Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a Good Game That Couldn’t Capture the Magic of its Predecessors

While Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t ashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve and execute on the checklist of its “vania” genre, it doesn’t elevate above the shadow of its predecessors. The result is a solid 2D action game from the ArtPlay team, with punchy combat, map exploration, upgrades and unlocks plus a myriad of items to collect, that operates within the confines of its tropes rather than pushing beyond to become something magical.

I’ll start by addressing the genre. There are way too many derivations ending with “vania” in video games. Metroidvania is the original of course, a popular term used for borrowed elements from classic franchises Metroid and Castlevania. Even though it’s tired nomenclature, “Igavania” is one particular description that does carry weight. Named for the distinct personality of Japanese developer Koji Igarashi, famed Castlevania producer, who conceived Bloodstained: ROTN after leaving Konami around five years ago. This final version is the byproduct of a lengthy Kickstarter crowd-funding effort that began all the way back in 2015.

With that out of the way, the game is the definition of solid though not revolutionary. Its core elements are consistent, namely combat, upgrades and map traversal, though there’s too many frustrations and roadblocks hampering it from excellence.

Story setup is typical. A group of alchemists summoned demons through a dangerous ritual, in hopes of maintaining their influence amidst the 19th century Industrial Revolution. (Smart plan.) The main character is Miriam, a “Shardbinder” who the alchemists experimented on as an orphan. Due to those tests, she can absorb crystals which (you guessed it) provide powerful abilities. Her counterpart Gebel feels animosity towards the alchemists for being used in their experiments, so he sets out for revenge by raising an evil castle full of demons. Along the way Miriam slays said baddies plus meets survivors integral to the narrative like an older alchemist, an apprentice, an exorcist and an Eastern demon hunter. The usual crowd.

The result is a solid 2D action game from the ArtPlay team, with punchy combat, map exploration, upgrades and unlocks plus a myriad of items to collect, that operates within the confines of its tropes rather than pushing beyond to become something magical.

Thus the singular goal throughout is to confront Gebel. There are side “quests” given by survivors, though calling them that is generous at best. There are really only three types: kill enemies, return items and make food. Repeat ad nauseam. I’m fine with their inclusion, it’s just these are falsely represented as anything more than errands. I counted only one true side story, involving a gentlemen trying to find his way back home. Though not nearly trying hard enough. It was comical, showing the potential for way more than the other set of monotonous chores.

Back to the main path, it’s finding Gebel that’s equal parts fun and tedious. Fighting demons is as expected, through a blend of upgradeable weapons and spells. Enemy variety is a highlight, even borderline extravagant. Facing off against massive wolf creatures, flying gargoyles, disembodied animal heads and electric jellyfish among others is novel at first, though becomes increasingly more mundane as slight variations are introduced and status effects take front stage. Sure it provides variety. That doesn’t mean it’s all memorable.

The biggest and baddest bosses are mostly good, albeit traditional, with a couple stand-outs that I won’t mention. Even the more cliched are well-executed, like the now standard doppelganger face-off. Boss encounters elicit the sort of down-to-the-wire moments where the player expends all abilities, healing items and strength. Emerging victorious, especially during the final gauntlet, easily pinpoints one of the game’s most remarkable qualities.

Artwork is striking, colorful in spots. Screen shots don’t do it justice. And the presence of the simple mini-map alongside modern visuals is truly awesome. Though there are some funky visual quirks with water and reflections, which stand out even more when so much of the game looks brilliant.

An impressive aspect is how the team uses camera techniques to shift the two dimensional perspective to show that it’s really built in a 3D space. Each area is distinct, as art design blends with functionality. Like the spiraling ascent of a massive tower or the sandy waterfalls of an underground desert. One area features moving machinery and shifting bookshelves, where ArtPlay does a good job incorporating its world design into environmental puzzles. Smartly revealing hidden areas or surprise enemies in the process.

Later areas especially require trickier platforming. Evolving game spaces in flux, like alternating or moving platforms with flying enemies to dodge. There’s that usual Igavania feel, complete with the frustrations of Medusa-like enemies seeking to turn Miriam into stone, and it’s a welcome change from the more combat heavy first couple acts.

The feel of progression is key in this genre, and Bloodstained: ROTN does it well enough with the major exception being swimming which I’ll detail below. Gaining new techniques such as double-jumps that allow further map exploration is a staple of vanias. In the game’s third act, there’s one that turns the game on its head which I found quite useful. Game length could span a few hours to upwards of more than a dozen, depending on approach. Which is maybe a bit too long for players like me that achieved near 100% map completion. Specifically because of pacing issues I’ll get into soon.

Boss encounters elicit the sort of down-to-the-wire moments where the player expends all abilities, healing items and strength. Emerging victorious, especially during the final gauntlet, easily pinpoints one of the game’s most remarkable qualities.

You’re probably thinking: All of this sounds pretty cool. And you’re right. There’s still a lot I haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s not nearly as positive.

First, it had a game-breaking bug at launch that still can plague players if not updated to the most recent patch. Absolutely make sure to be on the current version, especially Switch owners that will be playing it this upcoming week.

I also haven’t mentioned how Bloodstained: ROTN has crafting, cooking and transmuting systems in its sort of hub village. That’s because these are only somewhat useful when the real treat is finding stuff through enemies and chests. It is convenient in cases like health and status effect potions. Though these features are under-developed and the menus are convoluted. The cooking menu in particular is.. half-baked.

Let’s talk meat and potatoes. (Yup.) Item drops, namely weapons and gear. Part of what makes something like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or more recent titles La Mulana 2 or Dead Cells special is that each drop feels meaningful. See an item pop-up, instantly access the menu and equip it to boost stats ever so slightly yet always importantly. With Bloodstained: ROTN, there’s just too much loot for a lot of it to matter. And so many duplicates! I spent the first half of the game using an accessory that I got from a lowly enemy in the tutorial segment, and made a God-tier weapon within an hour that I used until the game forced me to switch it due to narrative reasons.

Plus, except on the highest difficulty, I don’t see the need for a “build” which renders much of the more specific gear or abilities an afterthought. I tend to go for balanced builds, which worked perfectly. Combine balanced stats with an overpowered weapon, and encounters became more and more trivial. I can count on one hand the amount of items I used in each slot. Experimentation wasn’t rewarded, because I always felt like my prior setup was superior.

It pains me to say in all seriousness that this game has legitimately one of the worst water areas I’ve ever played. This is not hyperbole. It’s up there with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. Not only are the controls absolutely miserable, it can’t even be accessed without a random ability drop from an inconspicuous enemy! We’re not talking an optional area here. This is required to finish the main story. It’s the only time I had to look up a guide to see what the heck I had to do, which was wait until one enemy dropped its corresponding shard ability.

This leads me to my final criticism: When a vania doesn’t have good signposting, as in an effective indication of where to go next, it risks feeling aimless and frustrating. Bloodstained: ROTN is one such game, which ultimately results in uneven pacing. Luckily there are times when it rewards wandering, though doesn’t offer more than a vague reference from a non-playable character on where to go next. Combining a lack of signposting with the requirement of a random ability to drop in order to progress in the main campaign mission is not good design, in my opinion.

After touching on both sides of my experience, I want to acknowledge that I had a good enough time playing it. However while exhilarating in spots, especially its boss fights, Bloodstained: ROTN isn’t a successor to Castlevania: SOTN or even worthy of comparisons to modern marvels like Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight or DrinkBox Studio’s Guacamelee! series. It’s more of a nod to its genre that adheres to its boundaries rather than innovating too much, which is disappointing considering its pedigree. I’m content that I tried it, though am left wanting it to be polished, improved and made much more memorable than it was.

Title: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Release Date: June 18, 2019 (PC, PS4 & XB1), June 25, 2019 (Nintendo Switch)

Developer: ArtPlay

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PC (GoG & Steam), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Recommendation: If you are craving a game in the genre and haven’t already, I’d recommend playing the timeless Castlevania: SOTN which has a version available on Xbox One via backwards compatibility. (In fact, what are you doing? You should be playing that instead of reading this.) If you have, I still mentioned other games above that I’d suggest playing instead. If you do opt to try this one, you’ll probably feel nostalgic in the first few hours then will be somewhat underwhelmed when that feeling wears off. If you can tolerate the issues I cited, enjoy!

Sources: 505 Games, GamesPress, Mana Ikeda (Character Art Image), Xbox One X Screenshots.

-Dom

New U.S. Video Game Sales Last Month Were Slowest May in Over Two Decades

Back again with the sales talk! I’ll do my best to make this piece as riveting as possible, though as expected May was a bit of a snoozer when it comes to the market here in the States. It’s a mid-year month in the year before a new console generation. So it’s more like game stales, amirite.

Okay. Moving on.

The NPD Group produced its latest monthly report this past Tuesday, with the standout statistic being that sales of new video game releases were at their lowest level for a May month since 1998. Mainly because there just weren’t a lot of notable major software releases. Which checks out, because it’s probably the quietest month we’ll see all year. What I’m really saying is, not a lot of publishers abide by the “It’s gonna be May” mantra.

