Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Day 1 Recap: Serving Up Nostalgia

We’re going back to the Moon!

Yesterday saw the launch of the latest expansion for 2017’s first-person sci-fi shooter Destiny 2, entitled Shadowkeep, which is part of a re-imagining of sorts for the franchise that saw its start way back in 2014. The now independent studio Bungie, splitting from Activision Blizzard this summer, launches its latest expansion alongside a free-to-play version of the base game called Destiny 2: New Light. Not only that, it’s moved the PC version from Activision’s Battle.net to the more universal digital platform Steam from Valve Corporation.

This isn’t even to mention the myriad of changes coming to the shared world online multiplayer title itself. Notably this includes quality of life updates, the roll-out of a brand new armor customization system plus the introduction of a seasonal type pass offering rewards for ranking one’s character up.

As you’d imagine from the above, the team at Bungie’s vision for Destiny as a franchise is beyond ambitious. Game Director Luke Smith provided fans with a three part Director’s Cut manifesto back in August that described how the game is changing to an action multiplayer game with an evolving world where everyone can play together.

Being a long-time fan, I will acknowledge that I start from a place of nostalgia and appreciation. This also makes me more hyper-critical than most. You’re probably wondering how it went during Shadowkeep’s kick-off yesterday. I’d like to keep a running documentation here on my experience, with context provided when I can, so let’s Keep it moving.

Playing since the original game’s early days, I’ve grown accustom to long waiting times every time a new influx of players hits during expansions. This time was no different, though even more pronounced due to Bungie launching the aforemention paid expansion, free-to-play version and a Steam version all on the same day. I understand wanting to align these for consistency, but man that’s a lot to ask of the tech teams.

The benefit of this is it obviously attracts people to the game. On PC alone, Steam concurrent players neared 220K at its peak. The digital deluxe version of Shadowkeep and the underlying game achieved the best-selling titles yesterday on its store. Which means that it’s not only enticing for new players, it’s that existing and lapsed players alike are jumping back in to see the new story lines and updates.

Despite some emergency server maintenance lasting a couple hours, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep luckily stabilized early enough for me to play through the entirety of its new campaign and experiment with its new systems and more endgame content. And it was really good.

With one, potentially major, caveat..

It was this good because I love Destiny.

For newer players and those with more of a passing interest? I don’t know if Shadowkeep will hit as hard. I especially question whether it will keep them coming back after this initial wave, which is the most difficult part of an ongoing, live service title. This carries forward throughout the actual story content of the expansion, as we face against all too familiar foes that appeal to us as fans though could very well feel redundant to everyone else.

Let’s step back momentarily. At its core, Destiny 2 is an online multiplayer game where we team up with buddies to eradicate hostile aliens from our solar system. It’s segmented into different planetary locations where various missions and activities take place. It’s much more a loot game than competitors in the first-person shooter genre, where players seen the best guns and armor to tackle even more difficult quests then progress towards an endgame that features raids, dungeons, competitive multiplayer and more.

One of these locations from 2014’s original Destiny was Earth’s Moon. A fan favorite, really, with its spooky vibe and opportunities for exploration. Sparing the details of its extensive back-story and lore, alien races called the Hive and Fallen now inhabit the moon and the player, called a Guardian, is tasked with clearing them out and defeating their leaders.

With Shadowkeep, players return to a modified version of the Moon. Most of it is the same layout as the original, offering familiarity and nostalgia for diehard players though I could see it drawing ire from lapsed players as a “been there, done that” vibe. I’ll note that the Moon has changed since our time here years ago, the Hive have erected a massive “Red Keep” structure towering over the lunar surface with a mysterious new enemy at its core.

Our guide on this journey is Eris Morn, a returning character in the game’s universe. She spent years hiding among the sinister Hive beings, which are essentially evil incarnate, after a mission gone bad. She’s learned their intricacies and knows that they post a serious threat to whatever is left of humanity.

Turning to missions themselves, the start has Guardians fighting in a more social type of environment against waves of Hive in an attempt to storm the Red Keep. It’s an epic return to this familiar setting, since it takes place in a brand new sub-area where the team’s stellar art direction really shines. The shooting is as good as ever, since not much has changed there other than weapon balancing, and Bungie is one of the best in the business when it comes to game mechanics.

Despite some emergency server maintenance lasting a couple hours, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep luckily stabilized early enough for me to play through the entirety of its new campaign and experiment with its new systems and more endgame content. And it was really good.

As is customary for a Destiny expansion, this amazing opening kicks off a new mini-campaign in which we take on quests all across the Moon plus can play in open, public spaces to tackle public “events,” clear out enemy enclaves called Lost Sectors and generally explore for items and secrets.

Without getting into spoiler territory, Bungie weaves older enemies into the mix here as Nightmares, fearsome shadowy versions of former foes which Guardians have to hunt down in order to help Eris learn more about the core threat. It’s great from an art and atmosphere perspective, and very much a setup that favors those who love the game. We recognize these enemies and their tactics. We’ve faced them all before. While I think this is smart from a nostalgia perspective, it really only appeals to those that don’t mind retreading old fights.

I can see the argument from lapsed players that Shadowkeep is repetitive. A rehashing. It might even feel old, which is the opposite of what an expansion should be. I wouldn’t have a great rebuttal, other than to say that I love it because it makes me remember all the fun I’ve had in years past when it makes someone else feel like it’s more of the same.

Now, I’ve argued for years that Destiny isn’t a traditional shooter and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s a loot game that you play with friends. The whole point is to earn new weapons and armor, to find materials and modifiers that help you level this gear with the end goal of looking the coolest, feeling the most bad-ass and beating the highest level challenges it has to offer.

Shadowkeep initially looks great from this angle. Everyone begins at the same Power level (Or Light level, for veterans) and the game is generous in the flow of new, cool stuff. By the time I finished the campaign, I had a beefy exotic hand cannon, an awesome heavy machine gun and a full set of new legendary armor, hitting a point in my Power that I could now move into later game activities. There’s also the opportunity to pick up bounties that offer specific types of gear, rather than relying on the usually random drops to level up.

If we’re talking loot, this latest expansion is excellent. Though collecting every piece of gear isn’t a priority for most players, which goes back to the retention question. If lapsed players feel like they’ve seen this all before, and don’t see the appeal of hording stuff, what’s the point in sticking around?

Well, part of Bungie’s strategy towards player retention is making changes to the overall universe then the more nitty gritty systems and quality of life, which we’ll chat a bit on here before wrapping for the day.

First, Shadowkeep kicks off what’s dubbed Season of the Undying in which Bungie shifts to a more “evolving world” approach. This isn’t meant to be a one-time, traditional update. There are events planned, new missions to run and powerful gear to chase in the weeks to come. Powering up to tackle the Garden of Salvation raid this weekend or new Vex Offensive activity (“Vex” are another enemy race) are key to keeping player’s attention amidst a busy fall release schedule.

Still, this again targets the hardcore less than the general player base. It’s a delicate balance. I love the strategy, though am still skeptical of its implementation and overall appeal to many people returning for Shadowkeep. I do want to make sure to say that offering a free version in New Light is an excellent decision, allowing a taste of every activity and location without much barrier to entry.

One new major feature that does target everyone is the Battle Pass-type roadmap where everyone can unlock seasonal rewards just by playing the game. This includes actual weapons and armor, in addition to materials and cosmetic items. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this approach at first, though admittedly am warming up to this as it’s yet another carrot-on-the-stick. And this time, it appeals to all players since rank-ups happen organically. Kudos here to the studio for intelligently adopting this model that can be rampant with pay-to-win tactics.

Flipping to more focused changes, I haven’t dabbled much with the new “Armor 2.0” system which offers much more flexibility in how gear is customized. I did like how specific gameplay customization options are now split up from appearance, though will have more on this topic in the days to come.

Long-time fans will debate how weapon and ability changes impact the Destiny “meta” game longer term, though again this is something I won’t get into this much since I want this to be more of a general recap.

I want to know which visionary at Bungie thought of adding the new finisher system, and give them the highest of fives. It’s one of the best parts of this update, and that’s not hyperbole.

Finally, the introduction of Finishers is pure and utter genius. Most enemies can be “finished” with a flashy melee kill when at low health, and it never gets old no matter how many times I do it. The best part is that players can earn new finishers later in the game, or through the seasonal pass, and can assign modifiers that offer perks like enemies dropping more ammo when killed by a finisher.

