. Some of my favourite moments were when you interact with ‘mythical’ creatures, and they move you between chapters. Omno is a visually beautiful game.

From the moment I started Omno I was greeting with a calm and blissful soundtrack that gave a clear indication that this would be a mellow and chill game. The soundtrack was composed and produced by award winning composer Benedict Nichols (The Falconeer). I enjoyed the music and, in fact, have the title page of the game up listening to it while writing this review.

If there is one negative for me about the game, it’s that it’s too short. My playthrough lasted between three to four hours and I wanted more. But I can also see that sometimes short and sweet is better than long and drawn out. If the game was longer, using the same formula in each chapter, it might have become stagnant. I really hope to see more from Studio Inkyfox in the future. Omno is pure escapism in a short and sweet package. Controls are simple and controls are intuitive. Fans of meditation and exploration games will find Omno charming.

**Omno was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.6 / 10 Operation: Tango

Communication is key. That’s important whether in a relationship or helping someone diffuse a bomb about to end the world.

Developed by Clever Plays, Operation: Tango is an online only co-op puzzle adventure game. A pair of players take on the roles of two spies, (an agent and a hacker), and help one another through many puzzles and mysteries while trying to take down the evil villain known as Cypher.

Verbal communication is the most important part of the game, as each player will see something different on their screens and have access to different mechanics that will help their partner solve a puzzle. Unlike other online co-op games I’ve played you only see your own screen in Operation: Tango so you have no idea what your partner is seeing.

In Operation: Tango, there are six missions to complete, including breaking into a billionaire's vault, stopping a runaway train and diving into the Dark Web. The puzzles associated with each mission can sometimes be very simple, like finding and inputting an easily discovered passcode or dodging internet security sentinels, but the variations in the puzzles and the sometimes goofy solutions are part of the game's design and contribute to its charm. Many of the longer puzzles are clever and engaging, leading to rather amusing, and sometimes frustrating, communication situations. Puzzle design in Operation: Tango often leads to satisfying ‘a-ha’ moments when you figure out what you should do and successfully come up with the solution.

Generally speaking, the Agent’s parts play out in first person while the hacker remains ‘online’ and from a distance. There are many situations that the Agent also needs to use their hacking skills to solve the puzzle. I would have liked to see more distinction between the roles and perhaps some more action from the Agent. Since the Agent had no combat skills it often boiled down to two hackers in a mission. One was merely walking around while the other sat.

On a technical level, Operation: Tango is impressive. The UI and interfaces for the various puzzles are clean and engaging, never giving too much away and always encouraging players to click around and explore. In-game chat was clear, but I primarily used Xbox party chat when playing. I did encounter a few errors in the game with being disconnected from my partner. I thought this may have been related to us playing across the globe (Canada and Australia), but it also happened when playing with a partner close by. If players do experience a glitch and get kicked from the game, both players can reconnect and choose to restart exactly where their agents left off thankfully.

Unfortunately, Operation: Tango isn’t very long. With only six missions to the story, the game may only take a few hours depending on how quickly partners can pick up the solutions to various puzzles. My playthrough as the Agent took about five hours. Although you could extend your game time by replaying the game and playing as the opposing roles (this is required to get all the achievements on Xbox) and see the other point of view throughout the missions, you have a distinct advantage knowing what you already saw on the first time through. It doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable but would take away from the suspense and intrigue of figuring out the puzzles.

For every mission that was interesting code breaking, there were many button mashing/rhythm matching sequences. One in particular required me to grab a pen and paper to track the colours so when my partner called out ‘now’ I knew what colour was needed. Infuriating to me, were the ball moving puzzles where one person controls the vertical movement whereas the other controls the horizontal while navigating the puzzle.

Only one player on the team needs to have purchased a copy of Operation: Tango. Additional players can pick up the free Friend Pass to join a game. Players with a Friend Pass won't be able to create a new game or receive achievements, but they can still access all the other features. Operation: Tango also supports cross play, so it should be very easy for players to jump in with any of their friends.

I was extremely lucky to play Operation: Tango with a partner with whom I have fantastic communication skills. This meant that we were able to work together easily on the puzzles in the game. However, as he suffers from arthritis in his hands, he struggled with some of the repetitive and quick time reactions needed to complete them. This was something that I had not anticipated and is important to note if there are any players with mobility issues. There is no way to adjust these settings to increase accessibility unfortunately.

Any classic spy film needs a great soundtrack, and Operation: Tango has just the right amount of adrenaline music at the right time. The music speeds up slightly in points where you would naturally be more stressed and your heart rate would rise. Like when the clock is running out of time, and you start speaking louder and faster to your partner. The soundtrack definitely had a James Bond type vibe to it. No mistaking that this was a spy game if you heard just the opening music.

While it lasts, Operation: Tango is great fun. The puzzles are engaging and never too simple to solve, but they are also not so difficult as to become frustrating. Operation: Tango forces players to find new ways of communicating, often leading to funny outbursts and miscommunications. Operation: Tango is clever, well-designed and engaging. It has a good mix of silly puzzles and those that require more thought. Although short and not all that replayable, it’s well worth a play through with a friend who has patience and a keen eye for detail. Fans of co-op puzzlers should consider trying their hand at this game.

**Operation: Tango was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Mythic Ocean

Mythic Ocean is a narrative-led underwater exploration game created by a team of just three developers under the name Paralune LLC. The premise has you, an unknown being, becoming friends with a group of ‘gods’ while exploring an underwater habitat. Addressing such grand notions like the creation of the entire universe, you traverse several different areas of the ocean depths, talking to various fish and collecting lore pages.

Mythic Ocean promises that your choices will help determine the outcome of the game. As someone who has played many games with that promise, I was skeptical as to whether this would be true. Many games allow you to make choices, but ultimately the outcome is the same in the end. I was incredibly pleased to see that in Mythic Ocean, your choices and decisions do matter and can drastically alter the outcome.

Mythic Ocean is also a perfect game to showcase how gaming can be relaxing. More often than not, gaming tends to lend itself to the opposite. Easily dismissed upon first glance as a walking (swimming) simulator, the game amounted to so much more than the cute, simple swim and explore game I thought I would be.

At the start of Mythic Ocean you are launched into space and wake up in the ocean. This was the first indication that I had to leave any preconceived notions of what this story would be behind me. You talk to an eel who informs you that you are to decide which god will be the creator of the new universe. Okay... is this going to be a religious game? No, it’s not. Let’s get that out of the way. You head out into the ocean to meet the gods, where you will have conversations with and complete tasks for them. No exploration game would be complete without quests, but these quests take a vastly different form than I was used to. Although they ultimately break down to typical fetch quests, they are also tests of friendship, loyalty and truth.

The 6 gods are all intertwined in their stories and it’s up to you to find solutions to each of their concerns, questions and insecurities. Each god is unique in their appearance and personalities, from an otter, a set of twins to a larva, there is a range of gods and animals you’ll meet under the sea. Since you ultimately need to determine which of them you will choose to create the new universe, I found myself paying close attention to their stories, personalities, quirks and mannerisms.