In terms of the overall industry, total consumer spending declined 11% to $641 million as sales across all three of its tracked meta segments either declined or remained flat.

Beginning with hardware, the category saw a dip of 20% to $149 million. Nintendo Switch was the main bright spot, as the only console to show year-over-year growth when compared to May 2018. For this year to date, total hardware sales eclipsed $1.1 billion which is 17% lower than this same period last year.

As alluded to above, Nintendo continues its streak of wins. May was the 6th consecutive month in which the Switch hybrid led hardware sales. As measured by both units sold and dollar sales. Switch also remained the highest selling console of the year to date. Reminder that Nintendo announced during its last earnings report that Switch lifetime sales hit 34.74 million globally. Essentially, the company that people counted out during its flubbed Wii U era is now propping up the industry while competitors Microsoft and Sony see their hardware grow long-in-the-tooth.

Talk about the perfect segue.. Switching briefly to peripherals, at least multiplayer games like Fortnite and now Dauntless entice people to keep buying those headsets and controllers. Accessory sales stayed consistent around $230 million, with Sony’s black DualShock 4 controller as the top-selling within this category for May and 2019 so far. Consumer spend on accessories for year to date is now at $1.4 billion, up approximately 3%.

In terms of games, software sales across console, portable and PC platforms dropped 13% in May to $262 million. When talking overall software sales, it’s the lowest May monthly result since 2013. I mentioned the dearth of new game sales already. This is sluggish for even the usual summer drought.

While total software purchasing was soft, I believe there are individual games worth noting before we get to the full charts.

Mortal Kombat 11 is having a.. killer launch season. NetherRealm Studio’s latest fighting game achieved the number one spot on the overall software chart for a second straight month since its launch in late April. It led the monthly Xbox One and PlayStation 4 individual rankings, too.

Not only that, and most importantly, it moved past Kingdom Hearts 3 to become the best-selling game of the year so far. To put MK11’s fantastic momentum in perspective, its 2nd month sales result is almost twice the amount of any other installment in the classic franchise. Part of the reason is how NetherRealm is adapting the series for modern tastes, offering unlockables in the base game then pushing post-launch content. The game’s latest character addition Shang Tsung released mere days ago. I’m anticipating good momentum even as other big releases hit, due to the appeal of new content over time plus establishing itself as a leading platform in the genre.

I’d also like to highlight results for three other titles: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rage 2 and.. Minecraft. Yup. Mojang’s creation game that released a decade ago, having since attained cultural phenomenon status and sold more units than anything except Tetris, is back in the monthly top ten list. The 9th best-selling overall, to be exact, plus the 7th best-selling game on Xbox One. Honestly, how are there so many people that don’t already own Minecraft?

Sega’s Total War: Three Kingdoms and Bethesda’s Rage 2 were the only new releases achieving top ten status last month, slotting at #3 and #4 respectively. Both of these are impressive accomplishments, considering the past few Total War games didn’t even chart and Rage 2 sales don’t include digital. (Bethesda doesn’t share that portion for its games). In an interesting but ultimately useless tidbit, the original Rage was also the 4th best-selling title in its release month of October 2011. The more you know, ya know.

(Shameless plug: I reviewed Rage 2 here and had a good time with it.)

Finally, PlayStation 4 exclusives like Days Gone and MLB The Show 19 are showing solid legs considering availability on solely one platform. Both games maintain spots in the top ten, plus move up in the year-to-date chart. And the beleaguered multi-platform title Anthem from BioWare is still hanging onto the fourth spot in the 2019 rankings. Both of these are happening in the doldrums of late Spring of course, so keeping an eye over time will tell the full story.

It’s now time to check out the main software rankings for May, which focus on strictly the U.S. market. For individual platform charts and way more information, read this extensive thread from NPD Analyst and, more importantly of course, my buddy Mat Piscatella.

Top-Selling Games of May 2019 (Physical & Digital Sales):

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Days Gone
  3. Total War: Three Kingdoms
  4. Rage 2*
  5. Grand Theft Auto V
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. MLB The Show 19
  9. Minecraft#
  10. NBA 2K19
  11. Mario Kart 8*
  12. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  13. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
  14. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  15. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Siege
  18. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
  19. Team Sonic Racing
  20. Yoshi’s Crafted World*

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Year to Date):

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Kingdom Hearts 3
  3. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  4. Anthem^
  5. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Days Gone
  9. MLB The Show 19
  10. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

I think I did pretty well squeezing as much as I could out of a mostly uneventful time frame. How did your predictions hold up? Surprises? Leave a note here or shoot me a message on Twitter. Hope to see you again next month!

Sources: The NPD Group, Bethesda Softworks, Microsoft, Sega, GamesPress.

-Dom

The Themes & Sounds of Funomena’s Luna Had Me Over the Moon

With its themes of togetherness, creation and rejuvenation commingled with brilliant sound design, Luna is a quick, impactful indie game that transitioned well to console play from its virtual reality roots.

(Plus, and I know you noticed, it gives me a great opportunity to use an amazing pun that I couldn’t if I didn’t enjoy it!)

Funomena, a team of 30 folks based in San Francisco led by noted indie talent Robin Hunicke, originally released the esoteric, interactive story Luna in 2017 on virtual reality and PC platforms. Today marks its PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR debut, and it’s certainly worth trying. Likely via either medium, though this review is of the PS4 version.

It’s a game that’s relaxing without descending into boredom. Slight overtones of loneliness, albeit not dark, that transition into hopefulness. More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.

The tale centers on Bird, a little feathered friend that boasts a mighty song, trying to recover bits of the Moon by uplifting other critters. The other main character is Owl, ever foreboding and mysterious. Funomena’s presentation here is like a virtual picture book, with hand-crafted art and a soothing vocal narrator. The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.

Luna packs a decent variety into its two to three hour playtime, as there are a handful of main “phases” that form its framework. Two of them revolve around light puzzle elements. One that’s semi-rhythmic in nature, as Bird sings to open nuts growing on a tree, while the other has the player forming constellations of different shapes or animals.

It’s necessary to complete these puzzles in order to open each of its level. What I like about the puzzles is they aren’t stagnant. They evolve each time, presenting slightly different challenges. One introduces a rotation element, the next takes away certain visual clues. It’s never too hard, and I appreciate the feeling of progression.

Speaking of its levels, they are mini-worlds each with a distinct animal inhabitant. And these are the true highlight of the game. Each of these spaces is effectively a dreary spot in need of enlightening, both literally and figuratively. Bird is fly enough to help! This is where player choice comes in, though there isn’t a strict set of goals or guidelines. It’s really a sort of free-flowing activity, which offers the player a chance to “cultivate” the scene with different plants, trees or flowers.

The player has to coax out each animal by planting those objects throughout this defined play space. Brighten it all up. Change the size. Sprinkle in color. As the player places trees or bushes, life awakens. Even though it’s simplistic and guided by context clues, it’s still satisfying. Plus, this allows for a level of creative expression. It’s especially fun to see one’s handiwork come to life in the background of the cut scene that ends each segment.

More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.

It’s almost a cliche these days to compare something to thatgamecompany’s Journey, though it’s natural here based on the team’s background of working on the 2012 independent classic. Luna dabbles in similar themes, as Bird tries to communicate using bits of song, though I’d actually align it more with recent titles like Fe and Gris from Zoink Games and Nomada Studio, respectively. Both of which I quite enjoyed, though this here is a much more swift adventure.

Sound plays a major role, especially in the puzzle areas. Since the player interacts with the game using a type of cursor controlled by the joystick, interacting with many of the game’s visual elements will spark a unique sound. Trying to connect a star chart to form a constellation? Guitar strings twang when the cursor crosses over any connections that already exist. It’s a subtle touch, and I found myself messing around to see how many different notes the team programmed.

Expanding on the game’s auditory direction, part of why it works so well is its free form design combined with a smooth, natural soundtrack from Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Abzu). His incorporation of chimes and piano chords amidst sounds of flowing water or ambient tones were great on console, and I’d imagine even better when immersed in VR.

The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.

As much as I enjoyed Luna, I have to admit there were small moments of frustration. I think it’s equal parts the game’s fault and my own. Within the first space, as I was planting trees and changing their colors to my heart’s desire, I started to question how I was going to progress. The world seemed complete, or at least my version of it was, which meant I felt stuck. I rotated the camera, poked and prodded though couldn’t complete the instance. It wasn’t readily apparent that I had to keep adding flora until a visual cue popped up and I could conclude the level.

This is a case where the game’s abstract nature works against it. Especially for me, as I tend to be goal-oriented. Luna nudges in directions, lets the player create rather than enforcing strict guidelines. Which started as a confusion, then became much appreciated after I learned I had to form my own path. Perhaps this is the intent.