I want to know which visionary at Bungie thought of adding the new finisher system, and give them the highest of fives. It’s one of the best parts of this update, and that’s not hyperbole.

This brings us to the end of the first day recap now that Shadowkeep is officially here. As with most live games, there will be hiccups along the way. I’m really enjoying my early time with the latest update to Destiny 2, though still maintain my skepticism that players other than those as crazy as me and my clan will be here for longer than a week or two.

Until tomorrow!

Sources: Steam, Bungie, Screenshots on Xbox One X.

-Dom

Review: It’s Worth Taking a Plunge into the Pinball-Themed Creature in the Well

Amidst the pantheon of pinball-inspired video games like Sonic Spinball, Devil’s Crush and more recently Yoku’s Island Express, Creature in the Well cements its position right from launch then makes a definitive case to be considered among the very best. Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly. Even with minor quality-of-life omissions, late game pacing hiccups and tricky boss encounters, I can’t recommend it enough.

Noticeable right after, hm.. launching the game is its eye-catching artwork. Almost paper-mâché in its aesthetic. A wide-ranging color palette featuring bright oranges and subtle blues creates a world in which a massive sandstorm has forced survivors to retreat within a camp called Mirage, guarded by the ever-present, titular “Creature.” Its minimalist approach is ideal in this setting, in that it acts to enhance the game’s focus on mechanics rather than causing any distraction.

General premise is the player hacks and slashes through the world as the last “BOT-C” robot engineer, trying to power up a massive weather device built into a mountain that can allegedly dissipate the storm. “How?,” one might ask. Well. By plunging into abandoned areas of the mountain to smack balls of light at objects to create energy, naturally! Individual goals come down to powering up a number of areas within the apparatus, each with a distinct color arrangement and theme like Power Reserves or the Archives. The ultimate end being to overcome the Creature then switch on the machine.

Characters such as a friendly amphibian Roger T. Frog, a descendant of one of the original weather device project leads, plus half alligator, part alien Danielle are the sole non-playable characters (NPCs) present in this world. The Creature lurks literally down in a well on the outskirts of Mirage, taunting throughout the journey. Villagers hint they are hiding in their homes while you approach. A clever way to instill mystery, even if I’d prefer it be more interactive. It’s low key a funny game, between intimate dialogue sequences with Roger and Danielle in addition to documents or world items found at the end of each section.

Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly.

It’s remarkable to remember that Creature in the Well is the work of mainly two developers from Flight School’s studio, Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre, with bits of support from additional teammates. There’s more content and lore than I anticipated. Throughout my upwards of eight hours with the game it becomes increasingly clear that every section is hand-crafted with obvious reverence for the game’s inspirations.

Presentation is via an isometric view, though its camera is much more dynamic than traditional games using this perspective. Shifting in angle while following the protagonist winding through corridors. Moving vertically while confronting the Creature in a boss fight. I’m openly not a huge fan of games using this type of vantage. It’s essential here to maximize the viewing angle and effectively simulate a virtual playfield, so I applaud the design choice over a more third-person action or static top-down like say The Legend of Zelda.

Each room is a self-contained puzzle, the source of the game’s real joy. Progression is achieved by absorbing energy through slashing orbs with one’s weapon to bounce them off bumpers, slingshots and related pinball accoutrements. BOT-C then opens doors with said energy, proceeding on to the next. Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

Game feel is top-notch, and it has to be here in order for it to work, with responsive controls and quick movement capabilities. Hit feedback is punchy, causing weapons to feel powerful when smacking around orbs. It’s worth saying Creature in the Well is far from an easy game, though I’d argue it’s accessible to all gamers. Certain rooms where enemies, hostile orbs and obstructions surround the player are tough. The nice part is other places offer no resistance whatsoever, they exist purely to build up energy while enjoying bright lights and flashy sounds. Like being able to control the flippers when a machine is stuck in attract mode.

Now, this might all end up feeling stale or overstaying its welcome if it wasn’t for nearly two dozen items and upgrades available. These are found strewn throughout both Mirage and the mountain, in secret areas. Which always provide a sense of accomplishment. While a few are cosmetic, the two main categories that drastically impact play are Strike Tools, which facilitate ball striking, and Charge Tools that impact how BOT-C takes hold of orbs then aims accordingly. Reminiscent of catching that coveted silver ball at the base of one’s flipper, in hopes to gain better aim.

I’ll admit when I first picked up a baseball bat or frying pan, I wasn’t quite sure how these would help. Or if they were only there to be visual and auditory pleasures. It then builds momentum by offering tools relevant to each section, like a magnetic fork or electrifying wand. Which are hugely important the more puzzle elements are thrown at the player. A personal favorite is the Fan Blade, which slows time to a crawl and opens potential for pinpoint precision. Later on, finding a weapon with a laser sight is, pun intended, a literal game-changer.

There are also cores around the world that allow Danielle to upgrade BOT-C’s health back at camp. This is essential for later stages, I highly recommend seeking these hidden areas. Oh, I almost forgot, your character wears a cape! So it’s only natural to have some fancy patterns available to find. My first standout was a regal shade of purple, then I finished the game with a scarlet ensemble. Fellow Hunters in Destiny or Castlevania enthusiasts will know just how cool it feels to dash around adorned with a beautiful, flowing cloak.

This all proves the duo of developers has crafted a title which embodies the “one more try” attraction of great pinball machines and dungeon crawlers alike. I’d even love the addition of challenge modes or high score trials. The mechanics are so tight that I’d welcome these if the team offers them in the future, albeit likely not realistic since they might be moving onto other things (bring that on, too!).

Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

While the loop of cutting through puzzles then returning to Danielle for upgrades is addictive, I do wish the town was more dynamic. Allowing me to hear stories from survivors or showing more reaction to my efforts. It feels drab once exploring it the first time. There’s one notable change that happens towards the third act, which highlights how much of a missed opportunity this is. I didn’t experience an urge to be in the hub world for any longer than I had to be.

Before ending this round, we’ve got to talk boss fights and difficulty. The antagonizing Creature chucks barbs at BOT-C throughout the game. Like an annoying skeleton with glowing eyes. It brags about how it’s controlling the town. Stalks from the shadows. Though curiously, it never actually destroys you. Instead it thrives on failure, plucking you from a dungeon and resetting your progress, which makes it all the sweeter when given the opportunity to stop it.

Most Creature fights are well-designed, challenging yet manageable. The type of balance that’s necessary in this context. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Two later bosses in particular are severely frustrating, totally killing both my character and the steady momentum the game had up until then. Because of later game pacing interruptions, Creature in the Well suffers a similar fate as many games in that its conclusion requires multiple attempts. Each one more exasperating than the last. Problem is, it’s less a culmination of skills and more the game throwing all of its myriad of tactics at once, leaning on that for difficulty rather than more advanced mechanics.

It was moving at such a consistent clip that I was struck by how devastating it felt. Somehow the very last gauntlet is much better, though breaking through the two Creature fights that almost stymied my motivation was an endeavor. While I felt like quitting, the gameplay was still so spirited that I’m glad I stuck through it. Fair warning is all.

Turning to quality of life features and other options, these are somewhat limited which is unsurprising. There’s no brightness setting, minimal visual flexibility. No colorblind mode. Due to its higher difficulty late game, any sort of assist mode would be welcome to increase accessibility. A mini-map displays in the bottom right corner with no quick way to expand it. As I noticed multiple unused buttons, ideally one of them could bring up the map rather than having to tab through the start menu.

Nintendo Switch performance is solid running on Unreal Engine, no complaints in docked mode. It’s especially great to move and fight with a Pro Controller. Handheld mode is fine though not preferred, unless you’re looking for artificial challenge. Joystick and button positioning means it’s trickier to be precise with shots and evasion. And oddly it’s noticeably dark when using Switch’s auto-brightness setting. As noted before, there’s limited in-game visual settings. Pushing the system-level brightness up remedies this, colors popping even on the smaller screen though this will of course impact battery life.

Minor complaints on a couple boss encounters and quality-of-life items aside, Volker and Sayre have created something special with this project. A unique take within a hybrid sub-genre. It’s especially telling that I’m praising it this much, considering that isometric hack-and-slash games are not my choice style.