Mythic Ocean is lovely, silly, interesting, deep and complex. There is no combat or death to worry about, just exploration, choices and consequences. It was a tranquil and relaxing way to spend some time unwinding as I swam around in the ocean. The game is also full of ethical dilemmas and questions of morality.

What the Gods talk about is probably the best part of Mythic Ocean, and it revolves heavily around friendship. This isn’t the overly sweet friendship like you’ll find in children’s stories but is about how friends can come from different backgrounds, have different opinions and ways of doing things, and can sometimes rub each other the wrong way. Friendship is something that isn’t always easy and sometimes has to be worked on.

I found the game to be surprisingly deep in the stories and characters of the gods. Your responses and decisions have real effects on the Gods and the world around you. I hesitate to give specific examples of questions, stories and outcomes as they are the bulk of the surprises in the game, but I did play through twice just to see if my choices actually made a difference. In my case, there was a such a different outcome in my second playthrough that I will likely go back and play at least one more time to see other possibilities. It was surprising to see that not only the conversations you have with the Gods matter, but the order in which you meet them does as well. I assume this is because you have different information depending on who you meet first and what you find out from them in a different order. Entire conversations I had with characters in the first playthrough didn’t even appear in the second one, for example.

One of the stories that did stick out to me, and that I’ll mention here, revolves around questions of scientific research and the importance of consent when involving test subjects. This entire story line really stuck with me after the game. This part of the game created opportunities to make some very tough choices, all with pros and cons, and ultimately had a large impact on the outcome of the story.

As you explore, you are asked to interact with (discover) a variety of species in the ocean and collect a set amount of lore pages in each area. These pages give you a lot of info about the Gods, and the more of them you collect and invest, the more influence you have in the choice of the new Creator. However, be careful as to how many and when you submit them. I am glad I waited until the end to submit them on my first run, as on my second playthrough I invested them as I found them and realized that some of them end story lines and close off parts of the game.

During my initial playthrough I created strong bonds with each of the potential creators. I helped them out with each task and found that most of the time they were happy with my work. They appeared to like me and my choices I made for them. They glow green when you make a decision that makes them happy and seem to be affected by electricity when they are ill at ease. When you make a divergent choice that affects the outcome of the story, you get a beautiful watercolour in the game that gives you additional information in pictures and narrative. I was sure I was going to have a great ending to the game. This was sadly not the case. I won’t spoil anything, but my ending was dark and it surprised me in the turn that it took if I’m being honest. Because of this, and the short time to playthrough, I was eager to jump back in at a second chance of a happier ending. I got a better outcome, although not necessarily a happy one for all involved.

Each time you meet a God, you create a fast travel point. While this makes movement between them easy when following up with each, I think this was a bit of a downfall. It made it too easy to move around quickly. It took away the calm, serenity, charm and beauty of swimming in this underwater world. It did, however, turn out to be a benefit on a second playthrough to shorten it down to around 2 hours (my initial play though clocked in around 4 hours).

The game is packed with some very funny characters and some delightfully witty dialogue. A breakdancing crab, a head banging blowfish and a very snarky swordfish (with a strong dislike for dolphins) are just some of the species you will meet as you traverse the biomes.

Since this was primarily a narrative driven exploration game, I expected the soundtrack to also be mellow, and it was. Beautiful music intertwined with underwater sounds, including bubbles, whales and sonar, were soothing for the most part. Each God also had their own ‘voice’ when talking, although it was just sounds surrounding them as the game is entirely subtitled. Mythic Ocean does have a significant amount of reading though. One very large exception to the soothing sounds was the death metal blowfish and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It was such a surprising change in tone and direction, and he brought a huge smile to my face.

Ultimately the story doesn’t make the most sense, especially with the substantial shift I had at the end, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game overall. It was beautiful and complex. Silly characters and a surprisingly deep and thought-provoking story kept me wanting to see how it would play out. With this being Paralune’s first game, I was completely blown out of the water with their work. They found a way to balance a mechanically simple game and an emotional story very well. I look forward to my next adventure with them.

**Mythic Ocean was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Bunny Factory

I was first introduced to DillyFrame Games when reviewing Kick It, Bunny! back in March. And if I’m being honest, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. When I saw Bunny Factory pop up for review I was hesitant but thought I should give them another chance. I am pleased to report I am so happy I did, as I enjoyed Bunny Factory more than I thought I would and it should really be on your radar if looking for a good puzzle game.

Bunny Factory puts you into the shoes of a mech suit wearing bunny inside a factory where you immediately face your first puzzle. At this time, you are also presented with the first problem of the game: What do I do? There are no instructions or tutorial for what you are expected to do. Fortunately, with a very brief trial and error it becomes apparent. You must find a way to use the limited number of small blocks to ‘activate’ all the squares in the puzzle on the floor. By ‘activate’, I mean light them up.

Each small block has a specific way in which it provides power to the larger grid. It sends lines of light out through a combination of between one and four directions. This is where most of the thinking comes into play. The goal is to illuminate the entire grid with the limited number of small blocks you have. Once you illuminate the whole puzzle you are rewarded with a gold block that opens subsequent levels of the game.

Given that the blocks have specific functions and there are a limited number of them, it takes some cunning to determine the best way to use each of them. As with any puzzle game with stages, the benchmark is to find a balance between providing enough of a challenge without causing excessive frustration. I think Bunny Factory nailed it here. A few of the puzzles caused me to pause and think, and a few even had me reset them once I found myself confused. None of them required more than 2 attempts though. On rare occasions the difficulty seemed a little inconsistent; A random difficult puzzle followed by an overly simple one. This may have been done intentionally to make you over think the simple one or to give you a brief palate cleanser. Perhaps that was just the way my brain thinks and as with most puzzle games, players struggle on different things.

As you work your way through the 100 levels you are faced with different mechanics to solve the grids. Sometimes the smaller blocks only light up one colour, or maybe they only light a certain number of blocks in each of the light directions. Certain levels allowed you to change the colour of the block, even if you couldn’t change the pattern it gave off. My favourite levels were the ones that presented you with the blocks that were blank, and you had to look at what each did and determine which of the 4 colours (red, yellow, blue, or green) you needed to make use of it. I loved the new mechanics that unlocked, it kept the game feeling new and drove my sense of completion and accomplishment as I finished each level.

With all the things I loved about the game, it did have some issues. Your character moves slow, really slow. This makes the task of walking back and forth picking up each of the small cubes very time consuming. Even worse was when you finished the puzzle you had to take the ‘reward’ block to the location to open the next level. This meant a lot of walking around slowly and lots of moments to get lost. I understand that this process is to give you the feeling that you are restarting the factory to a functioning state, but I found it took me out of the moment when all I wanted was to move on to the next puzzle.

Bunny Factory can be played solo or with up to 3 of your friends. You are all working together on the same puzzle and there is no competition. You can interact with your friends by kicking or stealing their blocks though. I am not exactly sure why you would want to do this as there are no points assigned as individuals. I can only assume it was done to create a way to have a laugh amongst your team of friends. I played co-op with just one other player and it definitely made it clear that communication is the key to working as a team. I have no doubt that this would likely become more evident if you had a team of 3 or 4 people. Knowing what block you or your teammate had and what it did was essential to completing the puzzle. I found it easier playing solo as I could keep track of all the pieces myself.