The other downside is that it ended way too abruptly! It’s not that I assume a game like this would be grandiose in its finale, it’s that I hoped it would be more interactive. Especially after giving the player tools throughout to express individuality. Just when I expected to create my digital masterpiece, Luna took the reigns and ended its story on its own terms. It’s not my ideal conclusion, though it certainly didn’t ruin the overall experience.

My thoughts on the ending are not too damning really, since the real treat is the time spent in the game’s melodic, inspiring world. The puzzles are never too difficult, and ultimately a means to open levels where the player is way more free to tinker. Nothing is overly complex, nor does it need to be.

Funomena achieves a status of interactive art with Luna, in multiple respects. It’s a visual story about unification, overcoming feelings of desertion or guilt and a sense that planting seeds can grow fruitful relationships. This all means that, in the time it takes to watch a film, I’d recommend instead taking a quick virtual trip over the Moon.

Title: Luna

Release Date: October 17, 2017 (VR), November 22, 2017 (PC), June 18, 2019 (PS4, PS VR)

Developer: Funomena

Publisher: Funomena

Platforms: Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR

Recommendation: If you made it this far, you already know I think it’s worth a shot! Really thinking that virtual reality version might be even better, too.

Sources: Funomena, Screenshots from PlayStation 4 Pro.

Disclaimer: Review code provided by Funomena.

-Dom

Working Casual’s E3 2019 Best in Show Awards: Top 3 Best Moments

My third and final post of post-E3 coverage is going to be a quick hitter. You can find the earlier ones by clicking on this link or that link.

Outside of the games themselves, there are major moments at each year’s show that ripple throughout the next year or more in the industry. I’ve gathered up three such moments slash trends, in my Top 3 Best Moments of E3 2019 awards.

Now is the moment when you read them. Thanks!

Microsoft’s Xbox Project Scarlett Reveal.

For my first best moment, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer formally revealed Microsoft’s next generation of gaming console called Project Scarlett during the Xbox briefing last Sunday. Its introduction was reminiscent of the powerful Xbox One iteration Project Scorpio from last year’s event, namely a short video featuring hardware engineers and designers. These folks rattled off buzzwords such as the box will have a custom AMD processor with GDDR6 memory, a solid state drive, 8K resolution support, 120 frames per second capability and more.

Which is kind of general, plus of course there was no actual showing of the box or mention of price. Not even the final name, as it’s still being decided according later interviews with Spencer. We do have a release window at least plus one launch title: Project Scarlett is targeting Holiday 2020 alongside 343 Industries’ Halo Infinite. It’s a major moment for the Xbox brand and console gaming, though there’s still so many details left for future events including next year’s E3 show.

Gaming Services: Google Stadia, Microsoft’s Project xCloud, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, Ubisoft’s UPlay Plus and probably more.

We can’t go a couple of weeks these days without another company revealing some sort of modern service for gamers, whether it be streaming or access to a digital catalog. The most significant of these started back on June 6th right before E3 weekend, with Google Stadia Connect. In a prepared video that felt more like a corporate presentation than gaming reveal, VP & GM Phil Harrison of the massive tech giant discussed more on its streaming service such as a November release window for early adopters in certain countries, Google Stadia Pro monthly subscription, a lineup of 31 games on sale at launch and that Destiny 2 would be included as part of the Pro tier.

The other streaming offering featured prominently at E3 was Microsoft’s Project xCloud, one of Google Stadia’s main competitors. A quick mention at the Xbox briefing was followed by hands-on demos for media folks. Details here are more vague, as the remote streaming service is in its earlier testing phases among employees with a more public beta period rumored for this Fall. I’m a vocal skeptic on game streaming due to the physical limitations of reducing input lag and the lack of widespread internet infrastructure in a number of areas even in the States, so both of these projects have a lot to prove in my eyes.

Then there’s the other types of services. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which offers console and PC players a library of older games, first party exclusives plus Xbox Live online service for a friendly $15 per month. Ubisoft also shared UPlay Plus, a PC subscription giving access to the publisher’s suite of games for, again, $15 monthly. This has a firm release date of September 3, 2019. Not to mention there’s probably another one announced at the show that I missed, because these are popping up at a rapid pace. Which one will catch on and which will fizzle? I’m confident in the appeal of Xbox Game Pass, then UPlay Plus will carve out its niche, though streaming is the big question mark even though there’s no denying it’s the talk of the industry lately.

Square Enix E3 Showcase Revival.

Let’s be real. Last year’s Square Enix showcase wasn’t very good. The Japanese publisher redeemed itself this year in what I thought was the best of all the major companies, including Nintendo’s strong Direct offering.

The show began with a remarkable portion on the remake to Final Fantasy VII, a game I awarded one of my best in show. It somehow showed both a trailer and gameplay section without feeling overly bloated or boring. Plus, the March 3, 2020 release date reveal was a pleasant surprise.

Towards the end of its showcase, Square finally showed off the mysterious Marvel’s Avengers project. The game looked solid enough, though wasn’t able to capture a top spot on my awards. Presentation itself was good, though dragged towards the end when talking about future content when we don’t even really know that the game proper is. Surprisingly, we do have an exact release date, May 15, 2010. Earlier than I anticipated.

In between, Square boasted a number of games targeting both local and Western audiences. Some of which are internal, others it’s publishing. Dragon Quest XI Definitive, Dragon Quest Builders 2, Dying Light 2, Final Fantasy VIII remastered, Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Kingdom Hearts 3, Oninaki, Outriders, Romancing Saga 3, Square Enix Collective indie titles, The Last Remnant remastered, Trials of Mana collection to name a few. Not all of these are my types of games, though I’m plenty interested in enough of them plus impressed enough with the showcase’s overall pacing that I’m here to award Square Enix with the title of strongest live show.

Sad to say, that about does it for E3 2019. Next year’s is already announced for June 9th to June 11th, 2020. Let’s do it all again then!

Sources: Companies included here, Entertainment Software Association, GamesPress, CNET.

-Dom

Working Casual’s E3 2019 Best in Show Awards: Top 10 Smaller Games

The prior entry in my E3 2019 Best in Show Awards covered what I called the “bigger” titles featured at this year’s event.

Now, let’s highlight “smaller” ones. As in, those made by smaller teams, built with lower budgets or created by independent studios that don’t fit into the traditional AAA mold. Some of the best stuff might not be featured at the major press briefings. It certainly will be here!

Quick note that my final post is now up, and it’s all about the best moments.

In no particular order, other than alphabetical of course, let’s work through my Top 10 “Smaller” Games of E3 2019.

12 Minutes

Developer: Luis Antonio

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Release Date: 2020

I’m always blown away when a game is made predominantly by a single person. The top-down interactive narrative 12 Minutes is such a title, on which creator Luis Antonio has been laboring for years. Its intense trailer starts innocuously enough with two lovers eating dinner. The woman is set to reveal she’s pregnant, when the man says he knows already. It descends into a series of quick cuts that reveal our characters are stuck within a repeating period of time, where the woman’s father is dead and someone is out to get them. Apparently it’s played in 12 minutes increments, hence the name, and it’s totally my type of mystery.

Creature in the Well

Developer: Flight School Studio

Publisher: Flight School Studio

Release Date: Summer 2019

As a known proponent of pinball in video games, Creature in the Well is an easy pick for one of my awards. Made by mostly a duo of two folks from Flight School Studio, which is a broader team of 30 across Texas and Canada, it’s a dungeon-diving, top-down action game where puzzles are achieved using pinball mechanics. Its striking art style plus clever gameplay elements add to its appeal. And the best news is that it’s set for a release sooner than later!

Fall Guys

Developer: Mediatonic Games

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Release Date: 2020

If I had an award for the best trailer of E3, no doubt Fall Guys would be a contender. The colorful, goofy “ultimate knockout” multiplayer title is basically a bizarre gameshow set in a 3D cartoon space. Contestants have to navigate obstacles then fight through the crowd in hopes of being crowned king of the arena. Word is that Mediatonic plans to treat it as a kind of indie live service game, adding events over time. A truly unique take on the somewhat stagnant battle royale genre.

Hollow Knight: Silksong

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Release Date: TBA

Challenging 2D action game Hollow Knight was a sleeper hit for me last year on Nintendo Switch, though technically out in 2017 on PC. Silksong began as an expansion for the original, and has increased in scope to become a full-blown sequel. The player will control the agile Hornet navigating across a new bug-filled kingdom, facing off against at least 150 brand new enemies and a variety of Team Cherry’s notoriously tricky boss fights. Can’t wait to jump back into the world with its subtlety beautiful art and haunting musical score.

John Wick Hex

Developer: Bithell Games

Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment & Lionsgate Games

Release Date: TBA

Here’s how good this game looks: I’m not even a fan of the John Wick movies, I’m a novice tactics gamer and I don’t love isometric perspectives. But whew this looks so innovative in the context of what I’d expect from a John Wick game that I had to award it, if not just for its level of creativity. The coolest part is that once the player reaches the end of a level, they can rewind and see how it would look in real-time. Effectively replicating the frantic combat choreography of the film franchise.