Similar to a classic pinball table or timeless arcade cabinet, Creature in the Well is the type of game that’s both addictive in short bursts plus fulfilling over marathon sessions. The concept is straightforward enough: grab a sword, launch a ball toward the objects in order to clear the room. Which means mastery is the true goal. While a difficulty jump in the final areas are startling compared to everything prior, a rousing finale catapults it into the upper echelon of indie games in general released this year.

Amidst the chaos in a new room or boss fight, there’s that moment of zen within a game’s mechanics that we’re all chasing. Not unlike being razor-focused on an arcade game or entering the zone while flipping on a pinball table. Where onlookers stare, dazzled by the bright lights and nostalgic accents. This is the feeling that Creature in the Well evokes at its best. Which is great, because it’s at its best almost the entire time.

Title: Creature in the Well

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Developer: Flight School

Publisher: Flight School

Platforms: Xbox One (Xbox Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, PC (Windows 10 & Steam)

Recommendation: For anyone that even remotely likes pinball or dungeon crawlers, Creature in the Well is a must-play indie game this year. Honestly, even if these genres don’t often interest you, I still bet you’ll end up thinking it’s well worth the price of admission. I certainly did!

Sources: Popagenda, Flight School, Nintendo, Screenshots from Nintendo Switch.

Disclaimer: Review code provided on behalf of Flight School.

-Dom

Review: Remedy’s Latest is Good, Though I Still Wanted More Out of Control

“It feels sane. Or, just the right kind of insane.”

These are the words of Jesse Faden, main protagonist of Control, musing during a particularly trippy stretch of Remedy Entertainment’s latest video game.

It’s an apt encapsulation of the mind-bending science fiction adventure. It’s way out there, and there’s a lot Remedy gets right. Even if it’s certainly not all right.

Out last week, Control is the latest title from Remedy, the Finnish developer best known for early Max Payne installments, Alan Wake and most recently Quantum Break. (Main writer Sam Lake is one of gaming’s most recognized narrators.) All third person action games, the latter two being plenty wacky in story and presentation. Control keeps in the tradition as an over-the-shoulder single-player adventure where shooting is a key element, plus expands to include abilities of the telekinetic and traversal variety. It’s much more an exploration into the metaphysical and paranormal realms than even Quantum Break, and its mechanics reflect this.

The player takes (I won’t say it, I won’t say it..) hold of the aforementioned Jesse, a woman with a mysterious past, a precious secret and a singular goal: To find her brother Dylan. After an otherworldly event in their hometown, her younger sibling was taken 17 years earlier by a secretive government agency called the Federal Bureau of Control (“FBC”) which investigates paranormal activities and unexplained occurrences using a near unlimited budget. It’s a setup reminiscent of the Men in Black or The X-Files, less common in games than in other media which allows an ideal backdrop for Remedy’s unique brand of storytelling.

Jesse arrives at FBC headquarters, dubbed The Oldest House, a nondescript and unrealistically massive structure in New York City to search for Dylan. Upon entering, she meets a wise, friendly janitor then enters the Director’s Office only to discover the former Bureau leader has been murdered. She picks up his old Service Weapon, which of course means that she’s now the Director. (Naturally. Talk about fast-tracking a career.) This begins a wandering tale of searching for answers in a game world that seems to offer only unending questions.

World items and collectibles in Control are among the best in gaming. Legitimately. Hundreds of pick-ups are strewn about the world. It seems excessive, I know, but it isn’t! In an impossible accomplishment, Remedy crafts each of them to offer bits of lore or tidbits of information that supplement the main campaign.

Unfortunately, The Oldest House’s variety of areas like Research divisions and Executive suites are overrun by a transdimensional virus Jesse names the Hiss. It infects human bodies to transform them into either floating, blabbering shells or creepy, hostile entities. There’s also a kind of mold spreading, which transforms folks into stumbling “hosts,” apparently unrelated to the Hiss though equally as troubling. These groups are the main opposition, the implication being there are deeper forces behind them unbeknownst to even the smartest in the Bureau.

It’s a great foundation, which allows the team to flex its incredible art directing, atmosphere setting and world-building talents. The unsettling vibe results from blending a cookie-cutter corporate aesthetic with spooky lighting and empty spaces, transforming areas that should be bustling with activity into Hiss-infested territory. Because of its alignment with paranormal experiments, the building takes on a life of its own. Shape-shifting and changing form. Almost a character in itself. While unfortunate for employees, this benefits gameplay in application since it allows Jesse to traverse across more varied and vertical areas.

To put it plainly, Control is out there. And that weirdness is obviously intentional, in true Remedy fashion. Its eerie atmosphere grabs attention immediately, then permeates throughout its near 12-15 hour playtime. The team’s focused, absolutely amazing art direction somehow transcends plain corporate spaces into uneasy environments, giving a spectral feel to what should be comfortable. Abandoned laboratories are riddled with scrawled post-it notes and scattered paperwork, where idle research instruments sit unused as researchers float above, chanting in tongues due to the Hiss virus taking hold of their being. It’s unnerving, and beyond effective.

And my, how exquisite is the sound design. It’s impossible to oversell how much it contributes to the experience. When the player enters a new area, an audio cue blares to announce one’s arrival. Sound accentuates action, namely as Jesse deftly wields her abilities. Flinging pieces of the environment here and there while dodging income fire, bullets blazing past with a terrifying “WHIZZ.” Remedy even uses a lack of sound to its advantage, then sprinkles delicate notes or haunting strings in the background depending on the theme of each area. Everyone from the team involved with audio design deserves a raise for this grand achievement.

Turning to story and pacing, describing the main path as a slow burn is an understatement. Once Jesse gets her bearings and encounters the Hiss, she begins seeking out survivors. This begins with Emily Pope, a perky research assistant that’s amassing the few sane people left within a sort of hub space in the Executive sector. Pope advises to track down the remainder of the former Director’s management team, not understanding the urgency of her new Director’s visit because Jesse has not revealed her true intention.

The cast of characters Jesse chases is a laundry list of archetypes. The “mad scientist” Head of Research Dr. Casper Darling, “foreboding former Director” Zachariah Trench and “tough-as-nails” Head of Operations Helen Marshall to name a few. There is one stand-out individual in the oddly prescient janitor Ahti, who makes his premonitions in a sort of endearing garbled English. He seems to know the building, and its secrets, better than anyone else. While many of these are stereotypical, I did find it intriguing to track down their whereabouts and learn about each through context clues and environmental pieces (more on this later!).

Overall, it’s a cryptic, borderline incoherent narrative until the third act when Remedy at least attempts to bring everything together. It’s a lot of “go here, do this and I’ll tell you something later” framework. I know this is a common tactic, I just felt Remedy could devise more intermittent story payoffs rather than saving everything for the end. Or perhaps a radio system that gradually fills in the blanks during missions. Control uses a more of a self-reflective approach, Jesse constantly converses with herself, which adds to the suspense though hurts its structure. Then when Remedy attempts to reconcile the narrative, it remains abstract. Even if by design, it’s still dissatisfying after investing so much time.

Pacing is extremely difficult in non-linear and exploratory experiences. Control blocks off certain areas for endgame using either locked doors or entrances out-of-reach without certain abilities. Plus, Remedy delves into side quests not featured in its earlier endeavors. These are erratic in quality, plus make the game feel bloated. Especially a sort of randomized fetch quest type. Constantly distracting and mostly unnecessary.

A couple of these mini-quests do offer memorable experiences in super cool areas of The Oldest House (maybe even outside of it). One in particular has Jesse cleansing “Altered Items,”everyday objects possessed by unknown forces, for the contact that runs a Containment wing. It seems like busywork at first, then surprises when certain items transport to a multidimensional “Astral Plane” with its own terrors awaiting. If Remedy focused only on these quests, skipped the others, the experience would feel much tighter.

World items and collectibles in Control are among the best in gaming. Legitimately. Hundreds of pick-ups are strewn about the world. It seems excessive, I know, but it isn’t! In an impossible accomplishment, Remedy crafts each of them to offer bits of lore or tidbits of information that supplement the main campaign. These can be corporate forms filled out by sarcastic researchers or personal journals describing a company book club. Or live action video of Dr. Darling’s instructional videos, then his slow descent into madness as he learns more about the risks of paranormal research. Then there’s the disturbing educational puppet show made by employees, for children to learn more about the FBC. This word-building approach through in-game lore is a staple of Remedy games, and is the most consistent part of Control.