The music in game suffered the same fate as their previous game. It was one song on repeat, again. Although the puzzles are quick, you hear the same music and completion sound ever time - rinse and repeat. After about 20 puzzles, I turned the audio off and played my own music while playing. I’m not sure what I expected, but perhaps some more variety would have been nice. Other than the single song there wasn’t much other audio of note other than general machinery noises from the factory equipment.

Bunny Factory was a pleasant surprise and a real step up in quality from DillyFrame’s previous game. I found the puzzles were fun, logical and variations on the core mechanics in the game kept me engaged enough to work my way though more levels than I intended to in each session. The game could have used a tutorial to ease players in and explain what to do but after a few minutes with each new mechanic, pieces started to click and fall into place. Other than the absence of the tutorial and rather annoying walking back and forth in the factory, there weren’t many other faults to the game. If you’re in the market for a straightforward puzzler, this will likely fit the bill.

**Bunny Factory was provided by the publishers and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.6 / 10 Lost Words: Beyond the Page

Grief is a complicated and powerful emotion, one that a lot of us have experienced more so this past year. When someone close to you passes away it can sometimes feel like things may never be okay again, and that the feeling might never go away. You will miss that person for the rest of your life but those memories aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a game that explores grief. It tackles the experience and feelings head on but is done in a way that could possibly help kids process their emotions in a healthy way.

Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a 2D puzzle-platformer developed by Sketchbook Games, Fourth Slate, Fourth Slate Limited and published by Modus Games. It tells a beautiful story using a familiar gameplay loop to keep players engaged and pushing forward through the story.

Lost Words follows a young girl named Izzy, who starts keeping a personal journal as she hopes to one day become a writer. Izzy creates a character (you can choose 1 of 3 names, but she'll be referred to as my choice of Grace from this point on) who resides in the fantasy realm of Estoria. Although primarily a 2D platformer, Lost Words takes place in two distinct settings, with Izzy controlling the characters in both. In the journal sections of the game, the player uses the words written on the page as platforms to navigate through the entries and can interact with different words (or pictures) to solve simple puzzles. You will jump on and collect highlighted words and objects to move things forward as well as making choices that affect the story. These segments of the game include some beautiful watercolor visuals, representing Izzy's memories as she puts her thoughts on paper.

For the sections of the game in Estoria the player controls Grace as she explores various fantasy stages, like deserts, caves and underwater cities. Grace is chosen by the fireflies in Estoria to become the next village guardian. When a dragon attacks and burns her village down, she goes after the dragon to confront it and collect the remaining lost fireflies along the way. The player controls Grace with the left stick of the controller and her firefly companion with the right. The aim of each stage/chapter is to guide Grace to the end while removing obstacles with the firefly along the way.

Lost Words is a game that proves that words have power, literally. Grace finds magical words along her journey and she must use them to manipulate the story and environment around her. Using your trusty firefly companion, you use words such as ‘break’ to destroy blocks or ‘repair’ on a bridge or pillar to move forward. The puzzles were quite simple, leading me to assume that the game is geared towards a younger audience. Most of them only needed one word to solve and move forward. This could also have been a conscious choice to focus more on the story and emotions of the game, rather than making it more about the mechanics and puzzles.

One thing that really stood out to me from Lost Words was how it wasn’t just a story about family, loss and memories. It was also a story about powerful women across multiple generations. Through Izzy, her mother and grandmother, you really get a sense of the strength and connection of these women. The game also smashed stereotypes; Grandma played video games and Dad was baking cakes. These were small written memories that stood out to me. You don’t often see these details in games geared towards a younger audience.

The game is stellar both in terms of the audio and visual components, and the brief glimpse that players are given into Izzy's life is a memorable one. It falls into the niche of the short indie puzzle game that aims to pull at the heartstrings and it succeeds in telling an engaging story about dealing with grief. Over the course of the few hours it took me to complete it, I will admit that I started to tear up playing the game and had to take a few breaks between some chapters. My grandmother passed away just over 5 years ago, and the game managed to still tug at those memories. It’s more about the emotions than the actual plot.

I can’t talk enough about how beautiful the water colour aesthetics are in the journal segments of the game. They capture both the childlike quality of Izzy’s memories while holding a certain nostalgic quality in their use of colours and tone. Text on the pages was also crisp and easy to read. The Estoria segments used 3D visuals to emulate a 2D art style but they didn't have as much impact as the watercolour graphics from the journal sections of the game for me.

The journal segments of Lost Words: Beyond the Page are fully narrated and the voice work is excellent, which helps form an emotional attachment to Izzy's story. The writing by Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer of Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, is also stellar. I can’t comment on too much of the story without giving away spoilers.

The beautiful soundtrack by BAFTA nominated composer David Housden (also known for Battletoads), is whimsical, moving and something I have listened to a few times since completing the game. A lot of care and attention was taken in his journey to covey the full scope of emotions that Izzy is experiencing in the game.

The story of Lost Words manages to be both sad and beautiful at the same time. Having been written in part by Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Sir Terry Pratchett), the game excels at taking you through the grieving process in a safe and comfortable way that may help prepare some for when they inevitably have to experience it for themselves. I highly recommend taking the time to check out this moving game, but please bring your tissues.

**Lost Words: Beyond the Page was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 I Saw Black Clouds

I Saw Black Clouds, by Wales Interactive, is an interactive psychological thriller with supernatural elements and branching storylines. It is essentially a movie in which you choose how you connect and interact with the characters. The choices you make determine what you discover in the game, the paths you take and the conclusion. Think of it as a choose your own adventure style of movie.

During the game you play as Kristina. After the unexpected death of her close friend (Emily), Kristina returns to her hometown looking for answers as to what happened and why. Throughout her search she unearths a string of dark secrets, leading her to more and more discoveries.

Every choice you make in the game, normally between two options but sometimes three, every decision you make and every interaction with another character is tracked with an unseen system that will eventually determine which of the four endings you will get in the game. At the end of your playthrough you are given an evaluation showing five dimensions of your personality; honesty, strength, morality, tact and introspection. Your choices also determine how Kristina faces her challenges by showing you your levels of denial, acceptance, and guilt.

The run time is under two hours, meaning you can attempt additional playthroughs and see how different decisions affect the story. You have the ability to skip scenes you have already seen by using the 'RB' button. This can drastically reduce your subsequent playthrough time, especially if only changing a few choices.

As mentioned earlier, there are four distinct endings in I Saw Black Clouds, but I wont talk about them as to avoid spoilers for the story lines leading up to them. I will say though, that because I am a bit of a completionist in games, I like to see all my options. Unfortunately, even after 10 play throughs (yes, 10!), I still only managed to unlock 1 of the 4 endings. As a reviewer I had access to some hints as to the other three endings and purposely tried to trigger them, but with no success. I am questioning which of your decisions really do affect the outcome, or if this was a bug. I look forward to hearing about others experiences with the game and finding out how they unlocked the other endings.