Journey to the Savage Planet

Developer: Typhoon Studios

Publisher: 505 Games

Release Date: Early 2020

It’s so difficult for a game to be genuinely funny, as often times they walk a line between flat and cringey. Journey to the Savage Planet is neither of those things, in what looks like a hilarious first-person action-adventure set in a distant world. The player is there to catalog species and see if humans could inhabit the planet. Its creature design stands out immediately. Little round spheres with bulging eyeballs, giant dinosaur looking beasts then long-necked birds that split apart into more squawking birds when damaged. Definitely way into its tone and overall aesthetic.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: February 11, 2020

Set to release five years after Ori and the Blind Forest amazed many with its incredible art, masterful music and imaginative gameplay, this sequel is looking just as good and even larger in scope. Its familiar art direction and precision platforming stand out in its latest trailer, as we see examples of how the cute Ori’s suite of abilities improve this time around, though I’m also intrigued to learn about how its story expands on the events of the first. Plus, how about Moon Studios’ design of those massive enemies!

Psychonauts 2

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: 2020

My next award goes to Double Fine’s long-awaited sequel to cult classic Psychonauts, as the studio revealed its first gameplay trailer. This tease shows off how the quirky 3rd person adventure looks in action, plus its crazy characters and setup that everything exists within someone’s mind. Microsoft announced its acquisition of Double Fine during the former’s press briefing, though folks that don’t own an Xbox shouldn’t fret. It’s still coming to all of the platforms announced during its Fig crowdfunding campaign, including PlayStation 4.

Spiritfarer

Developer: Thunder Lotus Games

Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games

Release Date: 2020

I bet it’s the art style that instantly catches one’s eye when seeing images of this beautiful 2D adventure project. Though what really inspired this award is its premise. Beneath that beautiful design is a game about being a “ferrymaster to the dead,” the titular Spiritfarer, and exploring a game world while chatting with recently deceased spirits before guiding them to the void beyond. It’s meant to be a more upbeat portrayal of mortality, which is super unique within the medium. Not to mention you have a friendly kitty sidekick named Daffodil. (I’m more a dog person, but I ain’t complaining.)

The Sinking City

Developer: Frogwares

Publisher: Bigben Interactive

Release Date: June 27, 2019

There’s plenty of fiction drawn from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, especially when it comes to art direction or enemy design. Frogwares’ latest applies it to a 3rd-person investigative mystery with exploration and light combat elements. Set amidst a whole lot of weird folks living in a New England town being consumed by water and madness, its gameplay looks familiar enough. Searching for clues to solve crimes and even murders. The real intriguing part is the eerie plot and cosmic horror often seen in Lovecraftian settings. Not to mention I’ll be dusting off my investigative skills very soon when it’s out in mere weeks.

Honorable Mention:

Afterparty

Developer: Night School Studio

Publisher: Night School Studio

Release Date: 2019

Main reason for a mention here rather than an actual award is that Night School was present at E3 in a panel, though we didn’t actually see much more from the game in which a pair of friends has to outdrink the devil in order to win their way out of hell. Yes, that’s actually what it is. I really liked the studio’s 2016 title Oxenfree, and this latest project has many of the same trappings including dialogue pop-ups that the player picks. Was really hoping to hear a release date since it’s supposed to be out quite soon.

That concludes this round of awards. The third and final piece will be on the Top 3 Best Moments of E3 2019. Thanks much if you made it this far!

Sources: Companies included here, Entertainment Software Association, GamesPress, CNET.

-Dom

Working Casual’s E3 2019 Best in Show Awards: Top 10 Bigger Games

While I wasn’t one of the 66,100 folks in attendance at this year’s Electronics Entertainment Expo gaming convention last week, I was able to follow along with all the E3 festivities because it’s 2019 and the internet exists. (For better or worse. The whole internet part.)

General hype was subdued after companies like Sony and Activision Blizzard said they wouldn’t be at this year’s showcase, though I won’t let that sentiment impact my enjoyment. So many talented teams are out there showing a number of seemingly awesome games, how could I possibly not be excited?

We heard of some projects ahead of time, due to teases or rumors. Though there were plenty of others that not even the internet leakers could ruin. For real, a new Zelda?!

Now that the company press conferences are over, the show floor is closed and everyone is recovering, I’ve mapped out three posts to celebrate the biggest gaming event of the year. This is the first one. The other two are here and here.

First up is the Top 10 “Bigger” Games of E3 2019! (In alphabetical order. Because rankings are hard.)

Cyberpunk 2077

Developer: CD Projekt Red

Publisher: CD Projekt Red

Release Date: April 16, 2020

Keanu Reeves became the talk of the show with his appearance at the Microsoft press briefing, revealing he’s playing a character named Johnny Silverhand within Cyberpunk’s futuristic open world. The game itself received widespread praise from media, privy to a stunning, lengthy behind-closed-doors demo, namely for its blend of narrative excellence combined with player choice in approaching situations within its dense and dangerous Night City setting. CD Projekt Red is taking home a ton of awards to its homeland of Poland, including one of my coveted Top 10 spots here!

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep

Developer: Bungie

Publisher: Bungie (Finally free!)

Release Date: September 17, 2019

It wouldn’t truly be a post from me if I didn’t at least mention my beloved Destiny 2, especially now that Bungie is fully independent from Activision Blizzard. Not only does the Shadowkeep expansion center on a host of new nightmarish enemies inhabiting the Moon, one of the best locations from 2014’s original, the studio is implementing tons of smart changes in its space shooter in September. These include the introduction of cross-save across multiple platforms, a release on the Google Stadia streaming service and a base game rebrand to a free-to-play offering called Destiny 2: New Light. Eyes up, Guardians!

DOOM Eternal

Developer: id Software

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: November 22, 2019

The next installment in the groundbreaking DOOM franchise ripped and teared its way to being the highlight of Bethesda’s showcase, featuring both a story teaser trailer and a sizeable gameplay demo showing off its classic frenzied combat alongside new movement capabilities plus a myriad of added enemy types. Between this and hearing from E3 attendees how amazing it felt, late autumn 2019 is the one time when I’ll welcome someone telling me to “go to Hell.”

Dying Light 2

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Techland Publishing & Square Enix

Release Date: Spring 2020

Among all the sequels featured at E3, the follow-up to 2015’s surprise gem Dying Light is the one for which I’m most excited. Especially after seeing more from the open world action title, where choices now have drastic impact on the world plus the main character Aiden Caldwell has expanded parkour abilities compared to his predecessor Kyle Crane. I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive reactions from those that witnessed it during the show, further solidifying its spot on my Top 10 award list.

Elden Ring

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Release Date: TBA

Despite its title and dark fantasy action role-playing premise leaking before E3 began, the reveal of Elden Ring was still a major highlight of Microsoft’s briefing. There’s still so much we don’t know about it, other than it being a collaboration between Hidetaka Miyazaki’s From Software team and A Song of Ice and Fire creator George R.R. Martin. Which, honestly, is enough in itself to land it among my favorite big games from last week.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Developer: Square Enix

Publisher: Square Enix

Release Date: March 3, 2020

The remake to 1997’s Japanese role-playing epic Final Fantasy VII has been in development for so long that cracking jokes about it became old a while ago. Its tardiness can almost be forgiven now that Square Enix has solidified a March 2020 release date. We saw more from the project’s modernized aesthetic, awesome character models and revamped action-style battle system that maintains elements from the original’s turn-based approach. Want to know how good it looks? I have zero nostalgia for the franchise, and it’s vaulted to being one of my most-anticipated of next year after this showing.

Ghostwire: Tokyo

Developer: Tango Gameworks

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: TBA

I’m not sure which was better: Creative Director Ikumi Nakamura talking about this “spooky” cinematic adventure, helmed by masterful producer Shinji Mikami, or the lonesome trailer that teased just enough for me to be totally intrigued. It’s a brand new game, a rare sight lately, where folks from Japan’s largest city are disappearing and the player will need to navigate paranormal events while interacting with ghosts that could be friend or foe. This was probably the best surprise reveal of the entire week.

Halo Infinite

Developer: 343 Industries

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: Late 2020

Halo is Microsoft’s flagship, which means that the team had to nail its more formal reveal after last year’s vague teaser. And it delivered. The trailer hits in the feels harder than a rocket launcher on Blood Gulch, following a stranded pilot viewing a hologram of his family then stumbling across a suspended-in-space Master Chief. While only cinematic, there are hidden details suggesting where and when this new game takes place (Zeta Halo a couple years after Halo 5 Guardians), plus we learned it’s a launch title for Xbox’s next generation hardware. “We need to fight,” says the Chief. I’m so ready.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Sequel

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Release Date: TBA

Sure, it’s cheating to give it an award. Yes, we don’t know its name. Indeed, its trailer was short. No doubt, it has no release window. All of that can’t stop the sequel to my 2nd favorite game of 2017 and an amazing entry in the storied franchise instantly making this list on hype alone. Zelda aficionados have dissected its teaser, speculating that it’s a darker iteration using the same art style of modern masterpiece Breath of the Wild. A la Majora’s Mask to Ocarina of Time. Plus, there’s the renewed speculation that Zelda herself may finally be a playable character based on her prominence in this teaser. Who knows when we’ll hear more. I’m just super pumped it actually exists.