Control is solid. Shoot, it’s good. But I still can’t shake the fact that, despite its positives, it doesn’t meet its potential. Like a masterful piece of music degraded by poor recording quality or a fine wine served alongside moldy cheese.

I’ll also compliment the heck out of the studio’s creativity in going beyond abstract concepts to illustrate them using concrete examples. “Objects of Power” are collected by Bureau, basically everyday things like a phone or refrigerator that exhibit special powers due to exposure to parallel realities. Then there’s “Altered World Events,” supernatural occurrences. Jesse even occasionally traverses the Astral Plane when learning new powers, showing her special connection to the supernatural and offering a welcome divergence from the corporate backdrop.

Now I’m likely in the minority, however I think combat is one of Control’s weaker aspects. It’s severely underwhelming in the first half, namely due to average shooting mechanics, a feeble melee attack and a noticeable lack of powers. Abilities are then doled out too slowly. There’s just Launch in the early game, which allows Jesse to control objects and throw them at enemies. Finally the game introduces powers like Evade, Shield and my personal favorite Seize, where Jesse can recruit Hiss allies. These spice up combat later, and destroying parts of the environment under its flexible physics engine feels great. I was hoping to get a base level of each power from jump, then expand from there to learn combinations and synergies. There are at least upgrade paths that offer enhancements, because it’s a video game in 2019.

The Service Weapon is both a novel concept and pretty cool in application. It’s a singular firearm that switches forms, each offering a different mechanism like automatic fire or shotgun blasts. Jesse can have two forms equipped at once, and Remedy uses animation cues to distinguish between them. A nice touch. Still, Service Weapon upgrades don’t make much of a difference until the most rare drops start appearing. Offering additional damage against enemy shields or increasing zoom for the precision weapon type are hyper-specific, though admittedly helped against certain enemy archetypes.

Beyond combat, navigating through the many halls of The Oldest House proves frustratingly difficult. Mainly because of how vertical the level design is combined with how poor the map is at displaying direction. There’s no mini-map or compass available. Limited visual indicators, other than in-world signage. The map screen itself often doesn’t even function properly, only halfway loading the names of sections without showing any details or outlines. This is less annoying early, though increasingly insufferable as Jesse visits new areas. Luckily, there’s fast travel. Though again its effectiveness depends on how many “Control Points” one has unlocked.

One much-discussed topic surrounding Control is its inconsistent performance, namely on base consoles released earlier this generation. Digital Foundry goes into much more detail in its great piece, with the verdict being that the game is tuned for PC play though Xbox One X is the best console option. I played on this platform and still experienced issues with frame-rate, texture pop-in and sound drops. Especially during hectic fights, which combine frame-rate dips with a low health effect where the screen turns red. I’m one of the more forgiving you’ll find when it comes to performance, so you know it’s an issue when I point it out.

I also experienced random difficulty spikes, even later game when I was supposed to be at my most powerful. Moving around during combat is integral, the Evade ability crucial. Which eats up chunks of Jesse’s energy bar. Unexpectedly, there’s a couple intensely frustrating boss fights as much due to mechanics as performance. Dying multiple times when you have the mechanics down is agonizing. Had to take a break then return when I wasn’t as ticked off. An instant derailment to general flow, which is much more important in action games than other genres.

Before wrapping, a quick minor spoiler warning for the more sensitive to general plot developments. It’d be a mistake to ignore story progression and the abruptness with with its resolution occurs. Without going too much into detail, Jesse does (eventually) get around to investigating what happened to Dylan. The payoff of her investigation and the ultimate conclusion were underwhelming, not to mention much of the exposition is conveyed via dialogue sequences rather than fluid storytelling. I get this is a byproduct of a lonesome protagonist, though even the content of the narrative was convoluted separate of its delivery.

All in all, whew. This is a long piece. Because there truly is a lot to like in Control. Its chilling sci-fi vibe. Art design of its environments. Incredible, genius world-building through collectibles and in-game videos. Perfect implementation of sound and audio cues. A physics engine that allows for destruction of environments. Select meaningful side quests that go in unexpected directions. Those late game instances where shooting and abilities coalesce into a dazzling display of combat proficiency proves there are plenty of special moments to experience. If you make it that far. Not to mention I dig any game with thought-provoking subject matter, namely what happens when humans experiment with things not of this world and how it impacts those involved.

Control is solid. Shoot, it’s good. But I still can’t shake the fact that, despite its positives, it doesn’t meet its potential. Like a masterful piece of music degraded by poor recording quality or a fine wine served alongside moldy cheese. Average shooting that isn’t up to par with rivals. Awkward navigation resulting from a disconnect between level, map and in-game indicator design. An intentionally opaque story with limited twists and turns or intermittent payoffs. Too many performance issues across platforms. Superfluous side missions and randomized fetch quests that pop up even during tense story moments or monumental boss fights.

Remedy is certainly the type of larger independent studio that I love in theory. Unafraid to take chances amidst competitors intent on churning out annualized franchises or attempting to mimic the success of other games within a given genre. Control is the byproduct of this ingenuity, though for reasons of budget, timing or personnel decisions, doesn’t quite levitate above the realm of perfectly good games with untapped potential.

I’ll certainly remember it when all is said and done this year. For its ambition as much as its failures.

Title: Control

Release Date: August 27, 2019

Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Recommendation: Control is unique within the third-person action-adventure genre in its unconventional subject matter and strange storytelling approach, so it’s worth experiencing if you enjoy Remedy’s earlier efforts. Just keep in mind frustrations are still present, and I believe they will impact your enjoyment. Oh, and it sounds like you shouldn’t play it on the original PlayStation 4 or Xbox One at least until a patch hits (if ever) due to performance hiccups.

Sources: 505 Games, GamesPress, Remedy Entertainment, Digital Foundry, Screenshots from Xbox One X.

-Dom

Review: Outer Wilds is a Bold, Memorable Space Game That’s Flawed to its Core

Launching my rickety rocket ship through my home planet’s atmosphere, I’m filled with a sense of wonder as I adjust to the beautiful calmness of zero gravity and infinite stars. Surrounded by sparkles of light, orbiting planets and complete stillness, I feel as if I can go everywhere and find anything.

Shortly after, I die. For a silly reason, at the worst possible time. Sometimes it’s my fault. More than it should be, it’s the game’s doing. Because I’m caught in a time loop, it’s back to my planet to launch again. Then another time. Rinse and repeat, until I’ve lost count. My once awe-inspiring moment of vaulting into the vast unknown degrades into a minor inconvenience then a frustrating hindrance to my adventure, as I start to worry more about getting back to the place where I died than exploring other parts of the solar system.

This, a constant cycle of curiosity and misery, is Outer Wilds. Allow me to explain.

The latest title from Mobius Digital is a first-person space exploration game, and is often quite good. It broaches topics rarely seen in games, from existentialism, cosmology and quantum physics to the ultimate fate of stars and the universe at large. Heavy, frightening ideas for an otherwise playful medium. I adored its plot, where the player controls a member of a four-eyed alien race called Hearthians who are obsessed with discovering more about their galaxy. In particular, learning more about a super intelligent ancient species called the Nomai.

The player, affectionately called the Hatchling by some, is readying for their (the Hearthians use “they” as their general pronoun) first launch under the Outer Wilds Ventures space program. As the game begins, I wake up confused. Poking around a village on home planet Timber Hearth reveals I’m a new astronaut in the program founded by older Hearthians, most of which are visiting other locations in the solar system. One of them is missing. There’s characters to chat up, a museum to visit and a weird rock that disappears when it’s not in view. Most importantly, there’s a creepy statue that looks like the majestic, three-eyed Nomai ancestors. As I walk past, it stares into my soul and seems to collect memories of everything I had done up until that point.

I searched as much as I could to get an indication of a goal or objective before I left. Outer Wilds offers no such thing. One Hearthian said I could find the other astronauts. All of them indicate that the species as a whole is really interested in the Nomai. Someone else hints that the thrill of space travel is never knowing what you might find! While I understand it’s a game purely about the wonders of exploration, since there’s no combat and barely any conflict, a byproduct of this limited framework is it can feel too meandering, the story is way too difficult to follow and, most importantly, leads to many cases where the player feels like their time is being wasted. More on this later.

It’s now time for liftoff. The glorious moment I described in the intro takes place. It’s really cool. The game does well to capture the beauty of the cosmos, between sound design and visual pizazz. Less than a half hour into my maiden journey, as I was desperately trying to gather anything I could from a character living on Timber Hearth’s moon, the sun explodes. Talk about baptism by fire!