An interactive story doesn’t have much for the player to do with regards to gameplay, so the story is paramount. The writing seemed forced at times, appeared to take itself too seriously and sometimes it jumped in a direction that didn’t make sense, but you can tell the actors did their best with what they were given. Characters are there simply to move the story forward, but some of them were very odd choices. We had a Reverend very preoccupied with talking about ghosts, although his life is based on Christian beliefs. A therapist with an intimidating bedside manner, and a retired doctor with little sense of patient confidentiality.

Story aside, there were some issues with the game play. At times, your choices appear and the countdown starts before you know what the question is. The timer ran out just as the question was posed to me. FMV games need to feel as fluid as possible so the seams aren't obvious, but I Saw Black Clouds stutters often. There were some awkward visual transitions or odd musical changes. This can be very distracting, especially with some poor camerawork at times. Scenes/story didn’t always flow into one another at some points either. At one point Kristina had a head injury with no explanation as to how she got it.

An interesting note to the gameplay is that I Saw Black Clouds features a Streamer Mode that pauses the choices for audience participation during live streams.

I Saw Black Clouds is a FMV (Full motion video) meaning it is essentially a movie. There is no computer-generated graphics. It feels like you are watching a TV show or movie on the screen throughout.

Music and sound effects are consistent of TV and film of the same caliber. Music was used to create suspense and drama as well as evoke calm and harmony. The choice of music was appropriate, but nothing stood out as exceptional. Seeing as the focus of the game was the dialogue, it was a good choice. Nature and industrial sounds are clear and the balance between dialogue and ambient noise was well done. As mentioned earlier, some of music transitions were not done well, creating some moments of distraction and affecting the smooth flow between scenes.

There were some issues with audio/video sync when I first had access to the game, but it was patched quickly and was better after the patch. I did find some of the music a bit too loud and periodically distorted in the game though. I don’t believe this was intentional and I was able to make some adjustments in my settings to help with that.

This was the first FMV style game I have played, and I was intrigued by what I experienced. I was interested enough to attempt 10 playthroughs to see if I could unlock everything, sadly though it wasn’t the case. I will likely keep attempting to at least unlock one additional story ending. I will also be looking at other offerings by Wales Interactive.

I Saw Black Clouds was just enough supernatural to keep it interesting, if you took that branch of the story, and enough character development for each person I met to see that everyone had a role to play in the outcomes. If you are the type or person who likes drama and suspense type of movies/TV, or campy psychological thrillers, you’ll likely find something here to entertain you.

**I Saw Black Clouds was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 Kick It, Bunny!

Kick It, Bunny! caught my eye as a possibility for a cute time killer game. On its surface, a cute bunny solving puzzles seemed like the perfect palate cleanser between the large story driven games I’ve been engaged in, or something to fill a few hours when I needed a distraction. Unfortunately, I found the game to be less calming than I had hoped, and more frustrating than some boss battles I had encountered in larger games.

In Kick it, Bunny! You are dropped on the tropical archipelago, and essentially told “go for it” without any other words of wisdom. There is no tutorial to tell you how to control the game at all, no pop ups telling you what the buttons do or hints when you approach the first puzzles. This was my first hint at the frustrations to come in the game.

When I first looked at the description of the game in the store is said something about statues being destroyed and you rebuilding the puzzles was you putting everything back together. Sadly, there is nothing to elaborate on that story and no story to follow in the game at all.

The game was simple in nature; the Bunny kicks the available blocks to solve puzzles. The outline of the puzzle is shown to you, and your job is to take the Tetris style blocks and complete the shapes. These are offered in four blocks, zigzag types, straight lines, one block, and several other sizes of T-shapes. Seemed simple. You only need 2 buttons, one to kick, and one to rotate the blocks. One of the issues I encountered was that you are only shown 4 blocks at first and once you move one of them off the pad, another will display on the spawning platform. This meant I needed to spawn all blocks at each location before starting each puzzle.

There are 50 puzzles in total, although you only need to complete 10 for the Xbox achievement. As you go through them, all success feels more like a chore than a sense of accomplishment. You either come across the correct layout in a happy accident, or eventually find your way though it. One puzzle took me close to 2 hours to complete with many restarts.

There are animal characters that you can interact with (kick) and a few items scattered around the world to look at. These include two soccer games, one on land and one in the water, and rings you can ‘activate’ around the islands as well. The rings present another section to ‘complete’ the game, although you are not actually scored on anything you do. There is no progression, no leaderboard, no dynamic difficulty or anything to encourage you to keep moving forward. Some of the animals created a hostile environment. Pigs and Crocodiles would break into the middle of the puzzle, moving blocks and hit the Bunny for no reason. During the interactions you might end up trapped in trees or blocks. This caused me to have to reset the game and often spawn far away from the puzzle I was working on.

There is a multiplayer component where you can work with a friend to complete the puzzle instead of working alone. I can’t help but think if it were a head-to-head competition between friends it would have been more entertaining. I spent most of the time that I played with a partner laughing and emoting at one another. There is no difference between the puzzles you have in solo play versus multiplayer.

The bunny was cute, the cartoon nature was childlike and his actions and emotes did bring a smile to my face. However, once I investigated other games by DillyFrame, it was quickly apparent that Kick It, Bunny! was a reskin of their other games. In some styles of games, a ‘when it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ mentality can work, and perhaps this is one of those instances. The simplistic nature of the game, both in mechanics and style, show that DillyFrame has decided on what works for them as a sort of trademark look and feel.

The music in game was one thing I found disappointing. Because it was primarily a repetitive game, the music was also repetitive. Think one song on repeat. This would be fine if it were catchy or calming, but I found myself thinking of parents stuck listing to their kids’ favourite songs on repeat. Eventually I had to turn the audio off and just play the game on mute. Besides the music, other sound effects consisted of grunts as the animals kicked one another.

The game was enjoyable as a short-term time killer, as the puzzles did make me think while working on them. Some were quite difficult though. The camera angle didn’t always make it easy to see what you needed to do, and because the pieces only spawned on 4 platforms for each puzzle, you really needed to move the pieces around at the beginning to make sure you had them all before working on them.

If you like Tetris style puzzle games, you may enjoy Kick It, Bunny!. For me, since there was no real dynamic game balancing or progression evident, and I found myself bored quite quickly. My recommendation would be to hop, skip and jump to find better games elsewhere.

*Kick It, Bunny! was reviewed on an Xbox Series X*

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 TOHU

TOHU is a cute 2D point-and-click hand-drawn puzzle game set in a whimsical mechanical world. Developed by Fireart Games and published by the Irregular Corporation, TOHU will instantly remind some gamers of the late 2000s when indie games began flourishing and holding their own in the AAA game market. TOHU is a love letter to these older gamers while piquing the curiosity of the younger crowd and giving them something to challenge their puzzle skills.

In TOHU, players take on the role of “the girl” and her alter ego, “the Cubus”, as she attempts to repair the Sacred Engine powering their giant steampunk fish world. Armed with the Cubus, the girl can explore the world around her and travel to distant planets. Here she must solve puzzles and discover clues that will lead her to uncover the secrets behind not only the villain of the game, but also the Cubus, their mystical world and the history of the Sacred Engine as well.