Watch Dogs Legion

Developer: Ubisoft Toronto

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 6, 2020

There’s no doubt in my mind that Ubisoft introduced what might be the most ambitious title in the history of gaming with this third Watch Dogs installment. Set in London after Brexit, rather than a singular main character like the first couple of third-person open world hackathons, the player now recruits any civilian to be part of a crew trying to overthrow a regime. Yes, this includes an older woman that used to be an assassin and really knows her way around a spider drone, as shown quite hilariously in its extended gameplay demo. I don’t know how Ubi will pull it off, though I’m confident it will be truly epic if it does.

Honorable Mention:

Deathloop

Developer: Arkane Lyon

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: TBA

Apparently Bethesda had a pretty good showing, receiving two awards on my coveted list in addition to an honorable mention. I’m not quite sure what the actual end result will be, or if it will be single-player or multi-player, however the premise of Deathloop immediately caught my attention. Two skilled assassins stranded on an island while stuck in a seemingly endless loop of hunting down one another. If.. executed properly, Arkane Lyon’s new IP could be one of the more unique hits this generation.

Very much appreciate you swinging by! Up next will be the Top 10 Best “Smaller” Games of E3!

Sources: Companies included here, Entertainment Software Association, GamesPress, CNET.

-Dom

It’s That Time: Boring & Bold E3 2019 Predictions!

It really is a holiday in June, for gamers and tech heads!

The Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019 officially kicks off next Tuesday in Los Angeles, though pre-E3 festivities start well before then as game companies large and small try to dazzle enthusiasts (and, in some cases, investors) with live presentations or pre-recorded digital shows.

Now, it’s super easy to do a recap of what we already know. Especially since this week has seen numerous leaks or early teases, from the likes of Ubisoft with Watch Dogs Legion to the rumored From Software and George R.R. Martin collaboration now called Elden Ring.

It’s also a snoozefest typing up a list of safe predictions. What’s the fun in that? It’s freakin’ E3! No matter how much comes out before the event itself, you and I both know there will always be reveals that no one is expecting.

Which brings me to this post. Across the next week, we’ll be bombarded with information on what’s new in gaming and related technology including consoles, streaming and even virtual reality. I’m going to write one boring and one bold prediction for each of the major company events, then a little something something for E3 proper.

If you need to follow along with the general calendar, the E3 Media Site and IGN’s Wiki Page are good resources. Let’s get this.. show on the road!

Electronic Arts: EA Play, Saturday, June 8th, 9:30 AM PT / 12:30 PM ET.

Boring: EA is scrapping its traditional (and honestly pretty tame) E3-adjacent press conference for a series of live streams starting later today as part of its EA Play fan event in Hollywood. This features previously released titles like Apex Legends, Battlefield V and The Sims 4 in addition to new iterations in its sports franchises. The major headliner is Respawn Entertainment’s Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, starting right at the beginning of the live show with a gameplay reveal.

Which brings me to my first boring prediction. EA is going to reveal details about Season 2 of its battle royale game Apex Legends, complete with a new character. We’ll see gameplay from that character today, and a start date right after its recent The Legendary Hunt event concludes on July 2nd.

Bold: Noticeably absent from the schedule is BioWare’s Anthem, the online action game that released in February to mixed reviews. Personally I enjoyed its mechanics, though acknowledged it was certainly rough around the edges. It’s baffling that older games like Battlefield V and The Sims 4 would be here while Anthem isn’t. I know its player count is dwindling plus BioWare hosted a separate stream recently for the game. However this is supposed to be EA’s flagship stream and one of its most recent high profile games is nowhere to be found?

I’m not sure how to read this absence, so let’s naturally go in a completely irrational direction. During today’s set of live streams or at its fan event, we’ll hear at least a bit more of what BioWare is working on next. Which is the next Dragon Age. While there was a quick tease at last year’s Game Awards, there’s been nothing since. If the developer has symbolically moved past Anthem, it has to.. slay any concerns fans have and reassure about its future.

Microsoft: Xbox E3 Briefing, Sunday, June 9th, 1:00 PM PT / 4:00 PM ET.

Boring: This is a huge E3 year for Microsoft. It’s even said as much. Its major competitor isn’t there. It’s building a new generation of consoles. It’s been gobbling up studios in hopes it can bolster its game lineup. It’s expanding on services, from Xbox Game Pass to Project xCloud. I’d argue this is the most important moment for Xbox as a brand, perhaps ever.

A bit dramatic? Absolutely. But also true. In fitting with this theme, even my boring prediction is massive: Microsoft will formally reveal its next generation of Xbox hardware, nicknamed Xbox Scarlett. This being the two rumored models: One more powerful then the other more entry-level. Nothing on price, timing or the boxes themselves. Just a teaser. If these are out in the fall 2020 timing that I’m estimating, we won’t see a blow-out until next year.

Bold: No, I don’t think Microsoft is going to acquire Capcom. Or Konami. Or any major publisher because that’s not going to happen. If anything, perhaps a smaller development team that isn’t publicly-traded.

That’s not going to be my bold prediction, of course. This is: We’re going to learn about not just one, not just two but THREE brand new, next generation titles from Xbox Game Studios. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer already said we’ll see 14 games from its teams. Not satisfied? Let’s say one of them is from one of the newly-acquired developers. Had enough? Lastly, the biggest of those games will be.. finally, a new Fable. Created by, you guessed it, Playground Games.

Bethesda Softworks: Bethesda E3 Showcase, Sunday, June 9th, 5:30 PM PT / 8:30 PM ET.

Boring: Late night on Sunday, when everyone else is dreading work the following day, gamers will be stoked to see what independent publisher and always wildcard Bethesda will bring to the table during its showcase. Safe bets are DOOM Eternal, Wolfenstein Youngblood and more DLC for Rage 2, which I reviewed recently. I predict we’ll see all three of these, plus more from at least one of its mobile offerings.

Bold: With director Todd Howard crushing dreams in saying recently that big-budget projects like Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI will not be making E3 appearances (which sense as there’s no way either of these is coming out this generation), what kind of crazy surprise might we see that’s unrelated to these much-anticipated games?

Well. I could use this space to predict that Bethesda will tease a new Evil Within title from legendary horror designer Shinji Mikami, who we know will be at E3. I could use this to say that Fallout 76 will receive a major update and go F2P at the same time. While both of those can certainly happen, I’m going elsewhere: Bethesda will finally reveal that Arkane Studios has been cooking up something real juicy. Twist! It’s not going to be within the Dishonored or Prey universes. It’s new. And it’s probably going to be awesome.

Ubisoft Entertainment: UbiE3 Press Conference, Monday, June 10th, 1:00 PM PT / 4:00 PM ET.

Boring: If we’re talking about guesses for French publisher Ubisoft, shoot almost all of them might be considered boring since we likely know its lineup before it even happens Monday afternoon. I mentioned Watch Dogs Legion before. October release Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint will assuredly be prominently featured. We’ve even heard rumblings from my buds Nibel and analyst Daniel Ahmad plus Kotaku’s Jason Schreier of multiple new projects, including co-op shooter Rainbow 6 Quarantine, an RPG codenamed “Orpheus” plus even a roller derby title dubbed Roller Champions. Everyone seems to be getting in on the action!

The snoozer part of my prediction is that we’ll see all of these. Then another Just Dance, which will undoubtedly be revealed alongside a dancing animal of some sort.

Bold: Always animated Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot is a staple of these live shows, thankfully so, which means it’s easy to say he’ll be there again. That’s not my guess.

My super bold prediction is that new Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser (yes, Bowser) will make a special appearance together with Guillemot. Because the two gaming powerhouses are going to announce a spanking new collaboration! The easy guess is a Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle 2. This isn’t a place for easy. I’m thinking something new, a different blending of two brands, along the lines of Rayman and Yoshi. Trials and F-Zero. Something innovative. That no one is expecting, except me!

Square Enix: Square Enix Live E3 2019, Monday, June 10th, 6:00 PM PT / 9:00 PM ET.

Boring: Out of all this year’s live shows, I think Square is going to be the most surprising. In the best way possible. The Japanese publisher needs to redeem itself after last year’s average showing. I believe it will.

Easy predictions include headliners Marvel’s Avengers from Crystal Dynamics and the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake from Tetsuya Nomura’s internal team. It’s unlikely we see anything more than a cinematic trailer for the former, though a gameplay demo for the latter is certainly feasible if not likely. I also think there’s a high likelihood we see gameplay from action-adventure Babylon’s Fall from PlatinumGames, plus the official reveal of People Can Fly’s shooter Outriders as it was teased on Twitter a couple days ago.