Miraculously, the Hatchling wakes up. Back on Timber Hearth, in the exact spot where the game started. Not on the moon, which would make logical sense and save the time and frustration of having to navigate back, since I wasn’t done trying to coax information from my moon buddy Esker about just what the heck I should do next. Nope. In order to continue what I was doing, I have to spend precious time stumbling my way back.

When this cycle of death and resurrection starts to happen constantly, we gradually discover we’re caught in a time loop. One that lasts 22 minutes to be exact, after which the sun goes supernova. This is the game’s conceit, and it’s the driving force of the story while also being the single most frustrating thing about it. Even the revelation of why it’s happening is overshadowed by the fact that it’s been limiting my enjoyment the whole time. And I’m normally into games that play with the concept of time.

Learning of its infinite time quandary highlights my main complaints, and these things permeate all of Outer Wilds. The game lacks fundamental quality of life features, seemingly for effect. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s like Mobius’ decisions are at odds with one another. It wants to be about exploring, then sets arbitrary limitations that hinder the player’s ability to do so.

I wish the respawn location was more flexible. Or at least allow for more fast travel points, via warping technology that already exists in the game world. When small discoveries open doors to much larger ones, missing out on a crucial piece of documentation because of the time loop is unfortunate. What’s even more disheartening is not having an easy way to navigate a return trip.

Learning of its infinite time quandary highlights my main complaints, and these things permeate all of Outer Wilds. The game lacks fundamental quality of life features, seemingly for effect. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s like Mobius’ decisions are at odds with one another. It wants to be about exploring, then sets arbitrary limitations that hinder the player’s ability to do so.

Another huge, noticeable flaw right away is infuriating controls. Namely while flying the ship. These are not totally responsive nor intuitive. I found myself going in random directions, flying into the sun for no reason or crash landing to my death. Sure it’s funny once. It’s agonizing the twentieth time. When autopilot is a savior, you know the controls are poor. In terms of the space suit, boosting is useful though rules and functionality change based on gravity. Outside of the suit is the worst, with an abysmal jump button that requires holding the button. Luckily all of these became more tolerable as I learned them, though I still never felt truly in control especially in space.

It’s a case like Shadow of the Colossus or even the original Dark Souls. Games with so much going for them that I never want to play again because of frustrating inputs, whether unresponsive, laggy or inflexible. I often talk “game feel,” and I lump Outer Wilds in this group of titles held back from greatness because interacting with them just doesn’t feel great.

Turning towards narrative and pacing, Outer Wilds is vague, at best, in communicating any sort of goals plus opaque in its trail of breadcrumbs. Story is conveyed through environmental observation, conversations with fellow travelers or translation of Nomai text found throughout the solar system. All of which the Hatchling documents in a jumbled ship log, which is supposed to be used as a reference though ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. A jumbled diagram of pictures, text and connecting lines, it’s borderline unreadable. Reminiscent of the meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie has cue cards behind him connected in every which way. It’s a series of scattered notes seemingly scribbled by a mad person, attempting to offer structure when really it shows just how muddled the story is.

It’s way too inconsistent in its puzzles and progression. Sometimes there’s just enough hints where it makes sense, where it feels great to figure it out. Others are so unclear that it’s near random. Especially as higher level concepts of physics and cosmology are introduced. It induces a feeling of inadequacy, or prompts a quick internet search which immediately breaks any sense of immersion.

Now I’m not one to use guides, especially when writing reviews. I’d like to experience a game and fail on my own, because I believe it speaks to core design. There were multiple points in Outer Wilds where I became exasperated. I wasn’t sure what to do. Sure, it’s the nature of an open exploration game. Though it also reveals how poorly it communicates direction. Especially towards the end. I kept failing to progress when I knew exactly how to do so. Turns out I was doing the right things, just not in the proper order, which I discovered via a walk-through rather than through context clues.

I’d hate for everyone to get the wrong impression, since I’ve been very critical of Outer Wilds throughout this piece. There are actually so many things to love about it, which makes it that much more painful to fumble through its flaws.

It’s hard to describe just how substantial the game feels in its subject matter. Mainly through Nomai writing and their impromptu settlements, we learn much about their background and intentions. They were seeking a place called the Eye of the Universe, for reasons that would be spoilers. The game proposes major questions about the nature of being and how memories are what makes up the self rather than anything physical. It’s a commentary on the finite nature of life and time itself, and how the Nomai were seeking something that could somehow stave off extinction. Even a couple days after finishing, I’m still feeling the effects of its amazing ending.

The location design and artwork is stellar (get it?). Each planet has its own aesthetic and rules. Brittle Hollow, where its fiery moon is raining down meteorites that break up the exterior to reveal that the center is a foreboding black hole. The Hourglass Twins, a pair of smaller celestial bodies that are named as such because sand flows from one to another which acts as a genius palette for environmental tricks. Then there’s the mysterious Dark Bramble, where dangerous monsters lurk amidst space that isn’t always what it seems. Exploring each of them was breathtaking. The first few visits, at least.

So much of the game is about observation, which is why I’ve dwelt on describing moments of discovery rather than interactions or mechanics. (Well, it’s also that the mechanics aren’t great.) The attention to detail in certain features is exquisite. Take the Nomai script. Adults draw smooth lines, while children have sloppy writing. Kudos to the designer that came up with this and other seemingly minor touches that add up when witnessed consistently. Nomai have distinct names and personalities. Relationships exist between characters I’ll never actually meet.

Though yet again, within this system is another quality of life issue. Written text from the Nomai language has to be learned during each time loop. Why? Especially when the clock is always ticking. Wasting precious moments determining if I’ve read a certain text before is unacceptable in a game where I already feel rushed.

The game proposes major questions about the nature of being and how memories are what makes up the self rather than anything physical. It’s a commentary on the finite nature of life and time itself, and how the Nomai were seeking something that could somehow stave off extinction. Even a couple days after finishing, I’m still feeling the effects of its amazing ending.

There’s a breakthrough that I’d say starts the “third act,” even though the timeline isn’t clearly delineated. I’m going to spoil part of it because I thought it was clever. It’s related to the game’s interpretation and use of quantum mechanics as part of gameplay, which is so unique that it could be a game in itself. Effectively, the player learns to leverage in-game photography capabilities to solve environmental puzzles. A true moment of clarity, that changes everything from then on out. I love how it’s bold enough to surprise the player, even though getting to that point is taxing.

I’d be remiss to forget that Outer Wilds also features great music, melodically and practically. It’s blended into the world as a means of identifying where other characters are, as each of them play different parts of the theme music and the player has a tool that can detect frequencies through space. There’s even an achievement for finding a spot where all of them coalesce into a beautiful harmony.

A word of warning from a technical standpoint. The game runs mostly well on Xbox One X, except for random staggers when loading into an area. A forgivable, mild annoyance. What’s not acceptable is I’ve heard multiple reports of frame dips on the other models of Xbox One. It also hard crashed on me multiple times in my last couple hours of play. In a game where discovery is essential, losing progress is a gut punch.

It’s obvious that I’m conflicted overall on Outer Wilds, about as much as I have been about any game this year other than BioWare’s Anthem. As a publisher, Annapurna Interactive has been impressive in its partnerships. This game isn’t a misstep, just more of a flawed experience than games of similar caliber and team size.

Mobius Digital went big here, as big as gets really, tackling topics that are more suited for college philosophy courses or quantum physics papers than video games. Which is why it’s so special, yet so disappointing that I didn’t like everything about it. I’m excited that studios are bold enough to try something like Outer Wilds, to propel gaming forward and prove it can ponder the largest of questions, even if I believe this one in particular didn’t completely stick the landing.

Title: Outer Wilds

Release Date: May 29, 2019

Developer: Mobius Digital

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PC

Recommendation: Between its plot and subject matter, it had the potential to be one of my favorite games of 2019 if not the generation. It nearly gets there. I rate it as a mostly good game that will stick with me just as much for its flaws as its amazing, bold efforts. Its failed execution in certain areas is unfortunate, however I still recommend trying it especially if you like space adventure games, subscribe to Xbox Game Pass or both.

Sources: Annapurna Interactive, Xbox One X Screenshots.