Each planet you travel to is a self-contained level with just a handful of areas to explore. Through clicking and utilizing using the cursor on the screen, the little girl can roam, interact with things, pick up items of interest and climb if required in the level. She can also transform into the robot (Cubus), who is required for feats of strength and doing the heavy lifting. Determining which persona to use is straightforward while working through the game. You are even prompted directly at some points.

Controls in TOHU are simple, as they are point and click. This control system isn’t always the easiest to navigate with an Xbox controller, but was fairly straightforward. Environments are filled with fascinating creatures and mechanical beasts, but all items that the girl and the Cubus can interact with are easily identifiable. Speaking of environments: they’re absolutely lovely, feel full, complete and really seem as if they are lived in by the characters you encounter.

TOHU is a game full of interesting mini games and puzzles. Some puzzles will require the Cubus to solve, while others will be done by simply controlling the girl. There is a wide variety of them as well. There is a mirror manipulating laser beam puzzle, a jigsaw involving glass shards and a clever predicament akin to the ‘fox, chicken and bag of grain’ riddle that most of us have heard at some point. It was probably one of my favourites because I knew the solution but the way to complete it was very enjoyable experience. These are the bread and butter of most point-and-click adventure games in one form or another.

A word of caution to those thinking TOHU is all simple puzzles — the puzzles can be quite challenging at times, and some were downright frustrating. Plenty of the puzzles in game are less about logic but more about trial and error. One that stands out is plugging specific instruments into a bagpipe style bag with no real path to the solution except to randomly guess, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Of course, there are puzzles based off logic as well.

The Fireart Games team did bring have a few original concepts too, like shooting mini-games, a variation of whack-a-mole and a session where you must hypnotize someone by syncing up spinning discs. Unfortunately, I feel the mechanics of TOHU don’t hold up well for these more action-oriented activities and the shooting segment in the swamp is especially frustrating as things fail to fall into place. This section took far too much time and caused a lot of frustration for me.

Puzzles often require you to use something in your backpack to solve them and, thankfully, your backpack never gets very full or cluttered. This makes it easier to determine the items best suited for solutions. There are exceptions though, with a couple of the sequence-related puzzles feeling like pure guesswork. For the rest of the time though, it’s clear and not too complicated, with examples including scissors to cut some flowers and a special mask you need to wear when navigating through a particular area.

TOHU’s animation style was what drew me to tackle this review. It was such a draw for me, to the point that I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why that was the case. I am still not entirely sure, if I’m being honest, other than it was cute, simplistic and perhaps reminded me of some of the old games, cartoons, and comics that I grew up with. The colour scheme was fairly muted, with pastels and neutral colours bringing a calming nature to the overall aesthetic.

Although I am head over heels for the style and genuinely enjoyed the wide variety of environments presented, some of the audio really irritated me. Specifically, the sounds for the girl and the Cubus when sitting idle in game. The cute animation while characters were idle was expected, and welcomed, but sound effects were thrown in as well. I found this could be distracting, especially as I’d spend time idle trying to solve a puzzle in my head. I found this nearly impossible when the Cubus would spin his head with a very consistent, motorized whirring sound. The girl’s is less annoying, but still makes sounds as she taps away at her makeshift Switch console and hums to herself. I ended up having to pause the game or take my headset off if I sat idle for too long or found it could really break my concentration.

TOHU is a perfectly charming point-and-click adventure game with its own identity due to the lovely detail in the art style and a soundtrack that captures the atmosphere of each individual planet well. There is a good balance between the standard inventory style puzzles and new mini games that kept me engaged over the approximately four hours I spent with it. Although I enjoyed this game immensely, I would’ve liked a more captivating narrative to go along with the game.

It’s not hard to recommend TOHU, especially if you love hand-drawn game environments and puzzles. This game made me really think for some of its puzzles, and also made me smile a lot. It may have elevated my blood pressure at times, especially the previously mentioned shooting part in the swamp, but I am delighted I had the opportunity to play it.

**TOHU was Reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game – Complete Edition

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game - Complete Edition (henceforth in this review known as Scott Pilgrim) is finally back 6 years after being removed from digital store shelves. The 2D beat-‘em-up represents the source comics and movies from which it was derived quite well. Each stage ends with a boss fight between Scott and one of Ramona’s evil exes. It’s highly entertaining even if there are no changes from its original launch.

Scott Pilgrim was first released in 2010. When it was delisted from digital stores in 2014, it became a bit of a collector’s item for fans of the game to show off to their friends. No one ever really confirmed why it was removed from stores, but most believe there were licensing agreement issues. When the 10th anniversary of the movie was celebrated in August 2020, rumours of the game returning began to surface. Now here we are with the Complete Edition. Although the game has built a hardcore cult fandom, and most have heard of the film, not everyone is aware that it was actually based off a comic book series. Intertwined with video game references and self depreciating Canada jokes, the unique nature of the series makes it still quite intriguing after all these years.

For those unfamiliar with the content the game is based on, Scott Pilgrim follows the adventures of 20 something Scott, as he battles for the love of his life, Ramona, against her evil exes. The game features the major characters of Scott, Ramona, Stephen and Kim. The Complete edition of the game includes DLC characters Knives and Wallace as well. Each character has their own signature attacks, standard health bar and points which will allow Super Attacks or the ability to call in an ally to help you in battle for a quick boost and assist. Each character can be leveled up in your character's stats of Defense, Speed and Willpower. Stores sprinkled throughout the game allow you to purchase stat boosting items like food and concert memorabilia. You can even pay off Scott’s late fees at a video rental for special perks.

Co-op in the game can be played via local (couch co-op) or online with up to 4 friends. Players have the ability to resurrect others when downed, loan money or even steal lives. I didn’t venture into the co-op game so I can’t really provide much commentary on that.

Characters from the original comic are sprinkled throughout the background in game and each have their own cute and unique animations. Enemies range from music fans, bus drivers, paparazzi, to actors on movie sets in dinosaur costumes. Each enemy has a distinct fight style which important to determining your attacks. It is full of Toronto hipster style, and instantly reminded me of from my time there.

In addition to the main game there are 4 bonus game modes: Survival Horror, Boss Rush, Dodge Ball and Battle Royal. These give you some bonus content even if they didn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the game. I could see Boss Rush being a lot of fun playing with friends.

The biggest issue for me was that I felt incredibly underpowered. Classic games of this style weren’t something I really grew up playing other than for a few exceptions at the arcade. Because of this, I have never really been particularly good at them. This game was no exception. With no ‘easy mode’ I struggled to find the formula that eventually allowed me to work through the levels. Even on the easiest difficulty I struggled at the beginning. As I leveled up I was able to add more abilities and fill out my special moves, helping me feel at least more comfortable with the game. For the first few hours, I definitely felt under equipped. Like most retro style games, it does not hold your hand. This means you’ll die a lot, especially in the beginning, and there’s a frustration to the ‘start again’ mentality of the title that has the potential to alienate a lot younger gamers who have grown up with different styles. When you die you start at the beginning of the level all over again.