Lastly, in an interesting twist, Polish studio Techland revealed a week ago that Square will be publishing its upcoming open world zombie game Dying Light 2. Which is curious considering that the original was distributed by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. I’m thinking we see a lot from this game here, plus a release window of Q1 2020.

Bold: As impressive as the above is, I’m betting Square will still surprise us and elevate its show to being a standout amid its competitors. Gematsu recently posted about an announcement event for mobile title Dragon Quest Walk, during which produce Yuu Miyake made mention of Dragon Quest XII in vague terms, hinting at some sort of announcement on the storied JRPG franchise despite the game being early in development. Being bold, I say we’ll see a tease along with its subtitle and a logo, similar to how Bethesda revealed the upcoming entry in its Elder Scrolls series!

Nintendo: Nintendo Direct E3 2019, Tuesday, June 11th, 9:00 AM PT / 12:00 PM ET.

Boring: Nintendo is once again slotted in on Tuesday mid-day, technically right before the start of E3 itself, with its Direct and then Treehouse Live stream. We’ve already got a good sense of what it will feature for its Switch hybrid platform, plus some.. inkling of what it could reveal. Pokémon Sword and Shield will be the headliner, after the reveal of its November 15th release date among new pocket monster variations in addition to more about its systems. Super Mario Maker 2 is out this month and Fire Emblem: Three Houses hits July, which means both should have lengthy demo sections.

I’m also betting we see gameplay from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remaster, plus a potential release window. Luigi’s Mansion 3 should be shown in some capacity, along with exclusive-to-Switch Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. Easy ones, done-zo.

Bold: If the aforementioned prediction on a crossover project with Ubisoft isn’t enough, you’ve come to the right place. Minuscule chance of Bayonetta 3 or Metroid Prime 4, though I’m not betting on it. However, what’s up with Animal Crossing for Switch? Nintendo still lists it as a 2019 game in recent reporting, though we know virtually nothing about it. Part of my bold prediction is that we’ll get the full blow-out. Cinematic trailer. Gameplay walk-thru during Treehouse. Plus! A December release date.

But that’s not all. It’s about time.. for Mario Kart 9. That’s right. A new Kart game, exclusive to Switch. Its predecessor is selling so well that this might be my most ridiculous pick of the day, but who cares! I went there. Let’s see if Nintendo does, too.

E3 Show Hours and E3 Coliseum: Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 11, 10:00 AM PT / 1:00 PM ET to Thursday, June 13, 6:00 PM PT / 9:00 PM ET.

Boring: All this said and we haven’t even started the show! On Tuesday, the expo itself opens its doors to exhibitors, press, influencers (ugh) and fans alike. There’s so much that I haven’t even mentioned here that’s a shoe-in to be there. Destiny 2! Cyberpunk 2077! Baldur’s Gate 3! Call of Duty: Modern Warfare! That’s not to mention all the independent developers showing off their sweet upcoming projects, of which there will be at least a handful of standouts. Untitled Goose Game, plz!

I’m thrilled to learn more about these plus see the myriad of panels featured at E3 Coliseum, which is a fantastic mini-event during the broader show. This year’s has so many talented people sitting down to discuss their games, including folks from Bungie, Respawn Entertainment, id Software, Xbox and more. It’s less a prediction and more a guarantee that this will be exceptional.

Bold: Alright. What the heck. I know Take-Two Interactive and 2K Games is focused on marketing Borderlands 3 this year ahead of September drop date, however I’m still forever hoping for a new BioShock game. My final bold prediction is that, somehow someway, we hear a rumor or tidbit about the secret BioShock project. Give me anything at all!

Whew. Being bold is tiring work. Whatever your opinion on E3, however many things leak in advance, I’m always going to be pumped this time of the year.

I’ve sent out a question on Twitter related to this post, asking for one boring and one bold prediction from all of you. I expect big things. Don’t disappoint, and enjoy this year’s gaming spectacle! I know I will.

Sources: Entertainment Software Association, All companies and tweets above, Kotaku, The Verge, PC Gamer.

-Dom

Sci-Fi Shooter Void Bastards Is Fun In Bursts, But Fits Too Many Genres In One Space

Minutes into Void Bastards, it’s clear what kind of experience it’s going to be.

“Don’t worry,” it shows as my character is overwhelmed by enemies. “The game expected you to die.”

During a hectic opening sequence, this tone is quickly established then permeates the latest work from Australian indie studio Blue Manchu. It’s a genuinely funny game, a shooter strategy hybrid set in space presented as a science-fiction comic book come to life. The basis of its humor is the setting: a bureaucratic galaxy with friendly robots, invading aliens and tons of obnoxious legal paperwork. However, like its endless lineup of player characters, certain parts wind up being expendable.

Its attempt to mix genres and influences occasionally works, as I had a good enough time in short sessions though not nearly all the time. Void Bastards is part first-person shooter, strategy sim, survival game and roguelite, the last of which being a more focused genre within the broader “roguelike” such as character perma-death plus random or procedural levels. Based on there being less than a dozen folks at studio Blue Manchu, this was clearly an ambitious task. I commend the effort, even if I wasn’t dazzled by a few of its parts.

One of the team’s main designers Jonathan Chey co-founded Irrational Games and was instrumental in System Shock 2 and BioShock, obvious inspirations here. Picture one of these games, remove the engaging story and fascinating lore then add strategy elements, a cumbersome crafting system plus survival gauges and this is essentially the result.

The player takes control of an escaped prisoner, the titular “bastard” from the void. A random felon that hijacks an intergalactic vessel with the intention of leaving the Sargasso Nebula. Upon creation, he or she is assigned characteristics such as being fast on their feet or even colorblind. When that person meets an untimely end, it’s replaced by a new one. Items and materials are lost however upgrades and crafted items remain. Which is a smart design decision, as the game is punishing enough already especially on higher difficulties.

The basis of its humor is the setting: a bureaucratic galaxy with friendly robots, invading aliens and tons of obnoxious legal paperwork. However, like its endless lineup of player characters, certain parts wind up being expendable.

Starting with my first character, a smoker with a random cough that alerts enemies, it actually takes me a couple hours to get my bearings. To understand what my goal is. The beginning requires one to search for crafting parts to a piece of futuristic technology. Perhaps I missed a story or dialogue prompt, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go or what to do. Better on-boarding (pun intended, as expected) or a tutorial area would be welcome.

Though this carries forward into later game as well, feeling of aimless despite possessing a star-map. Based on the developer’s description, this is because the player gets to pick where to go. Even so, it’s overwhelming. Progression is driven by crafting pieces of the spaceship that will allow faster-than-light travel, in an attempt to leave the local nebula.

The major stand-out feature of this Humble Bundle-published title is its artwork. It truly resembles an interactive comic. Space crafts feature stunning, colorful 3D spaces. It’s easy to be distracted by the most minute of details, such as in-game posters or gadgets strewn about the area. Its semblance of a narrative is conveyed in a manner that looks like a visual novel, complete with animated panels and dialogue bubbles. I found myself stopping to admire this art design constantly, and hovering on the story panels as if to soak up the style.

Another strength is, intriguingly enough, its voice acting. Super creative, even subtle at times. Robot AI named BACS (for the British tax-collecting organization) works as a narrator along the journey, and is especially humorous during downtime between boarding ships. The player character is speechless, though enemies will quip and react to one’s presence. On-board intercom messages continue despite stations being empty, many of which are quite clever and give a sense that the world which existing previously certainly had its share of issues.

“I bet you are wondering what happens when you die?” BACS presents, appearing philosophic.

“Others will enjoy what you leave behind.”

Downtime here is where the strategy simulation kicks in, plus the player has an opportunity to craft from the materials collected while exploring ships. Time is spent plotting a course across the cosmos then building stuff to help make it easier. Deciding where to go based on the descriptions of each ship, which detail what sorts of enemies or resources are present. The cool part here is that there are virtually no loading screens, it moves quickly between the different menus. The transition from map to gameplay is seamless.

Unfortunately, it’s a shooter where the shooting is serviceable at best, flimsy at worst. I know it’s not the sole mechanic, though as the primary interaction with the game space, it is noticeably inconsistent. And desperately missing a melee attack.

Its semblance of a narrative is conveyed in a manner that looks like a visual novel, complete with animated panels and dialogue bubbles. I found myself stopping to admire this art design constantly, and hovering on the story panels as if to soak up the style.

In terms of enemy, combat and weapon variety, it’s solid enough to keep engaged in the short-term. There aren’t actually that many enemies. For instance, the Zec are alien humanoids with shields, while Patients are a set of floating severed heads that require precision shots. Stronger versions appear deeper in space. This makes sense because it’s made by a smaller studio, however this fact doesn’t break the monotony of seeing them so frequently.