-Dom

Review: Sega’s Judgment Is, Beyond Any Doubt, A Great Game About Revenge & Redemption

Please don’t hold me in contempt for that headline. I’m only here to prove why Judgment is so fantastic.

Alright. Turning to the game. Sega’s latest within the robust Yakuza universe is Judgment, a standalone third-person action game with investigative elements plus a genuinely thrilling narrative. It’s effectively a spin-off, developed by the same Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio team. The player experiences Japan’s unsavory underbelly through the eyes of Takayuki Yagami, a former lawyer turned private eye that operates in Kamurocho. The same fictional district of Tokyo as Kazama Kiryu of the Yakuza games.

Fair warning for early story spoilers. The general setup is Yagami-san gained renown for winning a case in which he successfully defended a man accused of murder, which is near impossible under Japan’s judicial system. Shortly after, that same individual is convicted of slaying his girlfriend then setting their apartment ablaze in a drunken stupor. Ashamed, Yagami relinquishes his law career and opens an upstart detective agency.

Three years later is where the tale of Judgment begins. There’s a ruthless serial killer leaving gang members dead and eyeless in Kamurocho. Yagami’s former law office tasks him with investigating the murders, which he does alongside business partner and ex-yakuza Kaito Masaharu. Both have ties to the Matsugane syndicate, in particular its patriarch who acts a father figure to both. The main antagonist is conniving family under-boss Kyohei Hamura, at least that’s how it appears in the beginning until the scope is blown wide open.

What transpires is a truly excellent, layered narrative with well-developed character arcs, surprising twists, hilarious encounters then even moments of debilitating sadness. It’s less about the devilish side of people, though that’s certainly a part of it, and more centered on redemption. Revealing truth in a system that is inherently designed to conceal it.

It’s so much deeper than it leads on, especially given its often humorous or exaggerated tone. Judgment‘s combination of main missions, side cases and playable flashbacks is an effective blueprint. All shed light on interactions between the legal system, police and gangsters then eventually political leaders. The core framework of Kamurocho’s power structure. There’s even commentary later about healthcare, Alzheimer’s disease and the lengths to which people go when they believe they are fighting for what’s right.

A major sign of a good story is triggering empathy for characters, even those that are despicable. Judgment does this by highlighting how everyone rationalizes their actions. It’s immensely rich for a game that appears flippant on the surface, and isn’t afraid to surprise the player with tragedy. This is especially true in its third act, which escalates brilliantly through to its revelations.

Shifting to mechanics, there’s a lot to do in Judgment plus many ways in which to do them. Yagami is somehow part genius investigator, part martial arts savant and all ladies man, though there’s in-game reasons for all of these which means they aren’t entirely unbelievable.

Yakuza protagonist Kiryu and our hero here share many similarities, as Judgment leverages the same “Dragon” game engine as recent titles in the franchise. Which means combat is amazingly fluid, super impactful and progresses all the way until the game’s finale. Encounters are smooth and satisfying, namely when teaming up with non-playable characters. There are tag-team combos and special moves galore, which is welcome due to the sheer amount of fighting.

Naturally, there’s also the investigative angle. Which is featured more prominently than the action side. This includes taking on cases, exploring the world, investigating for clues, chatting with people, chasing suspects and tailing suspicious persons, all of which introduce the element of player choice. Only a handful have fail states, namely the dreaded tailing sequences, though there’s usually a bonus for making the right moves. I found the investigations worthwhile and enjoyable, often times going in hilarious directions.

What transpires is a truly excellent, layered narrative with well-developed character arcs, surprising twists, hilarious encounters then even moments of debilitating sadness. It’s less about the devilish side of people, though that’s certainly a part of it, and more centered on redemption. Revealing truth in a system that is inherently designed to conceal it.

When it comes to main missions and world activities, the Ryu Ga Gotoku staff truly flexed their design muscles. Campaign missions are mostly great, pitting Yagami in battles on the streets and in dialogue. One in particular stands out as masterful, during which the game swaps perspectives between characters to show multiple angles of the same snapshot of time. One character is undercover, while Yagami is handling his business in parallel. It’s subtle in its setup, and subverted expectations by incorporating a character I never thought I’d control.

Not to mention how much optional content there is! In true Yakuza fashion, side activities and mini-games are just as enticing as the campaign. Minor storylines can even tie into the main one or other quests, proving that Judgment is flexible in its structure. “Friend” missions were my favorite, presenting opportunities to help folks out and gain bonuses for doing so. These can develop into friendships and even romances. The player is free to pursue one or more relationships. I was impressed at how well it handled these mini objectives and weaved them into the campaign, a common theme.

Then there’s virtual reality. Batting cages. Japanese board games. Darts. Poker. Black jack. UFO catchers. Arcades. Recreations of titles like Virtua Fighter and Puyo Puyo. A full light gun zombie shooter called Kamuro of the Dead. Too many to list. It reminds me of modern Grand Theft Auto, where even the smallest of side activities is well-crafted. My play time totaled over 50 hours, though I finished with just under 50% completion which proves just how much potential there is for fun in Kamurocho.

Judgment also features one of the best original playable pinball tables in all of gaming. (This alone is worthy of awards.) And there’s an entire drone building and racing portion with online leader boards. This is real smart stuff. Though while I’m.. singing the praises of its variety, there is one notable absence: Karaoke!

Saying this is nearly cliche, however very much true here. The city of Kamurocho feels like a character. Neon signs and pedestrians adorn a world that’s alive, with encounters at every corner. While not massive, it’s all open to be enjoyed at any pace. It’s large enough to have distinct communities though still intimate in its familiarity. There are also opportunities to see more of Japan than just the bright lights of the city, though that’s all I’ll tease.

Luckily, Judgment is never overwhelming which is always a risk in open world games. Grab some health or stamina boosts from a convenience store. Help the owner of a sushi joint improve its menu. Shoot, take a smoke break to catch up on gossip. The attention to detail in the realistic food dishes plus the eavesdropping areas where Yagami can overhear random conversations are just two of the many notable features.

Later in Judgment, it introduces a type of crafting mode in the form of elixirs. The character that creates them has quite a unique background, and consumption offers temporary bonuses that help especially with later game bosses. Crafting materials can be purchased from a pawn shop, gifted by friends or found strewn about the world. Leveraging this capability has its advantages.

Plus, I’ve alluded to it though haven’t addressed it directly. Its humor mostly hits, showing the skills of its creative writing teams. Quests can have ridiculous premises, like a popular Japanese idol who constantly loses his wig (that he calls a “hat”) in the wind then Yagami has to chase it down. Characters are adept in using horrible, amazing puns. Playing the game in Japanese with subtitles made them that much more laughable. (The English localization is well done, it just didn’t feel right.) How could I not love it?

I’d warn against judging immediately based on its lighter tone or over-the-top action. Judgment is a worthy addition to a beloved Japanese series, a piece that stands on its own by presenting first as a ridiculous action game then slowly revealing a strong commentary on the human psyche and our penchant for redemption.

Before we, hm, adjourn. Even a fine game isn’t without fault.

As the narrative spirals and characters develop, combat sequences get redundant in later acts even with Yagami’s improved skills and entourage of friends. Random encounters start as tests of strength then turn tiresome. Thankfully there’s actually an elixir that reduces world events, a welcome advantage when just trying to progress.

From a technical perspective, it looks nice. Especially character animations. Runs smooth enough, loading times are acceptable. It’s a bit janky in spots, perhaps a result of design rather than tech limitations. Especially transitions between dialogue, cut scenes then into live gameplay. Lots of screen transitions that disrupt the flow.

I briefly mentioned completion percentage before. When reviewing, I’ll do my best to see everything. In Judgment, some content is locked behind the player’s social level, which is unfortunate because the side cases are really cool. Even if I had another dozen hours with the game, I likely wouldn’t see all it has to offer. Which speaks to the volume of quality content, though also to the design choice of gating its later optional quests.

There aren’t many visual customization options other than disguises for stakeouts. I’d prefer to change outfits at my leisure. Yagami snagged a sleek looking suit after a friendship quest, then couldn’t even equip it except where the game deemed appropriate. What’s the point in having a fresh outfit if you can’t wear it?

Quickly on a much more serious note. Perhaps it’s a cultural divide, two particular side cases irked me: One involving a man with suicidal thoughts then another centered on a trio of perverts terrorizing civilians. It’s difficult to get into specifics without spoilers, though Judgment treats these extremely delicate topics in a lighter way than I would have liked. Especially suicide. Fair warning that these exist, and I don’t blame anyone for them being a turn-off.