The game has no dialogue, telling the story of Scott and Ramona though brilliant, pixelated splash screens and a lot of video game references. You can spot references to Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy and Resident Evil just to name a few. It has a lot of nostalgic appeal to gamers who remember either the original games or that genre from their youth. Just looking at the game made me happy every time I played.

Being that Scott Pilgrim takes place in Toronto, it holds a special place for me as a Canadian. I love all the time I spent in that city. I can’t recall another game where you collect toonies to buy poutine while also avoiding TTC (Toronto Transit) buses in the street.

2D stylized 8-bit graphics are what makes this game truly a nostalgic stand out for me. I can easily feel like I jumped back in time to the games I played in high school, even if that was before this game originally came out in 2010. The beat-‘em-up style is always a perfect fit for 8-bit graphics like this.

Anamanaguchi’s catchy chiptune soundtrack remains fully intact from the previous version of the game. It blasts in the background while playing and brings a level of high energy matching well to the gameplay; pure nostalgic magic. I could close my eyes and be taken back to a simpler time. There is a reason a lot of games in this genre use this style of music - It’s upbeat, peppy and makes you hyped to take on the fights and boss battles. If you want to hear the satisfying sounds of your punches and kicks hitting the enemies, just drop the music audio in your settings.

Everything from the original Scott Pilgrim game is there; the side-scrolling, button-bashing combat, the beautifully rendered 8-bit graphics style, the music, the comedy and tongue-in-cheek charm.

A lot of modern gamers may not appreciate the retro appeal of a game like Scott Pilgrim or the excitement for it’s long awaited return. A lot have become accustomed to the realistic graphics and heavily detailed designs of current AAA games, and in that case, Scott Pilgrim isn’t likely to change their mind for their preference in games, nor convince them to play it. For the indie loving or retro fan like me, this was exactly what I needed to remind myself of the joy and the frustration of the genre. For the low price of $14.99 USD / $19.99 CDN, it’s a great deal for the fun I had with it.

**Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game – Complete Edition was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.6 / 10 Shady Part of Me

The puzzle platformer genre had a huge year in 2020, and Focus Home Interactive and freshman French developer Douze Dixièmes decided to give it a try with their first game, Shady Part of Me. After being kept under wraps for its entire development, Shady Part of Me was revealed at the Game Awards 2020 and was available the same day to play.

The focus of Shady Part of Me is the relationship between a girl and her shadow. This relationship plays out almost like an imaginary friend as you work together to navigate an ever-changing environment together. You start out in what appears to be a psychiatric hospital before moving on to other locations like a sewer, a library, creepy carnival etc. The girl and her shadow discuss their journey through these areas and little snippets of text, along with their dialogue, reflect their doubts and fears as they move along. You must swap between the two characters to maneuver your way through the levels and this is easily accomplished by the push of a single button. Although two sides of the single person, the girl and her shadow move very differently throughout the game, and determining the way for them to both get through the levels is where the puzzle solving comes in.

The girl is terrified of the light, but she can pull or push objects, and exists in a 3D plane. The shadow can’t exist in the dark, needs the light areas, and must walk on shadows. She can jump and only exists in the 2D plane. Both characters can walk and pull/push levers though. Knowing their respective skills and limitations allows you to manipulate the environment for each other. This is a beautiful combination of two separate gameplay styles and an example of co-ordination as neither character can complete an area on their own. The shadow must create shadows for the girl, while the girl must manipulate light for the shadow.

Shady Part of Me is relatively short, around 4 or 5 hours, depending how good you are with the puzzles and is split into a Prologue and four subsequent Acts. Game mechanics start off simple and become more advanced as you move through the game. The puzzles in Shady Part of Me tend to be not too difficult, as there weren’t that many puzzles that took more than a minute or two to think about. There were a few that took me a bit longer to figure out as well. The ability to rewind helps you get through all situations without having to restart if you make a mistake. As with most games, there are also items to collect, in this case, 98 paper origami cranes. Chapter select for the game allows you to pop back to any of the chapters after the end of the story to pick up any that you have missed or to search out achievements in the game.

Both the girl and her shadow are voiced by actress Hannah Murray, who was best known to me for her role of Ginny in Game of Thrones. She uses a very childlike voice for the girl, while she uses a more mature sounding speaking voice for the shadow. These choices helped make it clear early on that the girl is more introverted and scared, while the shadow is more independent. Throughout the game, Murray is the only voice you will be hearing outside of a few words from what is presumed to be a doctor, but she manages to carry the story on her own quite well. I won’t delve too deeply into the narrative, as it would spoil the enjoyment of piecing it together on your own. Much of the story didn’t make sense to me early in the game, but as the story started to come together, I was moved more than I expected to be. Sometimes games speak to you in a way you least expect them to. 2020 proved to be a difficult year for a lot of people and I could personally understand the feelings of isolation, fear and uncertainty that were dominant themes throughout the game.

Shady Part of Me's visuals are cel-shaded and makes excellent use of its muted colour palette. Shading changes depending on the character you are in control of at the time. As you approach the end of one act in the game, you will see the next section is just outlined, not filled in or shaded. As you move both characters to their finish circles, the next section will fill in and you can move on. This was artistically a brilliant choice.

The music in the game was easy to listen to and get lost in. After playing the game through (and while writing this) I went back to sections to remind myself of the varied tones and accompanying music. The music was simple but moving, compromised primarily of piano, guitar and vocals without lyrics, the music set the scene for each level and helped you understand the feelings of the girl in each section of the game.

Indie games often get overshadowed by their much larger and longer counterparts, but sometimes a solid indie title is just what you need to shake up your gaming experience. While it may not be an exceptionally long game, Shady Part of Me is worth the time playing it through. It has interesting gameplay and a beautiful aesthetic that surrounds what is a pretty somber story. In a game that revolves around themes of darkness, sadness, uncertainty and fear, one quote from the game was a bright spot for me: “Hand in hand, we break free from this nether. Step by step, we will rise together”.

**Shady Part of Me was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Suggestions: This was one of the most moving games I've played, thank you.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Twin Mirror

DONTNOD Entertainment is known for their ‘narrative adventure’ style games, primarily Life is Strange 1 and 2, Captain Spirit and most recently Tell Me Why. Twin Mirror takes a small diversion from their tried and true formula with a game that they define as ‘Story-driven Investigation’. It is definitely driven through its’ narrative and it has all the trademarks of what DONTNOD does best, even though it left me wanting more at the end of its quick 6-hour play time.

In Twin Mirror you play as investigative reporter Sam Higgs, returning to your hometown of Basswood, West Virginia. You’ve been gone for 2 years and you are not exactly popular with the locals. Your reason for leaving was understandable. You wrote a scathing article on the local mine, resulting in it being shut down which took a toll the community. You have returned home for your friend’s funeral and you end up having to untangle some of the town’s secrets along the way.

Throughout the entirety of the game, you also interact with a second character who exists entirely in Sam’s mind. Referred to as “Him” or “The Double”, he helps Sam navigate and analyze social situations, responses and interactions with others. This character stole the show for me. Sam is a protagonist who has great difficulty navigating conversation and emotions, whereas “The Double” offers advice on how best to approach different situations. While most interactions are solely in Sam’s mind and silent to the townsfolk, there are some points where Sam speaks out loud to “Him” causing other characters to comment on Sam’s increasingly erratic behaviour throughout the game.