Weapons and explosives are much better. The player unlocks more powerful, varied instruments of combat through a crafting tree. One of my favorites is the Kittybot, a cute killer that distracts foes then explodes on a timer. The other is the Rifter, a gun that captures enemies then spits them out on command. This allows for unique engagements, like locking opponents into vacant rooms or dropping them directly into an environmental hazard.

Even though the game implies stealth is possible, mainly on surfaces like carpet, I was never successful in hiding my presence. There’s a smart design in how the game signals enemies are around, at least. Phrases show up in the world, like Batman’s fight-words style, then increase in frequency when approaching a baddy. These pop-ups also show up with more pizazz during combat.

As mentioned earlier, the character trait system is a major feature. Especially since once a character dies, it’s gone forever. It’s an intriguing system, though can be frustrating depending on which combination pops up. “Diminutive” stature is an example, which means the camera shifted accordingly. It’s like playing as the shorter Oddjob in GoldenEye 007.

The downside of procedural generation and random attributes is one that’s more general when I play the genre: fear of missing out. The only way for me to see all the traits is by failing constantly or seeking out gene banks, which are areas in certain ship types that allow for swapping of traits. No matter how my character is built, I know there’s likely an even better ability that I’ve never seen.

Then, boarded ships have mostly the same features throughout. Jumbled up depending on which type, such as a medical vessel or fuel stations. This gets tedious in later stages, to the point where exploration feels a chore when it really should satisfy curiosity. Combine this with survival parts like juggling hunger, gas and oxygen levels, it’s easy to get bogged down in laborious mechanics.

Perhaps this is nitpicky, I find controller options to be paramount for shooters. There’s only one configuration I could find here on console, no sort of mapping or reworking controls. There also isn’t a way to turn off elements of the HUD, which would be fine if not so invasive. Lastly, the crafting system is messy. Forces the player to cycle between screens and constantly guess at how spending one set of materials will impact the potential for building something else. Multiple times I built one item not knowing it would set me back in my progress for another.

A question before wrapping up, this from Nick at The Inner Circle. Has there been any game I’ve played like this? It’s a tricky one to answer, as I’m admittedly not a strategy enthusiast. I made the above comparisons to “Shock” games, though a series I feel has the same vibe is, wildly enough, Toe Jam & Earl. The action-adventure from the Sega Genesis days doesn’t take itself too seriously, features random characteristics and was an early example of procedural elements on console. Plus there’s the whole space ship building part!

All of this together means Void Bastards is much better in short bursts than long sessions. Tedium sets in while boarding yet another ship with the same rooms, inhabited by enemy types seen before. Especially when facing them at higher difficulties, without the necessary resources to succeed.

There’s some cool possibilities in the game’s overlapping systems, though it’s far from a revolutionary genre-blend that it has the potential to be. I had enough fun with it to warrant at least checking it out, though not near enough to maintain my attention over a long haul. Let alone a trip across the galaxy.

Title: Void Bastards

Release Date: May 29, 2019

Developer: Blue Manchu

Publisher: Humble Bundle

Platforms: Xbox One and Xbox Game Pass, PC (Steam, Humble Bundle)

Recommendation: Solid enough to try, especially for strategy enthusiasts and those with Xbox Game Pass, albeit not good enough to drop everything and play right away or stick with over time.

Disclaimer: Xbox One review code provided by Humble Bundle.

-Dom

A Plague Tale: Innocence Is Both Pure & Painful To Play, That’s Why It’s So Powerful

Amicia and Hugo tip-toe across cadavers strewn about a now empty battlefield, devoid of life except for them, where men had fought face-to-face and died together.

“Are we hurting them?” the boy Hugo questions honestly, with equal levels concern and naivete in his voice that makes one feel the men might actually be alive when you know they will never be again.

This uniquely harrowing and tender sequence represents the essence of A Plague Tale: Innocence, a game in which small bits of purity often exist amidst total and utter despair. It’s a place where video games seldom have the courage to go, or fail in an attempt to do so.

Asobo Studio’s stealth-adventure isn’t like other games. Incredible, heartbreaking and often downright repulsive, the French team’s creation is a special experience that proves a game doesn’t have to be fun in order to be enjoyable. In fact, I’d argue that the struggle of playing through its jarring environments and painful moments is intentional. And precisely what makes it so memorable.

To confirm, it’s not the mechanics or systems that make it painful to play. In fact, directors David Dedeine and Kevin Choteau create fluid stealth and combat abilities, as I’ll dive into later. It’s because of the setting, its aesthetic and overall tone. Its decaying environments. The ghastly corridors. That sickening feeling of trudging through the of world and its timeline, as children nonetheless. These aspects are chilling, approaching unbearable, that I won’t be able to shake them for a long time. This sort of emotional difficulty stands out just as much as the challenging combat of a Dark Souls or pinpoint platforming required in a Kaizo Mario. This struggle, more than anything, is the defining characteristic of A Plague Tale: Innocence.

Set in France during the 14th Century, this interactive narrative published by Focus Home Interactive follows the children of nobles Beatrice and Robert De Rune amidst a blood plague and the Inquisition. The player controls teenager Amicia, often alongside her five year-old brother Hugo, the latter of which starts the story in quarantine at the behest of his mother due to suffering from a mysterious illness.

In the opening scene, Inquisition soldiers storm the De Rune residence looking for young Hugo. It’s here the game introduces its main features: stealth, deception and light combat elements. Amicia boasts a variety of distraction and even lethal techniques, plus can direct her companions to help clear a path or unlock areas. It’s a clever system that peels back deeper and deeper layers throughout the game, even up to its final act, and tailors Amicia’s tools based on who is with her at a particular time.

The siblings escape the estate, though Robert and Beatrice remain behind with their Inquisition captors. Robert is slain and Beatrice appears to be as well. What follows is a narrative normally not attempted in games, focusing on teenagers and children plodding through a war-torn region plagued by a number of atrocities. Albeit still very much a game, speckled with familiar mechanics and tropes within its genre.

This sort of emotional difficulty stands out just as much as the challenging combat of a Dark Souls or pinpoint platforming required in a Kaizo Mario. This struggle, more than anything, is the defining characteristic of A Plague Tale: Innocence.

As the pair crosses through villages, monasteries, farms and chateaus, they face the game’s primary obstacle and most notable piece of technology: Rats. Not just any old vermin. Rabid, swarming groups of rats that devour anything not near fire or light. These are plague rats, as deadly as they are disgusting.

These swarms and Inquisition soldiers become the framework for most of the environmental puzzles. The De Runes must leverage Amicia’s sling to fling rocks and specific concoctions that can put out fires, daze foes or even blast holes through large groups of vermin. This presents all sorts of options, and while the early puzzles are rudimentary, the later game opens multiple paths to allow more elaborate combinations of tactics. Since Amicia isn’t durable, it behooves one to take a more delicate approach. That’s not to say the lethal option isn’t effective. It’s impressive how much the game promotes creativity in this regard.

To supplement Amicia’s stealth capabilities, there’s crafting of different rock “formulas” via an alchemy menu. Spells have Harry Potter-esque names like Ignifier or Luminosa. Combining is essential as both human and rodent foes become more varied in later encounters. There’s also upgrade trees for her sling, equipment and ammunition, so scouring areas for supplies is essential. This and the game’s other systems are deeper than initially thought.

It’s also more open than it seems. Branching paths create a sense of wonder, creating the sensation that its spaces are actually larger than they are. Walking with a side character into a nook within a broader room gives an opportunity for private dialogue and world-building through a handful of different collectible types. While it’s linear overall, A Plague Tale: Innocence has its share of intimate, optional moments.

One minor area of frustration for me was facing off against the game’s “bosses.” These battles are so difficult to design in this context, trying to balance stealth and combat. They can feel clunky or out-of-place, as they do here. I understand why they are present, helping to signal climaxes within each act, and I appreciate the effort despite them being my least favorite part of the game.

Since Amicia isn’t durable, it behooves one to take a more delicate approach. That’s not to say the lethal option isn’t effective. It’s impressive how much the game promotes creativity in this regard.

More broadly speaking, art direction is masterful in its depiction of what a plague-ridden Europe would look like during this period of history. It’s strikingly beautiful, a direct parallel to how its characters fight against the ugliness of their time. Kudos to the team. It’s hard to even describe: Diseased corpses, decaying animals and dilapidated buildings that were once beautiful litter the game spaces. Sometimes literally under Amicia’s feet. It’s haunting, stomach-turning stuff.

Plus, the narrative. It’s hard to describe how engaging writing lead Sébastien Renard makes it, between superlative character development, a main arc surrounding the plague then to genuine twists during late game. Especially given it centers on a pair of kids and the teenagers they meet while trying to deal with Hugo’s symptoms, finding respite amidst a world that isn’t fit for youngsters.

Amicia and Hugo’s relationship begins as distant, as the latter deals with loss for the first time. It progresses in conjunction with the game’s overarching story, as Amicia decides she’s willing to do just about anything to help her brother. They grow literally alongside one another, holding hands while solving puzzles. Hugo will bravely crawl through crevices or sneakily unlock doors. This highlights his growth, as previously he was cooped up in his bedroom. A victim of his affliction.