As for my closing remarks, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed spending time in the world of Judgment. Especially witnessing the machinations between personalities in its main crime families then the legal system that tries to maintain order within a city of thousands, many of them hooligans or corrupt or both. Side content is a welcome distraction between heavy story moments and lengthy investigations, and pacing is decent even if combat sequences weigh on it in the back third.

I’m certain I’ve presented an argument sufficient to at least pique your interest, because it’s worthy of everyone’s time. I’d warn against judging immediately based on its lighter tone or over-the-top action. Judgment is a worthy addition to a beloved Japanese series, a piece that stands on its own by presenting first as a ridiculous action game then slowly reveals a strong commentary on the human psyche and our penchant for redemption.

Title: Judgment (Judge Eyes in Japan)

Release Date: December 13, 2018 (Japan), June 25, 2019 (Worldwide)

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: It’s required playing for PS4 owners, even for folks not very familiar with the Yakuza series. It plays similarly, so it might not change the mind of those that aren’t into this style of game.

Sources: Sega, GamesPress, PlayStation, Screenshots from PS4 Pro.

-Dom

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

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

Stylish & Unabashed, Rage 2 is the John Wick of Video Games in 2019

Within hours of playing through Bethesda Softworks’ new open world action shooter, I found inspiration.

Rage 2 isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road, as many would have us believe. It’s the John Wick of 2019 video games.

As does John Wick, the game knows exactly what it is. It’s pure action, style as substance and unapologetically intense. And certainly not ashamed of it. It even basks in its absurdity. Bursts of action coalesce perfectly as the player combines weapons, throwables and abilities, leading to the familiar choreographed feel of watching Keanu Reeves effortlessly come up with tactics on the spot to carve up his myriad of foes.

As I progressed, the comparison solidified. Both begin with a tragedy. In the case of the game released this past week, a collaboration between storied developer id Software (Doom, Quake) and Avalanche Studios (Just Cause, Mad Max), this is a decimation of the protagonist’s stronghold called Vineland and the death of its matriarch at the hands of the cruel General Martin Cross.

What follows is, similarly, a straightforward revenge tale against the villain and his followers, collectively dubbed The Authority. Controllable character Walker dons the armor of the elite Ranger class of soldier, leveraging technology based on “Nanotrites” (yay science!) to power special abilities including a seismic ground pound and quick dash.

Bursts of action coalesce perfectly as the player combines weapons, throwables and abilities, leading to the familiar choreographed feel of watching Keanu Reeves effortlessly come up with tactics on the spot to carve up his myriad of foes.

(I’ll admit momentarily that I don’t have much more than minimal experience with 2011’s Rage, so I’d argue it’s not a requirement. Though there are obviously callbacks and it can enhance the experience.)

Walker, with the help of best bud and mechanic Lily, is tasked with finding three individuals: a grizzled resistance leader named Marshall, Mayor Hagar who runs the game’s major settlement plus ex-Authority scientist Kvasir secluded in the swamp lands. These folks are integral to a project designed to halt General Cross, a maniacal jerk that’s been cloning himself in hopes of “living forever.” Upgrade progression centers around three skill trees, each based on character specialties. For instance, investing experience points into the resistance leader will enhance combat while the scientist will help with gadgets.

Now, I’m a firm believer that a game’s mechanics are of utmost importance. “Game feel,” as I say. If a shooter especially doesn’t feel right, if there isn’t enough feedback when shooting or indicators that the player is getting damaged, it can’t ever elevate above average. Luckily, Rage 2 is centered around its amazing gameplay, rivaling predecessors Doom and Quake which are both on the same game engine.

It feels like an open world Titanfall 2, with cooler combat abilities (minus the Titans, of course). Most of its weapons are distinct, from a standard assault rifle to a unique gravity gun that attaches to foes before swinging them where one’s heart desires. Each one is fully customizable with individual upgrade paths. Plus there are two different “modes” for each, hip-fire and aiming down sights, adding to the tactical possibilities. The standout here is the shotgun, a staple of these kinds of action titles. The punch of this particular shotty is near unrivaled in the history of shooters.

In terms of layout and pacing, this is where the map opens up; Giving freedom to progress any which way, to whittle away the defenses of each enemy faction: Authority, Goons, River Hogs, Mutants and the ominous “Shrouded.” A variety of vehicles, including a fantastic gyro-copter, allow for traversal across the wasteland. There’s noticeable downtime when driving, since hostile convoys are rare, however there’s normally a spot in proximity that catches the eye, enticing a visit. It’s almost like a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild formula, built on distractions that emerge as bespoke endeavors.

We gradually learn about how the game doles out points of interest. Exploring an area yields a question mark on the map and heads-up display, which could be any number of activities: bandit camp, towering turret, roadblock, power plant, fueling station, crashed meteor, resting place of a fallen comrade or the treasured “Arks” that house new weapons and sweet abilities.

While gameplay is essential, I also believe the player needs to be rewarded for their effort. What’s the point of all this spectacle? Rage 2 showers the player with experience points, materials, upgrade points and currency, which means that side activities and poking around the world are absolutely worthwhile. As I’ve said in the past, open world games are inherently repetitive. It’s how a game conceals its repetition that truly matters. Not to mention, opening a crate by punching it never gets old!

One aspect I’ve heard critiqued is its story structure. There aren’t many main missions, granted.

I pose a thought: Why is this necessarily be a bad thing? This actually gives flexibility for different player types. It’s setup in a way that it could be a tight, 8 to 10 hour experience if someone wants only to see the campaign. The alternative is to spend dozens of hours perusing the wasteland and racking up every ability and weapon, finding secrets along the way. In the world of Rage 2, high tech “Arks” are large vessels with goodies inside normally guarded by enemies. I found it tantalizing to seek these out, and felt an adrenaline rush whenever Walker spots a new one.

Even though it’s a plus that the game can be “mainlined,” it’s no doubt a generic action story that left me wishing it had more missions. It’s almost as if the team knew the fun would be in the open world rather than in its narrative, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker but more of a mild disappointment.

I’ll point out that the story missions themselves are quite fun, especially for the scientist Kvasir, one of which has the player breaking into a space center to bring a satellite down from orbit. Its scope is particularly notable in a game that’s usually grounded.

Tonally, I noticed early on a disconnect between how the marketing campaign portrayed it versus what it actually is. Absolutely for the better. I was vocally skeptical about its tone being too cringey, with dancing enemies and “wacky” characters amidst bright pink and yellow color splashes. It’s actually more humorous and even can be charming. Item descriptions are creative, as are the names of non-playable characters (NPCs) at outposts. Combine this with a talking vehicle, voiced by Wonder Woman herself Lynda Carter, and the unique personas of the three main helpers, this tonal imprint is more subtle than the advertising proclaimed.

Yes, there’s an enemy type that uses a baseball bat to hit grenades towards Walker. Which means, of course, that Walker can volley them back by pressing the melee button. When throwing a “Vortex” gravity bomb at enemies, they will bobble the sphere in an attempt to catch it before it sucks them up and launches them into the air. These small touches help to shape the game’s tone just as much as its frantic action does.

From a tech standpoint, it’s a mostly smooth experience on Xbox One X. Super crisp frame rate, even amidst the most frenetic of sequences, without noticeable hitching. Unfortunately there were a few hard crashes in the first third of my 30-hour play through, though luckily none after its latest patch. Really the only sticking point was how slow the menus are, which is ironic since everything else in the game is fast-paced.

When throwing a “Vortex” gravity bomb at enemies, they will bobble the sphere in an attempt to catch it before it sucks them up and launches them into the air. These small touches help to shape the game’s tone just as much as its frantic action does.

I will note its desolate setting means that the world doesn’t feel as “lived-in” as other titles, even those within the genre. The wasteland is technically true to form in this regard, though I’ll reiterate that the spacing between areas is smartly designed in that activities are never too far away.

While I had a blast, it’s certainly not perfect. Driving around is fine, though vehicular combat leaves much to be desired. In fact, I had more fun flying in the mini gyro-copter than any combat encounter on the open road. Additionally, there’s only one upgradeable vehicle. I was hoping for more flexibility here.

There’s also a type of horde mode called Mutant Bash TV, which adds to the world-building however I found it to be underwhelming. Racing, on the other hand, is way more fun even if a temporary distraction. Occasionally, one of the NPC from the game’s racetrack will flag Walker down on the road, trying to coax into an impromptu race.