In one of the opening scenes DONTNOD does what it does best; creating a strong foundation of interpersonal relationships. These range from a former boss, an ex-girlfriend, Sam’s god daughter, friends and various town locals. At the wake, which takes place in the local bar, you’ll discover that there are questions about your friend’s death, and you learn about the people who still live in the town.

Waking up the next morning in your hotel room, you find your shirt covered in blood. Determined to figure our what happened the night before, you head back to the local bar to try to piece together the events from the previous night. This is the first instance of putting Sam’s detective skills to work. Wandering around the space you find clues to put the pieces together. Although I was able to solve this quickly, I was unable to progress the story and couldn’t understand why. Eventually I realized I had missed one of the clues. This means that every clue needs to be examined prior to making your choices, regardless if the clue is relevant or not. In my case I was missing a hat, to which Sam’s comment was that it wasn’t important to the night’s events in question anyway.

Working through separate ‘chapters’ of the game, you try to learn more about the circumstances of your friend’s death, more about the town you left behind and ultimately more about yourself. Entering Sam’s ‘Mind Palace’, where time freezes and he can piece together those hard-to-find clues, is the game’s most intriguing feature. I would have liked to have seen this take more of a front seat in Twin Mirror as I enjoyed its puzzle/detective nature.

DONTNOD consistently knows how to use dialogue, voice acting and music to set the tone for story driven games. Conversations felt mostly natural, as the dynamic between Sam and “The Double” was captivating, and the soundtracks of various locations really felt like a small town. From the jukebox in the bar, gossip and music in the background of scenes, to the more dream inspired music of the Mind Palace, each part of the game felt clearly defined.

Unfortunately, Twin Mirror also felt rushed. Like it was originally meant to be longer or doled out in chapters over time like previous games by the developer. Just when the story felt like something big was about to happen, it was over. I felt like I didn’t get to know enough about things that caught my attention. Most relationships that you spend time learning about in the opening, do not really matter in the end. The mysteries and clues that you follow are very straightforward with no real twists or turns. You will not find any cliff hangers or large twists as in previous DONTNOD games. There are multiple endings to the game, and I played through twice, choosing different dialogue options and paths. You will get some variations to your game and relationships, but most of it was similar.

Twin Mirror on Xbox is a good game, and for fans of the genre like myself, it's a solid experience. For those who aren't as keen on the genre, nothing here is going to change your mind. With its compelling story, some fantastic characters, decent gameplay and moments of something that could have been brilliant, I enjoyed both my playthroughs. I was, however, left wanting more from the title and it feels like it sits in the shadow of its better DONTNOD adventure games.

**Twin Mirror was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 IMMORTALS FENYX RISING

“When Heroes need help, they turn to the Gods. When Gods need help, they turn to you”. This was the one phrase Ubisoft used in their reveal trailer in June of 2019 when they announced a new game called Gods and Monsters, and I was hooked. This beautiful cinematic reveal ticked off a lot of boxes for me – bows, swords, beautiful scenery and cute characters. Since then I’ve waited with anticipation for the release of IMMORTALS FENYX RISING, and over the last week I have finally had the opportunity to play it under it’s new name, IMMORTALS FENYX RISING. It did not disappoint and, in fact, was so much more than I anticipated.

You play as Fenyx, a warrior who has long been overshadowed by her brother and all his accomplishments. You can play Fenyx as female or male and can customize their appearance and also change their appearance later in the game. As I played through as female, I will use her when referring to Fenyx. When you start the game, you and your fellow soldiers have your ship destroyed by a massive storm. You awake on an island filled with mythical beasts, magical items and the world in danger from an ancient evil threat, Typhon. Typhon has returned to destroy the gods and rebuild the world as he wishes.

Typhon has turned all the people to stone. You meet up with Hermes, the messenger god (and your guide), who explains that Typhon defeated the other gods and has trapped them in various states of helplessness. Your job is to assist the Gods and help each of them return to their rightful form and glory. I will not spoil any of this, as I enjoyed seeing the appearance of each God as I encountered them. I absolutely adored our main protagonist Fenyx. She is not the typical hero who you would expect to find in an open world style game like this. She reminded me of a fan girl who is simply happy to help people. This was one of the reasons I continued to want to play this game, to move the story forward. Her reactions and interactions with the Gods she meets were cute. It was pure excitement and I found myself cheering for her.

The story is narrated by two major figures from Greek mythology, Zeus and Prometheus. Zeus is desperate for help with the attacks and turns to Prometheus for some assistance. Prometheus isn’t a big fan of Zeus (if you know their history) but agrees to help and suggests that mortals could be the key to saving the world. Such begins the telling of the tale of... Immortals Fenyx Rising. Zeus and Prometheus narrate and discuss various activities and events throughout the game. While there is a lot of talking early in the game, it does taper off as you progress. When they do chime in though, it’s often for comedic purposes. Their storytelling reminded me a lot of two friends sharing stories. One will interject or elaborate, though in most cases this was Zeus, often trying to make himself look bigger and better than the original story.

As these two ‘bigger than life’ characters tell or change parts of the narrative, the world changes around Fenyx as well. For example, a Cyclops doubling in size as Zeus contradicts Prometheus’ version of events. I enjoyed hearing two different versions of the same story, and often found myself laughing out loud when hearing the reactions of both of the narrators. I found the writing clever, witty and it has been a long time since a game made me smile and laugh as much. I understand how this humour will not be for everyone though, and some may even find it cringey.

I appreciated the fact that the developers made the decision to take IMMORTALS FENYX RISING in a very different direction than other big open world games that Ubisoft is famous for, in particular Assassins Creed Odyssey to which IMMORTALS FENYX RISING gets compared to. The characters all use very ‘modern’ language, use slang and make jokes. They will often criticize the various Greek myths for being too mean, gross or weird. As most people may know, Greek myths are often violent and not PG in nature, but this game keeps everything relatively family friendly. On paper this might all sound terrible but in practice, it works incredibly well.

The game is beautiful, looking like it could have been ripped directly from famous paintings or frescos. Bright blue skies, vibrant green vegetation, brilliant whites of buildings, and the splashes of red throughout, all leapt off the screen. This is one of the more beautiful games I have seen recently.

Voice acting was enjoyable, using rich, robust voices for the Gods, and more jovial and lighter voices for Fenyx. You have a companion throughout the game, a bird that can be customized. The sounds for this companion change as you chose different versions that assist you. Hermes interactions with Fenyx seem natural, like they would truly be friends. My favourite voicing combination was between the two narrators, who you could visualize sitting together talking and joking. All interactions were paced well and seemed natural. As with most soundtracks in RPG style games, the music quickens and swells during battle scenes creating extra drama during these moments. The general score of the game, was relaxing and ethereal.