The game escalates quickly across 10 to 12 hours, from its more modest beginnings through a robust second act then a grand finale. Grand Inquisitor Vitalis targets Hugo throughout, as we learn how the boy, the rat plague and this twisted man leading the Inquisition are interwoven. While it gets fantastical at times, it’s forever grounded in its character relationships, motivations and determinations. I also respect that there’s equal chance the game serves up beautiful reunions between characters as it does extreme punishment, akin to the style of author George R.R. Martin.

The art direction is masterful in its depiction of what a plague-ridden Europe would look like during this period of history. It’s strikingly beautiful, a direct parallel to how its characters fight against the ugliness of their time.

Even secondary characters shine in their specific roles: The alchemist Lucas, orphan twins Melie and Arthur plus the blacksmith apprentice Rodric. All forced to mature and harden themselves way too early in life, something that children should never have to do. It’s notable how well-paced the game is, too. In that, it does downtime well. Quiet times in a Middle Ages castle that the group adopts as home or branching off to find a collectible with Hugo lull into a sense of respite. Then, that false comfort is shattered.

And I never thought I’d say this about any title: The “rat technology” of how the critters move in big groups and react to environments is impressive. This tech is crucial to so many puzzles that I don’t think it’d be near as effective without Asobo’s extensive animation and artificial intelligence work.

Voice acting and dialogue are also standout. It’s so difficult to feature children in games, which is why there are very few that do it successfully. A special shout out to Hugo’s English voice actor Logan Hannan. His performance is subtle and refreshing, even hopeful.

At one point, Hugo bemoans his torment. “I’m scared of what’s in my head,” he trembles to Amicia.

“Don’t worry.” she comforts. “We’re all scared of what’s in our heads.”

It’s a tender consolation, an understanding between the siblings. A morbid sort of comical relief that draws them closer. The boy never forgets his courtesies during the play-through, throwing in “Thank You’s” and “You’re Welcome’s” in the most charming of ways, as casually as if he was back at the De Rune estate eating dinner.

(Here’s a video featuring the actors alongside their characters.)

And the sound design! Strings escalate the tension as rats rush away from a light source. Lightning snaps across the backdrop of a fortress. The attention to this kind of detail is all the more noteworthy given how small the development team is.

What ultimately makes it special is that, while it certainly has villains, it’s hardly a good against evil cliche. It’s not merely a “surviving against the odds” tale. It’s young people attempting to maintain humanity when the world is chaos. A juxtaposition of purity and destruction. The symbolism of hopefulness while despair is ever-present.

Hugo will often find flowers throughout the world, and offer to put them in Amicia’s hair. Continually reinforcing the theme of contrast. This small, touching moment embodies what it means to stay positive within a decaying world. Characters looking for anything by which to feel a sense of normality. Fighting against those that would steal it away.

As far as historical adventures within the medium, A Plague Tale: Innocence is near a masterpiece of its genre. I’m ecstatic I gave it a legitimate chance despite my reservations about its rodents. I’m still not anywhere near comfortable with the swarms and the game’s many rotten elements, and I’ve learned that’s exactly the point.

Title: A Plague Tale: Innocence

Release Date: May 14, 2019

Developer: Asobo Studio

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Recommendation: Unless you are deathly afraid of rats, or dislike excellent games, this is undoubtedly a must-play.

Sources: Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive, Screenshots from Xbox One X.

-Dom

Mortal Kombat 11 & Nintendo Switch Kombine to Top April’s U.S. Video Game Sales Report

Lots of fighting game fans exclaimed “Get Over Here!” to NetherRealm Studio’s latest installment in the storied franchise, Mortal Kombat 11. The brutal beat-em-down title, published by Warner Bros Interactive and released on April 23rd, was the best-selling game of last month in the States according to The NPD Group’s latest report.

Mortal Kombat is one of the most well-known gaming series ever, partly due to its controversial graphic violence and propensity to upset pearl-clutching government officials. This most recent game’s predecessor Mortal Kombat X (2015) went on to be the biggest commercial success in franchise history, eclipsing more than 11 million units sold per famed co-creator Ed Boon.

While we don’t know global unit sales for Mortal Kombat 11 just yet, we now know that this latest entry is selling well domestically. It not only topped the April monthly chart, it also instantly entered the year-to-date list as the 2nd best-selling of 2019, second to only Square Enix’s Disney mash-up Kingdom Hearts 3.

Interestingly, it was tops on all four of its platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and even the Nintendo Switch. An impressive result all around, and I expect it will continue to chart at least during a slower summer release calendar.

Second place for April went to open world zombie game Days Gone from Sony Bend Studio, a PlayStation 4 exclusive title. I wrote recently that, despite thinking the title itself was mostly mediocre, I prognosticated that it would have broad market appeal and sell quite well. I even thought it might top the list of best-sellers last month.

While I was too bold in my prediction, arriving at #2 is a very good result. Namely since it’s limited to just the one platform. Days Gone also had the 7th best launch month for a Sony-published game in NPD’s tracking history, plus became Bend’s top-selling game ever after being on sale less than a full month.

A quiet success story unfolding as we approach mid-year is the solid momentum of another title only available on PlayStation 4, that being MLB The Show 19 from Sony San Diego. The baseball sim has achieved the #3 spot during the past two months of charts since its release on March 26th. It’s also moved up into the Top 10 of the year so far, hitting exactly #10.

MLB The Show 19 is currently the best-selling sports title of the year to date, and it’s still the fastest launch for a game in the franchise when lining up all the relevant launches. I bet the development team is.. having a ball!

Rounding out the Top 5 respectively are Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the shared world military RPG that was last month’s best-seller, then Nintendo’s ever-present party fighter Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The latter of which recently eclipsed a crazy 13.81 million units sold globally.

And of course, Rockstar Games continues to live up to its moniker by having not one but two of its works present on April’s list. Grand Theft Auto V being the leading one, coming in at #6 despite releasing all the way back in 2013. It’s a theme we’ve seen in most monthly charts, and I’ve continually stated it will be this way until its successor is out.

Below are April’s main software charts, which focus on strictly the U.S. market:

Top-Selling Games of April 2019 (Includes Physical & Digital Sales):

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Days Gone
  3. MLB The Show 19
  4. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  6. Grand Theft Auto V
  7. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice^
  8. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
  9. NBA 2K19
  10. Yoshi’s Crafted World*
  11. Red Dead Redemption 2
  12. Mario Kart 8*
  13. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
  14. Minecraft#
  15. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  16. Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Jump Force
  19. Battlefield V*
  20. Borderlands

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Year to Date):

  1. Kingdom Hearts 3
  2. Mortal Kombat 11
  3. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  4. Anthem^
  5. Resident Evil 2 Remake 2019
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice^
  9. Jump Force
  10. MLB The Show 19

^PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on XB1 & PS4 Included

Flipping over to consoles, Nintendo Switch saw its 5th consecutive month atop the hardware chart as measured by both dollar sales and units. It’s still the best-selling console of the year, as well. The last time it was outpaced by Sony’s PlayStation 4 was during the pre-holiday rush of November. Even then, Switch generated more revenue. PS4 just happened to see higher unit sales because of heavy discounting.

Consumer spending on games in the States crept up 1% in April, to $842 million overall. This was driven by PC and console software, up 15% to $427 million, and the Accessories segment as it bumped 5% to $256 million on the strength of Amiibo and DualShock 4 sales. These two segments offset a 29% decline in hardware, which fell to $160 million.

For 2019 so far, consumer spending in the games market totals $4 billion. A figure that’s down 2% when compared to the same time period last year. Out of that, software has contributed almost half with roughly $1.9 billion in dollar sales.

My read overall on April is that the top three sellers in particular are impressive, even though I was wrong about which would be first. Especially Mortal Kombat 11.. fighting its way to the second spot on the year-to-date list. That indicates to me that early demand is strong. I’m not sure it can reach the lofty heights of its predecessor, though I’m confident it will carve up a good chunk of commercial success before we see what NetherRealm does next.

Another story that I think warrants more attention is BioWare’s Anthem, published by Electronic Arts, maintaining the 4th spot of 2019 so far. Granted, it’s way early. Then EA said during its Q4 earnings call recently that the game’s early sales came in below the company’s targets. It’s worth seeing if it maintains this position as the year progresses, with more major releases scheduled for the late part of the summer into the autumn rush.

Hardware sales are going to be uneventful until, honestly, holiday season at the earliest. If not next year, when I’ve been saying that the next generation of consoles will start during the second half.

Additional details on individual platform results can be found at the linked video above, from NPD Analyst and friend of the site, Mat Piscatella.

So. How did your predictions go? Any big surprises? Please share in the comments or let’s catch up on Twitter! Thanks for stopping by, as always.

Sources: The NPD Group, NetherRealm Studios, Sony Bend Studio, Sony San Diego, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Wikipedia.

-Dom