Ultimately, I went into Rage 2 with minimal expectations, if not expecting to be turned off by its tone and determination to be “cool.” I’m happy to say with certainty that I was wrong about it.

It’s a special thing when a game subverts expectations to leave a more lasting impression than ever thought possible. This is my experience with Bethesda’s latest, a wild ride with quick combat sequences and more subtle world-building than appears at first glance. If John Wick is the movie equivalent of a video game, then Rage 2 is its often thrilling and always unabashed gaming counterpart.

Sources: Bethesda Softworks, Internet Game Database, Rage Wiki, Screenshots captured on Xbox One X (Except Artwork & Enemy Close-Up).

-Dom

Slow, Curious & Tragic, Life is Strange 2 Stands Out on its Own

Impressions are based on the three episodes available for Life is Strange 2 out of its scheduled five. Mild spoilers ahead.

As far as adventures in video games go, Life is Strange 2 is powerful and thoughtful enough to be celebrated on its own. Separate of its predecessor. It’s deliberate, mysterious and often emotional, forcing the player to make critical choices that drive the narrative and have unexpected consequences. Being the one that chooses how the protagonist acts, and what happens to characters as a result, makes it that much more impactful than a traditional linear story.

Even though it’s labeled as if it’s a sequel, the adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment that’s published by Square Enix is not a follow-up in the usual sense. It doesn’t feature characters from 2015’s Life is Strange, which centered on the story of time-manipulating teenager Max Caulfield and her best friend Chloe, and instead shifts its focus to a Mexican-American family of three living in Seattle.

Life is Strange 2 is episodic, while played from a third person perspective. It began in September with Episode 1: Roads then continued with January’s Episode 2: Rules through Episode 3: Wastelands, which released days ago. What separates it from other narrative-focused titles is choice, then repercussion. Decisions don’t just have ramifications, they drive the story forward and force us down one of a various branching paths.

Across these episodes, the game delves into the relationship between Sean and Daniel Diaz, regular brothers from the Northwest that can’t seem to avoid terrible events. The Diaz brothers’ single father Esteban is slain by a police officer after he tries to defend his sons during an altercation, after which younger bro Daniel mysteriously causes a destructive shock-wave that accidentally kills said police officer. It’s an intense, saddening sequence, something that unfortunately turns into a theme for the siblings.

Whether it’s pure panic or fear of being persecuted, the boys flee from the scene then opt to venture to their father’s homeland of Mexico. It’s a rash decision, though somewhat understandable from a teenager and 9-year old. The elder Sean turns into Daniel’s paternal influence, while trying to repair their friendship that became fractured as Sean matriculated through high school.

What follows is both a literal and figurative journey for the pair, plus the player itself. We control Sean, as the two bond and bicker while coping with the desperate feeling of loss. Simultaneously, they work to understand Daniel’s special powers, which seem to be a kind of telekinesis as he can manipulate objects with his mind. Daniel is also curious of his mother, Karen, who Sean resents because she left the family before the game’s story begins.

Pacing is slow. Methodical, even. This approach, which might be a hindrance in other cases, is the opposite here. It allows exploration through the game space. Accentuates the intimate character moments that many other titles don’t even attempt, for fear of disrupting the action. Dontnod challenges players to be mindful in their wandering, frequently rewarding with tidbits of character detail and world-building akin to something like a BioShock.

The initial episode is its most sorrowful, as the brothers move south through the wilderness. Small moments of solace, such as those where Sean patiently teaches Daniel how to skip stones or they race to gather firewood, are quickly interrupted by the ever-present feeling of despair that they can likely never return to a normal existence.

Now, not everything is handled with this level of subtlety. The game is heavy-handed in its portrayal of stereotypes, especially when the brothers encounter a “racist redneck” that kidnaps Sean while throwing slurs as much as fists. This pops up again in a couple spots. Though I understand the game’s writers wanting to convey character prejudices overtly, I found myself hoping for a more delicate approach.

After escaping the racist, the boys receive help from friendly travel blogger Brody then move further towards their intended destination. Episode 2: Rules finds them occupying a winter cabin, alongside a new puppy named Mushroom. One theme that arises here and continues throughout is Daniel’s relationship with those other than Sean, as the latter moves into an authoritative role. Their quiet existence is upended as tragedy strikes again, with Mushroom being attacked by a wildcat. Throughout these moments, the player can decide to encourage Daniel to use his powers or to avoid them at all costs. As with everything, this has its impact on one’s individual story line.

Sean decides the boys should meet their grandparents on their mother’s side, who live in a small Oregon town. This brings a familial element that was noticeably lacking, providing momentary stability. It also stokes Daniel’s curiosity about his mom, which Sean is reluctant to even mention yet alone explore.

During this time, Daniel saves and befriends Chris, the main character from Dontnod’s standalone demo The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Chris has also faced tremendous loss with the death of his mother and an abusive father, so he escapes into his fantasy of being a super hero. With Daniel at his side controlling objects floating in space, he believes he has actual powers. It’s another example of Daniel’s independent character maturation. The player can either plead with him to reveal his powers to Chris, or keep it a secret. One particular consequence of this choice is shockingly catastrophic.

This is also where we meet key characters for the next episode, while the group is shopping for Christmas trees with Chris’ father. The boys briefly chat with street musician Cassidy and her friend Finn, both of which are “train hoppers” living free from the cares of society. It’s clear that Sean is envious of their more carefree attitude, revealed during this scene that mainly acts as foreshadowing.

As usual, the brothers must bounce when the police stop swing by on a tip. This is especially painful, since their grandparent’s home seemed a fitting spot for them to settle down. Plus, Daniel openly expresses that he’s sick of running away and wants to find his mother.

Episode 3: Wastelands is in my opinion the weakest so far, as it’s the most cliche with a predictable structure. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In fact, because we get to know so many new faces, it has the best character moments yet. It’s just that the story arc is more typical than the prior two episodes. I will say the end is explosive, showing how much their situation is escalating the more they get involved with people out on their own.

The setup here is.. convenient. (As happens in media, to bring characters together and progress stories in parallel.) Sean and Daniel somehow meet up with Cassidy and Finn, then begin working on an illegal weed farm in Northern California to save up cash for Mexico. The campgrounds in the woods is liberating and constrictive at once. These folks are free to do what they please outside of work, but have a rigid regimen when laboring for a dangerous landowner and his goon partner.

A standout sequence of this episode is a fireside gathering, where group members exchange depressing stories. It’s uniquely powerful to hear everyone speak so openly about their lives, and reinforces a general theme that looking towards the future can help alleviate hurt caused by one’s past. Both Sean and Daniel can share memories, depending on player action.

This portion also allows choices related to sexuality. Finn presents as bisexual, while Cassidy is interested in men and flirts with Sean. The player can romance either, which is refreshing and speaks to the freedom theme. Our protagonist is at the age where he’s still exploring his sexuality, so it’s a poignant sequence that shows he’s still so young despite having the responsibility of caring for his brother.

As noted, the episode concludes with an intense sequence that I won’t spoil. Other than to say that Daniel and the player have a lot to learn about how powerful he can be.

At this conclusion, multiple mysteries are still unfolding. There’s the overall trajectory of the boys’ intention to reach Mexico juxtaposed against the allure of settling down. Is that even realistic? Can they ever return to their childhood town? The lingering questions about their mother remain, especially as the Diaz boys disagree: Daniel wishes to track her down while Sean wants nothing to do with her.

One critique is that I wish it had more details on choices and consequences after you finished a sequence, similar to the flow chart approach of Detroit: Become Human. Each episode shows a recap of decision points, though provides less detail than its peer.

Another minor point is that you can circle back in what’s called “Collectible” mode, however these don’t apply to your main save. I wish that any souvenir or backpack customization option found in this mode could be used during my main progression. It’s fun to make Sean’s backpack look unique, but I don’t want to reply entire sections just to get those I’ve missed.

Misery surrounds the Diaz brothers. However, they fight to avoid being defined by it. There’s a youthful hopefulness in their progression, especially Daniel’s innocence amidst great power, that I really would like to carry throughout the remaining installments.

Strangely enough: Despite their dreadful circumstances, I’m continually hopeful.

Sources: Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix, Screenshots captured on Microsoft’s Xbox One X.

-Dom