Fighting and movement rely on a stamina and health bar combo. This is familiar for those who love the genre. Parry, dodge, block, light and heavy hits. For me, I think that they streamlined the combat a little too much. I would have liked to have seen more combo attacks and variety of battles would have been appreciated. Even with it being more simple than other games I have played of this genre; it was still enjoyable. You can find new gear, upgrade current items, as well as upgrade your health and stamina bars at the Hall of Gods that becomes your hub for the game. Collecting Ambrosia, special coins and Zeus’ lighting will allow you to open special skills. Hermes resides there as well with a small store, and daily missions should you choose to ear money to buy from him. This is also where you can change Fenyx’s looks. As you progress through the Heroes stories, they will gift you special ‘blessings’ which are basically special abilities.

One of the common comments you hear about IMMORTALS FENYX RISING is how it looks heavily influenced by Breath of the Wild, and the comparison is fair. It is full of puzzles, and even though I expected they would be found in the game, I didn’t expect there to be so many. I loved this component more than I anticipated. Some are very simple, like rearranging a 4-part set of blocks to make a picture or rolling a rock onto a plate to open a gate. Others involve working your way through doors, using levers, stepping on pressure plates, shooting arrows (while standing on the plates), changing the direction of the wind and more. The vaults have more complex puzzles, and some took me awhile to determine what I needed to do. Sometimes it can feel like you are missing something obvious, and just when you think all is lost, you will notice a small detail and the whole thing clicks into place. The puzzles as a whole were very satisfying to complete.

All in all, IMMORTALS FENYX RISING surpassed my expectations. It was a fun and beautiful game, full of exploration, puzzles, combat and humour. Despite being left with wanting more from the combat in the game, I could not stop playing it. Between the humour and the sheer delightfulness of Fenyx, I was captivated and found myself wanting to continue exploring and playing its world more. In the end, it is a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend if you are looking for something new to play this year.

**IMMORTALS FENYX RISING was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the 12th entry into the Assassin’s Creed franchise since its inception in 2007. It is not without its bugs, which not only offer frustration at times, but often result in a laugh. It is also undoubtedly one of the most brutal and gritty games in the franchise. It even has a slider in the settings labeled ‘dismemberment on/off’. Valhalla is a AAA game that shows just how serious Ubisoft Montreal takes when creating beautiful environments, compelling characters, and giving fans of the franchise the Viking story that has been requested for years. Let’s take our ‘leap of faith’ together.

For this entry into the franchise you play as Eivor, a fearsome Viking in 873 AD. You can choose to play Eivor as either a female or male as you could in Odyssey, or you can ‘let the animus decide’. This is the default option for the game, letting the game choose which version of Eivor you play depending on the strength of the memories. Despite choosing to let the animus decide, I remained female for the majority of my playthrough. I am incredibly happy with my decision and seeing the changes in the story as I swapped between both versions of Eivor was interesting. There was a vastly different feeling in the playthrough when I swapped between the male and female character, like a dramatic change when watching a movie. I paid attention because something was different. It is important to note that you can swap between the male and femals version at any point during the game, so you are not stuck with the decision you make at the beginning.

Seeing that the Viking period is synonymous with looting and pillaging, it is no surprise that Valhalla brings more aggressive and chaotic combat with this title. You will raid and pillage villages and monasteries across the map to increase supplies to build and upgrade your settlement. Each level you go up will introduce new NPC residents and new opportunities for buildings such as a shipyard, tattoo shop, merchant, stables, and barracks. The barracks let create your own Jomsviking, a soldier-at-arms who can be summoned by other players. You can also hire Jomsvikings from other players to join your crew.

At times, Valhalla's gameplay leans toward the more classic combat of the older Assassin's Creed games, a style that the newer RPG driven Assassin’s Creed titles of Origins and Odyssey have moved away from. I was pleased to see the return of the hidden blade, complete with its own story, as well as social stealth making a return. This title has also rediscovered the sense of humour and rugged silliness missing since Black Flag. You will find familiar, returning components like chasing down pages in the wind, and of course chasing down the new order of baddies, all while evading mercenaries looking for you across the map.

The combat is generally excellent. Fights are fast-paced and satisfyingly violent. It is straight forward combat, and it continues the trend of previous games in the series by giving Eivor a set of abilities that rely on a stamina meter. As you progress through the game you will earn skill points that unlock nodes on what may be the largest skill tree I have ever experienced in a game. It is beautifully laid out, based on constellations, but it is also difficult to determine where you want to be until you unlock all of it. It is particularly useful that you can choose to change your point allocation at any time if you are looking to change your build during the game. Each node will increase an attribute such as Health, Stealth Damage or Bow Range, while every few increases will unlock a new finisher or special move such as the ability to quickly switch dual-wielded weapons from hand to hand in order to vary your attacks, poison arrows and many other things.

Along with the main story, there is a multitude of other activities like hunting or fishing. The traditional side quests have been replaced by ‘mysteries’. These are self contained stories sometimes featuring bizarre situations and characters. I won’t spoil anything, but I ran into a nudist, a crazy cat lady, and a man with an axe in his head, just to name a few. You also have optional activities in any of the cities you visit. You can partake in drinking contests, a game of Orlog (strategy-based dice game), or my personal favourite – flyting. You can think of flyting as a Viking rap battle that is a short battle of wits and insults.

The environment is beautiful. This is especially noticeable on the Xbox Series X on which I played much of my game. I spent a lot of time taking pictures in photo mode. Excellent voice performances from both versions of Eivor are featured as well as beautiful music and sound effects that sell the mayhem of battle. Most of the dialogue is well written, and the personalities are distinct while the conversations seem natural. Viking songs and story telling on your longboat are a welcome return for those who loved the shanties in Black Flag. The soundtrack is beautiful, powerful, and haunting at times. I find myself listening to it even when not playing.

There are more sliders to customise this game than in any previous entries. There are options to add/remove subtitles, adjust text size, assist with colour blindness and more, something which makes this game more accessible to more people. One thing missing was the ability to have dialogue repeated for Mysteries. If you missed what an NPC asked you to do, you could not get them to repeat themselves, nor was it available to read in your quest log. This simple adjustment would go a long was in assisting many players. If you do miss something, you can leave the area and the Mystery will eventually reset, allowing you to start over.

A few of the more common bugs I experienced were catching and holding invisible fish, riding invisible horses, and NPCs beard designs changing as they were walking towards me. There were moments where characters would be talking but their mouths were not moving, and once I got stuck in a rock wall. The biggest issue was the game freezing after talking to one of the main characters that you have frequent interactions with. Multiple times after I interacted with this character the game would freeze, and I would have to quit the game and reload. Even though this was frustrating, none of these bugs ruined the experience of the game for me and I recently found the frequency of such bugs reduced to virtually zero.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla is well executed on several levels, sans the bugs that I ran into. It is a true AAA title that is a worthy playthrough for fans of the game old and new. It is a tale of fate, loyalty, glory, and morality. Eivor must make tough decisions as to how to grow their settlement and how they navigate relationships in the world. The decisions you make will change components of the story, so you are in charge of your own destiny. One quote from Eivor stood out to me, and a paraphrase here as to not potentially spoil anything… ‘“The toughest battle you’ll ever fight in your life is the battle within yourself.” Skal!!

**This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10

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